The Middle East Channel

Happy anniversary, Iraq War

As the United States and its European allies launch attacks against the regime of Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddhafi, it seems almost poignant that this third military intervention in a Muslim country in the last decade began nearly eight years to the day that the United States invaded Iraq. It is a fitting reminder that even ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

As the United States and its European allies launch attacks against the regime of Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddhafi, it seems almost poignant that this third military intervention in a Muslim country in the last decade began nearly eight years to the day that the United States invaded Iraq. It is a fitting reminder that even as 50,000 soldiers remain in Iraq, and American soldiers continue to be killed and maimed there, the lessons of that disastrous decision to go to war remain largely unlearned by many in the foreign policy community.

At the outset it’s important to acknowledge the key differences in the manner in which these interventions have been undertaken and the differing levels of international and regional legitimacy that they possess. But it is the similarities that are more disquieting. The U.S. has yet again become involved in a military effort of indeterminate length, justified through a questionable definition of national interest and with little forethought to the long-term consequences of utilizing military force. It seems the costs and consequences of Iraq have simply not been fully appreciated by policymakers and pundits. A full accounting is therefore in order.

Eight years after "shock and awe" announced the beginning of an engagement that Americans were told by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld could last "six days, six weeks, I doubt six months," the costs of the Iraq war have been catastrophic for the United States and its allies. As of this writing, 4,439 Americans have been killed and more than 32,000 wounded. The war itself has cost a staggering $750 billion, and economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes have estimated the overall impact on the U.S. economy at over $3 trillion.

While the Iraqi people are thankfully free from Saddam Hussein’s sadistic rule, they have paid a grievous price for their freedom. More than 100,000 Iraqis have lost their lives in the past 8 years, and several times that number maimed. Millions have seen their lives irreparably transformed by tragedy. Counting both refugees and those internally displaced, more than 4.5 million Iraqis have been expelled from their homes and communities. And while violence has surely declined, today it remains a frightening and daily fact of life in Iraq, which continues to endure more terrorist attacks than any other country in the world.

As we now know, the original rationale for invading Iraq — Saddam’s supposedly fearsome WMD programs and his ‘ties’ to al Qaeda — turned out to be false. It’s difficult to argue that one American life was saved or safeguarded by the Iraq intervention. While it is clearly positive that Iraq continues to make halting steps toward democracy, it is worth remembering that the cause of liberty in Iraq was never an initial rationale used by the Bush Administration to justify the invasion. There’s simply no serious strategic calculus by which this outcome was worth the toll paid by the United States.

With the benefit of hindsight we also know now that America’s security interests, instead of being furthered by the war, have suffered. The war and occupation created both a rallying cry and boot camp for international terrorist groups. It strengthened Iran. It weakened America’s moral authority and its global influence. Significantly, it diverted resources and attention from the war in Afghanistan, providing the Taliban and al-Qaeda with a chance to regroup. That Americans soldiers continue to fight and die in Afghanistan against a renewed Talban insurgency is in large part a result of the decision to go into Iraq before the work of stabilizing Afghanistan was done.

Finally, the ex post facto rationale for going to war in order to create a beacon of democracy for the Arab world has been discredited. In fact, the invasion, and the violence that engulfed Iraq in its wake, had the opposite effect. Instability in Iraq became yet another excuse for Arab dictators to resist reform measures. When Hosni Mubarak warned of "chaos" if he were to abdicate, everyone in the region knew to what he was referring. Notwithstanding George W. Bush’s supposed ‘freedom agenda,’ his administration often turned a blind eye to authoritarian abuses out of a need for Arab regimes’ support. And as we’ve seen in recent weeks, the movement toward democratic change in the Arab world can — and probably should – unfold without the direction of outside actors.

Looking back eight years later the US war in Iraq should teach policymakers of the very clear limitations of American military and political power and the consequences of utilizing US military force with uncertain political objectives. It was a humbling lesson that American leaders learned after Vietnam and informed foreign policy and national security decision-making for decades afterward.

But none of this is happening today. The Iraq catastrophe has not led to the sort of national soul-searching that one saw after Vietnam — or that one might expect after a war that so disastrously undermined US national security.

Part of the reason, clearly, is because Americans are no longer dying in the same numbers in Iraq. But the more troubling explanation is that since Iraq seems to be relatively stable (at least as compared to the bloodiest days of its sectarian civil war) many foreign policy elites, particularly those who advocated the invasion, can argue that the war has been won, or at the very least, not lost. The security achievements of the last two years of the war have obscured the litany of miscalculations and delusions that informed the US decision to go to war in the first place. And it has allowed many in Washington to pretend that this costly intervention was simply a failure of execution, rather than of conception.

The elite narrative of the Iraq war tends to focus disproportionate attention on the supposed success of the troop surge in reversing the fortunes of war in 2007 and 2008 — a tidy story that does disservice to a more complex reality — rather than the disaster that preceded it. That surge became a model for the 2009 escalation in Afghanistan, where false assumptions about the benefits of military solutions continue to underpin a failing war effort.

It cannot be re-stated enough that, when one seriously considers the costs and benefits, the lesson of the Iraq War is not how the United States chose to fight it, but rather that the United States chose to fight it at all. It was from this crucial strategic error that all other mistakes followed — something understood far better by the American people than by their leaders. A January CNN poll showed that two-thirds of Americans continue to believe that the Iraq intervention was a mistake. A Fox News poll last week showed an almost identical number are opposed to U.S. military involvement in Libya. And a strong majority opposes the Afghanistan war and wants US troops to begin coming home.

While we recognize that the extent of the Libya intervention differs significantly from Iraq, the lack of debate about what happens after the bombs start falling is eerily reminiscent of where the country was in March 2003 — and even in December 2009 on Afghanistan. We find ourselves again on the cusp of a military intervention/escalation that has no clearly identifiable end state, driven by familiar appeals to American "credibility" — a credibility defined almost entirely in terms of a willingness to use force. Such appeals indicate a defiant ignorance of the fact that the unwise use of force can also dramatically and dangerously undermine America’s credibility. This should be a central lesson of Iraq. Alas, it seems that "shoot first and ask tough questions later" remains our default position.

It does no dishonor to the sacrifice of our dead and wounded to recognize these facts. Indeed, if we don’t want to needlessly add to their number, it is imperative that this anniversary serves as another opportunity to remind ourselves of the extraordinarily serious implications of any military intervention. The consequences of war, and those we ask to wage it on our behalf, deserve no less.

Matthew Duss is the National Security Editor at the Center for American Progress. Michael Cohen is a Senior Fellow at the American Security Project.

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