Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis
Ten years ago last week, then-President George W. Bush ordered American troops to invade Iraq, an act preceded by months of assertions that Saddam Hussein was building up his weapons of mass destruction to use against America. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, most Americans — and even most Democrats in the Senate — backed the war. A decade later, though, Americans are split on whether the war is worth it: A recent Gallup Poll says 53 percent of the public calls the war a mistake.
Was the war a mistake? RedBlue America columnists Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk debate the issue.
MATHIS: What’s the lesson that we’ve learned from Iraq? That war will always be much, much more difficult than our leaders promise. Before America invaded Iraq, Americans were told a number of things that turned out not to be true.
We were told the war would be cheap. It wasn’t.
We were told we’d be welcomed as liberators. We weren’t.
We were told that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that made him a threat to the entire Middle East, and ultimately to America itself. He didn’t.
Did the Bush administration lie? Not in every case, no. But it did commit a sin of colossal hubris, going to war on the rosiest of assumptions — that it would be a “cakewalk” — and then failed to adjust to reality for years before creating the “surge” of troops that helped reduce violence in Iraq to somewhat-manageable levels.
The result? More than 4,000 troops killed. Many more injured. Tens of thousands of Iraqis killed. Trillions of dollars added to national expenses, both for the war itself and for the decades of care and benefits we owe the veterans of the war.
The lesson we’ve learned, then, is to assume the very worst the next time an American president tells us this country must invade another.
We should assume that the war will take a decade, not weeks or months.
We should assume that thousands of our brothers and sisters will die in fighting it, and that thousands more will be permanently damaged.
We should assume that the country will go deeper in debt, or that Americans will be forced to take on a heavier tax burden to pay for it. And then we should ask ourselves: If those worst-case scenarios come true, will the war have been worth it? It wasn’t in Iraq. It probably won’t be the next time, either.
BOYCHUK: No, the Iraq War wasn’t a mistake. Ridding the world of Saddam Hussein and his anti-American regime was a good and righteous thing, whether or not he had weapons of mass destruction.
Letting Saddam live to fight another day after the first Gulf War in 1991 surely was a mistake. He sponsored terrorism throughout the Middle East and Europe. He hosted training camps and harbored terrorists, including the notorious Abu Nidal, who carried out attacks against Americans and our allies in more than 20 countries. He paid bounties for suicide bombings. And on and on.
The aftermath of the Iraq invasion was an utter catastrophe, however, and one that the United States will not soon live down.
In a vain effort to build a modern democracy from the ashes of a socialist tyranny, we found ourselves instead trying to hold together a fractious nation of warring ethnicities and religious sects. Who were we to stand in their way? “By the time our troops withdrew,” observed Boston University political scientist and international affairs expert Angelo Codevilla in the Claremont Review of Books, “the Kurdish north had become Kurdistan, the Shia ruled from north of Baghdad to the Persian Gulf, the Sunni enclaves were well armed, and all Iraqi sides were convinced that the next round of struggle would yield better results for them.”
And what did we get for our blood, sweat, tears and toil? “Disrespect for America,” Codevilla concluded in 2011, “may be the occupation’s most harmful international legacy.”
Going to war wasn’t a mistake. The mistake was trusting Republicans and Democrats who, in the end, had no idea what victory was supposed to look like. The Bush administration obsessed with nation-building strategy, while the Obama administration focused on an exit strategy.
Nobody seems to have taken the time to consider a winning strategy.
Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Joel Mathis is a contributing editor to The Philly Post. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com or www.facebook.com/benandjoel. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.