Skip to main content

The Iraq war, U.S. national security, and the Middle East

  1. Foreign Policy

The Iraq war, U.S. national security, and the Middle East

A conversation with Justin Logan, director of defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.

A soldier posted near a helicopter in Iraq

This article was originally published by Stand Together Trust.

March 20, 2023, marked twenty years since the United States invaded Iraq as part of the War on Terror. The conflict was deadly and costly -- most especially because of the loss of countless lives, the displacement of millions of Iraqi citizens, and destruction of critical infrastructure, like quality health care and clean water, to support citizens in Iraq. The United States maintains a strong military presence in the Middle East, and many contend that today's spending can't solve the problems the region is beset with and doesn't serve U.S. interests.  

We spoke with Justin Logan, Director of Defense and Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute and a grantee of Stand Together Trust, about the United States' continued presence in the Middle East. Logan is an expert on U.S. grand strategy, international relations theory, and American foreign policy. His current research focuses on the shifting balance of power in Asia -- specifically about China -- and the limited relevance of the Middle East to U.S. national security. 

Stand Together Trust: Are there any indications that the U.S. learned valuable lessons from the war in Iraq that changed our country's approach to foreign policy?   

Logan: Yes and no. It seems clear that we will not invade a medium-sized Middle Eastern country any time soon, then attempt to hot-swap its government for a liberal democracy while conducting a military occupation. That is the good news. But at more than $2 trillion and thousands of American lives -- to say nothing of the ruin in Iraq itself -- we overpaid to learn that lesson. It was available for free before the war. 

The bad news is that the intellectual pathologies that allowed the Iraq War appear to have survived inside the U.S. foreign policy establishment. Other than arguably the late Donald Rumsfeld, who was fired, none of the principals who dreamed up and executed the war paid a serious cost. The public is insulated from reckless foreign policies by geography, debt and deficit spending, and the powerful socialization that undergirds the all-volunteer military. Policies without easily discernible costs will tend to be oversupplied. 

Meanwhile, the foreign policy establishment's response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine suggests that it remains susceptible to the same kind of frenzied groupthink that affected it before the Iraq War.  

You've written before that the U.S. War on Terror may have led to growth in extremist and terrorist groups. Can you point to evidence? How did that happen?   

Interestingly, one of the justifications for the Iraq War was that the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia inflamed anti-American terrorism. In 2003 Congressional testimony, Paul Wolfowitz argued that the "American presence in the holy land of Saudi Arabia and the sustained American bombing of Iraq … have been Osama bin Laden's principal recruiting device, even more than the other grievances he cites. I can't imagine anyone here wanting to … be there for another 12 years to continue helping recruit terrorists." 

It turns out replacing the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia with one in Iraq didn't work any better. The Pentagon's Defense Science Board was forceful in a 2004 report which declared, "American direct intervention in the Muslim World has paradoxically elevated the stature of and support for radical Islamists, while diminishing support for the United States to single-digits in some Arab societies. Muslims do not 'hate our freedom,' but rather, they hate our policies." A 2008 study drawing on six years of data from the Muslim world judged that while "America's image in much of the Muslim world remains abysmal" and "most of the story is opposition to American foreign policy rather than value divides or religious‐​based enmity." 

In the case of Iraq, a terrorist entrepreneur named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi stood up Al Qaeda in Iraq amid the chaos that followed the invasion. Al-Qaeda terrorized the Iraqi civilian population while attacking U.S. forces. This group was an outgrowth of the invasion, and would later change its name to ISIL, or the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIS, which grew across the region, eventually creating a caliphate amid the Syrian civil war, which the U.S. military helped snuff out in 2018

In short, as the Russians are currently learning in Ukraine, wars and military occupations tend to inflame identity politics, particularly the kinds that make invasions and military occupations difficult. 

The U.S. continues to spend conservatively $65 billion to $70 billion per year on military efforts in the Middle East. What is driving that focus and is it warranted?  

Inertia is one of the most underrated forces in American politics. And while the public has soured on the most extreme form of militarized progressivism in the Middle East, foreign policy is generally low salience in American politics, and the elites in charge of U.S. policy there tend to still favor expansive visions. The low salience of foreign policy provides a permissive context for an elite consensus in favor of a pretty ambitious U.S. policy in the Middle East. 

The justifications for that forward-leaning policy are rarely set out clearly. But as I argued in a 2020 study, the policy centers on three main reasons: oil, Israel, and terrorism. In that study, I showed that concerns over any of these phenomena cannot justify U.S. policy in the Middle East: oil markets simply don't work the way security analysts believe that they do; Israel does not need an expansive U.S. military role in the region to be safe; and terrorism is a limited danger that U.S. policies often inflame. 

If it isn't clear yet, I don't think U.S. policy in the region is warranted. The Middle East contains less than five percent of world GDP and less than five percent of world population. No state in the region has power projection capabilities outside the region, and none of them can establish regional hegemony. As we look back on the 20th anniversary of the Iraq War, it is worth remembering that deep engagement in the region can occasionally suck the United States into ruinous policies. 

If the U.S. military focus were to be directed away from the Middle East, where could aid and attention shift to that would better align with Americans' safety and national interests?   

I'm a small-government man myself, so I would like to make the ground forces significantly smaller and return most of the money we spend policing the Middle East to taxpayers. A much smaller ground force would befit an insular maritime power like the United States. Military commanders sometimes complain about the "tyranny of distance" -- that is, it takes a big logistical lift to get U.S. forces to where the action is, thousands of miles away. But the tyranny of distance works in both directions. Trouble -- or at least the kind that ground forces can deal with -- has to travel great distances to get to us. 

But the broader answer is: Anywhere. Money is fungible. You could be a socialist, or a social conservative, or a China hawk and have your own ideas about what you'd like to spend $80 billion a year on. But we all should agree that frittering those resources away in a region of low strategic importance like the Middle East is not their highest and best use. 

When people ask for a bumper-sticker encapsulation of my vision for U.S. defense policy, I say "the efficient production of national security for the United States." That goal, of course, relies on one's view of how the world works, and given how the world works, what the United States needs to do to allow us to remain safe and free. In the case of the Iraq War, the United States had a rare opportunity to run a political science experiment based on one view of the world. It failed miserably. That view should be jettisoned in favor of other views that hit the target. We have made real progress on that front, but the battle is not yet won. 

The Cato Institute is supported by Stand Together Trust, which provides funding and strategic capabilities to innovators, scholars, and social entrepreneurs to develop new and better ways to tackle America’s biggest problems.

Learn more about Stand Together’s foreign policy efforts and explore ways you can partner with us.

© 2024 Stand Together. All rights reserved. Stand Together and the Stand Together logo are trademarks and service marks of Stand Together. Terms like “we,” “our,” and “us,” as well as “Stand Together,” and “the Stand Together community,” are used here for the sake of convenience. While the individuals and organizations to which those terms may refer share and work toward a common vision—including, but not limited to, Stand Together Foundation, Stand Together, Charles Koch Foundation, Stand Together Trust, Stand Together Fellowships, and Americans for Prosperity—each engages only in those activities that are consistent with its nonprofit status.
Jump back to top