For many Americans, news that the nearly 9-year-old war in Iraq is finally over will evoke feelings of relief but also revulsion. Relief, for the families of the military women and men that are coming home. And revulsion, for the officials and politicians that lacked the courage to prevent this unnecessary war. For me personally, the memory of the Iraq war will always be bookended by two quotations.
A few days before the American invasion of Iraq I happened to be sitting in the Washington office of one of the country’s most accomplished foreign policy practitioners. A Republican, who has served in senior positions for a number of American Presidents. He had been trying his best to convince the Bush administration to not invade Iraq. As we sat across from each other that day, talk of war swirled around the corridors of the Capitol. “Surely the reports that war between the United States and Iraq is imminent are wrong,” I remember asking him, “At the end of the day we won’t pull the trigger. Will we?” His words will forever be etched in my memory. He leaned over and told me that the White House wouldn’t even take his calls any more, “They have pulled the trigger this morning,” he said sorrowfully.
The other bookend to the war was another quotation. From an interview with Colonel Jack Jacobs, a Vietnam War Medal of Honor recipient, and an acquaintance. He was interviewed on the MSNBC evening news on Friday, October 21, 2011, the day President Obama announced all American troops were coming home from Iraq. When asked about fears that Iraq would not be able to remain stable, Colonel Jacobs said he believed those forecasts. But, he went on to say that the instability would not result from what any other country does, but because of what America has done to Iraq. In other words, he believed America broke Iraq and put it on the road to instability by invading it. A devastating coda to what I believe was one of the worst foreign policy blunders in American history.
Nearly 4,500 Americans and between 150,000 and a million Iraqis died in a war that cost America almost a trillion dollars and converted Iraq, albeit a brutal dictatorship, into a failed state. A war that overthrew Saddam Hussein, but also upended the balance of power in the Middle East and left Iran as the de facto regional super-power. It was a war of choice that began the downward spiral in America’s credibility and stability, a trajectory that continues to this day.
All American troops will come home from Iraq in time for Christmas this year with their heads held high, President Obama told the nation as he announced the end of American presence in Iraq. The troops are the only ones who have earned the right to hold their heads high on this momentous occasion. For the rest of the chain of command, from the then leadership of the Defense and State Departments, through the halls of Congress, and to the then Administration, the decision to go to war in Iraq was a decision that will haunt the United States, and damage its reputation and security for decades.
Sarwar Kashmeri is a senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s International Security Program and the author of “NATO 2.0: Reboot or Delete?” This essay originally appeared in the Huffington Post.