After Iraq: The Incredible Shrinking U.S.

By Helena Cobban

** Despite the death of Zarqawi, Bush's huge gamble in Iraq has failed. As a result, the U.S. is weaker everywhere in the world.

** & Spiegel International June 9, 2006

The Bush administration has just received two pieces of welcome news from Iraq. It learned first that a U.S. attack plane had killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the long-hunted leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, and then that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was finally able to name designees for the three security posts in his government. The new ministers were sworn in within hours.

However, the longer-term trends within Iraq remain grim for the administration. Zarqawi's killing might dent but certainly promises no quick end to the insurgency among Sunni Arabs in the west and center of Iraq.

And though it was good for Maliki to be able -- almost six months after the parliamentary elections of last December -- to complete his government, still, even these new ministers would find it no easier than their colleagues to actually implement policies they might agree on in their offices in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone.

Three years after the beginning of the U.S. project to rebuild a working government in Iraq, this project remains mired in corruption, internecine factionalism, and administrative chaos. Despite the appearance of some intra-Iraqi political agreement, several crucial political decisions -- including those concerning the status of the U.S. forces inside the country -- remain to be addressed.

And most worrying of all for U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and his military counterparts: The events of the past six months have shown that they are capable of affecting the important developments in Iraq only slightly, at the margins.

We can see now, indeed, that none of the optimistic scenarios that President Bush and his advisors have spun for Iraq in the past 39 months can be realized within any kind of politically feasible time frame. The White House will likely try to reduce the U.S. troop numbers to below 100,000 before the November midterms, but the tortured security situation inside Iraq is unlikely to improve. (And there are also many scenarios in which developments in Iraq could spin out of control very rapidly indeed.)

Conservatives and liberal hawks like Thomas Friedman and George Packer claim that it is too soon to call Bush's Iraq adventure a failure. Taking the long view, they argue that only history will judge whether Iraq, and the region, will in the end benefit from the forcible removal of Saddam Hussein.

I disagree. We have had three years of that "history" already, and what it has brought has been a steady deterioration in the conditions of life for Iraq's citizens in areas such as: the provision of very basic services like public security, electric power and safe drinking water; increasing casualty tolls from political violence and unchecked crime; the flight of massive new waves of Iraqis from homes in unsafe neighborhoods; the proliferation of partisan militias; and the deep rooting of institutional corruption.

And there is currently no prospect that this deterioration can even be slowed, let alone reversed. The last political trick the Bush administration had up its sleeve was the holding of the Iraqi parliamentary election of last December. That election was largely successful at the procedural level, but it completely failed to usher in the promised era of political harmony and governmental competence. Indeed, the worsening of the situation has accelerated sharply since December.

Waiting for any more of this "history" to unfold, as we await some theoretically different "final verdict" on Bush's Iraq project, would only give new force to John Maynard Keynes' famous dictum that "in the long run we are all dead." (Though given the present killing rates inside Iraq, for Iraqis that "run" may not even be particularly long.)

But President Bush's decision to invade Iraq was never just about Iraq, anyway. The intellectual authors of the decision -- Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and his civilian aides in the Pentagon, and the powerful neoconservatives outside government -- intended the invasion of Iraq to send powerful messages throughout the Middle East and the world. For these men, the invasion was a high-stakes roll of the dice in a strategic game of global proportions.

In the arenas of the broader Persian Gulf, the Israeli-Arab theater, the campaign against terrorism, and the worldwide relationship with other existing and emerging powers, the invasion of Iraq was intended to decisively reverse what the neocons had seen as a worrying erosion of U.S. power and influence.

Unfortunately for the dice-rollers, they miscalculated their chances of success. They were right about two things, though: the size of the stakes in Iraq and the strategic linkage they had asserted between the situation there and those other theaters around the world. So while it is perhaps possible that if they had "won" inside Iraq, that might indeed have strengthened their position in the other theaters, that proposition will never be tested.

