Iraq War and Korea: 10 years later

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Iraq War and Korea: 10 years later

This week is the 10th anniversary of the war in Iraq. Across the United States, there are multiple efforts to reflect on and debate the impact of the war. It is also worth thinking about the impact of the Iraq War on the Korean Peninsula. On the larger question of whether the war was worth fighting, the prevailing view in U.S. polls today is negative.

However, most historians would argue that it is too soon to make a definitive judgment.

In the 1920s, a large majority of Americans surveyed in Gallup polls responded that it was a mistake to fight in the First World War. By 1940, however, a majority of Americans said the opposite. Why? Because the rising specter of Japanese and Nazi expansion put World War I in a different light. Similarly, in the 1950s, most Americans viewed the 1950-53 Korean War as a failure. Looking at the remarkable success of South Korea decades later, almost every American would argue that it was worth fighting to defend the South in 1950.

The balance sheet on Iraq today is mixed. The country is clearly better off without Saddam Hussein; oil exports have begun to grow; violence is below the level of many countries in Latin America. Moreover, nonaction in Iraq in 2003 would likely have left Saddam Hussein in an even stronger position to support terrorism and destabilize other friendly Persian Gulf states.

On the other hand, the war was traumatic to the American and particularly the Iraqi people; Iran has expanded into the power vacuum created by Iraq’s defeat; and, of course, there were no weapons of mass destruction. Iraq could in the decades ahead become less stable and exert a negative impact on regional security, or it could steadily consolidate its flawed but nascent democratic institutions into a positive example for the region. History will judge the decision to fight the war depending on those developments.

Did the attack on Iraq convince North Korea to develop its nuclear weapons program? There is no evidence to support such an assertion. The North began secretly working on its EUP (HEU) program in earnest a few years after the Agreed Framework; in other words, years before the Iraq War. If anything, the Iraq War initially put pressure on Pyongyang to negotiate an end to the nuclear weapons program. I was in Beijing 10 years ago this month for the initial trilateral negotiations of the U.S., North Korea and China in preparation for what became the six-party talks. The “shock and awe” of the U.S. attack had a palpable effect on the Chinese and North Korean delegations. The Chinese delegation put intense pressure on the North Koreans to abandon nuclear weapons because Beijing feared that the United States had the will power and the military power to take steps against the North. President George W. Bush had no intention of attacking the North, of course, but the demonstration of American power in Iraq added enormous leverage.

On the other hand, when the occupation of Iraq began to fall apart in 2004, the Chinese negotiators in the six-party talks became more complacent. The American mistakes in planning for the post-war phase of the Iraq campaign did cost some leverage dealing with North Korea.

The Iraq War also had another negative impact on U.S. diplomacy: it increased tension between the defense and state departments in a way that complicated North Korea policy.

Many of the myths about the Bush North Korea policy are just that - myths. The United States did seek negotiations early on and put proposals on the table that the North Koreans ignored. But the process of preparing for those negotiations was fraught with mistrust that flowed from disagreements over Iraq. This did not make the U.S. strategy on North Korea wrong, but it made implementation less effective and more time-consuming.

Some scholars argue without any real evidence that the Iraq War damaged American standing in Asia. The Iraq War was not popular in many Asian nations, particularly the Muslim societies of Southeast Asia. However, almost every poll taken about the United States in Korea, Japan, China and India at the end of the Bush administration showed that people in those countries had a more favorable view of the United States than they did before the war in Iraq.

One of the most dramatic improvements in views of the United States was in South Korea. American alliances in Asia strengthened in this period, in part because the South, Japan, Australia, the Philippines and Thailand all sent troops to Iraq and/or Afghanistan, but also because the threat from North Korea and uncertainty about China made the U.S. appear a far more valuable ally. From the perspective of many in Washington, we had entered into a much more difficult endeavor than expected and needed our allies more than ever. Meanwhile, U.S.-China relations were stronger in the years of the Iraq conflict than they were before that or are today. And this was without any compromises on U.S. positions.

This much we can probably say about the Iraq War and Korea for now. History will render the ultimate judgment.

*The author is a senior vice president for Asia and the Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

By Michael J. Green
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