When Saddam Hussein’s army defeated Iran in 1988, the Iraqi dictator filled a huge square in downtown Baghdad with the captured debris–vehicles, artillery and other equipment–that his forces had won on the battlefields of the war. To those who saw the display, it was a stunning symbol of Iraq’s new power. When President George H.W. Bush liberated Kuwait from that same Iraqi army in 1991, he held a victory parade on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington to commemorate the war. America, it appeared, would be the dominant power in the Gulf for the foreseeable future. The Iraqi government has now celebrated the withdrawal of American troops from its cities. It is unlikely there will be any such displays of triumph in America when the latest Gulf war finally comes to an end.
For two decades, from the end of the Iran-Iraq war until last year, Iraq played a disproportional role in American thinking about the Middle East. At first this was a consequence of Saddam’s victory over Iran (a victory we had helped engineer) and his lust for further conquest in Kuwait. By the late 1990s, however, Saddam was little more than a nuisance in the region. Yet American politicians turned him into an evil regional mastermind, some even blaming him for the tragedy of 9/11 in a blatant lie to further their own plans to get even with him for his arrogance in thumbing his nose at Washington.
The withdrawal of American combat troops from Iraq’s cities is the beginning of the end of this war, or at least the American part of it. So too, hopefully, it will mark the end of an era of over-sizing Iraq in American policy. Most Americans long ago came to understand that the war was the wrong battle in the wrong place with the wrong foe. They understand the cost in lives and resources was disproportionate to the gains. So, too, was the damage to American prestige and credibility, from the WMD fiasco to Abu Ghraib. What is perhaps most remarkable, however, is just how little the war contributed, despite that enormous cost, to America’s four key goals in the Middle East.
Beginning with energy security, during the war in Iraq the price of oil skyrocketed and then fell back to earth. Iraq had virtually nothing to do with either trend. The war did not produce energy security for Americans. Saudi Arabia, not Iraq, remains the key to oil production levels. Whatever happens in Iraq after the final American withdrawal will probably only have marginal impact on the global energy system.
Nor did the defeat of Saddam bring any closer a peace between Israel and the Arabs, as some of the war’s boosters had promised it would. Indeed, the new American-installed Shi’ite government in Iraq did not even attend the American peace conference in Annapolis in 2007, a stunning statement of its lack of gratitude toward President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Whatever happens in Iraq after the last American soldier leaves is also likely to have little or no impact on the search for Arab-Israel peace.
Al-Qaeda was a big winner in Iraq from 2003 to 2006; then its local franchise overplayed its hand and was badly weakened. But much more importantly, the core al-Qaeda leadership was able to survive and then prosper in Pakistan and Afghanistan because of the diversion of American focus and resources to Iraq. The Iraq war probably saved Osama bin Laden from death or capture in 2003 had we kept on his trail.
Now al-Qaeda proclaims that it helped convince “the US enemy to decide to escape and abandon Iraq”, as its chief Afghan leader recently said on al-Jazeerah. He is probably correct: al-Qaeda’s bloody pursuit of civil war did sour American views of the war. After America leaves Iraq the local Iraqi al-Qaeda branch may revive somewhat but it will always be a secondary threat to that posed by the core leadership, especially now that they have built such a strong base in South Asia. And it can never hope to dominate a country composed of Shi’ites who hate Sunni jihadists.
Finally, the Iraq war removed Iran’s deadliest enemy, Saddam, and contributed to the perception in the region that Iran and the Shi’ites are on the rise. That perception, while always somewhat exaggerated, has become a powerful idea in the area. The effort of every American president since Jimmy Carter to contain the Iranians was undermined by George W. Bush’s folly.
It will take great care by President Barack Obama not to allow that problem to get worse. Iran has the advantages of culture, geography and history in playing a role in Iraq’s future. The recent upheaval in Iran may help by diverting Iranian energy inward, but we cannot count on that. Vice President Joe Biden has been given the responsibility of working with the Iraqi authorities as we depart to try to prevent a power struggle in Baghdad that could further open the door to Iranian influence. It will be a tough task. Their quarrels are deeply rooted and not prone to easy fixes.
Obama rightly saw the Iraq war was a mistake from the beginning. He saw Iraq was neither the key to our interests in the Middle East nor the core of our problems. His challenge now is to stay on course and exit Iraq without Iran (or al-Qaeda) gaining undue advantage. Iraqi nationalism should help, as Arabs and Kurds do not want Persians to dominate their future any more than they wanted Americans to do so.