What we Lost: Top Ten Ways the Iraq War Harmed the US

As the tenth anniversary of the launching of the Iraq War approaches, I’ll be making some comments about the episode at this blog, which for the years 2003-2010 intensively covered events in Iraq. A decade is long enough for some things to become clear.

The first set of issues I want to discuss has to do with the harm the war did to the United States. Coming into 2003, the US enjoyed a great deal of sympathy and solidarity from the rest of the world (including Iran) over the al-Qaeda strikes of September 11, 2001. In the aftermath of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the US was widely seen as an international bully. The hard-nosed realists of Washington, of course, don’t care how the country is perceived. But the poor opinion translated into an unwillingness to help out with the Iraq project, a project far too large for the United States to handle on its own. And no, El Salvador wasn’t able to help that much. Moreover, in the wake of the Civil Rights movement, public discourse in the US moved toward greater decency. Some of that achievement was lost because of war propaganda against Arabs and Muslims.

1. The US invasion and occupation of Iraq harmed the US in bringing into question its basic competency as a world leader. Almost everything the US did in Iraq was a disaster. It could not even get the stated reason for the invasion right, as it turned out there was no nuclear, biological or chemical weapons program. It looked dishonest, bumbling. It went into the war having no plans, and the plans the Bush administration made on the fly were mostly poorly thought-out and doomed to fail. It fell into search and destroy as a tactic for counter-insurgency, with the same results as it had had in Vietnam– it caused resistance to swell. Billions were wasted on reconstruction projects that assumed Iraqi know-how and equipment that they did not have, and which could not therefore be maintained even if they were completed. The US tried to run in English an Arabic-speaking country that had been deliberately isolated and cut off from the world by sanctions, without any basic understanding of Iraqi culture, customs, beliefs or ways of life. The pro-Israel Neoconservatives high in the administration blackballed (as insufficiently pro-Israel) Arabists who volunteered to go help and left the Coalition Provisional Authority blind.

Basically, the world is always looking around for a team leader and a consulting group that is known for competence and for getting good results. After World War II, the US was for the most part that country. Being the world’s team leader turns into respect, cooperation and, ultimately, confidence and investment. If the US came to most of the world today with a group project, it likely couldn’t get the time of day from them. The United States is deeply diminished in world counsels.

2. The post-World War II generation wanted to erect an international order that would forever forestall Nazi-like aggression against neighbors on the part of world powers. The Greatest Generation therefore forged a UN charter that forbade aggressive war, allowing hostilities only if a country had been attacked or if the UN Security Council designated a country a danger to world order. Iraq did not attack the US in 2002 or early 2003. The UN Security Council declined to pass a resolution calling for war on Iraq, especially after the ridiculous circus act of then Secretary of State Colin Powell before the UN laying out a self-evidently false and propagandistic case (which provoked gales of laughter in the room). The United States has irrevocably undermined that structure of international law, and any aggressor can now appeal to Bush of 2003 as a precedent. Indian politicians of the right wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party instanced the Bush doctrine when they wanted to go to war with Pakistan. (Wiser heads prevailed, given that Pakistan has nuclear warheads). The US has loosed a demon into the world, of the war of choice.

3. The Iraq War revived al-Qaeda’s fortunes and prolonged its life as an important actor. With the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 and the scattering of al-Qaeda after Tora Bora, the movement was on the ropes. Internal critics lambasted Usama Bin Laden for destroying the movement by foolishly attacking the United States. But the brutal Bush occupation of Iraq and the US favoritism toward Shiites and Kurds created a Sunni Iraqi backlash. While most Sunni Iraqis were and are fairly secular-minded, a small minority gravitated to al-Qaeda as a model of resistance against the US, leading to the creation of the ‘Islamic State of Iraq’ and similar groups. The fringe of Libyans who attacked the US consulate in Benghazi last September included activists who had fought US troops in Iraq, and who otherwise would have lacked the training and motivation to hit the consulate. Iraqi al-Qaeda affiliates in turn have now fostered Jabhat al-Nusrah in northern Syria. Without the American occupation of Iraq, al-Qaeda would likely have dwindled into insignificance.

