Click here if you don’t see subscription options
The EditorsAugust 16, 2010

As the U.S. military draws down its troops in Iraq toward a complete pullout in 2011, the transition represents a strategic shift in focus from Iraq to Afghanistan. For the public, though, this transition year ought to prompt an assessment of our engagement in Iraq, which started with the U.S. invasion in March 2003. What are the results? At what cost? What have we learned?

Mixed Results: On some counts Al Qaeda has been weakened. Although Osama bin Laden has not been killed or captured, many high-ranking Al Qaeda leaders have been; some of the organization’s funding sources have been curtailed; and Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia has been partially cut off from its leaders in Pakistan.

Still, even a weakened Al Qaeda remains a serious threat. In July the group killed 47 members of the Sunni Awakening, and three key Al Qaeda leaders escaped from an Iraqi prison.

Democratic structures have been erected. Iraq has a constitution, a parliament, a judiciary and an electoral process. Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish parties have fielded candidates; voters have freely cast ballots. U.S. forces have fostered ethnic cooperation to help the people form a national identity. In the Awakening movement, the United States put former Sunni insurgents on its payroll and integrated them into the security forces. With Shiite leaders, the United States has explored giving the Kurds a stake in Iraq’s government.

But Iraq’s democracy is weak, corrupt, inept and paralyzed by ethnic rivalry. Leaders cannot even agree on a fair distribution of Iraq’s oil revenues. And since the March elections, no government has taken leadership. Democracy requires more than structures; it must develop from among a free people and their chosen representatives.

U.S. military leaders have adapted to a new kind of enemy. While not a stated goal, adaptation is a major accomplishment. Fighting terrorists is radically unlike the “Star Wars” scenario the military had long prepared itself to fight. In Iraq, leaders adapted military strategies and weapons to confront a new enemy: transnational, amorphous cells of Muslim extremists that communicate, raise funds and recruit online, while they infiltrate states and failed states. Gen. David H. Petraeus has reduced sectarian violence with a complex strategy: it insists that U.S. troops fight Al Qaeda, protect local civilians and create zones of stability.

Yet the U.S. volunteer military has been overstretched across two wars, without a military draft to refresh its troops or enough coalition forces to back them up.

Costs: Human. Some 4,404 U.S. soldiers have been killed, another 31,874 seriously wounded. The figures do not include the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians. Nor does it include losses by the coalition and the Iraqi military.

Financial. The Congressional Research Service puts U.S. expenditures in Iraq at $900 billion: $390,000 per soldier per year. That does not include future payments for veterans’ education, health care or disability. Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel-prize winning economist, projects the total cost of the Iraq war will be $3 trillion.

Political. The dishonest pretext for the invasion has bred cynicism. President George W. Bush’s “emergency” case for a pre-emptive strike against Iraq, before Saddam Hussein could use his weapons of mass destruction against the United States, cowed Congress after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to appropriate the funds. When no such weapons were uncovered, and the official U.S. 9/11 Commission found no operational link between Al Qaeda and Mr. Hussein, political cynicism soared. The United States has also paid for its mistakes—the abuse and torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and the suspension of the rights of “enemy combatants,” like those at Guantánamo base in Cuba and elsewhere—even though most U.S. soldiers have served honorably. Now the public, weary of the war and its expense, wants closure.

Lessons: The political hawks who urged the invasion of Iraq expected a quick, cheap victory. But they were wrong. After seven years of fighting and nearly $1 trillion spent, what might victory mean? Better to end this mission, as President Obama said on Aug. 2: “as promised, on schedule.”

The exportation of U.S.-style democracy has turned out to be an irrational neocon fantasy, especially among peoples locked in ethnic rivalries, with no national identity, sense of minority rights or representative government.

