It was a sunny day in April 2005, and I was riding around Baghdad in the back of a humvee with some troops from the Louisiana National Guard. Armed to the teeth, eyes scanning back and forth for trouble, the soldiers were justifiably paranoid. Fearing roadside bombs, snipers, and ambushes, we felt like big fat targets. "I just want my guys to make it through the day," Army Captain Aaron Duplechin told me.
As we rumbled down the street, kicking up a cloud of dust and earning less-than-friendly stares from some of the locals, I thought of something Vice President Dick Cheney said a week before the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
"My belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators," Cheney said on Meet the Press.
There was a brief period in 2003 — very brief — when this was true. Then a wave of looting and lawlessness took hold ("Stuff happens," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said). A ferocious insurgency quickly took root. Iraq became one of the most dangerous places in the world.
That's the real "shock and awe" of the Iraq war: Our leaders were wrong about practically everything. They weren't smart enough to foresee the long-term damage — to our economy, our reputation and our security — that the war would cause. It's telling that on this 10th anniversary of the war, its architects — George W. Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld, among others — have been largely silent.
In hindsight, here are their five biggest mistakes.
1. They said it would be a 'cakewalk'
It was hell. According to Department of Defense figures, 4,486 Americans were killed and 32,223 wounded. An estimated 134,000 Iraqi civilians were also killed, the war "may have contributed to the deaths of as many as four times that number," according to the Costs of War Project by the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University.
2. They said it would be cheap: $50 billion to $60 billion
It actually cost 31 times as much: $1.7 trillion, the Brown study says. And that's before an additional $490 billion in benefits owed to war veterans. Factor in veterans' care and interest and the true cost over the next 40 years could be $6 trillion. Was the war itself even paid for? It was not. Turning his back on the greatest Republican of all — Abraham Lincoln, who asked Congress to raise taxes to pay for the Civil War — Bush asked Congress to cut taxes, a principal driver (along with spending related to his recession of 2007-09) of our current deficits.
3. They said Iraqi oil would pay for it
"There's a lot of money to pay for this. It doesn't have to be U.S. taxpayer money," Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz testified to Congress on March 27, 2003. "The oil revenue of that country could bring between 50 and 100 billion dollars over the course of the next two or three years…We're dealing with a country that could really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon."
Nope. The big winners in Iraq's oil stakes were two countries that opposed the war: Russia and China, both of which received multi-billion dollar contracts from the Iraqi government in a landmark 2009 auction. Even a French firm, Total, got a big fat contract. Number of big deals secured by American oil companies? Zero.
The war didn't secure any oil supplies, and it actually made supplies less secure. Iraqi production plunged; regional instability crippled badly needed investment. When the war began, the price of oil was about $25 a barrel, and you were paying $1.72 for a gallon of gas. Five years later, oil had risen to $140, and gasoline soared to $4.11 (adjusted for inflation, that's about $4.53 today). Mission accomplished?
4. They said the war would make America safer
In fact, the war appears to have opened a Pandora's Box in the Middle East that has made us less safe. At least that was the consensus of the heads of America's 16 intelligence agencies, who concluded in a 2006 National Intelligence Estimate that the Iraq war had increased Islamic radicalism and worsened the threat to America from terrorism. And that's not all: It also strengthened Iran. Iraq and Iran were bitter foes that fought each other to a standstill in an eight-year war in the 1980s. When the U.S. overthrew Saddam Hussein, some of the biggest smiles were found in Tehran, which became, in relative terms, a much stronger player in the Persian Gulf. Don't take my word for it. That's what George W. Bush's own ambassador to Iraq from 2005-07, Zalmay Khalilzad, has been saying for years. Iran, whose Muslims are mostly Shiites, is now a "key power broker" in Iraq, whose majority Shiite population was brutally repressed by Saddam's minority Sunni government for decades.
5. They said it was a just war that would uphold American values
The international goodwill America had in the wake of the September 11 terror attacks quickly evaporated after the Iraq war began, particularly after searing images from Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison and reports of torture and abuse bounced around the world. In a short period, America's reputation was transformed into that of a global bully. Between 2002 and 2008, positive views of the United States fell in 26 of 33 countries surveyed by the Pew Global Attitudes project — including the opinion of key allies like Britain, Germany, and Japan. "Respondents to the 2006 survey in 13 of 15 countries found the American presence in Iraq to be an equal or greater danger to stability in the Middle East than the regime of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while 11 judged it a threat to Middle East stability greater than or equal to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," Pew reported.
So what did we accomplish with our invasion and occupation of Iraq? Did it help our economy? Make us safer? Make us friends around the world? The facts, it would seem, make a clear and compelling case to the contrary.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Syrian women know how to defeat ISIS
- Will Kobani be ISIS's Waterloo?
- The one thing the New Atheists get right about religion
- The U.S. Marines are developing laser weapons. Here's why.
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- The case for voting (even if America is a corrupt plutocracy rigged by the rich)
- 3 horrific inaccuracies in Homeland's depiction of Islamabad
- Why the Supreme Court is allowing Texas to hold an unconstitutional election
- 10 things you need to know today: October 21, 2014
Subscribe to the Week