The Costs of Iraq

The costs of the Iraq War cannot be measured purely qunatitatively. It has damaged American prestige and limited U.S. effectiveness in dealing with other key foreign policy issues.

President Bush, Vice President Cheney and other administration officials argue that defeat in Iraq would be too costly to the United States for Americans to accept. Fair enough. But the other side of the coin is the cost of continuing our very deep involvement in that country. It is more than 3,000 Americans lives, $300 billion spent and, according to a UN report, over 34,000 dead Iraqi civilians in 2006 alone. It is also more than a severe strain on the over-extended U.S. military and the hardships for families of reservists and National Guard soldiers, who face extended assignments or repeated calls to duty after a short return to civilian life.

The problem is much broader than that. Any administration has a limited attention span and limited political capital. In the United States, preoccupation with Iraq has become an organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy, a prism through which many other international issues are looked at. I have experienced this in my own conversations with administration officials; it is also evident in their public statements.

In the international arena, the American-led occupation of Iraq has considerably damaged U.S. prestige, making it more difficult for friendly governments to be of help to the United States. It has also emboldened American adversaries, such as Iran and North Korea. Those we need to persuade, like China and Russia, feel less pressure to accommodate the United States and less respect for U.S. judgment. And as the war continues and the 2008 Presidential elections draw nearer, it will become more difficult for the Bush Administration to be effective on key foreign policy issues requiring both the commitment of U.S. forces and the cooperation of other nations. Domestically, a continuing large-scale U.S. commitment will make an increasingly polarizing impact. And divided we fail-not just in Iraq, but in other foreign policy challenges as well.

On top of this, just as we have difficulty defining victory in Iraq, it is not easy to visualize a defeat. Clearly Iran is not going to take over Iraq. At best it may win a dominant influence over Shi‘a areas. Kurdish areas already enjoy great autonomy. For their part, most Sunnis, while hostile to both the Shi‘a-dominated government and the U.S. occupation, do not appear to be supporters of Al-Qaeda. Left to their own devices and with the help of such Iraqi neighbors as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other moderate Arab states, Sunni regions are unlikely to provide sanctuary for Al-Qaeda, particularly if U.S. troops are around to strike when necessary. . . .

To read the rest of this blog post, click here, or visit Dimitri K. Simes' blog, Subjective Evaluation.