Iraq: Was it worth it?

2009-06-23 00:00

BY the end of this month, all United States military forces will have withdrawn from Iraqi cities. Effectively, the U.S. war in Iraq is over. Was it worth it?

There are two quite separate balance sheets of costs and benefits, one for Iraqis and the other for Americans. It’s too early to give a final answer for the Iraqis, but for the U. S. the answer is definitely no.

No matter what happens in Iraq now, the Barack Obama administration will not recommit U.S. troops to a combat role in the country, so we can calculate approximately how much the Iraq adventure cost the U.S. with some confidence. The total cost will work out at well over a trillion dollars, if we count the long-term cost of caring for the veterans.

Random attacks may kill a few 100 more American soldiers in Iraq before all the troops go home, but the final death toll will certainly be less than 5 000. That is only one-tenth of the fatalities that U.S. troops suffered in the Korean War or the Vietnam War, so the cost in lives was relatively low for Americans. But what did the U. S. gain in return for that investment?

Not a subservient ally, certainly. When Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki held a meeting with 300 top Iraqi military commanders early this month, an American general showed up to monitor the proceedings as usual.

He was politely asked to leave. Washington’s ability to influence decisions in Iraq is dwindling by the day.

Nor has the Middle East become a safer place, because Saddam Hussein’s regime was no longer a threat to anybody except Iraqis long before the U.S. invasion in 2003. His foolish attacks on his neighbours, first on Iran in 1980 and then on Kuwait in 1990, culminated in a total and irreversible military defeat in the Gulf War in 1991.

The United Nations arms inspectors had completely dismantled Saddam’s various projects to develop weapons of mass destruction by the mid-nineties, and the tight embargo that Iraq was under right down to the U.S. invasion prevented it from rebuilding its armed forces after the 1991 defeat. He never again posed a military threat beyond his borders.

The current regime in Baghdad poses no threat to its neighbours either, but that changes nothing. There is a reservoir of experienced terrorist operatives in Iraq that did not exist before the U.S. invasion, but apart from the minority of al-Qaeda extremists they have little interest in operating beyond the country’s borders. And there will be no permanent U.S. bases in Iraq.

So the balance sheet for the U.S. is in the red, but not catastrophically so. The investment did not produce any worthwhile returns, but the negative consequences were not great either, and the investment was not all that big. More money has been thrown at failing American banks in the past eight months than was thrown at Iraq in six years.

What about the Iraqis, then? For them, the price in lives was far higher: up to two-thirds of a million deaths, by some estimates. They also suffered the almost complete collapse of an economy that was already severely damaged by Saddam’s wars and the subsequent trade embargo. The level of violence has dropped sharply from its peak in 2006-07, but the monthly death toll from political killings (which includes sectarian ones) is still higher than it was during the last decade of Saddam’s rule.

For the 80% of Iraqis who speak Arabic, the greatest costs have been the destruction of the old secular society, which even under Saddam allowed women more freedom than most other Arab regimes, and the brutal ethnic cleansing that resulted in an almost complete physical separation of the Shia and Sunni populations. At least three million people are still afraid to return to their homes, and most never will.

That was a direct result of the American invasion, for without that the al-Qaeda fanatics would never have gained such a foothold in the Sunni community. It was the senseless al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on the Shias that unleashed the civil war of 2006-07, which the Sunnis, being outnumbered three-to-one, were bound to lose. It will take at least a generation to heal this wound.

The other 20% of the population, the Kurds of northern Iraq, got a semi-independent state out of the invasion, although they still go along with the fiction of a united Iraq. This is not a stable arrangement, however, and the risk of an Arab-Kurdish war in Iraq over the ownership of the Kirkuk oilfields cannot be discounted.

On the other hand, Iraqis now have a more or less democratic system, with more or less free media. They have a government that is more corrupt and significantly less competent than the old Baathist regime, but will at least not waste the country’s wealth on foreign wars. Given 10 or 15 years of good luck and high oil prices, Iraq could climb back to the level of prosperity it enjoyed in the seventies.

So was it all worth it? There is no consensus on that even among the Iraqis themselves. We may know the answer by 2020.

• Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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