The Iraq war: still a massive mistake
The Iraq war is now being declared a success by some who point to recent progress. But the March 7 elections won’t change the tremendous cost in lives, money, US image, and geopolitics.
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People of the region are well aware of Washington’s policies toward Iraq in the decades preceding 9/11. Policymakers tacitly supported the Baath Party’s suppression of the Iraqi Communist Party in 1963, and helped restore the Baathists to power after a takeover by pro-Nasser Arab nationalists in 1968. From 1980 to 1988, during the Iran-Iraq War, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency gave Hussein battle-planning assistance, satellite imagery, tactical planning for airstrikes, and information on Iranian deployments.Skip to next paragraph
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As The Economist detailed last fall, torture became routine under the US-supported Maliki regime. Hussein-era tactics of censorship are also reemerging. The government announced plans to censor imported books and the Internet, and rescind the protective anonymity of e-mailers and bloggers. These repressive policies are quite similar to those imposed by yet another US-supported dictator in the region: Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. As modern-day Egypt and now Iraq demonstrate, countries with procedural elections yet devoid of liberal norms can merely be Potemkin villages masquerading as democracies.
A fourth consequence of the war in Iraq – and one that should determine whether it is deemed a “success” – is that it did little to keep America safe from Al Qaeda, the perpetrators of 9/11. In this respect, what makes “Bush’s war” in Iraq arguably one of the biggest strategic blunders in US history is not just the litany of failures it caused but the opportunities America lost. The disaster in Iraq diverted badly needed intelligence assets, public attention, and congressional oversight from the forgotten war in Afghanistan.
Maybe that’s why two GOP members of Congress who recently visited the Cato Institute in Washington revealed that most Republicans on the Hill now believe the Iraq war was a mistake. They also said that “more than half the Republican caucus” believes the way the US began the Afghanistan war was a mistake. Today, polls show that most Americans say the invasion of Iraq was a “mistake” and “not worth it.”
As defenders try to argue that the war was justified, the most important lesson we must take away is not that more troops, better tactics, and improved cooperation can produce success the next time around. Rather, it is that wars have the potential to expose the limits of military power and armed interventions should be undertaken only when absolutely critical to a nation’s security.
Seven years later, let’s hope Americans have learned the right lessons. Let’s hope, too, that fortunes in the Middle East will turn for the better, not just for the US and its tarnished prestige, but for the millions of innocent civilians uprooted by conflict.
Malou Innocent is a foreign-policy analyst at the Cato Institute.