For her column, Anne Applebaum writes about what it has cost the United States to occupy Iraq:
On Tuesday, President Barack Obama will make a speech about Iraq. With 50,000 troops still in the country “in an advisory capacity,” he can’t declare victory, so he will instead celebrate “the end of combat operations.” If he follows others who have already marked this occasion, he will focus his comments on Iraq: the state of Iraqi democracy, the level of violence, the impact of seven years of war on Iraqi society.
All of which is fair enough. But I hope he spares a few extra minutes to assess the impact of seven years of war on American society—and American foreign policy. I supported the invasion of Iraq, I think the surge was a success, and I believe that an Iraqi democracy could be a revolutionary force for good in the Middle East. Yet even if violence abates, even if U.S. troops go home, we have still paid a very high price for our victory—much higher than we usually admit.
Aside from the very real blood and the very real money spent in Iraq, there were also other casualties, some of them hard to count and classify. Here are a few of them:
America’s reputation for effectiveness. The victory was swift, but the occupation was chaotic. The insurgency appeared to take Washington by surprise, and no wonder: The Pentagon was squabbling with the State Department, the soldiers had no instructions and didn’t speak the language. The overall impression, in Iraq and everywhere else, was of American incompetence—and, after Abu Ghraib, of stupidity and cruelty as well. Two years ago, a poll showed that vast numbers of our closest friends felt that the “mismanagement” of Iraq—not the “invasion” of Iraq—was the biggest stumbling block for allies of the United States.
No wonder, then, that America’s ability to organize a coalition has also suffered. Participation in the Iraq war cost Tony Blair his reputation and the Spanish government an election. After an initial surge of support, the Iraqi occupation proved unpopular even in countries where America is popular, such as Italy and Poland. Almost no country that participated in the conflict derived any economic or diplomatic benefits from doing so. None received special U.S. favors—not even Georgia, which sent 2,000 soldiers and received precisely zero U.S. support during its military conflict with Russia.
It will be a lot harder to get any of the “coalition of the willing” to fight with us again. Indeed, “Iraq” is part of the reason why there is so little enthusiasm for Afghanistan and why it is so difficult to put organized pressure on Iran.
Another victim of the conflict was America’s ability to influence the Middle East. Admittedly, we were never as good at this as we would like to be, but the chaos in Iraq has clearly strengthened Iran. It has had no positive impact on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. By helping raise the price of oil for a few years—this was supposed to be a “war for oil”; remember that?—it has also strengthened Saudi Arabia, the regime that produced 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers.
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