It was an anticlimactic end to America’s worst foreign policy disaster since the Vietnam War: in mid-October, the mainstream media either downplayed or ignored the news that the United States would withdraw all its troops from Iraq by the end of this year. It was only a week later, after President Obama held a press conference to announce the fact, that the media acknowledged the ignominious end to a shameful debacle.
This magazine was an early and relentless critic of the war, and we joined millions around the globe in protesting what we called in 2005 “an unprovoked, unnecessary, unlawful invasion that has turned into a colonial-style occupation.” The costs are staggering: hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed and wounded, with millions displaced and the sectarian enmities that our occupation fomented still seething; more than 4,400 Americans killed and some 30,000 wounded, with direct costs of $800 billion but indirect costs, as estimated by economists Linda Bilmes and Joseph Stiglitz, in the range of $4–6 trillion.
In his announcement, Obama claimed he was fulfilling a promise to end the war. In fact, Washington worked hard to prolong the futile occupation, badgering the Iraqi government repeatedly to approve an extended US troop presence. The talks finally fell apart when it became clear that the Iraqi government, reflecting overwhelming public opinion, would refuse to grant US troops immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts, which the Pentagon had insisted on.
The withdrawal has been lambasted by the GOP, neoconservatives and the military, but the decision is consistent with the demands of peace groups, which had called tirelessly for an end to the occupation. Remaining behind, however, will be the biggest US embassy in the world and some 5,000 private contractors. A vigilant peace movement should campaign to bring them home too.
It would be hard to overestimate the futility of the Iraq misadventure. The waste in political and diplomatic energy, in addition to the loss in blood and treasure, is incalculable. Overwhelming worldwide sympathy for the United States after the Al Qaeda attacks of 9/11 was transformed into condemnation of US aggression against a nation with no involvement in those attacks. An invasion intended to turn Mesopotamia into a Pax Americana turned Iraq into a magnet for Islamist extremists and heightened Iran’s influence and prestige there, even as it sullied America’s name in the region. The images of Iraqis tortured at Abu Ghraib are an indelible stain on our reputation.
The costs for American democracy are still being felt. The Bush administration used the war as an excuse to further eviscerate civil liberties weakened by the “war on terror,” which the Obama administration has done little to restore. A craven mainstream media, cowed by the atmosphere of fear, deservedly earned public contempt for failing to question the flimsy pretexts for invasion. Its mea culpas were many and late. The long war and occupation helped turn a Treasury surplus into a huge deficit—one that has made it difficult for Obama to pass stimulus measures needed for economic recovery.
The American people turned against the war in Iraq years ago, as they have against the one in Afghanistan. Confronted by the worst recession in seventy years, the country can now direct its energies toward what Obama described, in his remarks on the Iraq withdrawal, as “the greatest challenge that we now face as a nation—creating opportunity and jobs in this country.”