This week is the fifteenth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War, an illegal intervention that continues to immiserate millions. The war is a moral wrong and a criminal act, which condemned the war and its proponents long before the first munitions claimed their first victims. By the time the consequences of the war unfolded, they should have been damned irrevocably. The hideous fruits of the Iraq War – the human suffering, the interminable and metastasizing violence, the wanton squandering of wealth, corruption, outright looting, the hundreds of thousands or more Iraqi and over 4800 coalition dead before the initial 2011 withdrawal – are not the product of some unforeseen twist of fate. They fell well within the predictions and warnings of its opponents, offered openly at the time.
Yet within the conventional wisdom of the Washington national security establishment, to have aligned yourself with the most stridently anti-war voices in 2002 and 2003 remains a similar or greater discredit to your character and continued professional suitability than having planned or advocated the war itself. Too many of the policymakers who pushed for or voted for the Iraq War remain not only in office or positions of influence, but relied upon as key figures in national security legislation. Too many of the supposed experts who ginned up the Iraqi threat and bungled the war’s execution remain trusted fonts of strategic wisdom. Too many of the journalists and commentators who pushed dubious information and waged a propaganda campaign against the war’s opponents remain trusted voices in today’s debates. Until there is accountability suitable for the magnitude of the wrong, there is little chance of an authentically left policy, or any firm departure from the miserable Washington national security consensus, successfully breaking free of malign institutions and their tired dogmas.
The consequences for Iraqis are sufficient to justify such a de-neoconification of the national security establishment. In the fog of war and chaos of state collapse, there is no certain estimate of the Iraqi lives lost. The most conservative estimates, based on body counts, attribute at least a hundred thousand to direct acts of violence alone, other estimates incorporating survey methods and accounting for the degraded humanitarian conditions inevitable after toppling a government suggest the U.S. invasion bears responsibility for more than a million deaths. This is to say nothing of the millions more Iraqis harmed in other ways, whether maimed by coalition bombs or insurgent IEDs, humiliated or tortured in detention centers, traumatized by violence they survived, or forced to flee their hometowns or even their country entirely.
Nor can these figures account for the other failures of the occupying armies to fulfill the basic obligations of the regime they toppled, as an extractive but stable dictatorship gave way to anarchic looting (of Iraq’s material and cultural wealth both) and then the bureaucratized, business-clothed plunder of the incompetent and corrupt reconstruction authorities before leaving behind a weak democracy incapable of reining in a new generation of petty criminals and predatory officials. Also stolen was the chance, however imperfectly, for countless Iraqis opposed to both Saddam and foreign invasion to someday define their own future.
Justifying these years of human beings laid to waste at marketplaces and mosques, gunned down by unaccountable security contractors or foreign troops raiding the wrong house, beheaded and mutilated by sectarian terrorists, were a series of lies and self-delusions propagated from some of the highest levels of American political and intellectual authority. Best remembered and most thoroughly disproven is the claim that Saddam’s recalcitrant dealings with international inspectors (most likely intended to exaggerate his military capabilities to Iran) disguised an active Weapons of Mass Destruction program, one which he would inevitably use against Western populations. The inability to produce a “smoking gun” was justified because the alternative was supposedly a “mushroom cloud,” although this did not stop the U.S. government from attempting to haphazardly slap together evidence in speeches to the United Nations or ad hoc offices designed to circumvent existing intelligence processes.
To accentuate the danger from these supposedly existentially threatening military capabilities, Iraq War advocates likened Saddam to Hitler, insisting that any leader so cruel as to use chemical weapons on his own people and who had launched failed invasions of neighbors in the past was destined to cause even more damage in the future without a preventive war. That the West and its allies had ably repulsed Iraq little more than a decade ago did not stop dire predictions about the Iraqi military threat. Even if the U.S. had already demonstrated its ability to check Iraqi expansionism, grim scenarios appeared by which Saddam would pass on WMD to al Qaeda affiliates and perhaps had even supported the 9/11 attacks.
To further buttress the moral case for attacking Iraq, and particularly to discredit the anti-war left, many Iraq War advocates insisted that removing the dictatorial Ba’athists was a moral imperative, and that the U.S. had an obligation to deliver Iraq from totalitarian rule by instituting a peaceful, stable, economically and politically liberal democracy. Post-war Iraq would also help inoculate the Islamic world against jihadist ideology by demonstrating the superiority of the “global democratic revolution” that would drain the ideological swamp of anti-American hatred. This would, of course, have strategic benefits, as the grateful new republic would become a bastion of U.S. influence against Iran and al Qaeda.
We know now that there was to be no bastion of influence, as Iranian special forces and intelligence services took advantage of Saddam’s fall to support a large network of militia allies, and as the Sunni jihadist groups Saddam’s security services had tolerated as potential tactical assets thrived on their own in the post-war chaos. Rather than securing the U.S. against terrorism, the invasion put coalition troops in the line of fire from various insurgent groups and jihadists for years. There was no elaborate active WMD program, but there were decaying stocks of Saddam’s previous programs that would be used in crude IEDs against U.S. soldiers, or fall into the Islamic State’s hands to be used in its later campaigns in Iraq and Syria. The fledgling Iraqi democracy struggled to control spiraling violence and restore the services of a devastated government, becoming a resource sink that demanded massive amounts of material and financial support. Rumsfeld, of course, had mocked those who thought the U.S. would spend even “one billion” in Iraq, and many Iraq War advocates breathlessly predicted that Iraq’s oil resources would let the war pay for itself or even profit the U.S., a concept that still intrigues the current president.