4. The US permanently lost its chance to achieve a two-state solution. The Clinton administration had come very close in 2000 to achieving a permanent solution to the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Like the Clinton economy and budget surpluses, however, the Bush administration completely undermined its predecessor’s achievement. Distracted in Iraq, Washington dropped the ball on Palestine. Permanently. It allowed the Israelis vastly to increase the number of settlers on Palestinian land grabbed illegally in 1967. It undermined the elected Palestinian government of 2006 and subsequently collaborated in an evil and creepy blockade of the civilian population of Gaza. The slogan of the Neoconservatives, that the road to peace in Jerusalem lay through Baghdad, was either profoundly dishonest or profoundly stupid on their parts. It was in any case profoundly untrue. A deep gulf has opened between the US and all the other members of the UN Security Council on Israeli policy, as well as with the European Union. The US is widely hated by the rest of the world for daily getting up in the morning and screwing over millions of Palestinians. That its bizarre malice toward the displaced and oppressed Palestinians comes on top of the catastrophe it wrought on Iraq makes it look all the more monstrous to much of the globe. It is highly unlikely that Israel can survive for more than a few decades as an Apartheid state, which is what it became while the Bush team was obsessed with Baghdad.

5. The US, which once prosecuted Japanese generals for water-boarding, and which had laws against torture and against assassination, became an international symbol of torture pornography when some of the Abu Ghraib photographs of the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners were released. I talked to a US embassy official charged in the middle of the last decade with upbraiding Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov for his use of torture; the diplomat knew that Abu Ghraib had pulled the rug out from under him.

6. The motives of the US in attacking Iraq were presumed by the rest of the world to be getting that country’s petroleum on the world market. That the most powerful country in the world might just fall upon any victim it chose alarmed other nations and provoked their suspicions. China all of a sudden wanted an aircraft carrier group. Those already inclined to see the US as imperialist, like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, were were given proof they were right. Iran’s insistence on maintaining a nuclear enrichment program, even a non-military one, certainly has to do with the deterrent effect of nuclear latency (knowing how to quickly throw together a warhead). The Brazilian nuclear submarine program is aimed in part at protecting its natural resources from being summarily looted by Washington.

7. The long Iraq War did much more than the 9/11 attacks to promote Islamophobia and to make promoting hatred and fear of Muslims a common political tactic by American politicians, especially on the Right. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s had for decades succeeded in stigmatizing openly racist speech in public. TV and radio personalities have even had to resign for speaking in a prejudiced way. But after all those years fighting Muslims in Iraq, the US establishment has decided that it is all right to bring back the language of bias when speaking of Arabs and Muslims, thus debasing our American values, which proclaim that all men are created equal and all are endowed by their Creators with certain inalienable rights.

8. The Iraq War allowed Iran to rise as a regional power, so that a Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus-Beirut political axis was created. This alignment is visible in the Syria conflict, with Iran and its allies attempting to prop up Syria’s ruling elite (which adheres to the Alawi sect of Shiite Islam). This Iranian geopolitical dominance exacerbated sectarian conflict throughout the region, with militant Sunnis striking back at ascendant Shiites, contributing to a destabilization of the region.

9. The financial cost of the Iraq War to the US will rise over time into the trillions. This cost derives in large part from the need to treat the thousands of Iraq War veterans who were injured by roadside bombs, and who have damaged limbs, spines and/or brains. Some 33,000 vets were injured seriously enough to go to hospital, a number seldom mentioned when the over 4,000 soldiers killed are eulogized. (Dead and wounded contractors are also seldom mentioned).

10. If the Iraqi government does ever manage to get its act together enough to produce substantially more petroleum, that will hurt green energy by lowering the cost of hydrocarbons, and so will contribute to ever more global warming. The US would have been much better off with high oil prices, encouraging consumers to move to electric vehicles powered by solar panels and wind. The oil men who plotted out the invasion of Iraq were attempting to put the price of oil back down to $14 a barrel, according to Rupert Murdoch. They failed, but whatever success they had is bad for the world.

