Was the Iraq War worth it?

Looking back at one of America’s greatest follies

Anniversaries are times for reflection, and that is certainly true of the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Was it worth it? Was it right?

Let’s remember the cost of the war: more than 4,400 Americans killed, tens of thousands injured, many grievously. At least 100,000 Iraqis dead and more than 4 million displaced. More than $3 trillion in American treasure spent, according to Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz.

Many Iraqis today say life is better. Much depends on where they live. If it’s the almost exclusively Shiite south or the Kurdish north, life is peaceful and prosperous. But if it’s a region where Shiites and Sunnis are in conflict, such as Baghdad, car bombings and other forms of violence are common, and life is still defined by bloodshed and fear.

Iraq has the trappings of democracy, but that’s all. In fact, Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is doing all he can, including arbitrary detention of opponents, to centralize power and keep Iraqi Sunnis from having influence. Some people say he’s hardly better than Saddam Hussein.

Was it worth it for the United States? In the long run, no. The war, which was illegal under international law, did tremendous harm to America’s standing in the world. We were seen as a bully.

And an incompetent bully, at that. As prominent historian Juan Cole points out, “Almost everything the U.S. did in Iraq was a disaster,” beginning with basing the invasion on a fear of non-existent weapons of mass destruction and going in without a plan or even minimal understanding of Iraqi culture.

This incompetence led directly to the Sunni-Shiite conflict that plunged the country into civil war in 2006—and now threatens to do so again. And, when photos of torture at Abu Ghraib prison came out, they destroyed the image of the United States as a nation built on humanitarian principles, not immoral coercion.

Meanwhile, Shiite dominance of the Iraqi government and its increasingly close ties to Iran have helped foster that nation’s rise as a power in the Middle East, which was exactly what U.S. leaders did not want to happen there.

Was it worth it? That’s largely up to the Iraqis, and only history will tell. Was it right? Absolutely not.