The Middle East is looking pretty dismal for the Obama administration right now. That peace process he was going to revive between Israelis and Palestinians? No US president since Richard Nixon has gotten less done on that front. The Arab Spring that was going to open a new era in US-Arab relations and turn power over to liberal, social-media empowered activists? Hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood or massacred by Syrian goons. The “good war” in Afghanistan, the “war of necessity” that a brilliant and wise Obama strategy would rescue from the bungling neglect of those Bush-era lunkheads? The less said about it these days, the better. The peace process with Iran? In tatters, as the Iranians crush our hopes for a breakthrough time after time.
But there is one bright spot in this dismal region, one country where US efforts have borne fruit. Unfortunately for the president, that country is — Iraq.
As a story in the New York Times over the weekend informs us, Iraqi oil production is booming. Last year Iraqi oil production averaged 2.5 million barrels per day — enough to put it among OPEC’s top producers and, crucially, enough to prevent the oil sanctions against Iran from spiking world oil prices and devastating western economies.
This is a level that Iraq achieved only once in all the years since Saddam Hussein seized power back during the Carter presidency, but Iraqis say it is just the beginning. Iraq wants to increase production dramatically — to 10 million barrels a day by 2017. At that level, Iraqi production would be almost equal to that from Saudi Arabia.
While independent analysts think that goal may be out of reach in Iraq’s time frame, there is no doubt that Iraq can and will up production dramatically over the next few years, easing world prices, boosting the global economy, and easing the path for a confrontation, should one be needed, with Iran. (Iraq’s plans to increase its output to the max make its commitment to coordinate its OPEC stance with Iran look hollow.)
Iraq continues what seems to be its historical mission of making American foreign policy experts look like idiots. After the absence of WMD and years of unexpected violence and war discredited the decision of the Bush administration and Tony Blair decision to go to war, the surge and the development of a somewhat stable Iraqi government discredited all the American experts (and they were legion) who said that Iraq was finished, kaput, and that the war was so hopelessly lost that ignominious retreat was America’s only option.
Now the Iraqis are continuing their streak. Those who said that the new Shiite Iraq would be a mere cats paw of Iran must accept the reality that on vital interests like oil production, the Iraqis are charting their own course. Those who said that civil unrest would permanently paralyze the country are watching oil production boom. Those who hoped for Iraqi democracy remain chagrined by a messy, corrupt and authoritarian government — while those who predicted failure and endless civil war have, so far at least, also had to eat their words.
The Iraq War was one of America’s worst planned and worst executed foreign policy moves ever. People like me who believed the assurances of men like Colin Powell that Iraq was building WMD had a painful lesson in both the limits of intelligence and the limits of the judgments of public figures we had come to respect. The clumsy diplomacy by which the Bush administration made our entry into the war as painful and divisive as possible will long be studied as a case study in incoherence and failure. The poor planning and worse execution of the occupation will also provide generations of scholars and policy analysts rich materials as they seek to develop an anatomy of failure.
But granted all that and more, and not forgetting the terrible human toll among Americans, allies and above all of the Iraqis themselves, there is one more thing about the Iraq War that students of foreign policy need to get clear in their heads: the strategic aims of the war have been largely achieved. Nine years after the invasion, an independent Iraq has a military that is linked to the United States. The Arab world is moving against the autocracies and incompetent kleptocracies that at once blocked development and generated waves of hate against the US and the west. The dangerous minorities of the Shiite and Sunni communities who are radical terrorists and nutjobs are more focused on their hatred of each other than on their hatred of us. The Sunni Arab world has united with the US against Iran and its allies. Despite the alienation caused by the Iraq War and the execrable way it was launched, our closest European and Arab allies are working more effectively and in a more united way against Iran than ever before.
Not everything the progenitors of that war hoped to achieve was accomplished. The Bush administration hoped that the lack of support from Saddam for the most radical Palestinian factions would ease the way to peace for Israel. Some of its more idealistic members expected that both in Iraq and beyond, a wave of revolutions would usher in liberal democracy rather than what we see. And the cost to the US and to the Iraqis was far, far higher than the war’s parents expected.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that whether or not it was “worth it” or necessary, the Iraq war ended as a strategic win, and the benefits of that victory are making President Obama’s life easier every day. The United States and the world may never thank President Bush for starting the Iraq War, but we should all be grateful that, once in it, he refused to cut and run.
But President Bush isn’t the only recent president who gets even more criticism and less credit than he deserves. President Obama also has some accomplishments that his critics don’t fully understand.
Just as one should not oversell the Bush era’s limited but real successes in the interest of correcting skewed perceptions, one should also not underestimate the positive contributions of President Obama. His high profile effort to reset relations with Iran, his sharp rhetorical attacks on the decision to go to war in Iraq and his attempt to rebuild relations with the Arab and Islamic world may not have accomplished everything he hoped, but his diplomacy made it much easier for those infuriated by the Bush administration to draw a line under that period and begin a new kind of relationship with a post-Bush US.
In other words, while President Obama’s “resets” may have failed with their intended targets — Russia, Iran, the Palestinians and the “Arab street” — his efforts in that direction facilitated more successful resets with Germany, France and the “Arab suites.”
The mix of failure and success by two presidents created a Middle East that neither would have wished for and that no one calls pretty. But it is a Middle East that the US can work in and with. Paradoxically, some of President Obama’s greatest assets in the region stem from policies he denounced, while some of his own most cherished initiatives have flopped.
I used to compare the Bush policies in Iraq to something Mary Todd said about the first ball she attended with her future husband Abraham Lincoln. “He said he wanted to dance with me in the worst way,” she later said, “and that is exactly what he did.”
That is still a fair description of our policies in the Middle East. We are still dancing with the region, often in the worst possible way. Yet somehow, out of our failures as much as out of our successes, we continue to safeguard and even advance our vital interests even as the region moves — slowly, irregularly and in ways that often frustrate both its residents and its neighbors — towards the hope of a brighter future.
It ain’t grand, but we can hope that in the end it will be enough.