Ten years ago this week the United States launched the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Ten years later we can and should say that the United States lost that war.
Recognizing that the United States lost (and why) is a bit like an alcoholic admitting that he has a problem -- it's the first step on the road to recovery and preventing such grievous errors from being repeated in the future.
Defining a wartime loss can be a tricky thing. Clearly, the United States does not look defeated in the way that, say, Japan looked at the end of World War II. But if one uses the Bush administration's criteria for what the war in Iraq was supposed to accomplish, it's a loss all the same.
The initial rationales used by President Bush to justify military action in Iraq revolved around two ideas: one, that Iraq had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and the inclination to build more; and two, that Iraq had direct links to terrorist organizations that could use these weapons to attack the United States. As Bush said at the time, "We are now acting because the risks of inaction would be far greater. In one year or five years, the power of Iraq to inflict harm on all free nations would be multiplied many times over." Removing Saddam Hussein -- one of the objectives that the United States did accomplish in Iraq -- was viewed as a key means for lessening these alleged threats.
But we now know that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction, or even an active program to build them; it was not attempting to rebuild its nuclear program; it did not have links to al Qaeda; it was not working with international terrorist groups to attack the United States. Iraq was a neutered, battered, and marginalized nation, hemmed in by international sanctions and the enforcement of no-fly zones in the north and south of the country. Saddam was a threat to no one but his own people.
Acolytes of the Bush administration (and they are a small group) could argue that the United States was not fully aware of Iraq's vulnerable state, its lack of WMD, and its mythical links to terrorism. The problem, of course, is that one doesn't get a mulligan when it comes to invading and occupying a foreign country and squandering thousands of American lives (and some 100,000 Iraqi lives), as well as trillions of dollars. Even if the Bush administration was misled by CIA intelligence or had the best of intentions in Iraq, that's an explanation (and an unbelievably charitable one) -- not an excuse.
After all, containment of Iraq was working -- and was significantly strengthened in the run-up to the war. In May 2002, the U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a program of "smart sanctions," overcoming long-standing Russian opposition and renewing international support for keeping Saddam in his box. And a few months later, the Security Council again unanimously approved a resolution demanding Iraq allow U.N. inspectors back into the country -- which it did in January 2003. The initial IAEA and U.N. monitoring teams reported that they could find no evidence of WMD in Iraq, but that more inspections were needed. Perversely, this was viewed in Washington as evidence of continued Iraqi obfuscation and even more reason to invade the country. Even if one believes that the sanctions regime was wavering, the steps taken by the United Nations were compelling evidence that containment of Iraq could be maintained -- and that the allegedly urgent need for invasion and occupation was thoroughly overstated.
Of course, in the years after the invasion -- and after no WMD or links to terrorism were found -- the rationale for sustaining the U.S. presence in Iraq shifted: from removing Saddam as a threat to birthing liberty between the Tigris and the Euphrates. While putting Iraq on the road to stability and even democracy might be a laudatory goal, it was certainly never the war's primary objective.
Regardless, can anyone seriously argue that building a democracy in Iraq was worth the price tag? Whatever your priorities, the opportunity costs alone are stratospherically large. The $3 trillion spent by the United States in both direct and indirect costs could have balanced the budget (several times over), fixed the nation's crumbling infrastructure, ensured that every person with HIV had access to life-saving medications, or ended world hunger.
In the end, a war that was predicated on dubious suppositions, diverted trillions in resources, cost thousands of lives, and did not further U.S. security interests really only has one descriptor: a loss.
So why does this matter? Does the United States really need to engage in self-flagellation over the war in Iraq? Actually, yes it does.