On March 19, 2003, without the approval of the United Nations Security Council and against the advice of many of America’s closest allies, the Bush Administration launched what has become one of the longest-running wars in US history. Now, on the third anniversary of the start of the war, we are just beginning to feel the full effects of the greatest catastrophe in American foreign policy since the Vietnam War. We are all familiar with the staggering costs in lives and money of the Iraq War: 2,300 Americans killed, more than 16,000 wounded or maimed; about 30,000 direct Iraqi deaths and more than 100,000 attributable to the war; upward of $300 billion in direct war expenditures and close to $1 trillion in estimated total costs.
We are also painfully aware of the longer-term damage to US foreign policy and to our standing in the world. The war has bred a new generation of religious extremists, dangerously heightened sectarian tensions in the Islamic world, strengthened Iran’s hand in Iraq and in matters of nuclear diplomacy, and created the most serious threat to the world’s oil supply since the OPEC embargo–all the while undermining American authority in the region and straining the US military to the breaking point.
But these facts and figures do not capture the full tragedy that Iraq has become or the horror that may yet befall that country and indeed the region. As recent events make clear, Iraq is now on the verge of a full-scale civil war, which US forces are helpless to prevent and for which they are increasingly blamed by all sides. The blood bath following the bombing of the golden-domed Shiite mosque in Samarra claimed more than 1,400 lives, as angry Shiite mobs attacked Sunni mosques and killed their Sunni neighbors. This outbreak followed months of low-intensity ethnic cleansing in many Iraqi neighborhoods and increasing targeting of Sunnis by Shiite militias, many of them operating under cover of the Interior Ministry and the Iraqi army the United States has been training.
Throughout the three years of the war, the Administration and its supporters have tried to create the illusion of progress by hyping one democratic “landmark” after another. But as this magazine has warned all along, each landmark was just another step toward the violence and misery that now engulfs ordinary Iraqis. Meanwhile, the only democratic landmark that really matters–establishing an accountable national unity government capable of keeping order and beginning the reconstruction of the country–still eludes the efforts of America’s Ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad. Khalilzad may understand the importance of a national unity government better than his predecessors, but he cannot make up for the original sin of the invasion and occupation or for all the crimes and mistakes, from Falluja to Abu Ghraib to a flawed constitutional process.
Still, the effort to discredit those who would question American policy in Iraq continues with the usual attacks on the patriotism and steadfastness of those who argue for a US withdrawal or even for establishing a timetable for withdrawal. Vice President Cheney warns about “defeatists” who would have the United States leave Iraq before finishing the job.