KP Debate: Was the Iraq Invasion and Occupation a Strategic Success?
Posted on 11:02, August 29th, 2010 by Pablo
Seven years after the US invaded Iraq, the last of its combat troops have withdrawn across the border into Kuwait. Left behind are 50,000 troops whose mission is to continue limited counter-insurgency operations while providing security training and advice to Iraqi security forces along with helping in civilian reconstruction projects. President Obama has been cautious in his framing of the end of the combat mission, noting that the “job” in Iraq is not yet done. No “mission accomplished” banners have been unfurled, and no staged military fly-ins to congratulate the troops have been organised. For the US, the end of combat in Iraq is a transition to another phase of its occupation, one that has seen an escalation in sectarian violence in parallel with the withdrawal of the bulk of US forces from the country. The future of Iraq remains unclear.
With that in mind the question of the moment is: what is the strategic outcome of the US invasion of Iraq? Has the outcome been positive or negative from the perspective of the US, the Middle East, and the broader international community? Was US intervention in Iraq a success?
In this post two opposing views are offered. I offer the case against the US invasion as a strategic success. Sagenz from No Minister offers the case in favour. The rules we have agreed on is that we both state our basic position without rebuttal, then invite the readers to argue the merits of each case. As the host I open the debate.
Con: The US invasion and occupation of Iraq is a strategic failure.
It is an axiom of military strategy that wars are fought for political reasons. The famous Clausewitz dictum that “war is politics by other means” is a hallmark of modern strategy, because even if fought for immediate reasons such as resources, territory, access to sea lanes or diplomatic leverage, the ultimate motive for war is a strategic calculation made by government elites that political advantage can be accrued by the use of force. Be it born out of necessity or discretion, wars are measured by the political outcomes they produce.
If we accept that achievement of political objectives are the reason for war, then the US invasion and occupation of Iraq has been a strategic failure. Let me summarise why, starting with what the US sought to accomplish with the invasion.
Using the pretext of preventing Saddam Hussein’s use of weapons of mass destruction, the US sought to remove his regime in order to install a secular, pro-US democracy that would host forward bases for US troops drawn from obsolete commands in Europe and controversial bases in Saudi Arabia. This would reinforce Iraq’s traditional role as a buffer state between the Sunni Arab world and their traditional Persian enemies in Shiia Iran while at the same time placing a US military presence on the Syrian border. The idea was to use the post 9/11 rationale of fighting Islamicist terrorism to bring the fight to the region in which it was incubated while intimidating those like Iran and Syria who are believed to provide weapons, training and safe havens for the likes of Hamas and Hezbollah. Coupled with the US military presence in Afghanistan, the installation of permanent US military bases in Iraq would act as a pincer on Iran and a check on Syria and Iranian proxies while allowing the US to more rapidly project massed force into failed states such as Afghanistan, Somalia, Ethiopia and Yemen where Islamicists congregate.
The invasion was also sold as bringing democracy to Iraq and as a means of re-opening Iraqi oil supplies to the world after more than a decade of embargos and sanctions. The erection of a pro-Western democracy on the ashes of the Baathist one-party authoritarian state was seen as a model for other Muslim Arab countries to emulate, and therefore a vehicle for change in the Sunni world. The re-opening of Iraq’s oil industry would help undermine the Saudi monopoly on oil pricing within OPEC, since full capacity Iraq oil production would be the third largest in the world (after Saudi Arabia and Russia). Breaking the Saudi ability to price fix the petroleum market would lead to a reduction in crude prices, thereby stimulating economic growth and consumption in the West in the measure that disposable income for corporate investment and consumer spending in non-energy related areas was freed up. With fuel costs down Western economies could push out of their post- 9/11 doldrums.
Breaking the Saudi lock hold on oil pricing would also accelerate reform in the Kingdom as it was forced to diversify its economy and become more competitive in its core export industry. That would and encourage and reinforce incipient democratic movements as well as economic diversification throughout the Middle East, under the assumption that a move towards competitive economic diversity would promote political pluralism as well. The sum total of these repercussive effects would be to enhance US prestige and power in that part of the world while curtailing that of regional adversaries. Or so the neoconservative architects of the invasion thought.
