It also was no coincidence that during the period of political stalemate between the elections and the formation of a new government, both Maliki and his principal rival, Ayad Allawi, courted Iran in a bid to gain the clerical regime’s backing. Such supplications suggested a sober calculation of the regional political realities. As the United States continues to draw down its military forces in Iraq, it is likely that Washington’s influence will wane and Iran’s will grow even stronger.
The only bright spot in all of this is that Iran’s internal economic problems limit the country’s ability to augment its political clout in Iraq with an equal degree of economic influence. That deficiency creates the opportunity for another regional actor, Turkey, to emerge as at least a secondary winner in the contest for geopolitical advantage in Iraq.
It certainly did not look that way during the early years of the U.S.-led mission in Iraq. Indeed, Washington’s policies created serious problems for Turkey. That was especially true with the establishment of the “semi-autonomous” Kurdish region in northern Iraq. That region became a de facto independent state and increased the restlessness of Turkey’s own Kurdish inhabitants. Until recently, Ankara displayed open animosity toward Iraq’s Kurdish regional administration, even conducting several military incursions to attack sanctuaries being used by rebels who were waging an insurgency against the Turkish government.
But there are now some interesting signs of a shift in Turkey’s policy. As worries mounted about both the stability of Iraq beyond the Kurdish region and about Iranian influence in Baghdad, some members of Ankara’s policy community began to see a quasi-independent Iraqi Kurdistan as a potential geographic buffer against those worrisome developments. Consequently, Turkey is pursuing a more conciliatory policy toward the Kurdish regional government and is eagerly pursuing economic opportunities in that territory. Indeed, Turkey seems to be trying to enhance its economic influence throughout Iraq. It remains to be seen how far these policy changes will go, but at a minimum they demonstrate Ankara’s intention not to let Iran become the dominant player in Iraq without at least mounting a challenge to that development.
In terms of the broader picture, it is clear that events pertaining to Iraq have not turned out the way U.S. policy makers had hoped—and which a few incurable optimists continue to hope. An Iraq in which democracy is—at best—a highly flawed and frail sapling, an Iraq where neighboring Iran exercises the greatest political influence, and an Iraq that could still become a cockpit for vicious regional rivalries is hardly what U.S. leaders had in mind when they decided to overthrow Saddam Hussein. That troubling outcome should at least chasten would-be interventionists and nation builders in the future.