The curtain came down last month on America’s nine-year military campaign in Iraq. No elaborate fanfare marked the occasion, no ticker tape parade, no smug declarations of “Mission Accomplished.” This a quiet denouement for “shock and awe.”
The conspicuously understated finale to what ranks among America’s longest wars was tacit recognition that it also ranks among the country’s most calamitous. According to the Pentagon, as of two weeks ago, the campaign, whose ultimate cost may be trillions of dollars, had claimed 4,487 American lives. Another 32,226 US soldiers were wounded in action. The tally of Iraqi casualties is in dispute, with estimates running in the hundreds of thousands.
The bitter toll helps explain why just one in three Americans considers the war a victory, according to a CNN/ORC International poll—in this case, perception reflects reality, one that the war’s eager and blinkered advocates never anticipated. The invasion would be a “cakewalk” one particularly arrogant hawk famously claimed.
Why attack Iraq in the first place? “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said evocatively of the purported risk of inaction. The manufactured fear revealed that the Bush administration understood what neurologists do: our forebrains, the locus of reasoned thought, shut down when we’re angry or frightened. Primordial fight-or-flight instinct takes over. Of course, the bogus rationale for so-called preventative self-defense wouldn’t have mattered in the wake of a resounding victory in Iraq; nothing succeeds like success.
But as the promise of a resounding triumph was dashed in the restive alleys of Sadr City, Mosul, and Fallujuh, the war’s justification shifted from the threat of WMD, to the longstanding humanitarian crisis in the country, to the spreading of democracy, as if the increasingly grim reality on the ground could be swallowed if the right explanation for why we were fighting could be identified. This retroactive search exposed the war for the tragic farce that it was—and is. “Iraq stands on the brink of disaster,” three prominent Iraqi politicians, including former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, write in a recent op-ed in the NY Times ominously entitled, “How to Save Iraq from Civil War.”
Allawi and his co-authors aren’t exaggerating. A series of bombings across Baghdad killed scores in the wake of America’s departure. The attacks took place against the backdrop of a deepening political crisis, as the Shia-dominated government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki accused the country’s Sunni vice-president, Tariq al-Hashimi, of terrorism. Three of four of Iraq’s most prominent Sunni politicians now stand accused of high crimes. The Kurds, for their part, may well move to solidify their independency, perhaps by formally consolidating control over oil-rich Kirkuk.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates memorably said just ahead of his retirement that anyone advocating that the US deploy a big land army into the Middle East (or Africa or Asia) should “have his head examined.” Gates won praise for his candor, but he was merely stating the obvious. More courageous and illuminating counsel would have advocated head examinations for those espousing regime change, regardless of the region.
Stephen Kinzer makes the same point elliptically in Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq. The book chronicles 14 instances where the US dislodged foreign governments, dating from 1893 when America forcefully brought Hawaii into its fold through the ongoing campaign in Afghanistan. With rare exception, the policy has ended in ruin, or “blowback” to use common parlance.
The CIA’s removal in1953 of Mohammed Mossadegh, the democratically elected prime minister of Iran, is typical of the misguided interventionism. The restoration to the throne of Shah Reza Pahlavi initially proved a resounding success for the US, as the Shah reversed plans to nationalize the country’s oil industry and allied his country with the West. All that changed following the 1979 revolution, however. The successor regime, led by clerics united in their antipathy to the US, has sponsored acts of terror from Saudi Arabia to Argentina and inspired fundamentalists far and wide.
Yet the US cannot resist the urge to do what John Adams urged against, go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. And so we keep conforming to Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over again expecting different results. A nine-year catastrophe in Iraq won’t likely alter our delusional course. It’ll take more than that to end our misguided adventurism. Some habits are hard to break.