The Politics of War

05/24/2015 02:10 pm ET | Updated May 24, 2016

This Memorial Day the nation remembers all those people who died while serving in the American armed forces. More than 1,316,000 military personnel have died during military conflicts in this nation's history.

The mission of the U.S. military is to fight and win our nation's wars. The U.S. has the most powerful military in the history of the world, but it should not be utilized as a political tool or for retribution. The government and its leaders must do their best to make the right decisions, to be truthful with the American people, and to provide all the necessary support needed to fulfill the military's mission. Unfortunately, this has not always been the case.

Following the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush began to plan a response. Vice President Dick Cheney and neocon members of the administration, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, immediately set their sights on Saddam Hussein, Iraq's tyrannical ruler. They were disappointed that Hussein had not been toppled during the first Gulf War in 1991. Soon the administration made the claim that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, and that Hussein was linked to the terrorist group al-Qaeda.

But the Bush administration was cherry picking raw intelligence, much of which was unverified. The "evidence" against Hussein was presented to Congress, which on October 11, 2002, passed the Joint Resolution to Authorize the Use of United States Forces Against Iraq. In early 2003 the British and Spanish governments proposed a UN resolution that gave Iraq a deadline for compliance with previous resolutions on WMDs or face military actions. The resolution was withdrawn because France, Germany, Canada and Russia were opposed to military action; instead they called for further diplomacy. In early March, Chief UN Weapons Inspector Hans Blix said that progress had been made with the inspections and no WMDs had been found in Iraq.

The administration, which rejected Blix's assessment, began making the case for war to the American people. In February, President Bush conducted a series of interviews with news organizations, including the Spanish-language channel Telemundo. I was the head of news for Telemundo at that time, and I was present for our session. The president told Telemundo's Pedro Sevcec that he had not made a decision to go to war. Following the interview, I asked the president, "What about Jacques Chirac?" referring to the French president. President Bush swatted me on the shoulder with the back of his hand and said dismissively, "Oh, he'll come around." I thought, "We're going to war."

The American invasion of Iraq began on March 20. Vice President Cheney had predicted that we would be greeted as liberators. He was wrong. The Iraqi forces were quickly defeated, but the administration mismanaged the occupation. The Ba'athist government had collapsed, Hussein's military was disarmed, and a power vacuum ensued. Sectarian violence broke out between the Shias and the Sunnis. U.S.-backed Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, became Prime Minister in 2006, but his government alienated the country's Sunni minority.

In 2007 President Bush implemented a troop surge in Iraq. By adding 20,000 additional U.S. troops, primarily in capital city Baghdad, the president hoped to buy time for reconciliation among the factions. The situation on the ground stabilized, but Sunnis still distrusted the Maliki government.

In 2008 the Bush administration negotiated a Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq granting U.S. troops in the country legal immunities with the understanding that the troops would be withdrawn by 2012. When negotiations began to extend U.S. military presence, only a smaller number, Maliki and various Iraqi party leaders agreed to the extended troop deployment but did not want to continue the legal immunities. These immunities are a condition everywhere U.S. troops are based.

Some critics said President Barack Obama could have done more to secure the legal immunities, but that is debatable. In an interview on CBS News' Face the Nation Sunday, U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) once again claimed that an agreement could have been reached with Maliki through negotiations. Nonetheless, President Obama withdrew American combat troops and fulfilled a campaign promise.

The Maliki government collapsed in 2014. In the summer of 2014, ISIS, an Islamic terrorist group that had been incubating for more than a decade in Syria, launched a military offensive in northern Iraq and declared an Islamic caliphate. ISIS, which is Sunni, has slaughtered thousands of people in its expansion in the region. But many Iraqi Sunnis find ISIS preferable to the Shiite government in Baghdad.

Iraq under Hussein had served as a counterbalance against Iran, its bitter enemy. With Hussein gone, Iran, a Shiite country, began working closely with the Shiite government in Baghdad. Iran's influence in the region has grown, especially with the spread of ISIS. Iraq is in turmoil, and it is unlikely that all the factions, including the Kurds in the north, will come together again.

The Iraq War has been costly. More than 4,500 members of the U.S. military have been killed since the invasion. Hundreds of thousands of casualties have been suffered by Iraqis. Two years ago the "Costs of Wars" project, part of the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, estimated that the Iraq War had already cost America more than $2 trillion. And many veterans of Iraq who have returned home are unemployed, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or have committed suicide.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney and many Republican presidential candidates blame President Obama for today's chaos in Iraq and the region. Yet these candidates do not offer a plan or a solution. In fact, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum recently said, "If these folks [ISIS] want to return to a 7th-century version of Islam, then let's load up our bombers and bomb them back to the 7th century." ISIS and Iraq have turned into political fodder for the Republican base.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq (and subsequent mismanagement by the Bush administration) is the biggest mistake the U.S. has made since Vietnam. It has led to a series of unintended and disastrous consequences. And there is no light at the end of this tunnel for America.

Perhaps the architects of the Iraq War should have heeded the counsel of their spiritual leader, President Ronald Reagan. In a 1985 Veterans Day speech he said, "We endanger the peace and confuse all issues when we obscure the truth."