Richard Sale takes a look back at the mistakes in 2003 that led to today’s weak central Iraqi state, and how that has allowed jihadi groups to make a comeback post-surge. Sic Semper Tyrannis is a very interesting Middle Eastern-focused blog that I have been reading for about ten years now. There are a lot of good articles and posts by the author and his friends, many of whom have led interesting lives. Well worth taking a moment to read some of the archives.
One of the arguments I read about regularly is that the failures of Iraq and Afghanistan show that the US/West do not make good imperialists. Putting aside the morality question of imperialism, I am always bemused when I read this statement. My reasoning is that people rarely notice if a system is working well, only if it fails. How many of us have taken no notice of the power grid till the lights don’t work?The US and its allies are ocean-focused trading powers like Venice, Carthage and Britain before them. They are not war-fighting societies motivated by loot and land, like Rome, the Mongols of Genghis Khan or the Nazis. Their mechanisms of control are therefore less deep and coercive, but also more flexible and responsive.
People remember Iraq and Afghanistan because these wars were bloody, expensive and visible failures. Likewise Vietnam and the coup that brought the Shah to power, which in turn recreated the conditions for today’s Islamic Republic, are often cited as cautionary tales. But who now remembers US actions in Haiti in 2004? In Grenada in 1984, Serbia in 1999 and 2000, Panama in 1989, or the first Gulf War in 1990? There, the goals of the administration in question were, in hindsight, roughly achieved. Even where full objectives are not achieved, partial success is still there in the eyes foreign policy makers. Somalia might still be a bloody mess, but the Islamic Courts Union regime that was threatening to come to power has been destroyed. If your policy goal is to deny political Islam a voice in power, as under the Bush administration, that still counts as a negative win. You didn’t get what you wanted, but neither did the other side.
Iraq was a failure for America and its allies because it tried to do direct old-fashioned imperialism and found it wasn’t very good at it. US history has examples like Iraq in the its past, but they are not the norm. If you think US failure in Iraq means the end of American use of military power abroad however, well I think you should read the foreign news a little bit more closely, and see how many names you start to recognise after a while.