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Axis of Evil, Part 2

February 21st, 2004

My post on Cyprus raised some eyebrows with its reference to the relative insignificance, in geopolitical terms, of the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Looking back, I’m not surprised that this was controversial. After all, the idea that the war in Iraq is crucially important is a common background assumption in most of the debate, shared by both supporters and critics. Of course, geopolitics isn’t the only criterion of importance – the costs and benefits in terms of lives lost and saved, human rights and so on need to be discussed, not to mention economic impacts. But still, I think it’s fair to say that most people assumed that the presence in Iraq of more than 100 000 US troops, with a demonstrated capacity and willingness to overthrow governments, would make for big changes one way or another.

The most obvious candidate for such effects is Iran1. It is number 2 country in the Axis of Evil (and everyone knows North Korea was only thrown in at the last moment for rhetorical balance). It has advanced weapons-of-mass-destruction-related-program activities. And its current rulers are the same ones who humiliated the US in 1979 and who were, until Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, US Public Enemy Number 1 in the region.

On the positive side, we might have expected the invasion of Iraq to cow the Iranian mullahs and embolden their opponents. In particular, we might have expected to see a rapid move to scrap the nuclear program.

On the negative side, we might have expected the theocracy to play on nationalist and anti-American sentiment, wrapping themselves in the flag against a foreign invader. This would seem to be particularly appealing given the American backing for Iraq in the 1980s war. And this could have led to a speedup of attempts to build an atomic bomb.

In fact, as far as I can see, nothing at all has happened. With careful tweaking of the counterfactuals, it might be concluded that the Iraq war has made the Iranian government slightly more, or slightly less, co-operative in relation to its nuclear program. Domestically, Iranian politics seems to be stuck in the same quagmire it’s been in ever since the election of Khatami, going backwards with the rigged elections now under way. On the optimistic side, it’s clearer than ever that the mullahs have lost popular support, and it’s arguable that Khatami’s temporising has created space for the emergence of a civil society in which Khomeinism plays no role. But either way, the dynamics of this seem to be entirely Iranian.

One reason for the limited geopolitical impact of the Iraq war is that it’s increasingly being recognised, not as the first stage in a new American empire, but as a one-off exercise. As Tim Noah points out, the military, financial and credibility costs of the Iraq war make another such exercise not more, but less likely in the foreseeable future.

1 Although, I don’t have time to spell it out, I think very similar points apply to the Israel-Palestine conflict – if the Iraq war has had an impact, it’s not easily perceptible.

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  1. gordon
    February 21st, 2004 at 13:24 | #1

    To my mind, other countries attempting to estimate the likely effects on them of the Bush Administration’s invasion and occupation of Iraq should base their estimates on the rationales for the Bush Admin’s. action. These were, first, the control of Iraqi oil by US companies and quite possibly by a compliant puppet regime to be established there, and second, for domestic political advantage. The two rationales can obviously work together or separately. So North Korea (which has no oil) should watch the US domestic situation, whereas Iran should watch both. Since a war which results in both control of more oil and could be represented as revenge for past slights would get the most “bang for the buck”, Iran is more at risk than North Korea. Collateral effects of the US’ now-obvious abandonment of things like the Atlantic Charter, the UN Charter and international law might be that other Powers (I think we should all go back to capitalising it now) may decide to imitate the US and that smaller countries may abandon the idea of a sovereignty they believe they cannot independently maintain and seek to join a “sphere of influence”. There are obvious examples of the latter, but not yet of the former. All these add up, IMHO, to considerable geopolitical effect.

  2. observa
    February 22nd, 2004 at 21:58 | #2

    I see some pluses and ripple effects from Iraq as- the hastening of Libya back into the international fold- the thawing of Pakistan and Indian relations over Kashmir- the lack of hostility by Iran, almost as if the Coalition had Iran’s tacit support- the exposure of a ME strong-man and proponent of pan-arabism as a fraud and grubby dictator. In terms of the BOL theory in the ME, this will take much longer to unfold. There certainly has been no immediate impact on Palestinian relations toward peace with Israel, which I think BOL(road map) theorists would have aimed toward. They might well have a longer time frame in mind for this. In general, ME countries have not risen up as one, against some perceived threat to Islam, which such intervention always risked.

  3. February 23rd, 2004 at 09:06 | #3

    forget about what effects iraq might have on other countries and focus on what effect iraq has on iraq.

    invading the second biggest oil reserve in the world is non-trivial. lifting sanctions that crippled iraq for a decade, and trying to rebuild the state are also non-trivial.

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