As U.S. combat troops finished their withdrawal from Iraqi cities last month, the U.S. war in Iraq began its endgame, reminding us of the endgame in Vietnam, which ended the war for us, not for the Vietnamese. This much is certain: Six years after George W. Bush announced “mission accomplished,” it is anything but accomplished.
This war, launched in illegal and dishonest circumstances known now by heart, has had debilitating consequences for America and the world. For America, the war’s tremendous draining of resources — somewhere between $2 trillion and $3 trillion when all is added up, accompanied by Bush’s unconscionable wartime tax cut — played the primary role in turning a $500 billion federal surplus into a $1.8 trillion deficit.
That is not paper money like the trillions created and obliterated by hedge fund managers in the flimflam that wrecked Wall Street. For the government to borrow trillions means printing money, pushing up interest rates, prolonging the recession, adding to the $11.5 trillion debt that will hang over future generations and reduce their standard of living for decades.
Imagine that Washington had those trillions today to pay for needed health-care reform or help states like California, now paying debts with IOUs, through their budget crisis. Was Bush’s war worth it? Or was it, as former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R.-Neb., calls it: “the worst foreign policy blunder in American history.”
For an answer we must look beyond the costs in lives and resources to examine what if anything has been accomplished. World War II cost more money and took more lives than Iraq, but few would deny it was worth it. Vietnam, on the other hand, as Robert S. McNamara, who died this week reminded us, was a tragic failure. The fury of Chuck Hagel over Iraq was a result of Hagel serving in Vietnam and learning something, while George W. Bush avoided service and learned nothing.
When we left Vietnam the same thing happened as will happen in Iraq and Afghanistan. Call it the lessons of history: a civil war is fought out, the stronger side wins and peace is made. The only difference between Vietnam today and Vietnam had we never been there is 3 million dead Vietnamese and 60,000 dead Americans. And those figures do not include the wounded, whose lives in many cases were as destroyed as if they had been killed.
When we leave Iraq the same dynamic will exist as before we arrived. There will be three groups, Sunnis, Shias and Kurds, fighting for power, and question is — will it be military or a civil combat, one fought on the field of battle or the field of politics? One thing is certain: The U.S. presence has strengthened the group most hostile to America, the Shias, the group closest to Iran, the nation that most benefited from Bush’s war.
Strengthening the Shias and Iran and weakening secular Iraqis was the worst of many Bush miscalculations and indicates inevitable conflict when U.S. troops are gone.
Nothing in the Iraq war went as we expected, which is why nothing in the future will go as we expect. The lessons of history, those ignored by Bush, tell us that in a war such as Iraq, the occupied nation will revert to what it was before the occupation. A colonizer imposes his peace, but must stay in place to assure it.
The British imposed peace on India and Palestine and the French on Indo-China, but when they departed, the conflicts they had long suppressed erupted into real ones that still have not been resolved. The reason a few of us argued so strenuously against Bush’s war from the beginning is that we saw no precedent for success. It was a war of hubris and ignorance, and the chances for turning it into anything good were always remote.
That is the dilemma of modern colonial wars. You can’t stay and you can’t leave.
A century ago, it was different. The British controlled the Indian Sub-Continent — a place of well over 1 billion people today separated into three nations — with no more than 5,000 British personnel. A century ago, poor, undeveloped places like the Sub-Continent welcomed occupation, which brought resources, development, a chance to be citizens of the British Empire. The age of independence was decades away.
As U.S. combat forces withdraw from Iraqi cities and from all Iraq in two years, we can only hope the lessons of history do not apply. Wars of aggression are fought to improve the status quo ante, and even if we know now we were misled by knaves, it’s hard to accept that something that cost so much will leave us worse off than before. But there is no evidence on which to base hopes either for Iraq or Afghanistan.
Civil wars are better left alone. Let’s look at two examples.
Lebanon, which borders Iraq and has many of the same ethnic and religious issues, nearly destroyed itself in the 1980s, only reaching a truce among its sects after a gruesomely brutal stalemate of arms was reached. Today, there is a reasonable modus vivendi among the groups based on that stalemate. The United States and France briefly interfered in the Lebanese war in the 1980s, pulling out quickly when we saw that our presence made matters worse.
Following the disintegration of Yugoslavia, a murderous multi-ethnic conflict in Bosnia led to pressure on the Bush I and Clinton Administrations to send U.S. forces into the conflict. James Baker, Bush’s secretary of state, gave his answer in colloquial Texas terms: “We don’t have a dog in that fight.” Clinton continued that policy, offering help but only when the fighting stopped, which led to the Dayton Peace Accord.
By any measure the Iraq war was not worth the cost to Americans. We will see in coming years if anything better than Saddam Hussein comes to power in Iraq, and it is not hard to imagine scenarios where something much worse takes over. As Middle East moguls go, Saddam was not out of the ordinary and what has risen in his wake, namely the dominance of the Islamic Republic in Iran is worse. Saddam held Iraq together and opposed Iran. In his war against Iran, we took his side. How soon we forget.
James O. Goldsborough has written on foreign affairs for four decades, both from the United States and abroad, where he worked as a foreign correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune, International Herald Tribune and Newsweek magazine for 14 years, reporting from more than 40 countries. Visit his website here. Submit a letter to the editor here.