Iraq: Ten Years After

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RAMZI HAIDAR / AFP / Getty Images)

The 2003 Iraq war began 10 years ago Tuesday with an intense "shock and awe" bombing of Baghdad.

The U.S. invaded Iraq 10 years ago Tuesday. It was almost déjà war: the nation had done pretty much the same thing 12 years before, but the goal that time was limited to kicking Saddam Hussein‘s forces out of Kuwait and destroying the Republican Guard in that country, not toppling the dictator – our friend during the 1980-88 war he launched against Iran – from his Baghdad lair.

So that first war was quick – only 100 hours on the ground! – and relatively painless (149 U.S. KIA, with nearly the same toll– 145 – killed in accidents). “The specter of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian Peninsula,” President George H.W. Bush said in March 1991, shortly after Saddam’s forces had abandoned Kuwait under fire. “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.”

Iraq War II was different. Although bizarrely launched by a President whose father had launched that first, limited war, this time the U.S. decided Saddam had to go. And it ended up looking a lot more like Vietnam than either president Bush could have imagined, or feared.

(PHOTOS: A Decade of War in Iraq: The Images That Moved Them Most)

It cost a lot more the second time around. A total of 4,485 Americans died in the nearly decade-long war, along with more than 100,000 Iraqis. It cost U.S. taxpayers, including our kids and grandkids, ultimately $4 trillion. On the positive side of the ledger, it cost Saddam Hussein his life (good riddance!).

Saddam Hussein was a vicious tyrant, who used chemical weapons against his own people, and who had long flouted UN commands that he disarm – and prove it. President George W. Bush warned in 2002, a year before the invasion, that such behavior was unacceptable. “The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes,” he said, “to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.”

But that’s not true.

Both Iran and North Korea have been doing so for decades, seemingly with impunity in the face of global – and U.S. – opposition.

So what made Iraq a war of choice, unlike – thus far — Iran and North Korea?

As someone who covered both wars from inside the Pentagon, there was a cloud of unfinished business from 1991’s Gulf War hanging over the U.S. political leadership. President George H.W. Bush, taking the firm advice of his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, declined to go to Baghdad to topple Saddam.

Many senior U.S. military officials thought the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation was folly; several said one in three senior U.S. military officers opposed it. Yet none spoke publicly against it. Many lower-level troops and intelligence staffers fervently believed Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction with an almost child-like faith.

(MORE: Ten Years After: A National Disgrace)

The Iraqi leader’s purported plot to kill the elder Bush during a 1993 visit to Kuwait – and the 9/11 attacks – combined to give George W. Bush the push he needed to end Saddam’s reign.

It’s tough to recall now – even if you lived through it – how shaken the U.S. public was by the 9/11 attacks. The second Bush Administration kept connecting them to Iraq – even though there was scant evidence to justify such a link – and tying up the entire package with a pre-tied weapons-of-mass-destruction bow.

The U.S. government willfully sought to scare the nation despite the paucity of hard evidence. “We don’t want the smoking gun,” then-secretary of state Condoleezza Rice infamously said, “to be a mushroom cloud.”

The press, too, had a supporting role in the march toward war. The Bush Administration played the New York Times like a Stradivarius, leaking evidence of Saddam’s WMD programs, and then commenting on the resulting story as if it had nothing to do with creating it.

That cowed much of the rest of the media into following in the Times’ wake, save for the valiant and intrepid reporters in Knight-Ridder’s Washington bureau, from which Battleland covered the 1991 Gulf War.

Congress too gave Bush too much deference, preferring to subcontract combat out instead of declaring war, as the framers intended. The war never would have happened if Congress had been forced to declare it; the nation flouts such Constitutional guidance at its peril.

The bottom line: Bush I kicked the Vietnam syndrome so that Bush II, in part to avenge Iraq’s plot on his father’s life, could launch a war that re-infected the nation with it. “My guess is…that it’ll be 20 years before we undertake something like this again,” Marine General John Allen, who played a key role in calming western Iraq, told a Foreign Policy gathering last week.

Why the rush?

MORE: The Yellow Birds: An Iraq Veteran’s Novel Gives a View from the Inside