So, the US military has lowered the battle flag and the last official military have now left Iraq, although there will still be some engaged in advising and protecting the mammoth US embassy in Baghdad. Time for a reconsideration.
On the day that Saddam's last stronghold, his hometown of Tikrit, fell to US troops in April, 2003, I wrote a column published in my local paper, portions of which I posted on the old maxspeak. This was the moment of the highest US triumph, with the looting in Baghdad just starting and before the US stupidly disbanded the Iraqi army and fired all the Ba'athist civil servants, thus triggering the rebellion that eventually became the Sunni-Shi'i civil war, which seems to be picking up as the US leaves rather than tailing off. In that essay, I noted three positives and three negatives of the war, emphasizing that I thought the last of the negatives weighed more heavily than anything else. All six have come to pass.
The positives were that Saddam would no longer be violating human rights, that economic sanctions against Iraq would be ended, and that US troops would be reduced in Saudi Arabia, which had been a leading propaganda point of Osama bin Laden. Yes, despite the apparently tightening of authoritarianism of the Maliki regime and reports of ongoing torture, the human rights situation in Iraq is better today than under Saddam in general. Yes, economic sanctions were ended, but the benefits of that have been far overwhelmed by the subsequent economic collapse engendered by the ongoing war, with the effects of that still not ended. And the removal of US troops from Saudi was a strictly minor event, also overwhelmed by other events.
The negatives were that womens' rights would be worsened in the country as Shi'i fundamentalists would come to power, that the situation of Christians would also be worsened, and finally and most importantly, that this invasion would give al Qaeda a major propaganda gain. Womens' rights have not worsened as badly as I thought they might, but they have worsened. The situation of the Christians has been catastrophic, with more than half of their population having fled the country, not that this has registered one blip on the radar of the US fundamentalists backing the war. And, not only did al Qaeda get a propaganda boost, but as the civil war erupted al Qaeda gained a major foothold and became a major player in that war. More generally, the standing of the US in the Muslim world and more broadly was severey damaged by the entire episode and remains so.
Needless to say, I did not foresee the civil war or the scale of death and destructiont that followed. But then, just about nobody else did either, not at that point in time anyway.
One clear winner from the war has been the Kurdish population, who were under particular repression from the Saddam regime. They have won a virtual autonomy, now guaranteed as they remain power breakers in the federal government in Baghdad, and have been independently developing their oil industry with help of various minor oil companies from places like Norway and Canada. While not perfect, governance in autonomous Kurdistan seems to be reasonably competent, and the economic and social and political situation is almost certainly far improved over the previous period, something that cannot be said about the rest of Iraq.
Finally, I would like to comment on the whole issue of the role that oil played in the war, and here I shall largely be reiterating arguments I made long ago, although not in that original essay in April, 2003. While many thought and continue to think that the war was "mostly about oil," I have never accepted this. Yes, the first Gulf War was. Bush, Sr. clearly would not have bothered undoing Saddam's invasion of Kuwait if there were no oil there or if there was none in neighboring Saudi Arabia. As it was, it was the Saudis, satisfied that Saddam was contained, who held Bush Sr. back from rolling to Baghdad out of fear that this would lead to a pro-Iran, Shi'i-dominated government in Baghdad, which has indeed been an outcome of Bush Jr.'s invasion.
No, it was mostly about Bush Jr. trying to prove that he was a bigger man than his dad, a neo-Ronald Reagan, and many of the other backers of the war in the administration were neocons like Wolfowitz whose big concern was Israel and how Saddam's paying the families of Palestinian suicide bombers was an affront, not to mention the Israeli fear of the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. As it is, the interests of Israel have basically never been in line with those of the US oil majors in the Middle East.
There was one player for whom oil was important: VP Dick Cheney, certainly a not inconsequential figure, and possibly the one who most effectively played on Bush Jr.'s inferiority complex vis a vis his dad to get him going on the whole thing. At a minimum, Cheney's own company, Halliburton, made money hand over fist, and there is a clear case of oil playing a role, if a minor one. It is also true that Cheney apparently semi-secretly plotted with various US majors about "getting back into Iraq" as a result of the war, although the CEOs of these companies were not enthusiastic about the idea of disruptions of oil production and transportation that might arise from the war and were not at all public supporters of it.
As it is, of course, the oil companies did make money as the price of oil rose with the disuptions that did occur, although these were not supposed to occur. Indeed, not only Cheney but Wolfie as well were fully under the delusion that we were going to be welcomed with flowers, and the drive to secure the Oil Ministry first in Baghdad was driven by the even more ridiculous delusion that as did Kuwait, Iraq would actually pay for the war itself out of their overwhelming gratitude. It is really astounding to think how such actually intelligent people (Paul Wolfowitz, whom I know personally, is in fact brilliant) could be so completely out of touch with reality.
In any case, the ultimate irony of this is that in the end, the US majors were probably right not to get too excited about all these prospects. They never came to pass. The Kurdish production is being handled by oddball small companies from around the world, although with a couple of minor US ones in there as well. And in the rest of Iraq, oil production has only barely gotten going again due to the ongoing problems of pipelines being blown up and so on, and the companies that have made contracts to do anything have been overwhelmingly non-US ones, with Chinese and Russian ones much more active than any US major. Cheney may have had getting the US majors into Iraq as a major goal of his own efforts, but this may have been the ultimate failure of the many that he was responsible for as VP of the US.