Has the high price of the Iraq invasion has kept the US out of Syria?
The Middle East has seen dramatic changes in the decade since the invasion of Iraq. Accepted wisdom about the region has crumbled with the Arab Spring and it is now worth asking if this new perspective has changed our perceptions of the Iraq invasion and its catastrophic aftermath, not least because it may have implications for Syria, a country spiralling into chaos.
The worst type of history is that inspired by political rivalry. The Iraq story is no exception; the received wisdom is largely shaped by Democrats vilifying the legacy of George W. Bush. The result is that most of the criticism of US policy in Iraq focuses on the invasion itself and its aftermath, rather than including US policy before the invasion.
The Obama administration’s ethos is largely shaped by this. The Bush administration’s neo-conservative ideology of intervention and regime change has been followed by the Democrats’ policies of engagement and deal-making with regimes such as Bashar al-Assad’s in Syria.
A broader analysis of the effect of the US invasion would have to go back to the 1980s. Under the banner of realpolitik and ‘dual containment’ – of both Iran and Iraq – the US supported Saddam in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, which left perhaps 1.5 million dead. The US turned a blind eye to such crimes as the Anfal campaign of ethnic cleansing and the chemical weapons attack on Halabja against the Kurds, and campaigns against the Marsh Arabs.
In 1991, after driving Iraqi troops out of Kuwait, the US military did not try to topple Saddam. When Shias in the south and Kurds in the north rose up, mistakenly assuming US protection and support, they were massacred by Saddam. The US did not come to their aid, but simply imposed no-fly zones.
The same US mentality produced the sanctions that impoverished the Iraqi people and kept Saddam in power until 2003, with hundreds of thousands more dead as a result. Counterfactual questions are necessarily speculative, but it is worth asking whether the Sunni-Shia divide would be as deep as it is now had there not been those eight years of war between Iran and Iraq and those repeated massacres. Would the Iraqi transition have been smoother if Saddam has been removed by an ‘illegal’ regime change in 1991?
Sectarianism, extremism and indeed terrorism are the product of the environment that existed before the invasion. It is not just the removal of Saddam that caused chaos in Iraq.
Much of the received wisdom from that time is worth reconsidering ten years on: Do the Arabs really ‘hate us’ – to borrow the phrase used endlessly in America? If anything, Arabs on the street, especially young people, seems now to have aspirations closer to American values of freedom and democracy.
In fact, the US may be stronger now in the region than it was when it was allying itself to oppressive regimes. It is obviously more popular with the youth who adopt US pop culture and dress. American soft power is possibly more effective than the old precarious balancing act to keep the Arab dictators in power. Post-colonial hang-ups about intervention seem to have dissipated with the Arab Spring.
More questions can be raised. How much of the chaos that followed the removal of Saddam was caused by the regimes that the US was ‘engaging’ with? Syria and Iran openly promoted the chaos; but Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Yemen and even the UAE sheikhdoms didn’t help. In invading Iraq, was the US fighting against the whole regional system?
Did the fall of Saddam break the myth about the power of such dictatorships? It is not unrealistic to think that Saddam’s trial could have planted the idea that dictators may face a reckoning in the end. How much did this contribute to the Arab Spring? The Berlin Wall did not fall because somebody kicked it: the ideas propping it up collapsed much earlier, with the Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms in Russia. The idea that the Arab Spring was triggered by a self-immolating street trader in an obscure Tunisian town is just not credible.
These questions must contend with the powerful image of US defeat in Iraq promoted by partisan politics in the Washington. The troop surge of 2007 was opposed on partisan grounds: Hillary Clinton, the recently retired Secretary of State, her successor John Kerry, and Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, and Obama himself were all against any attempt to rescue Iraq – and with it Bush’s reputation.
When Pelosi visited Damascus in 2007, it was less out of love for Assad and more to spite Bush. The Obama administration invested political capital in engagement with Assad to prove that the Bush strategy in Iraq had been wrong. They invested so much that calling for regime change in Syria would now appear to vindicate Bush. US indecision is not only proving costly to Syria, but also to US allies such as Turkey and the Gulf states.
A future historian will have to weigh the balance between legality, morality and consequences. The consequences of US policies, not just after the invasion but also before it, would have to be compared. The intervention in Libya, which seems justifiable on moral grounds more than on legal ones, is said to have cost 6,800 dead and missing. In Syria, where there is no military intervention by the outside powers, more than ten times that number have died already.
A philosopher with an Iraqi background asks the rhetorical question: ‘A young man from the city of Al-Salt in Jordan decides to infiltrate Iraq and blow himself up in a book market together with a couple of hundred people. His family celebrate his martyrdom and people in the area congratulate them on that glory. Why is that the fault of George Bush?’
The US certainly bit off more than it could chew in Iraq, but this may have shaken the region out of stagnation that has dominated the lives of at least two generations. It may take another generation to be able to evaluate the true impact.