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Cost of Iraq War drains the US in race with China

By Brendon O'Connor - posted Thursday, 21 March 2013

The US invaded Iraq in March 2003 with considerable confidence, despite large rallies worldwide opposing the American-led invasion and a withdrawal of support from NATO allies Canada, France and Germany.

When a military victory was declared against Saddam Hussein's Iraq after only 21 days of official combat, president George W. Bush proclaimed "mission accomplished" on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln amid much pomp and circumstance.

Pride, as they say, comes before a fall. In the case of the Iraq War, this fall of the US may well be unending. Not only did the peace in Iraq prove far harder to win than the war, the conflict drained the US of credibility, resources and energy when its main global competitor, China, was inexorably on the rise.


The US victory over Saddam was tarnished on many fronts. The first hit to its global reputation came with the decision to invade, based as it was on what many said was the fallacious claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Its reputation was more permanently damaged when any such weapons failed to materialise. Further damage was done when photographs showing the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib went viral globally. Then, across the longer term, there was the fact large numbers of Iraqi civilians and a steady flow of American soldiers continued to be killed in Iraq in the years after the US seized power.

In an attempt to make the country functional and to reduce the violence, the US poured billions of dollars into Iraq, much of it going to profiteering contractors and local warlords. The surge initiated by Bush delivered even more money and troops in 2007. This troop build-up probably curbed the very high levels of violence occurring at that time, but it was hardly the great victory declared by John McCain in his recent heckling of Chuck Hagel during his former colleague's confirmation hearing. The tragedy of the Iraq War for the US is even those such as Barack Obama who recognise what an utterly wrong decision it was have to live with the long-term negative consequences.

With the hindsight that 10 years affords, Iraq looks like a turning point in world history. In the first few years of the 21st century, American policymakers and analysts frequently talked of US global primacy, with some even seeming to believe it was possibly never-ending. Such language and thinking has all but disappeared from serious foreign policy discussions and is one of the many signs that the US is in a period of relative decline. That the US is declining economically relative to China's rise is not a theoretical position, it is a fact. Iraq is not the sole cause of this pattern of decline; however, it was a bad decision that made other existing problems a lot worse, such as the US's taxation levels being set too low for the level of spending that both the Bush and Obama administrations have engaged in.

The US's decline will be slow; it is likely to remain the most influential nation in our world for a long time to come. Its military power and vast network of alliances are not likely to be overtaken any time soon. As for the reach of American soft power - its culture, diplomacy and ideas associated with the US - this is likely to be very difficult for any rival to supplant for a very long time. However, if economics is the underlying basis of power, the US's strength will be eroded during the next 30 or so years.

Of course, predictions of American decline have been commonplace for more than 100 years by wishful thinking foreigners and self-doubting Americans. Internally, this declinist rhetoric - the flip side of American messianism - often exaggerates the level of moral decay caused by social and political change. From a more global standpoint, arguments about the US's decline since 1945 have tended to overestimate the economic capacities of various American rivals such as the Soviet Union, Japan and the EU. The historical reality is that these competitors have faltered, often at the time the US has experienced a period of renewal. This scenario is, of course, possible with China. However, the underlying trend since 1945 has been a relative decline in US economic dominance. (The US share of world gross domestic product was, remarkably, around 50 per cent in 1945.)

The failure of the Iraq War provided much of the world with a "told you so" moment likely to have a more lasting impact than the same opportunity delivered by the Vietnam War. This is not only because of the nature of the US's rivals in the 21st century but also because of the American political system's inability to make long-term decisions for the good of the nation.


The impact of the Iraq War on the US's sense of purpose could be mitigated by sensible bipartisan agreements between the Democrats and Republicans to address the US's fiscal troubles, fix its creaking infrastructure and invest in the technologies of the future. This seems unlikely; instead, ongoing political dysfunction will compound the negative legacy of a bad choice made 10 years ago.

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This article was first published in The Australian.

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About the Author

Brendon O'Connor is an Associate Professor in the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and is the 2008 Australia Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. He is the editor of seven books on anti-Americanism and has also published articles and books on American welfare policy, presidential politics, US foreign policy, and Australian-American relations.

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