U.S. occupation destroyed the ethnic unity of Iraqi society, provoked the rise of Islamic militancy, created a power vacuum that was naturally exploited by all manner of local tough guys, and thereby opened the door for al Qua’ida, which, in its own equally barbaric way, moved as efficiently as the U.S. to take advantage of events to sink its teeth into the carcass of Iraqi society.
Now we must prepare for the future that will arise from the foundation laid by this disastrous occupation.
Saddam, who turned himself into a monster with Reagan’s support, was a secular leader interested in building Iraq into the regional superpower. By the eve of the U.S. invasion, after suffering 11 years of low-grade U.S. military attack and crippling economic sanctions, not much was left of Saddam’s grandiose schemes. When the Bush Administration, staffed by the same key players who had aided Saddam’s rise to power during the Reagan Administration, finally decided to bring the agony to an end in 2003, Iraq was already an economically and militarily devastated country, but, if impoverished, still a fairly united, ethnically stable, and moderate secular society.
The lack of Bush Administration concern for the Iraqi people, the bias against academic thoughtfulness on the part of the testosterone-drunk action figures of the Administration, the idiotic idea of putting the Pentagon rather than State in charge of whatever passed in the shortsighted Bush Administration for post-war planning, the lust for Iraqi oil, the willingness of key officials to place protection of Israeli imperial plans ahead of U.S. national interest, the utter ignorance of the Administration about the sources and implications of Moslem complaints—not to mention Moslem politics, and the eagerness to exploit 9/11 to roll over helpless Iraq on the way to Tehran all contributed to the final blow to Iraq: the destruction--partly by and partly as a result of the incompetent, self-centered, and often barbaric U.S. occupation—of Iraqi society.
The Bush Administration may have lied and deceived the American people and--particularly at the U.N.--the whole world about the reasons for its attack, and that deception may have critical implications for American democracy and freedom, but from the perspective of the Iraqi people, the deception was a minor detail. The Iraqi people were cursed by a dictator; albeit not out of any concern for Iraqis, the U.S. invasion exorcised that curse.
Unfortunately, it cast new curses upon Iraqis. From the perspective of the Iraqi people, the problem was not the U.S. invasion but the post-invasion occupation. It almost immediately became obvious to everyone in the world, except the American people, still blinded by the shock of 9/11, that the Bush Administration’s occupation was being conducted not on behalf of the Iraqi people but for the benefit of the Bush Administration, its corporate allies, and the broad elite group in Israel favoring Israeli regional military dominance rather than learning to live with their neighbors. U.S. occupation destroyed the ethnic unity of Iraqi society, provoked the rise of Islamic militancy, created a power vacuum that was naturally exploited by all manner of local tough guys, and thereby opened the door for al Qua’ida, which, in its own equally barbaric way, moved as efficiently as the U.S. to take advantage of events to sink its teeth into the carcass of Iraqi society.
Five years of war have produced a shattered society, a destroyed economy, and a mirage of a state: fertile soil indeed for cultivating a new jihadist movement that truly will be a threat to the U.S. Although to date I know of no such movement in Iraq (aside from the remnants of al Qua’ida’s apparently failed effort, the longer American air war against Iraqi cities continues, the more likely it becomes. The longer groups that have formed to fill the power vacuum are prevented from participating as equals in the political process (be they Sunni Awakening forces or Moqtada al Sadr’s militia or others), the more likely it becomes. The longer the Iraqi oil industry remains structured for the benefit of the international oil industry rather than for Iraq’s benefit, the more likely it becomes. The longer U.S. military bases remain in Iraq, the more likely it becomes.
Al Qua’ida itself, although perhaps defeated at least momentarily in its effort to take control of Iraq, benefits in a far more significant manner: as long as American troops and bases remain in Iraq, they serve as a convenient target for al Qua’ida and represent an incredibly powerful motivational issue to aid in the recruitment of new members. For this reason, the termination of U.S. military operations in Iraq would constitute an immediate and very significant loss for al Qua’ida. The U.S. invasion of Iraq was a gift to al Qua’ida, eliminating an Arab Sunni enemy, creating a convenient battleground, enhancing al Qua’ida’s reputation, and distracting attention from the shattered al Qua’ida headquarters organization. Five years later, al Qua’ida itself has gained time to reorganize, and the chaos flowing out of the U.S. occupation of Iraq has given the al Qua’ida message of global Sunni jihad a huge boost. That the U.S. succeeds in eliminating al Qua’ida from Iraq should come to Americans as little solace: such a victory would only return the situation to what it was after 9/11; Washington invites them into Iraq and then kicks them out. Iraq has been a sideshow for al Qua’ida, but one that brought al Qua’ida much profit.
The third major “accomplishment” of the U.S. invasion was the regional rise of Iran and the growing temptation for Iranian leaders to, in their turn, exploit these new conditions for their own benefit. The longer social chaos exists in Iraq, the more difficult it will be for any Iranian politician to resist the temptation of trying to do something about it; they will react to this degree just as American politicians would react if similar chaos existed in Mexico or Canada. But for Iran, the temptation will be even greater because of the intimate religious ties between the two societies, and because it is difficult to think of any Mideast country that is not intervening in Iraq. Iranian, Turkish, Israeli, Saudi Arabian, Syrian, and Lebanese interests will no doubt all be aggressively represented in Iraq for the foreseeable future.
In sum, the U.S. attack has created a tremendous opportunity for al Qua’ida, fertile ground for the next round of global jihad, and an irresistible temptation for regional politicians. These three bleeding wounds created by the nature of the U.S. occupation of Iraq form critical inputs to the future of the intensifying confrontation between Western and Moslem societies.
What are the long-term implications for the confrontation between Islam and the West that follow from these three effects of the U.S. occupation of Iraq?
Iraqi chaos will cause ferment throughout the Mideast for years to come as it draws country after country--as well as innumerable highly risk-accepting and controversial non-state actors--into highly competitive intervention in the Iraqi power vacuum. The Iraq-Iran relationship that attracts such American attention will be a microcosm of the broader regional situation. Iraq and Iran together make up a complex adaptive system, in which each state constitutes a smaller complex adaptive system. For one, this means that the two societies will evolve in response to each other. Neither has an immutable nature, nor will history repeat. Rather, each is evolving into something new, in part as a function of the evolution of the other. In a future post, I will explore how complexity theory may help us to anticipate the likely consequences of the U.S. occupation of Iraq.