For instead of winning in Iraq, the Bushites are now -- as I and others had predicted all along -- losing there, very fast. Accordingly, in terms of Washington's relations with powers as disparate as the mullahs' Iran, Putin's Russia, the rising powers of China and India, or Hugo Chavez's Venezuela, we now see unfolding exactly the kind of erosion of U.S. power that the neocons once warned against.

Let us consider the fallout we can already see in just three non-Iraqi theaters -- Iran, the campaign against al-Qaida and its allies, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- from the failure of Bush's project in Iraq.


The most evident effects of the administration's failure in Iraq are those on the balance of coercive power between Washington and Tehran. Back in 2002, hard-liners in and close to the Bush administration warned volubly that subduing Iraq would not be sufficient for them; once they had "won" there they intended to use the U.S. military deployment there as a bludgeon with which -- whether through further military action, or through force-backed coercive diplomacy -- they could bend to their will both Iran and Syria.

As a senior Bush official infamously said, "Anyone can go to Baghdad. Real men go to Tehran." In May 2003, in the immediate aftermath of the invasion of Iraq (with its attendant display of "shock and awe"), the Iranians were apparently terrified they would be next. Iran at that point found itself with large numbers of U.S. troops, weapons and onward power-projection capabilities deployed along its borders with both Iraq, to the west, and Afghanistan, to the east.

In May 2003, then-President Mohammad Khatami reached out with a letter proposing the first direct talks between Tehran and Washington since 1979. Bush brushed that overture aside. Over the two years that followed the administration and a zealously anti-Iranian Congress kept up the pressure on Tehran.

In an eerie replay of the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, Congress allocated massive funding to Iranian oppositionists to help destabilize and ultimately replace the regime in Tehran, while the administration worked hard to pull together an international coalition dedicated to regime change there ("by all means necessary," as the standard euphemism for allowing the use of military force puts it).

Three years passed. Along the way the Iranians -- many of whom were reacting very strongly against Washington's heavy-handed intervention in their domestic political affairs -- voted in a more hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose defiant anti-U.S. and anti-Israeli rhetoric and open pursuit of nuclear power stood in notable contrast to the less strident political posture adopted by Khatami.

At the beginning of May this year, Ahmadinejad sent a second Iranian letter to Washington. Bush and his people shrugged that one off, too. But on May 31 Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced a diplomatic riposte of her own: If Iran would suspend its recently resumed enrichment of uranium, then the U.S. would join the Europeans in holding talks with Iran and would offer it a package "containing both benefits, if Iran makes the right choice, and costs, if it does not."

It remains to be seen whether this move from Washington represents a good-faith attempt to de-escalate the tensions with Tehran and find a way to resolve the many differences between the two countries peaceably, or whether, like Colin Powell's infamous appearance at the Security Council in February 2003, it is intended merely as diplomatic window dressing that aims to satisfy key international allies that Washington has indeed exhausted all the diplomatic options before it resumes an already predetermined rush toward war.

The latter is surely a more accurate depiction of Washington's attitude. But the chances that the U.S. will actually attack Iran are far lower now than they were three years ago, because the balance of power between Washington and Tehran has altered drastically since May 2003. The swaggeringly militaristic threats issued by Bush administration people in midsummer 2003 are now nowhere to be heard.

What has changed? Most crucially, the U.S. military, which looked so capable of threatening Iran in 2003, is these days engulfed in an Iraqi political situation in which Tehran now has considerably more political influence than Washington. Today, the 133,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines deployed throughout Iraq look more like 133,000 sitting ducks than any kind of strike force poised for attack. (Back in 1980, the presence of just 52 U.S. hostages in Iran lost Jimmy Carter his bid for reelection. But now, the Bush administration has 133,000 U.S. government employees sitting as hostages to fortune in Iraq. Will the reaction of the U.S. voters be commensurate?)

