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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. 

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One way the high financial cost of the Iraq war will shape Washington over the next generation is in spending on defense: It will limit America's options for modernizing the military.

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"The Iraq war put a great burden on the Treasury, and contributed significantly to the perilous financial situation we are in today," says James Lindsay, director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "And that will mean ramifications well into the future, even as we need new planes, new ships, new weapons systems – all of which cost a lot of money."

Yet as significant as the "direct" cost of the Iraq war might be, Mr. Lindsay says that the "indirect" costs on US foreign policy may be even more consequential. In particular, he says, Iraq absorbed America's attention when it should have been focused on China's emergence as a global power.

"I don't want to come across as believing that every failing in US foreign policy stems from the Iraq war, because that's not the case," he says. "But the war was certainly a contributor to a bad habit we have of fixating on one thing and not responding to the major global transformation going on – in this case the rise of China."

Not only Iraq, but also the war in Afghanistan – now entering its second decade – has contributed to the US preoccupation with a region that is not likely to play a significant role in its future prosperity. As GOP presidential aspirant Jon Huntsman Jr. is fond of telling his audiences, "Our future is not in the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan."

Having been consumed by Iraq for the better part of a decade, Lindsay says, the US is now left to play catch-up in a region that will weigh heavily in its future well-being – East Asia. But it will now have to do so, he adds, from an economically weakened condition and with an intervention-weary public wanting to withdraw from the world.

Even some ardent supporters of the invasion of Iraq worry about what it will mean for the US going forward. Robert Lieber, a professor of international relations at Georgetown University in Washington, says the war was a good idea that went awry in execution. He believes if the US hadn't taken out Saddam Hussein, it might soon be dealing with two nuclear powers in the region – Iran and Iraq.

Still, Mr. Lieber says the US is in a phase of turning inward, "and certainly Iraq is part of that picture." The costs the US has incurred from the war "have turned out to be huge – not just in terms of lives and money," he adds, "but to our credibility and for the attention we gave it."

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Perhaps another indirect cost of the war will be in how it tarnished the US military's image as an efficient and almost unlimited tool of American foreign policy.

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