Top 10 List: Consequences of Iraq Becoming A Failed State
Posted by Suzanne Nossel
There is genuine uncertainty over whether, at this point, there’s anything the U.S can do to turn things around in Iraq. Kevin Drum suggests that the only reason to hesitate in calling for a pull out is the fear of looking weak. As we debate what’s next, though, its worth considering what the consequences of a failed Iraq will be.
I define failure as a situation in which the result of the U.S.’s invasion and subsequent occupation are not the stability (never mind the democracy) that we all hoped for, but instead continued chaos, factionalism, violence, and uncontrollable outside influence by the likes of Iran and Syria. It’s a scenario in which Iraq’s domestic security forces never gain the upper hand against insurgents, the economy does not recover, the fractious politics never coalesces into a functioning government, and the violence goes on unabated. In short, current conditions persist.
Noone, neither hawk nor peacenik, wants this to happen. But as we contemplate options that we long dismissed, its worth remembering why we’ve said for so long that the prospect of Iraq as a failed state was unacceptable. Even if we come to the conclusion that – though it may leave the country in ruins - U.S. withdrawal from Iraq is the best of an array of terrible options, if Iraq becomes a failed state that choice will not be without devastating consequences.
This post is intended not to suggest a particular course of action, but rather to point out that the result of recent years’ policies in Iraq is a painfully short list of options, all bad. Those guiding the war effort bear responsibility for backing us into this corner. At every stage, proposals have been made (to internationalize, involve the UN, improve planning, increase the number of troops when it still could have made a difference etc.) that could have helped us avoid this conundrum.
Some of the casualties if Iraq becomes a failed state:
1. The fate of the Iraqi people – The Iraqi people will be left with a state that’s vulnerable to rampant violence, possible civil war and economic ruin. Those that believe that virtually anything is better than life under Saddam may face a Baathist resurgence.
2. Stability in the Middle East – Chaos in Iraq will bleed over to the wider region. Iraq’s neighbors can be expected to react opportunistically to the void, meddling in Iraqi affairs to serve their own interests, and very likely entering into violent conflict with one another.
3. Attitudes toward the U.S. in the Middle East – The U.S.’s image in the Middle East has gone from bad to worse in much of the Middle East as a result of the Iraq war. If the result of our efforts leaves the Iraqi people worse off, all the resentment over the perceived unilateralism of the Iraq invasion and the distortions of fact over WMD will harden into even deeper bitterness.
4. The fight against terrorism – Everyone from President Bush to al Qaeda #2 Ayman al Zawahri has declared the Iraqi insurgency the primary front of the fight against terrorism. If Iraq winds up a failed state, it will represent a territory terrorists have conquered and can claim. In addition to offering terrorists safe harbor to operate, the resources of the Iraqi state – oil, military, communications infrastructure, and funds – may fuel terrorist purposes.
5. Fight Against WMD, especially in Iran - Iranian influence is already on the rise in a chaotic Iraq; if Iraq fails, the role of the mullahs will only grow. As illustrated by Ahmadinejad's election, the Iraq war has already undercut the support we used to enjoy among moderate Iranians sick of their repressive regime. If Iraq becomes a failed state and U.S. influence in the Middle East correspondingly diminishes, the pressure on Iran to accede to American demands in relation to its nuclear program will further weaken. Chinese and Russian economic ties to Iran will pose increasingly powerful buffers against counter-proliferation efforts. Its hard to imagine Kim Jong Il won't find some way of scoring points off this as well; he's already benefitted from the consensus that a military response to N. Korea's nuclear program is off the table.
6. American credibility - Let's face it: a failed state in Iraq will alter perceptions of American power the world over. Iraq is the most ambitious and important U.S. foreign policy undertaking in a generation. Despite all the rifts, the U.S. has been united in its determination that Iraq not become a failed state. For the U.S. to mount a massive effort to prevent that outcome, only to witness it anyway has to call into question the credibility of American power.
7. Prospects for democracy in the Middle East – The Bush Administration has often described how the creation of a stable and democratic Iraq would prompt liberalization throughout the Middle East. While this is true in theory, so is the opposite. The failure of Iraq’s democratic experiment will be a mortal blow, weakening moderates in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and elsewhere and reinforcing the notion that democracy cannot succeed in the region.
8. Americans’ willingness to use military force - Iraq as a failed state is likely to herald an era of deep reservations among the U.S. public regarding the use of force - - a kind of post-Vietnam, post-Mogadishu hangover. While this Administration has made the prospect of greater circumspection in the use of force very attractive, a level of public skepticism that makes it impossible to intervene to prevent genocide or stop live conflicts from further spreading could result in more Rwandas and Bosnias.
9. Military morale - Military morale has already been damaged by a conflict that put our troops at risk without adequate preparation or equipment, that has disrupted families and livelihoods through long extensions in tours of duty. The unexpected difficulties confronted on the battlefield have provoked a crisis of confidence in Pentagon leadership. Despite their frustration, those who have served want to be sure that their sacrifices result in an Iraq that's better off. If, after all this, Iraq devolves into a failed state the blow to the military will be brutal.
10. Today’s definition of a superpower - The combined impact of Iraq's emergence as a failed state on America's image, military, credibility influence in the Middle East, and on our battles against terrorism and WMD will be profound. In both bilateral and multi-lateral relations, most countries' dealings with the U.S. are predicated on the idea that we are capable of accomplishing whatever we set out to do. That notion is so well understood that we rarely have to prove it. The prevalence of this belief has made it immeasurably easier to rally others behind our causes, thwart opposition and work our will. While failure in Iraq won't change that overnight, it will open a question about what superpowerdom means in an era of terrorism and insurgency.