Despite this tragically prescient prewar statement and others like it, the United States rejected international restraints against the use of force and invaded Iraq with overwhelming military power. There was never any doubt about the outcome of this conflict, since for more than a decade there had been tight international limitations on Iraq’s acquisition of advanced weaponry, and for every three dollars in America’s military budget, the Iraqis were spending only one cent. The tragic misjudgment was that our brave military forces were going into what was pictured to be a warm welcome by liberated Iraqis. Instead, we have suffered at least fifteen thousand casualties, including more than seventeen hundred killed, 93 percent of them since Baghdad fell.
The average number of American military fatalities was forty-eight per month before Saddam Hussein was captures; it then increased to seventy-eight per month. Strangely, the U.S. news media seem insensitive to the casualties. The ombudsman of the Washington Post acknowledged, for instance, “Between April 1 and June 23, as I write this, 193 U.S. service members died in Iraq, and there wasn’t a single, major front-page headline that captured this as it was unfolding or summed things up at any point.”
One of the strangest of our government’s decisions has been to restrict awareness of American casualties. Rarely are the wounded mentioned or visited by our leaders, and everything possible is done to prevent any public notice of the caskets returning to the stateside mortuary at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Lawsuits have been filed on behalf of mothers and wives who have been denied permission to meet the bodies of their dead family members at Dover or at other military bases.
We and our British allies have made an official decision to refrain from counting or estimating the number of civilian deaths, and there are wide ranges in the published numbers. A respected British medial journal, Lancet, has reported that allied forces (especially the air force) have killed a hundred thousand Iraqi noncombatants. The only estimates from official American sources are about twenty-four thousand, limited just to those reported in the Western news media. The actual figures are somewhere between these extremes.
In addition to Iraqis killed during American military operations, Iraqi civilians and police officers died at a rate of more than 800 a month between August 2004 and May 2005, according to figures released in June 2005 by Iraq’s interior ministry, with the death rate increasing after the January election.
Regardless of the exact number of casualties, there are two basic facts to be remembered: the war was unjust and unnecessary, and our armed forces in Iraq deserve extraordinary gratitude and admiration for their special courage and effectiveness. The fact is that, unlike during other times of national threat or crisis, the United States of America is not at war. To an extraordinary degree, the entire burden of the conflict has been focused just on a few military personnel and their families, with no financial sacrifice or discomfort among 99.5 percent of the American people. Five hundred thousand troops were involved in the first Gulf War in the limited goal of evicting Iraq from Kuwait, but this time only one-third as many have been repeatedly sent to conquer and hold a large and complex nation.
The survivors are receiving their well-deserved p;raise, but our family went through a different kind of conflict when our oldest son left college to volunteer for service in Vietnam. That was an extremely unpopular American adventure. I remember that when Jack was on military leave for brief periods, he was ridiculed by his peers and former classmates for being gullible and naïve, and preferred not to wear his uniform. It was several years after the Vietnam War ended before these brave young men were finally honored as heroes.
A basic question to be asked is, “Has the Iraqi war reduced the threat of terrorism?” Unfortunately, the answer is, “No.” Not only have we lost the almost unanimous sympathy and support that was offered to us throughout the world after the attack of 9/11, but there is direct evidence that the Iraqi war has actually increased the terrorist threat. In testimony before the Congress, CIA Director Porter Goss stated, “Islamic extremists are exploiting the Iraqi conflict to recruit new anti-U.S. jihadists [holy warriors]. . . . These jihadists who survive will leave Iraq experienced and focus on acts of urban terrorism.” He added that the war “has become a cause for extremists.”
To corroborate his opinion, the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center reported that the number of serious international terrorist incidents more than tripled in 2004. “Significant” attacks grew to more than 650, up from the previous record of about 175 in 2003. Terrorist incidents in Iraq also dramatically increased, from 22 attacks to 198, or nine times the previous year’s total – after the U.S. handover of political authority to an interim Iraqi government. It is obvious that the war has turned Iraq into the world’s most effective terrorist training camp, perhaps more dangerous than Afghanistan under the Taliban. Also, instead of our being able to use Iraq as a permanent base from which to pressure Iran and Syria, there seems to be a growing allegiance between the evolving Iraq government and its fundamentalist Shiite neighbors, which may greatly strengthen Iran’s strategic position in the Middle East.
