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Iraq in hindsight: a colossal mistake

Michael Poffenberger | Sunday, December 5, 2004

In retrospect, invading Iraq was clearly the most irresponsible decision of U.S. foreign policy-makers in recent history. The consequences of this action are severe; thousands upon thousands of lives have been lost, taxpayers will be paying for the war for generations to come, the reach of terrorist networks has expanded, and the development of the international rule of law has regressed half a century.

A research report recently published by The Lancet, a leading academic journal for public health, pegs the number of civilian deaths in Iraq to be approximately 100,000. Researchers used Iraqi household surveys to determine the change in mortality rates once the war began, and then calculated the net effects of the spike in deaths. They estimate that a majority of the innocent life lost was due to American bombing campaigns.

This report has serious implications for the prospects for success in the reconstruction of Iraq. Think about it: the United States – already hated by Iraqis for its imperialist tendencies and unjust support for Israel – entered into a sovereign nation, destroyed its infrastructure and killed 100,000 civilians. Now, the United States expects to gain the support of all Iraqis, deeming those who do not agree to be “terrorists.” Is this going to “win the hearts and minds” of Iraqis and others in the Middle East?

The war will not gain international support for American policy or even for the brand of “democracy” that the US is attempting to export. Instead, it has exacerbated global divisions and increased anti-American sentiment. By most expert accounts, the reach of terrorist networks has expanded and America is less secure now than before.

Simply stated, the consequences of this war for America and the reality on the ground in Iraq demonstrate that the perspective of the Bush Administration is demented, often displaying a blind following of ideology and a total disregard for pragmatic considerations.

This is not a partisan observation. In 1998, following the first Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush and his national security advisor published an article in Time explaining why they did not invade Iraq to remove Hussein, writing that “Extending the war into Iraq would have incurred incalculable human and political costs. We would have been forced to occupy Baghdad and, in effect, rule Iraq. The coalition would instantly have collapsed, the Arabs deserting in anger and other allies pulling out as well. Exceeding the UN’s mandate would have destroyed the precedent of international response to aggression we hoped to establish. Had we gone the invasion route, the US could still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land.”

The costs of this occupation to American taxpayers have been astronomical. Thus far, Americans have paid 150 billion dollars for the takeover of Iraq, and that number grows each day. If you perceive the U.S. invasion to have been one to serve humanitarian purposes, think about how many more effective ways there are to save lives with that much money. According to the National Priorities Project, the money spent in Iraq could also have fully-funded all global campaigns against AIDS for the next 14 years or provided basic immunizations for every living child for the next 50 years. Furthermore, the debt run up from this war will cripple the future of our nation’s ability to carry out basic social services.

Finally, the precedent set by this war turns back the clock on the international rule of law. International laws present accountability and order for an otherwise anarchic global system, and are the only hope for the construction of a less violent global future. Ironically, it is exactly the violation of these norms that the United States used as an excuse to illegally invade Iraq. The ripple effects from this war will be observable in the actions of other nation states who choose to follow the lead of the United States.

In hindsight, what are we left with from the invasion of Iraq? We are left with an administration in power that purposefully misled the American people to serve ideological interests. We are left with a saddening loss of human life, an astronomical debt, the expansion of terrorism and a weakening of the international rule of law. These consequences almost certainly outweigh any potential for positive gains from the war, even if democratic elections in Iraq are successful.

This reality should further bring us to question the use of systematic violence to serve any political purposes, especially in this day and age. Diplomacy and economic means of pressuring nations to conform to international law are becoming more and more successful. Following Just War principles-especially in regards to the mandate that war be only a last resort-is perhaps no longer possible.

Hopefully, Americans will learn these lessons from the war in Iraq and prevent such reckless irresponsibility in the future. Otherwise, any hopes for reaching a sustainable global peace are lost. Should we be aiming for anything else?

Michael Poffenberger is a senior anthropology and peace studies major. He can be reached at mpoffenb@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.