Editor’s note: On March 19, 2003, the United States invaded Iraq. With the 10th anniversary of that event approaching, the University of Denver Magazine asked noted journalist Danny Postel, associate director of the University’s Center for Middle East Studies, to discuss the invasion and its ramifications with Christopher Hill, dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies. Hill served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq from April 2009 to August 2010. An excerpt of their conversation follows. It has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: Americans don’t want to think about Iraq anymore — they’ve moved on. Yet it keeps coming back, doesn’t it? We saw it with the Chuck Hagel [confirmation] hearings. He was really grilled over his position on Iraq. Where do you think we’re at on the legacy of the Iraq war a decade on now?
A: First of all, it’s not surprising to me that, a decade on, Iraq would still be debated. We’re a country that likes debates. Almost 240 years later, we’re still debating the meaning of the Constitution. So it’s not surprising that we continue to debate the meaning of Iraq.
It was, from a national security perspective, probably the most divisive moment since Vietnam. And I think it will continue to be. For the original architects of the war, Iraq represented a first step in what they believed would be a Pax Americana. For them, there was an added element to Iraq, a revenge element — that somehow we would deal with Iraq in a way that would address all of the frustrations we had with not having completed the task in 1991. In their view, to complete the task in Iraq would usher in a new era for Middle East policy. The war was sold by its proponents not just on the basis of weapons of mass destruction, but also that it could turn this troubled country into a shining city on a hill and that it would ultimately usher in a new era of peace in the Middle East.
In many respects [the invasion] was hopelessly oversold. But the overselling of Iraq didn’t end with the invasion of Iraq. The overselling continued for years after. The next phase of this overselling became the notion that with the surge we had somehow overcome all the obstacles to our problems in Iraq. The surge became a kind of metaphor for those who kept the faith, for those who understood the need to double down on this venture. Iraq provided a kind of rebirth in terms of America’s self-narrative of a country that doesn’t quit but that rather doubles down.
Q: You write in your forthcoming memoir, “Our forces expected jubilant crowds to greet them with rose petals, as our vice president at the time [Dick Cheney] had predicted on national television with his tone of matter-of-fact certainty that fooled some and infuriated the rest.”
A: I think there was a complete — complete is a strong word, but pretty close to complete — misunderstanding of what was going on within Iraq. You have to remember that people who sold the invasion on the basis of national security issues … never really understood, from the get go, the real politics of Iraq. It’s not fair to Iraq, it’s not fair to an understanding of the history, to suggest that it was all about sectarianism. But nor is it fair to ignore sectarianism and to ignore people’s political identities. So while the vice president and others at the time took little snippets of sectarianism and said, “Well, surely the Shia will be happy with America, since we’ve liberated them,” he missed the broader swath of what it means to be Shia in Iraq. To be Shia in Iraq is not necessarily to be pro-American. In short, we had no idea of the complexity of the politics in that country.
Q: You served in Poland in the early 1980s when the country was under martial law. You were in the Balkans in the 1990s during what was the bloodiest conflict on European soil since World War II. And you’ve negotiated with the North Koreans over their nuclear program. Yet you call Iraq your most formidable challenge. Why?
A: The complexity of the issues in Iraq exceeded anything else I had dealt with. This is not to say that Kosovo or Bosnia were simple issues, but Iraq fed into a lot of the divisions not only in the Middle East, which were tough enough, but also within Washington. The emotions in the states were far greater than what I encountered in the Balkans. Most people who followed the Balkans wanted the killing to stop and wanted American diplomacy to set up some political arrangements by which there could be some modicum of a future that people could look forward to. There was no great enthusiasm for sending troops to Kosovo and Bosnia, but at the same time, the troops were sent on the basis of a peace agreement, and the deployments essentially were a success.
Sending troops to Iraq was quite another matter. At the same time, I think some of the lessons from Iraq were learned in different ways. Washington regarded it as a security challenge; those of us in Iraq regarded it as a political challenge. When you regard something as a security challenge, you have different approaches to the problem than if you regard it as a political challenge. I think too often the diplomacy of Iraq was there as a kind of follow-on force to the security issues. I don’t consider diplomacy as a continuation of war by other means, and yet that was the attitude that we got from a number of people — people who had never seen diplomacy before but simply saw it as a phase of war fighting.
