Lessons from the war in Iraq

Lessons from the war in Iraq

March 20th, 2013 in Opinion Times

The painful irony of another needless American war, the war in Iraq that began 10 years ago today with the televised opening of the "shock and awe" aerial assault of Baghdad, is surely remembered most vividly this week by the tiny fraction of Americans -- barely 1 percent -- who experienced the war firsthand as a member of the military or a close relative of one.

They are the ones who mourn most the 35,000 U.S. casualties and 4,500 lost American lives. They are the ones who grieve over the crippling wounds of traumatic injuries rendered by insurgents' ubiquitous and undetected roadside bombs. Many still struggle with the fracturing of families from multiple tours of duty, and the efforts to recover emotional or financial stability.

Beyond the close fraternity of American veterans, the war's milestone is just another day for most Americans. Few would say they still think consciously of the war's toll in Iraq, where millions were displaced, hundreds of thousands died, and political stability and national recovery are yet to be found.

This disconnect on the decade milestone of the Iraq war may be understandable, but it begs reflection. Measures of the toll of the war, which ended with the U.S. departure from Iraq in December 2011, remain immense and onerous burdens.

The U.S. war in Iraq has ultimately turned the land of a brutal regional tyrant into a Shia Muslim ally of Iran, never mind the war between these two neighboring states in the 1980s that killed 800,000 and prompted the U.S. and other western allies to provide Saddam Hussein chemical weapons that he later used in a massacre of his own people in the Kurdish region.

In addition to the human cost of the Iraq war, it cost the United States more than $1.5 trillion in debt that has not yet been paid. Then there's the accumulating interest on that debt, the unpaid pipeline costs of replacing or refurbishing military equipment lost in the war or given to Iraq, and the ongoing costs of medical care for America's latest generation of wounded warriors.

The war also fomented the sectarian division between Iraq's Sunni and Shia Muslims. That vicious splintering, in turn, now has infected and destabilized surrounding Arab states from Syria to Saudi Arabia, from Bahrain to Yemen. It also has swollen local iterations of insurgents and al-Qaida, and caused unmitigated unrest.

The Obama administration's response has been the same sort of drone attacks in the Middle East that have provoked such a backlash in Pakistan and Afghanistan. These attacks have further undermined America's image and political credibility in the Middle East.

Yet for all this harm, most analysts now correctly see America's war in Iraq as a "war of choice." And, worse, as a mistaken choice based on fraudulently concocted intelligence that was crammed down the nation's throat by President George W. Bush's neo-cons in pursuit of mistaken energy and political policies.

The neo-cons wanted the war in Iraq to end with the United States gaining a new gasoline station to replace Saudi Arabia, then in the process of ousting America's military outposts. They mistakenly believed they could install a puppet government in Iraq headed by the exiled Iraqi National Congress. Indeed, it was the INC's titular head, Ahmad Chalabi, who helped provide the manufactured intelligence by its agent, "Curveball," that claimed Saddam was hiding nuclear weapons.

It was decidedly apparent well before President Bush launched the war, however, that Iraq had no nuclear weapons, no connection to the 9/11 attacks, and no links to al-Qaida. Yet the Bush administration nurtured rumors to the contrary, and it ignored the clear findings of three successive U.N. weapons inspectors that Iraq had no nuclear weapons and wasn't as close to getting them as Iran is today.

Saddam Hussein obviously still retained some rusty chemical weapons stocks from those given him by the United States, Great Britain, France and Germany to aid his long war against Iran. And he surely wanted his untrustworthy neighbors in the Middle East to fear his regime. But the factual evidence was long clear before Bush launched his war that there was no reason for it. The tactical mistakes made later by U.S. commanders -- strict ouster of Baathist party members and the resulting sectarian insurgency -- just added more damage to a needless war.

The costly lessons merit remembrance as much as do the lives and families of America's military and Iraqis' burdens. When Congress' hawks talk loosely of another war, say against Iran, the debacle in Iraq should serve as a cautionary check on reckless bravado and the unanticipated consequences of war.