Ten years ago to the day the first coalition troops entered Iraq; a month later, George W. Bush declared the end of combat operations, against the backdrop of a banner reading ‘Mission Accomplished’. Yesterday, car bombings in Baghdad killed 56 and injured over 200, the latest victims in a decade of violence estimated to have cost more than 175,000 deaths.
The contrast – between the expectation of a quick victory and easy settlement, and a bloody insurgency and civil war – has provided a vital lesson in the limitations of Western power, and the dangers of military adventures. By neither the neoconservative, quasi-imperialistic aims of the Bush administration nor the interventionist – bordering at times on messianic – ambitions of Tony Blair has the invasion been a success. Iraq remains no beacon of western liberal government, whilst – ironically – in the 2009 auctions of Iraqi oil fields, no US company secured a contract. Anti-Americanism is rife in the area, and Al Qaeda may be bloodied, but have certainly not been defeated.
Understandably, given the cost – not only have thousands died, but, according to one estimate, the war may ultimately cost up to $3 trillion to the US economy – public opinion has rarely been in favour of the war. Protests even at the time were widespread – “let no one say …. that New Labour has failed to motivate the young and idealistic”, one former British MP commented. The presidency of Barack Obama has adopted a drastic shift towards an isolationist US foreign policy, spurred on by a war-weary public, and a military rebalance in favour of the Far East.
This is however, a dangerous stance. While the cost of the war has indeed been monumental, it is short-sighted to view the entire affair as a disaster. Iraq, for all its violence and corruption, is now one of the few functioning democracies in the Middle East. Oil production, the lifeline of its economy, is up one million barrels per year from 2003 levels, and predicted to double by 2020. Since 2007, Iraq has fallen from second to ninth on the Failed States Index. A brutal – and genocidal – dictator has been ousted: according to a 2006 poll, 64% of Iraqis believed the country to be heading in the right direction, and 77% supported the removal of Saddam.
The greatest vindication of the Iraq war comes, however, from the Arab Spring. The wave of uprisings that has spread across the Islamic world has seen few regimes fall easily, while the assumption that these will be replaced by liberal, pro-western democracies has been revealed as naive in the extreme. Syria’s collapse into civil war is a humanitarian crisis of unique proportion: that Iraq would have seen a similar eruption into sectarian violence is almost certain (which in itself removes the most powerful argument against the invasion). Moreover, the presence of coalition troops was clearly the only thing preventing a collapse into full-scale anarchy: the calming effects of Petraeus’ surge in 2007 provides evidence enough for this. Syria, in the absence of foreign military aid, is locked into a conflict that over two years has killed some 70,000, of whom many are civilians
Military intervention in the internal events of other states is a dangerous game, and one that can backfire spectacularly. That said, when thousands of lives and the future of whole nations are at stake – as now – our politicians should ask themselves seriously if they wish to be remembered for allowing the disintegration of society across an entire region. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have undoubtedly proved there are few ‘easy’ solutions. In an age of squeezed budgets and the rising threat of China in the East, the temptation to ignore the internal squabbles of the Islamic states may become irresistible. In doing so, however, we risk condemning millions to lives of conflict, lived in desperate conditions in what was once the cradle of civilisation.