15 years on, we’re still paying for the Iraq War

REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic
An explosion rocks Baghdad during air strikes March 21, 2003.

This week marks the 15th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, the main lessons of which are the same as those of almost all recent U.S. military adventures: It was a bad idea, rooted in U.S. imperialism and disregard for international law, begun by men who thought it would be easy, thought it would be popular, thought it would secure their historical reputations as great leaders.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

The stated reasons for the war were lies, or, if you feel like being kind, errors. There were no stockpiles of “Weapons of Mass Destruction” in Iraq and, by the time the war started, this was known and/or knowable to anyone who was not addicted to the idea that frequent wars make countries great.

The U.S. war violated international law, which we sometimes claim to respect, in that it was not authorized by the U.N. Security Council. In fact, the U.N. weapons inspectors had to flee for their safety from Iraq (or, more precisely, from the “shock and awe” U.S. bombing of Iraq), where the inspectors had just about finished establishing that there were no hidden stockpiles of WMD.

Of course, thousands and thousands of innocent Iraqis were killed. Yes, Saddam Hussein, a truly despicable dictator, was removed from power and executed, but it’s not at all clear that life for Iraqis has been better since. 

The example the war backers hoped to create of a U.S.-midwifed democracy in the Arab world has not been anything Americans would recognize as real democracy in Iraq. And the United States remains, as always, very good friends with many dictators and monarchs while being hostile to democratic countries when those countries disagree with U.S. policy.

We and the people of the Mideast are still paying for the war and its consequences. As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof noted on Wednesday:

The financial cost alone to the United States will top $3 trillion, according to the estimates of the economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes, or about $24,000 per American household. Some 4,400 American soldiers died in Iraq, along with approximately 500,000 Iraqis, according to a survey and academic study.

The war helped trigger the Syria war, the genocide against the Yazidi and Middle East Christians, the rise of the Islamic State, the strengthening of Iran and a broader Sunni-Shiite conflict in the Middle East that will claim lives for years to come.

It was similar to many other blunders our country has made when it engaged in what are sometimes called “wars of choice.”

Almost all recent U.S. wars have been wars of choice, which means wars in which we were not responding to a military attack against the United States nor an attack on an ally to which we were bound by treaty to defend.

I make an exception for the Gulf War of 1990-91, in which the United Nations authorized “all necessary means” to restore Kuwaiti sovereignty and in which the U.S. preserved the existence of its ally, Kuwait, won a quick decisive victory, and went home, although there are more complicated arguments.

The other complicated case would be the war in Afghanistan, which was a response to the 9/11 attack, although that was an attack by Al-Qaida, not a nation-state. The retaliation for that attack has now morphed into the Global War on Terror, which includes perpetual acts of war and semi-war, like drone killings of suspected terrorists across many countries, which make total hash out of the idea of “war” as it was understood when the war powers were set out in the Constitution.

In a sense, since the end of World War II, the United States has been in a state of perpetual war, but we call it “war” only when it heats up in a particular place. The Congress has not passed a literal “declaration of war” since the days after Pearl Harbor in 1941. The constitutional war powers provisions remain as originally written but no longer apply.

In 2016, both major U.S. political parties nominated presidential candidates who had initially supported the Iraq war. Hillary Clinton, who was a senator at the time, voted to authorize the war, although her statement justifying the vote was relatively incoherent, specifically on the question of whether she actually favored the war. (Her chief opponent for the 2016 nomination, Bernie Sanders, voted ‘no’ on the war authorization.

As for the Republican nominee, Donald Trump expressed half-assed support for the Iraq War in advance, never expressed opposition before the fighting began, and never expressed opposition during the war, except to criticize the way the war was being managed. But that didn’t stop him, during the Republican debates of 2016, from claiming:

I’m the only one on this stage that said, “Do not go into Iraq. Do not attack Iraq.” … Nobody else on this stage said that. And I said it loud and strong. And I was in the private sector. I wasn’t a politician, fortunately. But I said it, and I said it loud and clear, “You’ll destabilize the Middle East.”

He has never, to this day, produced any evidence to back that up. 

And, by the way, both of Minnesota’s U.S. senators at the time, Paul Wellstone and Mark Dayton, voted no on the Iraq War resolution.

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Comments (22)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 03/23/2018 - 09:10 am.

    Trump’s credibility as a peacemaker is pretty strained. Trump just hired Bolton, who pushed hard for the war in Iraq and promoted the false WMD meme, and still believes that we should still be in Iraq in full force. And Bolton wants very badly to go to war with Iran and North Korea.

    But hey, is there a failed war that all of the Fox-chicken-hawks didn’t or don’t want?

