Note: This incorporates material from a post published earlier on this blog. It is posted here as the electronic version of a column published in today’s dead-tree edition of the AJC.
Ten years ago today, the United States launched an unprovoked invasion of another country, an attack that was justified by claims of dire threats that our leaders knew to be false and exaggerated. More than 4,000 of our sons and daughters were to die as a result of that decision; tens of thousands more live today with physical and psychic wounds that have changed their lives forever.
The last of our soldiers to die in that war was named David Hickman. He was a recently married 23-year-old Army specialist from Greensboro, N.C. He was killed Nov. 14, 2011, by an improvised explosive device, a term that by the end had became all too familiar. The death toll continues even now within Iraq, with an average of a dozen people a day dying from political-related violence. More than 60 civilians were killed in a terrorist bombing Tuesday, a story that made headlines here only because it was timed to coincide with the war’s anniversary.
In other words, what was once deemed worth the investment of thousands of lives is now not deemed worthy even of notice.
Today, a majority of Americans have come to understand that the war was a mistake. However, that was not the case 10 years ago. In the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, our country was experiencing a degree of fear that it had not felt for decades. Under those conditions, it was all too easy for those in power to direct that fear wherever they wished, and to isolate and marginalize those Americans who dared to question the narrative as they spun it.
One of the architects of that effort, former Vice President Dick Cheney, looks back on that era in a new documentary film that was televised last week on Showtime. Cheney played a decisive role in maneuvering a pliable, inexperienced and maybe somewhat frightened president into an unnecessary war. But in typical Cheney fashion, the vice president expresses not the slightest regret or doubt.
“I did what I did,” he told the filmmakers. “And it’s all part of the public record and I feel very good about it. If I had it to do over again, I’d do it in a minute.”
While we did succeed in removing the tyrannical Saddam from power, that part of the mission was never in real doubt. In other ways, however, the invasion has set American interests back significantly. Instead of serving as a military outpost for U.S. forces keeping Iran in check, Iraq today is all but an Iranian client state. Despite our investment of blood and treasure, we have little or no influence over Iraq’s policies or practices.
By fighting on two fronts at once, both in Iraq and Afghanistan, we also divided our manpower, financial resources and attention, ensuring that we achieved real victory in neither. We will never know whether a full commitment to Afghanistan in the early years would have paid off with success; we do know that the odds of ultimate success look very dim.
Cheney, President Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and others also lost the war here on the home front. The invasion launched 10 years ago today in a show of shock and awe was intended to mark a newly muscular and militaristic foreign policy, with the United States finally freed of the constraints once placed upon it by the Soviet Union.
That was the theory. In practice, the invasion of Iraq, driven by false promises of easy conquest and false threats of WMD, yellowcake, mushroom clouds and unmanned aerial vehicles, exposed the strategic overreach and arrogance implicit in such a policy. By his second term, a chastened President Bush had largely pushed Cheney aside. That recognition of his vice president’s malignant influence came too late to save his presidency.
Today, the ambitions of Cheney and his friends have been discredited. The lessons of Vietnam have been refreshed rather than overturned, and support is now growing even within the Republican Party for a less expensive military and a more circumspect use of force overseas. The remaining advocates of a Cheney-esque foreign policy — men such as John McCain and William Kristol — are left to stamp their feet in frustration.
If given the chance, they, like Cheney, would indeed be willing to do it all over again. But next time, the American people may be wise enough not to give them or others like them the opportunity.
– Jay Bookman