Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts What America Learned in Iraq
What America Learned in Iraq

What America Learned in Iraq

Editor’s Note: FPRI is publishing a collection of essays to mark the twentieth anniversary of the start of the Iraq War. The articles analyze the war’s impact on US influence in the Middle East, America’s global standing, and US democracy promotion efforts. In addition, our authors identify key lessons of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and argue that the inability of American officials to understand Iraqi politics was perhaps the most important intelligence failure of the entire war effort. 


This past week, we marked twenty years since the ill-fated disaster that was the US-led invasion of Iraq. Today, we are sharing at FPRI a collection of essays from our senior fellows reflecting on the ways the invasion and occupation reshaped American foreign policy in the region and beyond. 

Each of our contributors strikes one particular refrain—the invasion damaged, possibly irreparably, the credibility of the United States to promote its values in the Middle East. As Sean Yom argues, the boosters of the invasion held to a kind of post-Cold War domino theory that believed a transition to democracy in Iraq with American assistance would inexorably iterate itself across the region. Instead, the manifest failures of the war turned this hope into a threat, “democratize, or else we’ll do it for you,” as Yom puts it. 

Fear of the disorder brought about in Iraq certainly played a role in the anxieties of counterrevolutionary forces across the region in the wake of the Arab uprisings of 2011, as Robert D. Kaplan has elaborated recently in the Wall Street Journal. In his reflection today, he notes how fears of this disorder have strongly characterized President Joe Biden’s response to Russia’s similarly misguided, disastrous invasion of Ukraine—a balanced commitment of American support that forgoes grandiose dreams of remaking a whole region’s value systems reflects “an integration of the lessons learned… without overlearning them.” In the mind of the administration, defending Ukrainian sovereignty in the face of Russian aggression may yet prove both the inverse of the US position in Iraq, and its most successful attempt to secure democracy, to boot. 

The relative success of America’s current Ukraine policy should raise questions about the role of promoting democratic values and human rights in US foreign policy more generally, and what role they may yet play in a region that’s been so damaged by past efforts in this area. Sarah Bush offers an important note to this end. As the tragic fate of Afghan women following the US withdrawal in 2021 has shown, it remains important to maintain commitments to democracy, human rights, and gender equality in foreign policy even in the midst of a disaster like Iraq. Finding ways to push (re)invigorated autocracies in the region to go beyond the instrumental efforts to expand rights, where possible, will be a key element of a foreign policy that seeks a balance between restraint and values. Bush urges US policymakers to employ a “savvy” approach on rights, rather than throwing them out with the bathwater of military misadventure. 

If American values of democracy, freedom, and equality were damaged by the Iraq invasion, so too were American perceptions of its military and industrial capacities to accomplish any of what it set out to do in Iraq in the first place. As Heather Gregg’s contribution reminds us, “the use of the military to change another country’s administration comes with dozens of unforeseen consequences.” Nation-building likely suffered an even more damning fate than democracy promotion, and central to that failure was poor self-assessment in terms of capacity. Recognition of this fact is reflected in the Biden administration’s National Security Strategy that prioritizes building resilience at home. 

Sharing insights gained in the process of researching his impending book on the subject, Samuel Helfont elaborates that the failures of assessment were greatest in terms of intelligence—the United States simply did not know, and could not have known, the extent to which Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime was entrenched in the country. Helfont argues that intelligence failure was the prime failure in the invasion, “if [the administration] had not so grossly misunderstood Iraqi politics and society … other American failures would have been a mere footnote in the otherwise inspiring story of Iraq’s liberation from a cruel dictator.”

Reflecting on these pieces, it is clear that domestic investment in intelligence, education, and preparation will play fundamental roles in shaping nuanced responses to future geopolitical challenges. The significant investment of the federal government in training specialists over the last twenty years to focus on Middle Eastern politics and society has in some ways paid dividends we are only beginning to see the fruit of, and just at the moment when funding in these areas is shifting towards Russian and Chinese concerns. While articulating a Middle East policy that both prioritizes American interests and supports the basic dignity of the people of the region along with their basic human rights and desires for democracy is and will continue to be a difficult challenge, it is clear to me when compared with where the foreign policy establishment, Congress,  and the general voting public were twenty years ago, America is better prepared to act with nuanced restraint in the region. One hopes that refining and learning these lessons in the future won’t come at the cost of millions of ruined lives.   

Hegemony, Democracy, and the Legacy of the Iraq War

By Sean Yom

The Iraq War destroyed America’s credibility as a promoter of democracy and liberalism in the Middle East. Revolutionary uprisings for democratic change continue to roil the Middle East, but none desire official sponsorship or support from the United States given its bloodstained legacy in Iraq.

Read the full essay here. 

Iraq: Some Reflections

By Robert D. Kaplan

Iraq was a bloodier war than supposed, when you consider the deaths of civilian contractors as well as regular troops. Despite the suffering caused by the war, Iraq was a far-flung imperial-like adventure gone awry, which will have a limited effect on American power projection going forward.

Read the full essay here. 

Democracy Promotion After the Iraq War

By Sarah Bush

The Iraq War has justifiably left Americans skeptical about democracy promotion. Despite its flaws, US democracy promotion is still needed to advance political rights globally.

Read the full essay here. 

Operation Iraqi Freedom: Learning Lessons from a Lost War

By Heather S. Gregg

American-led efforts to state and nation-build in Iraq all but failed, resulting in the deaths of 4,431 US troops, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi fatalities, and mixed-at-best results in creating a viable state. Despite these failed efforts in Iraq, the United States will most likely need to work with allies, partners, and the Ukrainian people to reconstruct their country in the wake of Russias war against Ukraine. Therefore, learning lessons from the war in Iraq is critical for future efforts at state stabilization.

Read the full essay here. 

How America Misunderstood Iraqi Politics and Lost the War

By Samuel Helfont

American war planners’ failure to understand Iraqi politics and society was their most important intelligence failure. The violence in Iraq after the American invasion in 2003 resulted from a political void that Americans failed to anticipate.

Read the full essay here. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities. 

Image: Defense Department (Photo by Master Sgt. Cecilio Ricardo)