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Iraq War Triumphalism Ignores a Key Matter: Dead Civilians

5 years ago
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Whenever there's an election in Iraq, U.S. triumphalism follows. In a recent column, Peter Wehner, my colleague, touts George W. Bush's war in Iraq and joins others in the it-hasn't-turned-out-so-bad chorus. But these pronouncements serve as a reminder that it's rather easy to be a freedom fighter with somebody else's blood.

Wehner, who worked in the Bush White House, argues that the "dramatic turnaround" in Iraq since 2006 shows that the war was not, as columnist Joe Klein once observed, "probably the biggest foreign policy mistake in American history." He echoes Thomas Friedman that "Bush's gut instinct that this region craved and needed democracy was always right." And he quotes former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker: "In the end, how we leave and what we leave behind will be more important than how we came." This sounds like saying, "All's well that ends well."

But, of course, the ultimate outcome of the Iraq war -- whatever the results of the latest election -- remains unknown. And we can continue to debate whether Bush was justified in launching the war, whether he bamboozled the public about the threat Saddam Hussein supposedly posed, and whether Bush's late surge did help nudge Iraq in a better (or less worse) direction. (It does take chutzpah to hail the Bush administration for the surge, after this crew spent years screwing up in Iraq.) Yet what is galling is the frequent absence from these discussions of a central fact: Tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Iraqis are dead because of the war, and millions have been displaced, driven out of their homes and out of their country. (Another colleague, Jill Lawrence, has not forgotten this.)

In the United States, debates about the war often cover the obvious costs: U.S. military casualties (4,380), taxpayer money ($711 billion), and opportunities missed (Afghanistan). What often goes unmentioned is the high cost that was imposed upon the Iraqi people. Have you seen George W. Bush or Dick Cheney ever directly talk about the thousands who died and the millions who had to flee?

There's no precise number of the Iraqi civilians who lost their lives due to the war. In August 2008, a Congressional Research Service report surveyed the various estimates. It noted that a World Health Organization study covering the first three years of the war had placed the civilian death toll at 151,999. A Brookings Institution study put the number at 113,616 for the first five years. Whatever the figure, it's a lot -- and this doesn't include Iraqis who were physically or mentally injured and did not die. In per capita terms, the equivalent death figure for the United States would be over a million people. And war-related deaths are far from over in Iraq. Last month, the civilian death toll jumped to 211 people from 135 in January.

Those of us who read and watch news reports regularly see stories about car bombs and other attacks in Iraq. But have Iraqi civilian deaths ever fully registered here? Additionally, the number of Iraqis displaced within Iraq totals about 1.5 million, according to the International Organization for Migration, and nearly half a million Iraqi war refugees are living abroad.

The Iraqi civilians who were killed or who lost relatives or homes were not asked their consent for the invasion. Bush and Cheney decided their fate. Yes, Iraqis were living within a repressive state. But, no doubt, many of them had made their accommodations and were not willing to sacrifice a family member for possible regime change. Most citizens of tyrannical states manage to get by. (Ask the Chinese.) At times, populations do rise up, and in these instances, people knowingly assume risks and make sacrifices. (See Iran.) Yet in one of the most anti-democratic actions imaginable, Bush decided that he knew what was best for the Iraqi people -- and more than a hundred thousand perished.

The United States has paid dearly in blood and money for Bush's voluntary war in Iraq. But it's a mere pittance compared to what the Iraqis have been forced to pay.

"We live in an age in which trust in our public (and many of our private) institutions is at low ebb," Wehner writes. "This is something that is harmful and corrosive to our nation." Given that Wehner worked for a president who pre-sold this war with a willful campaign of misrepresentations about Iraq's WMD capabilities and ties to al-Qaeda, it's tough to take him seriously when he frets aloud about the loss of public trust. But just as "corrosive" for the nation is a triumphal consideration of the war that does not take into account the profound suffering experienced by the Iraqi people. Now that the damage has been done -- you can't cry over a spilled invasion -- we can all hope for the best in Iraq. But no one should lose sight of the fact that millions of Iraqis have already lived through the worst due to American actions.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.
Filed Under: Iraq, Deep Background

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