Today marks the eighth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, one of the biggest blunders in the history of American foreign policy. It takes place in the shadow of the current crisis in Libya, and perhaps provides useful lessons we should consider in tackling that present emergency.
From the standpoints of both basic morality and protecting the national interest, a keystone of any rational foreign policy must be the need to avoid war unless there is no other choice. Not only are wars notoriously subject to careening completely out of control, but the lives of our men and women in uniform should not be put at risk unless absolutely necessary. By launching his war against Iraq, President Bush embroiled the United States in an unnecessary war of choice. Our country is still suffering the consequences.
Here are eight reasons that the Iraq War was an unmitigated disaster which never should have happened, and why we should strive to make sure that nothing like it ever happens again.
1. More than 4,400 Americans have been killed in the Iraq War. While some may point out that these losses are small in comparison to previous American wars (nearly 7,000 Americans died in the Battle of Iwo Jima alone, for instance), this doesn't change the fact that each one of these 4,400 lives was the totality of existence for the person in question, and that their loss will be a source of infinite sorrow for their loved ones for the rest of their lives. The loss of each one of these 4,400 American lives robbed the country of a person with as limitless a potential as any other citizen. What might they have done with their lives, and how much might our country have gained, had they not been sacrificed?
Of course, we would be remiss if we forgot the hundreds of British, Italian, Australian, and other troops who have died in Iraq since the commencement of the war.
2. At least 100,000 Iraqis, and possibly many more, have been killed as a direct result of the American invasion. Reread the above statement, and multiply it many times over.
3. The Iraq War has cost American taxpayers over $900 billion. While the financial cost of the war cannot be compared to the human cost, neither can it be ignored. Every single dollar poured into the conflict was taken from the pocket of a hard-working American, either alive today or yet to be born. And the figure of $900 billion is merely the direct cost; when we factor in the price America will continue paying for many decades in order to properly care for the tens of thousands of wounded soldiers and the interest we shall have to pay on the money we borrowed to finance the war, the price tag of the Iraq War will increase enormously. Indeed, the former chief economist at the World Bank, Joseph Stiglitz, has estimated that the final total cost of the Iraq War could be as high as $3 trillion. Considering our country’s disastrous fiscal situation, these are expenditures that we simply cannot afford.
4. The war was illegal under both American and international law. In 1945, the United States signed and ratified the Charter of the United Nations, the most important treaty in the history of international relations. Article 2 of the treaty clearly states that signatories are forbidden from taking military action against other nations except in self-defense or if the United Nations Security Council has passed an authorizing resolution. Article 6 of the United States Constitution declares international treaties which the United States has signed and ratified to be part of the supreme law of the land. By invading Iraq, which had not attacked the United States and had no intention or ability to do so, our country was betraying the rule of law on which it was founded, undermining both the Constitution and international law.
5. The war badly damaged the international standing of the United States. It may not matter much if the "usual suspects" in the Arab world or China are angry at the United States, but when we lose the respect of the people in countries like France, Germany, Japan, and Canada, we obviously have a very big problem. While President Obama is to be commended for his work at rebuilding America's international standing, it is clear that the international standing of our nation is still much worse today than it was in the aftermath of 9/11. Unilaterally invading other countries is not the behavior of civilized nations.
6. The Iraq War distracted from the campaign in Afghanistan. The campaign in Afghanistan was undertaken in self-defense in response to a direct attack on the United States, and the need to eliminate the Taliban and Al-Qaeda was clear. But the invasion of Iraq robbed the campaign in Afghanistan of the necessary troops and resources required the finish the job there. As a result, American soldiers are still dying in the mountains of Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden remains at large, no doubt continuing to plot against America. Had we not invaded Iraq, it is quite likely that the campaign in Afghanistan could have been brought to a successful conclusion long ago, and it's entirely plausible that Osama bin Laden might have been caught or killed by now.
7. The Iraq War inflamed Muslim public opinion against the United States. Undertaken ostensibly to help rid the world of terrorism, the Iraq War probably made the forces of terrorism even stronger. Episodes like the prisoner torture in Abu Ghraib and the occasional killings of civilians by American servicemen certainly don't reflect the U.S. military as a whole, but that does not matter to the Iraqis and the rest of the Muslim world. Besides, even under the best of circumstances, a foreign occupation of one's country is a humiliating and angering trauma. Every eight-year-old boy who was awoken in the middle of the night by American soldiers breaking down his door and dragging off his father or older brother is a potential suicide bomber in the coming years.
8. The invasion of Iraq ultimately lacked any legitimate purpose. The claims of weapons of mass destruction, which the Bush administration trotted out using words like "proof" and "certainty", was revealed to be absolutely false, showing the decision-makers of the Bush administration to be either incompetent fools or deliberate liars. After all, lest we forget, Iraq had let the U.N. weapons inspectors back into the country months before the invasion, and they were hard at work until forced to leave when it became clear that the United States was going to attack anyway.
Assertions that Saddam Hussein was simply a brutal dictator who needed to be removed from power raise eyebrows in view of the fact that the world is filled with such people: Saudi Arabia, China, Belarus, Burma, Zimbabwe, North Korea, Cuba, and others (many of them, we must shamefully admit, our allies). Shall we cover the world in blood and complete the bankruptcy of our nation by trying to invade and overthrow them all? Besides which, the kelptocratic gang that currently runs Iraq does not seem to be doing a particularly good job at improving the quality of life for the Iraqi people; we seem to have overthrown a dictator only to see him replaced by an Arab version of the Mafia.
Recent events in the Arab world demonstrate conclusively that the Arab people have an intense desire to free themselves from the rule of dictators and to establish democratic governments. But history also demonstrates that democracy cannot be imposed by foreign force of arms. As John Quincy Adams famously said in 1821, the United States “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”
Even as I post this article, it appears that the United Kingdom and France, with support from the United States and other nations, are preparing to take military action against the forces of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in order to prevent him from slaughtering his own people. Before doing so, they carefully built up international support and obtained a resolution authorizing the action from the United Nations Security Council. They appear to be focusing their action in such a way as to minimize the loss of life and have declared that they shall not deploy any occupation forces in Libya itself.
Whether the British and the French will succeed in their endeavour remains to be seen, but it is clear that they have been considering the historical lessons of the disastrous American war in Iraq. And that is a cause for hope.
It is far too soon for history to judge President George W. Bush. But it seems clear that the invasion of Iraq was a disastrous and immoral mistake. We must hold our elected leaders accountable and make sure that nothing of this sort ever happens again.