The Iraq War: Fifteen Years Later

by James J. Zogby

Over the next few weeks, I want to take a look back to February and March of 2003, to those fateful days leading up to the Bush administration’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 mobilization that was organized in opposition to the war.

In the end, then President George W. Bush ignored American public opinion and the sage advice of senior Republican statement like former Secretary of State James Baker and former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and invaded Iraq leading to the most consequential disaster in recent US 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 fighting 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 thousand 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 in Iraq and Afghanistan (400,000 served three or more tours of duty in these two wars) have returned home suffering from post-traumatic shock disorder (PTSD)—about 10% 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 died 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 demoralizing to US troops and also established 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 world-wide. By the end of the Bush administration, US favorable ratings were at their lowest point, worldwide. US abhorrent behaviors exhibited during the war (Abu Ghraib, torture, Guantanamo, etc) also fueled extremist currents giving new life to al Qaeda which, though routed in Afghanistan, metastasized, spreading their anti-American hate across many 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 neoconservative “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 neoconservative 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 Saddam’s “nuclear program” or their false efforts to portray the Iraqi regime as the region’s principle sponsor of terror—this was the brief presented by then Secretary of State Colin Powell at the United Nations in his failed effort to win international backing for the invasion. No, the more serious lies they told were done so in their effort to sell the war to the American as an easy, cheap, and lofty venture.

In congressional testimony and press briefings, high-ranking administration officials argued the war would only require between 60,000 to 90,000 troops (in fact, the administration fired the Pentagon general who at a congressional hearing had admitted that the invasion and occupation of the country, if they were to succeed, would require over 350,000 troops). The fighting, administration spokespeople 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 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 people that when the dust settled 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 mobilizing his base of right-wing evangelicals and neoconservatives 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 we and most especially the people of Iraq and the region are living with the consequences of the disaster they brought down on us all: a shattered Iraq, an emboldened Iran, a weaken, war weary, and wary America, and a Middle East in which multiple regional and international powers are engaged in a number of deadly conflicts.

James J. Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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  1. Well organized post , and pretty correct factually , yet , lacking crucial philosophical and moral and interpretative dimensions , and really briefly :

    The respectable author of the post , didn’t mention , in one word even , that huge earthquake named : ” The Arab spring ” . Now , that ” spring ” , that rise was the outcome of that war . The fall , overnight in fact , of such brutal dictator like Saddam Hussein ( by the way , had killed it is estimated , half million from his own people , not mentioning the Iran – Iraq war ( another half million by the same way or token ) ) caused simply , the barrier of psychological fear to be broken , and from there and on , peoples started to rise against dictators ( some argue , that those huge demonstrations in Lebanon at the time ( 2005-2006 ) after the assassination of Rafic Hariri also contributed to it ) .

    Now , that spring is not over , far from it : all over the Arab world : Morocco , Tunisia , Libya , Jordan is a matter of time , Syria far from being over , peoples have risen and still so , demanding rightly : justice , freedom , well being , jobs , freedom of expression etc….. Without that war , it wouldn’t occur simply , that was the initial trigger : Removal of psychological fear from dictatorships and dictators , and domino effect from there and on .

    That was the choice of peoples . To fight , to rise , or simply :

    To die , over living in such inhuman conditions and oppression . Now , one may dislike the idea of rushing to war , even for such noble and elevated purpose , yet , it is part of discretion should be put in front of readers , with all due respect , and letting them to choose .


  2. re: “…Bush ignored American public opinion. . . and invaded Iraq”

    1. It wasn’t just Bush, all the top politicians in both parties supported war. On the Dem side, that included H. Clinton, Biden, Kerry and Gore. In fact Bill Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998. It was the Policy of the United States to support “regime change.”

    2. Zogby International Poll — 76% support war
    “Currently, would you strongly support, somewhat support, somewhat oppose, or strongly oppose a war against Iraq?”
    Mar. 14-15, 2003
    Strongly Support: 54 %
    Somewhat Support: 42 %
    Not Sure: 4 %

    re: “. . .the consequences of the disaster”
    Yes, but let’s look on the bright side. Operation Iraqi Freedom converted Iraq from an Iran enemy to an Iran ally! Tehran says “thank you, Uncle Sam.”

  3. Great piece. Neocons, and Dick Cheney, very cleverly manipulated GW Bush into his reckless invasion of Iraq. One might add that the invasion was not delayed, to allow further searches for the so-called WMD, because it was becoming all too clear the invasion was illegal. Self-inflicted catastrophe for the US, thanks in large part to the Israel lobby.

  4. That James Zogby, laying it down. Proud to be among the 25% against the war from the start. So what, I still have to pay my taxes.

  5. @EL ROAM It is easy to talk of war like armchair generals does especially when you are not at the receiving end, pray tell us what was the opinions of the Iraqi before and after the illegal invasion and occupation of their country? How better have they fare ever since the invasion? What were the psychological, emotional, financial and developmental implication and consequences of the war not just on the present Iraqis but the future generations, not even considering the ripple effect on the growth and spread of terrorism?

    Talking of Saddam Hussein no doubt he’s a devil through and through, but a devil which was armed and supported by the West militarily and politically when he invaded his neighbouring state Iran. Then he was a darling of the West, my question is why would Saddam be prosecuted and Bush and Blair will be walking free? The answer is not far fetched, they belong to the cliques of the exceptional race who have the right to spread enlightenment to the savage parts of the world irrespective of the cost in human and material terms.

    I wonder what they do to children in the west for them to grow up and reason the way you do. No doubt in a capitalist society everything is for sell including conscience. Adios.

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