By Joel Brinkley
Most Americans would just as soon forget all about the Iraq War, the eight-year conflict that some who promoted it now say was a great mistake.
Still, Iraq remains in the headlines, but not in a positive way. Every day since the last American troops pulled out in December, the situation on the ground seems to grow bleaker. In an interview last week, a former United Nations official who worked there during the war offered the view: “We’re now at the nadir, politically, no question about it.”
But then just a few days later, Iraqi Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, hiding out in Kurdistan because Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki wants to arrest him, proclaimed on television that his bodyguards and other employees are being held in secret prisons and tortured.
Looking over all of that, R. Nicholas Burns, who was undersecretary of state, the department’s third most senior officer, during former President George W. Bush’s second term, said: “The war was a mistake, the biggest strategic error since Vietnam.”
In an interview, he cited among other issues the many thousands of Americans and Iraqis who were killed and the high cost, both political — “the tremendous damage to our image in the Arab world” — and financial. A recent comprehensive academic study put the actual costs of both the Iraq and Afghan wars at $4.4 trillion so far, counting expenses such as veterans medical benefits that no one in Washington seems willing to acknowledge. By contrast, the Congressional Budget Office’s most recent estimation was just $1.5 trillion.
After Bush negotiated an end to the U.S. military presence in Iraq near the end of his term in 2008, his politicians and generals began warning of three large potential problems: growing Iranian influence in the Iraqi state, increasing sectarian violence and the possibility that Al Qaeda in Iraq “will continue to grow in capacity,” as Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, who commanded U.S. forces there, put it during a news conference last fall.
In interviews, several former officials and experts acknowledged that most, if not all, of that has already happened, in just the few weeks since the last American troops left. Last week, for example, Iran agreed to increase the electric power it supplies to Iraq by as much as 30 percent.
Some Sunni leaders, under sometimes lethal pressure from the Shiite-controlled government, have begun talking about breaking away from Baghdad and creating their own state. That has started talk of a possible civil war. And in the past week alone, about 70 people have died in bombings and other attacks.
But no one seemed to anticipate what is arguably the biggest problem: The nation seems to be relapsing rapidly into brutal dictatorship.
“There’s an incredible consolidation of power in the executive,” said Jason Gluck of the United States Institute of Peace. During the war, he worked in Iraq for the National Democratic Institute, among other agencies. “The parliament has been rendered extremely feeble, with little ability to stand up to the executive.”
Washington, too, has lost nearly all ability to influence events there. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki seems little interested any longer in anything the U.S. has to say.
“Our ambassador has only been able to meet with Maliki twice since December, despite repeated attempts,” said Stephanie Sanok, who served in the U.S. Embassy there in 2008 and 2009. “We are no longer a guarantor of anything in Iraq. We have no ability to influence anything over there any longer.”
Recognizing this, the State Department earlier this month announced that it would slash its Baghdad Embassy staff by half in the coming weeks because most diplomats and other workers find themselves confined to the Embassy, unable to accomplish much, if anything. At the same time, as if to emphasize to the Americans that they are now in charge, Iraqi security officials are delaying Embassy food supplies shipped from Kuwait, and al-Maliki is holding up the approval of diplomatic visas.
Meanwhile, last month Human Rights Watch said it found a secret prison whose jailers report to al-Maliki’s office. Inside, hundreds of political prisoners, al-Maliki rivals, are “tortured with impunity,” the group said. They’re beaten “hung upside down for hours at a time, administered electric shocks to various body parts including the genitals.” And plastic bags are tied “over their heads until they pass out from asphyxiation.”
Since the first of this year, Iraqi authorities have executed 69 supposed criminals and last week sentenced three more to hang. The government executed 68 people in 2011, and this month the United Nations said it deplored “the lack of transparency” in court proceedings. Adding to the concerns, al-Maliki last month welcomed into the government the Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or League of the Righteous, an Iran-backed militia that is one of Iraq’s deadliest insurgent groups, responsible for killing numerous Americans.
At the same time, Iraq’s news media, which thrived early in the war, is now firmly under the government’s thumb. Journalists are routinely arrested and killed.
“We’re controlled and censored,” Faris Fadhil Sultan, a reporter for Al-Arabiya television, said in an interview last year. “The government can exert its will on reporters through criminal charges or suspension from work — even kidnapping and killing.” Six journalists were killed and 26 arrested during 2011, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported this month.
“Despite U.S. government assurances that it helped create a stable democracy,” Human Rights Watch said, “the reality is that it left behind a budding police state.”
Burns, among others, decries the cost. The academic study, by scholars from a dozen universities under the auspices of the Eisenhower Study Group at Brown University, found that interest on war-related debt, veterans medical and disability costs, foreign-assistance spending and other ancillary costs nearly quadruple the government cost estimate for both wars.
The study also showed that war-debt interest and continuing medical costs for nearly 200,000 veterans will cost an additional $2 trillion in the years ahead. Already, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide are endemic problems among veterans, the government reports.
Was the war worth it? Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution describes himself as “famously for the war” when it began but now acknowledges that Iraq “is heading in a bad direction” in part because the U.S. has little influence there. Still, he believes that if Washington offered significant new foreign aid, the U.S. would be able to win new influence and begin to turn things around.
“We’ve never made it clear to the Iraqis what is on offer,” he said in an interview.
Sanok strongly disagrees. “Aid has to offer benefits to the U.S.,” she said. “I don’t see it opening doors for us. Our movements there are so restricted. Are we supposed to give them money and just hope it goes to the right places?”
Transparency International ranks Iraq as the world’s eighth-most corrupt state. Last year, al-Maliki tried to take personal control of the state’s anti-corruption agency, but the courts stopped him. Then, four days after the last U.S. troops left, a car bomb blew up the anti-corruption office.
Burns said he supported the war when it was launched in 2003. But he had to think a moment before answering the question: Ultimately, what did the U.S. gain from it?
“Well,” he finally said, “we gave them a chance to be a democracy. That’s something, isn’t it?”
Joel Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former foreign correspondent for The New York Times.