There are many misconceptions about the war that distort the
current debate over U.S. Iraq policy. Although those seeking to
score political points often try to reduce the war to simple
slogans and either-or strategic propositions, the situation on the
ground is complex and not adequately described by debate talking
points or campaign rhetoric. The war in Iraq is now a major front
in the global war to combat al-Qaeda and is critical to the outcome
of U.S. efforts to contain Iran. At the same time, Iraq is the site
of a bloody insurgency that threatens to explode into a full-blown
civil war. The U.S. has much at stake in this conflict, and a
pullout now would bring grave consequences: massive sectarian
violence, a humanitarian disaster, and the creation of a failed
state that would serve as a springboard for radical Islamic forces
to destabilize neighboring states and launch terrorist attacks
against a wide variety of targets, possibly including some inside
the United States. As part of an effort to promote an informed
discussion about the war in Iraq and the consequences of losing
that war, this paper addresses many of the most common
misconceptions about the situation in Iraq.
We did not find weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or any
clear link to al-Qaeda. Knowing what we know now, should we have
Yes. Saddam Hussein's regime was a major threat to American
interests and the region as a wholeThe United States was not alone
in believing Saddam Hussein had WMD, which is why the U.N. Security
Council had adopted over a dozen resolutions since 1990 to force
his regime to disarm, to threaten it with "serious consequences" if
it did not, and even to authorize U.N. member states "to use all
necessary means" to compel Iraq to comply.
While WMD were not found, some may have been moved to Syria in
the convoys of hundreds of trucks that crossed the border just
before the U.S.-led intervention and during the first few weeks of
fighting. Moreover, prohibited missiles were found inside Iraq, a
clear violation of the U.N. Security Council resolutions and the
cease-fire that ended the 1991 Gulf War. And the threat to the U.S.
was not solely from WMD or missiles. The Iraq regime sought to
assassinate former President Bush during his visit to Kuwait in
1993, supported a wide variety of terrorist groups against American
allies, including Israel, and routinely fired on U.S. warplanes
that were enforcing the U.N. no-fly zones. During his reign,
Hussein invaded two countries, fired missiles at three other
countries, used illegal chemical weapons against Iran and his own
people, and left behind at least 300,000 victims in mass
Removing Saddam was the right thing to do. The fact that the
United Nations Security Council continues to authorize the U.S.
military presence in Iraq signals that the international community
still wants the U.S. there. America is far safer now,
notwithstanding the present difficulties, because it is forever rid
of the potential threat posed by Saddam's WMD programs, which
easily could have been reconstituted if his regime had
Is the U.S. capable of winning the war in Iraq, and what
does winning look like?
Yes, the war in Iraq can be won. Winning would be helping Iraqis
build a stable government that is an ally in the war on
terrorism-unlike Saddam's Iraq, which was an enemy in that war.
This would be a major victory. It is true that Iraq will be a
violent place for many years. But some of the forces that make it
violent-radical Islamists and Saddam's Baathist supporters-are
sworn enemies of the United States. If we turn our backs on them
now, their threat will only grow.
After successfully capturing Saddam Hussein, shouldn't
the U.S. focus on getting bin Laden, rather than trying to force
democracy on a society that doesn't want it?
The war in Iraq is a different type of struggle than the hunt
for bin Laden. It requires different resources and a different
strategy. Both can be conducted simultaneously-it is not an
either-or proposition. The U.S. has been focused on capturing or
killing Osama bin Laden since 9/11. That has not changed. Some
opponents of the war in Iraq argue that focusing on Iraq diverted
attention from the hunt for bin Laden. But bin Laden had already
gone underground, hunkering down on the Afghan-Pakistan border 18
months before the Iraq war. There is no reason to believe
that bin Laden would have been caught if there had been no war in
Iraq. It is also wrong to conclude that Iraqis oppose democracy.
Most Iraqis want democracy, and increasing numbers have voted in
each new round of elections. If the U.S. pulls out of Iraq before
it has a stable government capable of defending itself, the likes
of bin Laden will have a safe haven from which to attack the U.S.
