December 20, 2011
Last week marked the official “end” of America’s war in Iraq. While some U.S. military personnel are still being removed from the country, President Obama received Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki at the White House and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta traveled to Iraq to praise the efforts of American soldiers there.
In the midst of this, Hillary went on Al Jazeera’s Inside Story to talk about what the Iraq war really means (click on the video above or the link here). She appeared as part of a panel with Mark Kimmitt, a retired U.S. Army general who served as the spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq, and Raad Jarrar, an Iraqi-American political analyst.
Hillary made what we think are the two crucial points in any serious assessment of America’s invasion and eight-year occupation of Iraq:
First, the truth is that the United States and its allies lost the war in Iraq (and are going to lose the war in Afghanistan as well). By “lose”, we mean that the United States is withdrawing its military forces without having achieved its core political objectives, and with its overall strategic position weakened (more on that below).
General Kimmitt and other commentators want to focus on the courage and dedication of the U.S. soldiers who served in Iraq, rather than rehash “tired” arguments about how the United States became involved there in the first place. But, from a strategic point of view, how well American troops performed is, frankly, irrelevant. The mission was still a failure, because the objectives assigned to U.S. forces were ill-chosen from the start, and because America’s national leadership (and especially the George W. Bush Administration) made horrendous strategic and tactical judgments along the way.
The Iraq war was a bloody intellectual experiment for the neoconservative world view, in which millions of Iraqis were caught up without any possibility of giving anything approaching “informed consent” regarding their participation. The suffering imposed on these innocent victims—including those killed, wounded, and displaced—is an indelible stain on the ethical balance sheet of American foreign policy.
And the results of this neoconservative thought experiment are, to say the least, not as advertised by the policy hucksters who pushed it. Americans were promised that overthrowing Saddam Husayn would lead to a secular, democratic political order in Iraq that would be, by definition, pro-American. Iraq’s transformation would, in turn, pave the way for the creation of similarly pro-American secular democracies across the region that would naturally choose to align with the United States.
Instead, the U.S. military facilitated the emergence of a state that, in keeping with its Shi’a-majority demographics, is naturally aligned with the Islamic Republic. From the outset, U.S. military and civilian officials have raised—and continue to raise—the specter of Iranian “meddling” in Iraq. But by what warped standard is the Islamic Republic meddling in Iraq, at the very same time that the United States had more than 100,000 troops deployed there? In the end, the Iraqi people, through their elected officials, told the United States that it was the party meddling in their affairs, not Iran, and that American soldiers needed, at last, to get out.
American officials have regularly denied that the war was a “war for oil”. If the Iraq war was, in fact, a “war for oil”, then it was an even more incompetently conceived and executed venture than even we think was the case (and we are pretty critical). American energy companies have hardly fared well in post-Saddam Iraq. The iconic U.S. “super major”, Exxon Mobil, recently took an upstream contract in Iraqi Kurdistan, signaling that it does not think very much of the business opportunities available to it in the rest of Iraq. The foreign companies that play major roles in developing Iraq’s hydrocarbon reserves in coming years are more likely to be Chinese or European than American.
The second major point is, as we wrote in October, see here, that the decision to invade Iraq was America’s biggest strategic blunder since the end of the Cold War. Not only did it fail by its own terms of reference; it has done massive damage to America’s broader strategic position, in the Middle East and globally.
In this regard, the issue is not, as some commentators endlessly debate, whether Iraq today is “better off” than it was three years ago, or five years ago, or 10 years ago? The issue is that the United States has, by its own initiative, upturned and overturned a regional balance of power which, on the eve of the Iraq invasion in 2003, was strongly tiled in its favor.
In 2003, Saddam was contained, the Islamic Republic was in a much weaker position than it is today, Hizballah and HAMAS had not been electorally legitimated as the most important political actors in their respective arenas. The United States was the unchecked superpower in the region; it could do pretty much anything it wanted, which was why it went into Iraq.
Though this was surely not America’s intention, its military misadventure in Iraq has had the effect of liberating Shi’a Muslims and empowering them to play a much greater role in Middle Eastern politics. Conservative Sunni powers allied to the United States, like Saudi Arabia, have not taken this well. And this has produced deeply divisive regional tensions. Post-Saddam Iraq has excellent relations with Iran, and with Syria and Turkey as well. But its relations with Saudi Arabia are seriously strained. The Kingdom has yet to send an Ambassador back to Baghdad. Rather than developing trade ties, Saudi Arabia is building a high-tech security fence along its border with Iraq. We would dare say that, today, Saudi Arabia’s relations with Israel are better than its relations with the Maliki government. It will be interesting to see whether the Riyadh-Tel Aviv-Ramallah-Washington axis is really more reflective of regional opinion and has greater staying power than the Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus-Cairo-Beirut-Gaza-Ankara(?) axis. We have our hypothesis about this.
Today, the United States is, as Hillary put it, “on the run” in the Middle East. It is scrambling to hold on to what it can of its strategic position in the region, in any way that it can. And that is a direct consequence of the Iraq war.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett