Ten years ago today, U.S. bombs and missiles were raining down on Baghdad.
It was the second day of America’s “shock and awe” campaign. The lessons from a war that officially ended last year should guide U.S. leaders as they navigate a world that has, if anything, become more complex.
Was the war a mistake? A complete answer may be impossible for years or even decades, but it looks like one.
That’s not to say it had no positive results. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator and an avowed — if impotent — enemy of the United States. He had every incentive to develop nuclear weapons. While the United States was beyond his reach, many U.S. allies and some U.S. troops were vulnerable to his military capabilities.
The removal of Saddam and his government opened a path to democracy for Iraq, another positive, and ended the oppression of the Iraqi people.
Any discussion of the negatives of the Iraq War must begin with the deception that convinced Congress and most Americans to support it. There were no weapons of mass destruction. There was no secretive plot with al Qaida. The administration of former President George W. Bush concocted some pieces of evidence and exaggerated the significance of others. America invaded a sovereign nation that, while full of bluster, presented no threat.
Then comes the cost, most importantly in lives. U.S. families continue to grieve for the 4,448 service members who lost their lives in the Iraq War. Another 3,400 contractors died there. And any claim that the invasion benefited the people of Iraq must be balanced against the stark reality that 134,000 Iraqi civilians — 70 percent of Iraqi casualties — died in the war.
The monetary cost also was dramatic, and has much to do with why Americans fret over the federal debt a decade later. The United States borrowed $2.2 trillion to finance the war. The total cost, with accrued interest, will reach $3.9 trillion. America spent money it did not have on a threat that did not exist.
It’s too early to know other results of the war. Instead of a functioning democracy, Iraqis are embroiled in civil strife and violence. As economic opportunities improve, religious extremism may give way to productivity. A strong negative for U.S. interests is that Iraq was a check on Iranian ambitions. Even more than the United States, Saddam’s Iraq had every reason to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
The lesson of the Iraq War is not just that wars are costly, but that the results are impossible to predict. Americans watch in horror the atrocities in Syria, but intervention could cause more problems than it solves. North Korea and Iran are frightening enemies that, like Saddam’s Iraq, use bellicose rhetoric to unite their people. A clear lesson of the Iraq War is America should focus less on the words of foreign leaders than on a reasoned assessment of the threat.
Any benefit from the Iraq War does not appear to have been worth the cost in lives or money. That knowledge should not turn America into a pacifist nation, but it should remind our leaders that war is a last and tragic result of diplomatic failure.