When we take stock of American policy in Iraq and its effects over the last decade, reasonable and humane people tend to focus on the devastating toll in blood, treasure and reputation. Hundreds of thousands dead, even more injured, families torn apart, trillions of dollars burned and bombed away, priceless artifacts destroyed, and America’s moral standing in the world severely diminished.
The less sophisticated neoconservative responses are to simply deny the truth or the importance of these losses, or to somehow blame them on political opponents who either actively opposed the invasion or were dragged into tepid support of it under threat of jingoistic political attacks in a country rabid for revenge against “the perpetrators.”
The more intellectual neoconservative answer has been to minimize the immediate losses while focusing on the ultimate legacy of the invasion from a bird’s eye view. They argue that removing Saddam Hussein from power will have been the right decision in the long run, that a free and democratic Iraq will ultimately be an ally of the West and an invaluable geopolitical prize, serving as a bulwark against extremism. It’s a dispassionate dodge, but one that has always been hard to fully discredit because of the very “we’ll have to wait and see” nature of the argument.
But over a decade after the invasion and with Iraq seemingly entering a disastrous sectarian civil war, it seems abundantly clear that whatever the long-term effects of the invasion may be, the near to mid-term result has been to empower Shi’ite theocrats in Iran, and to radicalize Sunni factions in Iraq. As of this writing, Sunni extremist groups expressly intent on establishing a global caliphate are threatening to overrun Baghdad. The corrupt Shi’ite government of Nouri Al-Maliki is counting on and receiving support from the Ayatollahs in Iran.
Neither of these developments has even a silver lining behind it. The hold of the theocratic regime in Iran has been weakening under popular protest over the last many years; its best hope of holding onto power over time has been to direct the anger of its citizens outward against the West. The efficacy of that appeal has been waning–but a newly engaged threat from Sunnis right across the border will almost certainly strengthen hardline rule in Tehran.
The radical Sunni threat from ISIS and its allies is even more dangerous, and was precipitated directly by the invasion. Whatever Saddam Hussein’s crimes may have been (and they were many), his regime was not ardently theocratic. Indeed, under Hussein Sunnis in Iraq avoided much of the radicalization that befell fellow sectarians in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and elsewhere. With Saddam gone and a corrupt and unresponsive Shi’ite regime in his place, Iraq has suddenly become a ground zero for Sunni extremism.
That’s a very ugly legacy for neoconservatives to face. Not only were they directly responsible for the horrific loss of life and treasure during and after the invasion, they are also responsible for empowering and strengthening some of the worst elements in the entire Middle East. It’s not pretty from any perspective.