March 19 marked 16 years since George W. Bush launched the war in Iraq, a blunder that proved even more catastrophic than many of its opponents anticipated at the time. Today, it is widely accepted that the war was a mistake; even President Trump campaigned against it, albeit untruthfully, in 2016. But as a country, we still have not fully reckoned with the war’s enduring consequences. As we fight to prevent future debacles under the current administration, it’s critical that we not lose sight of the costs of our past decisions — or the lack of accountability for the extraordinary damage they caused.
For the past eight years, researchers at the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs have been documenting the toll of America’s post-9/11 conflicts. Their vital work shows the wars’ devastating human, economic and political costs.
By the end of this year, the price tag for the wars in the Middle East will surpass $6 trillion, vastly exceeding the Bush administration’s initial projections. This extravagant war spending stifled the U.S. economy and led to skyrocketing deficits, which were then used to justify deep cuts to essential government programs. The researchers estimate that up to 3 million additional jobs would have been created if the war funding had instead been invested in clean energy, health care and education. And more than 6,800 U.S. soldiers have lost their lives (including nearly 4,500 in Iraq), while many more have been wounded or disabled.
As calamitous as the results have been for the United States, the consequences have been even more ruinous for the countries we ostensibly went to war to “liberate.” More than 200,000 civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan have been killed in the fighting. More than 10 million have been displaced from their homes. Many people have lost access to clean water, health-care services and a consistent food supply. And despite the Bush administration’s pro-war propaganda, the wars failed to stop — and, in some ways, fueled — the spread of terrorism and extremist violence across the region.
Yet the public figures who spearheaded, championed and carried out America’s disastrous wars have never been held to account. Because many of them at least superficially oppose the president (in large part because of his anti-intervention rhetoric as a candidate), they have, in some cases, actually seen their reputations rehabilitated. Leading neoconservative voices such as Bill Kristol and David Frum enjoy large platforms in the national media. Retired Gen. David Petraeus, the architect of the failed “surge” in Iraq, remains a sought-after commentator on matters of national security. EvenBush, who left office with historically low approval ratings, has seen his public standing improve amid Trump’s more visibly toxic presidency.
While these hawkish figures continue to strut their wares, progressive leaders who understand the costs of endless war are forcing a shift in the debate. Presidential candidates Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have signed a pledge to bring America’s military engagements in Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere to “a responsible and expedient conclusion.” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), along with Sanders and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), recently ushered a resolution through Congress that would end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, a move that could prompt just the second veto of Trump’s presidency. And last month, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) introduced a bill to repeal the 2001 authorization for the use of military force in Afghanistan — which she stood alone in opposing at the time, presciently warning that it provided a “blank check” for war.
Sixteen years after the invasion of Iraq, these voices of restraint and realism demand to be heard. It is long past time for a national reckoning with the catastrophic toll of endless war, including accountability for the people whose reckless actions and advocacy led us into disaster. We also need the space for real dissent from the views of a foreign policy establishment that has so clearly failed us. Otherwise, we are doomed to repeat our mistakes.