28 Responses

  1. Great article. As to # 5 it should also be noted that torture was not effective in getting reliable information and the George W. Bush administration lied repeatedly about the usefulness of so-called Enhanced Interrogation Techniques/torture and the popular media keeps propagating the myth that torture produces valuable intelligence. Former FBI agent Ali Soufan in the Black Banners disproved that and the Congressional Report challenged that as well. Worse yet- Soufan asserts that the W. administration had detainees tortured even when they were already cooperating.

  2. Advice for the United States Army from 1943. Book-title: Instructions for american Serviceman. This was written for americans serving in Iraq in 1943. Page 12:

    “No preaching. You probably belong to a church at home and you know how you would feel towards anyone who insulted or desecrated your church. The moslems feel just them same way. Perhaps even more strongly. In fact. There feeling about there religion is pretty much the same as ours towards our religion. Although more intense. If anything. We should respect the moslems the more for there intensity of there devotion.””If you should see growing man walking hand in hand. Ignore it. There are not queer. Be kind and consider it to servants. Iraqis consider all people equals. Avoid any expression of race prejudice. The people draw very little color line.”

    That`s the US government in 1943. No wonder that the arabs loved the U.S in these times and I´m an arab. Were the hell are they in 2013? Neocons and Zionist have destroyed the american soul.

    Please compare the US Creed`s before and after November 19, 2003.

    link to en.wikipedia.org

    Thank you

  3. Years ago when documents showed one of Ford’s compact cars was a fire trap and Ford knew it, the victims received millions in compensation. More recently, when the tobacco companies were held accountable for the cancer cigarettes created, they paid billions in settlement.

    With all of the evidence available proving these wars, Iraq especially, were based on fabricated intelligence and “Sold” to the American and British public, via a conspiracy between the governments, media (Fox News especially), Israeli Lobby, oil and the military industrial complex, why isn’t there law firms filing a class action lawsuit on behalf of the mother and fathers, wives and children of the soldiers killed or maimed in these neocon inspired wars? The Trillion dollar lawsuit would dwarf the tobacco settlement and we might, as a bonus, see Bush, Cheney, Blair and their neocon accomplices facing serious jail time or the death penalty for treason.

    I strongly believe if gold star mothers and fathers were briefed on the evidence that is available, showing their loved ones died, not for this country, but for the neocon vision of a a Israeli dominated middle east, they would sign on in a heart beat to receive financial compensation for their needless loss and to see action taken against the monsters who inspired this war.

  4. Professor Cole, a very thoughtful and incisive analysis. This should be on the editorial page of every major newspaper in America. Of course it won’t be because the average American is dumb as a stump and thinks that Saddam Hussein was in cahoots with Usama bin Laden and that al-Qaeda attacked us because “they hate our freedoms”.

  5. I kind of miss the words “war-crimes” or “hanging-offense” or “torture-master”.
    The rest of the world is just surprised how crimes are not so bad if committed by an american!

  6. I was one of the 10 million world wide that protested against starting the war in Iraq. US and British politicians had already made the decision to go to war and the corporate media in the US did little to publicize the anti war effort.

    Many have asked, What Has Been Learned?

    From the sabre rattling against Iran, the answer is Not Much.

    In the US the 1% have won. Probably true in the rest of the world. If this is the case, the 1% is behind the continued war thrust of the US because if they wanted it to stop, the foreign policy would stop.

    Thus it seems of the 10 bad things that happened as a result of the Iraq war that Juan has listed, since the US seems to have not learned, the future probably leads to a bleaker future.

  7. You are, in general, absolutely correct. However I see the same events from a different perspective. That is: times are changing.

    The era of American domination of the Middle East is drawing to a close. This is not so much America’s doing as the Arab/Islamic awakening. Is America any less competent at running Middle Eastern monarchies and dictators now than we were in the 50’s and 60’s? I would argue not.

    Is Israel’s interest in keeping compliant Arab governments in power any different today than it was back then? Israel’s power to shape American foreign policy in the Middle East may be stronger today than half century ago but there has never has been much separation between the two. We both want corrupt compliant Arab governments; we want cheap oil, the Israelis want to prevent competent organized resistance.

