The Unintended Consequences of America's Adventure in Iraq

Sectarian violence. Government death squads. Closer ties with Iran. Iraq should be a lesson to those who wish to transform the Mideast.

Now that the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Iraq is complete, sectarian warfare once again has reared its ugly head. There were the killings of Shi’a during the month of Muharram, which were almost certainly a response, at least in part, to the roundup of Sunnis that probably took place with the government’s approval. Then there are the charges that Vice President Tareq el-Hashemi managed a death squad. Hashemi is now a fugitive in Kurdistan.

Nuri al-Maliki, the author of those charges, has emerged as nothing less than a Shi’a strongman. No doubt he will retain the formalities of democracy—elections, a parliament, the participation of cooperative members of the Sunni, Kurd and Turkmen communities—so long as these do not interfere with his authoritarian ways. Should they threaten to cramp his style, he likely will further weaken these fledgling institutions, which already are fraying at the seams.

Maliki insists that he is not a tool of the Iranians. Strictly speaking, he is correct. Iraq will never allow itself to be completely dominated by Tehran. Nevertheless, just as there can be no denying that Iran was the real victor of Operation Iraqi Freedom because America defanged its only seriously powerful regional rival, so too is it true that Iraq has increasingly come to share Tehran’s perspective on regional affairs. Witness its abstention on the Arab League’s vote to suspend Syria. Iraq is now firmly rooted in what King Abdullah of Jordan years ago termed “the Shi’a crescent,” which includes also Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon, which also abstained from the Arab League vote, and Syria.

Moreover, Iraq appears no more friendly toward Israel than those other states in the crescent despite old pipedreams of neoconservatives who urged Washington to launch its attack on Iraq at the earliest possible moment. Egged on by Ahmed Chalabi, the advocates of regime change foresaw a democratic Iraq reopening the old Iraq Petroleum Company pipeline that once had run from Kirkuk to Haifa in Mandatory Palestine. Things have not worked out that way. Indeed, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Iraq would tolerate the basing on its soil of Iranian missiles pointed at Israel. Such a turn of events would only intensify the nervousness that is already palpable in Jerusalem. Ironically, it was Ariel Sharon, that icon of many neoconservatives, who warned Washington prior to the Iraq invasion that toppling Saddam would benefit the main enemy, Iran.

Sharon’s prescience should have served as a lesson to those whose hubris drives them to want to transform the Middle East. Yet the advocates of military action against Iran, Syria or both (in part because of the hostility of these states toward Israel) clearly have turned a deaf ear to the former Israeli prime minister’s argument, which can be summed up as, “Beware of what you ask for.” The consequences of an attack on Iran for Israel’s security are far from clear: even if an Israeli (or American) attack were to succeed—a somewhat dubious proposition—it would guarantee the undying hostility of the Persians for generations to come. Since Iran will always be the strongest power in the region, this is not a prospect that supporters of Israel should welcome.

As for Syria, again the consequences for Israel could be far from salutary. Would a militant Sunni Islamist regime, closely tied to Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood branches elsewhere (notably Egypt) improve Israel’s strategic position in the region? Hardly. Israel once faced a peculiar entity called the United Arab Republic, comprised of Syria and Egypt, which constituted a coordinated threat to both its northern and southern borders. The UAR did not last long, but a Muslim Brotherhood reprise of that experiment might last long enough to mount a new attack on the Jewish state.

It made little sense for the United States to attack Libya. It makes even less sense for Washington to authorize an attack in either Iran or Syria. It is one thing to toughen sanctions against Damascus, choke Tehran’s central bank, and coordinate even more closely with allies and friends to upend the Iranian nuclear program and further weaken the Assad regime. It is quite another to take military action. And those who support such action because of a misguided desire to enhance Israel’s security should think again: Instead of a pipeline to Haifa, their support for regime change in Baghdad traded a Sunni enemy of both Israel and Iran for a Shi’a friend of Iran that is no less an enemy of the Jewish state.

Dov Zakheim was under secretary of defense (comptroller) from 2001-2004 and recently completed his term as a member of the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. He recently published A Vulcan’s Tale: How the Bush Administration Mismanaged the Reconstruction of Afghanistan.

Image: Robert Couse-Baker