Lessons of a costly war
The tenth anniversary this month of the United States-led invasion and occupation of Iraq finds that country still slowly recovering from an ordeal in which hundreds of thousands of its citizens died, its infrastructure was crippled and its socio-cultural system wrecked. The invasion was based on false assumptions, had many unintended negative consequences for the US and its allies in the Middle East and gave the case for western intervention there and elsewhere so bad a name that it is unlikely to fully recover in a changed world.
No weapons of mass destruction were found to justify the main case made for the invasion. Nor was it shown that Saddam Hussein’s regime harboured the al-Qaeda Islamists responsible for the 9/11 attacks on the US in 2001. That Hussein was captured and later executed removed a major critic – and sometime ally – of the US from the regional power complex, and hence his ability to manipulate Iraqs large oil revenues against their interests.
But the chaotic costs of destroying its Sunni governing class and undermining its security, health, education and religious systems were quite unforeseen by the neoconservative ideologues who drove this policy. Underestimated too was the extent of resistance to the occupation and the sheer damage to US soft power as it fought and tortured its way to an elusive military victory. In one of historys greatest ironies Iran emerged stronger from the invasion as Iraqs Shias asserted their political rights and became the main party in government, bringing the two states closer together after two decades of violent and bitter antagonism. The United Nations sanctions that shackled Iraq in the 1980s are now similarly affecting Iran as negotiations continue on its nuclear programme. The Obama administration has no stomach for another war in the region despite Israeli pressure for a confrontation with Iran.
Withdrawal from Afghanistan looms as a relief from this costly and ill-conceived engagement, leaving the US relying more on intelligence-driven non-manned drones to fight al-Qaeda – a source of deep unpopularity in Pakistan and Yemen as well. In the longer term reduced US reliance on Middle Eastern oil is likely to diminish the readiness to intervene there that remains the most plausible explanation for the Iraq war.
A changed world over the last decade sees political and economic power distributed between a greater number of states and regions, notwithstanding the US’s still overwhelming military predominance. There will be less acceptance of double standards, more reliance by the US on regional allies in Europe, the Middle East and Asia to do their own policing and fewer calls to impose democracy from without. Such a chastened international power system could be an unexpected positive consequence of this policy disaster.