President George W. Bush speaks to the world from the Oval Office of the White House on March 19, 2003, announcing the start of the war against Saddam Hussein in Iraq. UPI File Pool Photo | License Photo
March 22 (UPI) -- This week marks the 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. As in Vietnam, this use of American force also failed, some would say catastrophically so. Why? That question has never been satisfactorily answered. It must be.
The George W. Bush administration invaded for three basic reasons. The first was that Saddam Hussein's possession of weapons of mass destruction posed a clear and present danger to the nation and the world at large. That was dead wrong.
Second, the Bush team believed in the so-called "freedom agenda," in which democratizing Iraq would (favorably) transform the geostrategic landscape of the Middle East. Democracy would spread to Saudi Arabia, other Gulf Arab states and one day to Iran. In that process, Israeli security would obviously be guaranteed. Unfortunately, the geostrategic landscape was altered -- for the worse and remains so.
Third was the audacious conjuring of an "axis of evil" bringing together three of the most unlikely partners in this constellation of villains. How Iraq and Iran, who fought each other in a bloody nine-year war, could become allies and then link with North Korea is baffling, if not an hallucination.
Further, even suggesting that Saddam and al-Qaida were fellow travelers strained credulity. That made no difference.
In retrospect, that serious, smart and experienced people could concoct such a rationale for a war seems inconceivable without digging further. Sept. 11 was the catalyst. After that fateful day, any White House and administration would be paranoid about preventing another attack or attacks.
Suppose, for example, American iconic sites such as the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco or Constitution Hall in Philadelphia had been destroyed, or cities struck by terrorists employing chemical, biological or cyber weapons. No president could tolerate that. Hence, prevention became politically existential.
After the 1991 war, Iraq's military had been defanged and the U.S.-imposed no-fly zones over that country eliminated any dangers. Saddam was bottled up and neutered. However, the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act called for the removal of Saddam.
Under no circumstances was the Bush administration going to take any chances, no matter how remote, to prevent a single fearsome "mushroom-shaped cloud" blooming over America. Assuring the absolute security of the nation became top priority. The Patriot Act and the formation of the Department of Homeland Security would follow. Not all agree that both improved U.S. security.
The Afghan intervention and the sudden collapse of the Taliban government with minimum use of American force created the impression of a military that could accomplish virtually anything, no matter the nature of the challenge. As White House crosshairs centered on Iraq, seeming American military invincibility reinforced by the illusion that Iraqis would welcome invaders with "flowers and candy," created the false impression that an attack would be a "cake walk."
It was a cake walk until it wasn't. Nearly 4,500 dead and over 30,000 wounded Americans, along with hundreds of thousands of Iraqi casualties, could not have more strongly refuted that presumption. However, what has been learned?
America's National Security and Defense Strategies do not reflect the most important conclusions for why the Iraq War failed. Both strategies regard China and Russia as the major competitors with Iran, North Korea and global extremism as lesser threats. The aims are to contain, deter, and if war comes, defeat or prevail over each.
As flawed as the WMD argument and assumptions were, the current strategic aims are equally suspect. Have China and Russia been contained and deterred and if so from what? China has militarized tiny islets in its contiguous seas; embarked on a military buildup; and challenged the authority and leadership of the United States and Western rules-based international system.
Russia has invaded Ukraine and just downed a U.S. Reaper drone over the Black Sea. Moscow has also "suspended" the remaining arms control agreement, New START, deployed formidable new strategic nuclear weapons and threatened to use them in Ukraine and to defend Russia from a Western attack. Further, China and Russia are joined in an unbreakable partnership some might mistakenly term a new "axis of evil."
What to do? In a perfectly rational world, a White House would take what went wrong in Iraq and overlay it on U.S. policy and strategy for China and Russia. The starting point is challenging the assumptions of current policies (unlike what did not happen over Iraq), including whether a thermonuclear war can be won or not. But it is an imperfect world. Still, why the United States wrongly invaded Iraq has relevance to today and to the future.
Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at Washington's Atlantic Council, the prime author of "shock and awe" and author of "The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large." Follow him @harlankullman.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.