The Iraq War 10 Years On: 'Winners' And 'Losers'

BMI View: On the 10th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, we assess its legacy and the 'winners' and 'losers'. Although the Iraq War was undoubtedly a major geopolitical event for the US and the Middle East, it has been superseded by the 'Arab Spring', which itself is still a work in progress.

It is now 10 years since the United States invaded Iraq and overthrew the regime of Saddam Hussein, and about 15 months since Washington completed the withdrawal of its troops from Iraq. The Iraq War was a landmark event for the US and the Middle East, and the tenth anniversary of its commencement is an opportune time to assess its legacy. Perhaps it is still 'too early to say' what the legacy is, to paraphrase former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai in 1972 with reference to the Paris riots of 1968, but we can at least determine several consequences of the Iraq War as things presently stand.

One of the greatest difficulties in assessing the legacy of a historical event is that the observer must not only compare the present world with the status quo ante, but also the world as it would have been had the event in question not taken place. Thus, when examining the legacy of the Iraq War, we must not only compare the Middle East in 2013 with that of 2003, but 2003 with the hypothetical Middle East of 2013 had the war not taken place. This is not an easy task.

It is also worth mentioning that although the Iraq War officially began on March 20, 2003, the US and the UK had been bombing Iraq repeatedly since the 1990s, and had been hoping for an internal coup against Saddam Hussein for many years before the invasion. In fact, the Iraq War must be seen as a direct follow-up to the 1991 Gulf War, which expelled Iraqi invasion forces from Kuwait but left Saddam in power. The decision not to proceed to Baghdad was in line with the UN Security Council Resolution that only authorised the US to restore Kuwait's sovereignty, but many American officials later felt that the US had missed a golden opportunity to topple Saddam in 1991. From this point of view, the 2003 war was about unfinished business.

US Motivations For War

At the time of its invasion of Iraq, the United States was already militarily engaged in Afghanistan as part of its post-9/11 global 'war on terror' - although the Afghan war had not yet become a quagmire that required tens of thousands of troops to fight. Washington thus felt that it had sufficient resources to wage war in Iraq. The George W. Bush administration's official justification for war was to rid Iraq of its alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD). In addition, it clearly aimed to remove Saddam and his sons from power. Although Saddam and Iraq were arguably well contained by the US-UK no-fly zones and sanctions, Saddam's ability to remain in office after 1991 and defy the US made Washington look weak. Therefore, many in the Bush administration used America's sense of vulnerability after 9/11 to justify the use of force to oust Saddam. Indeed, some hawkish policymakers tried to link Saddam to al-Qaeda and the 9/11 attacks in the US.

Washington's ulterior motives remain less clear, and hotly debated. At the very least, the Bush administration seemed to believe that it could reinvent post-Saddam Iraq as a pro-Western state, perhaps in a similar manner to Japan and Germany after World War II. Such an Iraq could potentially have served as a US base in the Gulf region, at a time when America's relations with Saudi Arabia were under severe strain, due to the fallout from 9/11. At the time, some liberal commentators, although seemingly averse to war, hoped that Iraq could emerge as a democracy and become a beacon to the authoritarian Arab world. To them, virtually anything was preferable to Saddam. Naturally, to many anti-war activists, it was all about oil.

US's Initial Success Led To Long Insurgency

Although the US and UK's military forces swiftly captured Baghdad and deposed Saddam, the collapse of his regime led to chaos, a multi-year long insurgency, and a quasi-civil war between the newly empowered Shi'a majority and the traditionally dominant Sunni minority elite. In addition, the failure to discover WMD in Iraq was damaging for the US and UK's reputations, because it meant that they had either acted on bad intelligence or through deliberate deception of the public. In addition, no substantial link between Saddam and al-Qaeda was demonstrated. Meanwhile, the Bush administration's insistence on pursuing the war despite widespread opposition around the world led to a substantial rise in anti-Americanism, and major strains with allies such as France, Germany, Turkey, and others.

Winners And Losers

It is difficult to identify clear cut winners and losers of the Iraq War. In many ways, virtually all affected parties suffered one way or another, although some certainly suffered more than others.

