Reflections on Iraq and Arab-US relations

As US troops leave Iraq, parallels to post-WWI decolonisation are important to understand so the region can be free.

iraqi desert
After WWI, Americans replaced the British and French as the colonial power in the Middle East [GALLO/GETTY]

Geneva, Switzerland – As American troops are finally pulling out of Iraq and heading back home, those who genuinely wish both the United States and the Arab world well must be heaving a deep sigh of relief.

A sober assessment of that war should show how misguided and utterly avoidable the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was. As the Arab Spring has amply demonstrated, there are much less costly ways for getting rid of tyrants. Any dispassionate assessment of that unfortunate eight-year-long war should reach conclusions along the following lines:

Impact on Iraq:

–      Human casualties: unbearably high.

–      Iraqi economy: in ruins.

–      Iraq’s social-fabric: torn apart.

–      Home security: out of control.

–      National heritage: skimmed, dispersed, damaged or simply vanished.

–      Proximity to democratic rule: negligible

Impact on the US:

–      American human casualties: painfully high.

–      Stimulus to US economy: uncertain.

–      Damage to US economy and balance of payments: certain.

–      Effect on US image worldwide: catastrophic.

–      Privileged concessions on Iraq’s oil resources: ephemeral, if any.

–      US position in the Middle East region: Before the war: unrivaled. After the war: shared.

Be that as it may, at this junction in world history, it is pertinent to wonder whether American reliance on military superiority is cost-effective. It is paradoxical that despite the US being militarily at its zenith, American influence is waning worldwide.

Approximately 100 years ago, there was not a single American soldier in the Arab world. By contrast, Britain and France – the two imperial powers of that time – had overwhelming military forces in the region. Yet, in the post WWI years, the Arabs living in territories deemed by the League of Nations as in “need of a Mandatory until such time as they are able to stand-alone” wanted America – not the others – to have that mandate.

At that time, President Woodrow Wilson was declaring his 14-Point Doctrine and calling for people’s rights to self-determination and territorial independence. It was not military might, then, but value-based soft power that triggered the Arabs’ affinity for the US.

Similarities between the political turmoil in the Arab world after the final crumbling of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 and today’s Arab Spring are plentiful.

Then, like now, the Arab world was undergoing an awakening. Then, like now, Western powers were scrambling for control over this strategically vital region. And then, like now, Western political leaders were publicly saying all the right things as they called for freedom and an end of despotism.

Crucially, then, but hopefully not now, Western leaders were saying one thing in public while doing its exact opposite in secret. Flagrant examples were the Sykes-Picot Accord and the Balfour Declaration.

Since then, the Arab world has been ruled by autocratic regimes desperately lacking in legitimacy. Despite its wealth in natural and human resources, the Arab world was held back from meaningful socio-economic and political development and trailed behind other regions in the world that are not as endowed in natural and human resources.

Now, with the Arab Spring in full swing, there is renewed hope that the region will not see a replay of Sykes-Picot, but the formation of mutually beneficial partnerships with Europe and the United States. The Arab world will at last be seen from the prism of home-grown values: such as personal liberties, an independent judicial system, fair elections, social justice and accountability.

The annals of history are filled with examples of something good sometimes coming out of terrible and ill-conceived wars and human follies. Let’s hope that this Iraq war will be one such example and a new dawn in Arab-American relations will bring about a mutually beneficial future.

Mohammad Tarbush, a Geneva-based political and financial analyst, is author of The Role of the Military in Politics: A Case Study of Iraq to 1941.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.