by Ivan Eland
As President Obama gave a self-congratulatory speech about keeping his campaign promise to remove U.S. combat forces from Iraq by the end of August, he accomplished this feat by merely redefining the mission of the 50,000 combat-trained U.S. forces remaining there to “advising and assisting” Iraqi forces. Of course, this really means that we are not out of the woods yet in that fractured and violence-prone country.
The 50,000 troops will train Iraqi forces, but in assisting them, U.S. forces will still perform combat missions, including chasing and trying to kill al-Qaeda and other remaining insurgents. More important, U.S. forces will represent an implicit American commitment to ensure Iraq’s future in case of trouble. Such a scenario could involve re-escalating if insurgent violence spikes or another ethno-sectarian civil war erupts. And if Iraq ever gets a new government—a delay that is itself an indicator of the continuing ethno-sectarian fissures in the society—it is expected that the United States and Iraq will renegotiate the Bush-era status of forces agreement that requires all U.S. troops be withdrawn by the end of 2011. Permanent U.S. bases near the Persian Gulf are probably too alluring for American security bureaucrats to pass up. After all, replacing lost U.S. military bases in Saudi Arabia with new ones on the Persian Gulf in Iraq was likely one of the real reasons for George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in the first place. Of course, those bases might be very vulnerable in any ethno-sectarian civil war by Iraqis.
Even though Obama’s speech marks a largely empty milestone, he has reduced U.S. combat forces in Iraq by 95,000 since taking office. He can’t be denied that accomplishment, but we should take this opportunity to assess whether the conflict was worth fighting in the first place. The answer: The war has been disastrous on almost every count.
Some of the most stunning and damning admissions about the naïvete and gross ignorance of Bush administration officials when launching the invasion recently have come from Gen. Ray Odierno, the retiring commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. Odierno admitted in a recent interview, “We all came in very naïve about Iraq. We came in naïve about what the problems were in Iraq; I don’t think we understood what I call the societal devastation that occurred.” He cited the Iraq-Iran War, Iraq’s defeat in the first Persian Gulf War, and the most severe international economic sanctions in history from 1990 to 2003 that destroyed the Iraqi middle class. “And then we attacked to overthrow the government,” he said.
Odierno also admitted that “we just didn’t understand” the country’s ethnic and sectarian divisions. Of course, had anyone high up in the Bush administration consulted a basic textbook on Iraq or the Middle East region or talked to a few experts on the country, they would have easily stumbled across such basic information.
Asked if American intervention made Iraq’s fissures worse, Odierno didn’t deny the premise. “I don’t know. There’s all these issues that we didn’t understand and that we had to work our way through. And did maybe that cause it to get worse? Maybe.” That’s the closest you can usually get to an admission of guilt by a public official.
Even the New York Times, in a recent editorial calling the war “disastrous,” understates the deleterious effects of an unnecessary U.S. invasion and occupation of yet another Muslim country. The newspaper, in trying to provide some balance, cites the end of “Saddam Hussein’s murderous rule” and the beginnings of democracy as positive outcomes. Yet, the U.S. invasion and subsequent guerrilla war has killed at minimum 110,000 Iraqi civilians, soldiers, guerrillas, and U.S. troops over a seven-year period. The real total is liable to be much higher.
The Times also mentioned the loss of U.S. credibility for going to war to prevent Saddam from giving weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) to terrorists and then finding no such weapons. The Times forgets to mention that Bush’s own CIA, in a report completed and partially made public before the invasion, judged that even if Saddam had had WMDs, he would likely not have used them or given them to terrorists unless his regime was threatened (maybe from an invasion?). Furthermore, left unsaid by the Bush administration—which claimed quite the opposite—was that Saddam had never supported terrorist groups that focused their attacks on the United States.
The Times correctly points out that the Iraq War cost hundreds of billions of dollars and shifted attention and U.S. resources away from capturing or killing the perpetrators of 9/11. What was supposed to be a $50 billion dollar war will have cost $785 billion by the end of this year, and the meter is still running.
More important, not only did the Iraq War divert resources from fighting terrorists, it made worldwide terrorism worse. President Bush did exactly what Osama bin Laden hoped he would do by overreacting to 9/11. And Bush even did him one better by launching a non sequitur invasion of Iraq, thereby radicalizing more potential terrorists in the Islamic world in reaction to another hot button non-Muslim occupation of Muslim land. Such a sneaky attempt to get an overreaction by the stronger party is a standard tactic by which weaker terrorists and guerrillas get more public support, money, and recruits for future attacks. And it worked.
After the invasion and occupation of Iraq, world fatalities from terrorism rose substantially (even when the huge increase in terrorism within Iraq is excluded), according to the Knowledge Base from the National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism. The war also strengthened Iran, the world’s most active sponsor of terrorists, by weakening Iraq, its chief rival.
The Iraq War was not only disastrous, it was one of the worst strategic blunders in the history of U.S. foreign policy. President Obama should not renegotiate the status of forces agreement with any government in Iraq. He should avoid any long-term U.S. military presence there that could be ensnared in future violence and withdraw the remaining 50,000 troops before the end of next year.
Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.
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