United States - Loser, but still the global superpower: The US has emerged as a loser in strategic terms. Its only real successes were the removal of Saddam in 2003 and the implementation of the troop surge in 2007 that ultimately restored a degree of stability to some of the more restive areas of the country (which had been stable before the invasion). Today, Iraq has a nominally democratic government, but there are concerns that it is drifting back towards authoritarianism under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Meanwhile, Iraq has failed to become a state aligned with American interests. Iraq is widely believed to be under heavy Iranian influence and refused to let US troops remain after December 2011. At the same time, the Iraq War cost the lives of around 4,500 American troops (and the lives of around 3,400 US contractors), 32,000 injuries, countless suicides, and more than US$2trn worth of expenditures. As a result of its experience in Iraq, as well as the ongoing war in Afghanistan, the US public is war weary and the economy is suffering continued and tremendous fiscal pressures. Furthermore, the Iraq War did not aid the US in its 'war on terror', given that the main battlefronts in that conflict have been the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and Yemen, where the US is mostly using drones rather than ground troops. If anything, the surge in anti-Americanism may have given terrorists more cause to act against US interests.

Overall, the US appears far weaker now than before the Iraq War. Had the US not gone to war in Iraq, it would probably be militarily stronger today and in somewhat better fiscal health. Saddam Hussein would probably still be in power, but as an ageing septuagenarian who would be contained geopolitically and focused on internal succession rather than external provocations.

Iraq - Loser, but on the mend, with major risks: Although Iraq was a highly repressive police state under Saddam with a terrible human rights record and a weak economy under sanctions, it was nevertheless stable. When Saddam's regime collapsed, chaos followed, as the US authorities dissolved the Iraqi army and purged the bureaucracy of perceived Saddam loyalists. The chaos paved the way for an anti-US insurgency and fighting between Shi'as and Sunnis. Overall, at least one hundred thousand Iraqis died (and perhaps many more), and millions were displaced. The Iraqi economy and public services were devastated. It is hard to imagine these developments happening had Saddam remained in power. On the other hand, it is also difficult to imagine a significant recovery of the Iraqi economy, pre-war, had Saddam ruled for another decade. Whether the Iraq War was 'worth it' is something that only individual Iraqis can say - and they may never come to consensus on the issue. As of March 2013, security remains a major concern for Iraqis, and the country continues to face acts of terrorism in which tens of people are killed at a time. There are also fears that the Sunni-Shi'a violence in neighbouring Syria could exacerbate sectarian tensions in Iraq.

That said, Iraq's Kurds, who mainly live in the north of the country, can be considered winners. Although Iraqi Kurdistan was already broadly self-governing in the Saddam era, thanks to the US-UK no-fly zone protecting it, the region has expanded its autonomy since the fall of Saddam and has been relatively peaceful and prosperous. Whether it stays that way will depend on whether the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) can reach agreement with Baghdad on the fundamental nature of federalism in Iraq, particularly over the appropriate way to distribute the region's oil wealth. If not, a new conflict could follow. Tensions have certainly been rising in recent months.

Iran - Winner, but on shaky foundations: There is no doubt that Iran's geopolitical strength increased after the overthrow of Saddam. Iraq under Saddam had long been a counterweight to Iran in the Gulf region, as evidenced by the fact that the two countries waged a brutal war from 1980-1988 for regional dominance. During the 1990s, the US pursued a 'dual containment' strategy against Iraq and Iran, with the former subject to sanctions and bombing raids, and the latter under embargo. However, this equilibrium broke down when the post-Saddam Iraq proved too weak to govern itself, thus providing an opportunity for Iran to exert growing influence within the country. This was mainly achieved through Tehran's strong ties with Iraq's long suppressed Shi'a majority. Had Saddam remained in power, it is doubtful that Iran would have been able to exercise such influence.

Although Iran has emerged as a geopolitical winner, its rising regional influence and alleged nuclear weapons programme have raised concerns to such a high degree that Israeli or US airstrikes against the Islamic Republic cannot be precluded. Furthermore, the international sanctions in place to constrain Tehran's atomic activities are increasingly damaging the Iranian economy. So, while Iran has gained geopolitically, it continues to suffer economically.

