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Pure Onsense

Iraq's Long Shadow

Scott Zuke

(11/2013) The Middle East continues to dominate the U.S.'s attention when it comes to foreign policy, but for the first time in over a decade, Iraq has dropped off the list of policy priorities almost completely. After being swept from the spotlight by the crises in Syria and Egypt, renewed peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, and a flurry of nuclear talks with a suddenly receptive Iran, it's easy to forget that Iraq is still there. Even a high level diplomatic visit will probably struggle to make many headlines. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's meeting with President Obama at the White House on November 1 will bring him to a country so eager to move on after a fruitless, costly decade of war that Iraq has been largely ignored and forgotten only a couple years after being occupied by U.S. troops.

Ten years ago there were 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. Today there are only a few thousand American civilians left behind, with more departing every day. After Operation Iraqi Freedom, Shock and Awe, the removal of Saddam Hussein, the "Surge," and years of subsequent efforts to train Iraqi security forces and implement the loose framework of a democratic government, it's hard to say what, if anything, has been accomplished.

On the contrary, despite its role in establishing the current political order in Iraq, the U.S. has secured little long term political influence there. Maliki's government has been particularly at odds with the U.S. over its calls for Syria's President Bashar Al Assad to be removed from power, and even took the aggravating step of looking the other way while Iran used Iraqi airspace to transport arms shipments into Syria.

And, for all of the accusations that the war was started over oil, the U.S. hasn't really seen much benefit from Iraq's oil reserves. It took almost a decade for the country's oil production to return to the levels they had been under Saddam Hussein, and now much of the growth of Iraq's energy sector is thanks to China, which buys half of the country's oil exports and is investing heavily in its oil fields.

But if the invasion was a strategic blunder for the United States, tragically costing the lives of thousands of troops in addition to hundreds of billions of dollars, it's been an utter catastrophe for Iraq. According to one recent report, over 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died since the U.S. invastion, either directly from violence or indirectly due to such things as hospitals being overwhelmed by the number of casualties and having to turn patients away.

Iraq even experienced its own Arab Spring-related protests in 2011, despite having a democratic-style government, unlike those of the more publicized Arab Spring countries. Like the other revolts, though, the protests in Iraq had much to do with peoples' dissatisfaction with poor government services, corruption, high unemployment, and a lack of security in the midst of a sectarian civil war. Security forces, like their authoritarian neighbors, reacted to the demonstrations violently, on one day killing 20 citizens.

With such daunting domestic challenges and internal political strife, the country has fallen far in its ability to project influence in the region. In the words of Middle East expert Marc Lynch, Iraq, long a major power player in Arab politics, now lies "flat on [its back], torn by political failure and societal division and unable to play any kind of meaningful role." If this is the product of U.S. nation-building, the critics would seem to be clearly right in their skepticism.

Though Iraq is no longer a prominent aspect of U.S. strategy in the Middle East, its influence on current policy in the region cannot be overstated. Along with Libya, which has also fallen into political chaos since U.S.-backed regime change, it provides the main justification for President Obama's reluctance to pursue military intervention in Syria. Not only is the public weary from the protracted and poorly defined War on Terror, but the very theory of regime change in order to install a puppet leader who falls in line with U.S. interests has fallen apart since the Arab Spring.

Iraq has become the key piece of evidence that the "strongman" authoritarian model of governance no longer promises stability, especially where sectarianism prevents a wide sense of national identity. It's difficult for Westerners to understand the Middle East's many conflicts precisely because it's hard for us, with our historically settled, internationally recognized, and indisputable borders, to understand the internal divisions in these countries whose borders in many cases are historically arbitrary and imposed only a few decades ago by imperialist outsiders. Iraq, for instance, is not naturally a single, cohesive state, but rather an awkward combination of three distinct groups: Shiites in the south, Sunnis in the center and west, and Kurds in the north. A leader here is either Shia or Sunni, not Iraqi, making it near impossible to govern fairly or effectively.

Iraq also serves as a warning for the future of Afghanistan following the planned withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2014. Afghanistan is every bit as hard to govern, suffers from ethnic and religious sectarian divides, has an unreliable and (not-so) strongman leader in Hamid Karzai, and faces even more challenges when it comes to providing basic human services. As war weary as Americans are, and as intractible as its problems may actually be, it's hard to argue that dropping Afghanistan from our list of policy priorities won't have negative consequences at some point down the road.

Putting Iraq on the backburner of policy priorities may be the most sensible choice given the other crises crying out for attention at present, but it would be a mistake to say that all of its lessons have been learned. Even from the sidelines, it will continue casting a long shadow over U.S. policy in the Middle East for a long time to come.

Read other article by Scott Zuke