Iraq's legacy a decade later

A boy waves an Iraqi flag outside the Imam Hussein shrine in Karbala last year.
A boy waves an Iraqi flag outside the Imam Hussein shrine in Karbala last year. (KHALID MOHAMMED / Associated Press)
Posted: March 20, 2013

What is the legacy of the Iraq war?

Is it the staggering number of lives lost? The trillions of dollars added to the national debt? The precedent of invading a country and overthrowing a government to bolster U.S. interests?

Since the war began a decade ago today, as much ink has been spilled on paper as blood on the battlefield in trying to answer these questions. But the Iraq war's greatest legacy might be the opportunity it presents for the American public to demand a standard of transparency and accountability that policymakers must meet before they can waste trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives while violating the Constitution. It's the least we can do for our democracy.

Replacing the Cold War

Let's rewind to 1989. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, many in the United States saw a chance to move away from the costly "arms race" and toward more spending to meet human needs at home. What a revolutionary step that would have been in the pursuit of true human security.

Instead, more than two decades later, spending in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the broader "war on terror" has replaced spending on the Cold War. In fact, military spending has doubled since 1998 - and that doesn't even include the $1.38 trillion in funds allocated to wage the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The total amounts to $2.3 million for every minute of every day.

Warfare between the United States and Iraq began in 1990, after Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. Because Congress never actually declared war, the conflict known as the first Gulf War had no official end, though active hostilities subsided for more than a decade. The "second" Iraq War - which was also undeclared - began in 2003 and ended with the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011. But Iraqis continue to live with both wars' legacy, and, whether we know it or not, so do we.

Despite its oil riches, Iraq is still struggling - and it's no wonder, given that the country sustained the most comprehensive economic sanctions in history, the destruction of its currency, and the displacement of more than five million people. U.S. forces overthrew the Iraqi government, dismantled state institutions, and dismissed all members of the ruling Ba'ath Party from government positions - even teachers.

As a result, Iraq went from one of the highest literacy rates in the Middle East to one of the lowest; from one of the region's best health-care systems to one that is in ruins. The war left the country deeply divided and impoverished. It also made the entire region less safe.

The irony is that transformative change did come to the Middle East - seven years later, through the largely nonviolent, youth-led uprisings of the "Arab Spring," which challenged corruption, poverty, and lack of freedom. Unlike the Iraq war, this charge was led by regular people, from the bottom up - not with guns, but with ideas that spread from Tunisia to Yemen.

Many steps must be taken to reinforce the positive changes that have come from the Arab Spring in Iraq and throughout the region, including strengthening the rule of law, balancing religion with governance, and creating transparent and accountable governmental institutions. These challenges present a grand opportunity for the United States to recalibrate its foreign policy away from the threat of armed force. A good start would be to stop all U.S. military aid and weapons transfers to the region, investing instead in nonviolent catalysts for change, including educational systems and civil-society groups working for peace.

Secrecy and militarism

Our wars with Iraq may well rank among the biggest catastrophes in the history of American foreign policy. We rushed to invade the country without a declaration of war by Congress. We turned a blind eye to the destruction we caused abroad. And we urged democracy for others while allowing it to be violated at home with the Patriot Act and other measures.

Now we can insist on transparency and accountability in our dealings with the world, or we can continue down the path of secrecy and militarism. Let's choose to rekindle our commitments to humanity and democracy.


Peter Lems is a co-coordinator of the Wage Peace campaign of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization working for peace and social justice in the United States and around the world.

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