  2. Submitted by Pat Terry on 03/23/2018 - 09:28 am.

    Trump and Bush

    This is what frustrates me about the rehabilitation of George W. Bush’s image. The Iraq war was far more damaging than anything Trump has done so far. The things we are arguing about now – refugees, ISIS, etc. – all exist because Bush invaded Iraq.

  3. Submitted by Marc Post on 03/23/2018 - 10:18 am.

    War is coming

    We’ve forgotten the folly of electing Republicans. History is about to repeat itself.

    The chicken hawk, Bolton, advocates attacking North Korea and Iran.

    Bolton was banned from the White House by John Kelly. How long can Kelly last now that the Current Occupant has made him NSA?

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/23/2018 - 11:10 am.


    At least in the Middle Ages, when a less-then-capable monarch with delusions of grandeur and his vizier, with equally-deluded fantasies of acquiring power, wealth, and a name resonant in history, decided that war looked like a good idea, there was a very good chance that the egotistical monarch and his conniving sycophant would be casualties, sooner or later, of that war.

    Since there’s no credible reason for a war – Iran is still more or less living up to the terms of the agreement made with the U.S.; the Chinese boost in tariffs on American goods is simply doing to us what the Current Occupant is doing to them; North Korea actually seems to want to talk instead of bluster and threaten – and the casualties of yet another perversely stupid engagement of that sort will fall disproportionately on people who have done nothing to deserve maiming or death, my suggestion (not even faintly realistic) is that, should Mr. Bolton and the Current Occupant combine their intellects to decide a Middle Eastern war is somehow sensible, they and their families follow the Medieval model when it comes to battlefield engagement. Let Mr. Bolton and the Current Occupant take up their weapons, put on their Kevlar, and lead a group of their political supporters, including their family members, into battle.

    At present, there’s virtually no risk to anyone in those kinds of political positions should there be genuine hostilities with another power. That should change. The prospect of their own maiming or death might do much to tone down much of the rhetoric emanating from the Oval Office. For the most part, the people most enthused about warfare are, as Marc Post reminded us above, not the people likely to be actually fighting it. They are justifiably called “Chicken Hawks.”

    • Submitted by Patricia McDonald on 03/26/2018 - 01:58 pm.


      I can see it now–Melania on the front line in her 6″ red spiked heels, while her husband stays home with “heel spurs.”

  5. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 03/23/2018 - 11:22 am.

    Here we are

    with an irrational reactionary President, hardline ideologue advisors, and a congress with extremely feckless Republican leadership. All of whom are willing to create a scheme to vicariously live out their dream of domination by sending our sons and daughters to war, so they can check it off their bucket list. It is the Iraq war, which we are still in, all over again. Voters we need new leadership before we get turned into a war zone ourselves. We seem to feel isolated being so far away from hostile countries but little by little we see terrorist creeping into our country. Not to mention that some can send drones and missiles our way. It is time to sit up and pay attention voters. Make your vote count!

  6. Submitted by David Markle on 03/23/2018 - 12:18 pm.

    Bolton again in position

    Bolton’s a Chicken Hawk because he avoided service in Vietnam through enlisting in the National Guard which was not drawn upon in that war. He admits to taking that step so that he could avoid serving in Vietnam.

    His appointment needs no confirmation by the Senate, but it looks ever more the case that we must hope Congress (such as it is) and senior military officials will do their best to keep this administration from starting a new and very serious war.

  7. Submitted by Phyllis Kahn on 03/23/2018 - 01:18 pm.

    Mid East wars

    Even more stupid was going into Afghanistan. I believe Great Britain tried very early in history (Middle Ages?) and more recently Britain and Russia both went in and failed. Isn’t there a truism that those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it?

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/23/2018 - 02:33 pm.

      There is.

      Also — Afghanistan has been termed “the graveyard of empires”.
      Recommended reading: Kipling’s ‘Ballad of East and West.”
      Nothing’s changed.

  8. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 03/23/2018 - 02:39 pm.


    Words from a Republican. Richard Haass, a high-ranking official from former President George W. Bush’s State Department, shared a dire assessment of the current geopolitical state of affairs, calling it “the most perilous moment in modern American history.”
    President Trump “is now set for war on 3 fronts: political vs Bob Mueller, economic vs China/others on trade, and actual vs. Iran and/or North Korea. He reminds us these are all REPUBLICAN SELF-INFLICTED WOUNDS.

    There is also a 4th war front, his home front. This one doesn’t bother Trump much though because he feels there will always be another woman available for him to abuse. He just has to send his lawyer out with a pocket full of money to get one.

  9. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 03/23/2018 - 03:42 pm.

    One of the indictments against the Nazis at Nuremberg was “waging aggressive war,” i.e. attacking countries that had neither attacked nor planned to attack it.