    This is nothing but history repeating, or rhyming with, itself. The British Empire followed the same trajectory. Were the British any less competent in running their empire in its waning days as they were at its peak a century earlier? We should learn from the British and the French, Belgians, Spanish. Etc. That is, the waning days of empire are pretty grim and should be concluded as rapidly as possible.

    At least the British got great uniforms out of their Empire. They have turned the trappings of empire into wonderful spectacles of pageantry. Go see the Horse Guards parade, Empire on display! The British have turned the wreckage of Empire into a very profitable tourist attraction. I doubt that we will be so lucky!

  8. Concerning #4: the “Two State Solution” is no solution; we should stop talking about it. Even if it came to pass it will leave an unreformed Israel with 20% of its population as second class citizens. Whatever happened to “all men are created equal and all are endowed by their Creators with certain inalienable rights”? Is “transfer” going to “solve” that problem?

    It will have two Palestinian Bantustans under Israel’s thumb. This is not peace because it is not reform. Anything less than an Israel based on equal rights just continues the struggle against oppression.

    Many on our side are persuaded by the argument, “the Israelis will never accept …” If we had listened to that logic in America we would still have segregation. We do have the power to convince them. We need to make them see that security comes through equality and civil society and not brutality and oppression. Let us, on the left, not be complicit in this continuing horror.

    • I acompletely gree. Every ideal that the US is supposed to stand for cres out for supporting a one state solution. Nothing less could produce two viable sustainable, equally sovereign states.

  9. I literally cried when W was “elected”, worse yet, I remember exactly where I was and the time of day when he sat on television and LIED to the American people about going to war. I looked at my husband and said he is lying, this is a lie. Maybe I can spot a liar and a cheat but why couldn’t the media, the country? It was excruciating to listen to the incredible lies and destruction day after day, year after year of this b.s. I’m resentful that so many were complicit. What is driving this new found interest in the truth of the Iraq War? A report? Reports were given beforehand.

  10. No, no, no, no, no… All WRONG! this whole exercise was and is being clearly undertaken to preserve and protect our NATIONAL INTERESTS! It’s just a matter of definitions, now isn’t it? Some folks are doing just fine out of all this motion and expense, in keeping with the principles enunciated first by the Krupps, and more recently by Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler, that part about how “war is nothing but a racket,” and profit is where you can take it.

  11. The Iraq War was so bungled and mis-managed from the beginning that I fear the greatest damage to the United States will be an extreme reluctance to commit to engaging an adversary in the future that really does pose a threat to the US and its vital interests. It will be a reprise of the “Vietnam Syndrome,” and it may take a long time to get over it.

    Of course, we know that the primary reason for the war, WMD, did not exist. But let’s take the invasion of Iraq as a given. In my opinion, we made three huge mistakes.

    A. We did not plan for a robust occupation authority and reconstruction. General Tommy Franks was, ludicrously, saying that we would be down to 30,000 troops by Christmas 2003. There was no provision for security and maintenance of basic services.

    B. CPA Chief L. Paul Bremer III dismantled the Iraqi army, probably the worst decision of the whole ten-year campaign. Without an Iraqi army to maintain security and order, we were left to do the job, which we were ill-equipped to do in the first few years. (See A above.)

    C. The Bush Administration used ideology, rather than core competency, in recruiting many of the cadre who were to work in the Green Zone. Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone” tells the story as well as any I have seen. Prospective recruits were asked their views on “Roe vs. Wade.” Some were asked for whom they voted in 2000. Conservative think tanks were asked to submit candidates. So, for example, you might have a 24 year-old neophyte acting as an advisor in the Ministry of Finance who knew nothing about finance but was against “Roe vs. Wade.”

    The way we went into Iraq is a textbook case of exactly how not to engage in a war and its aftermath. The military certainly did its part in toppling Saddam Hussein in an exemplary fashion. It was the civilian leadership, and some top military officers like Franks, who bungled the aftermath and follow-up.

    • “the primary reason for the war, WMD,”… Reason, in whose little Game-playing universe? THAT was the REASON? REALLY?

