Over the next few weeks, I want to take a look back at February-March 2003, to those fateful days leading up to the administration of former United States president George W. Bush’s disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq. I remember all too well the lies that were told, the hysteria that was created, the bullying tactics that were used to silence debate, and the mass mobilisation that was organised in opposition to the war.
In the end, Bush ignored American public opinion and the sage advice of senior Republican statesmen like former secretary of state James Baker and former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and invaded Iraq, leading to the most consequential disaster in recent American history.
The Iraq war has had a staggering impact that continues to grow over time. The magnitude of this disaster can be measured in lost lives, treasure, capacity and prestige.
From 2003 to the formal withdrawal of US forces in 2011, the war took the lives of 4,500 Americans and well over 150,000 Iraqi civilians. And more than 600,000 US veterans of these wars are now registered as disabled. To fully understand the war’s impact, however, we must also factor in the number of young men and women, who, after multiple tours of Iraq and Afghanistan (400,000 served three or more tours of duty in these two wars) have returned home suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — about 10 per cent of veterans suffer from PTSD. A great number of them have tragically joined the ranks of the homeless or the addicted or they have committed suicide. Studies show that on an average night, almost 40,000 veterans are homeless. And in recent years, the average number of suicides among this group of PTSD veterans is a staggering 22 per day — meaning that more young veterans of these two wars die each year at their own hands out of despair than those killed in battle in both wars combined.
The direct costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been estimated to be almost two trillion dollars, with trillions more needing to be factored in to cover the long-term health care and disability payments to the wars’ veterans.
The two long unwinnable wars resulted in grounding down and exhausting the US military. It also demonstrated their inability to decisively beat insurgencies and resistance movements. This proved demoralising to US troops and also exposed the limits of the world’s most powerful and expensive military machine.
At the same time, the Bush administration’s reckless and arrogant unilateralism (“you’re either with us or against us”) caused friction with allies and contempt for public opinion worldwide. By the end of the Bush administration, America’s favourable ratings were at their lowest point, worldwide. Abhorrent behaviour displayed by members of the US forces during the war (Abu Ghraib, torture, Guantanamo Bay etc) also fuelled extremist currents, giving a new life to Al Qaida which, though routed in Afghanistan, metastasised and spread its anti-American hate campaign across continents. And the weakened and depleted US military spawned the unforeseen consequence of enabling the emergence of multiple and competing regional powers who were emboldened to expand their influence.
Of course, it wasn’t supposed to be that way. As envisioned by the wars’ main protagonists, the neo-conservative ‘Project for a New American Century’, a decisive US victory in a war like the one they encouraged in Iraq was needed to secure American hegemony in the New World Order. They worried that at the end of the Cold War, the US had to project decisive strength to dissuade any would-be competitors. After a display of overwhelming force, they were convinced that the danger of a multi-polar world could be averted and the 21st Century would be an American Century.
As they rushed to war, the Bush administration and its neo-conservative acolytes engaged in a massive propaganda campaign of lies to win support for an invasion. When I say that they lied, I don’t mean their fabricated case about former Iraqi president Saddam Hussain’s “nuclear programme” or their false efforts to portray the Iraqi regime as the region’s principal sponsor of terror — this was the brief presented by the then US secretary of state, Colin Powell, at the United Nations in his failed effort to win international backing for the invasion. No. The more serious lie they told an average American citizen was the projection of the Iraq invasion as an easy, cheap and lofty venture.
In Congressional testimony and press briefings, high-ranking US administration officials argued that the war would only require between 60,000 to 90,000 troops (in fact, the US administration had fired the Pentagon general who, at a Congressional hearing, had admitted that the invasion and occupation of Iraq, if they were to succeed, would require more than 350,000 troops). The fighting, the administration’s spokespersons said, would be over in a few weeks. US troops would be greeted as liberators. And the total cost to the US treasury would be between $1 billion (Dh3.67 billion) to $2 billion before Iraqi oil production would kick in and cover the rest. If all this were not fanciful enough, the promoters of the war repeatedly told the American public that once the dust settled down, Iraq would become a “model democracy” that would serve as a “beacon for the New Middle East”.
In his speeches leading up to the invasion, Bush went further saying that the war “will free people” and that his motivation was to bring “God’s gift of freedom” to the Iraqi people. “We will go into Iraq ... to make sure the hungry are fed, those who need health care will have health care, and those youngsters who need education will get education.” In the end, Bush succeeded only in mobilising his base of right-wing evangelicals and neo-conservatives, both of whom were sold on the infantile fantasy, they shared — that a decisive blow delivered by a superior moral force would vanquish evil and lead to a “new order”.
It did not. And 15 years later, the people of Iraq and the region are living with the consequences of the disaster that was brought down on us all: A shattered Iraq, an emboldened Iran, a weakened, war-weary and wary America, and a Middle East in which multiple regional and international powers are engaged in a number of deadly conflicts.
Dr James J. Zogby is the president of Arab American Institute, a non-profit, non-partisan national leadership organisation.