Children play near a statue reflecting reconstruction in Mosul, Iraq, on July 3 (XINHUA)
"At this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger... We come to Iraq with respect for its citizens, for their great civilization and for the religious faiths they practice." Those are the words spoken by former U.S. President George W. Bush as he launched the Iraq War in 2003. Eighteen years on, what he said seems cold comfort compared to the suffering of the Iraqi people.
The reconstruction of Iraq is still in the most fragile of stages, the lives of the people have yet to be improved and extremist ideas continue to surge. The country lingers in a transitional period of political reconciliation and the road to national rejuvenation remains difficult to navigate.
U.S. attempts to recreate Iraq in its own image—an American-style democracy in the Middle East—have failed. Current U.S. President Joe Biden has made it clear that the country will completely end its military's combat mission in Iraq by the end of 2021.
With the Taliban taking back control of Afghanistan in August, the U.S. has made a quick exit from the country, which was also caught up in the same "war on terror" and "democratic transformation" as Iraq. So, the question becomes, what has the U.S. brought to Iraq and what has Iraq been left with?
In 2003, then U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell held up a vial containing white powder to persuade the world that Saddam Hussein's regime was concealing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) during his presentation making the case for a war with Iraq to the UN Security Council.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said in an interview with French media back in 2014, "The entire world remembers the U.S. secretary of state demonstrating the evidence of Iraq's WMDs, waving around some test tube with washing powder in the UN Security Council. Eventually, the U.S. troops invaded Iraq, Saddam Hussein was hanged and later it turned out there had never been any WMDs in Iraq."
The U.S. invasion was not only a disaster for Iraq and its people, but it also served as the prelude to a nightmare for the U.S. itself, as well as a serious security threat to the Middle East and other regions worldwide.
According to the pre-war hypothesis, the Iraq War was supposed to be an offensive like the Gulf War, in which the U.S. army would win through absolute military superiority in a very short time and at minimal cost or damage. Nevertheless, the war ended up lasting nine years, costing $1.9 trillion in total and killing or wounding more than 50,000 U.S. troops.
In this war, the U.S. military repeatedly broke the principle of proportionality, according to which the use of force should be in proportion to the end expected to meet and prevent the innocent from being further harmed. The U.S. even used this opportunity to test new weapons. Millions of Iraqi civilian casualties ensued and nearly 5 million found themselves displaced.
The original political landscape and balance of power in Iraq were challenged, and the country fell into disarray, with terrorist organizations eyeing an opening to recruit and grow.
In 2011, the Syrian civil war broke out and the border between Iraq and Syria was out of control. The so-called "Islamic State" (ISIS) extremist group seized the moment of chaos and saw it as a foothold to launch terrorist attacks across the Middle East—and even the world. Non-conventional security risks confronted the international community and soared because of lone wolf or lone actor attacks and transnational radical jihadist influence.
The Pandora's box opened by the U.S. in 2003 has led to global instability to this very day.
U.S. mission accomplished?
Successive U.S. presidents since Bush, however, have insisted that the military operations in Iraq did in fact achieve the projected objectives. But what purpose does the U.S. mission exactly serve?
To topple Saddam Hussein? That was achieved shortly after the invasion. On May 1, 2003, Bush announced that "major combat operations in Iraq have ended" with the infamous Mission Accomplished banner hovering over him aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln.
Yet even the most optimistic observers must admit that such a statement was grossly misguided, to say the least. High-risk areas run rife, and order has still not been restored in the country.
To fulfill U.S. commitments? The U.S. Government contends the Iraq War intended to free the Iraqi people, to protect regional allies from the threat of WMDs and to make the region more peaceful and stable. In this sense, it has been a total failure. Iraq has been in turmoil since the war erupted. At its peak, the country suffered more than 70 attacks a day within its borders.
To achieve some unnamed self-interests? The U.S. energy and defense industries have profiteered immensely from military operations in the Middle East over the past two decades. Although U.S. officials have rejected the notion of fighting for commercial interests, recent years have seen a decline of the Middle East's role in U.S. global strategy. This decreasing emphasis on the Middle East is in line with the energy revolution and the continuous advancement of the U.S. energy independence policy as it has reduced dependence on the Middle East. And that is clearly not the result of an "accomplished" U.S. political agenda and social reconstruction in Iraq.
In June 2003, Iraq started its postwar rebuilding. What kind of country should it turn into? This was an issue that should have been left to the Iraqis themselves. However, the U.S. overstepped its role, lecturing the country about a U.S.-style democracy. Later in 2004, the Bush administration formally initiated a campaign to promote the so-called "democratic transformation of the Middle East."
Democracy is vital for the promotion of political modernization, but there should never be a single model, let alone one to be defined only by the U.S. America's forcible export of its own culture and value system not only further confused those societies in transition, but also stigmatized Islam and Muslims on a global scale, resulting in serious racial and cultural discrimination.
The U.S.-led transformation has failed to accelerate the reform of Middle East countries and instead led to a resurgence of radical religions in the region and undermined the process of political modernization.
Over the past decade, Iraq has endured a prolonged period of reconstruction with intensive external intervention, while its national interests have yet to be guaranteed.
Today, Iraq still faces political conflict, a lagging economy, a brittle security environment and sectarian as well as ethnic violence. With the withdrawal of U.S. troops, it needs to find one way or another to real reconstruction; a way that is consistent with its national conditions.
(Print Edition Title: Middle East Debacle )
The author is a researcher with the China Institute of International Studies
Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon
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