Americans love a good story. Pop culture is littered with the fictional tales of heroic characters. The majority of stories today still follow a three-act structure that dates back to Aristotle. Epic films start with the hero called to action in the first act; then the tension rises in the second (how will our hero get out of this situation?); and finally, in the third act, a resolution. By the end, the hero will have achieved his victory (normally) but he will also be changed in some fundamental way before the story is over.
Unfortunately for us, this reality has followed this structure in the Iraq War. With the 14th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq upon us, we must recognize that the Iraq War of 2003 was not an isolated event but merely the second act of a war in three parts.
The first act was the call to action in 1991: Saddam Hussein was an international villain who demanded the attention of good and freedom-loving people. The hero, America, rose to the challenge in Operation Desert Storm. But, contrary to popular belief, the war didn’t end in 1991. The United States and Great Britain maintained a strict no-fly zone throughout the remainder of the decade. The hero and the villain merely continued battling during this period. In a way, then, the resolution of the Gulf War in 1991 was more akin to the peace deal at the end of World War I in that it was little more than a protracted armistice.
This set the stage for the second act in 2003. Per the three-act formula, the stakes were raised in Act Two. The world wondered how on Earth would America get itself out of Iraq?
The conflict, as George Friedman (channeling Shakespeare) claimed in his 2005 book America’s Secret War, was a tale “told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” And, like Shakespearean tales, the only thing that determined whether the story was to be a tragedy or a comedy, was whether or not the story ended with a marriage.
Make no mistake: there’s nothing funny about war (and, to be fair, most Shakespearean “comedies” are not funny in the sense that we understand “comedy” today). However, there is something perversely humorous behind the political class and its telling of this three-act war. Remember, the United States invaded Iraq to prevent a genocidal madman from acquiring nuclear arms and destabilizing the Mideast. America also wanted to prevent both Iran and Sunni jihadists from exerting influence there after Saddam was toppled.
Yet—and here’s the darkly humorous part—by invading Iraq, America’s political elite likely set into motion the very outcome they sought to avoid. In the end, Saddam did not have nuclear arms (though, to be sure, he made everyone think he did). And with Saddam’s ouster, al Qaeda (and later ISIS) gained significant amounts of influence in Iraq. Meanwhile, Iran has steadily increased its control over Iraq.
In fact, things are verifiably worse in the region. Freedom is in decline. Syria has imploded. Jordan, Egypt, and Israel are all threatened by the instability that the Iraq War has caused. Oh, and Russia is back in the Middle East. (What’s next? Frogs falling from the sky?)
Meanwhile, as Iran gains the most from America’s three-act war in Iraq, an ethno-religious cold war is shaping up between the Sunni states (led by Saudi Arabia) and the Shiite-led Iran. This conflict is playing itself out in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. The Sunni-Shiite regional cold war could very well go nuclear, with Saudi Arabia seeking to purchase a handful of nuclear weapons from Pakistan. This is in response to the Obama Administration’s deal with Iran, which many observers believe gave Iran the green light to pursue building nuclear arms.
With America’s increased commitment to defeating ISIS in Iraq, one might assume that we would be in a position to dictate a postwar settlement. Not so. The United States is working with those already engaged in combat against ISIS in Iraq. While there are American allies (such as the Kurds) fighting in Iraq, the most prevalent force is the Iranian-backed Iraqi military (the Iraqi government, like neighboring Iran, is led by Shiites). Indeed, Iranian troops are fighting alongside the Iraqi forces and, in some cases, leading the fight on the ground. Plus, the larger presence of Russia in the region (as an ally of Iran) means that America’s ability to influence the postwar environment will be severely hamstrung.
President Trump has made clear that the United States will not become mired in yet another nation-building campaign in Iraq (or anywhere else). So we can assume that the Iranians—with its sizable military, cultural, and religious influence—will dictate the postwar order in Iraq.
What that means is Iraq will effectively become a proxy for Iranian foreign policy in the region. American military policy in the Mideast is effectively buttressing Iranian hegemony. U.S. victory over ISIS in Iraq will not stabilize the country. Rather, it will simply make Iraq ripe for Iran’s picking.
Alas, the three-act Iraq War will end in the “marriage” of Iraq and Iran. But this is no Shakespearean comedy. Instead, the 25-year American experience in Iraq is some kind of dark, postmodern, geopolitical comedy. Let us hope that the Trump Administration keeps this in mind as it ramps up U.S. combat operations in Iraq. We must kill ISIS, but we must not miss the fact that Iran is not our friend.