The official end of the Iraq debacle

It is a complex undertaking to maneuver a democratic nation into a voluntary war, which is why the reason we invaded Iraq will never be revealed.  Each part of the pro-war coalition had its own reasons: for some it was about oil, for some protecting Israel or establishing a new base in order to pull US troops out of Saudi Arabia, for others it was teaching the Arabs a lesson or getting revenge for September 11th or demonstrating American power or proving a new light-footprint strategy on the field of battle or simply getting a shot at the gusher of lucrative war contracts that was sure to flow.  I believe this is what Paul Wolfowitz meant in his infamous 2003 interview with Vanity Fair, when he said:

The truth is that for reasons that have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy, we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on which was weapons of mass destruction as the core reason.

This struck many at the time as shamelessly glib and proof that the WMD argument was always a cover.  Which it was: it was a cover for the divergent interests of the parties pushing for war.  From their perspective, it was awkward that there turned out to be no WMDs but, for most of them, the WMDs were not really why they initiated the war so their absence did not discredit the venture.

Rarely in history, however, has a war begun for so many reasons ended with not a single one of them being achieved, which is testimony to what a debacle the Iraq war proved to be.  Nearly a trillion dollars was squandered and innumerable lives lost and the result is that the price of oil soared, the war revealed the limits of American power rather than its extent, the light footprint proved itself inadequate to the aftermath of battle, the great beneficiary was Iran which is more bellicose towards Israel than Saddam was in his dotage, an entire generation of terrorists had the opportunity to perfect their techniques in a conflict setting, and the photos from Abu Ghraib and the footage of American contractors shooting blindly at Iraqi civilians served as a kind of nightly recruitment video for the likes of Al Qaeda.  On the American side, the only victors were the war profiteers: the young and green evangelicals who were sent to run departments in Iraq and learn on the job, the Blackwaters and Halliburtons that cleaned up from war contracting, and the politicians whose retirements have presumably been made cushier in return.

The Iraq war officially ended today but the politics of this moment are such that no one is prepared to administer the final dose of antibiotics, just to be absolutely certain the ideological virus of making war simply because no one can stop us is truly dead.  As a senator, Obama famously opposed the Iraq war but as president, with 4,500 American lives expended on this venture, he can hardly declare that it was all a terrible error.  The Republicans, meanwhile, hope no one remembers the groupthink, ideological fervor, and rank incompetence that led them to set off on this thing in the first place.  Everyone else is just exhausted and wants to move on.

It might seem enough, at this moment, for us all to understand, deep down, that the Iraq war was a mistake; to talk about it — to point at precisely what made it such a catastrophe — can seem gratuitous.  But left like that, the virus will incubate for a generation, as the Vietnam war did, and one day it will return more potent than before.  We can already see its hiding place among those who contend, blithely, that the world is better off without Saddam or that the Arab Spring was somehow inspired by the Iraq invasion.  The former is acontextual, reflecting no sense of how grossly the costs outweigh it, and the latter is absurd, a measure of the vanity and self-regard that led a party that calls itself conservative and takes a limited view of the role of government at home to believe that, nevertheless, our government could initiate a war in the absence of large-scale local revolt and remake another society many thousands of miles away, winning converts at gunpoint.  This is the vanity that undoes great nations.


Click here to read my journal entries on 11 September 2001 when I stood on a street corner in downtown New York watching the World Trade Center collapse.  Or here to read my take-down of a prominent liberal hawk’s belated apology for having supported the Iraq war.  Or here to read about the book on the French-Algerian war that served as a perfect timeline for events in Iraq.  Or here to read my argument for why American military intervention in Libya was good policy.


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