After Regime Change: How We Failed To Rebuild Iraq

As President Trump declines to rule out military intervention in Iran and Venezuela, this topic is as timely as ever.

Jake Mercier
May 9 · 12 min read
Marines in Nasiriyah, Iraq, on March 23, 2003. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

When World War I was over, the winning sides convened in Versailles, creating a series of peace treaties that left almost no state fully content, eventually leading to tensions that sparked World War II. According to Historian Dayna L. Barnes, President Franklin D. Roosevelt likened those involved at Versailles to a bunch of wives frantically packing for a husband’s business trip, saying everyone was “rushing around, grabbing things out of closets and throwing them into suitcases.” It was clear that Roosevelt felt that there were lessons to be learned from poor post-war planning in World War I.

Under his administration, things were different. From 1939 until the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) quietly organized study groups alongside the State Department in order to examine U.S. interests and aims during the war.

After Pearl Harbor, the CFR became the basis upon which the State Department’s post-war planning effort — State-War-Navy Coordinating Committee (SWNCC, or “swink”) — was built.

As one can imagine, officials creating these plans were required to have a rich understanding of the history of Japan, both culturally and economically, but also needed to tailor the plan to be useful in many different possible outcomes of the war.

In other words, the plans for post-war reconstruction needed to be flexible and broad, but also take into account the institutions and history of the state. SWNCC’s efforts informed much of the work that happened once the occupation of Japan begun.

This included the initial recommendation of the now famous and successful decision by Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, General Douglas MacArthur, to retain the highly institutionalized figure of Emperor Hirohito in Japan (which we will discuss in detail later).

Why is all of this relevant, though?

As President Trump declines to rule out military intervention in Venezuela — not to mention escalation with Russia in the process — this topic is as timely as ever.

(Left to Right) Secretary of State Colin Powell, President George W. Bush, and Vice President Dick Cheney in 2003. (Photo: Reuters).

Regime change operations are carried out often by the United States, and they do come at a cost. Historically, many have overlooked the critical importance of a strategic and intentional post-war planning and rebuilding effort, which can have lasting humanitarian, economic, and balance of power ramifications.

The planning and rebuilding effort in Japan has historically been seen as a tremendous success. Before the Iraq War, the Bush administration aimed at replicating it. The question is: what went so wrong?

Planning for War and Reconstruction

SWNCC’s documents also provided a blueprint for economic and governmental reform of the state. It is said that MacArthur and his policy staff were able to cut up these post-war planning documents and hand individual paragraphs to groups, giving them assignments as new departments in Japan were formed. Before the end of World War II, the wartime preparation did not stop there, as a series of famous wartime conferences between President Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, and Winston Churchill aided the process.

In contrast, the disorganization and lack of clear communication between departments before the invasion in Iraq led to less-than-desirable outcomes.

The administration had many internal and ideological rifts, including between President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell.

In 2001, the State Department began studying and planning for a possible post-war Iraq, putting together the Future of Iraq Project.

In 2006 from left, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney at the Pentagon. (Photo: Stefan Zaklin/epa)

This comprehensive plan provided important political and historical insight into Iraqi politics, religious divides, and implications for an American-led regime change effort. According to Powell’s former Chief of Staff Col. Lawrence Wilkinson, the report was “largely ignored so that people with views more in line with the Republican party could be placed in Iraq.”

Another anonymous state department official later concurred, saying that the report was “mostly ignored,” underscoring the fact that the State Department usually led with significant political and cultural context, and the Defense Department was responsible for wartime planning.

In contrast to the series of wartime conferences that happened in planning for post-war Germany and Japan, the Bush administration had a sense of “hostility to multilateral diplomacy” with regards to verification of “Iraq’s [Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs)] status through international inspections.”

In January of 2003, a UN weapons inspector found no evidence that Iraq had renewed its nuclear weapons program — a blow, one would think, to the reasoning for American regime change in Iraq.

Days later, however, President George W. Bush informed Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar that he planned to go to war in Iraq despite the report — two full days before he told Secretary of State Colin Powell. Nine days later, the President signed NSPD-24, a now declassified directive that gave authorization to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to “establish a Post-war Planning Office” — just two months before the administration would invade the country. This planning office would become the ‘Organization for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance’ or ‘ORHA.’

ORHA was an attempt to tie together the different threads between departments (similar to the function of SWNCC), but documents and resources, like the Future of Iraq Project, were made unavailable to the small, understaffed team.

Much of the initial post-war planning began with military planning. However, generals within this planning effort, including General Tommy Franks, expressed “the strong sentiment that…civilian superiors should focus on postwar operations while [they] focused on the war itself.” Access to information was not just a problem between the State Department and the Pentagon.

