A Pyrrhic Victory in Iraq
This month, in what was hardly a bump in the news cycle, our war in Iraq ended. Originally supported by about three-quarters of the American public, three-quarters of the public now consider it a bad decision. While I am among the one-quarter who always thought it was a bad decision, in the name of fairness, let me begin by examining some of the reasons why the United States and the Iraqi people are better off because of the invasion.
First, Iraq no longer represents a threat to regional security. While many Americans were long fooled that Saddam Hussein was somehow connected to 9-11, he still represented an old-fashioned type of threat — namely, a dictator with regional ambitions of conquest. Documents later found at the residence of one of his sons outlined Saddam Hussein’s ground ambitions of a “Greater Iraq” encompassing Syria, Jordan, Kuwait, part of Iran and Palestine. After initiating wars against Iran and Kuwait, there was always a strong possibility of more Iraqi initiated conflicts in the years to come.
Second, the Iraqi people are and will be better off in the long-term without Saddam Hussein. Excluding war-deaths, Hussein’s regime was likely responsible for murdering over a hundred thousand Kurds and Shiites during his 25 year reign, and would have likely continued doing so until he died and passed the reins of power off to his equally sociopathic sons. Aside from the deaths and the hundreds of thousands of acts of imprisonment and tortured, Iraq under Hussein was a pariah state with an economy that reflected that status. Sanctions, war, mismanagement, and elite plundering of the economy left oil-rich Iraq as one of the poorer countries in the world. Since the invasion, the average Iraqi earns about four times as much as he did during 2000.
Given these benefits, why can’t we say the Iraqi war was wise decision? In short, it’s about the costs and tradeoffs of the war. Without 9-11, there would have been no Iraq invasion in the context of the “war on terror.” Yet, while terrorism claimed the lives of 2974 (mostly) Americans on 9-11, the war against terror in Iraq cost another 4485 American (and over 300 coalition troop) lives — not to mention thousands of permanent injuries.
This, of course, pales in comparison to the Iraq lives lost. Most estimates range around one hundred thousand violent Iraq deaths since 2003. To what degree these deaths could have been avoided had the Bush administration been better prepared for the aftermath of the invasion will always be a source of debate, but we Americans are, in part, responsible for these deaths even if they were the result of foolishness and overconfidence rather than intention.
Beyond the immediate human costs are the financial costs, which are estimated at almost one trillion American dollars, and like to exceed that in the future. If the money had not been spent, the total U.S. debt, and the interest we incur from it, would be about ten percent smaller. Had the money been invested in other priorities, one can only imagine the advances and innovations that could have been made in a range of scientific and medical fields (as an example that is close to home, more federal money was spent on an average day in Iraq than has been spent in the last five years on spinal research). Had the money been spent on foreign aid, it would have approximated our projected total foreign aid budget for the next 25 years. Imagine the goodwill that would have brought the United States?
Instead, neither the international community nor the American public will have the same level of trust in American government to lead military operations abroad for years to come. While greater prudence in launching future “preventative wars” is likely a good thing, history may view the Iraq war as the beginning of the end of unquestioned American global predominance along with our country’s ability to effect the mostly positive changes it has in the world over the last century.
Despite this week’s political instability and bombings in Iraq, it is hard to see the country either slipping back into civil war or a leader as brutal as Saddam Hussein rising to power again. In this sense we won. But just as the Greek leader Pyrrhus reportedly said in 279 B.C. after suffering severe losses in a “successful’ battle against the Romans, “one more such victory, and we shall be undone.”