All U.S. ground troops will be out of Iraq by Dec. 31, and soon this sorry conflict will fade quietly into the past, the second-dumbest war in American history. Yet the Iraq War has been missing in action during the Republican presidential campaign.
Like “body counts,” “Khe Sanh” and “My Lai” from Vietnam, “IEDs,” “Fallujah” and “Abu Ghraib” are already meaningless to many younger Americans. Today’s young voters were preteens when the war began in 2003.
The forgetting will be faster than with Vietnam because Iraq never penetrated our consciousness in the same way -- unless you were among the 30,000 who came back physically wounded or the more than 100,000 with psychological problems. If you add these 130,000 to the 4,500 dead and include the toll on their families, more than half a million Americans were directly affected by this war.
Our soldiers served with great courage, and they deserve respect (and jobs) when they return. But only now are we learning some of the chilling consequences of what took place. The New York Times revealed this week an internal report that details massacres of civilians in Haditha by U.S. forces. One U.S. officer, Major General Steve Johnson, described the killings as “a cost of doing business.”
Raising an Army
Recall the ancient expression “to raise an army.” Part of its meaning is raising taxes to arm and clothe that army. Iraq and Afghanistan were the first wars in our history where we didn’t raise taxes to pay for them, and our Army was endangered by the failure to include proper body armor and other equipment for our soldiers. Historians will view with shock and awe the juxtaposition of $1 trillion wars and huge tax cuts.
Is Iraq better off? Yes, we removed Saddam Hussein, but the Arab Spring might have done that by now without us. The Iraqis viewed us as occupiers not liberators, and recently refused even a residual force of 10,000 U.S. troops to help protect them. The Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, heads the most pro-Iranian government in the Arab world, other than Syria. For all of the diplomatic niceties when he visited with President Barack Obama this week, Maliki has trampled on the rule of law and assumed quasi-dictatorial powers. Iraq is a democracy in name only.
If we knew in 2003 what we know now -- about the absence of weapons of mass destruction, the cost in blood and treasure, the length of hostilities, the blow to American prestige -- would we do it all again? Of course not. Even those like me who supported the war at the outset must admit the whole thing was a fiasco.
You won’t hear anyone saying anything like this in the presidential debates. In fact, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney have both been sounding lately as if they’re itching for another big war -- with Iran -- though it’s hard to imagine either of them raising taxes to pay for that one, either.
Gingrich, now calling for “regime change” in Tehran, has been down this road before. In the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, he was quoted in the New York Times saying, “If we don’t use this as the moment to replace Saddam after we replace the Taliban, we are setting the stage for disaster.” He was right about the disaster part, and not much else.
Over the years, Gingrich was wrong when he argued that the U.S. Army wasn’t overextended, wrong when he backed Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to the hilt, wrong when he claimed that democratizing Iraq would weaken Iran. Nowadays, Gingrich is merely contradictory, alternating between saying “the president is right” in following through on Bush’s timetable for withdrawal and arguing that “Iran is stronger” without the slightest admission that he once said the opposite.
Failure or Not
Romney isn’t any more consistent. He went from claiming withdrawal was “an astonishing failure” for Obama to a grudging acknowledgment that withdrawal is “appropriate.”
One might imagine that having been colossally wrong about Iraq, the Republican front-runners would want to hire advisers who got it right. Nope. Gingrich says that John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, would be his secretary of state. In 1998, Bolton, who makes Donald Rumsfeld look like Michael Moore, was among the 18 signers of a Project for the New American Century letter that kicked off the movement for regime change in Iraq. Romney’s top foreign-policy adviser on the Middle East is Walid Phares, a stridently anti-Islamic lobbyist for Israel who pushed hard for the Iraq War by lumping in Saddam Hussein with Osama bin Laden and Yasser Arafat. Both foreign-policy “experts” are now leading the charge to invade Iran.
Unfortunately, Iraq has been mentioned only two or three times in passing in all of the Republican debates. If the folly of the war were better known, maybe Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman wouldn’t be the only Republican candidates worried about unwise foreign adventures. I have interviewed many Iraq veterans and parents of dead service members over the years. I’ll never forget how one weeping father, sitting at the kitchen table in his Cleveland home, explained to me that he and his late son shared a birthday. “I’ll never have a happy birthday again,” he said.
When will his voice be heard in Republican politics?
(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of “The Promise: President Obama, Year One.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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