"Iran is the main beneficiary of the Iraq War"

The Iraq War did not only change Iraq, it also changed international relations. To mark the tenth anniversary of the intervention, Harvard professor Stephen Walt talked with Max Tholl about the repercussions the war had on American foreign policy and the future of humanitarian interventions.

The European: There has been much talk about the legacy of the Iraq War, especially about the negative consequences it entailed. What about the positive aspects? Can the Iraq war at least be considered partly successful?
Walt: I think the only possible success was the removal of Saddam Hussein and his regime. There is nothing admirable about Saddam or the government he led, and the world is undoubtedly better off that he’s no longer in power. But he has not been replaced by a particularly benevolent regime. The negative consequences, it seems to me, far outweigh the benefits of removing one dictator.

The European: Has America’s political behavior changed because of the Iraq experience?
Walt: Yes, I think when you combine it with our experience in Afghanistan, it has made the US much more wary of using military force. Particularly using large-scale conventional invasions to try and deal with foreign policy problems. I think the Obama administration’s tendency to rely more heavily on Special Operations and on drones, conveys the sense, that trying to occupy and govern other countries, is simply not an effective way of advancing American Foreign Policy interests. In that sense, I think it had a sobering effect on America’s behavior.

“The Iraq experience made us even more reluctant”

The European: Your colleague Joseph Nye has recently argued in an article that because of the Iraq War, “it is very unlikely that the US will try another prolonged occupation and transformation of another country in the next decade”. Do you agree?
Walt: Yes, I agree with him almost entirely. But you can’t rule something like that out forever because countries have a way of forgetting lessons that they have learned at one point or another. I think for at least the next decade, you’re not going to see anything that looks like a long-term military occupation, certainly not one that’s done on a voluntary basis. We might be, in some unusual circumstances, forced to take large-scale military action, but it would not be the same kind of situation that got us into Iraq.

The European: Don’t you think that the relatively low costs of drone warfare will have an impact on America’s foreign policy?
Walt: No, they are only tools that you can use for certain purposes, but not for large-scale regional transformations. You can go after specific targets, for example a government that finds itself under popular pressure, like in Libya. But you can’t try to remake a whole society by flying drones over it, and attacking specific targets. Therefore, the idea of the United States coming in and transforming another country, is off the books for a good long time.

The European: What will be the consequences of this for the future of international humanitarian interventions? After all, the US is the world’s greatest military power.
Walt: First of all, the United States and its allies have never been very enthusiastic about spending a lot of money and risking a lot of their own soldiers’ lives for humanitarian purposes. The Iraq experience made the US and its allies even more reluctant to go into places like Syria for precisely those reasons. We understand it’s risky, but also, we’re no longer confident that we can produce a better outcome by intervening. Of course, it’s not completely off the table. It may happen if the situation in Syria, for example, gets worse, or if it starts to look like the Assad regime is about to use chemical weapons. But the Iraq war and the Afghanistan intervention have given us a greater sense of humility about what we can accomplish in a humanitarian context.

The European: Is the US suffering from an “Iraq Syndrome” that prevents it from taking more concrete action in, for example, Syria?
Walt: I don’t really like phrases such as “Iraq Syndrome” or “Vietnam Syndrome.” It seems to me, that in this case, it’s a question of the United States actually learning an important lesson: Even very powerful countries, cannot run other societies very effectively. We don’t have much understanding of how these societies work. I don’t think that it is a syndrome; it’s wisdom.

“We did a foolish thing”

The European: President Bush and Dick Cheney were convinced that the Iraq intervention would herald far-reaching regional transformations and could consolidate American hegemony in that region. Were they wrong to believe that?
Walt: Yes, they were completely wrong. They thought that the US could remake the politics of the entire Middle East at the point of a gun. That’s a very fanciful idea. What we’ve seen instead, is that the politics of the region, far from moving towards a tranquil democracy, have become much more contentious and less stable.

The European: Yet, President Obama is still convinced that Iraq is “a model for others that are aspiring to create democracy in that region”.
Walt: You have to remember that President Obama was committed to get the US out of Iraq when he took office. That was, back then, a position that President Bush had as well. Obviously Obama tried to present Iraq in a proper light, but the key here was that the US finally understood that it had made a huge mistake and should withdraw. I don’t place much weight on what either Obama or Bush said as the Unites States was getting out.

