America’s Defeat in Iraq and Beyond

Patrick Seale

America’s nine-year adventure in Iraq is drawing to a humiliating close. President Barack Obama has said that “the last American soldiers will cross the border out of Iraq” on 31 December. Most Iraqis -- those who have survived the nightmare of the past decade -- will heave a great sigh of relief, but healing the wounds of their stricken country will be neither quick nor easy.
Nor, it appears, will the United States be gone from Iraq altogether. Some 16,000 U.S. personnel are due to remain behind in the form of diplomats, Defence Department experts, military and police trainers, and a large number of contractors, of whom some 5,000 will be armed to protect the U.S. mission. They will provide attractive targets for anti-American militants of various sorts.
History’s verdict on America’s Iraqi war is likely to be severe. The United States may not have suffered a military defeat in the conventional sense of the word, but the damage to its reputation, moral stature and political influence is irreparable. It may take a generation to set right.
The Iraq war will be seen as a landmark in the downward slide of the United States from its once pre-eminent place in the community of nations. After the Soviet collapse in 1991, the United States was the world’s unchallenged hyper-power. Today, twenty years later, it seems to have lost its way. Even its closest friends look at it askance and wonder what has become of it.
The invasion was launched on fraudulent premises; the occupation grossly ill-managed; the cost in human lives and treasure immense. Some 4,500 U.S. soldiers died in Iraq and tens of thousands more were wounded. The cost to the American taxpayer has been estimated at $700 billion and upwards. The economist Joseph Stiglitz believes the ultimate cost will be $3 trillion. As for the Iraqi victims of the American onslaught, they have died in the hundreds of thousands, while another four to five million have been internally displaced or driven abroad as refugees. The material damage to the country, including its vital oil industry, will take decades to repair.
America’s war released sectarian demons in Iraq, triggering a savage civil war between Shi‘is and Sunnis. This has heightened tensions between these two Islamic communities and their various offshoots in countries as far afield as Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen. Once a strong and united country, Iraq is now a weak and querulous federation. The Kurds have broken loose and enjoy something close to independence under their own regional government, while Sunni Arabs, outraged at the discrimination they suffer at the hands of the Shi‘i Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki, are threatening secession in a northern province around Irbil.
An unintended consequence of America’s war was to put the Shi‘is in power in Baghdad, thereby opening the door to Iranian influence; and in the wider Gulf area, the destruction of Iraq overturned the regional balance of power to Iran’s advantage. Saudi Arabia, the Arab world’s leading Sunni power, is understandably perturbed. Saudi-Iranian rivalry is now intense while relations between Saudi Arabia and Shia-led Iraq are close to breaking point.
To ease the tensions, Qatar’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Shaykh Hamad bin Jassem -- a leading mediator of regional conflicts -- has proposed that Saudi Arabia and Iran hold talks over American allegations of an Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington. Few experts believe the American accusations have much substance, but they have served to destabilise an already volatile region. Overall, therefore, the geopolitical costs of the Iraqi war have been very great indeed.
Not the least astonishing aspect of the Iraqi adventure is that the United States has made no systematic attempt to establish who was responsible for the catastrophe. No one has been held to account.
The prime responsibility must rest with former President George W. Bush, together with his Vice-President Dick Cheney, and his Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. After Al-Qaeda’s devastating attacks on the American mainland on 11 September 2001, their overwhelming urge was to teach the Arabs a lesson about American power which they would never forget. Cheney may have dreamed of extending American control over Iraq’s oil, while Rumsfeld may have dreamed of setting up American bases in Iraq from which to dominate the region.
However, the prime architects of the Iraqi war were not Bush and his close colleagues but the neoconservatives -- Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith at the Pentagon, David Wurmser in the Vice-President’s office, Richard Perle, chairman of the Defence Policy Board, and many others embedded in the administration and in right-wing think tanks. In seeking to destroy Iraq, their principal aim was to protect Israel from any possible attack from the east.
A study group chaired by Perle, and including Feith and Wurmser, produced a strategic paper for Israel’s incoming Likud Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Notoriously, it was entitled “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm.” It recommended that a key Israeli objective should be the removal of Saddam Hussein. The neocons then set themselves the task of getting America to do the job instead.
Intelligence about Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction was forged. Skilful propaganda roused American opinion in favour of war. Iraq was attacked, occupied and fatally weakened. Israel’s interests were satisfied, but the human, financial and political costs for the United States were beyond measure.
On coming to office, President Barack Obama seemed determine to throw off George Bush’s legacy, tame the pro-Israeli neocons, and change course. His Cairo speech of June 2009 was a call for friendship with the Arab and Muslim world and a pledge of American support for the Palestinians. As recently as September 2010, he was still expressing the hope that an independent Palestinian state would emerge within a year.
But pressure from Israel and its American supporters have forced him to eat his words. He has had to sabotage his own policies. He has abdicated America’s once dominant role in the failed peace process and now opposes Palestinian statehood. He has allowed Israel’s far-right government to dictate American policy in the Middle East. This is a strategic blunder of historic proportions. How are the mighty fallen?
The outcome has been to destroy Obama’s reputation and isolate the United States. This week 107 countries defied the United States and voted to admit Palestine to UNESCO. The United States promptly suspended its funding for the organisation. But pandering to Israel’s fanatical settlers and their expansionist ambitions will speed the decline of America’s regional influence and makes Israel less, rather than more, secure.
Can America chance course? Nothing is less likely. It is widely predicted that if the Republican Mitt Romney wins the White House, the pro-Israeli neocons will be back in power in Washington. Their target this time will be Iran. Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East. His latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press). Copyright © 2011 Patrick Seale – distributed by Agence Global