The Iraq war: After five years, was it worth it?
“Five years on,” said John F. Burns in The New York Times, “it seems positively surreal.” On the night of March 19, 2003, the world tuned in to see the “astonishing, overwhelming” high-tech bombing of Baghdad, and history seemed about to change. No longer would Saddam Hussein torture and kill the innocent people of Iraq, or sponsor terrorism, or wreak ruinous wars on the rest of the Middle East. Democracy in the region would have a chance to flower. Now the war is entering its sixth year, and those gauzy visions seem so far away. As many as 180,000 Iraqis and nearly 4,000 Americans are dead. Some 160,000 U.S. troops, more than ever were anticipated, are still struggling to maintain stability. Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction—“the primary cause the Bush administration had given for the war”—turned out to be nonexistent. Undeniably, we liberated a “deeply traumatized” people from a ruthless dictator, and the surge in U.S. troops last year has brought a semblance of progress. But the question that has dogged the Bush administration practically from the war’s start rings even louder today: Was the invasion of Iraq a tragic mistake?
How can anyone argue that it was not? said Dick Polman in The Philadelphia Inquirer. The war has slammed the American economy, “roiled our relations with allies, and profoundly deepened the ideological divide in our politics.” Abu Ghraib has become synonymous with sadism. Iraq’s liberated oil wealth, which was supposed to pay for the war and enrich the country’s poverty-stricken masses, has done neither, and millions of Iraqis still lack the most basic services. This “misbegotten enterprise” is now our third-longest conflict, after Vietnam and the Revolutionary War, and it’s costing us $3 billion a week. Any way you measure it, said Robert Pollin and Heidi Garrett-Peltier in The Nation, “the Iraq war is a moral and strategic disaster.”
It’s true that our leaders made a “hash” of this undertaking, said Christopher Hitchens in Slate.com. But their “incompetence doesn’t condemn the enterprise wholesale.” After all, “a much-wanted war criminal” has been vanquished and a hideous regime dismantled. The Kurdish minority and Shiite majority were rescued from the “ever-present threat of renewed genocide.” Elections have been held and the outlines of a workable federal system are being put in place. And significantly, “a battlefield defeat has been inflicted on al Qaida and its surrogates.” Yes, Iraq today leaves a tremendous amount to be desired. But consider this: “What would Iraq have looked like without a coalition presence?”
The U.S. sure might have looked a lot worse, said Victor Davis Hanson in National Review Online. The Bush administration launched this war to destroy terrorism at its source and to help ensure that we would never suffer the horrors of a Sept. 11 again. Well, we haven’t, and there’s a reason for that. What is rarely discussed is “how many Islamists flocked to Iraq, determined to defeat the U.S. military, and never got out alive.” Or to be more blunt, how many jihadists did the U.S. military kill “in Iraq rather than Manhattan?”
The real question facing the nation, of course, is where do we go from here, said Jim Hoagland in The Washington Post. Clearly, most Americans have grown weary of the war, and they want the troops home. Yet “they are not eager to face up to the bloody dilemmas that an immediate U.S. withdrawal would spark.” There is a presidential campaign going on, of course, which means there’s a chance for an honest debate about the best path forward. Unfortunately, that’s not what we’re getting. Still playing to their Democratic base, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are calling for a speedy withdrawal of troops, never fully addressing the very real possibility that this could leave Iraq and the entire region in chaos. For his part, John McCain fires up Republican crowds with calls for “victory” in Iraq, but he never quite says what that will cost, or how it can be achieved. “Getting elected is the priority objective of these three politicians, of course.” But make no mistake, “the Iraq trap now reaches out to ensnare those Americans who would be president.”