The European: Do you see any change between the Bush and the Obama administration with regards to Iraq?
Walt: Bush’s administration had negotiated a Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government, which lay out a schedule for American withdrawal. The Obama administration, for the most part, stuck to that schedule. In that sense, there was no change between the end of the Bush presidency and the current Obama presidency.

The European: Iran might be considered the sole “winner” of the conflict. The country undoubtedly filled the regional “influence”- and “power void” that both Iraq and the US left behind, and is now a major obstacle for regional peace and a challenge to the US.
Walt: That’s correct. Iran has always been a major power in that region. Under Saddam however, Iran and Iraq were bitter enemies who fought a long war and were strongly opposed to one another. There was almost a rough balance of power between the two countries. By reducing Iraq’s power and by allowing the Shia to become the dominant political force in Iraq, the US removed the main country balancing Iran, and helped bring to power a government that has at least some sympathies and links to Iran. So, Iran is by far the main strategic beneficiary of the Iraq War, which made it even more difficult for the US and its allies to deal with the country.

The European: Because of the lack of consensus among core members, the Iraq War posed a crucial challenge to NATO. Yet at the same time, the Afghanistan intervention marked the first invocation of NATO’s article 5, which resulted in a joint military operation. Didn’t that consolidate NATO’s reason for existence?
Walt: Yes and No. Certainly, the decision to invade Iraq caused considerable tensions within the alliance. But, the fact is that the European countries have long been dependent upon American security guarantees and protection. Nonetheless, I think the war did great damage to the transatlantic relations; partly because it made many people around the world, including Europeans, question American judgment and competence. The fact that we did this foolish thing and then failed to achieve anything that looks like a victory raises doubts about American leadership. I believe the outcome in Afghanistan will have the same effect. The failures of these operations will leave us with the question: “What is NATO actually good for?”

The European: Vital NATO partners like Germany and France opposed the Iraq intervention and condemned it as disrespect for the UN resolution. The repercussions on the transatlantic relations were very severe. Do you think they can recover from that?
Walt: I think they have already recovered in some respects. The leaders who were in power in Germany and France are no longer in office, and their successors went to some lengths to try and mend fences with the US. I think the painful episode of 2002-2003 has, by and large, been forgotten. The problem we face today isn’t so much anger about what happened, it’s about figuring out the forms that cooperation should take today and in the future.

The European: Can we expect closer cooperation?
Walt: Probably not because Europe doesn’t face any security issues for which the US would be essential. The US knows that too, which is why it moved most of its forces out of Europe and is focusing much more of its attention on Asia. The problem that Europe will face in the future is getting much attention from Washington.

“You can’t fight these wars in a clean fashion”

The European: Iraq remains an example of American unilateralism. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger allegedly said that “America doesn’t have friends, it only has interests.” Did the Iraq intervention prove that point?
Walt: The Iraq War proved that the transatlantic relationship has always been quite one-sided. The Europeans, over many decades, have allowed the US to call most of the shots within NATO. The fact that they couldn’t find a consensus within NATO didn’t stop the US at all; but that’s been true for a long time. Many European countries also disapproved of the Vietnam War. The Iraq War just reminded everybody that it has been a very unequal balance all along.

The European: Looking back at the Iraq War, what lessons can and should be learned for the future?
Walt: First of all, the US should learn that occupying foreign countries, especially those that are very different from us, is extremely difficult and we’re not very good at it. But neither is anyone else. Therefore, one should take on that burden only when there are truly vital national interests at stake; that was not the case in Iraq. Secondly, we should also bear in mind that it is not that hard to push a whole country into a foolish war. In retrospect, what’s quite striking is that a relatively small amount of officials was able to influence the American people and to persuade people like Tony Blair that an intervention is a good idea. Thirdly, we must not forget that counterinsurgency, as a strategy, is exceptionally difficult and will almost always lead to abuses. You can’t fight these wars in a clean fashion.

The European: So the main lesson is …
Walt: Don’t be foolish! Don’t do anything like this again! Another vital lesson that America should remember is the value of having allies. Usually, your allies give you good advice. The US would, in retrospect, have been far better off if it had listened to France and Germany, who were raising serious concerns. They could have helped us to avoid a national disaster.

The European: Your advice to Europe?
Walt: Continue to try and give the US good advice and, occasionally, we might take it.

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