‘It’s too soon to tell’ how the Iraq war went

On Tuesday, Barack Obama will make a speech about Iraq. With 50,000 troops still in the country in an “advisory capacity” he can’t declare victory, so he will instead celebrate “the end of combat operations.” If he follows others who have already marked this occasion, his comments will focus on Iraq: the state of Iraqi democracy, the level of violence, the impact seven years of war has had on Iraqi society.

All of which is fair enough. But I hope he spares a few minutes to assess the impact that seven years of war has had on American society — and American foreign policy. I supported the invasion of Iraq, I think the surge was a success and I believe that an Iraqi democracy could be a revolutionary force for good in the Middle East. Yet even if violence abates, even if all American troops go home, we have still paid a very high price for our victory — much higher than we usually admit.

Aside from the very real blood and the very real money spent in Iraq, there were other casualties, some of them hard to count and classify. Here are a few of them:

America’s reputation for effectiveness. The victory was swift. But the occupation was chaotic. The insurgency appeared to take Washington by surprise, and no wonder: The Pentagon was squabbling with the State Department; soldiers had no instructions and didn’t speak the language. The overall impression, in Iraq and everywhere else, was of American incompetence — and, after Abu Ghraib, of stupidity and cruelty as well. Two years ago, a German Marshall Fund poll showed that vast numbers of our closest friends felt that the “mismanagement” of Iraq — not the “invasion” of Iraq — was the biggest stumbling block for allies of the United States.

No wonder, then, that America’s ability to organize a coalition has also suffered. Participation in the Iraq war cost Tony Blair his reputation and the Spanish government an election. After an initial swell of support, the Iraqi occupation proved unpopular even in countries where America is popular, such as Italy and Poland. Almost no country that has participated in the coalition derived any economic or diplomatic benefits from doing so. None received special American favors — not even Georgia, which sent 2,000 soldiers (a lot for Georgia) and received precisely zero U.S. support during its military conflict with Russia. It will be a lot harder to get any of the “coalition of the willing” to fight with us again, and indeed “Iraq” is part of the reason there is so little enthusiasm for Afghanistan and why it is so difficult to put organized pressure on Iran.

A related victim of the conflict has been America’s ability to influence the Middle East. Admittedly, we were never as good at this as we would have liked. But the chaos in Iraq has clearly strengthened Iran. It has had no positive impact on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. By helping raise the price of oil for a few years (this was supposed to be a “war for oil,” remember?) it has also strengthened Saudi Arabia, the regime that produced 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers.

The high oil price also strengthened Russia and Venezuela — not that many have noticed. For another casualty of the Iraq war has been America’s ability to think like a global power. Even if we eventually pull out of Iraq altogether, we will have been bogged down in that country for the decade in which China rose to real world-power status, Latin America drifted to the far left and Russia successfully used pipeline politics to divide Europe — all trends that commanded hardly any attention from the Bush administration and even less from Obama.

Finally, there are few domestic items that are often overlooked. One in particular worries me: America’s ability to care for its wounded veterans. In historical terms, the number of U.S. fatalities in Iraq has been low — some 4,400, compared with nearly 60,000 in Vietnam. But thanks in part to extraordinary advances in medical technology, the number of severely wounded veterans — men and women who will need the highest level of medical and psychological care for the rest of their lives — is far higher than ever before. We need innovative programs — programs such as Musicorps, which I described last year — but high levels of bureaucratic energy are required to create and fund them. And the bureaucracy is understandably tired.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that the assessment of the Iraq war is a project for the next decade, not the next week. Before speaking on Tuesday, Obama might ponder the words of former Chinese leader Zhou Enlai — who, when asked to assess the long-term impact of the French Revolution, allegedly told Richard Nixon that “it’s too soon to tell.”

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