The Corner

National Security & Defense

Iraq and the Costs of Coming Home

Like the Vietnam War before it, the War in Iraq was won on the battlefield and then lost by the political leadership in Washington.  

The purpose of the war was two-fold. The first was to remove Saddam Hussein, because he had started two wars with his neighbors, was evading the U.N. sanctions imposed on him after the Gulf War, and was — or so everyone thought at the time — actively pursuing nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. In short, Saddam was a threat to stability in the region, and stability in the Middle East is an important objective of American foreign policy.

The second object was to replace Saddam with a more benign government that would be an ally of the United States in the region. 

Before President Obama, America actually had friends in the Middle East: primarily Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and the Gulf States. Iraq could have been one of a ring of allies who worked to contain Iranian aggression, fight Islamic terrorism, and help preserve regional stability.  In fact, Iraq would have been an especially valuable ally, because it is a majority Shia nation.

By 2009, the combat phase of the operation largely was over. To their eternal credit, the Army, Marines, and Naval and Air Forces of the United States had won. It’s true that they had valuable allied help, but it’s equally true that they lifted the heaviest load, and that only they could have lifted it.  No other ground forces in the world, except perhaps the Israelis, could have prevailed in the vicious street fighting in Mosul and Ramadi.  American forces destroyed the armies of Saddam Hussein, defeated al Qaeda and its associated forces, faced down the radical Shiite militia supported by Iran, and through their courage and charity won the respect of both Sunni and Shia leaders in Iraq. 

Before they left office, Ambassador Ryan Crocker and General David Petraeus negotiated the Status of Forces agreement covering U.S. forces and a Strategic Framework Agreement between the U.S. and Iraq which helped create the conditions for power sharing and the survival of Iraq’s fledgling government.

By 2010–11, Joe Biden could say that Iraq was stable, peaceful, and democratic. It was an overstatement, but not a laughable one. With continued American presence, there was a good chance that the war aims would be vindicated and that the United States would enjoy the benefits of its sacrifice.

Then President Obama threw the whole thing away by refusing to leave a residual U.S. military force in Iraq.  He has spent considerable energy denying responsibility for that. He blames President Bush and the Iraqis. But those who know the Middle East know that it was his decision. 

As it turns out, what presidents think about foreign policy actually matters. President Obama believes that America’s involvement in the Middle East is the reason for the troubles there, and he allowed his preconceived notions, and his determination to “bring America home” from the region, to trump the judgment of his advisors and the facts on the ground. 

Certainty is not achievable in discussing the Middle East, but it is likely that, had American troops remained in Iraq, the whole ugly Syrian scenario that has destabilized the Middle East, and is destabilizing Europe, would never have happened. Prime Minister Maliki would not have been able to turn on the Sunni tribes, the capabilities of the Iraqi Army would have improved, Iran and Russia would have been deterred from interfering in the civil war, Bashar Assad would have been removed, and ISIS would not have been able to get a foothold in Syria. 

And even if events in Syria had gone down as they have gone down, ISIS would not have been able to invade Iraq — not with a trained Iraqi army backed up by the air and ground power of the United States. Iran would not have achieved the dominant position it has in Iraq today.

In short, by 2011 the hardest part of the mission had been accomplished. All that remained was for the United States to keep a military presence in Iraq and support the new Iraqi government with military, diplomatic, and technical assistance. The United States already had, and still has, other bases in the Middle East. The burden of maintaining additional presence was small; the potential upside of staying was great, and — as events have proved — the downside of leaving was even greater.

There is much talk today about the United States not engaging in “democracy building.” I agree that the object of American arms should be to make the world safe for America, not to make the world safe for democracy – a goal that in its broadest sense is unachievable no matter what we do. In the long run, the safety and hopes of the whole world depend on the continued influence and security of the United States; those interests should never be placed at risk solely to convert a dictatorship into a democracy.

But where armed conflict is necessary to protect America, supporting democracy and stability in the post-conflict phase is a vital tool of our foreign policy. 

One of the reasons the United States does engage in “democracy building” is because the failure to do so in Germany after the First World War led to the Second.  The United States is safer today because that mistake, by and large, has not been repeated since — because Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Germany, and many of the countries in Eastern Europe became democracies, with American help.

I don’t begrudge anyone who believes that the cost of the Iraqi operation would, even if we had stayed in Iraq, outweighed the benefits.  The combat phase of the war, together with the concurrent combat in Afghanistan, cost over a trillion dollars.  That was perhaps 1-2 percent of America’s GDP during that period – money that could not be used to reduce the debt, build roads, or sustain the safety net programs.

More important is the lives that were lost. Over 4,000 American servicemen and women died; thousands more were wounded, and many others have been permanently scarred. The number of civilian deaths is difficult to calculate, but it was probably several hundred thousand, though against that number must be balanced the genocide that might have been averted in in Syria, the oppression the Iraqi people would have continued suffering under Saddam, and the prospect of a better life in Iraq had the United States continued to exercise its influence there.

So reasonable people, with the benefit of hindsight, can disagree about whether the war would have been worth it even had the mission been completed. But what is not disputable is this: Having won on the battlefield, America’s political leaders should have persevered to reap the benefits for which so much was sacrificed.

Decisions have consequences. The regional balance of power which the United States built over four decades has been shattered. Iraq is not an ally, and it may not be a democracy either for much longer. Bashar Assad and his Russian patrons are firmly entrenched in Syria, ISIS has spread, Israel is more isolated, and the influence of Iran is growing. 

And America’s armed forces are fighting again in Iraq, and in Syria too. Libya may be next. Libya was another case where the United States overthrew a dictator, and because of President Obama’s distaste for “democracy building”, declined to influence events thereafter.  Only this time the President can’t blame the Bush Administration for the disaster that has resulted.

President Obama will take up a different residence in January. But no matter who replaces him, America is not coming home from the Middle East. We will be there for a long time, in growing danger both there and at home, because of wars that its leaders neither avoided nor finished.

Jim Talent — Jim Talent is a former U.S. senator for Missouri and a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

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