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The Iraq War at Ten


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article.cfm?piece=1398The American Interest:

Meghan L. O’Sullivan



This month marks the tenth anniversary of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by the United States and its partners. At this juncture, it is reasonable for Americans—and Iraqis and others—to ask whether the past decade of U.S. involvement in Iraq was worth it. Did the large human and financial costs produce an outcome that justifies the sacrifice? The frustrating reality is that it is still too early to form a definitive answer to this question. It is possible, however, to provide a partial evaluation at this time, one that identifies the relevant variables that should go into such a calculation and provides an assessment of them where possible.




A Preliminary Balance Sheet


The question of whether the outcome in Iraq justifies the American blood and treasure spent on it—not to mention that of Iraqis and others—will remain open for many years. Yet we can begin the evaluation now, breaking the analysis into three components. There are key components we can appraise now; other elements for which the passage of time will bring no further clarity; and, finally, dimensions that are still in flux and about which we must therefore suspend judgment for the moment.


In the first bucket of factors we can assess now, we might identify two. First is the benefit to Iraqis, but also to the region and the United States, that Saddam Hussein is no longer in power. Although a minority of Iraqis would embrace his return if it were on offer, most have greater hopes for a more meaningful life with him gone. Although violence continues in Iraq and the Iraqi government is no paragon of justice, most Iraqis no longer have to worry about the arbitrary arrests, disappearances and killings that touched huge swathes of society under the Ba‘ath regime. Iraqis in the new Iraqi Security Forces have died in significant numbers, but nothing on the scale of the hundreds of thousands who met their deaths as fodder for Saddam’s ruthless wars or in his intifadas against his own people. Concerns about Iraq’s instability affecting the broader region remain, and for good reason, but the regime that invaded two of its neighbors in little more than a decade no longer rules to plot a third.


Second, Iraq has become a meaningful contributor to global oil markets. It now pumps more oil than any other OPEC member besides Saudi Arabia. Iraq is poised to contribute much more in the years ahead. These Iraqi contributions have in part allowed the United States to pursue a sanctions-based strategy against Iran’s nuclear program and could prove critical to meeting global demand at a reasonable price if the world economy improves in the months ahead.


In the second bucket of factors about which more time will shed no additional insight, is the counterfactual, which is a bit harder to judge. Some may imagine that, in the absence of the invasion of Iraq, the Middle East today would look much as it did in 2002:...........(Snip)




Iraq remains an inherently difficult place. For a multitude of reasons, any effort to remove the Ba‘athi regime and establish legitimate institutions in its wake was bound to be complicated and require years to complete. But the arduous nature of the past decade is also attributable to particular policy choices, implementation strategies and adherence to certain erroneous assumptions. Knowing that the past decade of U.S. involvement in Iraq could have been easier, even if it would still have been difficult, provides no solace to those who lost family members in Iraq or to Iraqis who endured years of anguish. Nor is it likely to make the United States more eager to embark on such endeavors in the future (nor should it). But it does suggest the importance of learning the right lessons from Iraq, of digging deeper to ensure that false wisdom is not enshrined as sacred truth. As much as we would all like this exercise to be merely an academic one, events in the Middle East today suggests that it could be vital—if not to the United States, then perhaps to those it wishes to help.


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