In practice, this is what has happened: when compared to the Saddam regime, Iraq is more politically unstable, less of a buffer, virtually defenceless on its own, and just as anti-American, if less autocratic than before 2003. It may hold elections but it is by no means democratic, especially when examined at the sub-national level where traditional political hierarchies and forms of patronage still obtain. It has yet to convene a central government six months after the last parliamentary elections due to profound and often violent divisions between Sunni and Shiia parliamentary blocs. Corruption remains endemic, even worse than under Saddam due to the influx of foreign money for reconstruction and pacification projects. Compared to 2003 Iraq is more susceptible to Iranian influence in its internal politics, most visibly via Moqtada al-Sadr’s Madhi Army and other militias that dominate Shiia political representation. In fact, the US has had to court the favour of the very Baath Party members and Sunni tribal elders that were the backbone of Saddam’s regime in order to counter Shiia dominance of Iraq politics, with a Kurdish-Sunni alliance now seen as the only means of balancing the numerical advantages held by Shiia political factions (the same formula that Saddam used to bolster his regime). The goal of representative democracy has been abandoned as completely as was the search for WMD—what matters now is staving off Shiia domination of the Iraqi political process. The irony is that is exactly what Saddam was useful for in the 1980s—countering Persian and Shiia influence at home and abroad.
Although the volume of terrorist attacks has diminished from the high point of 2004-07, car bombings, assaults on mosques, markets, police stations and community centres, assassination of community leaders, kidnappings, murders and other basic measures of criminality have all increased exponentially when compared with the Hussein regime. On virtually every human security index—health (infant mortality, average life span, infectious disease rates, access to primary care), education (literacy, access to post-primary schooling), access to electricity and potable water—Iraq is worse off today than before the invasion. It is no longer a secular republic, but instead a country in which behind a facade of constitutional government religion permeates politics from the local to the national level. It is a country in which women used to populate senior positions in the health, education and diplomatic bureaucracies, but which now sees the burqa imposed on the streets of conservative neighbourhoods. In sum: the country is fundamentally broken as a result of the invasion, and this was not a case of having to break eggs in order to make an omelette. It is a case of breaking eggs with hope but without a p(l)an.
The Iraqis have refused to allow the US permanent basing rights, so thoughts about using the country as a forward platform for US regional force projection are no longer possible. That leaves Iraq virtually defenceless, since its national army is weak, corrupt, and focused on internal security while its air force and navy are for all intents and purposes non-functional. In fact, once the remaining US troops are withdrawn by 2014, Iraq will be at the mercy of its neighbours, Iran in particular (which may be a reason why US troops may stay beyond that deadline). In order to counter that possibility, Iraq is making overtures to Syria and Turkey and the wider international community in ways that do not conform to the US preferred approach to those countries (for example, by courting Russian and Chinese investment in oil infrastructure). Rather than a beacon of pro-US democracy in an otherwise authoritarian landscape in the Middle East, Iraq looks at best—in the event that it does eventually develop a stable central government with authority over the whole country—to become a civilianised version of Saddam’s regime, with a Shiia twist.
As for the oil logic, the results have been poor. Iraq oil production is years away from pre-1990 levels and those who will benefit the most from its resumption are the Chinese and Rusisans whose contracts for infrastrructure development have been accepted by the Malaki regime. The Saudis are unmoved politically or economically by the invasion and occupation–they still dominate international oil pricing and they still play both sides of the fence when it comes to the so-called “war on terror.” Energy prices throughout the West have not come down to anything close to pre-2003 levels, so whatever the intention, the results of the invasion have been counterproductive on both the political and economic dimensions. Saudi Arabia is still the dominant economic and political force in the Arab world, and another regional power has benefitted from the invasion in unexpected ways.
