Dan Nowicki, The Arizona Republic
WASHINGTON -- A U.S.-led coalition attacked Iraq with "shock and awe" 10 years ago this week, launching a war that lit up Baghdad with torrential explosions and toppled dictator Saddam Hussein. But for many Americans, the war's faulty premise that Iraq was stockpiling deadly weapons of mass destruction continues to make the decision to invade difficult to justify.
Few, if any, at the time expected that Operation Iraqi Freedom, which President George W. Bush announced on March 19, 2003, as military strikes began, would lead to an extended military presence that would last nearly nine years. The United States would suffer more than 4,480 deaths through the Iraq War's official end on Dec. 15, 2011. More than 32,000 others would be wounded. More than 100,000 Iraqi civilians would die violently, according to the website Iraq Body Count.
The price tag for the war, according to nonpartisan congressional researchers, was at least $806 billion, although that figure doesn't take into account related expenses such as coming decades of veterans' benefits and other costs including medical treatment and job retraining for wounded soldiers. The massive spending contributed to the nation's current financial troubles and limits U.S. ability to respond robustly, if needed, to other international threats.
While history's verdict is not yet in, the new Iraq so far hasn't turned out to be the stable, strategic ally in the region that U.S. officials envisioned, despite the $60 billion that taxpayers spent on reconstruction. Greatly weakened, Iraq now is viewed as vulnerable to influence from neighboring Iran as well as internal sectarian violence.
In 2005, many Iraqis proudly flashed ink-stained purple fingers and thumbs after they voted in free elections, but today, the dream of democracy taking hold in Iraq is questionable at best. Corruption is rampant, and confidence in the country's institutions, such as its law-enforcement and legal systems, is low. Even the Iraq War's staunchest defenders are pessimistic about the country's postwar outlook.
"We went into Iraq without properly anticipating the consequences of being there and without properly understanding the culture of Iraq," said Gordon Adams, a professor of foreign policy at American University in Washington. "Poor planning and poor knowledge combined to prolong that conflict way past what it should have been. ... We created a lot of damage and didn't leave anything terribly healthy behind."
Back home, partisan emotions remain raw.
Democrats tend to characterize the war as a misadventure from the start, instigated by Bush administration officials spoiling for a fight with Saddam and willing to use the flimsiest evidence to exploit the American public's anxiety about terrorism after al-Qaida's Sept. 11, 2001, strikes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Some Republicans counter that the world is well rid of Saddam, who was captured and eventually hanged in 2006, while blaming Democratic President Barack Obama, who had opposed the war from the start, for frittering away the success achieved by Bush's 2007 surge strategy that is credited with turning the war around.
Others, from former Vice President Dick Cheney to former Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, have suggested that the Iraq War and the fall of Saddam may have helped spawn the so-called Arab Spring movement that swept across the Middle East and North Africa in nations such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, although most foreign-policy analysts see no evidence of that.
Coming in the aftermath of 9/11, the Bush White House's case for war, particularly the argument about weapons of mass destruction, or WMDs, initially won widespread public and political support. In October 2002, the House of Representatives voted 296-133 and the Senate voted 77-23 to authorize the use of force against Iraq. A March 2003 Pew Research Center poll indicated that 72 percent of U.S. adults supported the decision to attack Iraq. But that opinion changed dramatically as the war dragged on. By February 2008, Pew had found that 58 percent believed it was the wrong decision.
For the war-weary American public, the most lasting legacy may be lingering cynicism and a loss of trust in government authorities as well as a reluctance to intervene militarily on such a scale or undertake nation-building in the future.
Ten years after the Iraq War's start, questions still smolder, including the major one about the stunning intelligence failure with regard to the weapons of mass destruction.
War supporters struggle to come to grips with the bad information, while critics remain suspicious about the motives of the Bush administration officials involved.
"In anyone's candid moments, they will tell you were it not for the WMD, we wouldn't have authorized use of force there," said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who as a member of the House voted in support of the joint resolution that led to the Iraq invasion. "I don't attribute any nefarious motives to President Bush or those involved. I think we were just wrong. Sometimes, you're wrong."
Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell presented the Bush White House's case on Iraq's alleged biological- and chemical-weapon stockpile in a dramatic Feb. 5, 2003, speech to the U.N. Security Council.
"My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources," Powell said. "These are not assertions. What we're giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence."
Then-CIA Director George Tenet was quoted in a 2004 book by veteran Washington journalist Bob Woodward as having told Bush it was a "slam dunk" that Iraq had WMDs, although Tenet later complained that the quote's context was imprecise.