It was a very tough time for professional diplomats. Many people were running away from the issues. The military was very much of two minds — there were those who wanted to be done with it, and those who felt we ought to stay. So it was a tough issue, and on a day-to-day basis it was not really that much fun to deal with.
Q: Your time as U.S. ambassador to Iraq came to an end in August of 2010. That was at the moment that the Iraqi government that would inherit the country was in formation. You called that process “a very difficult proposition.” What did you mean by that?
A: Here’s what was going on. We came into Iraq in 2003 and took a regime, a Sunni–based Saddam Hussein regime — and, by the way, a lot of Sunnis don’t like to hear it was Sunni-based, but that’s the mathematics of it; that’s the arithmetic. So we flipped a Sunni-led country, or a country that was broadly understood by the rest of the Arab world to be Sunni-led, and brought in, in effect, a Shia-led government — Sunnis having been a minority, but nonetheless having ruled the place since the Ottoman Empire. So this was a cataclysmic strategic defeat for Sunni Arab interests — that Iraq was becoming a Shia-led country. For many Sunnis, Shia Arabs and Shia Iranians are virtually indistinguishable. Most Sunnis realize there is a difference, but from their point of view we had somehow shifted Iraq closer to Iran and further from the Sunni Arab world.
Q: Where do you see Iraq headed? In the most recent Freedom House survey of democracy around the world, Iraq falls unambiguously into the “not free” category. In fact, its rating on civil liberties is somewhat shockingly the same as the one Freedom House gives Iran.
A: I respectfully disagree with Freedom House on that. This is not to say that everyone running Iraq today is Jeffersonian. But there’s a lot more freedom in Iraq today than there is in Iran.
I think when people draw analogies between Iraq and Iran, it’s an effort to criticize those who committed our forces to Iraq in the first place. My own view is we need to move on from that. I think the blame game about 2003 has run its course. It’s time to see what we can do to further our interests in Iraq. I think drawing clumsy comparisons to indices of freedom in Iran is not a good place to start.
Q: Polls show that 60 percent of the American public now believes that the invasion of Iraq was a tragic mistake. Do you think the course of action we took was the right one?
A: I had the privilege — the honor, really — of leading thousands of Americans in an embassy there. I’m not prepared to say that their sacrifice — and by the way, we did lose some people there — was “not worth it.” I’ll leave others to examine the history and whether it was worth it or not. I think any time you can take a Saddam Hussein off the board, that is a good day for world civilization. I think the issue for Iraq is whether that good day cost their country too much.
Q: Is it too early to say, as [former Chinese Premier] Zhou Enlai famously remarked when asked for his assessment of the French Revolution?
A: When the history is written, it’ll be written by Iraqis. And I think that is one of the fundamental lessons of the war. We have a lot of people in Washington producing a lot of books that were more written than read, talking about how we do this and how we do that. I think, in fact, we need to be a little more respectful to some of the people who actually live in some of these countries.
Q: Do you think the Iraq experience — specifically the intelligence failure in 2003 on weapons of mass destruction — offers lessons for the debate today about Iran, and the issue of whether to attack Iran?
A: You know, there’s a lot of talk about the so-called intelligence failure in 2003. I take the view that there was not an intelligence failure. I think there was a failure of those to honestly analyze the intelligence. I think there is a tendency to cherry-pick intelligence.
In the wake of 9/11, we had turned up the sensors across the board, such that any conceivable threat, any inconceivable threat, was somehow heard and written up in our intelligence briefs. It is up to adults to understand when things are conceivable and when they are not. It is up to adults to read analysis or read transcripts of two people talking to each other and [if] one of them suggests the moon is made of green cheese, it is up to adults to say, “Wait a minute, the moon is not made of green cheese.” And yet we know, from a variety of sources, that people like the former vice president took intel that was deemed out of bounds, that was deemed unreliable, and insisted that it be included as reliable.
This was an abuse of the entire system, and that is the kind of thing we need to guard against in the future. It has very real consequences for today, because unless the Iranians actually test [nuclear weapons], I think any American president — whether this one or the next one — will have difficulty using any military options on the basis of intelligence. I think what these people did to the intelligence in 2003 was really a great disservice to our country. This is not to say that it was wrong to turn up the sensors very high in those days in the wake of 9/11, but it is to ask that our senior leaders not operate on testosterone or respond to events emotionally, but operate in a very sober way. I think some of our leaders failed us in this respect.