Even though Iraq continues to endure a level of terrorism that any other country would consider a national crisis, and even though Republican Congressman Dana Rohrbacher acknowledged recently that “everybody I know thinks it was a mistake to go in” to Iraq, you can still find people — usually people who worked in the Bush administration — who continue to insist that the war was worth it, and that the decision to invade and occupy and attempt to remake Iraq at a cost of trillions of dollars will be vindicated by history.
A recently published RAND study of the regional effects of the Iraq war should (but probably won’t, as too many influential people have too much professionally and emotionally invested in the war being seen as a “success”) put such claims to rest. The study finds that, in addition to facilitating the rise of Iranian power, undercutting perceptions of U.S. strength and influence, and increasing the profile of other actors like Russia and China, the war has seriously hurt the prospects for political reform in the region:
On the domestic front, societal conflict in the broader region resulting from the war has not yet materialized to the extent forecast; rather, state power has strengthened and tolerance of domestic political opposition has decreased. Specifically, Iraq’s instability has become a convenient scarecrow neighboring regimes can use to delay political reform by asserting that democratization inevitably leads to insecurity. And while the entrenchment of U.S.-allied regimes may be deceptively reassuring in the short term, it does little to address the more deeply rooted problem of regime illegitimacy or to mitigate the wellsprings of radicalism.
So not only did the Bush administration’s key (post-WMD) strategic claim about the war — that replacing Saddam Hussein with a less despotic, more democratic government would start a democratic chain reaction in the region — turn out to be false, the war actually made things worse for democracy. By offering democratic reform as a component to the “war on terror,” which many Muslims see as a war against Islam, the U.S. alienated and isolated at the outset scores of potential reformist allies. By then promoting Iraq as a potential showpiece for that agenda (“See all these explosions? This could be your country! Who’s in?”) we discredited democratic reform even more.
The irony here is that, in diagnosing the overabundance of authoritarianism as a problem in the Middle East, the Bush administration and its neoconservative brain trust were not entirely wrong. Oppressive behavior by governments viewed by many as illegitimate and unjust is a key driver of extremism in the region. But the course of “treatment” that was undertaken by the Bush administration — American invasion and military occupation — has turned out to be just as bad, if not worse, than the disease, both for the U.S., whose power and influence have declined as a result, and for the region, which will be grappling with the destabilizing consequences of the war for decades to come.
The RAND study also concludes, “on a more-positive note,” that “the war’s appeal as a draw for terrorist recruitment has been offset by declining public support among Arabs of al-Qaeda’s goals, operations, and tactics.” Less popularity for Al Qaeda is obviously a good thing. But before anybody breaks out the champagne on this, let’s remember that this is the result of Al Qaeda’s brutality against Iraqi civilians, brutality that was directly facilitated by the U.S. invading and then failing to properly secure the country.
It’s important to remember that luring terrorists to Iraq to blow themselves up in markets and mosques wasn’t just some tragic side-effect of the Iraq policy. It was, for many of the war’s architects and supporters, a bonus feature of the policy. The fact that “flypaper strategy” may have, by enabling the murder and maiming of thousands of Iraqi women, men and children, (Iraq accounts for more than half of all suicide bombings recorded since 1981) managed to drive down Al Qaeda’s poll numbers in the region doesn’t make the idea any less morally reprehensible, let alone qualify the policy as a whole as a success.