      Love your analysis of the Three Big Wrongs. How about let’s NOT take the invasion as a given. If you are really serious about fearing a future “Vietnam syndrome,” which given your apparent affection for all the other imperial activities “we” are involved in, like killing Wogs in Afpakistan and a lot of other place, you might not finish that little comment with a nice excuse for the military, that the “civilian leadership” and a few assh__e “top military officers” who get there by working the processes that bring them to the “decider” spot as they did with Korea and Vietnam and on and on, can you spell McChrystal and Petraeus?, were the the reason that all did not go smoothly.

      “With enough soldiers,” with more “rebuilding” with people with the right political bent, and I bet, fella, you have no more idea of what constitutes a textbook case of how TO “engage in a war and its aftermath.” Got a blueprint for going to war with Iran? Got a set of ideas on how the “Afghanistan” exercise, the “War is nothing but a racket” exercise, among the other ones that are in the offing, should have been undertaken? Or now that once again “we” come to the end, with nothing but wealth transfer and dead people and increased instability and decreased security to show for it? Faugh.

      And how about another silly tiny little question that means something to the dumb-sh_t GIs and Gyrenes who were sent to do the Big Deciders’ bidding, some of them believing they were actually on a crusade to preserve Freedomnliberty ™ and serve our “national interests?”:

      The First and the Last
      The first American soldier killed in the Vietnam War was Air Force T-Sgt. Richard B. Fitzgibbon Jr. He is listed by the U.S. Department of Defense as having a casualty date of June 8, 1956. His name was added to the Wall on Memorial Day 1999.

      First battlefield fatality was Specialist 4 James T. Davis who was killed on December 22, 1961.

      The last American soldier killed in the Vietnam War was Kelton Rena Turner, an 18-year old Marine. He was killed in action on May 15, 1975, two weeks after the evacuation of Saigon, in what became known as the Mayaguez incident.
      Others list Gary L. Hall, Joseph N. Hargrove and Danny G. Marshall as the last to die in Vietnam. These three US Marines Corps veterans were mistakenly left behind on Koh Tang Island during the Mayaguez incident. They were last seen together but unfortunately to date, their fate is unknown. They are located on panel 1W, lines 130 – 131.

      The last pilot casualty in the country of Vietnam occurred during the Embassy evacuation in Saigon, William C. Nystal and Michael J. Shea both died on the helicopter on April 30, 1975 approaching the USS Hancock in the China Sea (both are located at 1W, 124). The last pilot killed in the Vietnam war was Air Force helicopter pilot Second Lieutenant Richard Vandegeer who was killed on Koh Tang Island, Cambodia. This occured during the Mayaguez incident when his helicopter crashed on May 15, 1975. It is concidered the last combat action of the Vietnam War.

      The youngest Vietnam KIA is believed to be Dan Bullock at 15 years old.
      The oldest person on the Wall is Dwaine McGriff at 63 years old.
      At least 5 men killed in Vietnam were 16 years old.
      At least 12 men killed in Vietnam were 17 years old.
      There are 120 persons who listed foreign countries as their home of record.
      At least 25,000 of those killed were 20 years old or younger.
      More than 17,000 of those killed were married.
      Veterans killed on their first day in Vietnam 997 (unconfirmed)
      Veterans killed on their last day in Vietnam 1,448 (unconfirmed)
      Number of Chaplains on the Wall — 16 (2 Medal Of Honor)
      Number of Women on the Wall — 8 (7 Army, 1 USAF – 7,484 served)
      There are 226 Native Americans on the Memorial.
      There are 22 countries represented on the Memorial.
      Most common name on the Memorial “Smith” with 667 veterans.
      The most casualties for a single day was on January 31, 1968 ~ 245 casualties.
      The most casualties for a single month was May 1968, 2,415 casualties were incurred.

      link to thewall-usa.com

      Who will the entries be on the next set of walls for the next set of wars that will be “competently engaged in?” Who will be the last one to die for the next set of incompetencies?

      • Any point you might have made was lost amidst all the background “white noise,” Mr. McPhee.

