Iraq: What Did We Win, And What Did It Cost?

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:

Empowered Iran in Iraq and region. The Islamic Republic of Iran is the primary strategic beneficiary of the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq. The end of Saddam Hussein’s regime removed Iran’s most-hated enemy (with whom it fought a hugely destructive war in the 1980s) and removed the most significant check on Iran’s regional hegemonic aspirations. Many of Iraq’s key Iraqi Shia Islamist and Kurdish leaders enjoy close ties to Iran, facilitating considerable influence for Iran in the new Iraq.

Created terrorist training ground. According to the U.K. Maplecroft research group, Iraq is the most vulnerable country in the world to terrorism. The years of U.S. occupation in Iraq created not only a rallying call for violent Islamic extremists but also an environment for them to develop, test, and perfect various tactics and techniques. These tactics and techniques are now shared, both in person and via the Internet, with extremists all over the region and the world, including those fighting U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Loss of moral authority. While abuses are perhaps inevitable in any military occupation, the images and stories broadcast from Iraq into the region and around the world have done lasting damage to the United States’ reputation as a supporter of international order and human rights. Gen. David Petraeus acknowledges the damage done to the U.S. reputation by Abu Ghraib is permanent, calling it a “nonbiodegradable” event.

Diverted resources and attention from Afghanistan. Rather than stay and finish the job in Afghanistan as promised, the Bush administration turned its focus to Iraq in 2002. Special Forces specializing in regional languages were diverted from Afghanistan to Iraq, and Predator drones were sent to support the war in Iraq instead of the hunt for Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Rather than stay and finish the job in Afghanistan as promised, the Bush administration turned its focus to Iraq in 2002.

Stifled democracy reform. A RAND study concluded that, rather than becoming a beacon of democracy, the Iraq war has hobbled the cause of political reform in the Middle East. The report stated that “Iraq’s instability has become a convenient scarecrow neighboring regimes can use to delay political reform by asserting that democratization inevitably leads to insecurity.”

Fomented sectarianism in region. The invasion of Iraq replaced a prominent Sunni Arab State with one largely controlled by Iraq’s Arab Shia majority. While the end of the oppression of Iraq’s Shia majority is a positive thing, this shift has exacerbated regional tensions between Shia and Sunni, including in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Lebanon, and Bahrain (where the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based.) Lingering disputes in Iraq between Sunni and Shia Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen also continue to invite exploitation by both state and nonstate actors.

Another cost that is hard to determine has to do with the lifting of the veil of American power. There is, or was, a valuable deterrent effect to America’s power being implied, rather than manifest. For years, the world — enemies and friends alike — watched as the most powerful military in the world was bedeviled by a small insurgency, unable to prevent Iraq from descending into a savage sectarian civil war. This has hugely negative implications for our future security. As we concluded in our report, the Iraq war was conceived in the wake of 9/11 as a demonstration of the extent of America’s power, but it succeeded only in demonstrating the limits of that power.


When measured against the war’s costs, there’s simply no plausible calculus by which the Iraq intervention can be judged a success. Acknowledging this is, of course, not a criticism of the American troops who fought honorably and sacrificed immensely to carry out a misguided policy, but of the politicians, policymakers and pundits who helped sell and implement that policy in the first place.

Speaking of, commenting on the drawdown in the Wall Street Journal earlier this month, Max Boot, one of the war’s most high-kicking cheerleaders, wrote “U.S. forces still have a vital mission: to ensure that a newly sobered Iraq does not fall off the wagon and once again imbibe the deadly brew of ethno-sectarian violence.” That’s true, if typically condescending, but I’d add that, with the war’s darkest days hopefully behind us, serious and responsible national security analysts also have a vital mission: to ensure that the United States does not once again imbibe the deadly brew of fear and hubris peddled by interventionist moonshiners.