Talking Points

U.S. 'victories' in Iraq are a grim warning for great-power conflict with China

Gen. Ray Odierno, credited with leading the 2007 "surge" of U.S. troops in Iraq, died Friday at age 67. Meanwhile, Iraq held its latest national elections. The coincidence should serve as a reminder of how little the United States accomplished in that failed war — and, hopefully, teach us a lesson for foreign policy choices yet to come.

Iraq War proponents tried declaring victory often in its early years. There was President George W. Bush's "Mission Accomplished" declaration after the initial 2003 invasion was complete. We "won" again in 2005 when Iraqis held their first elections after Saddam Hussein was driven from power. Hawks tried most mightily to paint the Odierno-administrated surge as yet another victory. "The situation in Iraq has completely reversed," Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) declared in 2008.

As the repetition should have made obvious, they were wrong. The surge did help tamp down violence in the country for awhile, but it was designed to give Iraqi leaders space to resolve their political differences and form a stable government. That didn't happen. Instead, Iraq became a nesting ground for the Islamic State terror group, and today the country hosts a low-level proxy war between the U.S. and Iran. Meanwhile, an unabashed hawk like Graham has made a career of calling for new surges in Syria, Afghanistan and even, again, Iraq.

Iraq's election on Sunday demonstrated again how false those "victories" were. Jane Arraf, a New York Times correspondent who has covered Iraq since the war's earliest days, noted Iraqis had low expectations for the election. "Traditional political factions, many of them attached to militias, have seemingly insurmountable power," she wrote, "and much of the electorate has become too disdainful of politicians to feel compelled to vote at all." Turnout was accordingly low. This is not democracy effectively spread.

The story of America's missteps in Iraq might seem like old news by now, and so might the lengthy list of similar tales about how the U.S. military establishment misled the public about the losing war effort in Afghanistan. Still, they're worth bearing in mind as the United States pivots to "great power competition" with China — and especially as the possibility of going to war over Taiwan seems to grow each day.

Hawks will promise success, and they might even claim victory (maybe multiple times). But the people on the ground will have to live with the real results, which may well be uglier than advertised. Just ask the Iraqis.