Iraq: The Deception at a Decade
We must not forget the Iraq catastrophe
In the wake of last September’s assault on the American consulate in Benghazi, the right-wing punditocracy stirred with rage, convinced that the tragic murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three colleagues was proof of an Obama administration unfit for the task of safeguarding American lives in the Middle East. Building on the fringe narrative of Obama As Malevolent Outsider, Glenn Beck speculated aloud, “This is impeachable; the president might go to prison for this one.”
Although nothing of a cheerleader for Obama administration foreign policy, I could not help but writhe with contempt over Beck’s newest outburst of on-air mania. Righteously incensed over the Benghazi boondoggle, the NATO intervention in the Libyan civil war, and the escalation of drone activity in South-Central Asia, partisan Republicans appear to have forgotten that 10 years ago, their own president sinned against America’s security on a far, far higher order.
On the backs of a white-hot, festering national trauma, a small circle within George W. Bush’s administration deceived and distorted its way to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq—launching a war for “Iraqi freedom” that would undermine America’s international legitimacy, destabilize a pivot of regional order, and bleed Treasury coffers dry to no clear positive end. As the occupation dragged out and insurgent ambitions flared, only on occasion could one expect to hear calls for genuine accountability—usually from the pacifist left—and the Bush-Cheney administration coursed, battered but protected, to the end of a second term.
A popular narrative on the Arab street and in the organizing halls of left-wing Western activists has it that the American invasion of Iraq was an immoral, neoimperial attack on a poor nation’s sovereignty. But being neither a pacifist nor an admirer of thuggish autocrats, I refuse to buy into this critique. Saddam Hussein was by far the most murderous dictator in the postcolonial Middle East; it is reasonable to argue that in a narrow sense, the Bush administration did secure “Iraqi freedom.” The Kurdish people in Iraq’s north are unambiguously safer and more prosperous than ever before. By the estimation of Christopher Hitchens, whom I admired very much for everything but his views on international relations, this is all that matters.
But even assuming the best of intentions, shattering the Iraqi state was a crime of the highest order against American interests, regional stability, and fiscal responsibility. As an 11-year-old child, my realist Republican father warned me sternly that the power vacuum in Mesopotamia would be the greatest gift America could give to Iran’s grave-faced mullahs. In short order, this has materialized as the political reality on the ground.
Its secular Sunni despot sacked, Baghdad under U.S.-backed Nuri al-Maliki is now the province of Iran-aligned religious foundations and street militias. Despite neoconservative fantasies of a permanent base for American power projection in the Levant and the Gulf, American-trained Iraqi troops now coordinate with Damascus, delivering aid and reinforcements to the Assad regime’s Iran-aligned butchers. And while in 1996 Richard Perle and Douglas Feith reported to Benjamin Netanyahu that an ouster of Saddam Hussein would help to secure Israel within its regional sphere, the years since have seen a rise in Iranian aggression through proxy wars and nuclear grandstanding.
If the Bush administration’s war could be dismissed merely as a catastrophic policy error with devastating consequences for regional security, Americans might be able to rest easy: Separated by the enormity of an ocean from the direct impact of Old World squabbles, we tend not to feel our transcontinental mistakes too palpably. However, liberals, conservatives, leftists, or libertarians, none of us can afford to forget the tremendous price tag incurred by the Iraq engagement, estimated by Joseph Stiglitz at upwards of $3 trillion—which, unlike smaller sums spent on social programs, accrued straight to deficit and debt rolls without delivering an iota of benefit to the taxpayer. This is not the stuff of a minor, forgivable failure of intelligence. In a sane observer’s world, it is the Iraq invasion that calls for congressional interrogations and prison sentences, not the Benghazi blunder.
It would be utterly quixotic of me to suggest bringing Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, or Wolfowitz to justice—not least because they’ve somehow managed to convince the American public, against a broad expert consensus, that Iraq was somehow worth it. Ten years later, as an American-funded Iraq teeters on the brink of vacuum, we must learn from the lesson of last decade’s failed neoconservative statesmen: When it comes to foreign adventurism, it’s never as easy as it looks. And in the interest of a more prudent culture of decision-making and a more proportionate culture of accountability, we must not forgive the policymakers who criminally saddled our generation with the ghosts of their Iraq idée fixe.
Joshua B. Lipson ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a Near Eastern languages and civilizations concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.