The enduring damage of George Bush's wild Iraq adventure

This week is the fifth anniversary of George Bush’s invasion of Iraq. He claimed victory six weeks later. The war grinds on. Iraq subdivides.

None of the reasons/pretexts for the invasion has been validated.

Was it one battle in the “long war on terror”, following on from the swift ousting of the Taleban in Afghanistan after the September 11 atrocity? Not if by that were meant land battles: the “war on terror” is now prosecuted in intelligence databases, customs offices and at ever more paranoid airport security checkpoints.

Was it to be the decisive battle in that war on terror, as New York Times columnist Tom Friedman suggested in August 2003? Terrorists were then pouring into Iraq (attracted by the opportunity to fight Americans) “because they understand this is the big one … beat America’s ideas in Iraq and you beat them out of the whole region; lose to America there, lose everywhere.”

Whose ideas have won? Bush’s ideas have not even won at home.

Was it to uncover and eliminate “weapons of mass destruction”, as proclaimed by Bush immediately before invading (though the United Nations was sceptical)? No such weapons were found.

Was it to implant democracy in Iraq and thereby ignite a wildfire of democracy through the Middle East, as ideologues brayed? Not a single autocrat among the many in the region has budged. Democratic Turkey has become more islamic.

Was it to effect “regime change” and free a brutalised people? Saddam Hussein was killed and a different regime is in place. But its writ does not run wide, Iraqis still die. Iraq is likely in time to fracture into its three main constituent parts, divided by religious sectarianism and ethnic hatred and overshadowed by an empowered Iran, soon probably nuclear-armed.

Was it to secure Iraq’s oil for a United States increasingly dependent on imported fuel? That can be so only if the United States occupies Iraq a long time yet and lifts production back to pre-invasion levels. But American voters won’t stand for that. The Congress and the Democrats’ presidential candidates want out.

The Iraq debacle would not be of great moment if it were just between the United States and Iraq, a settling of scores between the Bush clan and Hussein. Bush has only 10 months left in his job and his party has already paid a crushing electoral price.

But the cost runs far beyond that.

There is, first, a financial cost, now heading into the trillions of dollars: to the invaders’ economies and taxpayers now and far into the future supporting the many scores of thousands of maimed soldiers and paying interest on the resultant debt; and to us all via the consequentially bigger United States budget deficit which has worsened the serious international financial imbalances — and through a higher price for oil.

There is, second, a cost in United States morale. A confident, powerful nation elected Bush. An introspective and frightened one will bid him good riddance.

The United States will, for a time at least, be less willing, perhaps unwilling, to commit its commanding firepower in strife-torn regions in pursuit of benign, humanitarian outcomes. That is a loss not just to the oppressed in those regions but to an increasingly globalised and so interdependent world.

Third, there is a cost in international commitment to the Nato-led pacification of Afghanistan. Iraq sucked in United States, British, Australian and other forces which, if applied wholly to that pacification, might have succeeded. Instead failure is now a real possibility as participating nations review their commitments.

Fourth, there is a cost in heightened anti-Americanism or suspicion of Americans, not just in islamic societies but in liberal democracies.

This is deeply unfortunate. For all its faults and downsides (the metastasising credit-crunch cancer most prominently and recently among them), the United States is the most potent champion of liberal democracy and liberal trade. This country has a direct and vital interest in both.

And that ultimately is the real issue for the Anglo and European part of the world, of which we are still part, in the United States presidential contest.

After Bush’s rigid ideology, unprofessional (and at times unconstitutional) conduct and inward focus in foreign policy the world needs a sensible, sane, professional and outward-looking White House tenant.

The United States is master of its destiny and will make its own choice in its own way. That is the way of a world of jealously national nation states. We are bystanders.

But the United States’ economic and military power ensures the outcome will affect us. The risk is that, in reaction to Bush’s wild adventure and its octopus damage, United States voters might give us another, albeit different, tyro.

There is an old rule: whatever you expect to be the outcome of a war when you start it, the actual outcome is usually different. Bush’s legacy of damage to his party, his country and the world are a textbook case.