The Iraq War, 10 Years On: ‘Winners’ And ‘Losers’

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.

It may be still ‘too early to say’ what that legacy is, to paraphrase former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai in 1972 with reference to the Paris riots of 1968. Nevertheless, in a special feature published in Business Monitor Online today, we identify the biggest consequences of the Iraq War as things presently stand. We also identify ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. We use quote marks, because these terms are subjective and potentially ephemeral.

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. In other words, like the characters in the American TV drama ‘Lost’ in Season Six, we must ‘flash sideways’.

This is not an easy task.

Below are some of the takeaways from our feature article:

US (loser): Although the US swiftly overthrew Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, the war has taken a heavy toll on America in terms of thousands of troops and contractors killed, tens of thousands injured, and many suicides. There has also been a tremendous financial cost, and a loss of US prestige and popularity – at least initially. The US has also proved unable to set Iraq on a firmly pro-Western path. Although the US remains the world’s only superpower, it is war-weary due to wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and now far less able and willing to go to war in the event of a major global crisis.

Iraq (loser): Although Iraq is free of the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, this has come at the cost of at least 100,000 Iraqi lives, a quasi civil war between Shi’as and Sunnis, a multi-year long insurgency (there was a major terrorist attack in Baghdad today), and the devastation of the economy and public services. Moreover, critics say the country is drifting back to authoritarianism under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Although the Iraqi economy is rebounding, the country’s future looks highly uncertain. That said, Iraq’s Kurds have benefited by becoming more autonomous and more prosperous.

Iran (winner): Iraq was a traditional counterweight to Iran in the Gulf region, and the weakness of post-Saddam Iraq has allowed Tehran to bolster its influence in its neighbour. Iran’s geopolitical strength rose over the past decade, overall. However, Iran’s ‘victory’ rests of fragile foundations, because its rising power and alleged nuclear programme could increase the likelihood of Israeli airstrikes against it – especially if a hardliner is elected president of Iran in June. Furthermore, tighter sanctions against Iran are taking a heavy toll on its economy.

Turkey (winner): Turkey opposed the war, but has been able to take advantage of the new reality by developing close commercial ties with Iraq. It has also developed amicable relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq.

Arab world (neutral): The importance of the Iraq War for the Arab world has been superseded by the Arab Spring, which is still a work in progress. In our view, the Arab Spring would have happened regardless of the Iraq War.

Russia and China (winners): Russia and China vigorously opposed the Iraq War, mainly because of their concerns about state sovereignty and the fact that Saddam was sympathetic to their interests. Nevertheless, both countries have benefited geopolitically from seeing the US bogged down in long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These wars have left the US less willing and able to challenge Russian and Chinese interests in the former Soviet Union and Asia-Pacific realms, respectively. The Obama administration’s professed ‘pivot towards Asia’ is an acknowledgement that it perceives itself to have neglected Asia during a decade of involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What Does The Future Hold?

Despite this sober assessment, we caution against assuming a negative future for the US and Iraq. The US was able to recover strategically after defeat in Vietnam in the 1970s and went on to win the Cold War in the 1980s and see off the Japanese economic challenge in the 1990s. It can recover geopolitically, in time.

Meanwhile, although Iraq is in a precarious position, this is hardly unique. Countries as diverse as Cambodia, Colombia, Indonesia, and the former Yugoslavia have all recovered from years of strife to achieve greater prosperity.