The Iraq War is the bastard child of American politics. Ten years after it was launched there are few major political figures who can honestly disavow responsibility, but no one wants to step up and own it.
More than 4,000 American servicemen were killed along with 30,000 wounded. The number of Iraqi civilian dead is unknown and highly disputed, but the Pentagon's official tally is more than 75,000. Through the course of the war more than a million Americans served in Iraq and nearly a fifth of them have been treated for mental trauma. A staggering 25 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are living with a service-related disability.
It is very painful, in light of their heavy sacrifice, to confront the issues raised by the war. It is even harder to acknowledge our own collective responsibility. We cannot learn from the Iraq War and move beyond its legacy until we find the courage to confront it with honest eyes.
The problems start with the Bush administration's stated rationale for the war. The invasion was based primarily on the Bush administration's certainty that Saddam was somehow secretly amassing an arsenal of nuclear and biological weapons. To supplement that central accusation, the administration claimed that Saddam was connected to al Qaeda and suggested possible connections between Saddam and the 9/11 attacks.
The claims were not merely false, they were maddeningly unnecessary. There was a credible, honest argument that could have been made for forceful regime change in Iraq.
At the time we were already fighting a war in Iraq, and had been for more than a decade. American warplanes had been dropping bombs on Iraq to defend an awkward no-fly zone imposed in an effort to destabilize Saddam's regime.
Saddam survived the effort and the no-fly zone settled into a war of diplomatic attrition. Saddam terminated weapons inspections, stepped up repression, and presided over the ever-increasing degradation of one of the most important Arab states in the world.
Though the Iraqi weapons program was neutralized by the first Gulf War and never resumed, it was broadly recognized that Saddam would never abandon his goal of developing nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, international patience with the UN-mandated sanctions regime was fading. The sanctions had failed to remove him, but if the sanctions were lifted the programs would resume as quickly as possible. We were trapped in a low-level war which Saddam was slowly winning.
After 9/11, a rogue state in the center of the Arab world was no longer just a foreign policy headache. Saddam Hussein was a direct threat to global security. Saddam had no involvement with 9/11, but the prevalence of regimes like his across the Muslim world had everything to do with 9/11. The global community had little real choice but to seek regime change in Iraq.
President Bush declined to make that complex yet honest argument. Instead, he led America to a war on a campaign of orchestrated deception. When the lies that led to the war became so obvious as to be indefensible, no one in charge apologized. No one resigned in shame. Bush blamed the intelligence community for the error while stubbornly defending his decision to go to war.
The deception that marked the case for was followed by a horrifyingly incompetent reconstruction. Blinded by ideology and dismissive of any intelligent advice, the Bush Administration botched almost every decision it faced. The post-war effort was perhaps the most morbidly absurd nightmare in the history of American foreign affairs.
What was the result of our Mission Accomplished in Iraq?
Iraq today is a partially functional confederation of semi-states, led by an Islamist regime mostly subservient to Iran. We no longer hear about the almost daily terrorist attacks in Iraq because with our troops gone Iraqis are mostly just killing each other. The most likely future involves some form of dissolution in which the Kurds form their own entity to the north while Saudi Arabia and Iran fight it out, either politically, militarily or both, to control the remainder.
Iraqi oil production, however, is at record highs and still growing.
Blaming Bush for the Iraq War is attractive, but disingenuous. The joint resolution authorizing the war passed with strong bi-partisan support, including "yes" votes from Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. After it became undeniably obvious that the reasons for the Iraq War were all false we, the American public, responded by re-electing George W. Bush. The man was not a dictator. He did not act alone. Those Freedom Fries taste pretty bitter going down.
It's no wonder, then, that we are reluctant to wrestle with the painful legacy of the Iraq War. It happened and we share collective responsibility for it. There is little we can do about it now but acknowledge what we did, care for our veterans, and learn from our mistakes.
What lessons should we learn? First, though our military is extraordinarily powerful, there are limits to the utility of force. There is no substitute for the hard work of political persuasion and there are no short-cuts to the creation of a healthy political culture. Also, facts matter. No matter how successful the self-deception, reality will have its revenge in time. Most all, we might learn how important it is that great power is accompanied by greater humility.
Out of respect for those who fought and in memory of those who did not return, let's have the courage to face the Iraq War honestly and the determination to learn from our errors.