Five years ago, the United States invaded Iraq and set in motion a chain of events that most Americans wish had never been unleashed. While President Bush and Vice President Cheney have been making the rounds to convince a skeptical public that the war has been critical for America's national security interests, their words ring hollow. With 4,000 Americans killed, 30,000 wounded, and over half a trillion dollars spent so far, this unfortunate anniversary is the proper time to step back for a reality check.
At this point, it's hard to remember why we went to war in the first place, especially given the number of times the rationale has changed.
Did we go in to root out weapons of mass destruction?
Or to depose an unsavory dictator?
Or to spread democracy in the Middle East?
Or to further the so-called war on terror?
Or perhaps because of Iraq's violations of U.N. resolutions?
Repeatedly, as each stated reason for the war began to look indefensible, the administration and its backers would trot out a new line of reasoning seemingly better suited to developments on the ground.
Certainly, the administration's initial decision to invade Iraq in the absence of an imminent threat cost us valuable international support and legitimacy. But the original bad decision was only the beginning of a poorly conceived and executed plan for Iraq. Bush ignored experts, including many in his own administration, who correctly predicted the levels of sectarian violence we've seen over the last five years.
He also showed misplaced loyalty to an incompetent secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, who failed to plan for an insurgency that he should have seen coming, even from behind the rosiest colored-glasses. Ideological fervor and best-case scenarios led to unrealistic predictions that we would be greeted as liberators and that Iraqi oil would pay for the war.
White House Economic Adviser Lawrence Lindsay offered a more realistic (but still inadequate) estimate of the war's costs – between $100 and $200 – billion, and was eventually asked to resign. The war has now cost more than ten times original predictions, and one Nobel Prize-winning economist estimates that the eventual cost may be as much as $3 trillion. That's trillion with a T.
The United States has now been in Iraq longer than World War II, and troop levels are where they were when Bush declared "mission accomplished" back on May 1, 2003. Yes, there have been security gains since the so-called "surge" in troops last year, but violence in Iraq is still at unacceptably high levels. The Department of Defense estimates that we're back to 2005 attack levels – over 500 per week.
The conflict has essentially moved into stalemate and the violence has remained constant over the past few months. The toll on Iraqi civilians has been particularly high. Tens of thousands have been killed since the invasion and at least 4 million have been forced from their homes. American, Iraqi, and international aid to refugees has been woefully inadequate.
Sadly, the Iraqi government hasn't done its part to take advantage of the surge, which was conceived to give Iraqis "breathing room" to make the political progress necessary for long-term reconciliation in the country. In particular, the Iraqi government needs to reach an agreement for oil sharing and provincial elections.
Maybe the administration's bungling and the discouraging statistics would be easier to swallow if the war had actually made us safer, but it hasn't. Our national intelligence agencies agree that the war in Iraq has become a "cause celebre" and recruitment tool for terrorists around the world. Iraq has also been a costly distraction from our efforts in Afghanistan, a much more important front in the war against global terrorist networks: Al Qaeda has been making a comeback in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and a bi-partisan panel of experts recently noted that the United States and its allies have tried to win the war in Afghanistan with too few troops and resources.
Lastly, our military is stretched dangerously thin, further compromising our national security interests. Gen. George Casey recently noted that "[t]he cumulative effects of the last six-plus years at war have left our Army out of balance, consumed by the current fight and unable to do the things we need to do to properly sustain our all-volunteer force and restore our flexibility for an uncertain future."
While polls show that most Americans understand that the war was a tragic mistake, President Bush and Vice President Cheney continue to demonstrate that they have learned little or nothing from this monumental blunder. Bush continues to insinuate that al Qaeda in Iraq, which wasn't there before the war, is connected to the al Qaeda that carried out the terrorist attacks of September 11th.
Vice President Cheney also refuses to face the sad facts, declaring at a news conference last week that the war in Iraq has been "well worth the effort." When asked about recent polls that show two-thirds of Americans believe the war in Iraq wasn't worth it, Cheney replied, "So?"
The unfortunate truth is that in launching a pre-emptive war based on faulty intelligence and groundless assumptions, without the support of key allies, and with no real plan to win the peace, President Bush's war of choice was a tremendous mistake.
Instead of furthering American interests, it has bred deep resentment around the world, cost America dearly in lives and treasure, and has done nothing to make us safer.
Spencer P. Boyer is Director of international law and diplomacy with the Center for American Progress.