Taking leave of Iraq

President Obama can be excused for accentuating the positive in an address this week to a military audience at Ft. Bragg, N.C., marking the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. Referring to Saddam Hussein, Obama said: “We remember the early days — the American units that streaked across the sands and skies of Iraq. In battles from Nasiriya to Karbala to Baghdad, American troops broke the back of a brutal dictator in less than a month.”

That’s fine as far as it goes. But almost nine years after President George W. Bush invaded Iraq, it is an earlier, less lyrical comment by Obama that is more to the point. Assailing the war five months before it was launched, Obama, then an Illinois state senator with grand ambitions, said: “I don’t oppose all wars. What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war.”

It takes nothing away from the heroism of U.S. forces to observe that the war in Iraq was the ultimate war of choice, and the choice was a bad one. The George W. Bush administration is largely responsible for the commitment of U.S. forces, which it justified by harping on the alleged presence in Iraq of weapons of mass destruction and insinuating that Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11. But Congress shares the blame. Many Democrats — including Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Hillary Rodham Clinton, but not Sen. Barbara Boxer — supported legislation authorizing Bush to attack Iraq unilaterally.


The result was a bloody and prolonged commitment whose successes — the 2007 “surge” of American forces and the establishment of the highly fragile democracy that is in place today — don’t justify the decision to go to war. Nor does the removal of Hussein. He was a bloodthirsty dictator, but he posed no danger to the United States at the time of the invasion. The impression persists that some neoconservatives in the Bush administration knew as much but still wanted to topple the longtime strongman as a down payment on the democratization of the Middle East. If so, it wasn’t worth the price. Indeed, when the Arab Spring finally arrived early this year, it wasn’t inspired by Iraq’s experience over the last nine years or by any other Western campaign to promote democracy through regime change; rather, it was set off by homegrown protests in Tunisia and Egypt that boiled up from below.

And what was the price of the Iraq war? The death toll for U.S. forces is near 4,500; estimates of Iraqi fatalities vary wildly; 100,000 is a common figure. Some 32,000 Americans have been injured in hostilities. These numbers reflect human suffering of a magnitude not justified by the decision to go to war. That is an unavoidable, if brutal, fact.

That’s the blood. In treasure, the war has already cost $1 trillion, at a time when the United States had other important uses for its money. When you add in future costs, such as ongoing debt service and healthcare costs for injured veterans, that figure will more than double, even if calculated very conservatively, according to political science professor Neta Crawford, coauthor of the “Costs of War” report from the Eisenhower Study Group at Brown University.

Because of a breakdown in negotiations between Iraq and the United States, a planned residual force of 3,000 to 5,000 U.S. troops will not remain in Iraq to train the Iraqi armed services. From a high point of more than 170,000, the U.S. military presence will dwindle to about 200 service members attached to the American Embassy (though private U.S. contractors will provide advice to Iraqi forces).

We join Obama in hoping that the aftermath of the American presence will be a free, democratic and pluralist Iraq, and one that doesn’t ally itself with Iran. But we’re not counting on it. The government the United States is leaving in place is politically riven and close to dysfunctional; the country itself has been physically damaged; and infighting persists between Shiite and Sunni Muslims as well as between Arabs and Kurds. In the months and years ahead, those who are left behind have to agree on how to divide the northern city of Kirkuk and how to share the proceeds from the country’s lucrative but damaged oil fields, among other thorny questions. Could it all work out for the best? Of course. But that outcome is by no means likely.

The decision to go to war or to sit out international events is a difficult one, and there is no simple formula that will tell a country like the United States when it should get involved. But at the very least, the price of the engagement has to be measured against the direness of the threat and against the likelihood of a successful outcome. In the case of Iraq, the miscalculation of those variables was extraordinarily costly.