Ten years ago, the United States invaded Iraq. To be completely accurate, the U.S. led an international coalition to invade Iraq, but the moving force behind that decision and the overwhelming bulk of the forces came from Washington D.C.
Operation Iraqi Freedom was a success if success is defined excruciatingly narrowly as the removal of Saddam Hussein from power. By every other standard, it was a failure.
Yet — or perhaps because of that — this outcome remains only an afterthought for governments around the world, and nowhere more so than in the U.S.
It took the U.S., with its vaunted “shock and awe” campaign, less than six weeks — from March 20, 2003, to April 30, 2003 — to defeat Hussein. Baghdad fell in half that time.
U.S. President George W. Bush, with the showmanship that dominated his administration, arrived in a flight suit on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1 to declare the end of the war and “Mission Accomplished” (a message that his government spent the next five years disavowing).
Fighting continued against what then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld referred to as the “dead enders” loyal to Hussein to the end. The dictator himself would remain on the run until he was discovered in a hole in the ground in December. He was tried, found guilty and executed by the Iraqi government three years later on Dec. 30, 2006. The war officially ended Dec. 15, 2011, more than eight years after it began.
To say the war is over is to take liberties with the word “war.” Violence in Iraq peaked in 2006 after the “surge,” but killing and mayhem continue to this day. Last week, on the anniversary of the war’s beginning, a series of bombings across Baghdad killed 56 people and wounded more than 200 others. Yet, the U.S. is determined to get out of Iraq and many, if not most, Iraqis are eager for them to go.
Ten years on, an accounting is due. The costs of the war are high. Some 4,500 U.S. soldiers lost their lives, while more than 300 coalition soldiers were killed. More than 32,000 soldiers were injured. Iraqi losses remain unknown, but estimates suggest that nearly 70 percent of all casualties were Iraqis, the overwhelming majority of those civilians.
Most estimates put the number of Iraqi lives lost at over 100,000; in one case as high as 600,000 lives. The economic cost of the war is reckoned to be in the trillions of dollars.
Those figures are horrific and tragic, but they tell only part of the story. Great damage has also been done to the legitimacy of governments and their leaders, mostly to the U.S. but to others as well —including former British Prime Minister Tony Blair — and to the international system itself.
For the Iraqi War was built on a foundation of deceit and willful ignorance, and incredibly, those who lied have not been held accountable and paid almost no price.
The most egregious lie was the claim that Hussein had or was about to acquire weapons of mass destruction. He may have sought such weapons at one time, but he had abandoned that effort years earlier, and all evidence to the contrary was dismissed.
Today, when challenged, the architects of war say they were not alone in that belief, which is true, but no government pressed that case as hard as Washington.
Nor was any other government more credulous of the evidence than Washington.
In retrospect, administration officials conceded that the WMD claim was the only one that could serve as a rallying point for action. The truth of that position was secondary.
Other lies included the claim that U.S. troops would be greeted as liberators, that the war would pay for itself, that invasion could be done on the cheap with a handful of forces, and that foreign forces could impose democracy on a shattered country.
As each claim was exposed as false — with the truth demonstrated to have been ignored because it was inconvenient — the standing of the U.S. shrank and its power and influence diminished.
Only a few years ago, all it took to undermine any idea was U.S. endorsement of it. Washington was viewed as an arrogant superpower, determined to reshape the world in its image and indifferent to the consequences of its actions.
The decline in U.S. moral authority has been accelerated by the precarious state of its finances. For the first time in history, a country marched to war without bothering to pay for it. Instead, Mr. Bush insisted on tax cuts and urged Americans to shop, rather than sacrifice.
The result has been a precarious fiscal situation that was compounded by the financial crisis at the end of his second term, a crisis created by an equally laissez faire attitude toward financial regulation.
Again, U.S. credibility has been badly damaged.
The era of the American superpower is not yet over. The U.S. has demonstrated great resilience in the past. A determination among its political leadership — not yet evident — to work for national, rather than partisan, advantage can help restore the country’s fortunes, economic and political.
But the rehabilitation process also demands a reckoning of what happened when the U.S. went to war. Not in Iraq, but in Washington. How did the system of checks and balances go so wrong? How did the U.S. unite so completely around a position that was so flawed?
Ten years later, no answers are forthcoming. Worse, it almost appears as though the U.S. does not want to know.