[Overseas view]The Iraq disasterDuring the 1960s, Andre Malraux, the famous French writer who was then President Charles de Gaulle’s Minister of Cultural Affairs, asked Chou En-lai: “What do you think about the legacy of the French Revolution?”
“It is too soon to answer,” replied the Chinese leader.
Therefore, it may be premature to make an accurate assessment of the Iraq war just five years after it began. But at least we could try, and some preliminary observations are already possible.
First and foremost, we have confirmation that the world is not unipolar anymore. Of course, neither is it multipolar, due to the power discrepancy between the United States and every other country. However, within a unipolar world, the “hyperpower,” to quote Hubert Vedrine, would have no difficulty ruling a country of 25 million inhabitants, looted through more than 30 years of dictatorship, three major wars and 12 years of a tough embargo policy. Unfortunately for Washington, and contrary to George W. Bush’s beliefs, military power is not enough. American military and technological supremacy had assured an easy and quick success for the GIs. In two weeks, Iraq’s army was totally defeated and Saddam Hussein’s regime deposed. But tactical military success could turn out to be a strategic failure.
Nowadays, neither Iraq nor Baghdad is really under the U.S. army’s control. The country and the capital are not safe for American soldiers, even if the death toll has been decreasing for some months now. Security is far from a given. It would be impossible for any U.S. soldier to walk safely in Baghdad without heavy protection. Iraq is not a new Vietnam because historical conditions are different ― no more Cold War, no more proxy struggle between superpowers ― but Iraq is a new morass.
Barack Obama has promised to get out of it as soon as possible. John McCain seems to think that staying there for the next 100 years is an acceptable option. The Iraq War was supposed to show the world America’s power and to deter any challenge to American supremacy. Actually, Iraq showed America’s inability to secure a real victory. The battlefield war was easily won, but peace is not in sight. The peerless U.S. military has failed to prove its utility. Perhaps it was even misguided. The White House has been overconfident about its military force. When your only tool is a hammer, everything becomes a nail.
Strategic failure is coupled with moral failure. The U.S. launched a war without legal authorization, violating both international law and the United Nations Charter. A majority of governments opposed the decision. Even in countries whose governments supported it, overwhelming public opinion expressed disagreement and anger. Washington thought that success would soften the anger.
But success did not happen. On top of that, American armed forces’ behavior, exemplified by the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and “collateral damage,” the killing of civilians by accident, infuriated the Iraqi population. Had the U.S. army left Iraq a few weeks after its military victory, American soldiers might be highly welcomed now. But the army of liberation turned into an army of occupation and no one is eager to support long-term military occupation. The result is crystal-clear.
Never in history has American prestige fallen so low. Never in history has the U.S. been so unpopular all over the world. Every opinion poll, in the U.S. or elsewhere, gives similar results. Hyperpower America is hyper-unpopular. And Bush, thanks to the Iraq War, is certain to be remembered as one of the worst U.S. presidents in history.
Machiavelli used to say that for the “Prince,” it is better to be feared than to be loved. We should correct him in modern times when soft power is so important: It is a higher necessity to be loved than to be feared.
But now, the U.S. is less feared than five years ago and much less loved. We are not talking about respect and credibility, both severely damaged by the lies regarding Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that were supposed to be the reason for going to war. They did not exist and the U.S. leaders knew it. When we consider that Bill Clinton was impeached for having lied about his affair with Monica Lewinsky, we might wonder what is more important and more damaging to U.S. national interest and world security ― to lie about personal misbehavior, or to launch a war with false justifications?
That war was a disaster. We just do not know how deep it is. According to the White House, the cost of the Iraq war was assessed in 2003 at about $60 billion. Now according to estimates, the cost could be in the range of $600 billion to $5 trillion. The death toll is staggering. Nonproliferation is far from making progress, as witnessed in the Iranian case. Terrorism has not been rolled back but is in fact soaring, both in the Middle East and in the West. Has the division between the Muslim and Western worlds ever been so wide? Democracy is not exactly a work in progress.
For the time being, guess who is the big winner in the Iraq War: Iran, which has emerged as a regional power and has more leverage than ever. And in Iran the hardliners have been strengthened in their struggle against moderate reformers. It was certainly not the goal but it is the result.
The next U.S. president will have the hard task of cleaning up this mess.
*The writer is the director of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris.
by Pascal Boniface