Five years ago the United States attacked and occupied Iraq. It has lost militarily, politically and morally. The end of the war may be in sight. But the consequences will endure, as will the deep-seated impulse among America’s leaders for global intervention without constraint.
The war has exposed the limits of American military power. The promise of a high-tech war of “shock and awe” quickly crumbled and has been all but forgotten. The abiding images of the war, even in America, will not be cruise missiles over Baghdad but torture at Abu Ghraib and the massacre at Fallujah. People will remember a brutal counter-insurgency. The recent Winter Soldier hearings in Washington, DC, organized by Iraq Veterans Against the War, have started to reveal some of the daily horrors of the occupation forces.
Five years into the war, 4,000 U.S. soldiers have been killed and over 30,000 wounded. Now 160,000 U.S. soldiers are fighting in Iraq on extended tours of duty. The U.S. army has started to crack under the strain. Faced with home-made bombs and suicide bombers, the United States has turned to increased aerial bombing. The Washington Post reported there were five times more U.S. air strikes in Iraq in 2007 than in 2006, involving an increase from an average of four a week in 2006 to about four bombs a day in 2007, with bombs ranging between 500 to 2000 pounds of explosive each. In what it called “one of the largest strikes since the 2003 invasion,” the Post reported that in January 2008 U.S. planes dropped 40,000 pounds of explosives in 10 minutes on one area. Such attacks are a sure recipe for higher civilian casualties.
The war has come at grievous cost to Iraq’s people. It has been estimated that almost 7,500 Iraqi civilians were killed in the initial invasion. A national survey by the Iraqi government and the UN World Health Organization released in January 2008 found that 151,000 Iraqis had died from violence between the March 2003 invasion and June 2006 (the range is between 104,000 and 223,000).
Other estimates put the casualty figures higher. A household survey-based study published in The Lancet found that as of July 2006 “as a consequence of the coalition invasion of March 18, 2003, about 655,000 Iraqis have died above the number that would be expected in a non-conflict situation… About 601,000 of these excess deaths were due to violent causes.”
Many have died since then. Iraq Body Count, which tracks civilian deaths in Iraq using credible media reports and NGOs and offers what can be taken as a minimum casualty estimate, has found that “the most violent 12-month period in Iraq’s recent history extended from July 2006 to June 2007.” The daily toll went down for a few months, but Iraq Body Count reported that as of the end of February 2008 the number of civilian deaths from violence was higher than in the preceding month “for the first time since September 2007.” March 2008 has proved to be very bloody.
There are many ways to die a violent death in Iraq. Not all can be attributed directly to the American-led occupation forces. But almost all can be attributed to the occupation and the resistance that it has elicited (with all its horrors) and the anarchy it has unleashed. Robert Fisk has reported in The Independent that suicide bombings in Iraq may have killed over 13,000 people and wounded even more. As he points out, the first suicide bombings were aimed at the invading American forces. There have been over 1,100 since then.
Along with the dead and injured are the displaced. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees reports that “as of September 2007, there were believed to be well over 4 million displaced Iraqis around the world, including some 2.2 million inside Iraq and a similar number in neighboring countries.” Three million of these were displaced after 2003. It estimates that “60,000 Iraqis are being forced to leave their homes every month by continuing violence.”
For the Iraqi survivors, the legacy of occupation will be punishing. The years of daily humiliation and violence by outsiders, the collusion and collaboration by the self-serving and the desperate, an armed resistance based around sectarian religious and ethnic identities, and the embrace of self-destruction as a political act that is at the heart of suicide bombing, will poison Iraqi society for a generation if not longer.
Costs to America
America has paid a heavy political price, and not just in the now-all-too-familiar collapse of U.S. standing in world opinion. Even its allies have been abandoning it. Eighteen countries have pulled their troops out of the so-called “coalition of the willing” in Iraq. Almost all the remaining countries that sent troops have reduced their forces. Twelve countries have fewer than a hundred soldiers each in Iraq. These allies – Mongolia, Czech Republic, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Macedonia, Ukraine, Bosnia, Estonia, Kazakhstan, Moldova, and Latvia – are small countries that are reliant on U.S. aid, and this war is the price charged for closer political ties. The isolation of the United States that this reflects will have enduring consequences.
The United States has paid heavily in other ways for this war. It has spent over $500 billion on this war and is currently spending over $10 billion a month, about $275 million a day. A Congressional Research Service analyst reported in late 2007 that by then the Iraq war had already cost the United States about 65% as much as the total cost of the Vietnam war, which lasted for 12 years.
There is much more to come. Joseph Stiglitz, the American Nobel-laureate economist, and Linda Bilmes estimate that the Iraq war will eventually cost the United States between $3 trillion and $5 trillion. This bill includes military spending, replacing destroyed and prematurely worn-out equipment, the increase in oil prices due to the war, the interest on debts incurred to pay for the war, the loss of economic productivity due to reservists (part-time soldiers) sent to Iraq, and the cost of many years of health care for returning wounded soldiers. This war spending, along with the money spent on the war in Afghanistan and nuclear weapons, has raised the military budget above $600 billion, a factor that has worsened the economic slump now underway.
It is no surprise that American public opinion remains resolutely opposed to the war. A recent poll by USA Today and Gallup found almost 60% believed that it was a mistake to have sent troops to Iraq in the first place. It found that over half of Americans now believe the Bush administration “deliberately misled the American public about whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.”
But the war is fading from the media. Stories about the war were about 3% of the news in February 2008, down from 15% in July 2007. Fading coverage has combined with weariness about what to do about the war, a looming economic crisis, and the presidential election campaign to dull public knowledge about the war. A recent Pew poll found that only 28% of Americans knew the current U.S. death toll in Iraq. More people underestimated the actual casualties. Six months ago over half of the public had an accurate sense of American deaths in Iraq.
The Iraq war has broken the Bush presidency, cost the Republicans control of Congress, and may lose them the White House. The growing sentiment among Americans that the United States should mind its own business and not try to manage the affairs of the rest of the world may be enough to restrain future leaders from a similar illegal assault on another nation.
But we have been here before. It is worth remembering that thirty years ago many believed the painful lessons of the Vietnam War and American defeat would restrain American interventions overseas. But it took right-wing politicians, led notably by Ronald Reagan, barely five years to begin rallying the public to overturn the “Vietnam Syndrome” and demand that America show it had “the means and the determination to prevail.” They prevailed. The challenge after Iraq will be to make sure this does not happen again.
It will not be easy. The presidential election campaign offers John McCain who still supports the Iraq war and would it seems go to war against Iran if he could, and Hillary Clinton who is unabashed about her willingness to use force.
But even Barack Obama, who many hope will pave the way to a new era in American politics, has affirmed his commitment to the use of American military power. In his July 2007 Foreign Affairs essay “Renewing American Leadership,” he wrote “To renew American leadership in the world, we must immediately begin working to revitalize our military. A strong military is, more than anything, necessary to sustain peace… We must retain the capacity to swiftly defeat any conventional threat to our country and our vital interests… I will not hesitate to use force, unilaterally if necessary… We must also consider using military force in circumstances beyond self-defense in order to provide for the common security that underpins global stability.”
The path from empire will be no easy walk.
Zia Mian, a Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org) columnist, directs the Project on Peace and Security in South Asia at the Program on Science and Global Security, at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs.