Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Past and Future of Iraq

After eight years of blood and sweat, and many destroyed hopes and lives, the United States has finally departed Iraq. It will take years before we can finally determine whether America's intervention in Iraq was successful. In the meantime, in this blog post, I'd like to retrace some of the important steps in the war and begin to explore some the war's short-term regional implications.

George W. Bush hoped that by destroying the Hussein regime in Iraq, he could build a more cooperative, peaceful, and democratic regime in Iraq, while also protecting U.S. civilians from the infamous "Weapons of Mass Destruction."

Ahmad Chalabi


Beyond the entire fiasco of the "Weapons of Mass Destruction," Bush had a long-term strategic goal of changing Iraq to a stable, functioning democracy. Bush and his neoconservative advisers believed that democratizing Iraq might be a way to end the tangled web of several Middle East problems once and for all.

Their belief was based on several arguments: (1) Democracy is a superior form of government. Free, fair, and open elections ensure that leaders are accountable to the masses. Democratic institutions help to ensure the protection of human rights. Democracies tend not to fight each other. So the more democracies in the Middle East, the better it is for regional and world peace and stability. (2) Because people were already tired of a very brutal dictatorship, Iraq would be the easiest state to transform to a democracy. And this experiment in regime change would probably be a relatively low-cost effort, funded mostly by Iraqi oil exports. (4) Once democracy takes hold in Iraq, demonstrating to the Muslim world the compatibility of Islam with key democratic ideas and institutions, it would spread to other Middle Eastern countries, creating an ever larger zone of democracy in a region that's been a hotbed of repressive authoritarian rule. (5) A democratic Middle East would go some way toward diffusing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. After all, for decades, Arab dictators had been playing the Israel card as a way to divert people from their incompetence in running their nation, which only inflamed anti-Israeli sentiment and hostilities in the region. By opening up Middle Eastern politics, leaders would have to focus less on propaganda and more on getting things done for their constituents.

Of course, all of those rosy plans quickly blew up, thanks to several major factors, notably Iran, which didn't like the idea of an American military base next door in Iraq.

Strategically, a weak Iraq would benefit Iran: it could expand its power to the west, as it no longer faced an existential threat from a strong Iraq, which Iran believed to be backed by the monarchs in the Middle East.

Iran began to engage in Iraqi domestic politics, such as by sheltering and funding Moktada al-Sadr, the militant anti-American Shiite Cleric. 

At the same time, thanks to U.S. Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld's miscalculation of sending just enough troops to topple Hussein but not enough to police the country, Iraq then descended into chaos. It didn't help that Iraq, with American council, imposed strict de-Baathism, a policy of getting rid of many presumed supporters of Saddam Hussein from all parts of the government and state bureaucracy. This policy mostly targeted the Sunnis and created a huge backlash. In effect, this move radicalized the Sunni population and gave al-Qaeda the opportunity to enter the scene more forcefully.


Bush mistakenly believed that Saddam was sheltering al-Qaeda. The ironic part, however, is that the disorder in Iraq allowed al-Qaeda to jump into the fray, as the local Sunni militias sought to gain outside support to help the "resistance."

In the end, al-Qaeda's violence and extremism only decimated its support inside Iraq, even among the Sunnis. In fact, some Sunnis even saw the United States as the lesser of two evils, leading to the formation of Awakening Council, the Sunni militias that assisted the United States in fighting al-Qaeda.


Another major element of the war was George Bush's so-called surge, which added significant numbers of U.S. troops in Iraq. This was crucial, for two reasons: (1) it boosted the security of Iraq and (2) and put al-Qaeda on defensive. The surge debunked al-Qaeda's operating logic, that the more the organization violently struck American forces and installations, the more likely the U.S. would withdraw due to rising casualties and deaths.


Bush's military surge allowed the situation to stabilize. Still, the humpty dumpty had fallen and all the king's horses and men could not put him back again and Iraq remained a troublespot. Once Barack Obama came into office, he essentially maintained Bush's ideas about and policies toward Iraq. But when it came time to proceed with a planned drawdown of American forces, Obama had no stomach to keep any troops in Iraq to continue their training and advisory duties. With election season already here, it's possible he caved into pressure from his liberal backers and supporters. But another sticking point was Iraq's refusal to grant American forces immunity from alleged crimes, making them susceptible to arrest and prosecution from any police and justice officials harboring anti-American views.

What's the prognosis for Iraq?

First, it is still bad. The withdrawal of American troops was a political decision, while the situation on the ground, regardless of all the rosy prediction, remained unstable. This will become worse as Prime Minister al-Maliki had sidelined and discriminated the Sunnis and former Baathists. America's presence in Iraq provided a punching bag, and at the same time, a buffer to these people. Expect things to blow up should al-Maliki overreach in his political designs.

Second, Iraq will remain a proxy battleground for Iran. Even though many Shiites in Iraq have soured on Iran, many, including Moktada al-Sadr, remain dependent on Iran as the source of their power. The fluctuation within Iran's domestic politics, notably the cold war between President Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, could blow up and someone might use Iraq as a way to rally everyone around flag and launch an invasion. It's not improbable, especially if the Iranians believe (1) the U.S. is too weary and no longer interested in Iraq and (2) Iraq is too divided to muster an effective defense. This could be more tempting should the Assad regime in Syria, another Iran's client, collapse.

UPDATE on my first point above: Things have already started to go south, though much sooner than I anticipated. We can expect Iraq to get really hairy, should al-Maliki crack down hard on the violence and pursue widespread anti-Sunni policies (which, to a certain extent, is already happening).

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