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How the Iraq war has changed America

A conflict that was supposed to be a quick in-and-out operation lasted nearly nine years – and has left a deep imprint on the policy of American intervention. 

By Staff writer / December 10, 2011

In this Nov. 1 file photo, U.S. soldiers begin their journey home at al-Asad airbase, west of Baghdad, Iraq.

Khalid Mohammed/AP/File

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Washington

It's called "over the horizon" or remote military intervention – the use of unmanned drones and ship-launched missiles to take out human targets operating in a foreign country without having to put boots on the ground.

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As the United States departs Iraq after more than eight years of war and occupation, the stepped-up use of remote tactics and light-footprint special operations forces – anything but large-scale, troop-heavy intervention – is just one example of the lasting impact the Iraq war launched in March 2003 is having on American foreign policy.

"For some period of time, there will be a post-Iraq hangover that will produce real reticence about conducting any military operation that looks even remotely like Iraq," says Stephen Walt, a professor at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs in Cambridge, Mass. "We aren't going to be undertaking any more lengthy occupations or attempts to refashion the internal politics of a country."

In other words, instead of wars like Iraq they will be narrow-focused, targeted interventions like those in Pakistan and Yemen. "We're going to focus on killing bad guys," Professor Walt says, "not on trying to reshape entire societies."

When President Obama announced in October that all US military forces will be out of Iraq by the end of the year, the statement marked the end of a decade-old effort designed to remake the Middle East in America's image, with Baghdad as its showcase. The Iraq war was the embodiment of the Bush doctrine, the policy of waging preventive war against a perceived threat.

But as the US military leaves Iraq, the heavy costs incurred in a war that was supposed to be over in a few months are what will remain with policymakers setting American foreign- and national-security policy in the years to come. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta marked the president's Iraq announcement by noting that America's troops and their families had borne the heaviest burden and paid the greatest price in the war. Nearly 4,500 troops were killed on Iraqi soil.

Secretary Panetta might also have underscored that the war has cost the US more than $800 billion at a time of deepening deficits. The price tag for Iraq and Afghanistan combined rises to more than $1.2 trillion.

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The high cost of the war in blood and treasure is certainly the central reason the US won't be launching any Iraq-style invasions anytime soon, most foreign-policy specialists say. But there are others, they add, including the perception that, despite the huge investment, Iraq was in many ways an ill-fated venture.

"The US is not going to forget for a while the botched reconstruction effort in Iraq," says Kenneth Pollack, director of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy in Washington. "The lesson is that invasion is the easy part, while reconstruction is very, very hard and takes a major extended effort. And if you're not prepared to do that, then you don't do it at all."

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