Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had a press conference in Turkey a couple weeks ago after participating in a ceremony in Baghdad marking the end of America’s official (but not unofficial) military presence in that country. And he claimed that the invasion of Iraq was worth the cost:
Speaking with reporters here a day after participating in ceremonies in Baghdad marking the end of the U.S. mission in Iraq, the secretary called the milestone a time to reflect on what was gained, what was lost and the price paid during the effort.
“There is no question that the United States was divided going into that war,” he said. “But I think the United States is united coming out of that war. We all recognize the tremendous price that has been paid in lives, in blood. And yet I think we also recognize that those lives were not lost in vain.”
The result, he said, has been establishment of a sovereign and independent Iraq that can govern and secure itself and become “an important, stabilizing factor in that region of the world.”
“As difficult as [the Iraq war] was,” and the cost in both American and Iraqi lives, “I think the price has been worth it, to establish a stable government in a very important region of the world,” he added.
This is what he has to say, of course, but he can’t really believe it, can he? A few days after he made those claims, Iraqi Prime Minister Minister Nouri al-Malaki tried to have Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi arrested. Malaki is a Shiite, Hashemi is a Sunni (the nation’s highest-ranking Sunni official, in fact). That sparked massive protests around the country and threatens to unravel a very fragile power-sharing agreement among the various groups in Parliament.
But even if we had managed to establish a stable government in Iraq, would it have been worth the cost? Glenn Greenwald looks at the ledger:
The “price” that Panetta believes is “worth it” includes dead civilians in the hundreds of thousands, countless more maimed, millions of Iraqis internally and externally displaced (a huge number who remain so), tens of thousands of American soldiers killed and/or injured, and at least $1 trillion spent, contributing to “austerity” so severe that Panetta himself has been urging cuts to core social programs. That is above and beyond future Saddam-like oppression, tyranny and sectarian strife under the Malaki regime. As the always-insightful military historian and former Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich put it this week: “Recalling that Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction and alleged ties to al-Qaeda both turned out to be all but non-existent, a Churchillian verdict on the war might read thusly: Seldom in the course of human history have so many sacrificed so dearly to achieve so little.”
I understand the moral argument for invading Iraq, one that was very compelling to Christopher Hitchens, who counted many close friends among the Kurds who had been tortured and killed by Saddam Hussein. Hussein was an incredibly brutal dictator and he was responsible for untold suffering. I was among those writing letters on behalf of Amnesty International against his barbaric actions in the late 1980s, when he was still an American ally receiving lots of money, weaponry and intelligence assistance from our government. The desire to end that brutal reign is entirely reasonable.
But wars result in a great deal of carnage and consequences, intended and unintended, that have to be weighed as well. I am not a pacifist; I believe that there are situations in which war is necessary, sometimes to end injustice. And I’m glad Saddam Hussein is dead and no longer able to engage in torture and institutionalized murder. But was it worth the costs listed above? I don’t think it was, and I don’t think the rationalizations offered for it make much sense.
We haven’t stabilized the region, we’ve destabilized it. Iraq is now going to descend into greater sectarian and tribal violence. Hussein’s brutality kept a lid on those forces for decades and the American military presence helped keep it from exploding completely for the last few years. But this result was made inevitable by our invasion. We could not stay there and occupy the country forever. Even our puppet government does not want us there anymore. But Iraq is going to be a bloody, violent mess for as long as anyone can foresee.
In the end, all the claims of Hussein’s strategic threat to us were nonsense (which was obvious to me at the time and should have been obvious to anyone paying attention); the imagined small cost of the war predicted by the Bush administration, especially Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, turned out to be “wildly off the mark” (as Wolfowitz once falsely claimed about Gen. Shinseki’s far-too-optimistic prediction that the war would cost $200 billion or so); the human rights situation has not improved a bit, as Hussein’s brutality was replaced by the abuses of American troops, contractors, the Iraqi government and the various factions fighting in the country; the country and the region are more unstable than ever; and we’ve killed tens to hundreds of thousands, displaced hundreds of thousands more and spent a fortune in the process. Worth it? Not even close.