By attacking Iraq rather than focusing on al-Qaida, we fell into our enemies' trap. The al-Qaida manual, "The Management of Savagery," prescribed forcing America "to abandon its war against Islam by proxy" by provoking it into a feckless military confrontation with a Muslim country with the goal of overextending America militarily, bleeding us financially, and exposing the hollowness of American values.
Many defense intellectuals who supported the war at the time now call the invasion a distraction from the war on terrorism. But the occupation of Iraq was much more than a distraction: it was an engine of terrorist growth. By going to war in Iraq, we set the stage for the emergence for an entirely new branch of al-Qaida—al-Qaida in Iraq. We thought we had mitigated its strength with the surge, and to some extent, we did. But now that US troops have left Iraq, the group that emerged in direct response to our occupation is resurgent, not just inside Iraq but as a regional movement, rebuilding its networks in Syria, Jordan, and Libya.
The United States invaded Iraq with three stated goals: to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, to end Saddam Hussein's support for terrorism, and to free the Iraqi people. Within six weeks, Saddam's regime was deposed, no functional WMD had been found, and President Bush announced "mission accomplished." Like many leaders before him preparing to go to war, President Bush was optimistic about the prospect of victory. He persuaded himself and the U.S. Congress that the war in Iraq would be quick and cheap: approximately $50 to $60 billion to overthrow Saddam, reinstate order, and install a new government.
The actual costs of the war in Iraq include the deaths of 4488 U.S. military personnel and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians. According to Brown University's Costs of War project, financial costs, including the cost to service the debt, will likely total nearly $4 trillion.
About Jessica Stern Fellow at the FXB Center for Human Rights at the Harvard School of Public Health
Peter Juul Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress
Evan Moore Senior Policy Analyst for the Foreign Policy Initiative
Michael O'Hanlon Senior Fellow and Director of Research for the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution