“Well, that’s history. That’s the past. That’s talking about what happened before. What we should be talking about is what we’re going to do now.”
The man who spoke those words was Senator John McCain, and the subject was the Iraq war and its origins in official falsehood, strategic error and wishful thinking. Expect to hear him repeat those same dismissive phrases again and again as the presidential campaign unfolds.
Understandably, the presumptive Republican nominee prefers to avoid examining how our finest young people and vast amounts of our national treasure came to be squandered in that desert, since he was among the war’s most excited advocates.
There were no weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq (as some of us were not surprised to learn), and in particular no nuclear weapons under construction, as advertised. There were no significant connections between Al Qaeda and the regime of Saddam Hussein (as the Pentagon reaffirmed in a recent intelligence analysis). There was no legal basis for an invasion. There was no population inviting us to occupy their country as liberators.
Yes, it’s all “history,” or at least it will be someday, and the historians will properly record Mr. McCain’s role in the fiasco with all due asperity. But on the fifth anniversary of the war, it is a little too easy to dismiss everything that led us to this point as “what happened before.”
With the Arizona senator fresh from a Congressional trip to Baghdad, where he preened for the photo ops along with two of his campaign co-chairs, Senator Joseph Lieberman and Senator Lindsey Graham, this is certainly an appropriate moment to evaluate the judgment of the politicians who have promoted the whole enterprise, and the consequences of their decision.
How mistaken were the war’s optimistic promoters in 2003? The official line on the expected cost of rebuilding Iraq after ousting Saddam was just under $2 billion, according to testimony provided by Bush administration officials. That estimate did not include the likelihood, according to Paul Wolfowitz, then the deputy secretary of defense, that Iraq’s oil reserves would cover the entire cost of invasion, occupation and reconstruction. Five years later, the estimated cost of the war to American taxpayers is well over $2 trillion, including the care we must provide for wounded Americans over the next few decades. Much of the Iraqi oil, whose production remains sporadic, is being stolen and smuggled away.
The difference between an estimate of $2 billion and a cost of $2 trillion could be considered a significant miscalculation, even in a Republican government.
Yet those figures don’t quite reckon with the real costs, which should include the rise in the price of oil from around $36 a barrel in March 2003 to well over $100 a barrel this month. Some economists go further, blaming the subprime mortgage collapse—and the ensuing deluge of bad paper that may capsize the world economy—on the effects of the war.
What did we get for all our money and blood? What diplomatic and strategic achievements can we attribute to the war? The conflict over Israel and Palestine has grown more intractable, with the rising influence of Hamas and Hezbollah. The influence of Iran, an avowed enemy of the United States, has risen across the region and penetrated deep into Iraq, where our occupation props up Tehran’s allies. The United States military has been badly depleted and demoralized, while our global prestige has dropped.
Still, Mr. McCain tells us—and reportedly assured the Iraqi prime minister—of his intentions if he is elected president. “What we’re going to do now is continue this strategy,” he said, “which is succeeding in Iraq, and we are carrying out the goals of the surge.”
Actually, the aim of last year’s troop escalation was to create sufficient stability in Iraq to permit the Sunni, Shia, Kurdish and other political leaders to consolidate their government, provide decent public services and begin reconciliation. General David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces there, has acknowledged that the progress toward those objectives is far from satisfactory. Based on the originally stated purpose of the “surge,” it isn’t succeeding. Predictably, the level of violence in Iraq is again rising, with the daily death toll in March so far doubled from the low point in January.
It is telling when a presidential candidate speaks so dismissively of history and urges us to ignore “what happened before.” In this instance, it is a sign of bad faith and worse judgment.