With U.S. “combat operations” in Iraq — which are not to be confused with U.S. combat operations in Iraq, which will continue through next year — coming to an end today, and marked by a speech from the Oval Office tonight, the internets are alight with the war’s advocates and critics fighting to define its legacy.
While that fight will likely continue for decades, it’s worth noting that the American people are now overwhelmingly with the war’s critics. A recent CBS News poll found that 76% of Americans — including 56% of Republicans — don’t think the war was worth it, and 73% believing that the war either made them less safe (18%) or made no difference (55%) against terrorism.
But while the ultimate legacy of the U.S. intervention in Iraq is still to be determined, it is possible — and necessary, given the implications for future interventions — to attempt to tally the war’s costs and benefits to the national security of the United States. Back in May, my colleagues Brian Katulis and Peter Juul and I attempted to do this with our report, The Iraq War Ledger.
As we noted, the end of Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime represents a considerable global good, but most of the war’s other benefits very much remain in the realm of conjecture, things that won’t happen — Saddam and his sons can no longer threaten us with WMD they did not have — or things that could possibly happen, if current trends continue in a positive direction, such as a stable, democratic Iraq being a model for the region. (It’s deeply ironic, of course, that a war conceived as part of an effort to combat global Islamist extremism succeeded in delivering Iraq into the hands of Islamist parties, with the single largest bloc in the Iraqi parliament representing the most extreme and anti-American of those parties. But Iraq’s being the first Arab country in which Islamists have been permitted to both compete and govern may eventually prove to be the war’s most important contribution.)
But while a nascent democratic Iraqi republic allied with the United States could potentially yield benefits in the future, the costs of the war are very real in the here and now. The financial costs are fairly straightforward, and they are staggering (sources in report):
- Cost of Operation Iraqi Freedom: $748.2 billion
- Projected total cost of veterans’ health care and disability: $422 billion to $717 billion
The human costs, especially in terms of Iraqi casualties, are somewhat more difficult to ascertain, but even using the most conservative estimates, the numbers are deeply troubling:
- Total deaths: Between 110,663 and 119,380
- Coalition deaths: 4,712
- U.S. deaths: 4,394
- U.S. wounded: 31,768
- U.S. deaths as a percentage of coalition deaths: 93.25 percent
- Iraqi Security Force deaths: At least 9,451
- Total coalition and ISF deaths: At least 14,163
- Iraqi civilian deaths: Between 96,037 and 104,7542
- Non-Iraqi contractor deaths: At least 463
- Internally displaced persons: 2.6 million
- Refugees: 1.9 million
Least appreciated, however, are the war’s strategic costs, the implications of which the U.S. will likely be grappling with for decades: Read more