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

It was a bad idea, rooted in imperialism and a disregard for international law; begun by men who thought it would be easy.

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

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.

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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.

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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.