Middle East Features
As US troops leave, Iraq costs, goals still divide US (News Feature)
By Mike McCarthy Aug 17, 2010, 6:01 GMT
Washington - As the United States winds down its military role in Iraq, the question of whether the cost of the war outweighed its benefits is as much a divisive issue now as it was before the invasion of the country more than seven years ago.
US combat troops are scheduled to leave Iraq by the end of August, reducing the American presence to about 50,000 responsible for training Iraqi security forces and assisting in counterterrorism operations, as outlined by President Barack Obama. The remaining force is slated to leave at the end of 2011.
The decision by Obama's predecessor, George W Bush, to use military force against Saddam Hussein's regime, on what turned out to be false grounds that it possessed weapons of mass destruction, divided the US public and turned much of the rest of the world against the United States.
But as Iraq slowly emerges from a lengthy and bloody conflict amid signs - albeit tentative - that the security situation is stabilizing and a fragile democratic government is taking hold, some have begun to ask whether the mission was a strategic success, failure or combination of both.
Proponents of the war argue the ouster of Saddam in 2003 reshaped the region, and that getting rid of a longtime nuisance who started a war with Iran, invaded Kuwait and allegedly sought to acquire nuclear weapons paid dividends. That comes on top of ending decades of his repressive and bloody rule and replacing it with a democratic government friendly to Washington.
Detractors point to the loss of life and treasure. More than 4,400 US soldiers have died, while, although there are no official figures, estimates show more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians also lost their lives. The war has cost US taxpayers more than 1 trillion dollars.
They also point to damaged US credibility in the world, the increased standing of Iran in the region, and that the war drained badly-needed resources from the fight against the Taliban and al- Qaeda in Afghanistan, where the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks originated.
'You have to make an assessment as to what political goals have been achieved and if the United States is better off today than it was before the war,' said William Nash, a retired US Army general and former member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank. 'My judgement is there is more negative there than positive.'
Nash concluded the United States has been strategically weakened in the region by the war. 'At what cost have we rid the world of one bad guy?' he asked.
But others say the value of getting rid of Saddam should not be underestimated. Thomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington says a Middle East without Saddam has 'entirely changed the security environment.'
'The region is profoundly different from what it was,' Donnelly said. 'What was a persistent threat to the region is no longer such. And a country that was at best a problem for the United States, and frequently an enemy of the United States, is now some sort of ally of the United States.'
The war was 'worth it' Donnelly added, while conceding it was a 'value judgement.' He referenced the mistakes committed along the way that prolonged the US involvement beyond what had been originally envisioned.
'In my judgement we paid a higher price than we ought to have done, but the strategic benefits are immense,' he said.
There is consensus, however, that Iraq still faces a difficult future. Although at much lower levels than the height of the violence in 2006 and 2007, terrorist attacks have persisted, having killed dozens of people in the last month alone. Nash predicts that Iraq 'has a lot more turbulence in its future than it does stability.'
Even at the war's lowest points, Bush expressed confidence that a better Iraq lie ahead, even as the country appeared to be heading toward a full blown civil war between Shiites and Sunnis. There are modest signs that could be true, but it will be historians who ultimately answer the question: was it worth it?
Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security advisor and secretary of state who was at the centre of the decision to invade, was asked that very question earlier this year.
'Today's headlines and history are rarely the same, and if you're too focused on today's headlines then you will do nothing that will lead to a favourable judgement by history,' she said.