“We will be greeted as liberators” upon invading Iraq, Vice President Dick Cheney counseled in 2003 on the eve of the war. He had already relayed a prediction that the streets in Basra and Baghdad are “sure to erupt in joy.”
President George W. Bush declared that there was “no doubt” that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that an invasion would be largely self-financing and that it would last “five days or five weeks or five months, but it certainly isn’t going to last any longer.”
So 15 years ago this week, the United States careered into one of the most cataclysmic, expensive and idiotic blunders of the past half-century: We invaded Iraq.
The financial cost alone to the United States will top $3 trillion, according to the estimates of the economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes, or about $24,000 per American household. Some 4,400 American soldiers died in Iraq, along with approximately 500,000 Iraqis, according to a survey and academic study.
The war helped trigger the Syria war, the genocide against the Yazidi and Middle East Christians, the rise of the Islamic State, the strengthening of Iran and a broader Sunni-Shiite conflict in the Middle East that will claim lives for years to come.
We should try to learn from these calamitous misjudgments, but I have a grim feeling in my belly, a bit like I had in the runup to the Iraq War, that we have a president who is leading us toward reckless, catastrophic conflict.
Actually, toward three reckless conflicts.
The first is not a bloody one: It’s a trade war. President Donald Trump’s tariffs and other trade actions mark the abandonment of a 70-year American effort to lead the world to a more open trade system.
“Trade wars are good, and easy to win,” Trump tweeted this month – an inane echo of Cheney’s hubris about the Iraq War.
The second conflict that Trump is hurtling toward is with Iran. Unless he chooses some face-saving compromise, it looks as if Trump will pull out of the Iran nuclear deal by May 12.
The risk is that Iran responds by restarting its nuclear program. This would lead to soaring tensions, the possibility of an Israeli strike on Iran, a risk of Saudi-Iranian conflict and a danger of war between the United States and Iran.
Mike Pompeo, the CIA director, whom Trump has nominated to be secretary of state, is very smart – and very hawkish on Iran. Moreover, Trump is considering replacing his national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, with John Bolton, who is not a mere hawk so much as a pterosaur.
(The last best hope for world peace may be Bolton’s dramatic mustache, because it’s so substantial that it might keep Trump from choosing its owner. Let’s all pray that Bolton doesn’t shave it.)
The final risk, of course, is a war with North Korea. We may have a reprieve for a couple of months if Trump’s face-to-face with Kim Jong Un goes ahead, but I think Americans are too reassured by the prospect of a summit meeting.
The basic problem: There’s almost no chance that North Korea will agree to the kind of verifiable denuclearization that Trump talks about. Then the danger is that if a summit collapses, there’s no room to restart the process with lower-level diplomats. At that point, the risk of military conflict soars because all alternatives seem exhausted.
Moreover, Trump’s snap decision to accept Kim’s invitation to meet underscores the risk of a mercurial president leaping into actions – which is one of the reasons we got into the mess in Iraq. The temptation to fire missiles at North Korea or Iran may also be particularly great for a president seeking to distract from a Russia investigation or an outspoken porn actress.
These fears of conflict aren’t found just among Democrats but are broadly shared by many foreign policy analysts across the spectrum. Kori Schake, who worked in the Bush White House during the Iraq War, notes that Trump sometimes has spoken about North Korea the way Bush administration officials did about Iraq, and she adds: “I worry that President Trump could lead to war on the Korean Peninsula or against Iran, or by miscalculation in a number of other places where adversaries misread his intent. The president considers his unpredictability advantageous, when it is more likely to have explosive consequences.”
Looking back, the biggest problem 15 years ago was that the administration was stuck in an echo chamber and far too optimistic, and Democrats and the news media alike mostly rolled over. Journalists too often acted as lap dogs, not watchdogs – and today I fear that we may be so busy chasing the latest shiny object that we miss an abyss ahead.
I also frankly doubt that we as a nation have learned the lesson from Iraq. A recent Pew survey found that 43 percent of Americans still believe that invading Iraq was the correct decision.
Contact Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof or Twitter.com/NickKristof.