Many people around the world are indulging in what the Germans call “schadenfreude”: pleasure at the suffering of others. The pleasure appears to be derived from the suffering the United States is enduring after four years of efforts to stabilize Iraq.
On one level, that reaction is predictable. Resentment of the wealthy and powerful is hardly new. But the US in the last few years has compounded this reaction by what it has done and how it has done it.
For some, it was the decision to go to war in Iraq; for others, it was Guantánamo and the perceived double standards of American justice. For still others, it was the lack of sustained effort to bring about peace between Israelis and Palestinians or US opposition to the International Criminal Court and to the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. The result is that anti-Americanism has grown in both reach and intensity.
Still, any satisfaction at the problems the US is undergoing in Iraq is shortsighted and sure to be short-lived.
Every government in the world has a stake in the future of Iraq and the stability of the Middle East. Terrorism bred in Iraq will not stay there. Those men and women who learn to make and detonate roadside bombs on the streets of Baghdad will ply their trade elsewhere in the region and beyond.
Terrorists who have tasted success in Iraq will increasingly turn on others. Expressions of anti-Americanism will provide no protection or immunity to governments or individuals who for good reason are not prepared to endorse the terrorists’ radical agendas.
War in Iraq will only exacerbate frictions between the country’s Sunni minority and Shia majority, and such frictions could well be replicated elsewhere where Sunnis and Shia live side by side. Even if not, the flight of millions of Sunni refugees will weaken the foundations of neighboring states, including Jordan. Continued fighting in Iraq could also lead to regional war. Turkey, for example, is poised to attack the Kurdish enclave in Iraq’s north.
It is also possible that resistance to Iranian efforts to dominate Iraq could lead to a wider conflict that draws in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and others. Such a conflict would threaten the vital flow of oil from the Middle East to the rest of the world.
Even without such a wider conflict, what happens in Iraq will affect the price of oil. Iraq is producing oil at levels below what it produced under Saddam Hussein, and has the potential to double or even triple output. Doing so would require significant investment, which in turn would require international confidence in Iraq’s future stability.
Absent such confidence, Iraq’s oil output will not approach its potential, which will only widen the gap between global supply and demand. Costly oil is a tax on the poor in developing countries and a source of inflation for the developed countries. It also provides resources to governments that in many cases are promoting foreign policies that are contrary to the interests of most other countries.
The rest of the world also has a stake in how the US emerges from Iraq. There is a real danger that a widely-perceived failure in Iraq could lead to a serious weakening of American domestic political support for an active international role, particularly difficult but necessary deployments of military force.
The alternative to a world shaped by a strong, confident, and engaged US is not likely to be a world that is peaceful, prosperous, and free. In strategic terms, no other country or group of countries has the capacity to replace the US. The alternative to a US-led global order is disorder, in which terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and economic protectionism are increasingly the norm.
This suggests, first, that governments should avoid public comments describing the American presence as an occupation or as lacking legitimacy, lest they make it more likely that the US departs Iraq entirely and leaves the country and its people to a terrible fate.
Second, countries should support Iraq’s government, despite its shortcomings. This means extending diplomatic recognition, including opening and maintaining embassies. It also requires providing financial help, ranging from debt forgiveness to investment, loans, and other forms of aid. There is also a moral and practical case for doing more to ease the plight of refugees and internally displaced persons.
Third, terrorism needs to be checked. This means doing everything possible to stop infiltration of terrorists into Iraq and rethinking support for militias. None of Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran, would benefit from sectarian conflict that grows into a regional war.
Finally, governments should consider contributing troops to help establish order, train the Iraqi police and military, and help Iraq guard its borders. As the US inevitably reduces its role, others should be prepared to step up, lest Iraq’s government falls and the Iraqi state fails.
The reality is that Iraq’s future is not assured even if these and similar measures are taken. Still, there is a big difference between an Iraq that struggles and one that implodes; between an Iraq that contributes to global energy security rather than undermining it; between a civil war and a regional war. It may be too late for the US to succeed in Iraq, but it is not too late for others to increase the odds that the US does not fail.