To put things bluntly, the biggest beneficiary of the US invasion is Iran. In terms of regional power balances, Iran has been strengthened by the invasion. Having US forces tied down in Iraq as well as Afghanistan made it less possible for the US to credibly threaten large-scale force against Tehran. Having borders on both Afghanistan and Iraq allows the Iranians to leverage their support for anti-US irregulars in both countries while at the same time continuing support for proxies further afield such as Hamas and Hezbollah. Its influence in Iraq has increased to the point that it is a major power broker in that country, which has allowed it to start a process of “Finlandisation” of Iraq whereby the latter no longer serves as a buffer state but instead as a forward line of defense for Iranian interests. Using great power balancing to its advantage, Iran has successfully played off Russia, China and the West on matters of common concern in Iraq and elsewhere while cultivating broader international ties with countries like Brazil and Venezuela.
All of this gives Iran space to manoeuvre with regards to its suspected nuclear weapons development program and overall military expansion while providing it with shelter from armed response to its openly anti-Israeli, anti-American and anti-British rhetoric. That has increased Iranian prestige within the Muslim world while undermining Sunni Arab elites who are seen as appeasing of Western interests. By all measures, and despite internal dissent, Iran’s world position is stronger today than it was in 2003. It has consequently gotten bolder, expanded its range of influence and placed its Western antagonists under more pressure than ever before.
The US strategic position is weaker as a result of the invasion. Although it is true that ten years of continuous fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere has made the US military (especially its land forces) the most combat experienced in the world today, it has been stretched thin by its ongoing deployments and is therefore no longer able to mount large scale land assaults in other theatres of operation for anything other than short periods of time. Since air and sea power do not secure ground, this leaves the US unable to respond to military contingencies in the measure that it could have had it not gone into Iraq. The 2008 Ruso-Georgian War is illustrative in that regard. Moreover, the debacles of Abu Ghraib and Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo have reduced US moral authority and prestige world-wide while encouraging anti-US sentiment throughout the Muslim Diaspora. Thus, by no measure can it be said that the US is stronger today than it was on the eve of the invasion in March 2003.
Hence, when considering the outcomes of the Iraq invasion and occupation, the overall picture is one of strategic failure. The US did not achieve any of its goals other than the ouster of Saddam Hussein. Perversely, the rivals it sought to weaken have been strengthened while the position it sought to establish has been abandoned. Rather than consolidate US superpower pre-eminence it has opened it to question. It has left the Middle East geopolitical landscape less rather than more stable, and it not diminished Islamicist influence in the Muslim world or its capabilities to strike at targets outside of Iraq. What successes have been achieved in dismantling al-Qaeda’s core leadership and large scale operational abilities have occurred in spite of rather than because of the Iraq invasion.
Perhaps the longer-term picture in Iraq will turn out to be more favourable to US interests. But if that does happen, it will be due not so much to the invasion and occupation itself as it will be to the as of yet unknown actions of Iraqi and other international actors in the wake of US military withdrawal. Only then will a strategic victory be snatched from what is now a strategic defeat masquerading as a military drawdown.
Pro: Seven years after Saddam, It’s too early to tell.
The question is: what is the strategic outcome of the US invasion of Iraq? Has the outcome been positive or negative from the perspective of the US, the Middle East, and the broader international community?
Pablo has succinctly put the case for the view that the invasion of Iraq is a strategic failure. I put the case for the invasion being a qualified strategic success.
To analyse whether the world is in a better or worse place because of the invasion we must consider three things. Has America achieved its strategic objectives, what the alternative would have been and what was the strategic context for the invasion?
Addressing those in reverse order the strategic context for the invasion can be traced to the US withdrawal from Lebanon after losing 200 marines, the decision to leave Saddam Hussein in place after the first gulf war, Clinton cutting and running from Somalia after losing 17 Rangers followed by the international community washing its hands in Rwanda and being too slow to protect European Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo. Aden and the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1992-3 were further indicators to Osama Bin Laden and the Islamists that the West had grown corrupt, weak and lacked the will to defend themselves. 911 was intended to cause a reaction from the US. What Al Qaeda expected was a weak response that would kill many Muslims and bring more to the cause. The air war on Serbia was perhaps their foremost example of an America unwilling to put boots on the ground.
