Iraq's lessons: America's sacrifice was not worth it

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Almost 10 years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, not much is different. Although there have been changes, the basic facts that govern the country's fate remain in place.

One is the breakdown of its 33 million people into religious and ethnic groupings. It is still about 55 percent Shiite Muslim, 30 percent Sunni Muslim and 15 percent Kurdish. Its Christian minority is mostly gone, having left in the religious-centered violence that followed the U.S. intervention.

Consistent with the aims of the U.S. administrations that took over and ran the place from 2003 to 2011, Iraq is ruled in principle by an elected government chosen by majority vote. As a result it is a Shiite regime and it is headed by a heavy-handed prime minister, Nouri Kamal al-Maliki.

The Sunnis, who ruled from independence in 1932 until the U.S. invasion which overthrew Saddam Hussein, are now seeking to toss out Mr. Maliki and resume dominance. The Sunnis were the most effective opposition to U.S. rule during the occupation, until Gen. David Petraeus, then the commander in Iraq, decided to put them on the payroll. At that point they ceased their quest to regain authority and settled in to wait out the Americans. Now, with the United States gone, they are acting to get rid of Shiite rule.

The Kurds, firmly installed in northern Iraq, have taken advantage of the disorder and U.S. protection not only to dig in but also to reinforce their role as the center of Kurdish irredentist ambitions in the region. The Kurds, numbering perhaps 38 million, are found in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey and other neighboring countries and aspire to an independent Kurdistan. The problem is that it would require peeling off pieces of territory of various countries to create the new state, an action unacceptable to the neighbors.

If the question is whether the changes in Iraq were worth the 4,000-plus American lives and $1 trillion spent, the answer is probably "no." Saddam Hussein was indeed a bad ruler, but the world is full of them. If Iraq under his leadership had had weapons of mass destruction or ties to al-Qaida -- it did not -- then maybe the war would have been justified.

But the premises of the U.S. invasion and occupation were false and America ended up wasting lives, money and time, seen now from 10 years later. These lessons are worth bearing in mind as the United States considers military intervention in other states.

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