This month marks the 10th anniversary of the controversial US-led invasion of Iraq. What has that decision wrought over the last decade? More important, was the decision to invade the right one?
On the positive side, analysts point to the overthrow of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, the creation of an elected government and an economy growing at nearly 9 percent per year, with oil exports surpassing their pre-war level. Some, such as Nadim Shehadi of Chatham House, go further, arguing that, while “the US certainly bit off more than it could chew in Iraq,” the US’ intervention “may have shaken the region out of [a] stagnation that has dominated the lives of at least two generations.”
Skeptics reply that it would be wrong to link the Iraq War to the “Arab Spring,” because events in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011 had their own origins, while former US president George W. Bush’s actions and rhetoric discredited, rather than advanced, the cause of democracy in the region. Removing Saddam Hussein was important, but Iraq is now a violent place governed by a sectarian group, with one corruption index ranking it 169th out of 174 countries.
Whatever the benefits of the war, skeptics argue, they are too meager to justify the costs: more than 150,000 Iraqis and 4,488 American service members killed, and an estimated cost of nearly US$1 trillion (not including long-term health and disability costs for some 32,000 wounded US soldiers.)
Perhaps this balance sheet will look different a decade from now, but at this point most US citizens have concluded that the skeptics are right, and that thinking has influenced current US foreign policy. In the next decade, it is very unlikely that the US will try another prolonged occupation and transformation of another country. As former US secretary of defense Robert Gates put it shortly before stepping down, any adviser recommending such action “should have his head examined.”
Some call this isolationism, but it might better be called prudence or pragmatism. After all, former US president Dwight D. Eisenhower refused in 1954 to send US troops to save the French at Dien Bien Phu because he feared that they would be “swallowed up by the divisions” in Vietnam. And Ike was hardly an isolationist.
While a decade may be too soon to render a definitive verdict on the long-term consequences of the Iraq War, it is not too soon to judge the process by which the Bush administration made its decisions.
Bush and his officials used three main arguments to justify invading Iraq. The first tied Saddam to al-Qaeda. Public opinion polls show that many Americans accepted the administration’s word on the connection, but the evidence has not sustained it. Indeed, the evidence that was presented publicly was thin and exaggerated.
The second argument was that replacing Saddam with a democratic regime was a way to transform Middle East politics. A number of neoconservative members of the administration had urged regime change in Iraq well before taking office, but were unable to turn it into policy during the first eight months of the administration. After Sept. 11, 2001, they quickly moved their policy through the window of opportunity that the terrorist attacks had opened.
Bush spoke often of regime change and a “freedom agenda,” with supporters citing the role of US military occupation in the democratization of Germany and Japan after World War II. However, the Bush administration was careless in its use of historical analogies and reckless in its inadequate preparation for an effective occupation.