We 'won' in Iraq, but was it worth it?

Nearly seven years after President George W. Bush initially proclaimed success, the American mission in Iraq finally seems as close to being accomplished as it may ever be. But doubts will remain if it was worth the massive cost in lives and treasure.Sunday's election indicates that Iraq, if not the avatar of democracy Bush predicted, is closer to that ideal than most of its monarchial or military-controlled Arab neighbors. Though internal violence persists, the active U.S. military role is phasing down, and President Barack Obama made clear he expects to complete it by next year's deadline.The Economist, in a generally pessimistic appraisal of the country's continuing difficulties, conceded: "Iraq's main problem is no longer its violence but its politics."Those remain muddled, at best. Still, it seems on its way to being better off without Saddam Hussein than under his tyrannical regime.That's the good news. But history will record that Bush invaded Iraq under false pretenses and that his administration mishandled every aspect, from financing to providing inadequate military resources to its bungled post-war administration. In the process, the venture exacerbated the government's fiscal condition at home and poisoned U.S. relations abroad.Much was done in an underhanded way. Former adviser Karl Rove may be right in saying Bush did not knowingly mislead Americans into thinking Hussein had to be eliminated because he was developing nuclear weapons. But Rove also concedes that without that threat, Bush could not have sold the war to Congress and the American people.Starting with the invasion, Bush withheld war funds from his regular budgets, concealing the totals until submitting supplemental requests and telling Congress its choice was supporting troops or opposing them. The enormous costs — more than $1 trillion for Iraq and Afghanistan — were major contributors to the massive deficits Republicans now blame on Obama's efforts to fight the severe recession he inherited.Bush's Pentagon underestimated the number of troops needed for Iraq and forced out officers like former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki, who questioned the lowball estimates.

The total of dead and wounded Americans in Iraq has passed 35,000. The effort placed severe burdens on National Guard and reserve troops assigned repeated combat missions because the U.S. lacked sufficient regular forces.

When the initial campaign ousted Hussein, the administration was unprepared to manage Iraq, justifying the fears of post-Hussein chaos raised years earlier by Bush's father and his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft.

Faced with disaster, the Bush administration rolled the dice and increased the military effort. It also benefited from Iraqis' reaction to al-Qaeda's hardball tactics. Though most prominent Democrats, including Obama, criticized the 2007 "surge," it succeeded enough militarily to permit a U.S. withdrawal without fear Iraq would collapse.

Even then, the misguided decision to focus so many resources on Iraq detracted from the fight against the terrorists who unleashed 9/11 and remain a threat. For years, the war in Afghanistan, 9/11's birthplace, received inadequate support.


Now, Obama has switched the military emphasis back to Afghanistan. There are signs of progress in the decade-long battle against al-Qaeda, both there and in neighboring Pakistan.

Longtime supporters of the U.S. effort in Iraq still express concern about possible damage if the U.S. withdrawal continues. But despite ongoing problems, the pressure of more important U.S. commitments requires it.

Seven bloody years later, America may finally have accomplished the mission of giving an independent Iraq the opportunity to exist and thrive. Ultimately, it's always been up to the Iraqis.

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