For the next eight years, America will be commemorating the 20-year anniversaries of the ill-fated decision to invade Iraq. March 20, 2003 was only the beginning of the killing and maiming of tens of thousands — American troops and Iraqis alike. The reverberations of that war, based on a Bush administration fabrication that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was hoarding weapons of mass destruction and harboring al-Qaida terrorists, continue in both countries today.
Iraq lurches from one crisis to the next. There’s an ongoing shortage of medical doctors, for example. That’s because doctors in Iraq at the time were all trained under Hussein, tended to share his Sunni Muslim faith, and thus were deemed as enemies when the nation’s Shiite majority took control. Doctors and other medical personnel were threatened and told to leave, even as hospitals were overflowing with war casualties.
Then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, the primary promoters of the war, planned the first few weeks of the war with an eye toward efficiency of troops and expenditures. But they didn’t plan for post-invasion chaos. They rashly assumed that ridding Iraq of its dictator would spawn a new dawn of free elections, where Iraq’s oil riches would fund a model of prosperity and democracy for the rest of the Arab world to follow.
It didn’t quite work out that way. The Bush administration’s decision to dismiss the entire Sunni-dominated Iraqi military led to an armed revolt. Sunni and Shiite militias warred against each other, then both turned their guns on U.S. troops. Iraq turned into a chaotic, $2 trillion bloodbath.
No weapons of mass destruction turned up. And the Bush administration’s assertion that Hussein was harboring al-Qaida terrorists was nonsense. Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden had long regarded Hussein as an apostate and an enemy. Bin Laden had dispatched Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a follower deemed too radical even by al-Qaida standards, to northern Iraq as a way of getting rid of him. Al-Zarqawi wound up using the U.S.-inflicted chaos to form his own militia, the Islamic State, which worsened the bloodbath then exported it to neighboring Syria.
Thousands of service members and U.S. contractors paid for the administration’s lies with their lives. Others will forever bear debilitating physical and emotional scars.
Politically, some Republicans point to the Iraq debacle to argue for America’s withdrawal from the world — let other countries and oppressed peoples fight for themselves. Others argue that the U.S. government should never be trusted again. While there’s a kernel of truth in both positions, the real lesson of Iraq is to remain engaged but exercise far more caution, especially when the evidence amounts to little more than a collection of fuzzy reconnaissance photos. And Congress must perform its legal responsibility of holding the White House in check instead of serving as its cheerleader.