The United States is ending a long, costly, unnecessary war. Two of its hard-won accomplishments—a weakened Al Qaeda and democratic structures in Iraq—are fragile and may be short-lived. What good the United States might have done, with virtually no loss of life and limb, had it dedicated the energy of its young people and trillions of dollars to fight disease, illiteracy or oil dependency!

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Mike Evans
13 years 8 months ago
It would appear that we all agree the Iraq war was a mistake and that we need to withdraw. Other countries have already done that. Now we are left holding the bag, mostly all alone. How do we extricate ourselves from this mess? We have the technology, the intelligence and the knowledge - we just need the will to proceed. Find a way to pull back to safe havens and borders, interdict any resupply of arms and war materiel to local forces, and provide sanctuary for those in danger of reprisals. Instead of boat people, we might need to evacuate air people - and provide rational resettlement to all who will be refugees. The first step is to openly admit we botched the war - the next steps are to try to make peace and amends.
Gabriel Marcella
13 years 8 months ago
Though there is much to agree with, this assessment dosn't go far enough. There is little question that the jus ad bellum criteria did not favor the decision to invade Iraq. But having done so, bungled the strategy, paid a heavy price, and learned from its mistakes, the United States still faced the the compelling jus ad bellum requirement for the occupying power to leave in place a better Iraq. There is to be sure the extraordinary loss of life and treasure, especially Iraqi. And there is the negative impact on our relations with the Islamic world. But is the picture completely negative? Is Iraq a better place today than under Hussein? Let's also lower our expectations about democracy. It will not take root unless Iraqis nurture it.
C Walter Mattingly
13 years 8 months ago
This is one of those editorials which is so lacking in sound perspective and, in general, wise, unbiased judgement that one scarely knows how to respond. Take the "dishonest pretext for an invasion." Tell me, dear editors, was President Bill Clinton "dishonest" when he bombed what he thought to be an Iraqi WMD site in Desert Fox, which killed a dozen or so workers?  Did he really know it was only an aspirin factory? Was Hillary "dishonest" when she lectured on the imperative need to stop Saddam and his WMD program? Or do you think they, like President Bush, believed Saddam was so armed and dangerous? Was President Bush a voice in the wilderness, or was his belief that Saddam had such weapons mainstream opinion? If so, then isn't this editorial calling President Bush dishonest an unfounded accusation bordering on slander?

Was Saddam a genocidal butcher who sarin gassed a village of his own people, or wasn't he? Did over 80% of Iraqis favor the US coming in and overthrowing Saddam and halting his butchery or not? Did  desperate Iraqi need matter?  Did Saddam regularly shoot at US planes trying to enforce UN sanctions he had agreed to and violated, or not (which in itself was, by the way, an act of war against us)?

Like Japan after WWII, where democracy took time to take hold, or South Korea, where we lost a dozen times more American lives, the corruption and inefficiencies of the fledging democracies were immense.  Truman was vilified for wasting American lives and money as Bush is now. In hindsight, does any American not appreciate the differences between North and South Korea (or Japan then and now) that is a direct result of our sacrificial involvement?
There were tortures and perhaps murders that occurred in an out of control Abu Ghraib on our watch and also harsh interrogation methods conducted against suspected terrorist murderers, but these were miniscule compared to Roosevelt authorizing the firebombing of Dresden, the mass execution of uniformed Japanese prisoners under Roosevelt, and the firebombing of Tokyo and the machine gunning of North Koreans fleeing to South Korea under Truman.

Granted, like Lincoln in the Civil War, the first two years of the Iraq conflict were badly mishandled, and again like Lincoln, the US suffered greater losses (on a far more massive scale than Iraq) than otherwise would have been the case if the right general had been in charge all along. But we don't hold Lincoln a failure even though McClellan was a disaster.

The Iraqi war was at least as justifiable as our Kosovo action. There we avoided  US casualties by bombing from long range, at the expense of many more civilian casualties. The cost in Iraq for the US was many times greater, and our intelligence was certainly poor (as had been the case with Iran and President Carter many years earlier). But let's stop portraying President Bush as other than a champion of democracy, which is why AlQaeda hated him and so many Arab totalitarian regimes were uncomfortable with him.

