How to assess the Iraq war as we near its 10th anniversary?
Most Americans have condemned it as a disastrous mistake: a war fought for mistaken reasons, at excessive cost, that failed to achieve its stated objectives.
The Iraqi WMDs did not exist. The replacement regime in Iraq is not a democracy in any usual sense of the word. The Arab Middle East is more unstable than ever. Islamists now rule Egypt and probably soon will rule Syria.
Score 1, 2, 3, and 4 for war skeptics—both early skeptics like Brent Scowcroft and the after-the-fact skeptics like Secretary of State John Kerry.
But one argument often used by war-skeptics has proven emphatically wrong.
It was often said that the Iraq war would serve only to strengthen Iran. In 2005-2006, this critique carried some plausibility. Sectarian Shiite parties beholden to Iranian intelligence did emerge as the winners in Iraq’s internal power struggles.
Today, however, the claim “Iran won” looks a lot more dubious. The Iraq war has led to a huge shift in regional oil production. Iraq is returning to world oil markets, massively. Last year Iraq produced more oil than in any year since the first Gulf War. By some estimates, Iraq will soon overtake Russia as the world’s number-two oil exporter.
Iran meanwhile has dropped out of the top 10 oil-exporting countries. Iraq’s return to world oil markets has enabled the sanctions that have pushed Iran out. If Iraq were still ruled by Saddam Hussein, it’s hard to imagine that the western world would dare take its present hard line against Iran. And of course, if Saddam Hussein had remained in power after 2003, he too would have had the benefit of $100/barrel with which to finance his regime’s military ambitions.
The war was expensive and badly managed. It did real damage to the international credibility of the United States—and cracked the conservative movement, maybe irreparably. It left 4,000 Americans dead and many thousands more seriously wounded. Had we known all this in advance, the war would not have been fought.
But it would be wrong to say the war achieved nothing. And it’s wrong to shut our eyes to the ugly consequences of leaving Saddam in power.
Over the next days, I’ll be using this space to think aloud about what was gained and what was last by the decisions of 10 years ago.