To paraphrase Tolstoy, glorious victories on the battlefield are all alike; every wretched defeat is wretched in its own way. So it is with the Iraq War, whose ten-year anniversary will be marked this Wednesday. Predictably, this latest and most unjustified imperial misadventure has been recast as a resounding victory. How did this happen?
Before the “Mission Accomplished” banner, before the “slam dunk” case for Saddam possessing WMD, and even before the Twin Towers collapsed, an unprovoked invasion of Iraq was just a glint in neocons’ eyes. During the 2000 presidential campaign, foreign policy, Iraq included, barely registered. In a rare instance otherwise, George W. Bush articulated a humble vision of America’s place in the world. "I'm not so sure the role of the United States is to go around the world and say, 'This is the way it's got to be.’”
Such restraint prevailed early into Bush’s term. Unaffordable tax cuts for those who didn’t need them, not the exercise of imperial might, preoccupied Dubya. Iraq was dismissed as broken and weak. Fully six months before 9/11, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell remarked: "[Saddam Hussein] has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction. He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbors.” American containment over a decade had prevented the Iraqi tyrant from “[building] his military back up or [developing] weapons of mass destruction.”
Only after 9/11 was the neutered Saddam suddenly rebranded as a threat to global peace and security. This metamorphosis was achieved by what a report issued by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace called the Bush administration’s “systematic” misrepresentation of the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons programs. For its part, the UK government, in the famous words of one British official, “sexed-up” the case for Iraq’s WMD. The pretense now registered and rationalized, the promised “cakewalk” of an invasion could be had.
The war’s toll is well-tallied: the 150,000-plus Iraqis and nearly 5,000 US service members killed; the multi-trillion dollar price tag that grows as the long-term healthcare cost for 32,000 wounded soldiers accumulate; the lost opportunities, including in Afghanistan, which was neglected as attention turned to Iraq. And what was gained for a war whose costs, coupled with the Bush tax cuts, will account for nearly half of our $17 trillion projected debt in 2019, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities?
Though Saddam won’t be missed, Iraq today is hardly the place envisioned by those so keen on deposing him. Violence is rampant: 4,471 Iraqi civilians were slain in 2012. The specter of civil war, both between Shia and Sunnis and between increasingly independent Kurds and the central government, still haunts the country. Meanwhile, Iraq’s worryingly despotic leader, Nouri al-Maliki, has confounded Washington by snuggling up to Iran’s mullahs and Syria’s barbarous regime. What former State Department official Peter van Buren calls the Iraqi “invasion from Hell” might well be the US’ biggest strategic mistake since WWII, or perhaps ever.
The war’s cheerleaders like John Bolton won’t admit as much. In the Guardian, the former US Ambassador to the UN unpersuasively argues that the invasion furthered US interests. But so would, say, invading North Korea. The question is: would the benefits justify the cost? And, cui bono, benefits to whom? What about that cost to Iraqis? Bolton addresses this by claiming only those with a “propensity to admire totalitarianism” could view Iraq today as worse off than under Saddam. Apparently, many Iraqis are perversely misinformed, as polls like one taken by Zogby in September 2011 found that 42 percent of Iraqis thought they were “worse off” as a result of the Anglo-American invasion of their country against 30 percent of who said “better off.”
That Bolton and other neoconservatives, obstinate in their advocacy for a misguided war, now obstinately deny that it went awry is no surprise, as zealots are immune to facts. But why has Iraq so quickly faded from American’s consciousness? Why have we let it slip away anonymously? For that we can blame our collective desire to avoid confronting the grim and the unpleasant. Some bitter memories are better buried.
The vacuum created by our denial has allowed the neocons to recast the Iraq War as a resounding victory, a triumph of the will of democracy and a powerful gesture of liberation. This is Orwellian doublespeak recast as a reality that never, ever existed. “Freedom,” indeed, is slavery.
Our collective inability to frame the conversation about Iraq in terms of its objectives, its failings, and its horrific outcome suggest the empire is winning. Let’s not let that happen. Let’s begin anew this Wednesday by bravely moving forward by honestly looking back.