Global Opportunity Costs: How the Iraq War Undermined U.S. Influence

- A war in Afghanistan that has dragged on for years longer than it ever should have, its initial aim of taking Osama bin Laden decimated after the al-Qaida leader was found and killed in Pakistan. The cost of the U.S. military presence now (combined with Iraq) tops a trillion dollars, and a resurgent Taliban is threatening to retake power in many places the U.S. failed to win over before the majority of its forces finally leave next year.

Yet there continues to be talk of success by unrepentant former officials and hawks then bent on war, now touting memoirs, even as the real cost comes home - in the thousands of American lives lost and the families they've left behind, in the wider legacy of the hundreds of thousands of servicemen and women who suffer from ailments ranging from post-traumatic stress or traumatic brain injury, to the loss of a limb, an eye, or burns.

It is also worth noting that U.S. and other oil companies around the world are finding resistance from Iraq to privatize its oil sector and are balking at the severe conditions the Iraqi government is placing on any contracts with foreign oil companies.

At the heart of the idea of any possible U.S. influence in Iraq sits a man whose behavior more closely identifies with his dictatorial predecessor than a democratic aspirant, a man who has made it his mission to demonstrate that no state, be it the U.S. or Iran, can tell him what to do. In his brilliant portrait of Nouri al-Maliki, longtime foreign correspondent Ned Parker details how Iraq's current prime minister solidified his hold on power through unsavory political alliances, creating a new security command that answered solely to him, bullying his adversaries, and arresting those who resisted. Parker writes that Maliki, who has also expressed his support for besieged Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, could serve as a lesson for other Islamist leaders in the region attempting to govern in a new world.

"It is arrogant to think the West can shape Iraq's destiny or Maliki's behavior, but neither does the United States have to enable Iraq's slow downward spiral," Parker writes. "At this point, the United States has likely ceded most of its influence in Iraq through inertia and lack of vision, but the fading relationship still provides an opening to encourage the country's leaders to turn away from their darker impulses and pursue genuine institution building. The alternative risks the demise of the Iraqi state and years of bloody civil war."

It is also worth noting the utter falsity of the claim from those who'd supported the invasion into Iraq that the demise of Saddam Hussein led, in part, to the Arab Spring. Both former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Cheney credit American actions in Iraq as having a role in unseating some of the region's most immoveable autocrats.

There is no evidence to suggest that a burgeoning Shiite revival in Iraq would have influenced Mohammed Bouazizi to set himself on fire in front of the municipal headquarters of Sidi Bouzid, a small town south of Tunis. More likely, as Egyptians, Libyans, Moroccans and other Tunisians have themselves so fluently expressed, their motivation was missed opportunities, economic or otherwise.

The better question to ask is: Had there been no invasion into Iraq, might the Arab Spring have extended into Saddam's Iraq? Might it not have fuelled a Shiite uprising there, where, perhaps, the U.S. administration and other allies might send aid in the form of no-fly zones, or even weapons to friendly rebels in the south and the north? The Iraqis would have then perhaps been able to form their own Islamist government, likely similar to the one it has now, and contend with the sectarian issues it faces today without recoiling at American overtures for support.

That is one thing we will never know, and the cost of that is immeasurable.

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Jamie Tarabay is a former contributing editor at Atlantic Media. Her writing has appeared in National Journal, TheAtlantic.com and the quarterly dispatch: Beyond Iraq. As Baghdad Bureau Chief for NPR News, her reporting on the war in Iraq received the Alfred I duPont-Columbia University Award. She is the author of A Crazy Occupation; Eyewitness to the Intifada.

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