US pays price in power for Iraq role
By Daniel Dombey in Washington and Stephen Fidler in London
Published: March 18 2008 19:19 | Last updated: March 18 2008 19:19
US power and prestige around the world continues to suffer from the war in Iraq and its aftermath, and the next president will struggle to repair the damage, many foreign policy specialists argue. But the Bush administration continues to defend its decision to launch the war five years ago on Tuesday, and prominent voices argue that a decision to withdraw US forces soon would send an unfortunate signal to the west's adversaries.
"A rapid withdrawal would be a demonstration in the region of the impotence of western power," Henry Kissinger, the former Republican secretary of state, told Der Spiegel last month. "Hamas, Hizbollah and al-Qaeda would achieve a more dominant role and the ability of western nations to shape events would be sharply reduced," he said.
But as long as more than 100,000 troops remain in Iraq, the US military will remain stretched. "In the short term, there is not a lot of spare capacity," says Sir Lawrence Freedman, professor of war studies at King's College, London.
Bush administration officials disagree. "We are confident that we have the forces to deal with whatever threats on a global basis may or are likely to arise; we are capable of dealing with Iraq and with the global situation as it presents [itself]," says a top official speaking on condition of anonymity.
But the US has also ceded influence in places where military power would not be contemplated, Sir Lawrence says. "I think they have lost a lot of ground in other parts of the world, certainly in Asia and in Latin America, both of which are as important if not more so than the Middle East."
He says that Washington's focus on Iraq has allowed others, including China, Russia and Iran, America's main strategic adversary in the region, to step into the vacuum – although Russia would have been more assertive and China more influential anyway, even without the Iraq war.
In an assessment last year, the International Institute for Strategic Studies concluded that "the restoration of American strategic authority" lost in the Iraq war and its aftermath would take "much longer than the mere installation of a new [US] president".
Strobe Talbott, deputy secretary of state under Bill Clinton says: "The global consequences [of the war] certainly include a significant diminution of the trust and confidence and support for US foreign policy around the world and that, I think, is going to take quite some time to repair."
Mr Talbott argued that earlier US presidents had, like Mr Bush, used unilateral American power in dealing with foreign policy challenges but had been "more prudent" in doing so, and had "leveraged" that power by working more extensively with international institutions and generating goodwill for the US. "And this administration failed to do that big time."
The financial burden of the Iraq war – estimated by the Congressional Budget Office to cost the US government alone $1,300bn-$2,000bn by 2017 – will also constrain foreign policy. "There has always been a correlation between the strength of the American economy and the strength of the US, and that strength has diminished," Mr Talbott says.
The war has also worsened US relations with Turkey, so far failed to "remake" the Middle East in the positive way some proponents imagined, and contributed to higher world oil prices, many experts now say.
But what about Iraq? In 2003, Paul Wolfowitz, then deputy defence secretary, outlined three reasons for the invasion: "One is weapons of mass destruction, the second is support for terrorism, the third is the criminal treatment of the Iraqi people."
But coalition forces found Iraq possessed no weapons of mass destruction, apart from a few aged containers of chemical agent – though US officials still argue that Saddam Hussein had the capacity to develop such weapons and would have done so, given the chance.
On terrorism, an unclassified summary of a recent study of classified Iraqi documents by the US Institute for Defense Analyses "found no 'smoking gun' (ie direct link) between Saddam's Iraq and al-Qaeda". It says that the "regime's use of terrorism was standard practice", but that Iraqi citizens were its chief target.
And while Saddam is no longer around to repress his people, the invasion and its aftermath have extracted a heavy human cost. The violence that followed has taken, by conservative estimates, over 100,000 lives.
"The cost has been very high, has been high to Iraqis above all, has been high to US and coalition forces . . . but we believe that the cost of not taking this step had been and would continue to be very high as well," the senior US official said. "The country is on the path to greater stability, greater security, and ultimately [to becoming] an Iraq that does not pose a threat to its neighbours," he added.
It is an assessment that meets less than universal agreement. Mr Talbott says Iraq has "gone from being a unitary state, a grotesque and brutal dictatorship, to teetering on the brink of being a failed state . . . or a power vacuum masquerading as a state or a cluster of would-be states".
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008