Christopher Hutchins, no friend of George Bush, felt the invasion justified, and even Thomas Friedman, justly critical of the conduct of the Iraq war, is generally in agreement with the neocons in that he holds if Iraq develops into a fledling democracy, the effect will be salutory for the entire region.  Such democratic pressure could have a beneficial effect upon the people of totalitarian "friendly" regimes such as Egypt that the US could never bring to bear on its own.

It is certainly true that the ease of managing postconflict Iraq was exaggerated and the war vastly more costly than predicted, largely because of mismanagement the first two years. President Bush is culpable for those Lincolnesque blunders. And the outcome in Iraq is far less certain than that of the Civil War, which Lincoln knew could hardly be lost if pursued intelligently. But let's recognize as Friedman has the prospective great positives that now have a chance, the fact that even the current disorganization there is far preferable to the greater misery and death doled out under Saddam, and that President Bush acted, so far as can be determined, in an honest way with mainstream beliefs about the dangers Saddam was believed to pose to the international community.
Todd Witherell
13 years 8 months ago
Unfortunately, your own magazine was, at best, ambivalent, and, at worse, supportive of the war effort in the initial stages.  Alas, at the time when it mattered the most, this was true of the clear majority of Americans who claim to follow Christ.  Even in the 2004 election, when the lies and the torture had become fully evident, this remained true.  Where were the voices of protest?  Readers of America only had to view the columns of the impassioned, outraged, formidably intelligent, historically-aware, caring, lonely, faithful, politically wise Fr. Andrew Greeley for a dissenting voice, a voice informed by both the best of Catholic tradition and the prophetic truth of Melville's dictum:  "Say No with thunder because all who say yes, lie!"
john fitzmorris
13 years 8 months ago
The last paragraph of your article evoked for me in many ways the day 41  years ago when I turned from a Vietnam hawk to a dove. I was watching Bishop Sheen being interviewed by Mankiewicz on the Braden & Mankiewicz show. The interviewer asked The late bishop what had brought him to the point of denouncing the war. Was it was the killing and maiming? He said it was not only the lose of life both American and Vietnamese - which was horrible -  but also the squandering of American treasure that could have done so much to work good in the world, that could have been used to elimnate suffering rather than causing it. His insight turned me around. But we did it again. Caught up in cheap jingoism we went strutting into the maelstrum, spilling treaure and blood in pursuit of an ideological fantasy. And the wherewithal to do much good bled into the desert. When are we ever going to learn? When are we going to listen to the Sheen's of this world?
C Walter Mattingly
13 years 8 months ago
During these same years, under the Bush administration's leadership, the US was accomplishing what Bill Clinton and others have deemed the greatest humanitarian act in African history, saving in excess of 1.2 million lives, as President Bush lived up to his campaign promise to support the AIDS effort in Africa.  It was such a massive success that the most popular new name for newborns in 2 East African countries was George Bush. Somehow this goes unnoted in certain circles.
It is not an ideological fantasy to overthrow a genocidal butcher and gain the right to vote
along with a real chance at a fledgling democracy.  Other nations would like to be provided with such an opportunity and would consider it a great accomplishment even if it were accompanied by some strife.
13 years 8 months ago
I agree with Walter Mattingly on his assessment of the correctness of the Iraq War. Patriot G.W. Bush had to do what he did in the interests of global security, stumblingly at first, but then with admirable resolve.

Now, having said that, I feel it necessary to emphasize that war is never a good idea, peace always the better option. Unfortunately, peace often remains just that for some - an unacceptable option. Such being the case an individual or a nation cannot simply sit back passively and allow injustice which is an offense against objective morality, to be trampled, As Paul VI put it, "If you want peace, work for justice!"

