The United States invaded Iraq 10 years ago this week. It will be remembered as our ill-fated war, a strategic blunder that ushered in the decline of America as a superpower. It was then-President George W. Bush’s greatest mistake — one that will permanently stain his reputation.
At the time, Mr. Bush and fellow war supporters argued that Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein posed a mortal threat to the United States and Baghdad’s neighbors. Washington stressed that Saddam had stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, some of which could be transferred to al Qaeda. Moreover, the Bush administration said that Saddam had ties to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It alleged that Mohamed Atta met with Iraqi agents in Prague prior to the terrorist atrocities.
They were wrong. Saddam did not possess weapons of mass destruction. The entire military campaign was based not just on faulty intelligence, but a myth. Rather than being a “slam dunk,” the weapons were never found. The administration went to war not even knowing where the alleged stockpiles were located. Also, Saddam’s connections with al Qaeda were tenuous. He played no role in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The American public rightly felt deceived, manipulated and lied to. This eroded and eventually destroyed Mr. Bush’s credibility.
The biggest misjudgment, however, was the claim that U.S. troops would be welcomed as “liberators.” The very opposite took place: We were viewed as imperial occupiers, whose invasion unleashed vicious sectarian fighting. The war’s tragic consequences cannot be denied. More than 4,800 Americans were killed. Nearly 35,000 were wounded and maimed. The total cost was almost $1 trillion. America squandered precious blood and treasure in the sands of Mesopotamia.
For Iraq, the war has been even more costly. The country is smashed. Al Qaeda and Islamist insurgents are everywhere. More than 100,000 Iraqi civilians died. The nation is deeply fractured along religious lines. The Sunni-Shiite conflict threatens to tear it apart. Iraq’s Christians, many of whom date back to the time of Jesus Christ, have been ravaged and expelled. Corruption is rampant. The legal system is dysfunctional. Kurds and Sunnis despise the Shiite-dominated regime. Instead of being America’s strategic ally, Iraq has fallen under Iran’s sphere of influence. Tehran’s mullahs, not Washington, now call the shots in Baghdad.
Saddam was a brutal dictator. He was toppled, captured and hanged — a fate befitting a murderous thug. Yet, for all his monstrous flaws, the Iraqi tyrant did not threaten or attack America. He posed no imminent danger. In fact, Saddam’s regime was secular. He championed Arab nationalism and socialism. He held Islamic fundamentalism at bay. Sunni-run Iraq posed as a bulwark against Iran’s Shiite theocracy. The war’s real victor was not the United States or the people of Iraq. It was Iran.
Mr. Bush stressed that a democratic Iraq would serve as a linchpin to spread “freedom” across the region, thereby draining the swamp of terrorism and Islamic extremism. This, however, was his greatest — and most disastrous — mistake.
The destruction of Saddam’s regime empowered our very enemies. It paved the way for the rise of radical Islam and the Arab Spring. Witnessing Iraqis participate in elections encouraged other Muslim nations to follow. Dictators toppled like dominoes. Yet, the primary beneficiaries have not been secular liberals. Instead, they have been militant Islamists, who champion a global caliphate, Shariah law and jihad against the West. The Muslim Brotherhood dominates Egypt. Tunisia is sliding toward Shariah. Libya has become a safe haven for Muslim fundamentalists. Turkey is ruled by a rigid Islamic regime. Hamas runs Gaza. Hezbollah is entrenched in Lebanon. Syria risks falling to Islamist rebels. Constitutional democracy has no roots in the Middle East and Africa. Imposing it on Iraq has sparked a powder keg: Muslim fanatics across the region are using elections or mass movements to attain power. In deeply religious societies, to expect otherwise is foolish or naive.
Democratic universalism is based on an illusion — the belief that all cultures, nationalities and religions are equally capable of self-government. They’re not. It took centuries to establish it in America. For most Arab nations, Islam trumps liberty.
The Iraq war broke America’s back. It revealed the imperial nature of nation-building abroad. Bombs cannot erect democracies. Only local institutions and traditions can. Nearly bankrupt, militarily overextended and economically stagnant, the United States has only one option left: retrench and come home.
This is an appropriate application for the famous quotation from the French diplomat Charles M. de Talleyrand: “This is worse than a crime, it’s a blunder.”
Iraq was a grand blunder. It should not be forgotten.
Jeffrey T. Kuhner is a radio commentator in Boston.
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