The lessons of Iraq, 10 years on, are manifold and painful. But looking back on the debacle, there is one thing this nation should have learned above all: humility.
It’s hard to imagine a more spectacular failure in judgment by our leaders a decade ago -- or a wider, more humbling gap between their confident predictions and reality. The war cost trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives while achieving almost none of its stated aims. America can never again enter into armed conflict without a full understanding of the facts and an honest assessment of the risks.
Billions of words have been written about this war, but few are more telling than those of the Costs of War Project, which set out to calculate the human and economic toll of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. The consequences it details are astonishing.
The project estimates that, including interest, the Iraq war will cost taxpayers more than $3.9 trillion by 2053; the original Pentagon estimate was about $50 billion. Decades of health care for returning veterans will cost nearly $500 billion.
The number of dead Americans is nearing 8,000, including 4,488 service members and at least 3,400 U.S. contractors -- people often left out of the casualty count. More than 100,000 have been wounded. About 134,000 Iraqi civilians have died in the violence, and hundreds of thousands more from malnutrition, lack of medical care and other indirect results of the war.
And it was all for nearly naught. There were no weapons of mass destruction, which was the pretext for the invasion. The Bush administration then said nation-building was the goal. That failed utterly.
The invasion, rather than marginalizing Islamic militants, strengthened them. It weakened Iraq’s precarious infrastructure, launched a civil war and seeded hatred for America. Iraqi women today are worse off in almost every regard than they were when Saddam Hussein was in power.
U.S. leaders got everything about the Iraq war wrong. Everything. And that must inform everything about this country’s approach to conflict.
Interventionists urge President Barack Obama to launch air strikes against a brutal Syrian regime. Talk of war against Iran is rampant. Indeed, there is a moral case to be made in both cases. But that’s not enough. Neither is the broad umbrella of protecting our national interests. And be wary of any prediction of easy victory. The murder of four American diplomats in Benghazi followed what had seemed like a fairly simple and hopeful victory by revolutionaries in Libya; no wonder we now hesitate to join a war in Syria.
Humility rather than hubris is always the best rule when war is contemplated, but especially so in parts of the world whose politics and cultures are understood only superficially. It’s a lesson we should have learned from Vietnam. Perhaps the immense costs of the Iraq war will etch it more clearly in memory.
~San Jose Mercury News, mercurynews.com