Time Travel to 2003
Anniversaries are times for reflection, in part because it's often only with hindsight that we recognize the most significant moments in our lives. On the other hand, on anniversaries it's often hard to remember what it was really like back when it all began. Amid the chaos of the Middle East today, it's easy, for instance, to forget what things looked like as 2003 began. Afghanistan, it appeared, had been invaded and occupied quickly and cleanly, in a way the Soviets (the British, the ancient Greeks…) could never have dreamed of. Iran was frightened, seeing the mighty American military on its eastern border and soon to be on the western one as well, and was ready to deal. Syria was controlled by the stable thuggery of Bashar al-Assad and relations were so good that the US was rendering terror suspects to his secret prisons for torture.
Most of the rest of the Middle East was tucked in for a long sleep with dictators reliable enough to maintain stability. Libya was an exception, though predictions were that before too long Muammar Qaddafi would make some sort of deal. (He did.) All that was needed was a quick slash into Iraq to establish a permanent American military presence in the heart of Mesopotamia. Our future garrisons there could obviously oversee things, providing the necessary muscle to swat down any future destabilizing elements. It all made so much sense to the neocon visionaries of the early Bush years. The only thing that Washington couldn't imagine was this: that the primary destabilizing element would be us.
Indeed, its mighty plan was disintegrating even as it was being dreamed up. In their lust for everything on no terms but their own, the Bush team missed a diplomatic opportunity with Iran that might have rendered today's saber rattling unnecessary, even as Afghanistan fell apart and Iraq imploded. As part of the breakdown, desperate men, blindsided by history, turned up the volume on desperate measures: torture, secret gulags, rendition, drone killings, extra-constitutional actions at home. The sleaziest of deals were cut to try to salvage something, including ignoring the A.Q. Khan network of Pakistani nuclear proliferation in return for a cheesy Condi Rice-Qaddafi photo-op rapprochement in Libya.
Inside Iraq, the forces of Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict had been unleashed by the US invasion. That, in turn, was creating the conditions for a proxy war between the US and Iran, similar to the growing proxy war between Israel and Iran inside Lebanon (where another destabilizing event, the US-sanctioned Israeli invasion of 2006, followed in hand). None of this has ever ended. Today, in fact, that proxy war has simply found a fresh host, Syria, with multiple powers using "humanitarian aid" to push and shove their Sunni and Shia avatars around.
Staggering neocon expectations, Iran emerged from the US decade in Iraq economically more powerful, with sanctions-busting trade between the two neighbors now valued at some $5 billion a year and still growing. In that decade, the US also managed to remove one of Iran's strategic counterbalances, Saddam Hussein, replacing him with a government run by Nouri al-Malaki, who had once found asylum in Tehran.
Meanwhile, Turkey is now engaged in an open war with the Kurds of northern Iraq. Turkey is, of course, part of NATO, so imagine the US government sitting by silently while Germany bombed Poland. To complete the circle, Iraq's prime minister recently warned that a victory for Syria's rebels will spark sectarian wars in his own country and will create a new haven for al-Qaeda which would further destabilize the region.
Meanwhile, militarily burnt out, economically reeling from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and lacking any moral standing in the Middle East post-Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, the US sat on its hands as the regional spark that came to be called the Arab Spring flickered out, to be replaced by yet more destabilization across the region. And even that hasn't stopped Washington from pursuing the latest version of the (now-nameless) global war on terror into ever-newer regions in need of destabilization.
Having noted the ease with which a numbed American public patriotically looked the other way while our wars followed their particular paths to hell, our leaders no longer blink at the thought of sending American drones and special operations forces ever farther afield, most notably ever deeper into Africa, creating from the ashes of Iraq a frontier version of the state of perpetual war George Orwell once imagined for his dystopian novel 1984. And don't doubt for a second that there is a direct path from the invasion of 2003 and that chicken plant to the dangerous and chaotic place that today passes for our American world.
On this 10th anniversary of the Iraq War, Iraq itself remains, by any measure, a dangerous and unstable place. Even the usually sunny Department of State advises American travelers to Iraq that US citizens "remain at risk for kidnapping... [as] numerous insurgent groups, including Al Qaida, remain active..." and notes that "State Department guidance to US businesses in Iraq advises the use of Protective Security Details."
In the bigger picture, the world is also a far more dangerous place than it was in 2003. Indeed, for the State Department, which sent me to Iraq to witness the follies of empire, the world has become ever more daunting. In 2003, at that infamous "mission accomplished" moment, only Afghanistan was on the list of overseas embassies that were considered "extreme danger posts." Soon enough, however, Iraq and Pakistan were added. Today, Yemen and Libya, once boring but secure outposts for State's officials, now fall into the same category.
Other places once considered safe for diplomats and their families such as Syria and Mali have been evacuated and have no American diplomatic presence at all. Even sleepy Tunisia, once calm enough that the State Department had its Arabic language school there, is now on reduced staff with no diplomatic family members resident. Egypt teeters.
The Iranian leadership watched carefully as the American imperial version of Iraq collapsed, concluded that Washington was a paper tiger, backed away from initial offers to talk over contested issues, and instead (at least for a while) doubled-down on achieving nuclear breakout capacity, aided by the past work of that same A.Q. Khan network. North Korea, another A.Q. Khan beneficiary, followed the same pivot ever farther from Washington, while it became a genuine nuclear power. Its neighbor China pursued its own path of economic dominance, while helping to "pay" for the Iraq War by becoming the number-one holder of US debt among foreign governments. It now owns more than 21% of the US debt held overseas.
And don't put away the joke book just yet. Subbing as apologist-in-chief for an absent George W. Bush and the top officials of his administration on this 10th anniversary, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently reminded us that there is more on the horizon. Conceding that he had "long since given up trying to persuade people Iraq was the right decision," Blair added that new crises are looming. "You've got one in Syria right now, you've got one in Iran to come," he said. "We are in the middle of this struggle, it is going to take a generation, it is going to be very arduous and difficult. But I think we are making a mistake, a profound error, if we think we can stay out of that struggle."
Think of his comment as a warning. Having somehow turned much of Islam into a foe, Washington has essentially assured itself of never-ending crises that it stands no chance whatsoever of winning. In this sense, Iraq was not an aberration, but the historic zenith and nadir for a way of thinking that is only now slowing waning. For decades to come, the US will have a big enough military to ensure that our decline is slow, bloody, ugly, and reluctant, if inevitable. One day, however, even the drones will have to land.
And so, happy 10th anniversary, Iraq War! A decade after the invasion, a chaotic and unstable Middle East is the unfinished legacy of our invasion. I guess the joke is on us after all, though no one is laughing.
Peter Van Buren, a retired 24-year veteran of the State Department, served in Iraq. A TomDispatch regular, he writes about Iraq, the Middle East, and US diplomacy at his blog, We Meant Well. He is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. He is currently working on a new book, The People on the Bus: A Story of the 99%. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.