Bush at the Pentagon

Five years of combat in Iraq started in earnest on March 19, 2003.

That, at any rate is how Washington sees the situation. But actually western combat aircraft – mostly U.S., a number of British, and for a while some French – had been flying over the northern and southern thirds of Iraq almost from the end of hostilities of the first Gulf War in February 1991.

During those 12 years the western air forces had zero fatalities. Iraqis, whether soldiers manning tactical radar and missile defense sites or Iraqi civilians in the wrong place during a fly-over, killed by munitions launched by the allied aircraft will never be known. Nor will the deaths caused by the sanctions regime imposed on Iraq ever be more than general estimates.

On what was arguably the 17th anniversary of the Iraq conflict, President George W. Bush spoke at the Pentagon on the “progress” and the current conditions in Iraq. It was in tone remarkably aggressive and defiant – a challenge as ill-advised as his “bring ‘em on” remark of July 2003. Bush reaffirmed his decision for war as something the U.S. had to do, as a war that could and had to be won, and that it was worth the cost. Needless to say, the largely military audience was sympathetic – at least to judge from the occasional applause.

As in the past, Bush’s assertions lacked supporting evidence. Yes, the tyranny of Saddam Hussein and his sons has been broken, but only to be replaced by a tyranny of sectarian and ethnic warfare whose end point, if any, is lost in the mists of future time.

Bush also declared that with Saddam gone, the world is better and the United States is safer. Again, the assertion assumes that whatever the U.S.-led coalition has done in and to Iraq and Iraqis has been less evil than what Saddam might have done. But psychologically, if doomed to suffer, most people would choose someone they know or with whom there is a connection over a complete stranger who might well be unassuageable .

Conversely, the president has never spoken truer words than these: “The battle in Iraq has been longer and harder and more costly than we anticipated.” Since March 19, 2003, 3,990 U.S. military personnel fighting or supporting the fighting forces assigned to Operation Iraqi Freedom have lost their lives. Fatalities from coalition countries have reached 308. Since January 2005, Iraq security force losses are reported to be more than 8,000 while civilian dead from the same starting date are put at 40,000 (although other estimates run considerably higher). Iraqi deaths for March are 538 with nearly two weeks still to go in the month. The latest update from the Pentagon lists 29,314 U.S. soldiers wounded.

In January 2003, the Pentagon said the war would cost $50-60 billion but that reconstruction of the country would be financed by the oil sales of a liberated Iraq. The Congressional Research Service’s latest estimate of war costs is an order of magnitude greater – $526 billion – and that does not count the estimated $172 billion in the 2009 Defense appropriations request and supplemental appropriations bill.

The cost of long-term rehabilitation and medical costs for wounded U.S. veterans is nearly $600 billion. The added interest on the debt for putting the war on credit is another $600 billion, and the Pentagon says it will need nearly $300 billion to rebuild.

Only World War II has cost more in national treasure than the Iraq war.

Yet, according to Bush, “The battle in Iraq is noble, it is necessary, and it is just. And with your courage, the battle in Iraq will end in victory.”

The public doesn’t buy it. In the latest surveys, 66% of respondents continue to oppose the war and 61% say additional troop withdrawals should begin within months of the inauguration of the new president.

Bush’s other claim is that the surge in 2007 worked: fatalities are down for all groups; Baghdad is calmer; al-Anbar province is quieter; al-Qaeda has had to retreat to Mosul, where coalition and Iraqi forces will bring them to heel. In fact, Bush insisted that the “Surge has opened the door to a major strategic victory in the war on terror.” In truth, the very best that can be said about the surge is that it stopped al-Qaeda-in-Iraq from seizing control of all anti-U.S. Sunni groups. But this comes at the price of what may turn out to be, once foreign jihadists and coalition combat troops have left, an even bloodier day of reckoning between indigenous Iraqi Shi’a and U.S.-armed Sunni militias.

The purpose of the surge was to relieve pressure on Iraqi politicians so that they could institute needed reforms, propel reconciliation, and break the political logjam that has existed from the opening days of the parliament. Until March 19, when the Iraqi presidential council reversed its earlier veto of the provincial election laws, no progress had been made. And now that the “surge” is in the process of ebbing, casualties among the Iraqis are rising again.

Even the most casual review of the past five years substantiates the opinion of the majority of Americans that Bush administration claims of victory in Iraq are false. They don’t pass the sight, sound or scent tests – which is to say they don’t look like a duck, quack like a duck, or smell like a duck.

So why is the president still calling it a duck by giving victory speeches?

Dan Smith is a military affairs analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus, a retired U.S. Army colonel, and a senior fellow on military affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. His blog is The Quakers’ Colonel
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