18 Years of Tragedy Must Come to an End
This month, the Iraq war—in which I served as a U.S. Marine more than a decade ago—turns 18. As a result, soon there will likely be service members deploying to Iraq who were born after the war began in 2003. When they arrive, they will find the conflict remains a dangerous one for Americans, as evidenced by the recent deadly rocket attacks against American bases.
Instead of conducting potentially unconstitutional and escalatory airstrikes in Syria to “defend” American troops in Iraq, who are performing a mission that is not necessary for our safety, President Joe Biden should withdraw the U.S. military from the country. Withdrawal would be not only good policy but good politics. Over two-thirds of the American people support leaving Iraq, according to recent polling.
There is no reason to keep sending Americans to risk life and limb in Iraq. We already lost the war when we made the disastrous decision to invade in 2003, handing a victory to Iran and Sunni jihadists who would exploit the chaos of post-invasion Iraq for their own ends. Everything we have done since—including the vaunted surge of Americans troops from 2007 to 2009—has been one failed attempt after another to overturn the terrible consequences of invading.
The inability of now four presidents to accept these realities has meant that America remains enmeshed in a country with no clear connection to our safety or other vital national interests. Over 4,500 American service members have been killed and tens of thousands more wounded in Iraq. Hundreds of thousands more who served continue to bear the burden of the war through mental health challenges and other illnesses connected to their deployments. Apart from the human toll, the war has cost American taxpayers nearly $2 trillion.
The price paid by the Iraqi people has been much higher. Between 200,000 and 1 million Iraqis died due to the war and up to 3 million more were displaced from their homes. Iraq’s Christian community—once the most vibrant in the Middle East, prior to the American invasion—has been driven “perilously close to extinction,” according to the archbishop of Erbil. The Yazidis, another Iraqi religious minority, have been victims of genocide by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), whose initial rise was fueled by the American occupation.
While the Iraqi people were promised freedom, they instead have a government that is increasingly repressive, corrupt, and under the sway of Iran. Maintaining a U.S. military presence in Iraq cannot undo this damage and would only needlessly endanger more American lives. It could even worsen the situation by providing to the anti-American and Iranian-backed militias who dominate the country a convenient foreign scapegoat for Iraq’s problems.
The current stated mission for U.S. forces in Iraq is equipping and training Iraqi Security Forces to counter ISIS. However, ISIS’s territorial caliphate is destroyed and its remaining fighters don’t pose a significant threat to vital American interests. Additionally, the Iraqi Security Forces are increasingly controlled by groups aligned with Iran, and in some cases they have handed over American military equipment to militias that had previously attacked U.S. forces. Continuing our train-and-equip mission would mean continuing to subsidize militants that have killed Americans.
In 2002, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, President Biden played a crucial role in passing legislation authorizing the invasion of Iraq, which he now admits was a mistake. He has a chance to correct that mistake and redeem his Iraq legacy by withdrawing all American troops from the country. This would save Americans and reduce the risk of getting locked into an escalatory spiral with Iranian-backed militias that could start a major war with Iran—something we came perilously close to a year ago thanks to the failed “maximum pressure” campaign and the subsequent killing of General Qasem Soleimani.
Withdrawing American forces from Iraq would allow Biden to claim credit for a politically popular foreign policy move that eluded his three immediate predecessors. It would also demonstrate that he is serious about his commitment to end our forever wars abroad.
I remain proud of my service in Iraq and am thankful that most of our service members served honorably, despite fighting a war that was doomed from the start. However, I do not want there to be more Iraq war veterans and especially do not want to see more Americans killed or wounded in support of unattainable objectives. Our nation’s leaders must acknowledge that there is nothing left to gain in Iraq except more bloodshed, sorrow, and wasted treasure. They must bring our troops home.