The emergence of ISIS is not the first time American policymakers have been taken by surprise by events in Iraq. Nor is this the first time that leaders in Washington have suddenly been forced to choose from a menu of seemingly bad options in response to a crisis unfolding there, with uncertain but potentially far-reaching consequences for American national security.

In fact, the United States has been militarily engaged in Iraq—in one form or another—for nearly a quarter-­century. This is already more than half the length of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, which ran from the late 1940s until the early 1990s.

Of course, few would claim that America’s battles in and with Iraq have defined U.S. foreign policy in the way that our “long twilight struggle” with Soviet communism did. Yet at the same time, seldom has a single country had such a disproportionate and defining impact on our engagement in the world, how we think about our foreign policy, and how others think about it.

Fundamentally, our purpose will be to examine how the United States—over a succession of four very different presidents—grappled with the challenges presented by Iraq, the decisions and strategies our leaders formulated in response to these challenges, and what then happened as they attempted to carry them out. In the course of doing so, we will hopefully come to learn a bit about how the U.S. government works (and how it doesn’t work), how U.S. foreign policy gets made (and unmade), and what the experience of foreign policy decision-making is like.

Our approach will be chronological—proceeding from Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 through the present day and the crisis now unfolding.

Faculty

Vance Serchuk

Vance Serchuk is Executive Director of the KKR Global Institute and an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Prior to joining KKR, Mr. Serchuk served for six years as the senior national security advisor to Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-Connecticut).

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session

Readings:

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Was the Gulf War of 1991 a “war of necessity”? Why did it happen? Was it avoidable? Why did leaders at the time decide to undertake it? What role did memories of previous conflicts play in shaping their thinking?
  2. What were the arguments in Congress in January 1991 that were made for and against giving President George H. W. Bush authorization to use military force against Saddam Hussein? What was public opinion on this matter, and to what extent should that matter to leaders and policymakers?
  3. How did the Gulf War end, and why did U.S. policymakers end it when and how they did? Was it the right decision, or did they make a mistake? What were its strategic and moral consequences? What were the alternative courses of action, and why didn’t they pursue them?

Readings:

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. What was the Clinton Administration’s strategy for dealing with Saddam? How did it evolve over time? Was it the right approach, and was it sustainable? What were the alternatives its critics called for? How plausible were they? What were the assumptions and attitudes about Iraq at the end of the Clinton Administration?
  2. How did the Bush Administration handle Iraq before 9/11? What were the policies and proposals advocated by the newly-installed senior officials when they were out of government in the 1990s? What did they do once they were back in power?
  3. Assume 9/11 never happened—how would the George Bush Administration have approached the problem posed by Saddam Hussein?
  4. Assume Gore-Lieberman defeated Bush-Cheney in 2000—how would the Gore Administration have thought about and approached the problem posed by Saddam Hussein post-9/11?

Readings:

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. What changed after 9/11 that led U.S. policymakers and foreign policy thought leaders to advocate invading Iraq? What were the arguments they cited? Who argued against going to war with Saddam, and what were the arguments they deployed?
  2. What role did memory of previous conflicts and analogies to them play in shaping arguments for and against the 2003 invasion of Iraq in 2002–2003? What had been the U.S. experience with military intervention during the 1990s elsewhere in the world, apart from Iraq?
  3. Did advocates of intervention share a common vision for what the U.S. should do in Iraq, and why? If not, what were the divisions, and how did they impact the pre-war planning?
  4. Richard Haass argues that the first Gulf War was a “war of necessity,” whereas the 2003 invasion was a “war of choice.” Is he right?
  5. What were the politics surrounding the congressional debate to go to war in 2003? How did they compare with those of 1991? What was the role of public opinion?

Readings:

Discussion Questions:

  1. What were the most consequential mistakes made by the U.S. in Iraq in the wake of overthrowing Saddam’s regime? What were the alternative policies that might have been adopted in 2003–2004, to what extent were they explored, and why weren’t they adopted?
  2. Following the ouster of Saddam Hussein and the declaration that “major combat operations” had ended on May 1, 2003, U.S. military strategy had at least two distinct phases over the next 3 years – one under Gen. Sanchez (2003–2004), the second under Gen. Casey (2004–2006)? What were they, and how did they differ? What were the assumptions driving these strategies, and were they accurate?
  3. What was the U.S. political strategy for post-Saddam Iraq? Were policymakers in the Bush Administration united on what it should look like, and if not, what did they disagree over? What was the political strategy under Paul Bremer (2003– 2004), and how did this change after John Negroponte and later Zal Khalilzad (2004–2006) became ambassador?
  4. Was the Sunni insurgency in the wake of Saddam’s overthrow the avoidable consequence of specific U.S. mistakes and missteps? Or was the country’s implosion the inevitable consequence of deeply-embedded forces in Iraqi society that were set free by Saddam’s ouster, regardless of what the U.S. did?
  5. How do we explain the absence of WMD? What was the moral and strategic significance that Saddam in fact did not possess these weapons? What lessons should we draw about U.S. intelligence and policymaking from this failure?
  6. What were critics of the Bush Administration in 2003–2004 arguing the U.S. was doing wrong in Iraq? As the Democratic presidential candidate in 2004, what did then-Senator John Kerry propose as his alternative approach? In hindsight, was this a trenchant critique and did it point towards a better policy?

