The view from an M88 armored vehicle that was part...

The view from an M88 armored vehicle that was part of a U.S. Army convoy driving into Baghdad on April 7, 2003, during decisive battles to topple Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.  Credit: The Washington Post/William Branigin

Twenty years after the start of the war in Iraq, consensus against it is almost as strong as the consensus for it at the time of the invasion. In February 2003, some two-thirds of Americans thought going to war was the right decision; today, an Axios poll found 61% think it was wrong. Many politicians and pundits have publicly reversed and repented their support for the war.

My position remains consistently ambivalent. At the time, I thought predictions that the war would be an easy task for the United States and that Iraq could be turned into a beacon of democracy were reckless. I also believed removing a brutal dictator like Saddam Hussein was probably worth it. Today, I believe the war was a disaster; I also think ousting Saddam may have been the right call.

Notably, in several polls in the years after the invasion, 60 to 70% of Iraqis agreed that toppling Saddam was worth it despite the hardships. Last month, current Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid told The Associated Press that most Iraqis still think the invasion was ultimately for the better.

One easy counterpoint is that some 200,000 Iraqis died, mostly in the postwar insurgency and sectarian strife. Some people who think America’s war had no redeeming features argue that whatever Saddam’s depredations, he would not have inflicted comparable carnage. But “what ifs” are always risky, especially with a ruthless dictatorship. Over 25 years of Saddam’s rule, his regime is estimated to have murdered about a quarter-million Iraqis — not counting as many as half a million deaths in the war he unleashed against Iran.

What if Saddam had stayed in power and grown even stronger due to rising oil prices in the 2000s? What if there had been an “Arab Spring”-style uprising against him? We’ll never know.

Claims that Donald Trump would not have come to power in the U.S. without the war in Iraq are equally unprovable. Yes, Trump took advantage of Republican disillusionment with the war to ride a wave of isolationist “America First” populism. But even today, 58% of Republicans believe invading Iraq was the right decision.

Of all bad opinions on Iraq, analogies with the war in Ukraine are the worst. The claim that American support for Ukraine is like the war in Iraq is especially absurd. We did not attack Ukraine and have no soldiers fighting there; our role is limited to supplying weapons and intelligence to help defend against Russian aggression. But claims that Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is comparable to the U.S.-led coalition’s invasion of Iraq 20 years ago are equally specious.

The U.S. did not invade Iraq to annex its territories or steal its oil. It acted, with 31 coalition partners, against a dictator allowed to stay in power after a defeat in a prior war of aggression — on conditions with which he frequently failed to comply — and who was in violation of multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions. Even the claim that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction, which proved unfounded, reflected a view widely shared in many countries. While the U.N. did not authorize the U.S.-led invasion, it also did not condemn it — while Russia’s war has been resolutely condemned.

America’s war in Iraq was, at worst, a terrible error; it was not a crime. Interestingly, the Axios poll found that a plurality of Americans today — 44% — said they ultimately don’t know who was right on the war: supporters or opponents. That’s probably the one poll result that makes the most sense.


OPINIONS EXPRESSED BY CATHY YOUNG, a writer for the Bulwark, are her own.


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