Some may disagree, but I believe that America is exceptional—in part because we have shown a willingness through the sacrifice of blood and treasure to stand up not only for our own narrow self-interests, but for the interests of all.
—President Barack Obama, United Nations, September 24, 2013
A decade ago, during a few exciting weeks in the spring of 2003, United States soldiers and Marines “liberated” Iraq. Americans saw the great yellow and red nighttime explosions of the “shock and awe” bombing campaign and then the columns of tanks storming headlong to Baghdad. Iraqis, their views unconstrained by the imposed inhibitions of American television executives, saw enormous carnage. During the four weeks of the American advance, more than three thousand Iraqi civilians were killed.1 How to grasp this number? An equivalent proportion of the American population would give us 36,000 American civilians killed. (During the decade of the Vietnam War, more than 58,000 US soldiers and Marines died.) Today, a decade after the triumphant fanfare of the American invasion, and two years after the last US troops departed in quiet ignominy, the war rages on: Sunnis and Shias go on killing one another at the rate of nearly a thousand a month. The collective death toll of the war Americans launched likely falls somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 Iraqis, and counting.
To many Americans, Iraq now seems little more than a bad dream, best left unmentioned. Still, as the debate in the United States has turned to “the Syria dilemma” next door—and, more recently, to the US’s obligation to “stand up…for the interests of all” by enforcing President Obama’s declared “red line” against the use of chemical weapons there—the shadow of Iraq falls darkly over the landscape. We see it most prominently in a reluctant American public that has shown itself distinctly unimpressed by the familiar evangelical exceptionalist rhetoric, even when President Obama tried to use it to justify what his secretary of state called an “unbelievably small” military strike on Syria. We see the shadow also in certain basic and ineluctable changes in the politics of the region.
Before the war, Iraq was void of an anti-American Islamic jihadist movement; today Iraq is filled with thousands of motivated Islamic guerrillas, many of them veterans of the Iraqi army the United States dissolved, who have taken up arms not only against the Shia government the US helped put in place but against the regime of Bashar al-Assad across Iraq’s western border. Before the war Iraq served as a rival and geostrategic counter to the Islamic Republic of Iran, for three decades the United States’ main adversary in the Middle East; today “liberated” Iraq is a staunch ally of Iran, the nation that, along with Russia, is now aiding most …
1 See “Iraqi Civilian Death Tally at 3,240,” USA Today, June 11, 2003. This count, performed by reporters of the Associated Press, relies on a careful survey of Iraqi hospitals, and only those that separated military and civilian deaths. Excluded, of course, were Iraqis who died during the invasion but were never brought to hospitals. It is fair to assume the actual death toll was much larger. ↩
See “Iraqi Civilian Death Tally at 3,240,” USA Today, June 11, 2003. This count, performed by reporters of the Associated Press, relies on a careful survey of Iraqi hospitals, and only those that separated military and civilian deaths. Excluded, of course, were Iraqis who died during the invasion but were never brought to hospitals. It is fair to assume the actual death toll was much larger. ↩