After US withdrawal from Iraq, a tallying of the balance sheet

The cost of the Iraq war was high, in lives and treasure. Families who lost loved ones can take heart that Saddam Hussein, one of the worst dictators since Hitler, is gone. But the final answer to whether this US effort was worth it still awaits history.

AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo
US withdrawal from Iraq: In this Saturday, Dec. 17 photo, US Army Maj. Jerrold Castro, from Guam, right, plays a ukulele while waiting for a flight moments before his unit leaves Iraq.

Was it worth it?

The US war in Iraq is officially over and the cost in human life, both American and Iraqi, was high. It was also a financial drain on the US Treasury, contributing substantially to current American budget deficits.

The war was triggered by concern that Iraq was nuclear-weapons capable. Various foreign intelligence agencies, including that of Saudi Arabia, warned that Saddam Hussein’s regime had acquired, or was close to acquiring, nuclear weaponry. The CIA concluded the same.

After his capture, millions of jubilant Iraqis went to unrigged polls for the first time and waved purple fingers at the TV cameras, demonstrating their new freedom.

Does this make worthy the American sacrifice on their behalf? It certainly must be weighed as a factor.

Mr. Hussein himself contributed to the thesis by playing a dangerous shell game. Largely to convince his then-enemy Iran, he whispered that he did have such weapons. Even some of his own generals believed it. But to the United Nations and the United States and other worried nations he offered assurances that he did not.

President George W. Bush believed that Iraq’s nuclear threat was real. The war was launched. Although Hussein had dabbled in a nuclear program in the past, the weaponry was not there.

The families of those who sacrificed or were wounded should take heart from this achievement: The US eliminated arguably one of the worst dictators since Adolf Hitler. Hussein put to death hundreds of thousands of his own people for political reasons. He eliminated many thousands more Muslims in a war with Iran and an invasion of Kuwait.

Freedom is the very foundation on which the American ethos is built.

The US has a long history of support for oppressed people around the globe, even when its own national security is not immediately threatened. Americans gave their lives in World War II although there was no real German threat to the American homeland. They fought again on behalf of South Koreans, although no North Korean legions were landing on US shores.

In the midst of war weariness, and a concern for the state of the American economy, there is understandably current discussion in the US about if, and when, and how, to undertake new military ventures abroad. This is wise.

But there is a legitimate national interest in the growth of freedom around the globe. Dictatorships are usually more dangerous than democratic nations that are stable and prospering.

Iraq’s postwar story is still in the making. It is a quasi-democracy, presided over by an autocratically inclined Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. There are three principal communities in the country – Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds, as well as diverse tribes and factions. Harmony and cooperation among them will be essential.

It is not clear whether Iraq’s ultimate government will be a strong central one or a federal one with much local autonomy. But Iraqis’ immediate needs are security, jobs, and improved services like a reliable supply of electricity.

They also need freedom from interference from neighboring Iran. A large American diplomatic presence in Baghdad will be keeping a watchful eye on this. American military forces are not far away, notably in Bahrain and Kuwait. Though some Shiite politicians may find common cause with those in Iran, it seems improbable that having endured so much to achieve their own nation’s sovereignty and independence, Iraqis would subjugate that to Iran.

It is difficult to know what inspiration the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and Iraq’s embrace of freedom has played, or will play, in the awakening of the Arab world and the formation of new governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and ultimately Syria.

The final answer to whether America’s sacrifice in Iraq was worth it must wait for history’s unfolding. Iraqis must treasure democracy in their land, as strongly as Americans fought for it.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column.

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