The decision to go to war is the most solemn and grave that a leader makes.
It’s about thousands of lives, billions of dollars and the judgment of history – and about unforeseen consequences and failed exit strategies – as events Wednesday on opposite sides of the Atlantic made clear again.
In London, a seven-year inquiry concluded that then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair joined George W. Bush in the 2003 invasion of Iraq based on flawed intelligence and “wholly inadequate” planning. The report is another withering verdict on the Bush-Cheney administration for leading America into war with lies about Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction.
In Washington, D.C., President Barack Obama announced that more U.S. troops will stay in Afghanistan than planned – 8,400 when he leaves office in January – because the Taliban are still a threat nearly 15 years on from the original invasion after 9/11. He picked a middle ground between the 9,800 troops there now and the 5,500 he proposed earlier, though military leaders and GOP leaders in Congress wanted more.
“It is in our national security interest – especially after all the blood and treasure we’ve invested in Afghanistan over the years – that we give our Afghan partners the very best opportunity to succeed,” the president said.
But that means America’s longest war isn’t over yet, and that Obama won’t really keep his promise to end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. While he declared the combat mission over in December 2014 and while the remaining troops have a limited role, they’re still fighting and dying – 38 in the past 18 months, bringing total U.S. deaths since 2001 to nearly 2,400.
That tragic toll for a war that was justified is horrible enough. For a war that wasn’t, it’s unconscionable. The six years of war in Iraq left 179 British soldiers, nearly 4,500 Americans and more than 100,000 Iraqis dead. Now, the government is battling the Islamic State.
The official government report in Britain did not explicitly declare the Iraq war illegal, which might have led to Blair being prosecuted as a war criminal. Blair said that he regretted all that had gone wrong and that his decision was the “hardest, most momentous, most agonizing” in his decade as prime minister.
But the report made clear: “Military action at that time was not a last resort.”
War should be a last resort. Before November, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump need to tell voters in detail under what circumstances they would take America to war again.