The Damage Done

How the war in Iraq has hurt America.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Casualties are definitely down. Other places suddenly seem to need more urgent attention. News coverage is shrinking, as is public interest. All of which may help explain the breath of optimism one can now detect in Washington, and even in some other places, about the war in Iraq. “It will all come right in the end, wait and see,” is an expression I’ve now heard more than once. Other versions of this include “The surge is working,” and “Why don’t the mainstream media tell the truth about our successes in Iraq?”

Though I don’t especially want to perpetuate anyone’s stereotypes about the mainstream media, I have to say that this optimism is totally unwarranted. Not because things aren’t improving in Iraqit seems they are, at least for the momentbut because the collateral damage inflicted by the war on America’s relationships with the rest of the world is a lot deeper and broader than most Americans have yet realized. It isn’t just that the Iraq war invigorated the anti-Americanism that has always been latent pretty much everywhere. Far worse is the fact that—however it all comes out in the end, however successful Iraqi democracy becomes a decade from now—our conduct of the war in Iraq has disillusioned our natural friends and supporters and thrown a lasting shadow over our military and political competence. However it all comes out, the price we’ve paid is too high.

Though there are many examples of how this disillusion has manifested itself—my colleague Fareed Zakaria has written repeatedly of how an America distracted by Iraq has steadily lost influence in Asia, for example—one of the most disturbing is unfolding at the moment, as Europe prepares for another round of meetings with Iran’s nuclear negotiators. For those who’ve forgotten (and this, too, has dropped out of the news), it is not the United States but Britain, France, and Germany who are trying to persuade the Islamic republic to abandon plans to enrich its own uranium and to accept assistance in building a civil nuclear energy program instead.

From the start, however, all negotiations between Iran and the “EU-3,” as the group is known in diplomacy speak, have been haunted by Iraq. Certainly, there is no expert committee in existence that could successfully convince Europeans (or anyone) that Iran really does have nuclear weapons, or even that Iran intends to build them. So fresh are the memories of American claims about the extent of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and so vast, therefore, is the skepticism about any assessments of anybody’s nuclear program, that even a report bearing a United Nations or European Union label would fail to convince, even if Iranian nukes were on display in downtown Tehran. All analysis coming out of the United States is, of course, automatically discounted.

Since no one takes analysis seriously, it’s hardly surprising that no one takes the possibility of a nuclear Iran very seriously, either. There is no enthusiasm for sanctions, though they will probably be tried and will probably fail. Why would anyone ditch a lucrative trading partner because of some missiles they don’t believe in? As for the “military option,” the surest way to sell newspapers in Europe at the moment is to print an article hinting that the United States is about to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities. The very suggestion causes outrage, not because of rampant pacifism—”Americans are from Mars, and Europeans are from Venus”—but because most commentators (and, off the record, most diplomats) believe it would fail. Either it would “fortify Iran’s nuclear hawks,” or it would kill thousands of civilians while leaving the Iranian nuclear program largely intact, or Iran would strike back in Iraq—or all of the above. Should the Bush administration try it anyway (“one last display of fireworks,” as a British friend put it), international support will be minimal, fury maximal, diplomatic consequences appalling. Even European politicians who wanted to show support would be cowed by the antipathy of their voters. Thanks to Iraq.

What, then, are we left with? Fingers crossed, those who say Iran’s nuclear bomb is years away are right. Fingers crossed, maybe Iran really does just want a civilian nuclear program. Fingers crossed, if Iran gets nukes, its government will behave responsibly. Fingers crossed, all the other crises whose resolution has been hampered or damaged by Iraq—Pakistan, Afghanistan, the broader Middle East—will somehow solve themselves. Fingers crossed, it will all come out right in the end, after a decade or two. Just like Iraq.