Twenty years ago, the United States launched the Iraq War under what turned out to be false pretenses. The war is now over. Most of the troops have returned home. The region is less stable than we found it.
And the broad congressional authorization allowing the president to exercise pretty much whatever force he deems necessary in the region — however tangentially related to Iraq — is still on the books.
The Iraq War is almost certainly the United States’ biggest foreign policy blunder since the Vietnam War. There were no weapons of mass destruction to be found, and contrary to the assurances of the war’s fervent supporters, we were not “welcomed as liberators.” Instead, U.S. troops became caught up in fighting not only a stubborn insurgence, but trying to keep the peace among numerous warring tribal and religious factions. Roughly 2,500 U.S. troops remain scattered around the country, which is only now starting to put itself back together. The power vacuum left from the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime led to the rise of the Islamic State and a refugee crisis that is still plaguing the region.
The news is all bad. The fact that an archaeological dig is underway in southern Iraq and making remarkable discoveries — such as a 5,000-year-old restaurant recently unearthed at the ancient site of Lagash — is cause for cautious optimism.
But the cost in American lives and resources, bad enough on its own, has arguably left the U.S. less prepared to deal with real threats, whether a saber-rattling China or a newly aggressive Russia.
U.S. resources and U.S. power are not unlimited, and it is vital to understand where they can do good (supporting emerging democracies like Ukraine that are the victims of unprovoked aggression) and where they can’t (building up liberal democracies from scratch and resolving other countries’ internal conflicts).
Some Iraq hawks have learned these lessons: “In retrospect, I was wildly overoptimistic about the prospects of exporting democracy by force, underestimating both the difficulties and the costs of such a massive undertaking,” tweeted Washington Post columnist Max Boot.
Others have not: “The reasons to invade were clear and compelling,” begins John Bolton, former Trump administration national security adviser, in a new article in National Review before trying to insist the baseless worries about Hussein’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction were justified.
There is another lesson to be learned from the Iraq War, and that is Congress should not be too trusting of the claims of any presidential administration, regardless of party, and should jealously guard its war-making authority as specified in the Constitution.
Twenty years after the fact, the U.S. Senate voted last week, 68-27, to repeal the 2002 measure that authorized the March 2003 invasion of Iraq and also a 1991 measure related to the first Gulf War. Nineteen Republicans joined Democrats in supporting the repeal. Twenty-seven Republicans, including both of Alabama’s senators, voted against it. The war may be over, but the authorization still gives the president wide latitude to act militarily in the Middle East without further OK from Congress.
Freshman Sen. Katie Britt’s vote is unsurprising. As the hand-picked successor to former Sen. Richard Shelby, she is continuing his tradition of backing the imperial presidency, regardless of the president’s party. Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s vote, however, is surprising in the sense that he seems willing to question U.S. support for Ukraine but not the president’s ability to use military force unilaterally in the Middle East.
The repeal legislation now goes to the U.S. House, where it passed once before when the chamber was under Democratic control but faces an uncertain fate under Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who voted against it last time.
It’s time to see if MAGA Republicans in the House are really interested in restraining the president’s overseas adventurism, or if that applies only to stymieing efforts to support Ukraine.
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