Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Iraq: A US effort that was in vain?

Aug 31, 2010

By Jonathan Eyal

MISSION accomplished? As the last American combat troops left Iraq over the weekend, one departing soldier belonging to the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team shouted to the assembled journalists: 'We won, we won, it's over! We brought democracy to Iraq.'

None of those present at the ceremony dared to contradict the soldier's claim. And for good reasons: after seven years of warfare in which almost 5,000 American soldiers and approximately 100,000 Iraqis perished, nobody wanted to admit that the entire effort was in vain.

But as officials in Washington know only too well, the United States has failed in most of its strategic objectives. The best that can be said about this sad episode is that the American military is not leaving with its tail between its legs, and that the war will not result in a new American isolationism. In short, Iraq is not a victory, but it is not Vietnam either.

For President Barack Obama and many of his associates, Iraq was always a 'dumb war', an eminently avoidable confrontation which happened only because the previous administration of Mr George W. Bush was trigger-happy and ill-informed.

Some of these charges are true. But history's final verdict is likely to be more nuanced.
Contrary to what critics of the war claim, the people who launched the invasion in March 2003 were not interested in gaining control over Iraq's huge oil reserves. Iraq oil wells remained out of action long after the fighting was over. And when a new US-backed Iraqi government finally awarded new oil exploration contracts to foreign companies, American corporations obtained no favours.

Nor is it true that the Bush administration deliberately lied about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in order to justify the need for war. It is now largely forgotten, but, on the eve of battle, almost all governments accepted that Saddam Hussein had chemical and bacteriological weapons. The intelligence failure was, therefore, a global cock-up.

Finally, although we now know that the Iraq adventure aggravated the situation in the Middle East, few are prepared to consider the alternatives. For by the time the US went to war, the economic sanctions that kept Saddam in check were failing; there was an international clamour to lift them. Had that happened, a Saddam Hussein who successfully defied the US would have become a permanent menace to the entire Middle East.

So the option facing the US then was not a simple one between war and peace, but between one war and a series of smaller military confrontations over a longer period. It is not evident which option would have been the better one.

Paradoxically, the biggest charge against the US is that, once it decided to use force in order to protect its influence in the region, it refused to act as a true imperial power. The military operation itself was short, and brilliantly conducted. However, Washington failed to realise that once it conquered an entire country, it became responsible for everything - from the running of electricity or water, to the formation of a government.

Colonialism is not accomplished in half-measures; it is either done well, or better not undertaken at all.

But the US did worse: While refusing to act as a true colonial occupier, it also set itself impossible strategic objectives. The people who ordered the invasion genuinely believed that the removal of Saddam would unleash a democratic clamour throughout the Middle East. Instead, it produced a clutch of sectarian leaders, who exacerbated age-old enmities between the Shi'ites and the Sunnis.

[Tough love requires hard decisions.]

The US also believed that its action would awe the people of the Middle East. Nothing of the kind; the defiance from Iran and Syria only increased.

And far from combating terrorism, the Iraq war fuelled the largest increase in terrorist bloodshed and became the biggest recruiting agent for men of violence.

By every conceivable yardstick, therefore, the Iraq episode was a failure, and worse could be in the offing. Although the US will keep 50,000 troops inside Iraq, they will do nothing to prop up the country's government. The Kurds may carve up their separate state, leading to Iraq's disintegration. A functioning government is yet to be formed, five months after a general election. Iran is guaranteed to meddle in Iraq's internal affairs. And so may Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, the private firms which are now contracted to take over from the US military are unlikely to perform miracles. After all, America already spent US$700 billion (S$950 billion) on Iraq's 'reconstruction', to little practical effect.

The only consolation is that although the Iraq war did not enhance America's reputation, it did not result in total humiliation either. The US military learnt from its mistakes: the 'surge' ordered in 2007 helped reduce levels of violence, allowing American generals an opportunity to withdraw in an orderly fashion, and at the time of their own choosing. More importantly, Iraq has not dented America's determination to remain a global superpower.

True, President Obama is striking a more conciliatory tone. But the country still accounts for no less than half of global military spending, and an astonishing two-thirds of all the world's new research on weapons development.

And it is not about to lose its appetite for foreign interventions. As troops withdraw from Iraq, the number of American soldiers in Afghanistan is increasing. The US military is also weighing its options in Yemen. And Washington is determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear capability even if this means, eventually, the use of force.

The lessons of Iraq are enduring. The US is unlikely to consider the outright occupation of another state. Nor would any future American president be tempted by the idea that 'regime change' can be accomplished with just force. Nevertheless, the US will retain its mighty military machine, and the will to use it.

Some may find this a depressing prospect. Yet for many of the world's governments, the only worse alternative to a trigger-happy US is an isolationist America.

Far too many died in Iraq, for no purpose. Still, as US combat troops withdrew from the country over the weekend, some Iraqis turned out to wave them goodbye, with a tinge of regret.

People may criticise what the US does, yet few would disagree with the proposition that America remains the indispensable power.

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