Ten years ago Wednesday, bombs lit up the night sky over Baghdad, looking and sounding on live television like lightning and thunder from a particularly severe thunderstorm.
It was the start of what was quickly dubbed “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” a military incursion into Iraq that the administration of George W. Bush and other Washington, D.C., policymakers promised would bring a quick end to the regime of Saddam Hussein and spark a wildfire of democracy across the Middle East. Once Saddam Hussein and his carefully concealed weapons of mass destruction were excised, the reasoning went, other tyrants across the region would either tread a little more softly, or be shown the door by the citizenry they had so ruthlessly oppressed.
Well, we all know how this story ended.
While Saddam Hussein was eventually collared and executed, the stockpiles of dangerous weaponry that were the main selling point for the war were nowhere to be found. Turns out the Iraqi dictator was cagey about whether or not he had them so he could keep his neighbors off balance. He ultimately posed little or no threat to the United States.
That was one of many dismaying miscalculations made in the run-up to the war, which, despite all the promises of swift success, ended up dragging on for years, exacting a staggering price in lives and treasure. Close to 5,000 U.S. military personnel were killed in Iraq and 31,000 were injured. The exact toll of Iraqi dead is disputed, but some estimates say that 116,000 civilians died. The Bush administration’s sunny projections that the cost of invading and rebuilding Iraq would be “only” $50 billion to $60 billion were, to say the least, overly optimistic – so far, the United States’ Iraq war tab is at $810 billion, and some say it could reach $3 trillion. Stories are rife of American money earmarked for reconstruction vanishing through graft and corruption.
And, it should be noted, all these costs were put on the national credit card, along with the war in Afghanistan and the Bush-era expansion of Medicare with a prescription drug benefit, without a corresponding tax increase. One wonders where the tea partiers who wail about debt and “fiscal responsibility” were in those days?
Then there are the well-documented instances of ineptitude or willful ignorance that followed the Iraq invasion. Administration officials ignored predictions that a bloodbath between warring ethnicities and tribes would ensue after Saddam’s boot was removed from the Iraqi throat. And they pursued hobbyhorses while ignoring fundamentals – Paul Bremer, America’s bumbling viceroy, and the Coalition Provisional Authority he led, preoccupied themselves with bringing flat taxes, a stock exchange and an anti-smoking campaign to Iraq while the country itself burned.
It’s no wonder that views of the Iraq war have not softened with the passage of time. According to a poll conducted last week by ABC News and The Washington Post, nearly six in 10 Americans believe the war was not worth fighting, and it did not enhance our security. Posterity sometimes rewards initiatives that were not popular in their day, but it’s hard to envision historians 50 or 100 years from now looking any more kindly on the Iraq war than we do today.
Embarked upon amid a wave of patriotism and fear that followed the 9/11 attacks, much of the public and many policymakers didn’t think hard enough about the costs and consequences of war in Iraq. We can only hope its lessons won’t be lost on future generations.