Why should U.S. soldiers lose their lives waging another
country's civil war?
Our enemy, al-Qaeda, seeks to provoke a civil war by bombing
Shiite mosques and shrines. If we stand back and allow al-Qaeda's
terrorists to succeed, they will turn Iraq into a base for
attacking us, just as they turned Afghanistan into a base for
attacking us. The Clinton Administration decided that the U.S. had
no stake in the civil war in Afghanistan in the 1990s. Only after
the Taliban allowed al-Qaeda to operate from its territory did we
discover-too late-that we did have a stake there. A Talibanized
Iraq would be like Afghanistan on steroids, fueled by Iraqi oil
revenues. The U.S. cannot permit this.
How can one call this anything but a civil
Although al-Qaeda seeks to provoke a civil war, Iraq is not in a
full-fledged civil war. The current conflict is a struggle for
power between an elected government and many different
organizations that seek to impose their totalitarian views on
others through violence. Most Iraqis want the fighting to stop and
support the government. Nor is it inevitable that a full-blown
civil war will break out. If it does, however, that war will be
much more violent than the present conflict. Preventing that from
happening is crucial to the U.S.'s long-term security. It is in the
U.S. national interest to prevent Iraq from becoming a failed state
where al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups will flourish and build
bases from which to launch attacks.
Polls show that over half of the Iraqi people want us to
leave. Shouldn't we respect their wishes?
Most Iraqis want an improvement in their security situation, and
some mistakenly believe that a U.S. troop pullout would somehow
help to improve security, perhaps because they think their local
militias could do a better job. But the empowerment of rival
militias would eventually undercut the security of all Iraqis.
Washington should respect the wishes of the government that Iraqis
voted into office and cooperate with it to restore the security
situation. U.S. troops should not leave until Iraq's government is
strong enough to protect Iraqis from insurgents and terrorists.
Isn't it time for the Iraqi government and army to take
The Iraqi government and army are gradually taking over control
of Iraq but remain too weak to run the whole country. Giving them
too much to do too soon would risk a slide back to a worse
situation. The U.S. has trained and equipped 346,000 Iraqis in the
armed forces (152,000) and police (194,000). Iraqi security forces
are steadily improving and are shouldering a greater share of the
burden. They participate in most coalition military operations, and
they suffer casualties at a much higher rate than American
What can be done to speed up troop withdrawal from
The sooner Iraqi security forces are trained, equipped, and able
to operate independently, the sooner U.S. troops can leave. Greater
Sunni Arab participation in the Iraqi government would also help
undercut Sunni support for the insurgency and strengthen the
government, making it possible to withdraw U.S. troops sooner. It
is not yet clear exactly when U.S. troops can withdraw without
risking a setback to Iraq's security and U.S. national interests.
Combat troops will probably be needed for at least three more
years, in gradually declining numbers, with advisers needed much
longer to help train and support the Iraqi security forces.
How have our actions in Iraq affected our relationships
with other nations?
America's actions in Iraq have complicated relations with some
nations. That does not make those actions any less necessary or
important. The U.N. Security Council continues to support the
mission of the U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq, and
Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon recently warned that a premature U.S.
troop pullout would have disastrous consequences. Among Iraq's
neighbors, only the dictatorships in Iran and Syria want to see a
rapid U.S. withdrawal. Washington should launch a public diplomacy
campaign to explain to the governments and peoples of other
countries that American efforts to stabilize Iraq are essential to
protecting the Iraqi people from ruthless terrorists who seek to
export revolution and suicide bombings far beyond Iraq's
After Iraq, what next? What threats will we have to
The two key threats in the Middle East are Iran and al-Qaeda.
Both stand to gain if the U.S. prematurely withdraws its forces
from Iraq. Al-Qaeda would be free to set up bases for exporting
terrorism to Iraq's neighbors and other targets around the world.
Iran would become the dominant outside influence in Iraq. Finishing
the job in Iraq by working to build a stable government that will
be an ally in the war against al-Qaeda and help contain Iran will
help the U.S. address future threats.
James Phillips is
Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs in the Douglas and Sarah
Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the
Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International
Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.