“It is hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself – hard to imagine.”
-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz (February, 2003)
“The insurgency in Iraq is in its last throes.”
-Vice President Dick Cheney (June, 2005)
“The year 2005 will be recorded as a turning point in the history or Iraq, the history of the Middle East, and the history of freedom.”
-President George W. Bush (December, 2005)
Have you thought about Iraq recently? Of course it’s easy to ignore news from that country now that U.S. forces are no longer involved in the war there. But there is still a war in Iraq, and it is not going all that well for the government the United States put in power as part of its post-Saddam plan to bring democracy to the country.
Actually, the plan (or at least the expectation) was that democracy would spread from Iraq through the rest of the region. You’ll recall that was one of the many justifications the Bush administration provided for the invasion of the country. (Others, all untrue, were that Saddam was a co-conspirator in the 9/11 attacks, that he was building a nuclear weapon, that he had stockpiles of WMDs, and that his continued reign was a threat to the United States.)
Well, the democracy, such as it is, hasn’t exactly brought about the desired results. In fact, the news from the ground in Iraq suggests that the country is at risk of becoming a haven for al Qaeda, unless it continues to emerge as a puppet for the theocratic regime in Iran, or unless it just breaks up into smaller independent geographic units, with the Kurds establishing their own state in the north and the Sunnis and Shiites making a checkerboard of the rest of the country.
None of those possibilities, should any of them develop, would vindicate the decision to invade the country to overthrow Saddam. Nor would the living conditions for many Iraqis now as opposed to then (the humanitarian justification for the war) vindicate it, since most Iraqis were no worse off under Saddam than they are now, with war, terrorist attacks, and pervasive fear all around them.
Let’s remember what the real conditions were in Iraq before the Bush administration conducted its illegal war (which, as a matter of international law, it clearly and definitively was). Saddam was a nasty, brutal dictator, of that there can be no doubt. But he was primarily interested in his own power, not in an ideological mission (as is the case with the Iranian theocracy and the North Korean socialist state, for example). Saddam was just one of those ruthless dictators who killed those (including even his sons-in-law) whom he perceived to be threats to his reign. As for the rest of his country’s citizens, he was at worst a corrupt and ruthless leader with little interest for their welfare. Much the same can be said for many third world autocrats.
But because he was so intent on retaining power (and so non-ideological), the al Qaeda movement was anathema to him. He was, in that respect, an implicit (if unrecognized) post-9/11 U.S. ally, as he would not have allowed an al Qaeda base to form in his country, lest it threaten his regime.
Moreover, as to any hostile designs he might otherwise have had on the United States, he had been emasculated by the first Gulf War and by the sanctions the U.S. and its allies had imposed on Iraq after that war. In particular, he was militarily unable to extend his power beyond his borders, since his use of air space was severely restricted to the country’s defined borders and his army had been decimated by the war.
In sum, in the years leading up to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, Saddam was a paper tiger as to the U.S. He was also a brutal, even monstrous dictator as to his own citizens, albeit most of the purges by Saddam that left a quarter million Iraqis dead occurred before the first Gulf War. (As an aside, I would note that even as to the Sunni-Shiite divide in Iraq, Saddam was not heavily antagonistic to the Shiites, so long as they did not pose a threat to his regime; most of his pre-Gulf War brutality was aimed at rebellious Kurds and perceived political enemies.)
Yet President Bush insisted that the Saddam regime must go. And the cost of that effort? By the most conservative estimates, the war cost one trillion dollars. It also resulted in 4,500 U.S. deaths and over 32,000 wounded, many of those permanently maimed or disfigured. And, to date, at least 110,000 Iraqi civilians (many estimates are much higher) have died violently from the effects of the war.
All of which would be “water under the bridge,” so to speak, were it not for the still-developing results of the war. And they are not pretty, because in the absence of U.S. military force, the “democracy” that President Bush so fervently believed would take hold is struggling with an on-going war waged by, among others, al Qaeda. Just last week, al Qaeda-aligned militants claimed the western city of Fallujah to be their new independent state, as they routed government forces. This week government efforts to re-take Fallujah were hampered by defections of some tribal militias to the al Qaeda side of the conflict.
Why is the government of Prime Minister al-Maliki encountering such fierce resistance? The main impetus is antagonism to the Shiite-dominated government that the Prime Minister’s administration has fostered. Democracy in Iraq, it seems, hasn’t taken hold quite as President Bush apparently envisioned.
With added historical perspective the judgment of all presidential administrations can undergo revision. In hindsight some decisions can be seen more favorably, some actions viewed more charitably. Nevertheless, the decision of George W. Bush to invade Iraq so as to dethrone a sovereign government and to replace that government with one in his own country’s image should always be viewed as a catastrophic miscalculation, if not the action of a war criminal.