THE IRAQI WAR FIVE YEARS ON: A VIEW
We have had no end of a lesson: it will do us no end of good.
Not on a single issue, or in one direction or twain,
But conclusively, comprehensively, and several times and again,
Were all our most holy illusions knocked higher than Gilderoy’s kite.
We have had a jolly good lesson, and it serves us jolly well right!
....Then let us develop this marvellous asset which we alone command,
And which, it may subsequently transpire, will be worth as much as the Rand.
Let us approach this pivotal fact in a humble yet hopeful mood—
We have had no end of a lesson, it will do us no end of good!
It was our fault, and our very great fault—and now we must turn it to use.
We have forty million reasons for failure, but not a single excuse.
So the more we work and the less we talk the better results we shall get—
We have had an Imperial lesson; it may make us an Empire yet!"
"The Lesson", by Rudyard Kipling.
This week is the fifth anniversary of the launching of the Iraqi War by the United States. As many commentators argued at the time, I was an opponent of this pre-emptive, indeed preventative war. Not I will admit for solely moral reasons (although I do admit to being an adherent of the Augustan idea of 'Just War'), but, also for reasons of Realpolitik and Grossmachtpolitik. Id est, the Hussein regime, notwithstanding its many, many flaws and in particular its appalling Human Rights record, was not in any real sense a 'danger' to the United States in particular or the West in general. Certainly not nearly as much as say the Persian regime of Mullahs in Teheran. Hussein, regardless of his busting of the sanctions regime, was in essence 'boxed-in', and contained. His weapons of mass destruction had in fact been destroyed in the early to mid-1990's. He had, the nonsensical arguments of Vice-President Cheney, and his neo-conservative entourage notwithstanding, no real ties with Bin Laden and his followers. And, while it is true that his regime had undertaken a 'religious' turn in the years after the first Persian Gulf War (1990-1991), it was still very much the case that circa 2002-2003, that the Baathist Regime was in many respects a secular bulwark against fanatical Sunni & Shiite Islamist currents. No more of course...
So, what has the five years distance brought us? Many many things. Much of it negative both for the Iraqi people and for the Near East as well as the world at large. But, allow me to focus on one aspect of the war's dividends, namely: the diminution of American Power. Never again perhaps will American power appear to be the colossus that it projected in the aftermath of the successful war in Afghanistan (2001-2002). If one wanted to bookend the apotheosis of American power in the post-1945 period, one would focus on the years from 1991 to 2003. Meaning the time span between the two Persian Gulf Wars. It may seems like a hundred years ago, but, I distinctly remember the hymns of praise that the USA and its military forces were receiving in the year and half prior to the Iraq War. Whether American or European, whether 'conservative' or 'liberal' (albeit of a 'Wilsonian stamp'), all expressed in one form or other views similar to the British expatriate historian Niall Ferguson, that the USA was or should be a 'natural' descendant of the Great British Empire of the 1815-1914 period. And, that the policy of 'overthrow' in Iraq would be the first of a few such efforts. Now of course, in the week that the American conglomerate Bear Stearns has been pushed to the wall, and, purchased for a song, one can quite clearly see the feet of clay if not in fact ankles of clay that make any projection of the contemporary USA, as some type of inheritor of the British Empire to be nonsensical if not daft.
Strictly speaking in GNP terms, the Iraq War is probably one of the cheapest wars in the history of the USA: less than one percent of the national economy goes towards it. Rather what I want to focus on, is the fact that in a certain sense, the whole American effort in Iraq has been sideshow. Perhaps the ultimate sideshow. In a strategic sense, the war has so obsessed American policy makers that they have singularly failed to concentrate on the more important aspects of American governance and policy. Such as the fact that the USA is a huge debtor country and the the momentary period in the Clinton years when the American economy appeared to be in smooth balance has gone by the wayside. Instead the trade deficit has ballooned, the current account deficit has more than ballooned. With until very recently the USA consuming perhaps half of all the available capital in the planet. Tied to which in chronological terms if not necessarily in any post hoc ergo propter hoc sense, is the explosion of commodity prices, in particular that of oil. Control of which some deluded souls, managed to convince themselves was one of the raison d'etres for launching the Iraq debacle. If only it were true! Unfortunately it was and is not true. The war had many purposes but, attempting to 'control' Iraq's oil was not one of them. Unless of course you go into a post-factual argument mode, and surmise that by launching the war, and, imploding the entire Iraq State apparatus, including its oil industry, the Bush Regime really intended to pave the way for oil at $110.00 plus a barrel. However let us pass by this no doubt, yet to be fully explored thesis (apparently unclaimed as of yet. I hereby claim it myself: As the 'Coutinho post-factual argument for oil' thesis).
To sum up. We are in a bit of a mess in Iraq and in the Near East as a whole. And, it will take many many years to get out of it. And, like Kipling's business people, to learn our lesson most thoroughly. Not so much in any geopolitical sense, but, in a very real sense of the USA as a sort of exploded volcano. The prestige of the USA, as a Great Power, has been almost completely squandered by its Iraqi crusade. No doubt, when the next American President, grasps the reigns of power and makes the necessary decision to withdraw from Iraq, the USA will begin to recover. Indeed, it may recover quite quickly in terms of its regional position in the Near East. But, that will not obviate the fact that like Algernon Moncrieff's 'Mr. Bunbury' American prestige and more importantly its will to power, has been thoroughly exploded. And, having been so, will not soon recover. And, certainly when it does so, it will not be the same entity that it was previously. Just as the USA under colossus, of the 1980's, was not the same as the American colossus of the pre-Vietnam war vintage. For good or for ill.