On the third anniversary of the liberation of Iraq, while Iraqis are increasingly enmeshed in a sectarian-driven civil war, Americans ask: What have we accomplished in Iraq? Are we or the Iraqis safer, happier, more secure, at peace with the neighbors and themselves? Or have we broken the bonds that kept Iraq together, and now threaten to destabilize the region that we hoped Iraq would lead into "a new world order"? (The term may have been coined by George H.W. Bush, forty-first president of the United States, but it surely fits son George W., the forty-third president.)
How you measure success or failure in Iraq depends on what you believe the goals of the Bush administration were in 2003. If the goal was to remove Saddam Hussein and the Baathist regime that had ruled the republic of fear for more than three decades, then Iraq is a success, at least thus far. If you believe the war was about eliminating Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and alleged terrorist links, then Iraq is a success. If you believe that the war was about the creation of a democratic Iraq in which people are free to elect their government, develop transparent political institutions, adopt a constitution and express opinions openly, then Iraq is part success, part failure. But if you believe the war was about creating an effective government that represents the interests of all the people of Iraq, the rule of law, and protection of civil liberties, minority and human rights, then Iraq is a failure, at least thus far.
Failure can come in several forms: Iraq breaks apart, hangs together as a weak confederation of mini-states, or is once again brought under the control of a strong leader, party, or militia. Whatever the outcome, Iraqis will accuse the US of siding with one side or the other and interfering in their sovereign affairs. The neighbors already accuse Washington of failing to understand the nature of politics in Iraq and deliberately allowing Shi'ite extremist factions to dominate the government in order to keep Iraq--and themselves--in disarray.
American policy in this region remains based on maintaining Iraq's territorial unity and political integrity, preserving the regional status quo and access to reliable energy sources, and denying any neighbor's hegemonic, nuclear ambitions. Failure would not only place these goals at risk, it would have far-reaching consequences for American power projection in the Greater Middle East. Failure would:
Undermine the stability of friendly regimes that depend on American commitments to maintain a balance of power in the region. Jordan and Saudi Arabia would be at greater risk, and Turkey might feel compelled to intervene in a now independent Kurdish state.
Raise questions about American credibility and willingness to commit to friendly regimes' long-term security. In a major crisis, the Gulf Arabs will support the US, but they will also question the wisdom of relying solely on the US for their protection. Without a Sunni-led Baghdad or a determined American backer, other options--China, Pakistan or India perhaps--may look more attractive.
Give Iran opportunity to expand its "benign hegemony" further over the region with impunity. This could lead to a larger Iranian political, military and intelligence engagement in Iraq and the ability to project power into Syria, Lebanon, and the Gulf in defense of embattled Shi'ite communities.
Weaken US efforts to broker an end to Israeli-Palestinian confrontations, counter the spread of weapons of mass destruction, or maintain cooperation in the war on terrorism, and send jitters through the oil market.
Boost al-Qaeda's appeal to recruits and ability to intimidate the weak, especially if Iraq becomes a safe haven and launching pad for region-wide operations.
If Iraq somehow survives intact, everyone will take credit. If it fails, the blame will be placed squarely on the US doorstep. The costs of failure will be measured in the increased risk of wider Sunni-Shi'ite conflict, the undermining of regimes long friendly to the US, and the prospect of jihadists controlling whatever Sunni rump state emerges in the former Iraq. More worrisome, failure accompanied by American withdrawal will reaffirm for many that domestic politics in an election year can reshape international commitments and security strategies regardless of international conditions.
The consequences for Iraq will be far worse. Failure accompanied by American military disengagement will signal the beginning of all-out civil war. To date, religious extremists, nationalists, disgruntled Baathists and military officers and the remnants of Saddam's terror squads have scrimmaged while the Kurds watch. Failure and withdrawal will most likely mean war in which Arab fights Arab for territorial control of a new Iraq under one leader, faction, clan, sect, or party. Nothing will be sacred or safe, not even an independent or autonomous Kurdistani regional authority.- Published 23/3/2006 © bitterlemons-international.org