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What Victory Lost

President Bush has enunciated an ambitious standard for success in Iraq, albeit a much more modest one than his original vision of a democratic transformation of the entire Middle East. However, even if the current U.S. program is achieved, the question remains: is this war in the national interest of the U.S.?

Success in Iraq is certainly preferable to outright failure but still may be inferior to abandonment of a policy that was erroneous from inception. Thus, even if Bush can genuinely proclaim “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq when he leaves office, will the war not leave America worse off both at home and in the world? By continuing to pursue our current policy at exorbitant cost and risk, may the United States achieve nothing more than a successful mistake?

While speculative about the past three years and many future developments, here are ten reasonable assertions about a no-war alternative.

First, although Saddam Hussein might still be in power, he would lack WMD or the conventional military capacity to endanger the region. Iraq would be significantly weaker than three of its neighbors (Iran, Turkey, Syria), while the others (Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait) would enjoy a robust and credible American security guarantee. Thus, Saddam would be effectively contained, while his economic base would continue to deteriorate even with the porous corruption of international sanctions.

Second, the United States would have much greater military and intelligence assets to devote to the vital campaign against al-Qaeda and to follow up in Afghanistan. There would be none of the critical shortages that have hampered pursuit of the Taliban and no diversion of policy-level attention from making Afghanistan a genuine success. One might hope that bin Laden would no longer be in a position to make public statements challenging the United States, or to do anything else.

Third, even with no change in U.S. policy toward Israel and the Palestinians, the standing and influence of the United States in Arab countries and throughout the broader Islamic world would be much greater. To the Muslim television viewer, America is the crusading occupier of a weak Arab state with oil and certainly not a liberator. Washington can proclaim our benign motives till doomsday, but people in the region are not buying it. They believe what they see: Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, the civilian casualties from U.S. bombing aimed at insurgents, the turmoil and desperation of daily life for average Iraqis, and the failure of the U.S. after three years to deliver what it promised at the outset of the war. While an American can assess these realities in a broader context, people in the Arab and Islamic worlds see them as proof of malign American intent and of the clash of civilizations we claim to eschew. They know that neoconservative ambitions lie well beyond Iraq: they want to establish American hegemony across the region.

Fourth, America’s global alliance system would be in better shape, with much of the post-9/11 solidarity still intact and many governments more amenable to co-operating with us on a range of issues, especially in counter-terrorism. The UN would also be a more viable instrument of U.S. policy. While most European governments have reached an overt accommodation with Washington on many aspects of our Iraq policy, this diplomatic rapprochement is a façade. Every “coalition” government with a substantial contingent in Iraq is getting out or preparing to do so. There is scarcely an allied state where the political elite is not jaded and distrustful of the U.S. after exposure of the WMD that weren’t, of prisoner scandals, and from the experience of systematic deception by Washington. Beyond the elites, public opinion among America’s allies remains overwhelmingly negative about our recourse to war, our conduct of the occupation, our motives in the Middle East, and our overall ability to use our vast power responsibly. As most of America’s allies are democratic states, elite and public attitudes limit governments in their ties with Washington. Instead of post-9/11 willing allies, we now have reluctant ones.

Fifth, America’s military—especially the critical Army and Marine ground forces—would be in far better shape, spared the hemorrhaging of personnel and with more progress toward post-Cold War force transformation. The administration chose to fight the Iraq War on the cheap, despite abundant historical evidence that counterinsurgency campaigns are protracted, manpower-intensive, and draining on all military units engaged. The price for not devoting adequate resources to the follow-through is paid in dead and injured troops and in the decay of combat forces. Ultimately, the condition of Iraq is of less importance to the national interest of the U.S. than the condition of our Army. Even if the repair were to begin today, it would take years to restore these forces to the superb state they had achieved before Iraq.

Sixth, the U.S. government deficit would be substantially smaller, with positive effects for the economy and greater flexibility for Congress and the administration to deal with health care, hurricanes, and the like. The red-ink bath in Washington is not all from Iraq, to be sure, but a few hundred billion dollars not poured into the desert would be a big help toward balancing the books. The outflow of so much money has come at a particularly bad time, contributing as it does to the impact of our gargantuan trade deficit. One might also wonder what the price of oil would be without the war. It certainly would not be as low as four years ago because global demand is greater but perhaps at a level that would not bankrupt U.S. airlines and contribute to a resumption of domestic inflation.

