The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 changed the geostrategic outlines of the Middle East. It brought a massive western army into the region with an ambitious agenda of regime-change, toppled a major Arab state that had served as a buffer to Iranian and Turkish power for most of the 20th century, and unleashed sharp ethnic and sectarian tensions that reverberated around the region. Although the effects of the Iraq war on the region are still unfolding, some consequences are already irreversible.
The initial justification for the invasion of Iraq was posed as defensive and linked to the threat of weapons of mass destruction and the purported Iraqi support for al Qa’eda. When these reasons proved empty, the justification was cast in wider and more aggressive terms: a push for regime change and forced democratisation in order to transform the Middle East.
The unspoken model was previous American experiences in Europe and Asia, where the toppling of hostile regimes (Nazi Germany, imperial Japan and the Soviet Union) had led to pro-western transformations in governments from Berlin to Tokyo, and many capitals in between.
Needless to say, American ambitions in the Middle East did not pan out as planned. The political situation in Iraq did not coalesce as in post-war Germany and Japan or post-collapse Russia, with the rapid rise of a western-oriented national leadership. Rather, politics deteriorated into prolonged internal conflict and paralysis.
Those neighbours of Iraq that were targeted for regime change, Syria and Iran, did not fall in line after the American invasion, but co-operated intensely to undermine the occupation and try to force the US withdrawal. Arab allies of the US who panicked at Bush administration pressure for rapid democratisation learnt that they could get by with only cosmetic reforms, and that the US would back off from its agenda once it realised that Islamist parties would be the likely winners.
Far from transforming the region into an oasis of American influence led by pro-western liberal elites on the western and central European model, the war strengthened radicals in the region and in places reinforced the hold of authoritarian regimes.
In terms of regional order, the collapse of Iraq heralded the end of the Arab order that had prevailed precariously since the 1950s. This order had been informed by the ideology of Arab nationalism, institutionalised in the League of Arab States, and strengthened under the leadership of the Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser.
The separate peace between Egypt and Israel in 1979 was a strong blow to this order, as was the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait a decade later. But the toppling of the Iraqi state in 2003 marked the transformation of Iraq from a state protecting the borders of the Arab order to an arena of regional influence and competition.
Although Egypt and Saudi Arabia are struggling to preserve Iraq within the “Arab order”, the country is at the centre of an emerging regional order which includes strong roles for Iran and Turkey in addition to the Arab states.
The toppling of Iraq also changed the thematics of Middle East politics. Although the Arab-Israeli conflict remained important, the issue of a rising Iran and the re-ignition of Sunni-Shiite tension emerged as two new themes.
With regard to the Arab-Israel conflict, friends of Israel had led the charge for the American invasion of Iraq. Israel was rid of the strongest Arab threat against it, but it ended up facing a new and larger threat in the shape of an empowered and nuclearising Iran, commanding a semi-imperial zone of influence stretching through Iraq, Syria and southern Lebanon, and reaching all the way to Gaza.
With Iraq gone and Iranian influence unleashed, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Arab states have sought to revive the peace process and resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict in order to pull Damascus away from Tehran and block Iranian exploitation of the issue. These attempts failed in the face of the Bush administration and Israeli uninterest, although all eyes are now on Barack Obama’s fresh efforts to revive talks. For most Arab leaders, since the Iraq war the potential threat from Iran has replaced the Arab-Israeli conflict as the main cause for concern.
Whereas Sunni dominance of the Arab world had been uncontested for centuries, the emergence of a Shiite-led state in Baghdad, the dominant position of Hizbollah in Lebanon, and the growing influence of Iran in the Middle East, has raised region-wide sectarian tensions.
These tensions not only fuelled the prolonged conflict in Iraq, brief sectarian clashes in Lebanon and insurgency in Yemen, but have also led to serious Sunni-Shiite stand-offs in Bahrain, Kuwait and parts of Saudi Arabia. The Iraq war unleashed a genie that had lain relatively dormant, and Sunni-Shiite tension is likely to define much of the politics of the next few decades.
The Iraq war did indeed bring about a new Middle East, but not the one that the neo-conservatives of the Bush administration had envisioned. The leaders and peoples of the region, left with the consequences of this war, must grapple with its outcomes and effects, and look for ways to build regional stability and cooperation in the face of fast-moving events.