Former Bush aide
says Iraq may help stabilize the Middle East — and the global economy
As America looks back on this 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, the war in Iraq looms large — and usually not in a good way. At best, it’s regarded as a distraction, a needless conflict that took America’s focus away from Afghanistan and al-Qaeda. At worst, the Iraq war is decried as a fiasco, the United States’ “greatest strategic disaster,” as retired Gen. William Odom, the former National Security Agency director, once put it.
There is no question that Iraq, as it stands today, has fallen short of American — and Iraqi — hopes and expectations. And there is no question that the costs of the war, for both sides, have been greater than anticipated. Even so, Iraq’s achievements — including the establishment of representative institutions against all odds — are hardly minor. The country could still become mired in a civil conflict that destabilizes the region. But it is equally or even more conceivable that, with relatively small amounts of continued U.S. support, the greatest strategic benefits of the Iraq intervention will materialize in the next several years. And these benefits would more than justify an ongoing U.S. military presence there.
This belief about Iraq’s strategic potential is not based on the naivete that underpinned many optimistic assessments before the war, and it is rooted in firmer ground than the desperate hopes of someone, like me, who has devoted much of the past decade to U.S. efforts in Iraq. While by no means inevitable, there are at least three ways in which Iraq has only just begun to show its strategic value.
First, Iraq can offer a great deal toward ensuring that the nascent transitions from dictatorships to more accountable governance in the region succeed over the long term. Egyptians, Tunisians, Libyans — and perhaps eventually Syrians and Yemenis — have an advantage over Iraqis in the sense that they carry none of the baggage that comes with having a regime removed by the armed forces of an external power. But they will face many of the same challenges tackled by the Iraqis over the past eight years: how to hold members of the former regime accountable without stripping society of the expertise needed to rebuild the country; how to manage a political transition amid competing pressures for both quick results and inclusive processes; and how to deal with elements of the former regime determined to unseat the new order.
For sure, Iraqis — and we Americans — did not meet these challenges without mistakes and missteps. But Iraq’s lessons can help other countries of the Arab world make smoother, more successful transitions. Even before the Arab Spring, Arab intellectuals had begun looking to Iraq’s experience to gain insights into their own challenges.
Second, Iraq, perhaps paradoxically, is now one of the Middle Eastern countries best positioned to maintain ties with the West and with the United States in particular — no small matter in a region where U.S. strategic allies have almost literally disappeared overnight. The eight years since the ouster of Saddam Hussein have been traumatic both to Iraqis and Americans. But at the same time, the shared experience has built relationships and sympathies between the two populations that run deep. Even Americans who lament the U.S. intervention in Iraq must realize that their country made a large investment there and that there are benefits to some sort of ongoing relationship.