Not only is there no serious case to be made that, from an American point of view, “the Iraq war was worth it,” the real challenge is evaluating how gigantic a blunder it was. The costs of the war were enormous. The most recent estimates suggest that financially the war has cost the American people $800 billion, and that figure is continuing to grow in spite of the drawdown and end of major military operations. Some economists estimate it may end up costing up to $3 trillion. 4,422 American service personnel were sacrificed in the conflict, and almost 32,000 injured. Estimates of Iraqi fatalities vary wildly, between 100,000 to over 1 million killed during the violence.
The war also cost the United States dearly politically and diplomatically. It revivified a moribund Al Qaeda, and gave the terrorist group a new battle and training ground and rallying point. More broadly, it fed into a paranoid and chauvinistic anti-American narrative that informs far broader swaths of Arab public opinion.
Because the war was seen both at home and abroad by almost everyone as a failed adventure, it undermined American global leadership, particularly as the United States approached the UN Security Council for a resolution permitting the action but did not receive one. It unhelpfully exposed the limitations of American power, and fed an unfair global narrative about American arrogance and even “imperialism.” Indeed, beyond the “coalition of the willing,” there was an international consensus that the action was illegal. The combination of perceived illegality and perceived failure did considerable and lasting damage to American global leadership.
One of the most dramatic and direct consequences, no matter how unintended, of the war was the strengthening of Iran as a regional power. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and its formidable military had been the primary Arab bulwark against a rising Iranian hegemony. Like it or not, we did the regime in Tehran an enormous favor by getting rid of its most potent enemy (after first dispensing with their most hated one: the Taliban of Afghanistan). Iran emerged in the immediate aftermath of the Iraq war as a potential regional hegemon. It is only the complex aftermath of the “Arab Spring” and a new sectarianism in the Middle East that has undone the enormous gains we inadvertently handed the Iranians through the Iraq war.
The immediate goal of the war, the toppling of the foul and brutal dictatorship of Saddam, was successfully accomplished, and in short order. That can only be regarded as a good thing. However, the long-term consequences for Iraqi society remain unclear. The war certainly greatly benefited the Kurdish population in the autonomous regional area in the north, and was, initially at least, welcomed by many Shiites and other Iraqis.
However, it unleashed a process of state disintegration that may or may not have been avoidable but was certainly exacerbated by the way in which the occupation emphasized sectarian, ethnic and communal differences. In particular, the disbanding of the Iraqi military, and an overzealous campaign of “de-Baathification,” created faultlines that continue to reverberate violently in the country. Sixty-five people were killed in bomb attacks in Iraq just yesterday. Yet it is possible, although unlikely, that Iraqis will one day come to a consensus that this war and violence was “worth it” for them, if they emerge in the long run with a free, stable and prosperous society, or set of societies.
But the benefits to the United States are almost impossible to identify. What American policy goal was actually achieved, other than overthrowing a nasty and hostile, but strategically contained, dictator? The answer must be none.
One of the reasons for this total failure to achieve any benefits from such a massive and costly adventure is that its principal proponents in the policymaking and policy-framing communities agreed that the war was necessary, but they never agreed on precisely why. There was an extraordinary range of incongruous, disconnected and sometimes incoherent arguments in favor of the war circulating before the invasion. But it was almost impossible to find any group of advocates of the invasion that had precisely the same hierarchy of priorities. So it was virtually impossible that we would have “succeeded,” beyond the toppling of Saddam, because this was one of those rare major wars in which there was no consensus at all about its primary goal.
Weapons of mass destruction, of course, were most frequently cited, but it was clear at the time that there was every reason to doubt the administration’s claims. And, we quickly discovered, these claims were as false as many of us were convinced they must have been. Given the way that intelligence information was processed and presented to the public, there is every reason for the American people to feel that they were deliberately misled by some key elements of the Bush administration regarding Iraqi WMDs.
There were numerous, and patently ridiculous, attempts, including by Vice-President Dick Cheney, to link Iraq to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Others argued that even though Iraq was obviously not involved in the attacks, the United States needed to make a show of strength in the region in response and this was a perfect opportunity to do that. Some endorsed the war as a human rights measure, and as a debt owed to both Kurds and Shiites from previous American engagements with Iraq. Others suggested it was necessary to secure American dominance in the oil-rich Persian Gulf region. Some even argued that overthrowing Saddam would be the key to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
A further central claim was that the United States could establish a democracy in Iraq that would transform the political culture of the region. Some have even tried to suggest that the “Arab Spring” uprisings against Arab dictatorships are some kind of delayed reaction or long-term impact of the transformation in Iraq. Almost no Arabs believe this, because almost no one in the Arab world looks to Iraq as a success story to be emulated.
Indeed, the main impact of the Iraq war on the crucial turning point in the birth of the “Arab Spring” was the training and experience that many of the most important young activists in the uprising against Hosni Mubarak got during their protests against the Iraq war. So, if there is any correlation between the Iraq war and the democratic uprisings, it has its origins in opposition to the war rather than inspiration from it.
Ten years on, it’s clear that the Iraq war was enormously costly to the United States at almost every conceivable register and produced virtually no benefits. It now appears to have been such a colossal miscalculation that it is a very plausible candidate for the worst major strategic blunder in the history of the Republic.