The adoption of preemptive war as an American policy has forced the United States to renounce existing treaties and alliances as unnecessary constraints on our superpower’s freedom to act unilaterally. Another serious consequence of this policy is the likelihood that other aggressive nations will adopt the same policy of attacking to remove leaders they consider to be undesirable.
When the United States orchestrated the first step toward potential democracy in Iraq early in 2005, there was a dramatic demonstration of courage and commitment to freedom as a large number of Shiite Muslims and Kurds went to the polls in the face of intimidation from Sunni dissidents and terrorist groups. The next steps toward writing a constitution and then forming a representative government are still not predictable as I write this text, but there is great concern about whether Sunnis will cooperate and how dominant the religious laws will be. The ruling Shiite religious parties are demanding that provisions of the Koran, called Sharia, become the supreme authority on marriage, divorce, and inheritance issues. It would be ironic if crucial women’s rights that survived Saddam Hussein’s regime were lost under the new “democratic” government sponsored and protected by the United States.
It will be a notable achievement if success can be realized, and despite the uncertainties and an increase in the fervor of terrorists, this effort to bring democracy to Iraq deserves the world’s support.
There is no doubt that America must accomplish its fundamental objectives before withdrawing our troops from Iraq, but those goals have never been clearly delineated. It is likely that political pressures from a disillusioned American public will be a major factor in setting the minimal goals and time schedule for U.S. troop withdrawal. We should provide the people with water, sewage, communications, electricity, and the ability to produce and market their oil. The Iraqis must have a security force as effective as the one we dismantled, to support a stable and democratic government.
A basic question that will determine the final outcome is whether American leaders will insist on permanent military bases and dominant economic involvement in the country, or make it clear that we have no plans to maintain a continuing presence for our own benefit.
To a surprising and disturbing degree, most Arabs in the region do not agree with my favorable assessment of the democratic effort. In a respected survey done by Zogby International in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates, and reported in March 2005, an overwhelming majority of Arabs did not believe that U.S. policy in Iraq was motivated by the spread of democracy in the region, and believed that the Middle East had become less democratic after the Iraq war and that Iraqis were worse off than they had been before the conflict. Overall approval ratings of the United States were at an unprecedented low of two percent in Egypt, four percent in Saudi Arabia, 11 percent in Morocco, 14 percent in the United Arab Emirates, 15 percent in Jordan, with a high of only 20 percent in Lebanon.
These were the Arab countries that had the closest historical ties with America. More than three-fourths of the Arab respondents professed support for democratic principles of government, but they strongly condemned the attack on Iraq and the apparent bias of the United States against the rights of the Palestinians. Despite our admirable democratic efforts, these are not good omens for our policies in the region.
As I have described earlier, one of the characteristics of fundamentalists is to forgo discussion or negotiation to resolve differences, interpreting this as a sign of weakness in adhering to their own principles. The most telltale distinction between Republicans and Democrats is their preference between ways of resolving controversial international issues – reliance on force, or diplomacy.
Our nation is clearly divided on the basic response to the international challenges that confront us. It is almost universally assumed that the American homeland will never be completely secure. There will be a lasting threat of terrorism, most likely from relatively weak organizations that could not hope to challenge any aspect of our overwhelming military strength.
What are our best responses? Is it better to cherish our historic role as the great champion of human rights, or to abandon our high domestic and international standards in response to threats? Is it better to set a firm example of reducing reliance on nuclear weapons and their further proliferation, or to insist on our right (and that of others) to retain our arsenals, expand them, and therefore abrogate or derogate control agreements negotiated for many decades? Are we best served by espousing peace as a national priority unless our security is directly threatened, or by proclaiming an unabridged right to attack other nations unilaterally to change an unsavory regime or for other purposes? Is a declaration of “You are either with us or against us” superior to forming alliances based on a clear comprehension of mutual interests? When there are serious differences with other nations, is it best to permit direct negotiations to resolve the problems, or to brand those who differ as international pariahs – and to refuse to permit such discussions?
Most of these questions are already being answered by our government’s policies – policies that are predicted on the basic premises of fundamentalism. It is not yet clear if the American people approve.