JULY 18, 2017 — There is a growing feeling in Washington, underlined by the character of the forces that have nearly brought about the fall of Mosul, that America bought Iraq, with blood and dollars, and Iran has ended up the dominant nation there.
The United States has had 4,500 killed in Iraq and the cost to the American taxpayer is estimated at roughly $1 trillion. For that, American forces still are struggling in support of Iraqi government and other forces to regain final control of Mosul, with other parts of Iraq still under Islamic State control.
The dominant element in the picture is the common Islamic Shiite religion of the ruling Haider al-Abadi government in Baghdad and the ruling Islamic Shiite government of the ayatollahs and others in Tehran. Iraqi government forces are almost entirely Shiite, as are a number of Iraqi militias. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards provide them substantial training and supplies. U.S. forces, numbering about 5,000, are part of the military picture, especially through their capacity to provide air support, but the Iranians are still probably the most critical part of the military scene.
That this is the way matters have evolved in Iraq reflects two major American foreign policy errors in recent years.
The first was the invasion on false intelligence premises of Iraq by the United States in 2003. Those false premises were that Iraq possessed or was developing nuclear weapons and that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Muslim, was working with the Sunni terrorist organization, al-Qaida, which attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq had a Sunni-dominated government and was a counterpoint to Iran.
The other major American foreign policy error occurred in 2015, in the wake of the successfully negotiated agreement between Iran and a number of other nations — China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States — to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons program. In return for halting the nuclear work, Iran was to receive relief from the others on economic sanctions. The United States initially moved forward to take advantage of the new arrangement by making a big sale of Boeing aircraft to Iran. But, after that, elements in the United States took steps to see that the initial commercial move was not followed up on, either by private U.S. firms and banks or even through U.S. government diplomatic initiatives.
One result is heavy Iranian economic and political influence in Iraq, acting in competition rather than in cooperation with the United States in seeking to make Iraq viable as a nation again. Iran probably wants to dominate Iraq more than the United States does, having fought it to a standstill in the bloody 1980-1988 war. At the same time, given domestic and other U.S. resistance to working with Iran, what should be the common objective of the two countries — to restore orderly government in Iraq — has not been achieved. Great swaths of Iraq remain in chaos or still under the Islamic State and other extremists’ control.
Why America has acted in this way is not an entirely transparent subject. Iranian exiles in the United States are involved. Israel is involved. The Sunni Persian Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, are involved. But what is clear is that America has not acted to its own advantage in Iraq, neither in the 2003 invasion nor in the follow-up to the 2015 nuclear-for-sanctions agreement. The mistakes have been expensive, in money and in blood, and they continue to cost us.