Ten years ago today, President George W. Bush sat in the White House and received information attributed to an “unimpeachable” source that Saddam Hussein was set to spend the night at Dora Farms outside of Baghdad. During that White House meeting, President Bush struggled to reconcile the upside of decapitating the regime before the war began and his own word that Hussein had 48 hours to leave Iraq.
After deciding that the possibility of killing Saddam and his two sons Uday and Qusay was too real to pass up, Bush abandoned his 48-hour ultimatum one day early. Two F-117 fighters blazed into Iraq on the early morning of March 19th, 2003 and hit the farm with four bunker-buster munitions.
Like most of the “unimpeachable” or “slam dunk” intelligence in the run-up to the war, it was wrong. Saddam Hussein escaped, and so began the war in Iraq.
Ten years later, Iraq still looms as a cloud over our foreign and domestic policy. A country weary of more than 12 years of conflict is now reluctant to support more international adventurism, and the unpaid bills from the wars are now due, driving a large part of the national discussion over our debt.
But the legacy of the Iraq War lies just as much in how we got there as what it left behind.
A collection of Cold Warriors conditioned to define enemies as nation-states needed a country and not a loose affiliation of disaffected Muslims upon which to train America’s military might.
As a result, they placed Iraq as the sun in the center of their solar system and found a hodgepodge of dubious claims and questionable intelligence to orbit their obsession. To use another more direct description from a 2002 meeting between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his national security team, “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”
It was a prescient analysis from the Brits, and most would now agree it was accurate. In the run up to the war, good intelligence that conflicted with the pre-determined policy objective was dismissed, reasonable voices marginalized, and dissenting Americans accused of not being patriotic.
Over the course of those months leading up to war, some of our very best minds in the intelligence community were crushed under enormous pressure from a Vice President hell-bent on hearing what he wanted to hear: a collection of pseudo facts and outright fiction to sell a war that many in his party had wanted for a decade, and began planning long before 9/11.
Even journalists who asked too many questions were shunned, and those who accepted the Administration’s claims became unwitting instruments in selling the “product,” a mortifying euphemism for the proposed invasion.
The war that was supposed to last just a few months took more than nine years to fight.
The war that was supposed to cost between $50 and $60 billion dollars is now projected to cost nearly $4 trillion.
The war that was supposed to be worth the human cost to remove Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction cost 4,486 American lives to not find the weapons of mass destruction that were never the imminent threat to US security.
The United States got sold a bottle of snake oil that cost the country far too much.
So what did we get?
Shiite Iran now has the regional ally in Iraq that they always wanted now that the competing Sunni government in Iraq is gone, replaced by a Shiite majority. Tehran is now more emboldened thanks to the fact that Saddam no longer is a threat to its regional supremacy.
We extended the war in Afghanistan since the US was dividing resources between the two wars, and an argument could be made that Afghanistan would be a different place if there had been a larger US troop commitment there during the days of Iraq.
De-Ba’athification and the dissolution of the Iraqi Army in post-war Iraq created a climate where disillusioned former soldiers and ordinary citizens had nowhere to turn when it came to their mounting frustrations with the Coalition Provisional Authority and its American administrator L. Paul Bremer.
The power vacuum left behind in Saddam’s wake and anger among everyday Iraqis gave rise to terrorists like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and radical clerics like Muqtada al-Sadr, two of the architects of the insurgency that sparked a civil war in Iraq in the years after the invasion. The violence became a cauldron of American casualties for nearly a decade.
In addition to the thousands of American families who lost loved ones in Iraq, there are thousands more caring for veterans that were disabled during the insurgency that was largely the product of poor post-war planning. Thousands more veterans are dealing with long-term psychological issues and are sometimes waiting for a year to receive VA benefits.
Soldiers and their families have been left to pay an eternal price for a war fought based on a lie about weapons of mass destruction.
With the war in Iraq still looming large in the rear view mirror, it is difficult to say if it changed us as a country. It took time to understand the true impacts of Vietnam on our society as well. Four decades removed from Vietnam and the history books finally have a handle on what the war, the protests against it, and its aftermath meant to our country.
In 40 years time, I hope Iraq is as much if not more of a cautionary tale.
How did journalists allow themselves to become hucksters for the product?
How did our intelligence services so irresponsibly mold their impartial product to give hawks what they wanted to hear?
Why didn’t our politicians vote their conscience in that pre-election 2002 war vote as opposed to heeding the prevailing political winds before the midterms?
And why didn’t we as a country stand up and say “Wait a minute!”
If any of those things had happened, perhaps the war in Iraq would have never happened.
If the country is never duped again into a war it doesn’t need, then America truly learned the lessons of Iraq.