On the eve of its invasion of Iraq in 2003, America seemed gripped by a fever. The White House warned a nation still traumatized by 9/11 that Iraq was hatching terrorist plots involving chemicals, biological weapons, and nuclear suitcase bombs.
U.S. infantry soldiers on the Iraqi border, where I was a news reporter, ritualistically shaved their heads before battle. Their commanders told them to expect Saddam to retaliate with chemical weapons that could stop their hearts in an instant.
It turned out much of that panic was manufactured, so that President George W. Bush could boast his invasion would protect the “homeland” and the rest of the world.
U.S. military commanders parroted Bush’s language during the mismanaged war and occupation that followed. Yet those bloody years uncovered no weapons of mass destruction and instead unleashed legions of new terrorists. The U.S. occupation of Iraq normalized torture, impunity, manipulation of intelligence, and a new level of official mendacity.
I have dedicated much of the last two decades to chronicling the damage and suffering in Iraq; now, as we mark twenty years since the invasion, I want to take stock of another victim of the United States’ fateful war of choice—America itself.
Today, Iraq and its neighbors continue to suffer from the cascade of violence and state failure triggered by America’s war. Perhaps less conspicuous is the harm America caused itself, and not just in terms of blood and treasure. The Iraq war inflicted deep damage on American rule of law, democracy, and security. Until America takes inventory of this caustic toll, it stands little chance of building an order that can make America itself, along with the entire world, more hospitable.