Although many will not accept the premise of Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations it is clear to any serious observer that Islamists reject Western culture and are prepared to use violent means to replace it with a caliphate. To suggest that the invasion of Iraq caused otherwise completely peaceful Muslims to become insurgents would be fatuous. Western mistakes have certainly provided recruits to the cause but the likes of Abu Hamza were preaching their hatred long before GW Bush took office.
Having invaded Afghanistan after 911 the US was faced with a strategic choice. Double down and try to convert part of the Middle East to democracy or manage the situation. Having chosen not to occupy Iraq in 1991 the US had seen the result. A dictatorship contemptuous of American power and an enemy prepared and able to bring the war to American soil. It is relevant that there have been no further successful attacks on US soil since September 2001.
America and their allies chose to take the fight to the enemy. That the invasion lacked UN legitimacy was only down to a late change of mind from the perfidious French more concerned with their Iraq weapons sales than morality. To believe that America must occupy Iraq to control its oil is to completely misunderstand the international oil market. Even now, Venezuela supplies a large amount of crude to US refineries.
Moving on to address the likely present if the invasion had not happened. Without the invasion of Iraq, the Islamists would have had only one front to fight on and all recruits would have headed to Afghanistan. The difficulties faced by the coalition there from a divided enemy would have been nothing compared to the full force of an Al Qaeda not distracted and then defeated in Iraq.
Saddam Hussein would have long broken the will of the international community to keep up sanctions. He was more able to accept the damage to his own people from them. Iraq had the technology to reconstitute chemical weapons any time they wished to and would now be well on the way to being nuclear armed as Iran and Iraq along with other countries scared by that prospect engaged in a regional arms race. Nuclear weapons in the hands of Qusay or Uday Hussein would certainly have required US intervention.
Iraqi leadership do not quite understand yet that the US is serious about leaving them to their own devices. It is now apparent that Iraq is in a similar position to Pakistan with the American military providing a stable guiding hand rather than the Pakistani military. Both countries require a leader to emerge before they can expect genuine stability. Does the fact that Iraq is in a similar position to Pakistan make Iraq a success or Pakistan a failure?
Has America achieved its strategic objectives? On the face of it Pablo makes a strong case that the current situation is a strategic failure for the US on the basis of the objectives he identifies. Certainly the Islamist insurgents fought more determinedly than anybody thought likely. Abu Ghraib and other incidents are a stain on American honour and its moral leadership.
However, the core strategic objective for the US to invade Iraq in 2003 was and remains its own security. Islamist terrorism had challenged the status quo and American power. The only way to ensure America had peace was to bring that peace to the rest of the world. Hence the development of the Bush doctrine.
Can anybody now doubt that America is prepared to use force to protect its strategic interests. Although the insurgents have developed tactical IED that cause losses to coalition forces, the insurgents lose when they confront coalition forces directly. By contrast, the US has highly developed drone technology that is proving highly effective at targeting and destroying enemy leadership. It’s military has learned the hard lessons of counter-insurgency doctrine.
“Peaceful” Islam must go through its own enlightenment before it ceases to treat its women so barbarically and joins the modern world. The sight of democratic elections in Afghanistan and Iraq has de-stabilised theocratic Iran. Iran has been trying to develop nuclear weapons for decades, that is not new.
America has taken the fight to the enemy and won a military victory on its enemy’s fields. To expect nations with decades of dictatorship and conflict to easily turn into stable democracies within a decade was never more than wishful thinking. The flow of foreign recruits to Iraq insurgency was stemmed and Iraqi insurgents chose to take a more peaceful path. In the new world of counter insurgent warfare there is not an army to defeat on the field, but the absence of a large number of insurgent combatants is an indicator of success.
As America withdraws its combat troops it can only look forward to many more years of Islamist containment but it has demonstrated to the world in general and Islamism in particular that it has not lost its determination and ability to react when provoked. It has left behind a country that is corrupt, poorly lead, but practicing self determination. That constitutes a qualified strategic success.