Flowing from that reality in Iraq, two other crucial dimensions of the Washington-Tehran strategic balance have also changed considerably. Internationally, Washington is nowadays perceived -- quite rightly -- as far less powerful than it was in 2003. In 2003, though popular opinion around the world was overwhelmingly opposed to the invasion of Iraq, Bush still managed to persuade some 30 governments to give at least token support to the "coalition of the willing." (Britain's support was more than token: Prime Minister Tony Blair committed 11,000 troops and considerable political prestige to the project.)

Nowadays, the number of states ready to give even token support to the coalition in Iraq has shrunk considerably. And every single major world leader has warned Washington strongly against launching any kind of unprovoked military attack against Iran. The only exception to this is Israel, a fact that brings significant complications of its own.

Inside the United States, meanwhile, the enthusiasm (or, more minimally, the level of permissiveness) with which the U.S. public and even Congress view the possibility of attacking Iran has cooled a lot since the summer of 2003. Back then, still raw from the wounds of 9/11 and flush with the bravado of having just bested Saddam's armies, many U.S. citizens could still dream of having a follow-up "cakewalk" in Iran.

Now, 2,476 American body bags and billions of federal dollars later, no such cakewalk looks remotely realizable -- in either Iraq or Iran. There may be some political operatives around Bush who think a "wag the dog" scenario might be a good idea in the run-up to the coming midterms. But I do not see that any rational politician would follow that advice.

Richard Haass, the head of the Council on Foreign Relations, told the *New York Times* May 31 that the conditions for opening a dialogue with Tehran "are significantly different than they were four or five years ago, but candidly they are not as favorable now for the United States." That is putting it very mildly. (Which is not surprising, since Haass ran the State Department's policy planning during Bush's first term in office.)


Terrorist violence concerns me greatly. Back in the '70s I covered (and barely missed being killed by) a number of explosives-packed car bombs in Beirut, Lebanon. Since then, I've traveled around both Israel and London on public buses and trains. I have friends who work on U.S. airliners, and in office buildings in Washington and New York.

So of course it was shocking after Sept. 11, 2001, to realize that in the years since the U.S.-sponsored "victory" over the Soviets in Afghanistan, we had allowed that impoverished state to fail so thoroughly that it had become a supportive incubator for some extremely anti-humane, ambitious, and technically capable global terrorists.

But you would have thought that in November 2001, after the U.S. and its allies yet again won a military victory in Afghanistan, this time around they would see the importance of working hard to convert the military victory they had won into a lasting political victory -- for Afghanistan's 31 million people, for their neighbors, and the world -- by bringing serious, long-term socioeconomic stabilization to the country.

They did not. Instead of doing that, within days of the fall of the Taliban regime in Kabul, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was already talking to Bush about how to start planning the invasion of Iraq. Opening a second front is always a risky strategy in any war, and it proved catastrophic in this one, since the Iraq campaign quite predictably turned from the set-piece affair that the Pentagon war-gamed for into a vicious, unwinnable counterinsurgency.

And in the years since 2003, the quagmire in Iraq has eaten up much greater quantities of U.S. and allied military manpower, international aid dollars, and focused political attention than Afghanistan. (Some figures: Afghanistan has a population of 31 million and an area of 647,000 square kilometers. It currently has some 26,000 U.S. and allied forces deployed, and received aid pledges for 2004-2009 totaling $8.9 billion. Iraq has a population of 27 million and an area of 437,000 square kilometers. It has 140,000 U.S. and allied forces, and received aid pledges for 2004-2007 totaling $33 billion.)

Iraq, which before March 2003 hosted almost no international terrorists, has become a magnet for thousands of them (in the same way Afghanistan was, when there was a Soviet occupation there to fight). And in today's Afghanistan, large portions of the country have now reverted to Taliban influence or even Taliban rule.

As I noted above, Bush's decision to invade Iraq was a big roll of the geopolitical dice. It failed. So long as U.S. troops remain in Iraq the consequences of Washington's failure there will continue to play out to the benefit of the Islamist terrorists -- in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and everywhere else where now, in reaction to the U.S. brutality in Iraq, they find populations prepared to help them.