Readings:

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why did many in the Bush Administration believe they had started to succeed in Iraq by early 2005? What was the strategy as President Bush’s second term began? What were the assumptions about what was happening in Iraq?
  2. What was the significance of the February 2006 Golden Mosque bombing in Samarra? To what extent is it fair to say that this event changed the trajectory of the war?
  3. What was the military significance of Colonel H. R. McMaster’s efforts in the city of Tel’Afar? How did they fit into the broader military strategy under General Casey?
  4. As violence levels in Iraq rose, several alternative strategies were put forward. What did Senator McCain argue for the U.S. to do? What did Senator Biden? What did Nir Rosen?

Readings: 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. By late 2006, U.S. policy in Iraq had reached a turning point. What were the different approaches being counseled at the time, by whom, and what were the arguments for or against them? What was the Iraq Study Group, and what did it propose? What was the AEI Iraq Study, and what did it propose? Which approach did President Bush ultimately pick?
  2. What did the “surge” actually consist of militarily and politically? What did the U.S. do differently under General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker versus under General Casey?
  3. What was the U.S. public reaction to the surge? What was the congressional reaction? What conclusions can we draw from this experience about what the role of public opinion and Congress in foreign policy should be?
  4. Violence levels began to drop significantly in Iraq by mid-2007. Why did this happen, and to what extent can we say the surge “succeeded”? In what ways did it fail?

Readings:

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. What role did the Iraq War play in the 2008 presidential campaign? What was the Obama Administration’s proposed strategy for Iraq before coming to office? What were its core assumptions, and what was the political and ideological frame for the policy? How did it change after he became president—and how did it remain the same? How were the approach and assumptions of the incoming Obama team about Iraq different from those of the outgoing Bush Administration?
  2. How did the S. diplomatic/political strategy in Iraq change under Obama, following the replacement of Ambassador Crocker with Ambassador Hill?
  3. What was the outcome of the 2010 national elections in Iraq? How was the Obama Administration’s strategy?
  4. Why did the S. military presence end in Iraq at the end of 2011? How important was this decision for the future of Iraq?
  5. What were the most consequential mistakes of the Obama Administration in 2009–2011? Were there alternatives that might have been pursued, and if so, why did policymakers not pursue them?

Readings:

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. What went wrong in Iraq after 2011 that made possible the takeover of northern Iraq by ISIL in June 2014? To what extent did other factors in the region play a role?
  2. How did the Obama Administration think about Iraq strategically after 2011? How did it fit into the Administration’s broader worldview?
  3. To what extent and in what ways did the U.S. experience in Iraq affect the Obama Administration’s attitude towards the uprising in Syria that began in 2011? What in turn were the consequences of this posture for Iraq and U.S. national security interests there?
  4. Was the deterioration of Iraqi democracy and security since 2011 out of American control, or the consequence of specific mistakes on the part of the U.S. that might have been avoided? Be prepared to defend either thesis. If the latter, what were the decision points when the U.S. should have taken a different approach? Why didn’t we?
  5. Was the resurgence of al Qaeda in Iraq predictable? If so, why was the Obama Administration caught off guard?
  6. What is the Obama Administration’s strategy against ISIL today? How has it evolved since 2014? To what extent has past U.S. experience in Iraq informed the Obama Administration’s post-2014 Iraq strategy? Do you believe it is succeeding?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are some of the recurring patterns in U.S. foreign policy that we can see over the course of our involvement with Iraq over the past 25 years? Are there particular mistakes we seem to repeat again and again? Does our experience in Iraq point to any recurring “blind spots” in the way we operate in the world?
  2. What does our experience in Iraq suggest about the way in which policymakers use—and misuse—history and our memory of “the last war” in devising and advocating strategies for the world?
  3. What does Iraq tell us about the role that public opinion should play (or not play) in influencing foreign policy?
  4. What has been the impact of Iraq on how Americans, and policymakers, look at the world today, and America’s role in the world? How enduring are these attitudes likely to be?
  5. What if any lessons do you think we should we draw from our experience in Iraq? What lessons shouldn’t we draw?

Other Courses You Might Be Interested In

The War in Iraq: A Study in Decision-Making

Examine key strategic decisions during one of the most dynamic confrontations of the late 20th and early 21st centuries: the U.S. and Iraq.

The Ideology & Strategy of al Qaeda & ISIS

Explore major intellectual discussions underpinning the Salafi-jihadist ideology of al Qaeda and ISIS.

The Iranian Challenge

Consider the strategic options for dealing with Iran’s nuclear program.

Nuclear Strategy and World Order

Explore the ways nuclear weapons have transformed the world we inhabit today.

The Challenges of the Middle East

Understand the Arab Spring and how, together with its aftermath, it has changed American priorities and strategies.