Even most of the unrepentant advocates of invading Iraq now must admit how disastrous the execution of the war post-invasion was, in part because it was a war they never expected to spend much time fighting. Beyond the laughable notion that coalition “liberators” would not experience significant insurgent resistance to occupation, they failed to foresee the spiraling violence and struggle of power that toppling Saddam unleashed. Inept coalition authorities and militants jockeying for popular support and influence aggravated and hardened sectarian identities. Some Sunni Arabs, resentful of U.S. invasion and fearful of what a new Shia majoritarian or Iran-dominated Iraq might mean for their political influence and security, would provide fertile recruiting ground for increasingly influential radical groups. Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the most infamous of these violent entrepreneurs, quickly seized upon the notion that he could build support for his jihadist project by aggravating sectarian bloodshed and forcing Sunnis to line up alongside their most militant coreligionists.
Rather than dealing a blow to regional jihadism, Iraq became a focal point for regional sectarian conflict. Out of war’s crucible came militant groups far more potent than their predecessors. Zarqawi’s small jihadist outfit became al Qaeda in Iraq and later the Islamic state, eventually gaining the strength and influence to carve out a transnational caliphate. A panoply of Shia Arab militias also formed, many (though far from all) with ties and shared political interests with Iran. Sunni Gulf states provided backing to various Iraqi Sunni elites and their affiliated armed groups to check their Shia counterparts. Foreign fighters eager to meet the U.S. and its allies on the battlefield also came to Iraq from Libya, Syria, and other states across the region. Iraq War supporters fancifully posited a “flypaper theory,” that the militant influx targeting the occupiers and preying upon Iraqis would weaken jihadist groups’ ability to operate in other countries and attack Western states at home.
But rather than depleting an imaginary fixed stock of anti-American militants, war in Iraq, like Afghanistan in previous decades, helped militant groups develop international ties and gain valuable combat experience. Iraqi-based insurgent groups conducted attacks in Jordan, Syrian ratlines helped insurgents conduct Iraqi operations. When Syrian protests and repression erupted into civil war, veterans of Iraqi fighting helped launch al Qaeda’s franchise in Syria and Iran-backed Iraqi militias helped the regime carry on its campaigns against rebel groups. While far from the sole cause of the Syrian civil war, personnel and materiel from Iraq, and radical sectarian ideologies exacerbated by years of war, were key enablers of some of its most brutal actors. The Islamic State recovered its strength in Syria before shocking the world with its city-seizing offensives in Iraq and declaring an overt transnational caliphate that would draw the U.S. military back into Iraq and then into Syria. While the fighting never ended for the Iraqis, the Iraq War’s ugly contributions to Syria stymied U.S. hopes that 2011 would mark the end of its Mesopotamian misadventure.
Though the costs Iraqis and other regional populations face tower over those for the U.S., the American costs remain grave in and of themselves – 4,497 U.S. dead, and over 30,000 wounded, all for a war the U.S. never should have fought. These costs will live with us for a long time – in addition to the billions spent on the war itself (a difficult figure to precisely gauge, given the budgetary chicanery of using the OCO account to shield actual spending on the conflict), the United States will need to provide healthcare to those wounded in a war of choice. To wit, Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes noted in March 2013 that the total cost only on disability and medical benefits provided to veterans of the post-9/11 wars will equal $970.4 billion. Stiglitz and Bilmes estimate that the total cost to the country from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will total between $4 and 6 trillion. And though Afghanistan undoubtedly takes up a significant chunk, one can assume that the lion’s share is composed of spending on the war in Iraq.
All the while the U.S. committed billions of dollars in public resources and put countless thousands of lives into this battlefield, it struggled to meet other challenges at home and abroad. It continued to wage another war in Afghanistan. It neglected and bungled aid to millions of its own citizens, particularly poor and black ones, as Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast. All the while, the Republican government that lashed out at anti-war critics with nationalistic charges of disloyalty refused to ask the rich for any financial burden shouldering its war and cut taxes instead. A threat so pressing and horrible as to demand preventive war was apparently insufficient to justify inconveniencing the typical conservative pro-business agenda. The consequence was not just a moral farce, but, as Thomas Oatley argues, the borrowing it necessitated contributed to the macroeconomic trends that ultimately brought about the housing crisis and the Great Recession. But even if this was not the case, every dollar spent was a dollar wasted on an unnecessary war, reducing a country to ruins and then trying to build it back up again, a war that made no American safer but cost thousands their lives.
When liberal hawks misunderstood Iraq, they also misunderstood that they were pumping Bush’s war and that someday it would be Trump’s war. It is inherently irresponsible to entrust a global empire of any kind to a country this volatile and with leaders this willfully uninformed about the world. Some of these voices now fret that U.S. conventional and nuclear power, and along with it the full arsenal of rhetorical justification for waging wholly voluntary wars with limited public debate and legislative oversight, are in the hands of an administration whose judgment and competency they distrust.
However welcome their latter-day skepticism about offensive wars against the regimes they intended to put on notice when they told the Iraqis to “suck on this,” a Washington where they and their unflinchingly hawkish cobelligerents had at the very least been forced into penitent isolation would be far less likely to be glimpsing over the abyss of a nuclear war in North Korea or charting a course to abandon arms control with Iran. People responsible for this should not be able to set the parameters of future engagement with the world, nor have any say in the process of diplomacy. At a basic level, we should demand a foreign policy establishment that is both untainted by this crime and committed to never letting anything like it happen again.