$806 Billion Spent for Hundreds of Thousands to Be Killed and Wounded: The Staggering, True Costs of the Iraq War
The United States is withdrawing the last of its troops from Iraq this month, which makes now an appropriate time to begin weighing the costs and benefits to U.S. national security from our intervention there.
On May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush stood aboard the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and declared to the country and to the world that “Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.”
As Americans would quickly find out, President Bush’s declaration of victory was severely premature. Iraq would soon be in the throes of a violent insurgency and, eventually, a full-blown sectarian civil war.
More than eight years after that speech, as President Barack Obama prepares to keep his promise to end the war, Iraq has made progress but still struggles with insecurity and deep political discord. Though the level of violence has remained down from its 2006–2007 peak—when dozens of bodies could be found on Baghdad’s streets every morning—Iraq still endures a level of violence that in any other country would be considered a crisis. Still, the end of former Iraq President Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime represents a considerable global good, and a nascent democratic Iraqi republic partnered with the United States could potentially yield benefits in the future.
But when weighing those possible benefits against the costs of the Iraq intervention, there is simply no conceivable calculus by which Operation Iraqi Freedom can be judged to have been a successful or worthwhile policy. The war was intended to show the extent of America’s power. It succeeded only in showing its limits.
The tables and charts below tell the tale. We have grouped these costs into three categories:
Before turning to those tables and charts, however, we would like to make two additional points.
First, it is critical to remember the shifting justifications for the U.S. intervention in Iraq. The Iraq invasion was sold to the American public on the basis of Saddam Hussein’s supposed possession of weapons of mass destruction and his alleged relationship with Al Qaeda. When both claims turned out to be false, the Bush administration justified the intervention on the idea that a democratic Iraq would be an ally in the “war on terror” and an inspiration for democratic reform in the Middle East. These arguments remain, at best, highly questionable.
Second, the authors would like to make clear that this analysis of the costs of the Iraq war in no way diminishes the sacrifice, courage, and honor displayed by the U.S. military in Iraq. Americans troops have served and died in Iraq at the behest of the American people and two of their commanders-in-chief. This is why it is important to draw the correct lessons from our nation’s invasion of Iraq. In order to do that, its costs must be examined honestly and rigorously.
The foregoing costs could conceivably be justified if the Iraq intervention had improved the United States’ strategic position in the Middle East. But this is clearly not the case. The Iraq war has strengthened anti-U.S. elements and made the position of the United States and its allies more precarious.