You Break It, You Own It

Have we learned not to start wars without a plan for afterwards?

As President Bush was deciding whether or not to invade Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein, Secretary of State Colin Powell warned Mr. Bush, "If you break it, you own it."

As a high-ranking military man, Mr. Powell had spoken eloquently of his distress when he gave orders and his friends came back in body bags.  He'd personally experienced the pain of owning breakage, and he wanted to make sure his boss had thoroughly thought things through before sending Mr. Powell's boys off to fight and die.  As things worked out, the media were happy to remind Mr. Bush of this bit of wisdom as often as they could.

Mr. Bush chose to invade because Mr. Hussein had been seen to use poison gas against rebellious Kurds and had refused to let the UN's inspectors into his atomic research facilities.  At the time, every high-level American politician as well as every major international intelligence service believed that Mr. Hussein was both willing and able to unleash "Weapons of Mass Destruction."  That's why then-Senator Hillary Clinton voted in favor of the 2nd Iraq war, a decision which very likely cost her the 2010 Presidential nomination.

We're reminded of this ancient history by the media frothing over Gov. Jeb Bush's answer to Megyn Kelly's question whether he would have authored the invasion given what we know now.  Mr. Bush replied that he absolutely would have, and so would Hillary Clinton.  This provoked a perfect storm of derision.

He'd misunderstood the question.  Mr. Bush thought he'd been asked whether he'd invade given what we knew in 2003, a time when most Democrats were convinced of the dangers posed by Mr. Hussein, but that wasn't the question he was being asked.  What Ms. Kelly was really after was 20-20 hindsight: would Bush III invade again knowing how it turned out?

After spilling much ink, the commentariat were unanimous in asserting that of course, no American politician would have deposed Mr. Hussein given what we know now.

Those Who Neglect the Lessons of History...

There are reasons to believe that our politicians wouldn't lightly engage in "regime change."  "Former Yugoslavia" disintegrated into warring factions when Marshall Tito, the tough tyrant who'd held it together, died without annointing a capable successor.  The situation became so messy that President Clinton ordered bombing missions, during which we destroyed a Chinese embassy in 1999.

The "nation building" phase which followed Mr. Bush's successful 2003 invasion of Iraq turned out so poorly that in 2007, he ordered a "surge" of 30,000 extra troops who achieved a measure of peace in the sense of persuading the warring factions to stop killing each other as long as there were enough American soldiers around to keep the peace.

Although his invasion didn't make Iraq give up a nuclear program because we couldn't find much of one, early in 2004, Mommar Gadhafi, the tyrant of Libya, gave up his nuclear program under American pressure.  He had had a lot more nuclear material than we'd thought - his arsenal had 4,000 centrifuges and plans for a bomb that were nearly complete.  

The haul was so large that President Bush, with photographers in tow, flew to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee to celebrate a rare victory against nuclear proliferation.

Mr. Gadhafi was very close to having a bomb, but he had seen what had happened to Mr. Hussein.  Although reluctant to give up the leverage that nuclear arms would give him, he folded under pressure.

Although he didn't find nuclear weapons in Iraq, Mr. Bush used the example of his disposing of Mr. Hussein to force Libya to give up a serious nuclear capability.  We thought at the time that de-fanging Mr. Gadhafi was a worthwhile outcome, but Mr. Bush got no credit it.

Have We Learned Anything?

It's mildly plausible to assume that we wouldn't invade Iraq if we had it to do over again.  Hillary recently called her vote for the war a "mistake," and the overwhelming majority of the Great and the Good say that they believe much the same.

But can we really be sure that our elites have realized that "regime change" isn't always a good idea - or even, is often a very bad one?  Even if a country's being run by a vicious tyrant who kills anyone whom he thinks might oppose him, knocking him off without having a replacement ready generally leads to a civil war which brings far more death and destruction than the tyrant would inflict.  Even tyrants know that dead men pay no taxes and don't kill taxpayers just for fun.

We have reason to doubt that our current politicians have learned anything.  When Mr. Obama took office, Mr. Bush's "surge" had more or less pacified Iraq and neutralized Mr. Gadhafi's nuclear threat so that Mr. Obama could get back to fighting the "important war" in Afghanistan.  Mr. Obama's efforts quickly demonstrated that Afghanis disliked each other as much as Iraqis and that making peace would be a long, hard slog.

Then, as if he hadn't enough on his plate, Mr. Obama went to war against Libya.  What happened?  The French urged the rest of Europe and America to take out Mr. Gadhafi because he'd started killing so many more of his citizens.  Mr. Obama "led from behind" by consenting to support their bombing efforts and to do a lot of the bombing when the Europeans ran short of ammunition.

