Sunday, March 24, 2013

Obligatory Iraq Redux

With the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the US war in Iraq, many of my colleagues have been looking back at the last ten years and taking stock. My friend and colleague Steve Saideman does an excellent job of reconstructing his own thoughts and then examining them, so naturally I have to try to follow suit.

In that spirit, I went about trying to figure out what I actually thought (and wrote) at the time, and how well it did or didn't hold up. Like Steve, I didn't have a blog then, so there's no ready-made archive of stuff I wrote. I did oppose the war, which can be found on the record if you look hard enough - but that's not much of a stretch, since pretty much all IR scholars not being paid by the Bush administration felt the same way.

Here's a piece typical of what I wrote at the time - an op-ed that appeared in USA Today, titled "US Won't Get What It Wants".

That piece, and the notes from various public talks I gave at the time, tended to focus on three things:

• How many US soldiers will die? At the time, we were not that far removed from "Black Hawk Down" in Somalia and it was reasonable to suspect that any administration would suffer if there were high US casualties. This turned out not to be the case - Bush won re-election in 2004 (by a narrow margin, it's true) despite a war that had by voting time turned substantially south and was producing significant numbers of US casualties. Apparently, getting American soldiers killed doesn't extract much of a political price, at least for a Republican president.

• How many Iraqi civilians will die? This was an issue, I argued, not because Americans care (they didn't and don't) but because high Arab casualties would be the best recruitment drive al-Qaeda could want. The fear here was that high Iraqi casualties would generate greater sympathy for anti-American terrorists, leading to more anti-American terrorist attacks. This also turns out not so much to be true in the long run, as factions within Iraq have been far more interested in turning violence against each other than against, say, New Yorkers. That's not to say that there wasn't an increase in anti-American sentiment - but it was already pretty high before the invasion, so the increase may have been marginal. These days, people in the region (including in Iraq) have other issues to contend with; a substantial US withdrawal makes it harder to blame their ongoing problems on us. And the number and level of terrorist attacks since 9/11 has been pretty much in keeping with pre-9/11 history: few and far between, and not amounting to much on a strategic level.

• What will the ultimate outcome in Iraq be? The Bush administration argued that Iraq would be "freed" and democratized, and that a free & democratic Iraq would do more good for US interests than anything else we could possibly do in the region. I argued (see the above piece) that a democratic and stable Iraq was an extremely unlikely scenario, and that resources put towards such an end (if that were the goal) were likely to be wasted. This one I think I got pretty well on target: 10 years on there still isn't a stable government, there are still massive problems with refugees, human trafficking, a ruined infrastructure, and no more than an uneasy detente between the Kurds, the Shiites, and the Sunnis. Separatism in the north is still a very real and viable concern, and control over the oilfields still hasn't been clearly established. In short, Iraq is a mess and is likely to stay that way (with varying levels of violence and instability) for a while.

So after 10 years, the best summary I can suggest is this: our worst fears haven't been realized (massive new waves of anti-American terrorism), but it's hard to argue that the expenditure of resources (lives and money) was worth it (no WMD, no democracy in Iraq). We've learned some things about the US public (more casualty-acceptant than many thought; discussions of a "post-Vietnam politics" may have to give way to a "post-post-Vietnam politics"). And apparently, Colin Powell's "Pottery Barn rule" (You Break It, You Bought It) doesn't really work - 10 years on, Iraq is still decidedly broken but we're going to walk away anyway.

The real test of the future effects of all of this will be ... when? In future elections, will aggressive neo-conservatism play well? (probably not) Will this engender some caution in US foreign policy? Probably - but then, Iraq was an outlier, so perhaps what we will see is simply reversion to the mean. If we've buried the most aggressive neo-con ideas politically, that would be a good thing, though it hurts to have paid so much for the lesson.

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