Turkey - Winner: Turkey opposed the Iraq War and denied the US access to its territory to stage its invasion. Turkey has seen its prestige in the Arab world rise over the past decade under Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Turkey has benefited from much closer economic ties with the new Iraq. Turkey remains concerned that Iraqi Kurdistan could eventually push for independence from Iraq, thus fuelling separatism among Turkey's own Kurdish population. However, a significant warming of relations between Ankara and the KRG has fostered strong and growing economic ties, thus benefiting Turkish businesses.

Arab World - Neutral amid unrelated massive changes: Despite widespread concerns in March 2003 that the invasion of Iraq would radicalise the Arab world and trigger Islamist revolutions, or hopes of others that the democratisation of Iraq would lead to a 'domino effect' of democratic revolutions, neither scenario played out as imagined. It is certainly true that the invasion led to a surge in anti-Americanism, but there were no earth-shaking protests in Arab capitals following the fall of Baghdad. It is also true that since 2011 several Arab countries have experienced popular uprisings against their authoritarian regimes. However, it is virtually impossible to link the Arab Spring with the Iraq War. The Arab Spring was triggered by rising popular pressures for more accountable, less corrupt governments, and by socio-economic factors such as a demographic youth bulge and perceived lack of economic opportunities. Iraq has not been an issue in the Arab Spring.

Russia - Winner through US quagmire: Russia vigorously opposed the Iraq War, and deeply resented the way the US moved to topple a long-standing ally of Moscow. However, in retrospect, the Kremlin's stance seems misguided, for Russia has benefited geopolitically from having the US bogged down militarily in Iraq and Afghanistan. This has essentially left the US with little resources to counteract the reassertion of Russian influence in the former Soviet Union. Meanwhile, the US is too exhausted to move against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, another Russian ally. Had the US not invaded Iraq, Washington would have had greater confidence to challenge or deter Russia's invasion of Georgia in 2008 - at least indirectly.

China - Winner through exemption: Like Russia, China opposed the Iraq War, mainly because Beijing objects to external interventions against sovereign states. China also feared the consequences of war for international oil supplies, especially given its growing dependency on petroleum imports from the Gulf. Nevertheless, China has also benefited geopolitically from the US struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan, which meant that Washington was less able to concentrate on politico-military affairs in East Asia. For example, during his presidential campaign and the early part of his presidency, George W. Bush portrayed China as a 'strategic competitor' of the US and seemed to be moving to contain China. However, after 9/11 and the start of the Iraq War, Washington developed generally close relations with Beijing. Perhaps this would have happened anyway, given China's rising importance in the global economy, but the US's distractions in Afghanistan and Iraq left China better positioned to concentrate on its own economic development and shore up its economic influence in Asia, rather than competing aggressively with the US.

What Next?The US is 'down', geopolitically and economically, but far from out. The Iraq War may be over for the US, but it is still fighting in Afghanistan, at least until 2015, when all or most American troops are to be withdrawn. After two decade-long ground wars, the US will not want to send land forces abroad in significant numbers for a long time to come. Consequently, we could see a period of relative geopolitical introversion by the US, comparable to that which followed its withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973 and the fall of South Vietnam in 1975. The late 1970s was a nadir for US foreign policy, which saw several setbacks in Iran, Afghanistan, and the Horn of Africa. Nevertheless, the US enjoyed a strategic revival under Ronald Reagan and still went on to win the Cold War. Thus, the US should not be counted 'out'. It is still by far the most powerful individual actor on the world stage, and the only country with a global military presence.

Iraq remains unstable, and could suffer further from continued spillover effects from neighbouring Syria, which is in a state of civil war. Meanwhile, as noted, Iran's geopolitical ascent since the Iraq War rests on fragile foundations.

Although the Iraq War was a major geopolitical event in the 2000s, its importance has been superseded by the Arab Spring, which is still a work in progress, and appears to have far greater consequences for the Middle East.


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