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. Bush said: “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.”

    It sounds like Bush and his Republican buddies were offering more government services to the people of Iraq than they were, or still do, to American citizens. I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised that they failed to deliver on all three of these promises.

  2. Just check the beneficiaries list of this multibillion dollar cost and you will realize that it would be not the last game of war.

  3. YK ,

    None of it , has to do with my comment , read twice , read carefully :

    First , I don’t and didn’t support any war, my personal view is irrelevant here . I was just presenting , the missing discretion , had been ignored by the author of the post , and I wrote specifically :

    One may dislike the idea of rushing to war , but , others may support it , after understanding the full scale of the relevant discretion . The surrounding of this war , is full of myths and lies . I know the truth about this war , and have presented it , very briefly ( hardly so even ) .

    If you would read carefully the comment , you would understand , that the ” Arab spring ” is a clear evidence , that those peoples rising , not only preferred the war over living under oppression , but , have preferred even to die , over living in oppression of such . They were simply paralyzed out of fear , and the fall overnight of Saddam Hussein , relieved them out of that fear , and then the truth emerged :

    Rage , anger , hatred towards those oppressing regimes and dictatorships , and preference to fight and die if needed , in order to gain :

    Democracy , dignity , freedom . That was the goal of Bush , and he has achieved it . He couldn’t bring democracy , that was up to the peoples , yet could bring them a chance for constituting democracy and freedom, and it did work , yet , not yet over , far from it , game is on yet .

    Concerning Saddam and the west , you are right generally speaking …. that is the ugliness of politics indeed .


  4. Just some relevant part of the :

    ” Full text: George Bush’s speech to the American Enterprise Institute”

    The guardian ( online ) , here :

    ” The safety of the American people depends on ending this direct and growing threat. Acting against the danger will also contribute greatly to the long-term safety and stability of our world. The current Iraqi regime has shown the power of tyranny to spread discord and violence in the Middle East. A liberated Iraq can show the power of freedom to transform that vital region, by bringing hope and progress into the lives of millions. America’s interests in security, and America’s belief in liberty, both lead in the same direction: to a free and peaceful Iraq. (Applause.)

    The first to benefit from a free Iraq would be the Iraqi people, themselves. Today they live in scarcity and fear, under a dictator who has brought them nothing but war, and misery, and torture. Their lives and their freedom matter little to Saddam Hussein — but Iraqi lives and freedom matter greatly to us.”

    End of quotation :

    So , here we read the real one . Endless stupid myths concerning this war : oil , Euro Vs. dollar , you name it , simply senseless . Like a classic Texan and American , Bush , has decided, and radically so , to create new global order , in order to fight global terror ( after the attack of September the 11th ) . The plan was simple : bring democracy , bring freedom , bring prosperity , and people living good , shall stop seeking terror and become frantic , and shall live in peace , instead of trying to attack America . Good for them , good for the US . Maybe it may sound incredibly naïve for whoever opposes it , yet , that is the real thing . And readers should know it !!


  5. The failure was the decision to throw away The Future of Iraq “day after” planning that had been led by State Dept for almost a year prior to the actual invasion. That the NeoCons threw away the essential post invasion planning effort of the entire US Government was why that effort failed so badly. I was there. I served at US Embassy Baghdad (1986) under Saddam rule and went to Iraq as private businessman in May 2003. The failure to show Iraqis we were serious about the reconstruction of the economy and real political freedom was the cause of the insurgency. The disenfranchisement of the Sunni establishment proved that a lie.

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