Who Actually Won the Iraq War?

The Reckoning
The Future of American Power
Nov. 8 2011 2:50 PM

Who Won the Iraq War?

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U.S. soldiers returning from Iraq

Photo by Logan Mock-Bunting/Getty Images.

The move toward the exits in Iraq—a move I heartily applaud—has taken many years. Ever since the middle of 2005, when it dawned on senior Bush administration officials that winning in Iraq might not be possible in the black-and-white sense they favored, cauterizing rather than healing the violent passions unleashed by our 2003 invasion became the goal. Indeed, it's worth remembering that, by the time Barack Obama took office, the United States had already set a date for the final withdrawal of combat forces.

Michael Moran Michael Moran

Michael Moran is an author and geopolitical analyst.

So, with the troops coming home, who won? That may seem a naive question, but you can be sure it’s one that many people will demand to know. Even those who supported the war heartily (and now pretend they didn’t) have gotten over the “cake walk” claim. “War is hell,” they say with gusto, “and after all, Dick Cheney and Condi Rice say that toppling Saddam planted the first seed that blossomed into the Arab Spring.”

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Right.

More thoughtful analysts, including Mohamad Bazzi, a former colleague of mine at the Council on Foreign Relations, have provocatively suggested that Iran won the war. I think a good case can be made that Iran’s allies—Shiite foes of Saddam who spent much of the dictator’s rule in exile inside Iran—now form the most powerful faction of Iraq’s struggling democracy. As Bazzi put it, “The U.S. ousted Tehran’s sworn enemy, Saddam Hussein, from power. Then Washington helped install a Shiite government for the first time in Iraq’s modern history. As U.S. troops became mired in fighting an insurgency and containing a civil war, Iran extended its influence over all of Iraq’s Shiite factions.”

This is true, and Bazzi is no armchair analyst. He knows the situation first hand. Yet, as much as Iran has gained, I wonder if there is an even bigger winner. After all, many of those same Iraqi Shiites spent their youths fighting for Iraq in the long war against Iran in the 1980s. They may have to find an accommodation with Iran once the U.S. troops are gone, but it remains hard for me to imagine an Iraq completely allied to Iran.

I’m not going to be one of those bloggers who constantly says, “I told you so” by referring back to previous work. But in the early days of The Reckoning, you deserve to know my track record. So excuse such references for the first few weeks.

To me, the real answer to the question posed above is simple: China won the Iraq War. I first put forth this idea in a column in 2004 (now sadly denuded of content thanks to MSNBC’s disregard for archival content), at the height of the carnage in Iraq. By early 2008, as the U.S. financial system began its near-death spiral, I was more certain.

No country, arguably, has benefited as much in the long run from the quagmire in Iraq as China. In the period of a half decade, China has gone from rising regional power eager for American joint ventures and U.S. backing for its entry into the World Trade Organization into a nascent superpower whose influence, financial and otherwise, now looms large. … In the wider political sense, China now markets itself aggressively as a genuine alternative model to the free-market, liberal- democratic one that supposedly won the Cold War. Its mix of see- no-evil diplomacy and checkbook capitalism wins applause from countries like Russia, Venezuela, Serbia and many Muslim nations that also embrace aspects of capitalism but reject the messy political freedoms that the West advocates.

Today, I’m completely convinced. From Beijing’s perspective, how could America have performed a more useful service than to attack Iraq on the basis of claims that turned out to be false? Then, as an added bonus, the credibility of America’s claim to global economic leadership, too, took a beating when its banks precipitated the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. To fill the fiscal hole created by these two devastating events, George W. “Louis XIV” Bush committed trillions and trillions of dollars, leaving China’s main rival for both hard power in Asia and in the vital global contest of ideological leadership practically in receivership.

So:

Gold Medal: China,

Silver: Iran,

Bronze (and this is really optimistic): the Iraqi people, who good folks everywhere should hope will manage to nurture the very real threads of democracy that are the one true accomplishment in all this. 

For reasons both military and psychological, the withdrawal was never going to be precipitous. Too many Americans had died, too many more had bought the bill of goods about the mortal threat Saddam posed to the planet (or, indeed, the lies about his ties to 9/11) for the Bush administration to risk a repeat of the Fall of Saigon. Today, we hope, the clotting should be more advanced, but the die seems cast: At the end of this year, we can consign the U.S. occupation of Iraq to history. (Shameless shill here: The effort to turn this nightmare around and prepare the ground for a U.S. withdrawal is chronicled by my old friend Eric Schmitt and his New York Times colleague Thom Shanker in their new book, Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret War Against Al-Qaeda. My review of it can be read here.)

Deception riddles the economic accounting of the costs of this war, like the sales effort that preceded it. Remember hapless Lawrence Lindsey, a Bush White House economic adviser fired for daring to suggest the war might actually cost $200 billion? In fact, using a simple method of adding up the appropriations bills, the real figure is now $800 billion and counting.

A number of economists believe the final tally, when the costs of caring for wounded veterans, rehabilitating battle-scarred equipment, settling innumerable claims from Iraqis, contractors, allies, and others—may be more like $4.6 trillion, according to the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz. This, incidentally, is just a bit more than the total debt the United States owes to its foreign creditors.

No wonder the Chinese are still willing to finance our debt.

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