By Martin Thomas
At the end of December, the last US troops will withdraw from Iraq, eight years and eight months after the invasion of March 2003.
Bungling to the last, the USA sent vice-president Joe Biden to tour Iraq declaring the operation a success, and he held forth to a puzzled audience on the great things the USA has done in Baku. Baku is in Azerbaijan, not Iraq.
The invasion was the product of a surge of US triumphalism following the collapse of European and Russian Stalinism in 1991, easy US military successes in Kuwait (1991), Bosnia (1995), and Kosova (1999), and seeming US military success in Afghanistan (2001).
By invading, US politicians around George Bush thought they could cut short a possible process of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein gradually regaining the regional support and influence he had lost after the Kuwait war in 1991. With a quick, sharp blow, they thought they could get a US-friendly, market-friendly regime in Iraq and use it as a lever to transform the Middle East and North Africa, which would otherwise fall to political Islamists when the decrepit old dictators like Mubarak, Assad, Qaddafi, Ben Ali, and the Saudi monarchy finally went.
In those terms, the invasion failed heavily. Iraq has a government dominated by Shia Islamists; the Iranian government, hated by the USA, probably has more influence in Iraq now than the US does, despite the fact that 16,000 US citizens (staff at the gigantic Baghdad embassy, and mercenary paramilitaries) remain in Iraq.
US clout in the region and the world has declined.
The USA has repeatedly declared it wants a two-states settlement in Israel/Palestine, and quickly, but has been unable to produce even a significant nudge in that direction.
The collapse of the old dictatorships which dominated the Middle East and North Africa for decades is now underway, with the "Arab Spring". The effect of the war in Iraq on that outcome has probably been to help the Islamists who now, with the election results in Egypt and Tunisia and the first declarations of the post-Qaddafi rulers in Libya, look like coming out on top.
Hardly anyone in Iraq positively endorsed the US invasion.
Some of Iraq's Shia majority, long suppressed by Saddam, were at first willing grudgingly to welcome the US's overthrow of the dictator and to deal with the US troops on a wary "wait and see" basis, hoping they would tidy up and leave soon. Hassan Jumaa, leader of the oil workers' union which sprang up in southern Iraq after the fall of Saddam's police-state, said: "The occupation is like a headache, but Saddam was like death".
The wariness soon turned to outright hostility, as the US clumsily destroyed the fabric of civil government in Iraq and tipped the country into a gangster-ridden chaos over which Americans strode demanding flat-rate taxes and rapid privatisations.
The USA was sucked into a long military presence. The chaos led the majority of Iraqis to demand that the US withdraw - but also to say that the withdrawal should come only after some civil order had been restored, so that withdrawal would not tip the country into full-scale sectarian civil war and the destruction of all the limited democratic and labour-movement opportunities which had opened with Saddam's fall.
Socialists hoped that the new Iraqi labour movement would shape that reconstruction.
In fact, after a year of almost-exploding sectarian civil war in 2006, the uneasy exhaustion into which Iraqi society finally fell from late 2007 was under the rule of a cabal of Shia Islamist parties, in loose alliance with Kurdish nationalists, and gradually reconstructing a state machine around themselves.
The Iraqi labour movement remains alive, though battered and still scarcely semi-legal, since Saddam's old anti-union laws remain on the books and have been supplemented by others.
It will still need our solidarity after the US withdrawal.
"Turkey, Iran, China, South Korea, Italy, and Arab states" are "far outpacing the US and UK" in winning contracts in Iraq.
French capitalists are doing well, too. "As well as investing in telecoms and building two car plants, [the French firm] Lafarge produces 60% of the cement sold in Iraq" (Financial Times, 16 December).
Shell and Exxon have won some oil contracts. But in the big Iraqi government auction in 2009: "Two of the most lucrative of the multi-billion-dollar oil contracts went to two countries which bitterly opposed the U.S. invasion — Russia and China — while even Total Oil of France, which led the charge to deny international approval for the war at the U.N. Security Council in 2003, won a bigger stake than the Americans in the most recent auction" (Time magazine, 19/12/09).
Norway's DNO International, Turkey's Genel Enerji, and the Chinese state-owned Sinopec, as well as US-based Exxon, have big oil contracts in the Kurdish autonomous region of Iraq.
Further, "the Iraqis are pursuing economic relations with countries such as Iran, which had been their enemies but are now close trading partners" (FT).
Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki publicly bemoans the lack of American companies with contracts in Iraq, but the best guess must be that Maliki (who, when in exile from Saddam, chose to live in Syria, Iran's close ally, rather than in Britain or the USA) is saying it for show.
The USA has been unable to control their outcome. The misdeeds of the US armed forces have made it harder for US companies to win contracts, and the US companies themselves more cautious about even attempting to come in.