Ten Years After

New York Times

Ten years after it began, the Iraq war still haunts the United States in the nearly 4,500 troops who died there; the more than 30,000 American wounded who have come home; the more than $2 trillion spent on combat operations and reconstruction, which inflated the deficit; and in the lessons learned about the limits of American leadership and power.

It haunts Iraq too, where the total number of casualties is believed to have surpassed 100,000 but has never been officially determined; and where one strongman was traded for another, albeit under a more pluralistic system with a democratic veneer. The country is increasingly influenced by Iran and buffeted by the regional turmoil caused by the Arab Spring.

In 2003, President George W. Bush and Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary, used the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, to wage pre-emptive war against Saddam Hussein and a nuclear arsenal that did not exist. They promised a “free and peaceful Iraq” that would be a model of democracy and stability in the Arab world. While no one laments Saddam’s passing and violence is down from peak war levels, the country is fragile, with grave tensions between Sunnis and Shiites and Arabs and Kurds that could yet erupt into civil war or tear the state apart.

A State Department travel warning last month described Iraq as dangerous, with numerous insurgents, including Al Qaeda in Iraq, still active, and said Americans were “at risk for kidnapping and terrorist violence.” On Tuesday, a wave of car bombings and other attacks in Baghdad killed more than 50 people and wounded nearly 200.

Yet none of the Bush administration’s war architects have been called to account for their mistakes, and even now, many are invited to speak on policy issues as if they were not responsible for one of the worst strategic blunders in American foreign policy. In a video posted recently by the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Mr. Wolfowitz said he still believed the war was the right thing to do. Will he and his partners ever have the humility to admit that it was wrong to prosecute this war?

President Obama opposed the Iraq war from the start and has been single-minded about ending it, withdrawing the last combat troops in 2011. American influence in Iraq has greatly declined since then and Mr. Obama’s attention, like that of most Americans, has shifted to other priorities. Iraqis are responsible for their own future. But the country is a front line in the conflict between moderate Islam and Al Qaeda, not to mention its role as an oil producer. It requires more sustained American involvement than we have recently seen.

Iraq is a reminder of the need for political leaders to ask the right questions before allowing military action and to listen honestly rather than acting on ideological or political impulses. Mr. Bush led the war, but Democrats as well as Republicans in Congress endorsed it. Iraq also shows the limits of America’s influence in regions where sectarian enmity remains strong and where democracy has no real history.

That experience is informing American policy judgments more generally. It has affected decisions about Syria, where President Obama has been right to move cautiously. For a long time the Syrian opposition was divided, and it was hard to know which group, if any, deserved help. It also made sense not to rush into another costly war in another Arab country that could fuel new anti-American animosities and embroil the United States for another decade.

But with the Syrian conflict in its third year, the fighting has already spilled over the borders, destabilizing its neighbors, even as Al Qaeda-affiliated rebels play a bigger role. The reasons for opposing direct American involvement in Syria remain strong, but the United States needs to calibrate its policies continually and should not allow the Iraq experience to paralyze its response to different circumstances.

The lessons of Iraq, however, seem to fade when it comes to Iran. Many of the conservatives who strongly supported the charge into Iraq are fanning calls for United States military action to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. President Obama has also been threatening “all options” if negotiations to curb Iran’s ambitions are not successful, and many lawmakers seem ready to take action against Iran soon.

The Iraq war was unnecessary, costly and damaging on every level. It was based on faulty intelligence manipulated for ideological reasons. The terrible human and economic costs over the past 10 years show why that must never happen again.