        • Owwwwww…

          But of course “None so blind as those who will not see, none so deaf as those who will not hear, none so dumb as those who persist in playing out the end game of the Great Game….)

          And I guess other folks reading here can gauge the relative turgidity of your apologetics for how “wars” COULD be “competently managed.” And your bland assumption that “war” is the way to accomplish any kind of “national interest.” Ooooh! Watch out for that “Vietnam Syndrome!” If only it had still been active ten years ago, maybe people would not be wondering who the last Americans to die in “our involvement” in Iraq and Afgapakistan will unfortunately be.

      • I have no idea what you mean by “beating on that same dead Horse,” 1933John. I have never written in support of the Iraq War on this forum, and I did not in my comment above. Apparently you missed my statement that I would take the Iraq War as a given in order to critique the way it was bungled and mis-managed. There are enough comments in this thread, including yours, that make the case against the war in the first place. Rather than join the lemmings all saying the same thing, I wanted to approach it from a different angle, the execution of the war and, more important, the bungled occupation and reconstruction in its aftermath. This certainly does not constitute “beating on that same dead horse.”

  12. I appreciate a well-thought out commentary on the impact of the Iraq war. I think, however, that #10 is not as relevant as 1-9. The US is doing a good job all by itself to discourage green energy.

  13. “The U.S. permanently lost its chance for a two-state solution.”

    One of the promises of the Bush administration to Arab countries for supporting the Iraqi invasion in 2003 was American corresponding support for an independent Palestinian state, The “Road Map for Peace” was created and publicized as the State Department centerpiece of this goal and the Bush Administration made 2005 as the year it planned to have the independent State of Palestine declared.

    Israeli PM Ariel Sharon disengaged from Gaza in 2005 and released hundreds of Arab prisoners to the West Bank while leaving the Likud Party to form a centrist organizations committed to progress toward peace. These evnts helped defuse the Second Intifada.

    By some accounts Ehud Olmert and the Palestinian Authority were on the verge of a comprehensive peace pact but minor points of contention could not be solved – hence nothing was acomplished and the State Department failed to ensure that an opportunity toward peace was diligently sought.

  14. Nice analysis. I don’t understand why this discussion isn’t happening in the major media outlets. I know people don’t like to admit they were wrong about Iraq, but the enormity of damage done to this country should at least merit some recognition…

    I will disagree with #10 though. The most easily exploitable reservoirs of sweet light crude are near exhaustion worldwide. Iraq has a considerable amount of this oil type, but not enough relative to demand to drive the price down. If we’re very lucky, the added supply will keep pricing within the stratosphere, but rise they will unless the world invents a better mousetrap. Of course, one assumes that humanity will deal with climate change before its precipitates a great die off. The track record suggests otherwise…

  15. It’s a “we” thing… “What we Lost: Top Ten Ways the Iraq War Harmed the US”. I wasn’t and am not part of the “we”. These things were not lost, they were thrown away by ‘them.’ “We” pay the bill, true. That’s how “we” lost.

  16. This is delusional, what part of the sane world wants American leadership? We’re trying to put as much distance between ourselves and the butchers & plunderers of the west. as we can.

  17. “”China all of a sudden wanted an aircraft carrier group.””

    Please. They’d been studying that for years and were already producing the first generation of escorts for it. And they didn’t want it because of the Iraq War, but because of their plans for territorial expansion against India, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, Philippines, and Malaysia, among others.

    The real problem about China is that the massive investment in blood and treasure and credibility in the Iraq debacle is that the US is now in a poor position to counter Beijing’s increasingly aggressive expansion against its neighbors. For nearly a decade the US basically ignored Asia, except for occasional grunts at N Korea.


  18. I should add of course that the major investor in Afghanstan is China. Really, US policy since 9/11 has been to expend American blood and treasure to make central Asia safe for Chinese expansion. Future historians, should any of them survive our climate policy, will scratch their heads at American stupidity and short-sightedness.


    • Excellent. Ironically China is by far the greatest Beneficial of the “War against Terror” and Globalization. And nobody is trusting the US anymore.

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