In October, 2002 I wrote in the first issue of The American Conservative an analysis of the impending Iraq War entitled “The Road to Folly.”
I observed, “A war that fails to achieve clear political objectives is merely an exercise in violence and futility.” Having covered 14 conflicts as a war correspondent, I’ve seen a lot of violence and futility.
The White House launched a thunderous, utterly shameless propaganda campaign about phony threats to America and the world from President Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction. And on cue, U.S. forces invaded Iraq in March 2003.
In America, the “bodyguard of lies” that Churchill said accompanies every war swelled into an army of liars. The Bush administration’s neoconservatives played a leading role in engineering the Iraq conflict. Media acted as megaphones for the war party. Thanks to the drumbeat of lies and insinuations, over 80 percent of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11.
A few observers who dared critique George W. Bush’s rush to war, this writer included, were denounced as “un-American,” “traitors,” or Saddam apologists—rather rich in my case since in 1991 the fun-loving Iraqi secret police had threatened to hang me as an Israeli spy.
Invading Iraq would be a disaster for all concerned, I predicted, except for Israel, which would see a potential nuclear rival and the most technologically advanced Arab nation crushed by U.S. power. Iran would also cheer the ruin of the hated Saddam, who had invaded the Islamic Republic with the support of the U.S. and its Arab oil allies.
“Bush is wrong if he thinks Iraq can be turned into another docile American protectorate like Kuwait or Bahrain. He is committing an act of imperial overreach,” I wrote. I also insisted Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction.
In the event, Iraq, a nation of only 24 million, was shattered by U.S. military power. The war laid waste to large parts of this formerly advanced nation, already ravaged by a 12-year U.S.-led economic embargo and daily bombing.
Absurdly, Iraq was even denied lead pencils for its schools lest they be somehow turned into weapons of mass destruction. During the 1990-91 Gulf War, the U.S. Air Force destroyed most of Iraq’s water purification plants and sewage systems. Iraq was denied imports of chlorine to purify its fouled water. The result, according to the UN, was true mass destruction: 500,000 children died from water-borne disease and lack of medicines.
The overthrow of Saddam’s Sunni-led regime opened a religious-ethnic Pandora’s Box in Iraq, an artificial state created by Imperial Britain out of Sunni, Shia, Jews, and Kurds to encompass its newly discovered Mesopotamian oil fields.
In a supremely idiotic act, American proconsul Paul Bremer fired all Baath Party military and civilian officials, gutting Iraq’s organs of government. When U.S. forces failed to put down fierce resistance by Sunni fighters, a much ballyhooed troop “Surge” supposedly crushed the uprising. This is a Republican political myth.
As the Romans used to say, divide et impera. Divide and rule. In reality, Sunni resistance was broken by ethnic cleansing: the unleashing of Shia death squads that inflicted untold barbarities on Sunnis, creating four million refugees, half of them driven abroad. Millions of dollars in American bribes temporarily bought off other Sunni fighters.
The butcher’s bill for conquering Iraq and its vast oil fields: at least 4,483 U.S. soldiers killed and over 33,000 seriously wounded, many with brain injuries. Estimates of Iraqi dead run from 112,000 to over one million. The Pentagon knows, but won’t release the figures.
Remember the grubby Pentagon official Paul Wolfowitz, a leading architect of the war? He glibly predicted invading Iraq would cost a mere $40 billion and would be paid for by plundering its oil.
Wrong. Wolfie’s jolly little war has so far cost $1 trillion. In spite of the drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq, funding the remaining garrison and the American-installed Baghdad regime remains enormously costly. Much of the cost is hidden in the CIA’s $54.1 billion “black” budget.
The Bush and now Obama administrations have concealed the war’s cost from Americans by refusing to pay for it through taxes. Instead, the total cost of this conflict was put on the surging national debt, leaving future generations to pay for Bush’s folly.
Meanwhile, Iranian-backed Shia militias gained ascendency in Baghdad. Rigged elections produced a compliant Shia regime, allowing Washington to trumpet the arrival of democracy in Iraq—the same kind of “democracy” it long nurtured in Mubarak’s Egypt.
Up north, U.S. and Israeli-backed Kurds established a virtually independent oil state that infuriated Washington’s ally Turkey. The Iraqi Humpty Dumpty is broken and won’t easily be put together again.
The expected Iraqi oil bonanza never materialized. Today, Iraq pumps less oil than under Saddam. He threw out Big Petroleum; now, the big U.S. and foreign oil firms are creeping back, hoping to exploit Iraq’s riches. Some 34,000 guards are being hired to protect Iraq’s pipelines. Perhaps Libya’s “liberated” oil may lessen some of the disappointment over Iraqi oil.
President Obama has vowed all U.S. combat troops will quit Iraq by the end of 2011. But a shell game is under way. Two or more heavy mechanized combat brigades are moving just a few hours drive south to new bases in Kuwait, ready to quickly intervene to prop up the tame Maliki regime in Baghdad.
Washington is trying to keep 10,000-20,000 combat troops in Iraq, rebranded as “trainers” and “anti-terrorism forces.” Iraq has balked but may yet give in. The new, huge, heavily fortified U.S. Embassy in Baghdad will have 16,000 employees and its own private army of mercenaries. What happens to the 100,000 other paid mercenaries in Iraq is uncertain. One certainty: $34 billion in aid lost through fraud in Iraq and Afghanistan will never be recovered.
In the flat, arid Mideast, air power is decisive. The most important indicator of Iraq’s future will be who controls its air space. The U.S. may continue to do so from Kuwait and other Gulf bases, just as Imperial Britain ruled Iraq by means of the RAF. Baghdad won’t be truly independent until it rules its own air space and once again has a real air force.
So what’s the bottom line on the “liberation of Iraq?”
$1 trillion spent. Burning hatred for America across the Muslim world. Animosity in Europe, which warned against Bush’s modern crusade. Huge future expenses to sustain an obedient Iraqi regime while anti-U.S. nationalist sentiment there is boiling. A big boost for Iran’s regional influence. The deaths and wounding of thousands of American servicemen.
The original plan to dominate Iraq’s oil and set up bases there to rule the Mideast has so far failed, and at titanic cost. As we look back on this epic folly and again hear calls for war against Iran, we remember the famed words of King Pyrrhus of Epirus, “one more such victory and we are lost.”
Eric S. Margolis is the author of American Raj: Liberation or Domination?