The big lies of the Iraq war were not the faulty intelligence about weapons of mass destruction or the fabricated link between Saddam and 9/11. More serious were the infantile fantasies promoted by the Bush Administration and their supporters that the war would be a "cake walk". They argued that it would require less than 100,000 troops, take less than 6 days to win, cost at most one to two billion dollars (before Iraqi oil revenues kicked in to pick up the rest of the tab), and it would all be over in six months.
It was a delusional apocalyptic vision—projecting that out of the destruction of the old, a new order would rise. We were told that the dictator would fall and we would be greeted as liberators "with flowers in the street". Democracy would take hold and Iraq would become the "beacon of freedom for the Middle East". For good measure, they even predicted that regime change in Iraq would help solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ("the road to Jerusalem must pass through Baghdad").
Guided more by ideology than reality, the Bush Administration's veterans of the Project for a New American Century believed that a show of decisive force in Iraq would make us stronger, securing America's global hegemony for the next century.
The tragic irony of this failed war, of course, is that it left our country less respected, compromised our values and our standing across the world, over-stretched our military resources, emboldened our enemies, created openings for other nations to exert their influence and, in the end, left America more vulnerable.
It is disturbing to tally the damage done by the Iraq war. On the American side, we can count more than 4,400 lives lost, and tens of thousands of young men and women shattered by permanent injuries of war. There are also the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who perished and the millions whose livelihoods have been destroyed. One-fifth of Iraq's population were forced to live as refugees or internally displaced persons, many forever unable to return to their homes. In the midst of the vicious ethnic cleansing campaign that followed the downfall of the Ba'ath regime, came the destruction of the ancient Christian community of Iraq—a tragedy that went unnoticed by the Bush Administration's architects of war.
Iraq today is a dysfunctional state beset by violent civil strife, a direct result of the American decision to enter the country without attention to its history and culture and, therefore, unable to understand the consequences of our intervention. Today Iraq is on the verge of civil conflict. The leadership in Baghdad remains at odds with the Kurdish north, and a restive Sunni Arab minority chafes under what they perceive to be the harsh and exclusionary rule of an Iranian-backed Shia majority.
Our polls consistently show that most Arabs see Iran as the big winner of the Iraq war. It has been empowered by the defeat of its regional nemesis and emboldened by wide-spread anger at the U.S. war and U.S. conduct during the war (Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, torture, rendition, and "black sites").
In fact, the holes dug during the past decade have been so deep and the problems created so great, that it has been difficult for even the best-intentioned president to dig us out.
The world breathed a sigh of relief when Barack Obama took the oath of office in 2009. They had great hopes that he would change direction by restoring America's image and values, ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and addressing the long-festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the challenges proved to be too great for the new President to solve in just one term. Facing stiff opposition from Republicans in Congress and weak support from his own party, the President was unable to close Guantanamo, reintroduce fundamental principles like due process and judicial oversight, change American policy towards the Middle East, or restore civility to our domestic political discourse.
Today, facing the challenges of an Arab world in crisis, the Obama Administration finds its options restricted. The world has become more complex. Russia is flexing its muscles and Iran is projecting its influence—so much for the Project for a New American Century's promise of American hegemony. Meanwhile, a war-weary U.S. public remains skeptical of any further military involvement in the Middle East. And the still simmering Israeli-Palestinian conflict has only become more difficult to resolve. It festered during eight years of neglect by the Bush Administration, with Israeli and Palestinian publics becoming hardened and cynical. Peace, once within reach, is now a distant dream.
Ten years after the start of the Iraq war, we are seeing the consequences of the fateful decisions made by the Bush Administration to take us into two failed wars and to neglect the peace process, and the inability of the Obama Administration to correct the damage done by these policies. As a result, Americans and many others across the Middle East are still paying the price for the Bush Administration's big lies and bad decisions.