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10 years after Iraq War: What do we have to show for it?

It’s time to assess the toll and look for lessons from United States’ biggest post-Vietnam blunder.

President George W. Bush announcing the start of war between the United States and Iraq during a televised address from the Oval Office on March 19, 2003.
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

First of two articles.

I agree with John McCain on this: Chuck Hagel’s statement that the surge in Iraq could turn into the biggest U.S. foreign policy blunder since Vietnam was silly. McCain may be right that the surge was a successful tactical move, but it was a mere tactic, undeserving of neither Hagel’s extreme condemnation nor McCain’s extreme praise.

In fact, it was a tactic to try to extricate the United States from its biggest post-Vietnam blunder, namely the Iraq War itself. The overall story — of which the surge was a mere blip — is so awful that it’s hard to face it squarely.

The Iraq War has still not ended. Iraqis (and, every once in a while an American) still dies violently from forces let loose by the U.S. invasion. But as we approach this month the 10th anniversary of the beginning of “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” we should face it and try to draw the right lessons. I will offer my version of that exercise in this piece and another one Friday about the “neoconservative” ideology that was used to justify the war 10 years ago.

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For me, one of the biggest right lessons is this: When you are the mightiest country in the history of the world, wars are too easy to get into and too hard to get out of. The United States, which – let’s face it – gets into far more wars than any other nation and almost all of them are wars of choice, should get into fewer.

The Iraq War cost the United States more than $3 trillion, according to the calculations of at least one Nobel prize-winning economist (that compares to 2003 Bush administration estimates that it would cost a mere $50 billion to $60 billion). The $3 trillion figure has some fancy economic effects in it, but the direct cost to the taxpayers was well into the trillions. Even if it was only a trillion or two, what do we have to show for it?

More than 4,400 U.S. military personnel lost their lives and another 32,000 were wounded in action in the Iraq fighting. That’s about double the number of U.S. casualties in Afghanistan. Of course, because of the 9/11 attacks on U.S. territory, Osama bin Laden’s base in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s refusal to relinquish bin Laden, the Afghan War is easier to justify as a war of defense or perhaps retaliation. Among the blunderous qualities of Operation Iraqi Freedom was the distraction from Afghanistan, as President Obama has often argued. Even that war, for which the justification was considerably better, is drifting toward an inconclusive conclusion.

1 million killed

Perhaps something in the neighborhood of 1 million Iraqis died as a result of the U.S. decision to liberate them from the tyrant Saddam Hussein (although that number is easily disputed, it’s still rising). You could oversimplify the costs and benefits. And it is normal, natural and in some sense hideous and amoral that we focus so much more on our own casualties than on those of the enemy. But, of course, a huge portion of the Iraqi dead were not our enemies. They were neither soldiers of Saddam Hussein nor terrorists. They were just Iraqis who were in the wrong time and place when this war blew things up.

The United States often likes to justify its wars as part of its (self-assigned) mission of spreading democracy. Yes, elections have occurred in Iraq, certainly much more legitimate than the one-candidate-allowed-and-he-gets-100-percent-of-the-vote elections that Saddam used to stage. But Iraq has not been turned into anything that could seriously be called a stable democracy. Who knows what the future might bring? But the nation seethes with ethnic, sectarian, tribal and ideological grievances. All of the post-war governments have been corrupt. Hundreds of billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars intended for post-war “reconstruction” of Iraq have been wasted or stolen.

Operation Iraqi Freedom failed to send a wave of democracy cascading across the Middle East, as the war’s architects had envisioned. You can try to credit the Iraq War for the recent “Arab spring,” although it seems like a reach. It remains to be seen how many stable democracies, if any, will emerge from the “spring.”

From a purely U.S.-national-self-interest point of view, it’s hard to argue that — if the day ever comes when Mideast countries have governments that reflect the real sentiment of their populations — those governments will be friendly to the United States or its interests or its main ally in the region, Israel. Personally, I think the United States should promote democracy more by words, and aid, and alliances with other democracies, and by our example, and less by guns and bombs.

The weapons of mass destruction that comprised the chief public justification for the war were, to put it politely, never found — on account of not existing. The murderous thug Saddam certainly bears a significant portion of the blame for his refusal to cooperate with international weapons inspection regimes. The ridiculous cat-and-mouse games Saddam played with the various inspection teams — often, for example, requiring advance warning before inspectors were allowed access to suspected weapons sites — surely contributed to the reasonable suspicion that he was hiding something. And, it turns out, what he was hiding was that he had no WMD nor active programs to acquire them.

U.N. inspectors had prompt access

It nonetheless remains a big deal to me, which I bring up on every occasion when apologists for the war suggest that President George W. Bush had ample reason to suspect that banned weapons work was proceeding, that before the United States launched the “shock and awe” bombardment, Saddam had finally relented and U.N. inspectors had prompt access to all the sites where U.S. officials and others thought the weapons were hidden. No weapons.

The actual war began, over the protestations of the U.N. inspectors that there appeared to be no weapons and that if they (the inspectors) could have a brief while longer to finish their work, they believed they could settle the question. Instead, Hans Blix and his inspectors were evacuated so they would not be killed by U.S. bombs.

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If the demonstration of U.S. might (and willingness to use it) in Iraq was intended to have a salutary warning effect on other potential misbehavers, it seems not have yet produced such an effect on Iran, the country the United States is currently most often threatening to bomb over its alleged pursuit of WMD.

In fact, the Iraq War significantly strengthened Iran. After a decade-long incredibly bloody war between Iraq and Iran through the 1980s (which Saddam started and during which Washington “tilted” in favor of Saddam’s side), Iran was enervated and forced to devote energy to its long border with Iraq. By destroying Saddam’s military, the United States freed Iran’s leaders to pursue other priorities, such as nuclear fuel and technology and seeking the leadership of the Pan-Islamic campaign to threaten Israel.

Making possible the rule of the majority in Iraq should have been a good thing, democracy-wise, but was also a good thing for Shiite Iran, since it empowered the long-suppressed Shiite majority of Iraq. Nouri al-Maliki, the current (since 2007) prime minister of Iraq, spent the decade of the 1980 as a refugee from Saddam and a guest of Iran.

Peter Van Buren was a State Department foreign service officer sent to Iraq after the war as part of the “reconstruction” teams. His blog bears the sardonic title  We Meant Well. His book is also titled “We Meant Well” but subtitled “How I helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi people.” On the blog, he writes:

On this 10th anniversary of the Iraq War, Iraq itself remains, by any measure, a dangerous and unstable place. Even the usually sunny Department of State advises American travelers to Iraq that U.S. citizens “remain at risk for kidnapping… [as] numerous insurgent groups, including Al Qaida, remain active…” and notes that “State Department guidance to U.S. businesses in Iraq advises the use of Protective Security Details.”

Friday: The “neoconservative” ideology on the Iraq War, today and 10 years ago.