December 16th, 2011
10:45 AM ET

Bacevich: After Iraq, War is U.S.

Editor's Note: Andrew J. Bacevich is Professor of International Relations and History at Boston University. This post is one of four from the Council on Foreign Relations in response to the question, Was the Iraq War worth it?

By Andrew Bacevich

As framed, the question invites a sober comparison of benefits and costs - gain vs. pain. The principal benefit derived from the Iraq War is easily identified: as the war's defenders insist with monotonous regularity, the world is indeed a better place without Saddam Hussein. Point taken.

Yet few of those defenders have demonstrated the moral courage - or is it simple decency - to consider who paid and what was lost in securing Saddam's removal. That tally includes well over four thousand U.S. dead along with several tens of thousands wounded and otherwise bearing the scars of war; vastly larger numbers of Iraqi civilians killed, maimed, and displaced; and at least a trillion dollars expended - probably several times that by the time the last bill comes due decades from now. Recalling that Saddam's weapons of mass destruction and alleged ties to al-Qaeda both turned out to be all but non-existent, a Churchillian verdict on the war might read thusly: Seldom in the course of human history have so many sacrificed so dearly to achieve so little.

Yet in inviting a narrow cost-benefit analysis, the question-as-posed serves to understate the scope of the debacle engineered by the war's architects. The disastrous legacy of the Iraq War extends beyond treasure squandered and lives lost or shattered. Central to that legacy has been Washington's decisive and seemingly irrevocable abandonment of any semblance of self-restraint regarding the use of violence as an instrument of statecraft. With all remaining prudential, normative, and constitutional barriers to the use of force having now been set aside, war has become a normal condition, something that the great majority of Americans accept without complaint. War is U.S.

Central to [the war's] legacy has been Washington's decisive and seemingly irrevocable abandonment of any semblance of self-restraint regarding the use of violence as an instrument of statecraft.

One senses that this was what the likes of [Vice President Dick] Cheney, [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld, and [Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul] Wolfowitz (urged on by militarists cheering from the sidelines and with George W. Bush serving as their enabler) intended all along. By leaving intact and even enlarging the policies that his predecessor had inaugurated, President Barack Obama has handed these militarists an unearned victory. As they drag themselves from one "overseas contingency operation" to the next, American soldiers must reckon with the consequences. So too will the somnolent American people be obliged to do, perhaps sooner than they think.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Andrew Bacevich. For more, visit

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