War and debt

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, October 25, 2011


President Obama’s announcement of the withdrawal of the remaining American troops in Iraq formally puts an end to a prolonged and controversial war. When the last American soldier leaves Iraq before year’s end few Americans will pay much attention. For President Obama, ending military presence in Iraq has as much to do with fulfilling a campaign promise as with reducing defense spending. 


A lot has happened since President Bush sent military troops to Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein given his alleged links to the Al Qaeda terrorist network and to prevent him from further developing weapons of mass destruction. In March of 2003, as Americans were still recovering from the September 11 terrorist attacks, the war against terrorism was popular. Despite the reluctance of several key American allies and taking advantage of the little domestic resistance among American politicians, President Bush began a war that proved very costly for the United States.


It is difficult to assess whether the U.S. won or lost the war.  The accusations about weapons of mass destruction were built on questionable evidence.  Hussein’s links to Al Qaeda were exaggerated.  Bush promised that his government would help facilitate a transition to democracy in Iraq. Eight years later, it is difficult to claim that Iraq is indeed a democracy.  Since the objective was never clear or properly justified, it will be far fetch to say “mission accomplished” when the last American troops leave the country.


The withdrawal of American troops gives U.S. foes no reason for celebration. The U.S. was not humiliated in Iraq as in Vietnam. Despite recent tensions and past differences, the Iraqi government is relatively friendly to the U.S, or at least functional to American strategic objectives. The departure of President George W. Bush and the inauguration of Barack Obama as president were more important symbolically to restore American reputation abroad than the formal end of American military presence in Iraq.


In fact, the official announcement of the end of American military presence in Iraq made by President Obama last week was an anticlimactic occasion. It was not clear if the announcement means that the War in Iraq formally ends. One interpretation is that the war had already ended a few years ago and American troops were there to help consolidate and strengthen democracy. A more pessimistic view suggests that the armed confrontation will continue until a regime, possibly a dictatorial one, consolidates in power in that war-ridden country. Be it as it may, Americans were ready for this announcement. In fact, for many Americans, it was an announcement long overdue.


President Obama used the opportunity to strengthen his re-election chances by fulfilling an important campaign promise. A strong left-of-center voting bloc actively campaigned for Obama precisely because of his strong opposition to the war in Iraq. Obama needed to bring the troops back home before the start of the new presidential campaign. The timing was favored by the death of Libyan Dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Though Gaddafi’s death should have had nothing to do with ending the war in Iraq, it was kind of poetic justice after the war itself  was initiated using the excuse of Saddam Hussein’s links to Al Qaeda and the allegations about weapons of mass destruction.


Politics is often affected by short-term considerations. President Obama has announced the end of military presence in Iraq motivated by the immediate effects that decision will have on reducing the fiscal deficit. The total cost of the Iraq war for the U.S. was almost 1 trillion dollars. According to some calculations, the overall cost on the American economy has been as high as US$3 trillion since military operations began in 2003. In terms of international reputation and good will, the war has also proven costly for American foreign policy. In 8 years of operation, 4500 American soldiers lost their lives—with Iraqi deaths ranging between 150.000 and 600.000. Yet, despite the high cost of the war in human lives and American reputation, the ongoing military costs of keeping troops stationed—and participating in combat—in Iraq have had bigger short-term effects. 


President Obama’s reelection does not depend on him ending the war in Iraq, though many of his 2008 supporters will be pleased that he did and will likely campaign more strongly for him again. Obama’s re-election does depend on getting the economy back on track. For that, he needs to significantly reduce the deficit without cutting social programs. Because of Republican opposition to tax increases and also because a tax reform might slow down an already sluggish economic recovery, Obama cannot solely rely on increasing taxes to cut the deficit.  Ending military presence in Iraq is an attractive alternative for the President to cut spending and bring down the deficit.


The War in Iraq was initiated after President Bush apparently invoked different reasons than those that allegedly compelled him to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Eight years later, President Obama is apparently also invoking reasons other than those that explain why he has chosen to end the war by the end of 2011.