Fifteen years ago, we were still in the early stages of the American invasion and occupation of Iraq, “the war that would change everything”. Looking at the Middle East today, I feel an overwhelming sadness as I consider the far-reaching and devastating impact that the Iraq war has had on my country and the region and its people.
Neo-conservatives had been aggressively pushing the administration of former United States president George W. Bush to launch a war against Iraq, beginning immediately after the horrific terrorist attacks on the US on September 11, 2001. They argued that America needed to forcefully respond to the attacks in order to demonstrate that it was not to be trifled with. A decisive show of strength, they claimed, was necessary to clearly establish America’s hegemony and to forestall any move towards multi-polarity in the post-Cold War era.
It bears repeating that the war was based on lies — and by that I don’t mean the lies about Saddam Hussain’s nuclear programme or his connection to the 9/11 terrorists. Rather, the more insidious lies were: That the “war would be a cake walk”; that it wouldn’t require a significant troop commitment or expenditure of resources; that it would be over quickly; that America would be greeted as liberators; that democracy would take hold in Iraq; and that the entire Middle East would be transformed.
Fifteen years later, only one of these claims turned out to be true: The region would be transformed, but it was not the kind of transformation envisioned by the neo-cons.
Again, it bears repeating just how devastating that war has been. The war itself exposed the deep fissures in Iraqi society, while the US occupation’s uninformed bungling only served to exacerbate these divides. With Iraq’s army and ministries dismantled, the country fell into chaos with competing sectarian militias unleashing a civil war. This resulted in the massive displacement of civilians — millions of whom became refugees or internally displaced — and the decimation of vulnerable religious minority communities. All of this occurred on Bush’s watch.
An additional tragic consequence of the war was the spread of extremism. Al Qaida, far from defeated, metastasized into newer and more deadly forms in Iraq, its immediate neighbourhood, and countries beyond.
In this weakened and fractured Iraq, Iran found a foothold, which it parlayed to its advantage. Today, Iran remains a major player in Iraq. So, an unintended consequence of the war was the unleashing of Iran as a regional power.
Subdued, for a time, by its rival Iraq, Iran now felt empowered to extend itself beyond its borders. Preying on growing anti-American sentiment and sectarian tensions in other countries, “revolutionary Iran” was emboldened to meddle in regional affairs. This gave rise to the Arab Gulf states feeling the need to assert themselves against this growing and destabilising Iranian threat.
The neo-cons’ war also emboldened Israel to more aggressively pursue its agenda to subdue the Palestinians and to expand its colonial enterprise.
The US, once seen as the dominant super power that had won the Cold War and built an international coalition to liberate Kuwait, now found itself bogged down in a war it could not win with its military weakened and demoralised by the losses. The US also stood discredited in the Arab World as a result of its bloody failure and abhorrent behaviour in Iraq and its stubborn refusal to confront its client/ally Israel.
The neo-conservative’s blindness to Middle East realities did indeed give birth to a “New Middle East”, but it was exactly the opposite of the one they had imagined.
As the region descended into multiple crises — with deadly wars in Syria and Yemen — the impact of the Iraq war became even more pronounced. Iran was a player in each of them. The Gulf states also became involved seeking ways to combat aggressive Iranian advances that challenged and threatened them. Al Qaida and its offshoots played a new and deadly role in Iraq and Syria. And new players like Russia and Turkey, each defending what they saw as their interests, also emerged as regional actors.
All the while, the US, weakened diplomatically and still licking its wounds from the war in Iraq, was too war weary and wary of becoming directly involved in any new regional crisis. Some blame the administration of former US president Barack Obama for passivity. But they fail to recognise the reality that post-Iraq, the US military had cautioned against engagement in any conflict that it could neither manage nor help bring about a resolution to.
In this new chaotic multi-polar world, conflicts spun out of control, becoming more deadly and destabilising as they grew. The Syrian conflict has taken the lives of half a million people while forcing more than five million to become homeless. This has exerted new pressures on neighbouring countries and unleashed a xenophobic tidal wave that is now challenging democracies in Eastern and Central Europe. And the battle in Yemen, which began as an effort to restore the legitimate government that had been overthrown by a rebel faction, has morphed into a draining regional conflict and a humanitarian disaster.
And so here we are, 15 years later, with the US reduced to playing a supporting role in a deadly conflict in Yemen and a back-up role for minor players in Syria. The mono-polar world envisioned by the neo-conservatives has given way to a multi-polar region — with Iran, Russia, Turkey, the Gulf states and the US all engaged in varying degrees, in conflicts — all seemingly without an end. This is the house that the Iraq War has built.
At this point, one can only imagine what the Middle East would have been like 15 years ago, had America not got engaged in that foolish war. Iraqis might still be struggling against their dictator, but one million Iraqis would not have died and their society would not have been ravaged. Iran’s people would still be struggling against its regime, but Iran would be contained. And the US, its capacity for leadership and prestige still intact, would have been in a position to play a far more constructive role in regional diplomacy and conflict resolution.
I write this not to “cry over spilt milk”, but as a cautionary note. Foolish wars have consequences with which we are forced to live. We need to learn from them in order to not be so foolish in the future.
Dr James J. Zogby is the president of Arab American Institute.