Who Won in Iraq?

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George Bush’s now infamous May, 2003, aircraft carrier moment has already joined Dewey Beats Truman in the top ranks of spectacularly wrong-headed optimism. More than three years later, is it still too early for anyone to unfurl a “Mission Accomplished” banner? The editors of Foreign Policy don’t think so. They’ve just published a series of essays in response to the simple question Who Won in Iraq?, coralling “the top 10 people, nations, and ideas that can declare victory in Iraq — a somewhat counterintuitive take given how bad the situation there has become.”

The answers run the gamut, and bring up wonderful contradictions. Iran, says our old standby (and Middle East expert) Vali Nasr, echoing what he’s talked about on our show here, here, here, and here. No, it’s Sunni strongmen in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, says Carnegie Endowment scholar Marina Ottaway. Bush père speechwriter David Frum says that Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” has won the day fourteen years after its coinage. Other answers? Moqtada al-Sadr, Al Qaeda, the U.N., and the price of oil.

None of the individual answers comes as a complete surprise (well, maybe Israel and “Old Europe”), but in the aggregate they provide a novel way of looking at the effects of the Iraq War. As China expert Steve Tsang, who nominated China in his essay, told us on the phone today, “Nobody wins… but some people benefit.”

Daniel Levy

Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Policy Initiative, New America Foundation

Member of the official Israel negotiating team at the Oslo B and Taba talks

Daniel Byman

Director, Center for Peace and Security Studies, Georgetown University

Senior Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution

Fawaz Gerges

Chair, International Affairs and Middle Eastern Studies, Sarah Lawrence College

Author, Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy

Visiting professor, American University in Cairo

Steven Tsang

Senior research fellow in Modern Chinese Studies, St. Antony’s College, Oxford University

Author, The Cold War’s Odd Couple: The Unintended Partnership between the Republic of China and the United Kingdom, 1950-1958

Martin Wolf

Associate editor and chief economic commentator, Financial Times
Extra Credit Reading
Vali Nasr, Wins in Iraq? 1. Iran, Foreign Policy Magazine, March/April 2007: “In the political vacuum that followed Saddam’s fall, Iranian influence quickly spread into southern Iraq on the back of commercial connections—driven by a growing volume of trade and a massive flow of Iranian pilgrims into shrine cities of Iraq—and burgeoning intelligence and political ties. Iran’s influence quickly extended to every level of Iraq’s bureaucracy, Shiite clerical and tribal establishments, and security and political apparatuses.”

Dexter Filkins, Who Wins in Iraq? 2. Moqtada al-Sadr, Foreign Policy Magazine, March/April 2007: “Four years into the American occupation of Iraq, tens of thousands of people are dead and a nation is imploding. And Moqtada al-Sadr, the young, rabble-rousing cleric few people had even heard of when the invasion began, can now plausibly claim to be the most powerful man in the country.”

Marina Ottaway, Who Wins in Iraq? 6. Arab Dictators, Foreign Policy Magazine, March/April 2007: ” Saudi Arabia and Egypt have been the biggest beneficiaries of the U.S. loss of interest in draining the swamp of autocracy once it was confronted by large alligators such as Iran and its allies. Once again, autocracy is thriving—and so are the alligators.”

Jalal Talabani, Who Won in Iraq: The Iraqi People, Foreign Policy Magazine, March/April 2007: “Iraq’s current situation is much more nuanced—and positive—than the one you’ll likely see on the evening news. Since April 9, 2003, Iraqis have wrestled with more than just regime change. They have been living a revolution that has marked a new era in the country’s history. They have seen justice brought to their murderous tyrant. They have won.”

Ashish Srivastava, So who won the Iraq war?, Ashish’s thoughts, May 9, 2006: “Is it US? Militarily yes, politically not yet. Is it Iraq? Militarily no and politically no either. Looks like it was Iran who won this war or at least this phase of it.”

Anonymous, In the end, Saddam wins, Iraq loses, Truth-About-Iraqis, March/April 2007: “In the end, after all the bloodshed, Saddam proved that he was right and everyone who had cheered the invasion of our country was wrong.”


The reason I say that Israel may win is that there may be a realization coming from what’s going on in Iraq, coming from an appreciation that you need to stabilize the Middle East as a central challenge today, that you need an active peace process again between Israel and its neighbors that may need American leadership.

Daniel Levy


What happened after the United States invaded Iraq was that much of what Bin Laden had talked about, much of what Al Qaeda stood for, seemed to be vindicated in the eyes of much of the Muslim world . . . The United States, rather than being ancillary to the regions problems, really was at the core of it.

Daniel Byman


What the American-led invasion and occupation of Iraq did or has done is to remove Iraq as a major historical rival to Iran. And that’s made the unrivalled superpower in the gulf. In fact, I would argue that the American invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq has done more good to Iran than any great historical event in the 20th century.

Fawaz Gerges


The Chinese certainly benefited greatly from the war . . . People inevitably compare the Chinese with the Americans, and with the way the Americans have lost the tremendous respect and soft power it enjoyed prior to 9/11. The Iraq war has actually established that the Chinese are able to persuade people that it is actually genuinely rising peacefully. At least, its behavior, in comparison with the Americans, would make people believe so.

Steven Tsang


The United States is finding that it needs the willing cooperation of quite a number of players to achieve its aims.

Martin Wolf


I would suggest that nobody in Europe really won, but it’s absolutely clear that the US’s desire to have Europe do what it wanted, without having any ability to choose for itself, failed. In that sense, Old Europe did indeed win.

Martin Wolf

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