Lately, it seems that the righties want to talk about Iraq. They claim that since the surge worked, that somehow that vindicates all the crap they've thrown out there about it during these past several years. Fine, let's talk about Iraq.
I beg to differ with the standard right wing analysis. It is true that violence in Iraq is way down (especially U.S. troop casualties) and that we appear to have driven al-Qaeda out of Iraq. The Al-Maliki government has won several battles against homegrown militia groups and appears to have control over nearly all of the country.
And while the right tends to exaggerate the part of this that is attributable to the surge, there is little doubt that U.S. forces played a major role in routing al-Qaeda and in helping the Sunni militias take control of their regions of Iraq, and also in supporting the government's offensives against the Sadrist militia and other similar groups. If the right is guilty of exaggeration by failing to acknowledge the contribution of former Sunni militias that we bought by the payment of cash as being very important to the overall success as the surge, then often we on the left are guilty of failing to acknowledge the plain fact that the surge worked.
But where the righty argument falls flat is when they try to extrapolate from that back to justifying the original invasion of Iraq. Several months ago I anticipated this argument in a post I wrote entitled, The BEST case scenario in Iraq: A Pyrrhic victory.
Now, as an American I'm glad that starting where we were we have achieved this best case scenario.
However if we add up the costs and gains of the Iraq war we find the following:
1. Saddam Hussein is gone. Of course there are still many bloody dictatorships in the world including the leaders of the country right now hosting the Olympics and we cannot get rid of them all but certainly we got rid of one. In any case, Saddam was gone by six weeks into the war, and had been captured by nine months into the war, so this still doesn't justify the nearly five years we've been fighting since the capture of Saddam.
2. Iraq is now a democracy. And the first thing they did with the democracy we gave them was to ratify a Constitution that states that the official religion is Islam and that Sharia is a source of the law, and elect a parliament full of fundamentalists that immediately passed restrictions on the legal rights of women so that in matters like divorce, inheritance and custody disputes they have even less rights than they had under Saddam. Democracy is like anything else-- it has to be earned to be treasured, not handed down. That is why Poles value their democracy while Iraqis have elected a majority of members of their parliament who are committed to establishing Sharia. Luckily, the political gridlock in Iraq has had the effect of preventing their parliament from getting much done.
3. There are now at best a handful of al-Qaeda members in Iraq. Which is exactly how many there were back in March 2003 when we invaded (Saddam knew who he could trust, which was nobody.) So we've beaten al-Qaeda all the way back to where it was in the first place.
4. We now know for sure that Iraq was no longer making WMD's or stockpiling them. If Bush had waited for Hans Blix to do his job then we'd have learned that at a lot less cost.
1. The five year detour into Iraq have al-Qaeda, almost destroyed (along with their Taliban allies) in Afghanistan by January 2003, a second chance-- and they have come roaring back. They now have far more power in both Afghanistan and in Pakistan than they have had at any time since we put that war on the back burner and went after Iraq instead in March 2003. Righty likes to compare their present status to where they were on September 11. But that is not a valid comparison. Bush could have made the final push in early 2003 to end the earth of the Taliban and rid their Afghan center of power of al-Qaeda (including bin Laden and al-Zawahri) but he chose to relax the pressure and go after Iraq instead. So the nature of our conflict against the Taliban and AQ changed fundamentally in early 2003 from one of offense to one of essentially attrition and guarding certain selected strongpoints (mostly cities and military bases.) This is exactly the strategy the Soviet Union pursued in Afghanistan and it failed then, and it has slowly been failing us over the past five years. Further, the next American President will get to deal with a weak government in Pakistan which is even less willing to support operations and go after al-Qaeda and the Taliban than the Musharraf government was-- and we now have evidence that the Pakistani intelligence service itself is full of Taliban sympathizers, making Pakistan an unreliable ally at best.
2. We have lost the support of the world that we enjoyed virtually unanimously after 9/11. Most righties tend to blow this one off, suggesting that unilateral action is better anyway, but in fact we are overstretched right now militarily (one reason Iran is so belligerent-- they know darn well that as long as we have 150,000 or so troops tied down in Iraq we lack the ground force to seriously threaten to invade them.) Thanks to the poor planning of what to do after the invasion and the years we stayed fighting in Iraq it's a safe bet that next time we need a coalition, be it for political or military reasons, we'll find lots of cheerleaders but very few willing to go out onto the field with us. And incidents like Abu Graib and the use of torture have destroyed a well-earned reputation and given us a black eye that will take decades to fade, even if they are not ever repeated.
3. 4,000 American lives. Yes, this is less than a tenth of the casualty total in Vietnam and only 1% of what we lost in World War II. But then we have to ask: 4,000 lives for what? It's not an insignificant number (for example it is more Americans than died on 9/11) and is it really inconsequential to ask why we had to lose them when there were opponents of Saddam who were willing to fight and die to overthrow him themselves (such as those who rose up in 1991) if we had just supported them?
4. The myth of American military invincibility. There was a time when the armed forces of small countries like Grenada, Haiti, Serbia or even Iraq (during the first Gulf War) would either drop their arms and surrender at the news that the Americans were on the way, or if they fought would be systematically run over and destroyed pretty much at the same rate as if they had dropped their arms. American military casualties from all conflicts that we fought, in total between the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 and the start of the Iraq war in 2003 were less than a thousand (and the majority of those were killed in either the Beirut bombing or the First Gulf War.) Because of the perception of American invincibility, we rarely had to use the 'big stick' to get other countries to do what we wanted to. We just had to tap on it a time or two, and they'd get the message. But that is no longer true. Iraq has made it not true. We've had to fight hard for five years just to win a war in a country no bigger than California, so it is little wonder that countries like Iran and Venezuela have become emboldened. In the movie, "Predator," Arnold Schwarzeneggar's character is emboldened when he discovers that he has wounded the alien creature. He says, "If it bleeds, we can kill it." Thanks to Bush's reckless misuse of the finest military machine in the history of the world, other countries will now have that attitude. Even the small wars in the future, we will have to fight them, not be able to win anymore just by showing up.
5. A trillion dollars at least, once all the costs of Iraq are tallied up. Even if our economy was sound, a trillion dollars of new debt (because it was all borrowed from the future) would be a big hit. But in the sick economy we have now, the trillion dollars of new federal debt (and corresponding drop in the dollar) is more than a big hit. It's more like a crippling hit.
6. Geopolitical winners: 1. Iran. Saddam (their biggest enemy) is gone. They have a friendly government in power in Baghdad (and just in case that changes the Badr brigades they had trained for years in case they needed to push an uprising against Saddam, has seamlessly melted into and put on the uniform of the Iraqi army.) The United States (their most powerful enemy) is no longer able to do more than bomb them, because we played the 'invasion and occupation' card. 2. China. As we decline thanks to Iraq (see #4) we should remember that history always shows us that as one power declines, another invariably rises to challenge its place. Just as we rose, reached parity with, and eventually eclipsed the power of a declining Great Britain. Anyone have any doubt as to what the next superpower will be (or maybe already is?)
As I said several months ago, the best outcome that was possible in Iraq was a Pyrrhic victory. Of course that is better than an outright loss (we've got the trophy, right?) but it in no way vindicates or justifies the stupid and poorly thought out decision to go to war in the first place.