Most Americans would prefer to forget that we are approaching the first anniversary of the expulsion of U.S. military forces from Iraq. The Republican Party, which rallied behind George W. Bush to invade the country and occupy it, has suffered from a short memory relating to that misbegotten war even as it agitates for new and similar military interventions.
Much of the silence on the subject is certainly due to the fact that most Democrats and nearly all the media were also on board, though perhaps for reasons that did not completely coincide with the Bush neocons’ imperial vision. And after the war began and the occupation took on its misbegotten form under Jerry Bremer, Dan Senor, and a host of neocon acolytes brought on board to reshape the country, the saga ran on and on. As Iraq broke down into its constituent parts due to Bremer’s inept proconsulship, a development that might normally lead to a rethink of the entire project, Pentagon-based neoconservatives instead regrouped, doubled down and contrived the 2007 “surge” to fix things. That the surge was a poorly conceived and executed military dead end and a complete failure to do anything but deepen the divisions within Iraq seemed irrelevant, political partisanship inevitably rushing in to interpret it as a success to provide cover for the foolish politicians, generals and bureaucrats in Washington who had conceived it. As recently as the Republican presidential debates earlier this year the “surge” in Iraq was cited by several candidates as a litmus test for those who believe in the “right kind” of foreign policy. Those who did not believe in the myth of the surge as a subset of American Exceptionalism were outside the pale, most notably Representative Ron Paul.
Iraq, correctly labeled the “worst mistake in American history,” has to be remembered because of what it should have taught about Washington’s false perception of the U.S. vis-a-vis the rest of the world. One of America’s poorest secretaries of state of all time, Madeleine Albright, once said that the U.S. is the only “necessary nation” because it “sees far.” She could have added that it sees far though it frequently doesn’t understand what it is seeing, but that would have required some introspection on her part. Albright’s ignorance and hubris have unfortunately been embraced and even expanded upon by her equally clueless successors and the presidencies that they represented. Iraq should be an antidote to such thinking, a prime lesson in what is wrong with the United States when its blunders its way overseas as the self-proclaimed arbiter of the destinies of billions of people.
Everyone but the “realist” and largely traditional conservative and libertarian minority that opposed the Iraq venture from day one has turned out to be dead wrong about the war and many continued to be wrong even when the U.S. military was eventually forced to leave the country by the Baghdad government. The Iraq war was born from a series of lies.
The United States invaded Iraq in 2003 based on two alleged threats as defined by the Bush administration and Congress. First, it was claimed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and also delivery systems that would enable it to strike directly against the United States. Second, it was frequently argued that Iraq had somehow been involved in 9/11 through its intelligence services. Both contentions were completely false, were known by many in the White House to be fraudulent, and, in some cases, were bolstered by evidence that was itself fabricated or known to be incorrect. Many in the Pentagon and CIA knew that the case being made for war was essentially bogus and was being contrived to satisfy United Nations requirements for armed intervention. Though there were a couple of principled resignations from the State Department, almost everyone in the bureaucracy went along with the fraud.
Digging deeper there were other uncited reasons for going to war and some led back to Israel and its lobby. All of the most passionate cheerleaders for war were also passionate about protecting Israel. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein had been paying moneyto the families of Palestinians killed by Israel and there was a perception that he was a potential military threat. When the U.S. took over control in Baghdad one of the first projects to be considered was a pipeline to move Iraqi oil to the Israeli port of Haifa.
Fast forward eight years, to the end of the U.S. military presence. The neocons continued to see a strategic objective in the shambles that they had made. In an op-ed in the Washington Post on the impending U.S. departure from Iraq one year ago, neocons Kimberly and Fred Kagan delusionally entertained five “American core interests” in the region. They were: that Iraq should continue to be one unified state; that there should be no al-Qaeda on its soil; that Baghdad abides by its international responsibilities; that Iraq should contain Iran; and that the al-Maliki government should accept U.S. “commitment” to the region. As the Kagans are first and foremost apologists for Israel, it should be observed that Iraq’s “international responsibilities” would be understood as referring to the expectation that Baghdad not be hostile to Tel Aviv.
But looking back a bit, in 2003 Iraq was a good deal more unified and stable than it is today; there was no al-Qaeda or other terrorist presence; Saddam generally abided by a sanctions regime imposed by the U.N.; and Iraq was the principal Arab frontline state restraining Iran’s ambitions. Then, as now, the U.S. was clearly “committed” to the region through the overwhelming presence of its armed forces and one should add parenthetically that Iraq in no way threatened the United States, or anyone else. It was precisely the U.S. invasion that dismantled the Iraqi nation state, introduced al-Qaeda to the country, wrecked the nation’s economy, and brought into power a group of Shi’a leaders who are anti-democratic and adhere much closer to Tehran and Syria than to Washington. Nor are they very friendly to Israel, quite the contrary, and there is no oil pipeline. So none of the “core interests” sought by the United States as defined by neocon doctrine have actually been achieved, or, rather, they have actually been reversed due to the invasion and occupation by the United States arranged and carried out by the Pentagon neoconservatives.
And then there is the cost. The U.S. lost nearly 5,000 soldiers killed plus 35,000 more wounded while the documented Iraqi dead number more than 110,000, though the actual total is almost certainly much, much higher, perhaps exceeding one million. Ancient Christian communities in Iraq have all but disappeared. Columbia economist Joseph Stiglitz has estimated that the total cost of the war will be in the $5 trillion plus range when all the bills are finally paid. The U.S. economy has suffered grave and possibly fatal damage as a result of a war that need not have taken place.
The lesson to be learned from Iraq is actually quite simple. Military intervention in a foreign land unless a genuine vital interest is at stake is a fool’s errand due to the unforeseen consequences that develop from any war. And when intervention is actually necessary (hard to imagine what those circumstances would be) it must have an exit strategy that starts almost immediately. Remembering the government chicanery that led to the events of 2003 through 2011 means that the lies that are currently being floated to justify regime change in both Syria and Iran by the same neocons who produced the Iraq debacle should be treated with extreme skepticism and summarily rejected. Iraq also provides the insights that enable one to judge the Afghanistan enterprise for what it really is: a failure now just as it will be five years from now at far greater cost in lives and treasure for Afghans and Americans alike. If the United States cannot learn from the experience of Iraq it is doomed to repeatedly fail in similar endeavors until the last soldier comes home in a body bag and the last dollar is spent, leaving behind an empty treasury and an impoverished American people.
Philip Giraldi is the executive director of the Council for the National Interest and a recognized authority on international security and counterterrorism issues. He is a former CIA counter-terrorism specialist and military intelligence officer who served eighteen years overseas in Turkey, Italy, Germany, and Spain. He was Chief of Base in Barcelona from 1989 to 1992 designated as the Agency’s senior officer for Olympic Games support.