March 8, 2013
Iraq remains the subject of visceral polemic 10 years after George W. Bush and Tony Blair launched their misbegotten and mendaciously sold war of choice to remove Saddam Hussein and, by their lights, reshape the Middle East. The invasion and occupation of Iraq unlocked forces with long-term consequences. Given the staggering obtuseness that marked the entire enterprise one cannot be sure, but one assumes few of them were intended by its Anglo-American artificers.
The devastation visited upon a country already made prostrate by wars, sanctions and tyranny did not so much shock and awe as offer a pitilessly public spectacle of the limits to US power (Britain’s role as spear-carrier was a sideshow).
No one is blind to the military might the US possesses in unique abundance. But after Iraq there are real doubts – seemingly in America as well as the wider world – about its ability to use this power competently to shape intractable events (current agonising over whether to arm Syrian rebels comes to mind). When future historians date the end of the brief, post-cold war, unipolar moment, they will surely pinpoint Iraq.
By breaking and entering Iraq, the coalition of the willing also upended the balance of power in the most combustible region in the world. The least important aspect of this was the final dismantling of an already much diminished power (Saddam’s Iraq) that had been a menace to western allies in Israel and the Gulf.
The bigger impact of the invasion was to catapult the Shia minority within Islam (a majority in Iraq) to power in an Arab heartland nation for the first time since the fall of the Fatimid caliphate in 1171. As well as leading to a sectarian bloodbath in Iraq, this reignited with a millenarian spin the simmering conflict between Sunni and Shia, from the Levant to the Gulf and across to the Indian subcontinent.
The assault on Iraq, while purportedly striking a decisive blow in the “war on terror”, managed to proliferate the anti-western bigotry and messianic jihadism franchised by Osama bin Laden, and immeasurably strengthen the aggressive Shia theocrats in Iran, the main beneficiary of the war.
Iraq certainly did change the region’s parameters. The overarching conflict between Sunni and Shia, as well as the stand-off between Israel and Iran, now a regional power and threat to Israeli hegemony, are among its main dynamic variables – and they are dynamite.
In Syria, for example, a downtrodden people inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya is fighting for its freedom from the tyranny of Bashar al-Assad , who is prepared to wade through their blood to stay in power. But the majority of Syrians are Sunni. The rulers of the Gulf and the Sunni supremacists of the Arabian peninsula are backing them in large part to take out the Assad regime, built around the heterodox Shia Alawite sect and allied with both Iran and the Lebanese Shia Hizbollah movement, Tehran’s spearhead in the Levant.
The 1956 Suez crisis, to which the Iraq fiasco is often compared, had nothing like this long-term significance. In that last hurrah, Britain and France, the sinking colonial powers who were the main losers of Suez, were not waving but drowning. For the ostensible winner, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Suez enabled him to fire up the region with pan-Arab nationalism. But that ideology crashed and burned within scarcely a decade, with Israel’s rout of the Arabs in the 1967 six-day war. The whole thrust of Iraq, by contrast, looks to have given a long-term boost to Islamists of all stripes.
This was evident long before the Arab spring upheavals that have made Islamism the new centre of political gravity in the region – and not just because Islamists have won all the elections held in Iraq.
The 2006 war between Israel and Hizbollah in Lebanon, for example, was a logical follow-on from the Iraq war. Having by then taken fright at the Shia militias and Iranian influence they had unleashed in Iraq, Messrs Bush and Blair egged on the Israelis against the Lebanese Shia paramilitaries. When the fighting ended, a Hizbollah that held its ground had enhanced its prestige and power as a state-within-the-state; and a pro-western government, rare in the region, collapsed in Beirut.
And what of Iraq itself? The courage and endurance of the Iraqis as they claw their way back, caught between the authoritarian Shia government of Nouri al-Maliki and the regular bomb outrages of Sunni terrorists, has been extraordinary. But their purported leaders, whether Shia, Sunni or Kurd, tend to pursue factional and sectarian advantage, treating institutions as booty in a zero-sum game that threatens the survival of the country.
Iraq was a country, and a deeply traumatised society, when it was invaded, and that turned it into a dark geopolitical metaphor for the region. When other Arabs employ the metaphor, it is not because they feel the region was positively reshaped by force of western arms.
Iraq – the metaphor and the reality – was about the end of a national narrative, for a people whose lives and politics have been twisted by dictatorship and sectarian strife, and whose leaders appear unable to reconcile. It is about a mosaic society that dissolved into a Balkans-in-the-sands, with minorities ground between the stones of the Sunni and the Shia, and Christians who predate them driven from the land of Abraham.
Many sense Iraq is also a harbinger. The Maliki government’s manifest refusal to include the Sunni minority and work with the self-governing Kurds calls into question Iraq’s future as a unitary state – just as the Syrian civil war and its cross-border ripples are testing frontiers drawn arbitrarily by France and the UK after the fall of the Ottomans.
Those boundaries were little more than lines in the sand, cynically drawn by sinking colonialists. Was Iraq – the reality, not the metaphor – so very different?