The justifying purpose for the Iraq War was the belief that Sadam had in his possession "Weapons of Mass Destruction," confirmably used by him to destroy his own people. What happened to them as they were never found? I believe Sadam did what squirrels do, anticipating a hard winter - they gather and hide away lots of acorns for later use! When the Dictator of Bagdad realized that the U.S. wasn't kidding about invasion, he scampered with the help of friends, (Syria?) to bury in the sand, submerge in water, his WMD's and maybe,  I dare to suggest incredulously with wrinkled brow and fingers crossed, with help as well from the friendly French! My long dead maternal grandfather was French and for suggesting what I just did, all I can say is, "Grandpa, forgive me!"

Concluding then,  let me say, I  believe the WMD's will surface sooner, or later, but probably not until current generations are piles of bones buried in boxes in the ground. Then, at last, history will see how right President George W. Bush was! And also how on target too, was Walter Mattingly with others.

Michael Appleton
13 years 8 months ago
I would like to be able to ascribe honorable motives to Pres. Bush for his plunge into Iraq, but after having closedly followed events since 9/11 and having read a number of books on the subject, I am of the opinion that the decision to invade Iraq was neither honorable nor honestly portrayed. Moreover, he conducted the war in a manner which seriously undermined the Constitution and our commitment to treaty obligations, while introducing a wholly amoral view of the law of war which a disturbingly large number of Americans have come to find acceptable.

Pres. Bush's belief that democracy can be exported like so many bushels of wheat reflects astounding ignorance. Yet we have committed thousands of lives and billions of dollars in tribute to that absurd notion.  And in order to make certain that American ardor for his adventurism did not wane, the President declined even to ask the public to share in the sacrifice through taxation, choosing instead to finance it with our children's productive abilities. Now weariness has set in, and we are in the process of withdrawing from a country which we broke and cannot fix.

I believe that upon our departure, the centuries-old sectarian conflicts in Iraq will plunge that benighted country into civil war, the outcome of which will be a conservative Muslim theocracy under another strongman, harboring great antipathy toward the West in general and the United States in particular, a place no longer tolerant of Jews or Christians or the rights of women.

Democracy, like morality, cannot be imposed. Both are spread by example. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have set back the cause of democracy by many years. Although none of us will be around to see the view of history on this period, my sense is that time will not in fact be kind to Pres. Bush. To the contrary, he will be remembered as a man whose decisions were marked by limited vision and unlimited pride.
Joseph Malikail
13 years 8 months ago
The people of Iraq are much worse off  now than  when US.invaded.

Don't attack Iran. Even if Iran develops nuclear weapons, it will not be to attack Israel.
Iran knows that if they take any offensive against Israel, they will be annihalated.

The danger of attack on Iran by Israel or U S  is the greatest danger facing the world now.
peter martial
13 years 8 months ago
"America" per its history (the Jesuits once the most educated group of men in the West)continues in this article and in many others to pronounce on matters beyond its expertise.  It is time to become more modest though it may fail financially before that happens.
Judi Farranto
13 years 8 months ago
walter mattingly's comment includes much that has been forgotten or over-looked, and well-stated here.

The latest from america

Scott Loudon and his team filming his documentary, ‘Anonimo’ (photo courtesy of Scott Loudon)
This week, a music festival returns to the Chiquitos missions in Bolivia, which the Jesuits established between 1691 and 1760. The story of the Jesuit "reductions" was made popular by the 1986 film ‘The Mission.’
The world can change for the better only when people are out in the world, “not lying on the couch,” Pope Francis told some 6,000 Italian schoolchildren.
Cindy Wooden April 19, 2024
Our theology of relics tells us something beautiful and profound not only about God but about what we believe about materiality itself.
Gregory HillisApril 19, 2024
"3 Body Problem" is an imaginative Netflix adaptation of Cixin Liu's trilogy of sci-fi novels—and yet is mostly true to the books.
James T. KeaneApril 19, 2024