A 'Dumb War' Taking Stock of the Iraq Invasion
With its invasion of Iraq, the United States rid the Iraqi people of a tyrant. But it also broke the law and destroyed tens of thousands of lives. With the release of close to 400,000 Iraq logs by WikiLeaks and the coming publication of George W. Bush's memoir, it is time to take stock of a war that was catastrophic for Iraq and America's standing in the world.
In early October, there were 500 unidentified bodies in the Baghdad city morgues. According to one doctor, just as many bodies are being delivered to morgues today as in 2007. At least 630 people were shot to death with silenced pistols in the last three months alone. Although most were guards at checkpoints, the victims also included politicians and their relatives, as well as a television reporter who suddenly collapsed in the middle of a broadcast, in broad daylight. The source of the fatal shot could not be located. The atmosphere is eerie.
"I have friends who returned from their self-imposed exile in Damascus last year. Now they're packing their bags again," says Ahmed, a young attorney who is sitting under a ceiling fan in the Shah Bandar Café in downtown Baghdad.
People are crowding past the displays in the book bazaar outside the café, where vendors sell everything from prayer books with gold embossing to English language courses, editions of Nietzsche and a Saddam biography. The best selling title these days is a book titled "Turban and Civil Uniform," a settling of accounts with bigots and Philistines.
The Shah Bandar Café has been a popular spot among the educated and anyone who wants to appear as such since the days of the monarchy. Professors, pensioners and ordinary families sit under the faded portraits of poets, smoking water pipes and drinking tea.
"I was in prison under Saddam," Ahmed, the attorney, says. "Back then we wouldn't have been able to talk here. The secret police were everywhere. Today you can say what you want in Iraq ..."
A man sitting next to him finishes his sentence: "... because no one is listening, anyway."
That, at least, would seem to be a step forward. The indifference of elected politicians toward the people is one of the traits of Iraq's new democracy. Another is that, in the future, regime change will not be a guarantee of better times -- just different times.
A City Full of Corpses
The white-haired owner of the Café Shah Bandar, Mohammed al-Khashali, sits slumped in his chair in front of the cash register near the exit. He complains about Iraqi politicians and the obliviousness that comes with power. Then he tells the story of how, in March 2007, a blue pickup truck came to a stop in front of his café, prompting him to rename it the Shah Bandar Martyr's Café a few days later.
The blast killed dozens of people. "Including my four sons," says Khashali, "and a grandson." He says this almost matter-of-factly, without even expecting a reaction.
The city is full of corpses, except that today they are no longer being found in palm gardens early in the morning. And every sentence about the purpose or senselessness of the Iraq war, about the merits and crimes of the liberators and occupiers, is uttered against the background of a still-growing army of the dead.
America's war in Iraq lasted seven years, longer than its war against Adolf Hitler. The Iraq war has claimed the lives of 4,426 US soldiers and about 100,000 Iraqi civilians. Now DER SPIEGEL, the New York Times the Guardian and other media have been given access to almost 400,000 documents compiled by the website WikiLeaks: the war logs of soldiers in the US military. According to an initial analysis of these documents, the number of dead is even higher than previously believed.
What was the outcome of this war? Iraq is rid of a tyrant. Today Iraqis can vote for their leaders, and millions have already made use of this right.
But for this war the United States violated international law, vilified allies and mocked the United Nations. It squandered its authority as a military and moral superpower. It spent more than $1 trillion (720 billion). It was triumphant at first, but then it gave up hope for a moment and allowed terrorists to push it to the brink of an historic defeat. Then it rallied once again -- not to emerge victorious but to avert defeat, a strategy that resulted in many, many casualties.
Four of the victims, Ghanem, Kadhim, Mohammed and Bilal, were Mohammed al-Khashali's sons. Another, Katib, was his grandson.
A Moral Appraisal
Was it worth it? Does the outcome justify this war?
The war would not have taken place without three men, former US President George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, his defense secretary for many years, and his vice-president, Dick Cheney. All three will publish their memoirs in the coming weeks and months: Bush in November, Rumsfeld in January and Cheney next spring. They will not be able to avoid a moral appraisal of the Iraq war. Bush's book is titled "Decision Points." Rumsfeld, according to a statement from his publisher, begins his memoirs in 1983, the year of his first encounter with then-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
What exactly these three men have written in their defense isn't yet know. But does anyone seriously expect mea culpas? "The decision to remove Saddam Hussein was the right decision early in my presidency," Bush said on the fifth anniversary of the invasion, "it is the right decision now, and it will be the right decision ever." Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair expressed similar sentiments in his autobiography, published in early September. "I did what I believed to be correct, even if the public disagreed," Blair wrote. "Of course Iraq is a better place today than under Saddam."
It makes perfectly good sense that Bush's and Blair's discussions of Iraq always end with Saddam Hussein. It's even legitimate, to a certain degree. The overthrow of the most brutal of all Arab dictators is the least controversial chapter of the Iraq war. The notion that he could still be in power today and, at 73, would be gradually putting his house in order, is intolerable, even for staunch opponents of the Iraq war.
But, strategically speaking, even this aspect has generated criticism to this day. Former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, himself involved in attempts to assassinate Saddam, still insists that it would have been better to bring down the leaders of the regime with a special forces mission -- instead of waging a war, destroying the army and severing the last bands holding the country together.
But regime change was only one of the goals America and its coalition of the willing had in mind when they marched into Iraq. The invaders had more in store for the country. They wanted, as Bush put it, to bring freedom to the Middle East, a freedom that wasn't "America's gift to the world," but "God's gift to mankind."
They wanted, as the Iraq War Resolution passed by the US Congress and signed into law on Oct. 16, 2002 states, to disarm Saddam Hussein's regime, put an end to human rights violation and terror in Iraq and, like the rest of the Middle East, make it democratic. History will judge this war on the basis of these goals outlined in the resolution ratified by both houses of Congress. The events are still too recent to have become history. Indeed, the United States only withdrew its last combat unit two months ago. But more than seven years after the beginning of the invasion, now that the most detailed and comprehensive chronology of this war, documents produced by the US Armed Forces themselves, is available, it is time to take stock.