Ten years after start of Iraq War: Geopolitical shifts have favored Iran, China

Special to WorldTribune.com

By Brian M Downing

The ten years since the outset of the Second Gulf War have provided time to assess the geopolitical consequences it has brought, though a fuller judgment will come only after many more years.

Putting aside the justifications and criticisms from the war period, we might look at how the region has changed and how U.S. security has benefited.
Shia/Iranian ascendance

The ouster of Saddam Hussein, the dissolution of his army, and the beginning of democracy has led, inevitably and predictably, to the ascendance of Iraq’s Shias – sixty percent of the population. This political-sectarian shift has led to close ties between Iraq and Iran. Teheran long supported Iraq’s Shia aspirations – out of religious affinities, but also out of a strategic calculus during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88).

Iran sought to foment rebellion inside Iraq by supporting and sometimes creating Shia political organizations and militias. These groups are important in the Iraqi military and state today and will remain so well into the future, as will Teheran’s influence.

The rise of Shia power in Iraq has led to hopes of reform among Shia populations throughout the region. This is especially so in Gulf monarchies such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Qatar, which have large or even majority Shia populations that have been relegated to the status of second-class subjects.

Sunni response

Shia hopes have alarmed Sunni monarchs. They see this “Shia awakening” as a threat to the Sunni faith, to regional stability, and to the principle of monarchal authority upon which Sunni powers – most notably the House of Saud – justify their austere rule and resplendent privileges.

This fear has led to misinterpreting Shia calls for reform, thus far peaceable, as menacing conspiracies emanating from Iran and its Revolutionary Guard Corps. The Sunni princes have responded with harsh crackdowns, which in the long term are unlikely to ensure the monarchal principle or public order.

The Sunni insurgency against the U.S. occupation of Iraq led to militant groups seeking to expel the U.S. and restore Sunni predominance. Neither goal was achieved. Sunni insurgents made a temporary peace with the U.S. during the Surge; Shia legislation, not Sunni arms, expelled the U.S.

After the Surge, however, Sunni militant groups were never integrated into the Iraqi political system. They remained embittered, strengthened their ties with Salafi militants across the region, and are now waging a deadly bombing campaign against the Shia.

Some Sunni militants have joined the intrigues of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies against the Shia and Iran. They are presently at work in Syria and to some extent now in Lebanon. These well-armed and ideologically-driven groups pose formidable problems for democratic development while operating under Saudi direction. They will pose a longer-term terrorist problem when they are no longer under Saudi direction.

Chinese ascendance

Behind these more prominent events, the Chinese have quietly increased their influence in Iraq and the Persian Gulf. The Iraqi government was far more generous in awarding oil licenses to China than to the U.S., ensuring a growing number of Chinese engineers, business people, and advisers. China has been a voracious purchaser of Iranian and Saudi oil and has built infrastructure in both countries as well, most recently a pipeline running from Saudi oil fields on the Gulf to the Red Sea port of Yanbu, bypassing the Strait of Hormuz.

Most strikingly for geopolitical analysis, rising Chinese influence has not yet drawn meaningful opposition, as for example has rising Shia power. The Second Gulf War may one day be judged as a decisive event in China’s ascendance in the region – along with declining U.S. demand for foreign oil.

The spread of democracy

Democracy in Iraq, while desirable and portentous, has thus far not had hoped-for spillover effects.

Indeed, Iraq is close to authoritarian regimes to its east and west. It has developed close ties with an authoritarian government in Iran, with which the U.S. was on the verge of war last year – a situation not unlikely to recur. Further, Iraq supports the Assad oligarchy in Syria and allows Iran to ship weapons there through Iraq territory and airspace.

The Second Gulf War has left the U.S. in an increasingly uncomfortable and potentially agonizing strategic position between the democracy in Iraq, which it helped install, and the Gulf monarchies, which the U.S. has long aligned with, but which now seek to eradicate democracy from the region root and branch. Siding with one will anger the other, balancing will anger both, and neutrality is impossible.

The perspective offered in the decade since the outbreak of the war does not show gains for U.S. national interests. China and Iran have come out much the better, and the region is much less stable for the war. This dismaying strategic position today, between democracy and autocracy, suggests that in another ten years the war’s denouement might be even less welcome than it now appears.

Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst and author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at brianmdowning@gmail.com.