    Another was “crimes against humanity.” Abu Ghraib, torture, and extraordinary rendition certainly qualify here.

    The Bush administration committed war crimes, pure and simple.

    The excuses don’t work. Yes, Saddam Hussein was a dictator, but that excuse was belied by the way the Bush administration enlisted the aid of an even worse dictator in Uzbekistan to use that country as a staging area, and let us not forget Saudi Arabia.

    Weapons of mass destruction? I wanted Congress to vote down the Iraq War Resolution, but in the back of my mind, I suspected that if the resolution failed, the CIA or someone would mount a false flag operation which the Bush administration and the right-wing propaganda outlets would then blame on Congress.

    However, when the U.S. invaded Iraq and the Iraqis did not try to fight them off with any chemical or biological weapons or nuclear weapons, then I knew that the Bush administration had been lying. What would be the point of having weapons of mass destruction if you didn’t use them when invaded by the world’s largest military?

    The other Big Lie was that the Iraqis would greet the U.S. troops as liberators. Instead, I saw film footage of silent Iraqis standing by the roadside giving the “thumbs up” sign. The voiceover on the news gushed about how this was an indication of Iraqi support for the invasion.

    That clip was shown only once, because someone must have clued the reporters in to the fact that in the Middle East, “thumbs up” is equivalent to the middle finger, as I had heard a well-traveled friend say many years before.

    We are still feeling the after-effects of that invasion, because for all his faults, Saddam Hussein had no use for the Islamic fanatics and kept them out of the country. That ended as Iraq fell into chaos (after the U.S. occupation government fired virtually all of its civilian authorities) and fanatics of various types swarmed in.

    Memories are short. Our media now treat George W. Bush as a revered elder statesman, when he and Cheney and all the rest of that oil-soaked crew should have been packed onto a non-stop, one-way flight to The Hague.

  10. Submitted by Jonathan Scoll on 03/23/2018 - 05:00 pm.

    When empires fail

    As Karl Rove famously crowed about the time of our Iraq invasion: “We’re an empire now!” Indeed we are, and it doesn’t take much historical consciousness to recognize how fate answers such hubris. Consider the attack on Syracuse by Athens, at the height of its power (in the fifth century B.C.), brilliantly chronicled by Thucydides in his “Peloponnesian War.” Orchestrated by a demagogue, it started off so well — banners waving, priests chanting, crowds cheering — as the mighty Athenian fleet left harbor to make a pointless, unprovoked assault on a faraway, strategically marginal city.

    Nothing new about “shock and awe.”

    Jonathan Scoll

  11. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 03/24/2018 - 05:26 am.

    Bush blundered going into Iraq, but let’s be honest. Al Queda was nearly gone before Obama pulled our troops out of Iraq prematurely to placate his far leftist base.

    That is when ISIS was formed.

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 03/24/2018 - 09:00 am.


      We were going to be honest? It probably depends on ones original and/or existing point of view, and what one is using to support it. Evidently there is agreement that George and company are responsible for the Trillions? We all know that once a war is started, (the mistake is made) its not so easy to get out with ones ego, butt in one piece.

    • Submitted by richard owens on 03/24/2018 - 09:48 am.

      ISIS was formed inside Abu Ghraib prison, we are told

      “Al-Baghdadi was arrested by US Forces-Iraq on 2 or 4 February 2004 near Fallujah while visiting the home of his old student friend, Nessayif Numan Nessayif, who was on the American wanted list at the time[5] and studied together with al-Baghdadi at the Islamic University.[51] He was detained at the Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca detention centers under his name Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badry[42] as a “civilian internee”. His detainee card gives his profession as administrative work (secretary).[52] The US Department of Defense said al-Baghdadi was imprisoned at Compound 6, which was a medium security Sunni compound.[53] On 8 December 2004,[5] he was released as a “low level prisoner”[42] after recommended for a release by the Combined Review and Release Board.[45][54][55][56]”

      Abu Ghraib was the first of the widely reported violations of the Geneva Accords and the clue that torture had become established by US military leaders.

      Obama? Look at the dates.

      • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 03/26/2018 - 06:44 am.

        Where ever they formed up, ISIS did not become operational until after Obama left Iraq defenseless, to give leftists the motivation to re-elect him.

        Once the coast was clear, they collected the US military hardware Obama left in place, and rolled into Syria. Classic case of politics making a bad situation worse.

        • Submitted by richard owens on 03/26/2018 - 09:19 pm.

          Mr. Senker, please show your sources of

          You slander Obama whose Presidency was tainted from the beginning with a collapsed economy, more debt from Dubya’s “supplemental spending” and a country sick of wars without end.

