Twenty Years After the Iraq War, a Q&A with RAND Experts


Mar 21, 2023

A statue of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein remains in front of a destroyed communication center in Baghdad, Iraq, March 28, 2003, photo by Reuters Photographer/Reuters

A statue of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein remains in front of a destroyed communication center in Baghdad, Iraq, March 28, 2003

Photo by Reuters Photographer/Reuters

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the war in Iraq, a conflict with a complicated legacy and repercussions still being felt domestically and around the world.

We invited a group of RAND experts, including combat veterans and a former ambassador, to discuss what the war means for the people of Iraq and the veterans who fought there, what lessons the U.S. military learned (or did not learn), and what effect it has had on the balance of power in the Middle East and the global reputation of the United States.

  • Michelle Grisé is a policy researcher with expertise on Iran and international law.
  • Michael Mazarr is a senior political scientist with expertise in U.S. defense policy and counterinsurgency, and author of Leap of Faith: Hubris, Negligence, and America's Greatest Foreign Policy Tragedy about the Iraq War.
  • Ambassador Charles Ries is an adjunct senior fellow and former coordinator for economic transition at the U.S. embassy in Iraq.
  • Kayla Williams is a senior policy researcher focusing on veterans' affairs, former assistant secretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs, an Iraq War veteran, and author of two books on military service.
  • Jonathan Wong is associate director, Strategy, Doctrine, and Resources Program, a program of the RAND Arroyo Center; a policy researcher focused on the role of new technologies, operational concepts, and processes in shaping how militaries fight; and a former Marine Corps infantryman with two combat tours in Iraq.
  • Raphael Cohen is director of the Strategy and Doctrine Program, a program of RAND Project AIR FORCE; a senior political scientist; and an Iraq War veteran.

After 20 years, what do you think is the war's most enduring legacy?

Michael Mazarr A major legacy of the war is severe damage to the ability of the United States to undertake competitive statecraft in the current environment of major power rivalry. The war, combined with the commitment in Afghanistan, pulled the military's focus away from major warfare, contributed to a long gap in major system modernization, and undermined U.S. credibility and reputation in major parts of the world. It also exacerbated the brewing rivalries by further convincing China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea that the United States was on a militarized regime-change binge that would eventually target them in some way—an idea that then gained strength with the batch of color revolutions. We're in an immeasurably worse position today because of that misadventure.

But it's also important to realize that Iraq didn't do this alone. It was the worst symptom of a larger malady—the Global War on Terror (GWOT)—which exaggerated the connections of global terrorist organizations and claimed to have discovered a new era in national security which was mostly a myth. In service of that myth, the United States undertook major interventions, threatened others, departed from its values on issues like torture and domestic surveillance, and in general lost the ball on the higher-level statecraft which is the critical U.S. global role. People like to focus on Iraq, but the wider GWOT ought to be viewed as one of the most disastrous strategic misjudgments in U.S. history.

The wider global war on terror ought to be viewed as one of the most disastrous strategic misjudgments in U.S. history.

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Jonathan Wong The legacy of the war is multifaceted. For the U.S. military, the war demonstrated the ability of U.S. forces to exhibit tactical prowess, ingenuity, and considerable endurance. On the other hand, it demonstrated the limits of that endurance for the all-volunteer force. In the mid-2000s, infantry Marines like me could only see an unending cycle of combat deployments; I was certain that I was going to deploy until I was killed or decided to turn down re-enlistment. Finally, I sense a pall of collective amnesia about the war falling over the military; the bloody experiences of places like Ramadi and Fallujah and the experiences of it are ancient history to many in uniform today. For those who remain, there is little enthusiasm for thinking deeply about the lessons that could be learned and adapted to current adversaries.

For the American people, the legacy of Iraq is somewhat complicated. On one hand, the war simply droned on in the background through the years, consistently killing and maiming a small number of volunteer Americans with no easily describable purpose. It also has reinforced the stereotype of the troubled or broken veteran who is victim of forces beyond their control. At the same time, the war slowly taught the American people to pay a surface level of deference and respect to the military in a way that simply wasn't common before the invasion of Iraq or 9/11; I think this has deleterious effects on the nature of civil-military relations.

