Posted by: Shaun | March 20, 2008

Happy Birthday, Iraq War!

Yesterday marked the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, and what a tumultuous five years it’s been. We have gone from toppling a crazed dictator with WMD, to lighting the beacon of democracy in the Arab world, to just trying to stave off an abyssal maelstrom of genocidal violence that would provide a haven for America-hating terrorists. With oil at $112 a barrel the other day, I even thought the administration might own up to its long-standing designs to feed global petroleum markets with Iraqi crude, but the price has dropped since, so don’t count on it.

All the major players in American politics had their own shtick for the occasion. The president, obviously, went on the defensive, asserting once again the importance of removing Saddam Hussein from power. The Democratic presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, each lambasted the war, though their speeches were somewhat overshadowed by the great race debate. John McCain added the dramatic flourish of a trip to the Middle East to highlight his case for a continued presence in Iraq, but then lost points for confusing al Qaeda with “extermists”…uh, well…other extremists, of the Shia variety. Even a few rowdy mobs hit the streets, communicating their view that war is a criminally irresponsible anachronism with at least the impact of a Dennis Kucinich speech.

Where do we stand in Iraq today? The recent headlines have been about the apparent success of the “surge”, with casualties down across the board. (Under 1000 civilian dead in February!) Of course, this neglects two key points. 1) The surge of 20,000 additional U.S. troops is unsustainable. Even our original force of 130,000 troops was barely sustainable. The surge will come to an end, and in fact this may already be in the works. 2) Success in containing violence owes a lot to the present cooperation of the local thugs who were responsible for most of it. Sunni “Awakening Councils” (think neighborhood watch with an AK-47 and hand grenades) grew tired of extremist Saudis telling them what to do and were more than happy to take American paychecks for kicking the foreigners out. Shia militias, too, have largely been biding their time and refraining from new attacks.

Don’t expect this to last…the interests of Iraq’s sectarian groups are very different from those of Washington. And then let’s not forget about those uppity Kurds and their disgruntled Turkish neighbors. The point is, I think the current calm is an illusion. Iraq is still a powder keg waiting to go off, and there isn’t much American military power can do stop it. For all the U.S. training and equipment it has received, the Iraqi military is even less capable of making a difference. (Anybody remember Vietnamization?)

There is one thing that this war is doing for America and that is draining billions of dollars from our treasury. The Nation has a great piece relating some of the opportunity costs of the $522 billion we’ve already sunk into Mesopotamia. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. According to economist Joseph Stiglitz’s new book, the long term costs of Iraq could reach $3 trillion. Oh, and by the way…that’s all on credit. U.S. national debt is at $9 trillion and climbing (roughly 70% of GDP) which will come in a lot of handy down the road when we have to figure out a way to cover multi-trillion dollar shortfalls in Medicare and Social Security benefits. Basically what I’m saying is, this war thing may have been a bad idea…

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