Iraq: What is, will be, and might have been

Was it worth it? The answer is still unclear for both Iraqis and Americans.

Many commentators seem to have forgotten why the US went into Iraq in the first place, Grenier says [GALLO/GETTY]

Was it worth it?

In the swirling commentary attending the departure of the last US combat troops from Iraq, and as assessments are made of the legacy of the fateful US invasion of eight years ago, that is the question which keeps repeating itself.

For the Iraqis, moving into a new era of, at best, fragile democracy and tenuous security, having suffered perhaps many tens of thousands of deaths, the car bombs and the blast walls, the vicious sectarian cleansings, the millions of refugees and internally displaced persons, the shredding of their economy and society…the question must be asked:  Was it worth it?

For the Americans, groping toward a new and uncertain relationship with a liberated but at best tenuously stable Iraq, having expended so much blood and treasure, suffered a loss of prestige and global support, seen the shattering of the chimera of Iraq as a pro-American icon and model for the region, and having unwittingly facilitated the strategic reemergence of Iran…again it must be asked:  Was it worth it?

In posing the question at this juncture, we know that no real historical accounting is yet possible, for we cannot know the future. Will the great geo-political gamble of the American invasion result in continued Iraqi progress toward a future of democracy, independence, peace and prosperity?  Or will it lapse into something far more grim?  We think we can assess the investment in cost and suffering, but we cannot, as yet, assess the return.

But even as we take stock at this inflection point, viewing the situation entirely in hindsight, I daresay few observers do so from the proper perspective.

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Americans, for their part, seem to have forgotten why they invaded Iraq in the first place. The fervid dreams of a handful of neo-cons aside, the Bush administration did not invade Iraq because it wanted to remake the Middle East. It was not seeking some great and transcendent good; it was trying to avoid what it feared would be a great and transcendent evil. It took the risks associated with action because it feared the risks of inaction.

George W Bush believed that history in Iraq, left unchecked, would continue to move in the wrong direction.  The sanctions regime was eroding; several countries, France and Russia prominent among them, were working hard to eliminate them.  Once free of sanctions, it was thought, Saddam Hussein could go back to reconstituting his weapons of mass destruction (WMD) capabilities.

Bush’s rationale never really depended on the dodgy intelligence, which suggested an imminence of threat. That may have been politically useful in making a case for war, but what the Bush administration feared in any case was a latent threat: The UN had already catalogued the Iraqi regime’s past WMD progress, including its ability to build a nuclear weapon. That knowledge, once gained, cannot be eradicated. It was that knowledge, combined with Saddam’s clear record of viciousness at home and abroad, and his continued pattern of deception in dealing with the inspections regime which militated action; since the know-how associated with WMDs could not be eliminated, the thinking went, Saddam’s regime had to be.

We will never know what course history might have taken had Bush not intervened. We will never know whether, years hence, a nuclear-armed Iraq could have “Finlandised” the western littoral of the Gulf, intimidating the Gulf Arab regimes into meeting his demands on production limits, thus dictating the world price of oil and, with it, holding the global economy hostage to his whims. How else might such power, in the hands of one so unaccountably evil, eventually have been misused?

Similarly, for Iraqis, what new horrors might eventually have been in store, if and when Saddam, or his equally perverse sons, been relieved of the international sanctions burden and freed to carry on as they had before? Remember, no sooner had Saddam seized power, than he launched a disastrous eight-year war with Iran, producing grievous human losses.  Have those been forgotten? No sooner was that war over than he invaded Kuwait, bringing ignominious defeat in a war with the United States and a huge international coalition, followed by 12 years of penury under punishing international sanctions.

Who has forgotten the Anfal campaign against the Kurds, in which thousands were murdered and many thousands more displaced?  Who has forgotten the tender mercies visited on the Shia of southern Iraq when they rose up after the so-called First Gulf War?

How does one account the cost in human dignity and honor when an entire people is forced to live in abject submission to a vicious dictator and a violent, mafia-like regime? Against the backdrop of current history in the region, we might ask what additional outrages Iraqis might eventually have suffered in their attempts to be rid of such tyranny.

No, we do not know the answers to these questions, and the ultimate account of history will remain elusive for some time to come. Indeed, there will surely be multiple histories, as Iraqis, Americans and others make their own judgments regarding the past.

But as we weigh the evidence, we would all do well to avoid the glib, facile and unreflective assessments of some, and to take into account not only what is and what has been, but also what might otherwise have been. 

Robert L Grenier is chairman of ERG Partners, a financial advisory and consulting firm. He retired from the CIA in 2006, following a 27-year career in the CIA’s Clandestine Service. Grenier served as Director of the CIA Counter-Terrorism Centre (CTC) from 2004 to 2006, coordinated CIA activities in Iraq from 2002 to 2004 as the Iraq Mission Manager, and was the CIA Chief of Station in Islamabad, Pakistan, before and after the 9/11 attacks.

Previously, he was the deputy National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, and also served as the CIA’s chief of operational training. He is credited with founding the CIA’s Counter-Proliferation Division. Grenier is now a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and speaks and writes frequently on foreign policy issues.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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