Ten years after the invasion of Iraq, a tepid debate continues over whether the war was worth it. What is not debatable, however, is that the terrible costs of America’s diversion into Iraq after 9/11 have profoundly transformed American foreign policy. The post-Cold-War hubris that so infected American policymakers a decade ago has been replaced by its near-opposite. Today there is a new humility, indeed a kind of neo-isolationism, that is shaping major decisions as profoundly as hubris did a decade ago.
Call it the Iraq Syndrome. It has clearly become our generation's "Vietnam Syndrome," and it will likely be the dominant factor in foreign policy decisions of both Democratic and Republican administrations for years to come. Two recent indications: the return of Iraq war opponent Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s new Defense secretary, from the political dead—guaranteeing an ultra-cautious, “realist” approach to the use of American power—and the rise of what columnist George Will called “the libertarian strand of Republicanism” in evidence at the recently concluded CPAC conference, where Sen. Rand Paul won the straw poll even as he called for a scaled-down U.S. presence abroad.
Perhaps nothing more vividly illustrates this dramatic transformation in U.S. foreign policy than the reversal of roles on the world stage of the United States and France. A decade ago, in the months before the Iraq invasion, the French played the role of chief challengers to the Bush administration and were derided as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” in the colorful tabloid phrase of the time. Today, it is France that is taking the lead in intervention, prodding the U.S. forward in Libya, Syria and Mali.
To a degree that the American public may not even be aware of, the U.S. military is now playing a supporting role to the French, with logistical aid and airlift in Mali, much as it did in Libya. In addition, Washington is only slowly coming around to the hawkish French view of Syria's stalemate: Autocrat Bashar al-Assad won’t be moved to negotiate unless the rebels can change the military balance with Western arms. A senior Western diplomat says America’s reluctance to intervene today, even in a humanitarian crisis as bloody as Syria’s, is not unlike where Washington was at the beginning of the Bosnia crisis of the early 1990s, when then-President Clinton was criticized for his hesitation (he eventually came around to supporting NATO strikes and empowered an aggressive U.S. diplomat, the late Richard Holbrooke, to take the lead from the Europeans in negotiations).
The main reason behind this transformation of U.S. worldviews, of course, is the terrible tally of the Iraq war in blood, treasure, and trauma. It has been vast and appears to mount with each year, a historical rebuff to the absurdly facile estimates that hawks such as then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz threw out at the beginning. In an infamous exchange before Congress in 2003, Wolfowitz dismissed estimates by then- Gen. Eric K. Shinseki that several hundred thousand troops would be needed in postwar Iraq as "wildly off the mark" and declared that the cost of war and reconstruction would never exceed $95 billion.
Today Shinseki is Obama’s secretary of Veterans Affairs, and the latest reckoning of the costs of that war come to a staggering $2.2 trillion, according to the Costs of War Project by the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. The study also found that at least 134,000 Iraqi civilians died, although the Watson Institute says the death toll could be up to four times higher. An estimated 36,000 American military personnel were also killed or injured during the war. The Brown study said that the nearly 10-year war cost $1.7 trillion, with $490 billion more owed in benefits to combat veterans, and that total expenses could soar to $6 trillion over the next 40 years. In addition, the study concluded, future health and disability payments for veterans will total $590 billion, and interest accrued to pay for the war will add up to $3.9 trillion.
The 10-year return on this huge investment has been scant at best. It’s not just that the casus belli for the war, Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction and relationship with al-Qaida, turned out not to exist. Iraq is barely a democracy today, much less a model. Some advocates, such as former CIA analyst Reuel Marc Gerecht, still contend that taking out Saddam Hussein was justified and that “the Iraq war convulsed the region and added jet-fuel to the Arab/Islamic discussion of democracy.” But he is in the minority, judging from polls that indicate that most Americans believe it was a foolhardy war.
The problem is not just that the war itself went wrong and seemed to lack justification; it's that few experts deem the counterinsurgency and development (nation-building) parts of the effort to have been worth the cost either. This is true of both Iraq and Afghanistan, even with an unprecedented 50-nation NATO-led alliance. As the just-departed Afghanistan commander, Gen. John Allen, said at a recent forum convened by the Rand Corp. and Foreign Policy: "It will be 20 years before we undertake something like this again.” He added, “Something I worry about increasingly as time goes on is the sense that the development strategies in Iraq and now Afghanistan have failed. And that the development dimension of what we have attempted to undertake was either the wrong approach or just flawed from the beginning."
Twenty years is probably too sanguine. A decade ago, before the Iraq invasion, neoconservative hawks ruled foreign policy thinking in Washington, evincing a great deal of confidence that the lone superpower could easily “walk and chew gum at the same time,” in a popular phrase from the time. Today we know that what most Americans, post-9/11, considered a necessary war in Afghanistan suffered because of the diversion to an unnecessary one in Iraq. We know that, rather than reasserting U.S. power, the hawks of a decade ago achieved the opposite: They succeeded only in exposing U.S. vulnerabilities to the world by creating generations of IED-savvy insurgents, generating more terrorists than existed before, and empowering Iran, the major threat today to Mideast stability.
So the debate, at least among the punditocracy, will likely go on. The war’s champions are still hoping that, someday, history will vindicate them. But the practical effects of America's overreach in Iraq are undeniable. Wolfowitz and other policymakers who dominated the Bush administration wanted to put an end to the “Vietnam syndrome” of self-doubt about the use of force. Instead they left us with an “Iraq syndrome” that that will ensure no U.S. president, Democrat or Republican, will ever rush off to forcibly change regimes again.