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.