For the past few months, a strange thing has been happening in the central Iraq town of Fallujah. Thousands of citizens, virtually all of them Sunni Muslims, have been gathering in public squares to protest the oppressive Shiite-led government in Baghdad. Sleeping in tents and wielding Twitter feeds and YouTube accounts, the young Sunnis have attempted to take democracy, and a certain sectarian disaffection, into their own hands.
It's not quite the Iraqi Arab Spring -- although that's what it's been tentatively called by some -- but it is a reminder of the stark failure of nearly a decade of American-led warfare in that country.
When President George W. Bush announced the invasion into Iraq in March 2003, the goal was to remove a dangerous dictator and his supposed stocks of weapons of mass destruction. It was also to create a functioning democracy and thereby inspire what Bush called a "global democracy revolution."
The effort was supposed to be cheap -- to require few troops and even less time. Instead, it cost the United States $800 billion at least, thousands of lives and nearly nine grueling years (see the graphic below for a further breakdown of various costs).
The toll on the people of Iraq were even greater. A decade of war left chaos and impoverishment, hundreds of thousands of citizens dead and millions more displaced, and a vicious sectarianism that still threatens to rip the country apart at the seams. The government of Nouri al-Maliki, which has reportedly interfered with independent government bureaucracies and ordered the arrest of his Sunni vice president on trumped-up terrorism charges, often rules in a manner more befitting the autocrat the U.S. invaded to remove.
"Here is a country that's being liberated," proclaimed Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld a few days into the invasion, even as the first signs of the chaos to come began to stir. "Here are people that are going from being repressed and held under the thumb of a vicious dictator, and they're free."
Instead, today in Fallujah, the site of two of the war's largest and most devastating military campaigns, the very best that can be said is that two years late to the party -- not 10 years early -- the Arab Spring has arrived. But the government the people are rising up against is the very one the U.S. installed.
What does it mean to say that the war in Iraq was a wasted effort? Last month, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction filed a final report that found $8 billion of U.S. development aid had been "wasted outright," in the words of Wired magazine.
But nearly eight times as much money -- $60 billion -- was spent rebuilding the country on the whole, with very little to show for it.
And more than 10 times that amount -- $800 billion -- was spent on the mission overall, a boondoggle that left more than 4,000 American service members dead, 32,000 more wounded, and an authoritarian government in place that is little better -- and possibly, owing to its closer ties to Iran, worse -- than the one that was taken out.
Was any of that money wasted? Was any of it not?