WASHINGTON: Ten years after the United States invaded Iraq, the war still divides Americans and a remarkably durable minority believes the fighting was worth it.
Roughly four in 10 hold that view on the 10th anniversary of the war’s beginning. Polls show that number has barely changed since 2004, when U.S. public opinion overall began to sour on what Washington had termed Operation Iraqi Freedom.
In 2004, two incidents provided sobering counterpoints to the official version of progress told by the administration of George W. Bush.
One was an ambush on armed civilian contractors in the city of Fallujah, where they were dragged from their vehicle and beaten to death. Their bodies were set alight and the charred remains hung from a bridge. Photos of the event, broadcast around the world, shocked Americans. So did televised images, three weeks later, of American guards humiliating detained Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison.
Polls conducted from the start of the war to its 10th anniversary by Gallup and the Washington Post/ABC News show a dip from 70 percent support (“worth fighting for”) in 2003 to around 40 percent in 2004, a level around which it has fluctuated ever since.
Then, as now, Democrats and Independents were more skeptical about the wisdom of the war than Republicans, more than half of whom still think it was worth the cost in blood and treasure.
That price tag has risen steadily with successive estimations.
According to the latest, published by number crunchers and conflict experts at Brown University to mark the anniversary, the war in Iraq cost the United States $1.7 trillion and killed at least 134,000 Iraqi civilians. U.S. military deaths total 4,488. The death toll of U.S. contractors of various nationalities exceeds 3,400.
When the U.S. military finally withdrew from Iraq in December 2011, President Barack Obama – who owed his 2008 presidential victory partly to a promise to end the war – said the Americans were leaving behind “a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq.”
The Brown study took issue with that claim. Not only was it inaccurate at the time, the authors said, but the country had become less secure and stable since then.
Compared with the high cost of waging the war, the bill for fixing what the invasion had broken looks relatively modest: an average of $15 million a day – $625,000 every hour – for the biggest reconstruction project since the Marshall Plan to rebuild war-shattered Europe. What did the $60 billion effort achieve?
Not all that much, according to the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, Stuart Bowen, who released a critical 174-page report in time for the 10th anniversary.
Optimistically entitled Learning From Iraq, the report concludes that bad planning, fraud, corruption and outright theft crippled reconstruction – and that “as things stand, the U.S. government is not much better prepared for the next stabilization than it was in 2003.”
Then, as now, there is no structure to integrate the various government agencies involved in rebuilding projects, according to the report. Then as now, there is no integrated data system to track money flows and contractors.
Poor planning and weak oversight left a legacy of abandoned projects that were started by American agencies without consulting the Iraqis whether they wanted them or not. Ignoring Iraqi input is a complaint that runs like a red thread through interviews the SIGIR team conducted with Iraqi officials.
Such reports have done little to dent the confidence of those who still subscribe to the rationale for the war laid out by the Bush administration soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon.
The Bush storyline insinuated a link between Iraq and the 2001 attacks, a falsehood so successful that a month before the American attack, a poll showed that more than 70 percent of Americans believed Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the Sept. 11 attacks.
That was fertile ground for building public and congressional support for going to war and toppling Saddam, thus preventing the Iraqi dictator from using the weapons of mass destruction the administration erroneously claimed he had.
A preventive strike on Iraq was, the administration argued, an urgent necessity. As Condoleezza Rice, then Bush’s national security adviser famously put it: while there was “some uncertainty” how close Iraq was to nuclear weapons, “we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”
That was government propaganda at its most effective –made more so by the fact that many of the most important U.S. media organizations largely swallowed the government line and gave short shrift to voices of dissent.
“Major news organizations aided and abetted the Bush administration’s march to war,” CNN media critic Howard Kurtz wrote in a 10th anniversary essay.
“All too often, skepticism was checked at the door and the shaky claims of top officials and unnamed sources were trumpeted as fact.”
Kurtz calls it the greatest U.S. media failure in modern times. Another media critic, Howard Fineman, blames a “toxic atmosphere of misguided patriotism, ignorance and political fear.”
Do such insights, 10 years later, mean that a lesson has been learned and won’t be repeated? Too early to tell. But it will be worth watching closely the rising tensions with Iran, a country Americans see as an enemy and suspect of getting close to building nuclear weapons.