The invasion of Iraq, some of its apologists promised, would help bring a reasonable and final resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli dispute. Actually, they made two distinctly different arguments in this regard. One was that Saddam's financial aid had been such a strong factor fueling Palestinian violence that overthrowing Saddam would deal the Palestinian extremists a body blow; and then a more flexible Palestinian leadership would agree to most of the concessions that Israel had demanded, and reaching an agreement would be easy. The other (and quite contradictory) argument held that in launching the invasion of Iraq Bush would be so dependent on the support of political allies like Tony Blair and Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak that once the invasion was over Bush would be obliged to accede to the long-standing demands of those allies that he weigh in on the Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy in a way that would give the Palestinians something like an acceptable deal.

Neither of these arguments was borne out by events. Israel has won some respite from terrorist violence in recent years. But this has been the result far more of the Palestinians' unilateral *tahdi'eh* (cease-fire) and of the retreat of Israeli troops and settlers from Gaza and behind high concrete and steel barriers in the West Bank, than it has been of Saddam's overthrow.

In 2005, after Saddam and his erstwhile Palestinian ally Yasser Arafat were no longer on the political scene, the Israelis were still unwilling to negotiate with the much more moderate Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. Then, as Abbas' credibility with Palestinians fell, Hamas' political stock rose. None of these was linked in any way with the overthrow of Saddam.

As for the argument (made by the Middle East expert Fred Halliday, among others) that Bush would be so grateful to Tony Blair on Iraq that he would then take Blair's advice on Palestine, well, dream on! Despite all Blair's pleadings on this score (and frankly, they haven't been anywhere near as strong as they could have been) Bush and the U.S. Congress have continued to give generous financial and political aid to an Israel that, under Sharon and Olmert, has persisted in the construction of the land-grabbing West Bank barrier, in the ethnic cleansing of wide swathes of East Jerusalem, and in thumbing its nose at the very meek little "road map for peace" that Bush laid out back in June 2002.

So in neither of these two ways proposed has it been proven that "the road to peace in Jerusalem lies through Baghdad." Instead, the world has become accustomed to seeing on its TV screens startlingly similar images from both occupations: heavy tanks rumbling through palm-fringed cities and towns; Arab men rounded up and forced to sit for hours with heads bowed and wrists cuffed painfully behind their backs; towns surrounded by razor wire; young soldiers controlling the slow passage of civilians through endless checkpoints.

The similarities are not surprising, given that the U.S. military imported many of its tactics (and even much of its ammunition) from Israel. But these similarities have made the U.S. appear around the world even more as a close ally and patsy of Israel than it looked like before; and they have thus further fueled the active resentment or the more mute incomprehension with which much of the world now views U.S. foreign policy.


So how do I feel about the failure of the Bush project inside Iraq? Vindicated, at one level, I guess, since in my columns in the *Christian Science Monitor* and elsewhere I did all I could before March 2003 to warn against the reckless folly of the threatened invasion. And just about all the specific bad outcomes I warned about then have subsequently come to pass. But this kind of vindication is a very bitter dish to swallow.

The United States, which is now my country, has many great attributes. But I have always been disturbed by the arrogance and militarism with which it deals with the rest of the world. Perhaps this is because I grew up in a Britain in which it seemed, back in the late 1950s and 1960s, that every two weeks another portion of the British Empire was peeling off and gaining its political independence.

The broad narrative of decolonization that dominated those years seemed to me to be fundamentally good and just. It still does. Even though we all know plenty about the instances of malfeasance and political decay in some post-colonial countries, I cannot imagine that a continuation of colonial control would have been any better for the colonized peoples. Certainly, it would have been deeply anti-democratic and unjust.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq was not, on the face of it, an overtly "colonial" venture. But it has had many of the attributes of colonialism, including two key ones: The U.S. administration in Iraq sought to remake the governance of Iraq according to its own plans, and to subordinate Iraq's economy to the desires of U.S.-based corporations. And when Washington encountered Iraqi resistance to these moves, it resorted to many of the same tactics of counterinsurgency used by colonial powers throughout history: divide and rule, mass incarcerations, intrusive policies of population control, torture, and abuse.