Seventh, the American public would be more positive about their country’s proper role in the world and less cynical about their government and its intentions. The United States cannot avoid many burdens of its superpower and unipolar status. At the same time, the arrogant use of power only increases our burdens and diverts policy attention from issues of more real import for our citizens. Wars are black holes for money and even more for government priorities. How much has Iraq diverted our attention from other international problems we ignore at our peril? How often have Americans learned that their government misled them—and, often, itself—about Iraq and then mismanaged the consequences? How skeptical would Americans be if their leaders now tried to mobilize their support for a genuine external threat? The White House may assert vast presidential powers for war purposes, but this still remains a country based on consent of the governed, which is eroding.

Eighth, the integrity of the American Republic would be under less strain, our civil liberties more secure, and our constitutional institutions less endangered by the demands of a wartime executive. A reality of our history is that wars are bad for liberty at home, even if we help spread it abroad. The true peace dividend of the end of the Cold War should have been restoration of the proper balance of powers in our national government and restitution of the primacy of the rights of our citizens. Sadly, it did not happen and will not so long as the national-security justification covers a myriad of governmental sins. Without the Iraq War, the fundamental struggle between those Americans dedicated to the Republic and those intoxicated by the quest for empire would be less skewed toward the imperialists.

Ninth, the external world—especially its younger people—would be much less hostile toward Americans. Opinion sampling data is shocking to any patriotic American. We are not just mistrusted as a great power and government, increasingly we are disliked as people. Even during the Vietnam War, the antagonism directed at Americans just because they are American was not so bad. Sadly, the global sympathy after 9/11 has proven a bubble, but did we puncture it ourselves?

Finally, and not least, a great many people—Americans, Iraqis, and others—would still be alive or uninjured, although Iraqis would probably continue to live under an oppressive dictatorship.

No one can yet say with certainty that the Iraqi venture might not prove justifiable—the president and his advisors evidently believe it will—but the litany of what America has lost in the past three years is overwhelming. Some of the loss is recoverable, if only because America is a vastly resilient society and because much of the world ultimately will move on in how it views us. But much—too much—is lost entirely: the lives, obviously, but also many intangibles. Thus, a responsible U.S. citizen can reasonably conclude that his country would be better off without this war, even if in the long view Iraq emerges better for it.

To be fair, one should ask whether a Gore-Lieberman administration might not also have gone into Iraq, albeit with differences of approach. The momentum toward war to remove Saddam began with Clinton and his bellicose foreign-policy team and remained genuinely bipartisan on Capitol Hill under the Bush presidency until things started going seriously wrong. The tendency to use our vast military power as the default instrument of U.S. policy in the world did not begin with the current administration, which at least obtained the sanction of Congress for war in Iraq, something the Clinton administration declined to seek before taking the country to war against Serbia, a country that had done much less to offend U.S. interests than had Iraq.

In a counterfactual examination of “what might have been” during the past three years, one could also speculate what else the U.S. military might be doing were it not bogged down in Iraq. Might we be at war somewhere else? After all, the neoconservative agenda saw Iraq as the easy first step leading to further regime change in Syria and Iran. Before the 9/11 attacks shifted the focus of Washington’s attention to Afghanistan and then Iraq, there was also real potential for war with North Korea or even China. It is easy to forget that, during the early months of the new administration, Beijing and Washington were tending toward a collision course. Could it be that the silver lining of the Iraq War is another war (or wars) that did not happen? This, happily, we will never know.

Perhaps the fairest conclusion is that war always produces unanticipated consequences. Even as belligerent a figure as Bismarck cautioned, “You know where a war begins, but you never know where it ends.” A century ago, the U.S. enjoyed a genuine cakewalk victory over Spain in Cuba but inherited a colonial mission in the Philippines with a brutal counterinsurgency war that remains one of the most shameful episodes in American history. The United States was also, willy-nilly, drawn into the western Pacific with momentous and very bloody consequences for future generations of Americans.

John Hay pronounced the defeat of feeble Spain a “splendid little war”—his version of “Mission Accomplished”—but failed to consider the wider implications of victory. No one at that time could foresee such consequences as the Bataan Death March, the hecatombs of island battles across the Pacific, Hiroshima, or all that lay beyond in Korea and Indochina. As Theodore Roosevelt’s secretary of state, Hay should have worried more about what our present secretary of defense has characterized as “unknown unknowns.” Indeed, many opponents of the war with Spain, both in Congress and among the broader public, did warn of unseen dangers ahead. The enthusiasts for regime change in Cuba did not listen.

The Bush administration began this war with a bright vision of a democratic and modernizing Arab world that would serve American interests in the 21st century much as a restored Europe did under U.S. sponsorship in the latter half of the 20th. History rarely repeats itself so easily, and today the horizon of unintended consequences of the Iraq War is far more ominous than bright.


Wayne Merry is a former State Department and Pentagon official and a director of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy in Washington.

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