But the conclusions presented by Powell were based not on "solid intelligence" but on shoddy intelligence.
In a recent interview with The Arizona Republic, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said in retrospect there is little doubt the Bush administration's position on Iraq WMDs "probably was not correct" and that Powell delivered "false information" to the U.N.
McCain, then and now a senior GOP member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, backed the decision to invade and, when the going got rough, he was an early champion of the surge, or troop escalation, led by Gen. David Petraeus.
Perhaps more than most Capitol Hill supporters of the Iraq War, McCain paid something of a political price. His 2008 campaign for the presidency was hobbled by war fatigue and Bush's war-related unpopularity.
McCain said he regrets the way Obama wrapped up the war without reaching an agreement with the Iraqi government that would have kept some U.S. troops in the country during the transition.
"Was Saddam Hussein a long-term threat to the United States and his neighbors? Of course," McCain said. "Was that justification to go to war? It's very difficult to assess that. But the tragedy of Iraq is that we had it won, thanks to the surge that began with David Petraeus in 2007, but this administration willfully arranged it so that there was no residual force left behind, and we are now seeing the unraveling of Iraq."
A fear of WMDs
Former Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., who sat on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence during most of the run-up to the Iraq War, said the consensus in the intelligence community was that Saddam had chemical weapons and some capacity to quickly convert biological materials into weapons. He dismissed the "Bush lied, people died" bumper-sticker slogan of war opponents as "silly" and superficial.
"I happen to know that our guys went to a lot of trouble wearing chemical protection when they got to within 22 miles of Baghdad because their intel said they were going to start using it against them," said Kyl, who did not seek re-election in 2012. "And they really believed it. And they were surprised when he didn't use it. And they were eventually surprised when they couldn't find the WMD."
But Rep. Ed Pastor, D-Ariz., said he was skeptical of the Bush administration's claims at the time and now believes the whole argument was just "a pretext" to go to war to oust Saddam, whom Bush's advisers viewed as a tyrant. Saddam had been effectively contained since the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Pastor said. Pastor voted against authorizing the use of force against Iraq, seeing it as a distraction from the war in Afghanistan against the terror network that had attacked the United States on 9/11.
"In those years (after the Gulf War), there was constant surveillance," said Pastor, who is the most senior member of Arizona's House delegation. "There was no way that they (Iraqis) could develop that armament and have it ready or move it and all of that stuff. I think they (members of Bush's team) were just itching to go to war."
The second-guessing and recriminations over the reason for the war have led to an overall erosion of public trust in elected leaders when it comes to weighty issues, several lawmakers and experts told The Republic.
"I think people are now skeptical, and my sense is this is a bipartisan skepticism," said Adams, of American University. "Part of the Obama administration's extreme reluctance to engage major American military forces or American credibility in regional struggles like (the civil war in) Syria is the domestic unpopularity of doing so. Iraq and Afghanistan became very unpopular wars, and as a result, I don't see much appetite in either political party for the massive engagement of American military force."
'A very sad situation'
Iraq remains under tremendous pressure from internal strife, and its future is uncertain.
"It's a very sad situation, in my view, particularly in light of the sacrifice of so much American blood and treasure," McCain said.
The war's cost in dollars and lives can't be justified "by saying that we have a strong partner or a meaningful strategic relationship" with Iraq - two main goals that have not been accomplished, said Anthony Cordesman, a national-security analyst at the bipartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
"There are not that many parallels between Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam as countries, but there are a lot of parallels in the mistakes we made," said Cordesman, a former McCain aide who also served in the administrations of Presidents Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. "In trying to impose too many of our values too quickly. In assuming that we could do this quickly and underestimating the cost. In reacting slowly to military and insurgent developments. In creating a structure which we hoped would bring unity, but because of the way that the constitution and politics worked out, created significant sectarian and ethnic divisions in each country."
If the United States has learned lessons from those conflicts, "it certainly has not been clear to date," he added.
The war also did nothing to curb Iran's ambitions, and Iraq, with its strength considerably diminished, no longer is in a position to act as a regional counterbalance.
Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., predicted history will judge the Iraq War "as one of the last muscle shows by the United States that actually didn't work in our favor."
"You remember World War II, Korea, all the major wars of this nation," Grijalva said. "This is one that slips into the background, and people are comfortable with it slipping into the background. I think the legacy of this is always going to be that it was a mistake, that it was pre-emptive, that it wasn't based on real information, and that the whole struggle could have been handled differently."