President Barack Obama’s remarks on Iraq, because they were made on prime time television, got a lot of press Wednesday. But, to keep the war in Iraq and the country’s future in perspective, an assessment from Defense Secretary Robert Gates deserves attention as well.
After summarizing American successes in Iraq — fewer insurgent attacks than in 2006 and 2007, for example — and the high cost of those successes — 4,427 American service members killed and 34,268 wounded — Secretary Gates was asked if the Iraq war was worth it.
“It really requires a historian’s perspective,” a subdued Mr. Gates said at a U.S. base in Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar province.
“If Iraq ends up a democratic country that is a constructive participant in international life, then I think, looking back, although the cost of getting there would have been terrible … the potential for it being the core of significant change in this whole region, as a democratic state, I think is hard to underestimate.”
But, he acknowledged, the war in Iraq will always be judged by how it began — with false claims about weapons of mass destruction. He didn’t mention the also false allegations that Saddam Hussein was, in part, responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.
As bad was the fact that the prospects for success in Iraq were greatly inflated by the Bush administration, while the costs were downplayed — exponentially.
According to the Associated Press, the war in Iraq has cost nearly $750 billion to date. Many economists expect the effort to cost more than a $1 trillion, before the U.S. completely leaves the country.
In 2002, White House economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey said the war would cost about $200 billion. He was mocked by members of the Bush administration — irascible then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld called the estimate “baloney” — and Mr. Lindsey soon left the White House. In 2003, the Office of Management and Budget estimated the war would cost $50 billion, a figure the White House still said was too high.
Despite these terrible missteps, President Obama set the right course in his remarks:
“The United States has paid a huge price to put the future of Iraq in the hands of its people. We have sent our young men and women to make enormous sacrifices in Iraq, and spent vast resources abroad at a time of tight budgets at home. We’ve persevered because of a belief we share with the Iraqi people — a belief that out of the ashes of war, a new beginning could be born in this cradle of civilization.
“Now, it’s time to turn the page.”
Turning the page requires, according to an agreement signed in 2008 by the Bush administration and Iraqi leaders, that U.S. combat forces leave the country by Aug. 31, with remaining U.S. troops to depart by the end of 2011.
Turning the page also requires Iraqi leaders to take ownership of their country’s future. Here, Secretary Gates was more optimistic.
“These guys are politicking — they’re not shooting at each other,” Mr. Gates said of government officials from rival factions.
“So I guess I would have to say I’m optimistic that these guys will get a coalition government and that they will continue to make progress.”
Politicking rather than shooting is progress — but at an extremely huge cost.