Following the withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq in December 2011, can the U.S. claim victory or did the Obama administration adopt the face-saving solution of “Just declare victory and get out,” a position proposed by the late Senator George Akin of Vermont at the end of the Vietnam war?
What does victory mean and why did the U.S. invade and occupy Iraq in the first place? The reasons given by the Bush Administration proved to be contrived: Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction; no links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, or any Iraqi operational act against the U.S., was established; and, as Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan, speaking on the Iraq invasion and occupation, said, “I have indicated it was not in conformity with the UN Charter. From our point of view, from the charter point of view, it was illegal.”
The costs of the Iraq war have been tremendous in terms of lives lost. Since the war began in March 19, 2003, over 4,400 US lives have been lost, and over 650,000 Iraqis were killed.
The Iraq war cost U.S. taxpayers $810 billion and counting. Imagine how much health care, social services, education, housing, fire and police this money could have purchased.
Additionally, we became the thugs the world when it was learned the U.S. used torture at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay, at secret detention centers round the world, and the CIA conducted renditions or extrajudicial secret abductions and transfers of prisoners to Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Uzbekistan and elsewhere.
And in the aftermath of September 11, the Bush administration pushed through the Patriot Act, which expanded government surveillance powers and the scope of some criminal laws. We have held prisoners at Guantánamo without charges for over a decade.
Did we sow the seeds of democracy in Iraq? Iraq has had elections, but its lauded democracy is tenuous at best. Elections do not necessarily a democracy make.
Iraq has three large ethnic groups: Kurds in the north; Sunnis in the middle; and Shiites, the most populous group, in the south. Given the ethnic and religious rivalry among these three groups and the ever-presence of al-Qaeda, there is little evidence that an Iraq democracy will last now that the U.S. military has left. In fact, there is little evidence that democracy will take root throughout the Middle East.
We did eliminate Saddam Hussein and placed Nuri Kamal al-Maliki as Prime Minister, a position he hopes to continue well into the future. Al-Maliki has been trying to gain control over the armed groups in his country as a means to consolidate his power. Instead of bringing the Shiite and Sunni Arabs together, al-Maliki has sought to marginalize the Sunnis. He has resisted integrating Sunnis into the army. He has accused senior Sunni politicians of being terrorists, hounded them from power and, thus, lost the cooperation of the Sunni community. Unless Maliki is forced to resign and replaced by a more conciliatory figure, there is the real possibility of civil war.
And there is the ever-presence of al-Qaeda’s Iraqi arm, known as the Islamic State of Islam, who are suspected of instigating a series of recent car bombings throughout Iraq. More than 1,000 people have been killed in Iraq by al-Qaeda and Sunni insurgents in May alone. The goal of al-Qaeda seems to be to undermine Iraqi confidence in the Shiite-led government.
Finally, now that the U.S. has left Iraq, Iran has a market for its goods which is helping to relieve the U.S.-European Union boycott against Iraq.
It remains to be seen whether the Iraq “war” was won. But, clearly, the U.S. had no moral or legal basis for invading and continuing to occupy Iraq. Whether the war was won or not, the U.S. was right to leave Iraq.
Finally, I agree with President Obama that terrorism should now be treated as a criminal activity instead of a war on terrorism. This recasts the terrorists as cowardly thugs instead of enemy warriors. For a complete overview of the Iraq conflict from its beginning in 2003 until mid-2012, I suggest reading Iraq: Politics, Governance, and Human Rights.