Kayla Williams There are over 1.9 million U.S. veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; over 30,000 were physically injured, about 15 percent have experienced posttraumatic stress disorder, and all are now assumed to have been exposed to burn pits or other toxins. The costs of caring for these veterans will likely be trillions of dollars.

Michelle Grisé Twenty years seems like a long time, but we should remember that we are only just beginning to understand the legacy of the Iraq War. Over the next twenty years, and beyond, we will gradually learn more about how the war has shaped the future of Iraq, geopolitical dynamics in the region, and our own political discourse.

What is the legacy of the war for Iraq and the Iraqi people?

Wong The Iraqi people were bequeathed a shaky, occasionally violent democracy that still flirts with instability after almost two decades; first at the hands of the U.S. occupation fighting Sunni and Shia militias and then at the hands of ISIS before they too were defeated. While it's hard to say what life would be like if we hadn't invaded in 2003, the legacy to Iraqis can only be described as one of uncertainty.

Charles Ries Iraq demonstrated well the interrelationship between security and economic factors. Beginning in 2003, the United States spent more than $20 billion in economic assistance, but much of the resulting infrastructure was damaged or destroyed in the civil war that followed. Economic reconstruction did not improve the security situation. Yet later, when domestic security improved in Iraq and the Iraqis began to program their own funds, economic activity and employment rebounded. It helped the transition enormously that Iraq had its own hydrocarbon resources, even though managing hydrocarbon foreign investment and the internal allocation of revenue has been challenging.

The America of today is much different than the America of 20 years ago. What effect did the Iraq War have in reshaping the American political landscape?

Raphael Cohen There is no question that the Iraq War upended the balance of power in the Middle East, but the war has had a similarly profound effect on American politics as well. It left sizeable swaths of the American population on both the left and the right questioning not only whether the United States should conduct armed nation-building in the future, but to what degree, if any, the United States should be militarily involved abroad at all.

Has the United States readjusted the way it thinks about foreign policy because of the experience in Iraq?

Mazarr A big theme of my work on the origins of the war is that the decision flaws that spawned it are not unique to one issue or administration. They don't assume the existence of malign or evil actors. Those factors, things like a missionary sensibility and the role of urgent imperatives that make countries panic and send countries into ill-considered lunges, are features, not bugs, of the American foreign policy mindset.

The chaotic withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in 2021, shows that the United States didn't take the lessons of Iraq to heart.

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Ries The withdrawal of troops in 2011 was well planned, methodical, and resulted in virtually no casualties, but the one thing that the U.S. government did not plan for was the political impact of that withdrawal. The departure of U.S. troops removed constraints on Prime Minister Maliki's treatment of the Sunni population, which reignited a civil war and led to the explosive growth of ISIS. So even when well executed, a fast withdrawal can have a devastating effect. The chaotic withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in 2021, shows that the United States didn't take the lessons of Iraq to heart.

What is most worrisome about the current state of Iraq and its neighbors in the Middle East?

Ries The near collapse of the Iraqi military post-war demonstrates the importance of having a professional armed forces largely free of political interference. But the continued existence of party-based militias in Iraq, while likely not addressable by any feasible U.S. policy, is still grounds for deep concern as they seek to establish and defend specific territories in Iraq to the detriment of national development. These militias may reignite a civil war, act against national stability, and promote the interests of Iraq's malign neighbor Iran. Libya shows how bad this can be.

Grisé The Iraq War had profound consequences for U.S.-Iran relations, as it turned Iraq into a site of indirect conflict between the United States and Iran. The political instability that accompanied the war, moreover, created an opening for Iran to increase its influence in Iraqi domestic politics and internal affairs.

While history is not looking kindly upon the U.S. invasion of Iraq, are there any silver linings?

WilliamsThe types of injuries sustained, along with the high survival rate among wounded troops, has led to substantial improvements in prosthetic technology, understanding of traumatic brain injury, recognition of the role caregivers play, and advances in genitourinary surgery.

Ries Despite its uneasy and still occasionally violent polity, the fact remains that Iraq is more democratic than almost all its Middle Eastern neighbors.

Leah Polk