The Wall Street Journal reminds us that in February and March of 2011, Hillary "was reportedly a leading advocate within the administration of military intervention against Moammar Gadhafi."  Instead of urging caution as Secretary Colin Powell had done, Secretary Hillary urged her boss into the fray.

As one would expect, killing the tyrant who'd kept Libya stable let it fall apart into warring factions, one of which murdered our Ambassador to Libya.  ISIS has recently become active there.  By attacking Libya after we'd taken away their nukes and not defending the Ukraine against Russian aggression as we were required to do based on a treaty we'd signed when they gave up their nukes, Mr. Obama demonstrated to all the world that, as everyone always suspected, nukes are the only viable security against unpredictable superpowers.

Having reminded Mr. Bush that he owned Iraq because he broke it, one might expect the media to remind Mr. Obama and Hillary that they own Libya, but we won't hold our breath.

Our actions in Libya and our lack of action in the Ukraine mean that nothing will persuade the Iranians not to build nukes.  The Ayatollahs know that not even Mr. Obama would have bombed Libya if Mr. Gadhafi had had nukes.

Sure, they'll promise anything that will give them time just as we promised the Ukraine that we'd defend them if they gave up their nukes.  But based on our irrational attack on Libya and our breaking our promises to Ukraine, the Iranians know that highly-visible nukes are their only guarantee of relative safety.

Can you blame them?  We can't.  By not merely allowing an aggressively evil regime to acquire nuclear weapons, but also to make it crystal clear to them that nukes the only way they can survive, the true blame is entirely ours.  Mr. Obama lied and countless millions will eventually die - and if you ever hear that pointed out on the news, we'll die too, of shock.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments

I'm getting tired of this "the Iraq War was a mistake" nonsense. The Iraq War was a mistake to abandon, yes; the Iraq War was a mistake *as it was executed*, yes. I rather thought we should have taken the advice of Sir Charles Napier, but most importantly, the inhabitants of this planet should have known we were serious and any one of them could have been next.

But, woulda-coulda-shoulda, no? God will have his little jokes, and putting so much oil under the barbarians was one of them. Maybe, at least we could have kept them isolated, disarmed, and out of trouble til they all learned to read ......

June 1, 2015 10:06 AM

The best question of all is the one rarely asked... WHY DO WE CARE if "a country's being run by a vicious tyrant who kills anyone whom he thinks might oppose him". Saddam was half a planet away in some flea bitten desert killing his own people, not here in America killing ours.

Let societies rise up on their own and reap the consequences. Ultimately, nothing else will work anyway even if we "have a good replacement" and all the rest of that feel-good meddling nonsense.

(And if the tyrant does start to head in our direction? We bomb his nation flat from 50,000 ft. so we can all get back to browsing Facebook)

June 1, 2015 1:48 PM

How soon we forget, Ifon. The world is full of dictators "...half a planet away in some flea bitten desert killing [their] own people, not here in America killing ours." What made Saddam different was, practically everyone who was anyone warned Saddam was making nukes to send HERE.

March 12, 2016 5:09 PM

And that intel about Saddam was completely wrong. How soon we forget that too. ;-)

March 12, 2016 5:16 PM

Anyone can be a Monday Morning quarterback. Before the Iraq War, President Clinton, Senator Clinton, and a host of intelligence agencies foreign and domestic weren't saying anything different about Saddam than was President George W. Bush - including Colin Powell's chev d'oevre before the Security Council!

March 12, 2016 7:37 PM

The Iranian nuclear program is suffering a series of mysterious catastrophes:

The article has a list of mysterious accidents that have afflicted Iranian infrastructure.

It starts:

Just after midnight on 30 June, an email dropped into my inbox. It claimed to be from an unknown group calling itself the Homeland Cheetahs.

The group said it had attacked the major Iranian nuclear site at Natanz some two hours earlier, at 02:00 local time. In the detailed message, it claimed it had blown up a facility and that the Iranian regime would not be able to hide it.

The group said it was composed of dissidents within Iran's military and security forces and that they had been behind numerous attacks that the Iranian authorities had so far concealed from the public.

I went online to check Iranian news agencies and reliable accounts on social media, but I found no mention of such an attack anywhere.

Several hours later, Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation announced there had been an incident at the Natanz nuclear plant, but they ruled out sabotage.

July 6, 2020 11:57 AM
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