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Iraq War in Retrospect: Toppling Saddam Not Worth the Cost

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Iraq war apologists are capitalizing on last week's bombings in Baghdad to blast President Obama for allowing the premature mass exodus of American combat troops from Mesopotamia -- a decision that will purportedly enable Al Qaeda to flourish and cause the people of Iraq endless suffering. But these war lovers miss the forest for the trees, failing to realize the U.S. invasion of Iraq induced Al Qaeda's presence in the first place and has served as the substratum of sectarian violence. In fact, as far as suffering goes, one could argue the U.S. and its allies have killed and maimed more Iraqis over the past two decades than Saddam Hussein ever did.

Neocon Dennis Byrne argued in the Chicago Tribune yesterday that the sacrifices of the Iraq war were well worth the benefits derived from toppling the murderous tyrant, primarily because Saddam would have continued supporting terrorist activities and would still be terrorizing his own people. President Obama, according to Byrne, is in danger of making the entire effort "not worth it" as evidenced by the "rupture appearing between partisan Sunnis and Shiites the day after American peacekeepers left."

Byrne sounds like other revisionist historians who claim there was a connection between Saddam and 9/11, which became the primary argument for the invasion of Iraq after the international community failed to discover WMDs. This, despite the fact an independent joint congressional commission report released in 2003 concluded that U.S. intelligence had zero evidence linking Hussein to the 9/11 attacks or to Al Qaeda. Byrne also seems to forget that Sunni and Shiite "ruptures" did not occur until after the 2003 invasion.

Byrne's dubious benefits fall far short of outweighing the costs incurred in terms of blood and treasure. 4,484 American troops and over 125,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed while the U.S. has spent over $1 trillion on the war to date. Close to 3.5 million Iraqis, out of a population of 31.5 million, are displaced internally or into neighboring states according to Brown's Watson Institute. Neoliberal policies instituted by the US in 2003 have resulted in increased unemployment and insecurity while the agriculture and manufacturing sectors have stagnated. The country's GDP growth has been driven by increases in oil prices that have yet to translate into increases in general welfare as unemployment hovers around 28%.

The concept of America as savior probably strikes many Iraqis as ludicrous in light of not only the most recent invasion and occupation but the crippling sanctions the U.S. levied against Iraq after the first Gulf war. According to Mahmood Mamdani in his book Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, a 2000 UN human rights report acknowledged that the total deaths "directly attributable to the sanctions" ranged "from half a million to a million and a half, with the majority of dead being children."

Byrne's argument that the benefits more than compensate for the lives lost reminds one of Madeleine Albright's mind-rattling assertion on 60 Minutes about sanctions that killed a half million Iraqi children. When asked if the ends justified the means Albright responded: "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price -- we think the price is worth it."

Compare this to some quarter of a million Iraqis Human Rights Watch estimated Saddam's Ba'ath Party murdered or "disappeared" during a quarter of a century. As Munzer A. Khair earlier this year eloquently put it:

One great humanitarian nation, in its declared pursuit of "bringing democracy to Iraq" after failing to find the trumped up WMDs, has dismembered, vandalized and impoverished a proud and rich nation. The unnecessary war it led and its aftermath, regardless of the invading or local perpetrators, displaced, impoverished, jailed, maimed or killed more Iraqis than Saddam Hussein, murderous tyrant as he was, ever did or could have dreamed of doing if he had stayed in power.

Last week Glenn Greenwald quoted former Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich who encapsulated the absurdity of the dilemma: "Recalling that Saddam's weapons of mass destruction and alleged ties to al-Qaeda both turned out to be all but non-existent, a Churchillian verdict on the war might read thusly: Seldom in the course of human history have so many sacrificed so dearly to achieve so little."

Meanwhile the void left by Hussein has been filled by a ruthless powerbroker Yochi Dreazen of the National Journal characterized as "Saddam Lite", as Iraq Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki seems determined to hold onto power by any means necessary and instead of the model of democracy U.S. war planners had envisioned, the Iraq government is in danger of becoming a sectarian autocracy.

Michael Ignatieff from the Council on Foreign Relations concluded that the war was not worth it from the standpoint of international law because it was waged without UN Security Council approval. Not to mention, in light of the successes of the "Arab Spring", Saddam could have faced a similar fate as other dictators in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen. Perhaps the Iraqis could have achieved a better end state left to their own devices without, as Ignatieff put it, "costs that weakened the United States at home and abroad."

Byrne also said "only a fool" would assert the Iraqis were better off with the "stability" that is sustained by a tyrant's brutality and that the U.S. flexing of military muscle yielded the benefit of showing the world "America's willingness to use power in its own interests." Yet Byrne minimizes the costs that accompany such posturing. Little has been said of the relationship between the mammoth expenditures on the Iraq War and America's current economic crisis -- as if there were no constraints on U.S. imperialism whatsoever. The truth is, the fact we have the military might to conquer the world matters not when our economic backbone is on the verge of snapping. As Dwight D. Eisenhower once said: "How far can you go without destroying from within, what you are trying to defend from without?"