Most Americans have pretty much forgotten about the war in Iraq by now. But the comforts of obliviousness are illusory. Iraq is just too important a country for that.
The experience in Iraq is also certain to have implications for many other areas of U.S. foreign policy that aren't necessarily confined to the Middle East. One of them involves the oft-discussed realm of "democracy promotion." American war aims in Iraq explicitly included toppling Saddam's one-party dictatorship and installing a new, more accountable form of government that would live in peace with its own people as well as its neighbors. There's a reason why the official American name for the war was Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).
Washington took this mission seriously: "Securing and stabilizing a new democracy in Iraq and helping its economy grow were the foundational rationales behind the massive U.S. assistance effort." That quote comes from the final report, issued today (just in time for the tenth anniversary of the invasion), by the Special Inspector General for Iraqi Reconstruction (SIGIR), a government watchdog set up by Congress to monitor how the $60 billion specifically allocated for the rebuilding of post-Saddam Iraq was actually spent. The SIGIR report, which lists a series of "lessons" for policymakers, is worth a look. (For those of you who don't have time to read all 186 pages, the main lessons are shown on p. xii.)
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Perhaps the most interesting reading comes in a section entitled "Democracy and Civil Society." Altogether, the report notes, the United States spent $1.82 billion on measures specifically designed to strengthen democratic institutions, such as support for elections, drafting a new constitution, and promoting the growth of civil society groups. (That sum doesn't include funding for a range of other programs that arguably also had positive effects on democracy, such as efforts to improve governance, build the rule of law, and fight corruption.)
By way of comparison, the Congressional Research Service has estimated the overall direct costs of the war at $806 billion, but that doesn't include a whole series of war-related expenditures that probably make the actual bill much higher. (Some put it as high as $2 trillion.) And, of course, we shouldn't forget the cost in blood: Tens of thousands of Iraqi civilian deaths (with estimates ranging from 60,000 to ten times that) as well as combatant losses, including the deaths of 4,486 U.S. military personnel between 2003 and 2012.
So should Americans feel happy about the results? Well, the Special Inspector General does note that the Iraqis managed to carry off an impressive series of peaceable elections during the period in question, an achievement duly described as a "reconstruction success story." But that's pretty much where the good news ends. The SIGIR report notes, for example, that the State Department wasn't able to measure the impact of the grants it awarded for "democracy-building activities," which included things like offering advice to women's groups and teaching political parties how to garner votes.