CENTCOM, a group within the Defense Department tasked with military action in the Middle East, worked on strategy for the removal of Saddam Hussein. However, the CFLCC (Combined Forces Land Component Command) — the team working on stabilization of the country after the invasion — were “too low-level to have access of much of the necessary information from CENTCOM needed for coherent planning.” These trends were unfortunately replicated across departments before, during, and following the Iraq War.

During the mid-March invasion, the Iraqi people did not know if the war would be one of liberation or oppression. Many cheered at the sight of American soldiers after the quick fall of Hussein.

As days passed and mistakes were made, that cheering quickly turned into mass rioting, looting, raping, killing, and insurgencies.

President George W. Bush declares “Mission Accomplished,” May 2003. (Photo: STEPHEN JAFFE/Getty Images)

Moreover, months before the invasion, Hussein had released nearly 100,000 violent criminals from prison in a failed attempt to stop an American invasion.

To make matters worse, American generals were given orders not to institute ‘martial law’ — they watched the chaos with no power of stabilization. According to Historian David Zucchino, Troops were “given no guidance for the post-combat phase; no orders for what to do with Baghdad once it was in American hands.”

As weeks passed and tensions rose, President George W. Bush stood in front of a large banner on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln to proclaim “Mission Accomplished” in taking out Hussein and liberating Iraq.

Little did he know, the mission had just begun.

Dealing with Institutions

After World War II, allied forces — arguably unilaterally controlled by the United States — began a “nation-building” process in Japan: reform of the land, labor, government, education, and economic sectors.

Led by General Douglas MacArthur, the Americans worked with the Japanese to draft a new democratized constitution, while still keeping familiar institutions intact — like that of the Emperor — which became a primarily symbolic role. The unconditional surrender of the Emperor gave authority, both in law and in the minds of the Japanese population, to the United States.

The importance of the decision to keep the Emperor in power after the war — a position that General MacArthur insisted upon — cannot be understated. This was a tough position to take at the time (and is still debated today), as many saw this as effectively absolving the Emperor for many heinous war crimes.

General Douglas MacArthur. Artwork by Derek Wehrwein.

According to Historian John Dower, the “Japanese at all levels of society quickly blamed their own militaristic leaders for having initiated a miserable, unwinnable war,” which helped win over the general populous of Japan. Not only was General MacArthur a strong and charismatic figure, but he seemed to understand the importance of keeping many Japanese institutions intact to mitigate pain when dismantling others.

For example, historian John Dower continued by saying that “what ultimately enabled the Americans to institutionalize democracy…[was] the survival and cooperation of the existing bureaucracy.”

A full two months after the Americans had invaded Iraq, Paul Bremer was appointed as the ‘Presidential Envoy,’ amid the destruction and looting. In one of Bremer’s memoirs, he compared himself to Douglas MacArthur, writing: “my new assignment did combine some of the viceregal responsibilities of General Douglas MacArthur.” However, he later told an aide, “I’d settle for MacArthur’s problems. Conditions weren’t this hard for him.”

BAGHDAD, Iraq — L. Paul Bremer III (center) leaves the “Green Zone” after signing the Iraqi sovereignty document giving authority to the interim Iraqi government here June 28. Photo by U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. D. Myles Cullen.

In some ways, this is valid — for example, many believe that the Korean War had ‘saved’ the reconstruction effort in Japan due to the economic boom that followed and allowed many industries to thrive.

Even so, many of the errors leading up to the invasion in Iraq, as well as policies promoted by Bremer himself, led to the troubles in reconstruction and with the economy.

Historical and Cultural Divides

Before leaving for Iraq, Bremer made three fateful policy decisions.

First, he ordered ORHA to cease the formation of an interim Iraqi government.

Second, Bremer pursued a policy of ‘De-Ba’athification’ — expelling over 50,000 ‘Ba’athists’ (Iraqi bureaucrats and government workers from Hussein’s government), leaving them unemployed in the recently occupied country.

The State Department’s aforementioned Future of Iraq Project warned against institutional De-Ba’athification, foreshadowing that it “may…present a destabilizing element, especially if they are left without work or ability to get work.” Not only did this policy have the effect of mass unemployment, but it also crippled Iraq’s education system, central government, and many other familiar institutions.

To make matters worse, a former Iraqi official of whom the American Government planned to replace Hussein with, Ahmed Chalabi, was tasked with leading the De-Ba’athification effort — a position he used to expel political rivals.

Third, Bremer decided to disband the Iraqi Army, the Republican Guard, the Special Republican Guard, and the Secret Police. Overnight, nearly 500,000 Iraqi men — many of whom were working with ORHA to find a way to be helpful in the provisional government — were unemployed, and enraged.

Iraqi civilians and U.S. soldiers pull down a statue of Saddam Hussein in downtown Baghdad on April 9, 2003. (Jerome Delay / Associated Press)

The official unemployment rate rose to around 25% by 2005, although many estimates show that it was much higher, at around ~40–50%.

Many of these unemployed military men joined insurgencies, often as a means to feed their families.

After the quick collapse of Hussein, Americans failed to pick up the pieces and did not have a clear mandate in the region. This led to a vacuum that was quickly filled by mosques, leading to Sunni and Shia insurgencies that clashed in search of power, which ultimately led to civil war and laid the ground for the rise of ISIS and a strengthened Iran.

This is a stark contrast to what happened in Japan, as the United States had “both a sweeping international mandate and long-lasting support of key regional countries,” along with the legitimacy that came with Emperor Hirohito’s unequivocal surrender. The United States was able to administer the occupation by “working via local authorities and institutions,” backed by “the presence of hundreds of thousands of occupation troops.” They knew that the process would take years.

Moreover, while Japan was undoubtedly not homogenous when it came to political ideology, it was “spared the religious, ethnic, regional and tribal animosities” that troubled Iraq.

Emperor Hirohito and General MacArthur meeting for the first time, 1945.

In Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld fought to keep troop levels below 100,000, and the Bush Administration made it a goal to be out of Iraq entirely by the 2004 election, despite realities on the ground.

In Japan, the United States focused efforts in giving welfare to the people in the form of food, land reform, and economic revitalization.

In Iraq, the Americans focused the few resources amid destruction on crushing the insurgencies and left economic revitalization — including sewage, running water, and electricity for homes — to the wayside.

Moreover, the bureaucracy in Iraq was largely Sunni dominated before the war. In destroying these institutions, a vacuum was created that emboldened the largely Shia-dominated population, which sparked uprisings.

Muqtada Al-Sadr, the son of a Muslim cleric, helmed one of many growing insurgency groups that drug Americans further into a bloody war, fighting in Fallujah, Najaf, and other cities in Iraq for many years.

It is important to reiterate that when going to Iraq, American military generals were not thinking about these political and social implications — it was not necessarily their job to do so. It was their job to take orders from the Pentagon.

What Can We Learn?

I’ve only detailed a few of the mistakes and missed opportunities made by the Bush Administration in planning and executing a post-war reconstruction effort in Iraq, and only compared it with a small portion of the seven-year economic and governmental transformation in post-war Japan.

The scene aboard the battleship Missouri as the Japanese surrender documents were signed in Tokyo Bay, on September 2, 1945.

It is important to note that while the outcome in Japan is historically viewed as much more positive, they did have their fair share of hardships and uprisings to quell. However, lessons can be learned from the long, intense, and unified post-war planning process in Japan, one of which is summed up by the phrase, “if you break it, you buy it.”

Many soldiers went into the war in Iraq with the idea that they would leave a few weeks after the invasion — many reported being told this same thing by their superiors.

In his 2000 Presidential Campaign, George W. Bush clearly stated that he would only send us to wars with an “exit strategy,” and that he would be “very careful about using our troops as nation builders.”

This demonstrates a lack of awareness about the massive undertaking that effective post-war planning and reconstruction is, and the pre-existing roots that it must have in order to build an effective democracy, especially in a place with extremely different values and with intense economic struggle.

In Japan’s case, ideas like democracy “were not foreign,” as Japan already had an “established parliamentary democracy” that was influenced, in part, by Western models which “had been adopted from the Meiji era, forward.”

This is in stark contrast with Iraq, whose dictatorship, instability, and religious divides did not provide a steady ground for democracy. Efforts to better understand these socio-political realities on the ground, to streamline a clear chain of command and method of communication, and to retain some existing institutions, could have lent credibility to the American Government in post-war Iraq.

Finally, the Bush administration could have had a clear international mandate in regime change by standing on stronger intelligence before going to war.

Instead, Iraq has still not recovered, and Americans continue to repeat these same mistakes in countries like Libya, which has become a safe-haven for terrorists and human traffickers following the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi.

If a path to peace without regime change war is genuinely not possible (don’t get me started), to spend more time in constructing post-war planning efforts would be to walk in General MacArthur’s footsteps. ❖

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Jake Mercier is a filmmaker, writer, and the founding Editor-in-Chief of CitizenSource, writing with a focus on U.S. politics, foreign intervention, national security, and privacy issues. He is from Dallas, Texas, but currently resides in Washington, D.C.

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News and analysis, by and for citizens — not the mainstream media.

Jake Mercier

Written by

Independent Journalist. Writing about politics, foreign policy, and film! Editor of @CitizenSource — news analysis by and for citizens, not the establishment.


News and analysis, by and for citizens — not the mainstream media.

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