On Friday 21 October US president Barack Obama announced that the 46,000 US troops still in Iraq (down from a peak of 170,000) will all leave the country by 31 December 2011.
The US had been negotiating to keep 30,000 troops and some bases in the country, and then at least to keep 3,000 trainers. In the end it has had to comply with the letter of the deal which George W Bush signed with the Iraqi government in late 2008 after first and unsuccessfully (in summer 2008) trying for a deal which would license US troops to remain in Iraq for many years, in large numbers and with large powers.
The aim of the arrogant and over-confident US government which invaded Iraq in March 2003, and then held it under US military occupation for several years, was to establish a regime there which would be a stable US ally in the Middle East and a bridgehead for US efforts in the region.
It failed. Iran has more influence in today’s Iraq than the USA has.
That spectacular failure has broken a cycle of US policy which started, as Stalinism in Europe collapsed, with the USA’s easy victory in the Kuwait war in 1991. The cycle proceeded through its fairly easy victory over Kosova in 1999 and what seemed, at first sight, to be another easy victory in Afghanistan in 2001.
The impact of the economic crisis since 2008, heavier in the USA than in other countries, has combined with the USA’s failure in Iraq, and the collapse of its intervention in Afghanistan into a quagmire, to reduce the USA’s clout in the world.
Writers have been proclaiming the relative decline of the USA since the early 1970s. Despite a relative decline on many economic measures, in fact the USA retained or even increased its global strategic, political, financial, and technological clout into the first years of the 21st century.
The USA is still the world’s biggest economy, and by far its biggest military power. But relative decline now seems established.
US influence in Iraq will not vanish. The US embassy in Baghdad is gigantic, covering an area roughly equivalent to the whole space between Parliament Square, Charing Cross, and Buckingham Palace, and surrounded by high walls five metres thick. Thousands of private US security guards will continue to operate in Iraq.
But the USA could not govern a large urbanised country by direct military rule, in the manner that the old British Empire ran many countries. It never even tried to do that. And it did not have enough clout and influence to develop a reliable and solid pro-US Iraqi political force able to govern Iraq.
Iraq fell into sectarian civil war in 2006. The US troop “surge”, in 2007, and deals made by the US with Sunni Arab forces anxious about Shia domination in Iraq, helped calm that.
The result was to deliver an at least semi-governable Iraq to a coalition of Shia Islamist parties and Kurdish nationalists.
Iraqi oil revenues have been running at an average of about $33 billion a year since mid-2007, compared to about $12 billion in 2003-7.
Civilian deaths from militia violence total 1,105 so far in 2011, as against 2,500 in 2010 and 34,500 in 2006.
As of March 2010, electricity was available 19.5 hours a day in Baghdad, up from a low of 4.4 hours in January 2007, and output has continued to increase. As of early 2011, about 70% of the population had access to drinkable water, up from 22% in early 2008.
A new Iraqi state has begun to consolidate. But:
• it is dominated by a patchwork coalition of sectarian-based Islamist parties, which draw their votes heavily (though not entirely) through sectarian headcounts;
• many unresolved flashpoints remain, particularly in disputes about demarcation between the autonomous Kurdish area of northern Iraq and the mainly-Arab south;
• social conditions, though less hellish than in 2006, are poor; many people who fled their homes in the worst times remain displaced;
• the new trade unions developed since 2003 still rely only on de facto tolerance, since the anti-union laws of the old Saddam Hussein dictatorship have still not been repealed and replaced by a democratic labour law.
The unions are heavily harassed, and need our solidarity.