Five years later, uncertainty persists about Iraq war

A scene from March 21, 2003: An explosion rocks the main palace complex of President Saddam Hussein on the Tigris River in Baghdad.
REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic
A scene from March 21, 2003: An explosion rocks the main palace complex of President Saddam Hussein on the Tigris River in Baghdad.

This war, five years old today, is longer than U.S. involvement in World War II and the Korean War. Nearly 4,000 Americans and 100,000 Iraqis have died. Almost 30,000 Americans have been wounded. More than 4 million people are refugees or displaced. The cost is half a trillion dollars and rising. The war is a central issue in the presidential election.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Yet, what we are left with is more uncertainty about what to do next. Will the surge make a difference a few months from now? What will a new president actually do as opposed to what the three remaining candidates say they will do? What do the Iraqi people want? And finally, what will the American people tolerate?

(There was no shortage of reflections on the war this month. Two of the most interesting were nine separate op-ed pieces from foreign policy experts in the New York Times and a discussion on National Public Radio among four former war correspondents.)

“Thanks in part to the Iraq war, the next U.S. president — Republican or Democrat, black or white, man or woman — will take office with America’s power, prestige and popularity in decline, according to bipartisan reports, polls and foreign observers,” writes Warren Stroebel for the McClatchy newspapers.  Accompanying Stroebel’s piece is a compelling graphic showing the cost of the war in lives and treasure.

Carolyn Lochhead, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, says Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn Rule — you break it, you own it — will pass to the next president. A Democrat who wins the White House can count on Republican blame for whatever ensues. The next president is likely to take office with around 140,000 troops in Iraq, down from 160,000 at the peak of the surge, nothing close to a stable, functioning government and few options. As [Barack] Obama put it, even if the person who drove the bus into the ditch is fired, that still leaves just so many ways of getting the bus out of the ditch. He or she will face further constraints of soaring budget costs and a strained military.”

Both Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Obama have run as anti-war candidates, saying they would withdraw U.S. troops as soon as possible while Republican Sen. John McCain has backed President Bush on the surge and says he’s willing to keep troops in Iraq as long as is necessary, which some observers say could be years.

McCain was in Iraq this week, and so was Vice President Dick Cheney.

Peter Baker covered Cheney in the Washington Post: “In his first trip to Iraq since the deployment of additional U.S. forces last summer, Cheney praised what he called a ‘remarkable turnaround in the security situation’ since President Bush sent an additional 30,000 troops last year. Noting this week’s five-year anniversary of the start of the war, he offered an upbeat assessment of the venture.

” ‘If you reflect back on those five years, it’s been a difficult, challenging but nonetheless successful endeavor,’ the vice president said at a news conference in the Green Zone, where he was flanked by Gen. David H. Petraeus, the chief U.S. commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, the top U.S. civilian official in Baghdad. ‘We’ve come a long way in five years and it’s been well worth the effort.'”

As if to dispute what the vice president was saying, two separate bomb blasts killed 38 people during his visit, one from a female suicide bomber and the other a roadside bomb that killed two U.S. soldiers, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Despite the continued, albeit reduced, violence in Iraq, Cheney and McCain have some supporters among the troops. Writes Sgt. Anthony Diaz in the Washington Post: “Since I arrived here last August, I have been struck by four things: the financial commitment we have made to reconstruction; the precipitous decline in violence; the inklings of representative government; and the small yet significant progress in communal relations between the mostly Shiite Iraqi army and the predominantly Sunni residents of this area. One often reads of the chaos plaguing Iraq. Yet the media accounts only infrequently seem to grasp the successes being achieved. …There is still much left to be accomplished in Iraq. But the successes of the men and women serving in this once explosive area of Baghdad cannot be overstated. Sitting here in Adhamiyah, one thing is certain: The surge has worked.”

U.S. public opinion turned against the war long ago. According to a recent USA Today/Gallup poll, 60 percent of Americans say the war was a mistake and want to set a timetable to withdraw while 40 percent want to stay the course.

“The survey finds the 40 percent of Americans who want to stay the course in Iraq are relatively united — confident the invasion was justified and the consequences of withdrawing too soon disastrous.

“However, the 60 percent who call the invasion a mistake and want to set a timetable to get out are fractured into four distinct groups. … They include those who want U.S. troops out immediately and others … who argue America has an obligation to improve Iraq’s stability before going. Such divisions have complicated efforts in Congress to force a change in President Bush’s war policy.”

Behind the countless surveys and analyses are real people, Americans and Iraqis, affected by the war.

Brian Murphy of The Associated Press writes about one such individual. “Mary Shuldt is losing patience. Living at Fort Campbell in the Kentucky lowlands, she wonders how many more times her husband and the 101st Airborne Division will be called to Iraq.

“Our families are being ripped apart,” she said. “When is enough enough?”

John Burns, who just left Iraq after five years as a New York Times correspondent, writes: “My own experience, invariably, was that Iraqis I met who felt secure enough to speak with candor had an overwhelming desire to see American troops remain long enough to restore stability.

“That sentiment is not one that many critics of the war in the United States seem willing to accept, but neither does it offer the glimmer of cheer that it might seem to offer to many supporters of the war. For it would be passing strange, after the years of unrelenting bloodshed, if Iraqis demanded anything else. It is small credit to the invasion, after all it has cost, that Iraqis should arrive at a point when all they want from America is a return to something, stability, that they had under Saddam. For America, too, it is a deeply dispiriting prospect, promising no early end to the bleeding in Iraq.”

Doug Stone is director of College Relations at Macalester College in St. Paul and a former reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune and assistant news director at WCCO-TV. The views in this article are not those of Macalester College.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 03/19/2008 - 03:31 pm.

    When George Bush dragged out his tired old lies on Iraq (those who invaded Iraq in 2003 deposed a tyrant and freed a nation), his Pentagon audience applauded. And I said, good grief.

    For those still in doubt that it IS all about oil, may I refer you to for Greg Muttitt’s 2005 analysis, “Crude Designs,” and a June 2007 report from a large group of respected NGOs who urged Iraq NOT to sign any agreements giving foreign oil companies control of their oil.

    At Foreign Policy in Focus (, see the July 17, 2007 article “Slick Connections: U.S. Influence on Iraqi Oil,” by Erik Leaver and Greg Muttitt, which includes the paper, “Oil Pressure: A History of U.S. Involvement in Iraq’s Oil Development.” It begins with this entry— “Feb-March 2001: White House Energy Taskforce produces a list of ‘Foreign Suitors for Iraq Oilfield Contracts.”

    The “oil law” benchmark is NOT just about sharing revenues. It is much, much more about giving control and most of the profits of all new drilling to U.S. and British oil companies for leases lasting 20-25 years. And, of course, our military needs to be there to protect the companies. Ergo. Bases. Embassy.

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