Those who have lived through the Iraq war have never been certain whether they were at the beginning, middle or end of hostilities. Preparations for the U.S.-led invasion began well before the March 2003 launch of “shock and awe.” American forces toppled Saddam Hussein within weeks, but rather than bringing an end to the combat as expected, the collapse of the regime and subsequent dismantling of the Iraqi army gave rise to an insurgency and brutal sectarian conflict. Now, as the United States formally concludes its combat role on Aug. 31, it is time once again to ask: What was the U.S. mission in Iraq, and what was accomplished?
Hussein was a ruthless dictator whose henchmen tortured the political opponents they didn’t execute. He invaded Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990. He tried to build nuclear weapons, and he used chemical weapons against Iran as well as against his own citizens, killing at least 5,000 Kurds in Halabja alone in March 1988. All told, more than 180,000 Kurdish men, women and children were slaughtered in his Anfal campaign in the north. Meanwhile, the regime drained marshes and starved hundreds of thousands of Shiite Arabs out of the south. These were horrible crimes committed over decades, many of them long before President George W. Bush decided to seek a “regime change.” But did they warrant a U.S. invasion?
The Bush administration made the decision to go to war in Iraq in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks that were plotted by Al Qaeda from Afghanistan and carried out by Saudis, not by Iraqis. It offered many reasons for turning its sights on Iraq. First, Bush made the radical case that the attacks in the United States justified preemptive strikes against potential threats to Americans. He said it was necessary to disarm Hussein, who allegedly was hiding a program to develop weapons of mass destruction in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. The administration claimed a connection between Hussein and Al Qaeda and warned that Hussein could provide the terrorists with WMD. Neoconservative ideologues added that removing Hussein would open the way for a democratic government in Iraq and have a ripple effect throughout the Middle East — domino democracy — that would stabilize the region.
Opponents of the war ascribed other motives to Bush: He sought to “finish the job” for his father, who stopped short after driving Hussein out of Kuwait in the Persian Gulf War, or, as many Iraqis believed, he wanted to get his hands on Iraqi oil.
At least 4,415 American troops died in combat, and tens of thousands were wounded. Iraqi casualties have been harder to count. The Iraq Body Count’s website puts the civilian death toll between 97,000 and 106,000; hundreds of thousands were wounded, and many others displaced, forced into exile. The Bush administration initially calculated that the war would run $50 billion. Seven years later, the bill is tallied at about $750 billion, and nearly as much likely will be needed to tend to the physically and psychologically wounded service members who have returned. By any measure, the price has been high in blood and treasure, and in the damage to American moral authority.
From the beginning, this page argued against the war, saying the administration had failed to prove that Hussein had WMD or a connection to the 9/11 perpetrators. Then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld famously responded to skeptics by asserting that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” The administration pointed to suspect aluminum tubes and alleged mobile bio-laboratories, and went to war despite the opposition of most of its allies and without United Nations approval.
After the fall of Hussein, it quickly became clear that the administration had been seeing things it wanted to find rather than finding the truth. There were no WMD; no 9/11 plotters in Iraq. Bush had taken the country to war on false pretenses. The United States was not safer after the war, because there had been no imminent threat before it. Arguably, Americans were more at risk. Al Qaeda exploited Iraqi resentment of U.S. troops, who were viewed as occupiers rather than liberators by much of the Muslim world. Abuses committed by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison fanned anger and anti-Americanism. Though Al Qaeda was not a force in Iraq before the war, it was after. And rather than stabilizing the region, the war shook a strategic balance. Hussein’s Sunni regime had served as a useful if unsavory counterweight to the Shiite government of Iran.
After the invasion, Tehran began to hold sway over the Shiite majority that rose to power in Iraq, as U.S. prestige dimmed with its failure to deliver security, electricity and stability. This page supported the U.S. troop “surge” as a way to pacify the country, allow an Iraqi government to assume power and bring an end to the war. But the country is still unstable. Now, as the U.S. draws down its forces, its influence is waning, and Iran is just one of the neighbors jockeying to fill the void.
Hussein was captured, tried in an Iraqi court and hanged. Iraqis today have greater freedoms of expression and political organization, markedly free and fair elections, and a more open economy. And yet they have traded Hussein’s well-ordered tyranny for the chaos of sectarian violence — quotidian bombs, assassinations and civilian bloodshed.
Democracy has not taken firm root in Iraq, let alone spread across the Middle East as the neoconservatives predicted. This spring’s election produced a deadlocked parliament that has been unable to form a new government; Shiite leaders don’t agree with one another on a leader, much less with Kurds and Sunnis. Seven years after the fall of Hussein, they have yet to figure out how to share power, land and the country’s oil wealth.
So while many Iraqis say they are relieved the Hussein regime is gone, others say toppling the dictator wasn’t worth the pain, and some even long for another strongman to restore calm. Many Iraqis and Americans fear the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops will not mark the end of the Iraq war serve as the prelude to a civil war that spills over borders and throughout the region. That would be a colossal disaster.
Iraq may recover. Its sectarian communities may overcome centuries of distrust and violence and find a way to unite the nation. But if they do so, it will be to the credit of the Iraqi people, and will be despite the U.S. occupation, not because of it. The war can be considered a victory in just one sense: It removed Hussein. In all other respects, the war in Iraq was a misadventure that compromised U.S. national interests, and was too costly for too little return.