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

The war took its toll in blood and money, but it also damaged American diplomacy.
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U.S. soldiers inspect the scene of a car bomb attack outside the office of the state-run newspaper in Baghdad on August 27, 2006. (Ali Jasim/Reuters)

When people talk about the cost of the war in Iraq, they speak about the hundreds of billions of dollars that frittered away in the Mesopotamian dust and the spilled blood of Iraqi, American, British, Italian, Polish, Spanish and countless other souls swept up in a conflict that has no natural ending.

They talk about the domestic opportunity cost and just what those hundreds of billions of dollars could have bought at home instead of the military hardware that began falling apart less than two years after the invasion began, or idealistic infrastructure projects all over Iraq that deteriorated in a pit of corruption and neglect.

They talk about the advancements in education, healthcare and a national transportation system that could have been funded instead, or the possibility that the global financial crisis might not have hit the U.S. economy quite so hard had that money not been spent on a war at a time of the U.S.'s choosing.

While all those costs should be taken into consideration, another looms just as large: the international opportunity cost.

When the White House of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney began beating the drums for an invasion of Iraq in 2002, the rest of the world was still digesting the horror of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and the subsequent war in Afghanistan. If there ever was a coalition of the willing, it was there, diplomatically and militarily, ready to hit at a threat that most Western countries, at least, perceived as a global threat.

Yet in the midst of an invasion into one far-flung land with a clear directive, talk turned to conquering another with a premise as preposterous as it was dangerous. The threat of weapons of mass destruction, missiles 45 minutes from being launched at British targets in the Mediterranean, and the biggest doozy of them all: operational collaboration and actual links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida.

There was as much connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida as there is between eating bread crusts and having curly hair. Even as CIA intelligence told them otherwise, White House officials and other neo-conservatives pounded the claim, through, until it was eventually debunked years later in declassified documents.

The support from the rest of the world dropped off. The U.S. had to tout lists of countries willing to be publicly associated with any action in Iraq. It didn't include Arab nations. It was not clear where - and with whom - Bush's "with us or against us" policy might end.

Once the search for WMD turned up empty-handed, the administration began recalibrating its reasons for being there. It went from declaring the fall of a tyrant and the establishment of a real Arab democracy in the Middle East, to creating enough of a stable security environment to allow Iraq's splintered politicians to seal their own vacuum.

Finally, ten years on, a global consideration of the war in Iraq reveals these consequences:

- More than a million Iraqi refugees scattered across the world in countries that will accept them.

- More than three million Iraqis displaced within the country, pushed out of their homes and running from sectarian violence.

- A rupture in diplomatic and security alliances across the Middle East that have irrevocably altered the landscape for U.S. and Western strategic interests.

- A rising Iran, emboldened by the death of its main nemesis, now exerts greater influence over a region stretching from the Persian sands all the way to the verdant Levant.

- A loss of face for the U.S. in the Middle East and North Africa and a dent in its image as a military superpower after being undercut and hammered for years by militia groups in the streets of Baghdad, Diyala and Ramadi.

- The Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, the Haditha massacre and other breaches of American military protocol paralyzed the administration's efforts to 'win hearts and minds' in Iraq and set back by years efforts to stabilize the region.

- 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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