Iraq War: Ten Political Legacies

As President Obama prepares to announce an official end to combat operations, The Daily Beast surveys the lasting political fallout of George Bush’s fateful war.

When President Obama announced an official end to combat operations, he acknowledged George Bush’s “support for our troops” as well as his “love of country and commitment to our security.” The Daily Beast surveys the lasting political fallout of Bush’s fateful war.

In an Oval Office address Tuesday night, Barack Obama will announce the official end of combat operations in Iraq. Numbers tell most of the story: 50,000 troops will remain in the country, down from a high of 160,000. More than 4,000 American soldiers have been killed since George W. Bush announced the war’s beginning nearly three thousand days ago. But beyond the numbers, Iraq has left a deep mark on America, its politics, its military, and its place in the world. Here are a few of the legacies of war.

1. The Fall of Neoconservatism

Among the ideological fathers of the war were a group of leading neoconservatives—liberals mugged by reality, in Irving Kristol’s often-repeated phrase. The philosophy guided the foreign policy gurus around Bush, a confidence that the world could be better off if America exported its liberal democratic values at the point of a gun. Over the years, the reasons for invasion grew increasingly shaky—and the absence of WMD’s, the tenacity of the insurgency, the slow progress along the path to democracy, all dimmed the neocons’ ideological standing. Some, like Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, fell from favor. Their cousins, liberal hawks, did not fare well either. When too many neoconservatives seemed to be making their way inside John McCain’s inner circle, even fellow Republicans cried foul. But it is a sign of the distressed state of the Democrats’ foreign policy that the neocons are emerging from hiding. Wolfowitz penned an op-ed in the New York Times, offering advice to President Obama on the perils of abandoning Baghdad altogether.

2. The Rise of the Wounded

As Anne Applebaum wrote in The Washington Post this week, Iraq has been a far less deadly place than Vietnam for American soldiers: 4,400 have died compared to 60,000 lives lost in Southeast Asia. Yet that seemingly encouraging statistic holds a scary truth: The number of soldiers who suffered violent injuries and survived has greatly increased. While we can pat ourselves on the back for advances in medical technology, we have a long way to go in figuring out how to care for the wounded.

3. The Permanent Mercenary Army

In 2007, there were somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 armed security contractors at work in Iraq. The most prominent firm was Blackwater, the North Carolina-based contractor, which was awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in State Department contracts, including responsibility for guarding the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. There have always been private actors in the military arena, but the company’s role as an army without a flag had unprecedented power. Eventually, the contractor’s activities were curtailed by the Iraqi government, tired of firefights involving American guards. Blackwater has now changed its name—call it Xe, please—but it also changed how America goes to war.

4. The Death of the Coalition

America was able to cobble together a collection of states to send forces to Iraq, most notably Britain and Spain. But many of the countries sent small delegations, and the coalition was widely derided as window-dressing for America’s determination to go to war in the face of sketchy evidence about Iraq’s WMDs. The leaders of those supporting countries were made to suffer for their cooperation at the polls, and Britain—America’s closest ally—is still reeling from Tony Blair’s controversial decision to follow President Bush so faithfully into the fight. One country—Georgia—sent thousands of soldiers but watched the U.S. stand by as Russian forces crossed its borders. The discovery, after Saddam’s fall, that he did not in fact possess weapons of mass destruction severely dented America’s credibility—and it will be much more politically difficult to mount such a coalition again.

5. Return of the Superstar General

The Iraq War gave us Gen. David Petraeus, thereby reintroducing the superstar general to the American public. Perhaps not since the days of Eisenhower and MacArthur has a man in uniform loomed so large. Petraeus, to be sure, did not save the world, but a war-weary nation, starved of heroes, has latched onto him. It was the counter-insurgency strategy, honed by Petraeus in Iraq, that is now our best hope of ending the daunting conflict in Afghanistan. All of the furor over the West Point-trained, Princeton-schooled leader has lead more than a few to wonder whether Petraeus would consider running for the presidency.

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6. America’s Standing in the World

Barack Obama campaigned on the promise that he would return America’s standing in the world to pre-Bush levels. But he’s finding an unpopular war hard to shake. This spring, the Pew Research Center found that a majority of countries polled approved of his international policies. On Iraq, however, 11 out of 20 disapproved. The antipathy toward America in the Middle East continues even after the architects of the Iraq war have exited the stage. Twenty-six percent of Jordanians approve of the president and only 23 percent of Turks. Even less promising, Obama’s popularity has fallen since coming into office among Muslim peoples.

7. The Rise of Middle East Democracy

The lack of evidence for weapons of mass destruction will endure as a fault line in American politics for generations to come. But one clear good came of the controversial campaign: The world was treated to the sight of an oppressed people going to the polls and proudly portraying purple fingers, the colorful sign that they had, for the first time in their lives, chosen their own political leaders. As Iraq is now learning, one election does not guarantee the survival of a political system, and the challenges ahead are formidable. But the breakthrough is undeniable.

8. The Dawning of the Netroots

The anti-war left, a powerful force in the Vietnam era, was outmaneuvered politically in the Reagan era, and eclipsed by a more muscular brand of liberalism in the 1990s. But the Iraq conflict helped stoke the antiwar movement. Furious over the mainstream media’s acquiescence to the Bush post-9/11 story line, these liberals met up online, helped propel a more pointed brand of partisan journalism and commentary—and organized to help elect like-minded advocates to political office.

9. Barack Obama

The skinny guy with a funny name would have never emerged from the Democratic primary were it not for his vociferous opposition to the Iraq War. By coming out against the war in 2002—calling it “a dumb war. A rash war.”—he established his lefty bona fides. That proved crucial in his primary campaign against Hillary Clinton, who was stuck having to defend her Senate votes for the war before an increasingly restive base (it was also one of the few points of genuine disagreement between the two candidates). In the end, Obama’s antiwar stance propelled him past the heavily favored Clinton and an historic election to the White House.

10. Death of Tyrants

In addition to the dawning democracy, the war had another indisputable consequence: it ended the reign of terror perpetuated by Saddam Hussein. It ended his life and those of his miscreant sons Uday and Qusay, not to mention Abu Zarqawi and many of his henchmen in al Qaeda in Iraq. A land where telling a joke about Saddam was a capital crime has been freed forever from his ruthless possession.