Monday, March 2, 2009

Six years later in Iraq: still no good news

by Aaron Leonard

You don’t hear much about Iraq lately. I imagine with the sixth anniversary approaching — yes, sixth anniversary — that will change. But the war doesn’t seem to get much attention lately from politicians and the major media. Why is that?

Maybe it’s because the number of Iraqi civilians killed is estimated to be between 90,833 and 99,180, and the current U.S. death toll is 4,253. Perhaps it’s the two million people, mainly from the middle class, who have left Iraq, including 20,000 of its 34,000 doctors (2,000 of whom have been murdered). Or maybe it’s that the infrastructure remains in shambles or that religious and sectarian violence continues with the country increasingly balkanized between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.

Whatever the reason, one thing is plain: The situation in Iraq doesn’t add up to good news any way you look at it; what the U.S. power structure was trying to pull off and what they actually realized are a study in devastating contrasts.

Remember Condoleezza Rice’s remarks during Israel’s ill-fated incursion into Lebanon in 2006: “What we’re seeing is the birth pangs of a new Middle East.” Iraq was to be the centerpiece, a beacon of democracy in that “new Middle East” inspiring friends and bringing foes to heel.

Needless to say, it didn’t happen. These days, the best the U.S. can hope for, according to Newsweek, is “an Iraq roughly like other nondemocratic states in the Middle East.”

While violence has quieted and conventional wisdom says the surge worked, those in the know think differently. In his new book “The Gamble,” Washington Post reporter Thomas Ricks talked to some of the key policymakers and generals from inside the conflict.

First, there’s how bad things were before the surge: “The strategic edifice of the American effort in Iraq was collapsing,” according to Col. Peter Mansoor, executive officer to Gen. David Petraeus. U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker put it like this: “Iraq came pretty close, I think, to just unraveling.”

Ricks sums up the surge this way: “It is unclear in 2009 if [it] did much more than lengthen the war.” In other words, the surge prevented the imminent defeat of the U.S. (a defeat that by most estimates would have been worse than losing in Vietnam).

Keep this in mind as we approach this dubious anniversary. Rather than being a catalyst for projecting U.S. strength and power throughout the region, Iraq has sapped U.S. wealth, seared the images of torture and murder in the minds of a great number of people in the world, and inflicted boundless misery on the people living in that country.

All of this is amid the worst economic crisis of our lifetime.

Six years later, the U.S. is struggling against the prospect of losing its pre-eminent status as the world’s most powerful country. That’s the real reason Barack Obama is president — to rebrand the country in the eyes of the world. We’ll see how that goes.

We’ve come a long way from the halcyon days in 2003 when Bush proclaimed “Mission Accomplished” on the deck of the aircraft carrier off the coast of California. The metrics for Iraq are no longer what the U.S. has won, but how much it has lost.

Aaron Leonard is a columnist. E-mail him at

No comments: