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« What China wants, China gets - at a cost to the planet | Main | The pollution trigger in China »

Iraq at ten years

Cartoon found here (in an FT op-ed that fits this post nicely - if orthogonally).

Read through a variety of the tenth-year anniversary reviews, and I thought Thomas Friedman's was the best - despite the weird title (Democrats, Dragons or Drones?).

His basic notion that it takes the next generation to create and shape the subsequent reality is correct.  Friedman pegs it at "9 months and 21 years to develop."

Fair enough. But the question (as he also notes) hinges on that generation's journey.  Done well, it works.  Done badly enough and a vicious spiral ensues.  In truth, the jury remains out on that score.

We won the war - no doubt, and then took a pass on the postwar.  If we hadn't, then questions of "why?" fade away.  In the post-9/11 mood, America possessed the desire to reshape the region and Saddam was the obvious target. Direct causality was not the issue, although Dick Cheney tried to sell that.  Nor was direct threat, referring to the late and frantic oversell of the WMD to Congress.  The purpose - all along - was structural retribution: as in, you reshaped our world, now we reshape yours.  Americans are just deeply uncomfortable admitting that, so we needed a clear and present storyline to drive our revenge-flick dynamics.

The resulting strategic "pre-emption" was oddly symmetrical in ambition but certainly not in cost (and why should it be so between a superpower and a non-state actor?).

So when we take that pass on the aftermath of the war, and basically pretend that what comes next doesn't really matter, we abort the entire regional restructuring ambition (which, if you remember, was on a nice roll for 2-3 years there) and we allow ourselves to be swallowed up (in terms of strategic effort and attention) by an insurgency that was completely foreseeable and completely manageable - if we had bothered to embrace that inevitability.

But instead of embracing it, we did what we always do and called the postwar another war.  And wars yield a singular answer in US military history - called, more firepower.  And then we found that made things worse (go figure).

And then the White House, chastened finally by the 2006 midterms, relabeled the conflict and rebranded the mission - and then we succeeded again.  

But by then the public narrative had already been cast (Bush lied, too many deaths, too much cost).

So ultimately the Bush administration pays the legacy cost for its mistakes, which mostly had to do with stubbornness.  They had their narrative of a successful war and stuck to it - until it hurt so bad that they had to change.

So what are we left with?

In structural terms, I like what the Middle East has become.  The inevitabilities are being processed and Iran is more isolated than ever.  And thanks to larger structural changes in the global economy, the area is coming under new superpower management - inexorably.  None of it is nice, but it was never going to be anything but painful and violent.  The Arab world has an enormous amount of catching up to do WRT globalization, and it will be awful in execution (and with Africa leaping ahead on many fronts, the Middle East and North Africa - or large portions of it - risk becoming globalization's long-term basket case).

If the US had handed off the region still encased in its many dictatorships, China would have a much easier time over the next two decades.  Now, it faces challenges that are likely to alter its own political structure significantly - just like it did to the US.  Some naturally see the "defeat of American empire" in the region, but since empire was never America's goal, that judgment is meaningless.

All that matters is the relative evolutions of the three superpowers of the 21st century:  China, India and America.

America did, per my original Esquire piece, take strategic ownership of the Middle East in a big way.  That ambition was both debilitating and liberating:  we took our shot (badly) and now we're done "owning" things there (besides Iran's nukes).  In that way, Iraq processed our inevitable post-9/11 over-reaching response (we are a democracy) and hurried us along the exhaustion-collapse-rock bottom-recovery-resurrection dynamic that was always slated for us in the post-Cold War world (our inability to handle the success of the "end of history" - aka, the globalization of our economic connectivity model).  We had gotten used to running things, and we weren't going to stop until something made us stop - an unpleasant journey but a necesssary one.

Now, in grand structural terms, the race among my C-I-A trio is well underway.  The Obama administration, needing a switch-over target, sells its Asian pivot.  This is not a good answer, as I have noted frequently - but rather a red herring.  The real struggle in Asia doesn't involve us except in an off-shore balancing role.

Instead, the real struggles of the future involve the very same frontier integration I've been talking about for a decade now.  On that score, we are looking fine enough in our ongoing restructuring of our portfolio, while China's grows frighteningly larger relative to its ability to deliver and manage regions distant from its shores. India is just begining to recognize what responsibilities lie ahead.

You'll say that China will do it differently, but the structure of the system will force the same responses: China cannot afford to lose its growing overseas dependencies (much greater than any borne by the US), and so the responses will be mounted.  And when they don't go well (whoever gets it right - right off the bat?), change will double back upon China - to its general benefit (along with the world's).

Iraq was always a means to an end (when in history has great power war ever been anything else?).  During the real-time execution, it seems like everything - as does every war throughout history.  But half a century later?  It looks very different.  It's a stepping stone for superpowers:  some step up and some step down, some step away and some step in.  None of it is exactly what it appears to be in the light of present-day reporting.  Per Zhou Enlai's take on the French Revolution, we will be witnessing the downstream consequences across the century.

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  • Response
    Response: Venus Pohl
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    INstead of making war in Iraq, they should just relax and play Fortnite. They can even get free V-Bucks using the fornite hack app.

Reader Comments (8)

A few random thoughts.

1. China is aware of the flux in the Middle East & China has been making things happen in Africa - a lot more than the US has. President Xi is in Tanzania as we speak, and Africa is his first stop after a visit to Russia.

2. After Iraq, the US lost something very important: a reputation for competence. People are less in awe of US Military might because they understand how to deal with it.

3. Another lesson from Iraq is that US really doesn't understand the World. The "Surge" worked only because Sunnis were tired of Al Qaeda, US keyed into that and there was success. Iraqis are now back to fighting their slow burn Civil War.

4. The same "Surge" tactics were tried in Afghanistan, but they didn't work because there were no "Sons of Iraq" to fight along with. The US once again demonstrated a failure to understand ME societies.

5. I don't understand how you can say Iran is "isolated" and ignore the strategic funk the US left behind in the Middle East. By destabilising Iraq, the US has ensured that it is not a matter of if, but when the Saudi regime goes & the US position will be untenable.

6. There will be upheavals in the Middle East, but the Iran that emerges from these upheavals will be a much more stable country than Saudi Arabia.

7. Chinese assume that after a period of sustained madness, people will come to their senses. They will not "own" anything.

March 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMaduka

Just a few more thoughts.

Friedman has a penchant for generalisations, but the truth is a bit more complex. US-led sanctions destroyed the Iraqi Middle Class in the nineties and wreaked havoc on human capital indices. The last ten years has led to up to a million widows or single parent households in Iraq.

If you look at it, it is not pretty. This generation of Iraqis has less opportunities than their parents. Civil Society has broken down, Iraq's best and brightest have fled to exile.

Children are being born into a deeply traumatised society - you can't fix thirty years of wars and sanctions in one generation.

March 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMaduka

1. How would this have changed if we'd waited longer before entering Iraq--more preparation, less tie-down in Afghanistan, more support (or at least fewer criticisms) from other powers?

2. While much of Iran's isolation is justified, how much better off would we have been had we discretely given them chances to constructively interface with the rest of the world? Between Afghanistan, Yemen and possibly even Iran, the opportunities were there.

3. Referring to one of Maduka's comments, what would be involved in talking the current Iraqi leadership into taking a leading role in Syria? They know the people on the ground better than we ever could and could probably forge a consensus on the subject between the various Iraqi factions if they tried. A similar question could also be asked about Jordan.

March 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMichael

This is the 2nd time around on both Iraq and Afghanistan for the US. Where was all the high-minded ideas from the world community before the invasion of both Afghanistan and Iraq, where approval ratings in the US were above 70%. Under those UN sanctions, 500k Iraqi people starved and the world watched while the Taliban tried going back to the 7th century.
During this time, Pakistan made some good improvements in their energy sector and agricultural sector. Pakistan was "globalizing" nicely although had zero control over the tribal areas. Yemen had merged together as one country and tribal rules still hold sway. Somalia simply received aid, the slowest form of progress for any country.
Ultimately, something new was going to be tried in all 5 of those nations. In my opinion, the people of Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia have earned the right to complain about the US government along with criticism of US people. Does that mean all 5 of those nations would havel taken steps to improve employment, business, literacy, infant mortality, water purity, and lowered corruption? I say no because all the economic and governmental disconnect from the world community was removed by the US and now the neighbors are helping like Turkey in Iraq or India in Afghanistan. That NEVER would have happened under Sadam Hussein or the Taliban.
US criticism from the world is necessary and helpful and our mistakes are getting more transparent everyday. Most US foreign policy and interaction is economic as well although the perception is marauding around the planet where everyone is a target. Not so. I would agree that in general and US policy does not understand the nuances of each emerging political group although believes the end goal of everyone in the globe connected to the global economy. We will work with everyone regardless of background. That concept is practiced here in the US and why not everywhere. Notice working together is different from religious and cultural expectations because stomachs and wallets come first then everything else.
I look at Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as Kosovo and understand that better times there now never would have happened without US intervention 14-18 years ago while the world looked on and the US acted. What the US needs now is that recognition that China, India, Russia, and Turkey do understand the culture and working together with the US can mitigate and prevent all those deaths the next time. Unfortunately, there will be a next time and the leaders in Asia will do better collectively with the US than simply watching events unfold.

March 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDerek Bergquist

Derek Bergquist,

Was the US record in Afghanistan any different from the Soviet record (i.e. in terms of female literacy, water supply, schools etc). In fact, one could even argue that if the US and Pakistan didn't intervene in Afghanistan we wouldn't have the Taliban or the mess in Afghanistan.

In Iraq, the US drove the sanctions that killed 500,000 Iraqi children and destroyed civil society (sanctions as an effective tool for ANYTHING is a topic for another day, because unlike you I'm not American and I've experienced first hand the havoc sanctions can wreak on the poor).

True, US intervention has been meaningful in a few situations like Bosnia, but nobody can convince me that the US needed to invade Iraq & destroy the nation to accomplish .......... what?

March 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMaduka

Let us hope that there is no "Justice" in the world. Because if there is...we must pay a terrible price for what we have done to the people of Iraq. We left behind widows and orphans, wreckage and poverty, violence and chaos. What did we gain?

March 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTed O'Connor

Compare the Soviets and the US, 10 years each, 1 million dead vs. 110,000, no government change vs. insurgency in 3 provinces. No improvement in lives vs. numerous fumbled attempts at reconstructions under difficult circumstance. That 50 billion dollar railroad needs to be built by China and India to economically force Afghanistan into the world economy instead of being a hole in the map. China and India should have been part of the invasion to eliminate the follow on insurgency but waited for the US to do the heavy lifting then connect economically. Indian investment in Afghanistan today or Chinese investment in the Aynak copper mine would not have happened under the Taliban. Even the US was in talks with the Taliban before 9-11 for oil exploration although couldn't resist mischief beyond their borders by sheltering Osama bin Laden. Now, the girls can finally go to school and everybody has a new start period. Other countries can criticize or privately admit the US did a good thing, but fumble terribly.
I am only a fan of targeted sanctions NOT blanket since the regular people do starve, like Iraq. Not proud of that record and that is the point, no more sanctions or containment, just connection to the world economy that NEVER would happen under Saddam or his sons. The war caused between 150,000 to 1 million deaths (undetermined yet) and finally the US can leave Iraq deservedly alone.
I supported the invasion since Iraq had large unemployment and terrible conditions under Sadam. I knew it would be a long commitment not short and would require many troops. Tom's books have described the large personnel commitment to reconstruction and how most of that effort should be China/India/Russia/Turkey committing these forces. That changed my mind as to moving forward, how military action should be conducted like Bosnia but with more up front committment from the BRIC allies to keep casualties very low.
The goal for Iraq and the Middle East was to connect economically so US Military forces can leave. The US gets less than 20% of oil from the Middle East. 80% of ME oil goes to East Asia, where there are no armies that travel anywhere. The Iraq invasion was supported by the world by their actions, 3 trillion US Treasuries bought in Asia, 1 Trillion US Treasuries bought in Europe. The world financed the transaction and the US carried it out.
My goal as an american is less sanctions or targeted, more military cooperations with the BRICs, more economic and trade with Latin America, South/SE Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa in that order, placing trade agreements with the EU as well as Japan/Korea/China, and most importantly domestic healthcare resolution and education investment in the face of resolving debt. I don't have time for war or sanctions, but I deserve that the world step up and contribute solutions to this problem instead of watching and hoping the US gets it all by itself. Canada, Mexico, and China are all great nations I have visited personally and I welcome their ideas. I know they can put their mouths where their money already has gone.

March 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDerek Bergquist

Dr. Barnett,

I hope you spend some time talking about Saudi Arabia, America's chief ally in the Gulf.

According to this report, Saudia wants to block Twitter and other social media websites. They'll probably call the Chinese to help them do it, but they won't succeed.

This shows a deeply paranoid, unsure regime - more likely to implode than China.

March 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMaduka

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