I believe that the domestic and global factors now pushing Washington toward undertaking a complete (or near-complete) retreat from Iraq are now so powerful that this retreat will take place before the end of the Bush presidency. But the U.S. will not merely be retreating to the position it occupied on March 18, 2003; the shrinkage of U.S. power around the globe will be much broader than that.

There is one very simple reason for this: The U.S. will need the cooperation of other powers if the pullout from Iraq is to be orderly. But why should Russia, China, or other world powers give Washington this cooperation if they had any fear that Washington would then just redirect its hegemonistic impulses elsewhere -- perhaps toward them?

So as the major powers help Washington to extricate itself from Iraq, they will almost certainly require a price to be paid. It may well be demanded in two currencies: some form of stronger guarantee that Washington will not again undertake any recklessly "preventive" war like the highly destabilizing and destructive military action it launched in 2003; and some seriously stronger role for the non-U.S. powers in the always globally sensitive Israeli-Arab negotiations

In this latter regard, I think Fred Halliday got it wrong. Going into Iraq, the Bush people did not feel they "needed" the support of Tony Blair (or anyone else) badly enough that they needed to cede their monopolistic position in Arab-Israeli diplomacy or their one-sided support for the Israeli government of the day in order to win it. Coming out of Iraq, the balance of power between Washington and the rest of the world will likely be quite different.

So as the U.S. withdraws from Iraq, there may be some developments in international politics that will strengthen global stability. The U.S. may lose the ability it has had for so long to block any resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli dispute that does not conform to Israel's wishes. The U.S. and the other world powers may finally get serious about trying to stabilize Afghanistan (and other long-neglected parts of the world like Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Darfur), rather than leaving them to fester and thus incubate new al-Qaidas or other, as-yet-unseen networks of stakeless international troublemakers.

And crucially, the gross power imbalance between the U.S.'s 300 million people and the 6 billion humans who are not U.S. citizens may finally shift toward a more egalitarian, and therefore more just and stable, position. But alongside these possible "gains" from the point of view of building a more just world, we also need to tally up the losses inflicted by the whole brutal Bush project in Iraq: primarily, the massive losses inflicted on Iraq's people, but also the losses of American lives and treasure.

I realize there are many Americans who are not as ready as I am to welcome the prospect of a diminishment (or, as I would say, a rectification) of the disproportionate amount of power our nation has been able to wield in world affairs over the past 60 years. Many Americans today -- like many British or French citizens 80 years ago -- think it is somehow "natural" that their nation intervene in the doings of other nations around the world and act as the crucial arbiter in international affairs. (And yes, throughout history nearly all such interventions have always come dressed in "salvationist" garb: Very few nations ever knowingly undertake a war or any other foreign intervention that its people clearly understand to be unjust at the time. If such understanding comes at all, it does so only later.)

Why does U.S. hegemonism in the world seem "natural" to so many Americans? Plumbing the roots of that particular wrinkle on the broader conceit of American exceptionalism would take a long time! Suffice it to note here that after 9/11 the attacks of that day laid their own potent overlay of shock, fear, and anger onto the bedrock of those older American attitudes.

For roughly 30 months after 9/11, feelings of vengefulness, and of the righteousness of American anger (and of all the actions that flowed therefrom), seemed still to dominate the consciousness of a broad political elite in the U.S. It was only after the revelations of Abu Ghraib in April 2004 that the country's mainstream discourse on the war, and on what their vengefulness had caused the U.S. to become, became more self-aware and open to self-criticism.

Today, a clear majority of Americans judge that invading Iraq was the wrong thing to do. A similarly clear majority say the administration should set a timetable for withdrawal. This willingness to challenge the Bush people's spin on the situation in Iraq is a welcome sign of increased public understanding, but it does not signal any automatic readiness to challenge the principle of U.S. exceptionalism more broadly. Grappling with that issue is, I believe, our next great challenge as a citizenry; and it is a challenge that the events of the next few years will almost certainly force us to confront head-on.