BERLIN – The United States has waged three wars since Al Qaeda’s terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001: against Al Qaeda, in Afghanistan, and in Iraq. The first two were forced upon the US, but the third was the result of a willful, deliberate decision by former President George W. Bush, taken on ideological grounds and, most likely, for personal reasons as well.
Had Bush, former Vice President Dick Cheney, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and their neocon allies been forthright about their intentions – to bring down Saddam Hussein by means of war, thereby creating a new, pro-Western Middle East – they never would have received the support of Congress and the American public. Their vision was both naive and reckless.
So a threat – Iraqi weapons of mass destruction – had to be created. As we now know, the threat was based on lies (aluminum tubes for a nuclear-weapons program, for example, meetings between the 9/11 plot leader, Mohamed Atta, and Iraqi officials in Prague, and even glaring forgeries like supposed Iraqi orders for yellowcake uranium from Niger).
Such were the justifications for a war that was to claim the lives of almost 5,000 US soldiers and more than 100,000 Iraqis. Add to that the millions more who were injured and displaced from their homes, as well as the destruction of one of the world’s oldest Christian communities. For this, the US alone spent up to $3 trillion.
Bush’s war against Saddam did radically change the Middle East, though not as he envisaged. For starters, if the US had set out to destabilize Iraq, its efforts could hardly have been more successful: ten years later, the country’s viability as a single state has never been in greater doubt.
With Saddam gone, Iraq’s Shia majority assumed power after a horrendous civil war, leaving Iraq’s defeated Sunnis longing for revenge and waiting for an opportunity to regain their ascendancy. The Kurds in the north cleverly and adeptly used the window of opportunity that opened before them to seize de facto independence, though the key question of control over the northern city of Kirkuk remains a ticking time bomb. And all are fighting for as large a share of Iraq’s enormous oil and gas reserves as they can get.
Taking stock of “Operation Iraqi Freedom” a decade later, the Financial Times concluded that the US won the war, Iran won the peace, and Turkey won the contracts. I can only agree.
In political terms, Iran is the big winner of Bush’s war. Its number-one enemy, Saddam, was dispatched by its number-two enemy, the United States, which presented Iran with a golden opportunity to extend its influence beyond its western border for the first time since 1746.
Bush’s war, with its poor strategic vision and worse planning, increased Iran’s regional standing in a way that the country was unlikely ever to have achieved on its own. The war enabled Iran to assert itself as the dominant power in the Gulf and the wider region, and its nuclear program serves precisely these ambitions.
The losers in the region are also clear: Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, which feel existentially threatened, and have come to regard their own Shia minorities as an Iranian fifth column. They have a point: with the Shia in power in Iraq, Iran will seek suitable opportunities to use local Shia populations as proxies to assert its hegemonic claims. This is what is fueling Bahrain’s domestic turmoil, beyond the Shia majority’s local grievances.
Leaving aside the lies, fictions, and questions of morality and personal responsibility, the critical mistake of America’s war against Iraq was the absence of either a viable plan or the necessary strength to enforce a Pax Americana in the Middle East. America was powerful enough to destabilize the existing regional order, but not powerful enough to establish a new one. The US neocons, with their wishful thinking, grossly underestimated the scale of the task at hand – unlike the revolutionaries in Iran, who quickly moved in to reap what the US had sowed.
The Iraq war also marked the beginning of America’s subsequent relative decline. Bush squandered a large part of America’s military strength in Mesopotamia for an ideological fiction – strength that is sorely missed in the region ten years later. And there is no alternative to be seen without America.
While there is no causal link between the Iraq war and the Arab revolutions that began in December 2010, their implications have combined in a malign manner. Since the war, the bitter enmities between Al Qaeda and other Salafist and Sunni Arab nationalist groups have given way to cooperation or even mergers. This, too, is a result brought about by the American neocon masterminds.
And the regional destabilization triggered by the Arab revolutions is increasingly converging on Iraq, mainly via Syria and Iran. Indeed, the gravest current danger to the region is a process of national disintegration emanating from the Syrian civil war, which is threatening to spread not only to Iraq, but also to Lebanon and Jordan.
What makes Syria’s civil war so dangerous is that the players on the ground are no longer its driving forces. Rather, the war has become a struggle for regional dominance between Iran on one side and Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey on the other. As a result, the Middle East is at risk of becoming the Balkans of the twenty-first century – a decline into regional chaos that began with, and was largely the result of, the US-led invasion ten years ago.