          Congress refused him a new AUMF just so folks like you could criticize him in retrospect.

          Pilots complained about returning to base with munitions intact (no targets), and McCain demanded supplying the Syrian rebels while blaming Obama for nerve gas attacks that did not result in invasion or ‘shock and awe’ bombing ala the neocons.

          There is plenty of information now available on Iraq and Afghanistan that I suggest you consult if you are to actually know how much blame to dish out and to whom.

          Here’s a well-received source: ISIS: A History by Fawaz A. Gerges
          “…The book describes how ISIS emerged in the chaos of Iraq following the 2003 U.S. invasion, how the group was strengthened by the suppression of the Arab Spring and by the war in Syria, and how ISIS seized leadership of the jihadist movement from Al Qaeda…”

          As for your insistence on blaming Obama, I suspect Obama today would believe, as many do, that war is functionally obsolete and no lasting good can come of it. We are at the finite-ness of global survival, which we can address together, or not at all. Violence creates more violence and the cost is unaffordable.

          Surely you can see that from your own observations.

    • Submitted by Marc Post on 03/24/2018 - 11:25 am.

      Thank you for your honesty, but let’s be fully honest. Obama executed the withdrawal from Iraq that Republican President Bush agreed to and signed off on. Obama was bound by the agreement Republicans made and had no choice. Besides, I remember the Republican President standing in front of a big sign saying “Mission Accomplished”, but we all know that was a lie, just like the WMD lie. Republicans own ISIS. Only the Republican echo chamber denies that. No one else is fooled.

      Also, thank you for pointing out another example of Republicans forgetting history and why war is coming. Republicans simply cannot take responsibility for their errors and doom us all to repeat them.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 03/24/2018 - 11:26 am.

      Revisionist History, Called Out

      Plenty of “far” lefties were correctly suspicious of Obama. He turned out to be a very centrist Democrat. he did nothing, not even fulfilling a promise of card check authorization, for Labor. He could have extracted serious concessions from Wall Street, rolling back the socialist Bill Clinton – Senate GOP deregulation, but instead just bailed them out and let them off the hook. Even the Reagan Admin. put S & L crooks in jail. Obama? Guilty of being soft of corporate crime.

      Obama’s “far left base” would have been catered to if he’d bailed out home owners, who were victims Wall Street fraud. Too bad regular Joes are small enough to fail.

      The “far left base” wanted single payer, or at least a pubic option. How’d Obama do on that score? Oh yeah, he compromised with himself right out of the gate by proposing a GOP Romney Care plan that preserved private, that right, private insurance companies.

      The stock market didn’t start rising in November of 2016, that was back in March 2009. While the market went up and up, fattening the portfolios of the 1%, wages for regular Joes have been flat since the Reagan era. Obama said little and did less about that, despite his supposed “catering to his far left base.”

      You just can have it both ways, that the Obama-Clinton crowd are too cozy with Wall Street AND are far leftists.

      Was the closure of Gitmo done to “placate his far leftist base”? Oh yeah, it never closed, did it?

      Sorry, Curtis, any far lefties that had hopes for Obama were quickly disappointed. Others merely had their suspicions confirmed. Stop the revisionist history that Obama was anything but a centrist corporate Democrat. Same mold as Hillary Clinton, and that’s why she lost.

      • Submitted by Mike Davidson on 03/25/2018 - 10:41 am.


        Perhaps your memory is failing, or it’s just selective.

        Obama tried to close Gitmo on more than one occasion. Since it’s not something he could do via EO, he had to have Congressional approval. Guess who kept saying no? Congress.

        Also, the Reagan Administration’s prosecution of S&L crooks is laughable, considering it was his deregulation of the financial industry that allowed it to happen.

    • Submitted by Roy Everson on 03/24/2018 - 12:30 pm.

      The far leftist majority decided

      That decision was made in 2008 when voters rejected John McCain’s intent to maintain a huge U.S. military base in Iraq for the next century. No self respecting democracy continues perpetual warfare against public opinion.

  12. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/25/2018 - 08:36 am.

    Yes and no

    As a nation in many ways we continue to pay a price, but that’s as it should be since we committed a war crime. At the end of the day the only rationale left after all the lies had been exposed was that Saddam was bad man. Since there is no possible moral calculation or legal justification that could grant American citizens or their presidents the authority to decide that 500k (actually closer to a million) Iraqi’s are better off dead than living under Saddam, this was a war crime and a crime against humanity. The question is whether or not the American’s responsible will ever REALLY pay the price they deserve to pay? If and when those in the Bush administration stand trial for war crimes, we’ll have the answer to that question. And maybe, just maybe, if justice is ever served, our presidents will stop committing war crimes (after all this was not the first).

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