The U.S. war in Iraq is over. Who won?

By Bernd Debusmann
September 3, 2010

The end of America’s combat mission, after seven and a half costly years, has raised questions that will provide fodder for argument for a long time to come: Was it worth it? And who, if anyone, won?

It’s too early to answer the first question, according to U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a man of sober judgment. “It really requires a historian’s perspective in terms of what happens here in the long run … How it all weighs in the balance over time remains to be seen.”

For a sizeable group of Middle East experts, the second question is easier to answer than the first. “So, who won the war in Iraq? Iran,” says the headline over an analysis by scholar Mohammed Bazzi for the Council on Foreign relations, a New York-based think-tank. His argument: “The U.S. ousted Tehran’s sworn enemy, Saddam Hussein, from power. Then Washington helped install a Shi’ite government for the first time in Iraq’s modern history.

“As U.S. troops became mired in fighting an insurgency and containing a civil war, Iran extended its influence over all of Iraq’s Shi’ite factions.” As a consequence, U.S. influence has been waning, Iran’s has been rising, and there are predictions that Iran will fill the vacuum created by the drawdown of U.S. troops to 50,000 who will “advise and assist” the Iraqis.

When President Barack Obama announced the completion of the drawdown in a somber speech on August 31, he made no reference to Iran – a curious omission – but said that “in an age without surrender ceremonies, we must earn victory through the success of our partners.” In the case of Iraq, only optimists find it easy to see shining success.

Six months after national elections, there is still no Iraqi government, with Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds unable to agree on how to share power and, as importantly, the country’s enormous oil wealth. A squabbling, deadlocked parliament is not much to show for more than 4,000 American, up to 100,000 Iraqi deaths and $1 trillion in war spending.

Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, and the neoconservative war hawks who agitated for an attack on Iraq, predicted that the country would become a model of democracy that would inspire the rest of the Arab world, largely run by autocratic regimes, to follow suit. That proved a pipedream. Instead, in the words of Wathiq al-Hashemi, a political analyst in Baghdad, Iraq has become a theatre for settling foreign disputes.

“Iran has said many times … that it will fill the vacuum after the U.S. withdraws. The country has become the target of regional ambitions and interference in its affairs.”

Which raises the question whether the U.S. has pulled out too early. Like many of America’s foreign policy moves, the withdrawal by August 31 was a function of domestic politics rather than conditions on the ground.

“This was my pledge to the American people as a candidate for this office,” Obama said in his speech. “That is what we have done, we have removed nearly 100,000 U.S. troops from Iraq.” Promise fulfilled.

For Obama, how to deal with Iran’s influence in Iraq and elsewhere in the region is a work in progress. The issues range from the Tehran government’s nuclear programme to Iran’s backing of Hamas, the Palestinian group that runs Gaza, and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’ite organization Israel tried (and failed) to wipe out in its 2006 invasion of Lebanon. The U.S. considers both groups terrorist organizations.

Early in his tenure, with his prestige riding much higher at home and in the Muslim world than it is now, Obama might have had a chance to tackle Iran the way Richard Nixon dealt with China and strike a grand bargain, putting all the differences between the two countries on the table and resolve them as a package. That possibility is probably gone.

Neither Iran nor its Hamas allies in Gaza were on the agenda this week as Obama convened the first direct talks on making peace between Israel and the Palestinians in 20 months. But the ghosts of both were hanging over the meetings which brought together Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, King Abdullah II of Jordan and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

On the eve of the talks, the ninth revival of a “peace process” that has dragged on for decades, Hamas demonstrated its potential to undermine negotiations it opposes by killing four Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank and vowed that more attacks would follow. There’s no reason to doubt they’ll try.

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