Saddam Hussein was an evil man. A brutal dictator. A practitioner of genocide. I do not regret that he is dead, nor even the manner of his death; I certainly do not regret that he no longer holds power.
But this month marks the 10th anniversary of the American-led invasion of Iraq, and there’s little from that now-ended war that Americans should count as a victory. Did the post-invasion violence settle enough that the United States could leave the country without embarrassing itself too badly? Sure. But only barely: More than 200 Iraqis—most of them civilians—died in January and February each, victims of ongoing political violence. And the government we left behind? It is corrupt and authoritarian.
Despite that—despite more than 4,400 Americans killed and more than 100,000 Iraqis dead, despite costing (conservatively) nearly $800 billion so far—there are still those who say the invasion was the right thing to do. They are wrong. When we invaded and discovered that, no, Saddam Hussein did not possess weapons of mass destruction … well, we lost. Everything else is just commentary.
• We lost some of our ability to lead. Ever since the end of World War II, the American president has often been referred to, colloquially, as “the leader of the free world.” It’s a term that you don’t hear that often anymore, because the “free world” is clearly much more fractious than it used to be. In 1991, much of that world joined America in its first invasion of Iraq because there was a clear wrong—the invasion of Kuwait—to be righted. In 2003, enough doubts remained that once-close allies stayed on the sideline. We lost our ability to lead because we couldn’t convince the world we were leading in the right direction. And those doubts proved to be prescient. That eroded American leadership in ways we haven’t really recovered.
• We nearly broke our armed forces. Our all-volunteer armed forces were stretched to the breaking point during the last 10 years. Repeated deployments helped spur a suicide epidemic in the armed forces, and made it difficult for the services to recruit new soldiers and retain old ones, which in turn led to the lowering of standards for admission into the Army and other services. It’s a force that will be less fresh if called upon to fight again in the near future. Speaking of which …
• Iran is more powerful. Saddam Hussein was a bad guy, but he hated Iran. The current Iraq government? To some extent, it’s an Iranian client state. If the United States ends up going to war in Iran over nuclear weapons—and gosh, that would be stupid—that country is in a much stronger position to deter attackers and influence allies. We made an ally for them!
• Our debt is much bigger. It’s tough to get a precise number on how much Iraq alone added to the national debt—and keeps on adding. Thanks to our commitment to veterans care, we’ll be paying for the Iraq War for decades to come. (That’s a commitment not to be shirked, incidentally.) We do know the national debt grew by $4.9 trillion during the George W. Bush presidency, though. Partly because Republicans didn’t care about the deficit when he was in charge, but also because he took us to war without raising taxes for the first time in American history. It all went on the credit card. Anybody who worries that America is “broke” these days has to admit the Bush Administration’s role in making so.
• We lost our moral standing. American soldiers tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison—the same place that Saddam Hussein tortured his regime’s victims. And no, it wasn’t just the work of a few bad apples: It turns out that’s how we treat the people we perceive as our enemies. The world was outraged. Nobody of consequence has ever been held accountable. It’s a shame.
America is a weaker, poorer, less influential nation than we were 10 years ago. The Iraq War was a failure of judgement, vision and stewardship by our leaders. The end of Saddam Hussein’s regime has turned out not to be worth that cost—and if you doubt that, answer this question: Who, exactly, spent the last 10 years safer than they were because he left power? What a tragedy.