$1.05 trillion already appropriated by Congress. Billions more on the way to support the surge in Afghanistan and the drawdown in Iraq. Over 5,300 American women and men dead. Over 30,000 wounded, in Iraq alone. Hundreds of thousands of others who will rely on government health care for the rest of their lives to cope with the mental issues and post traumatic stress of fighting a guerrilla war with a largely conventional military. This does not include the millions of Iraqi and Afghan dead and displaced, the billions in damage to infrastructure and communities in both countries, the global shock to oil prices that precipitated and continued through the invasions and wreaked havoc on economies across the globe.
Here we have the costs of the shooting War on Terror over the last 9 years. Of course, it does not include the billions of secret dollars spent on an array of intelligence agencies and the behemoth bureaucracy of homeland security. Now, lets look at the other side of the ledger: what have we gained? Neither Iraq or Afghanistan have emerged as the beacon of liberal democracy that our leaders have promised. But let’s put that aside for a moment and be a bit more realistic, more calculating. After all, no rational American can honestly believe that we invaded either of these countries to liberate their people and bestow freedom. If that were true we would have liberated the Congo or Burma or Sudan long ago. If that were true we wouldn’t have supported brutal dictators in places like Egypt, Pakistan, and until 1990, Iraq itself.
Let’s have an honest, wholly Machiavellian conversation devoid of patriotic rhetoric for once. We invaded Iraq and Afghanistan because it was decided by our policy makers to be in our national interest to do so. That’s what nation-states do- they act in their national interest. The question is, after all the blood and treasure, has our national interest been furthered? Nine years later, are Iraq and Afghanistan secure bastions of American influence or, at least, less under the influence of our adversaries? Or, have our adversaries, particularly one adversary, capitalized more than we have on these changes we have wrought with precious lives and steel?
Despite instability at home that has shaken the Iranian regime, today the mullahs are enjoying a renaissance of influence beyond their borders. By natural osmosis Iran has exploited the regional power vacuum America has created for them- leaching across borders once firmly defended by arch-rivals: the Taliban in Afghanistan and Iraq’s Ba’athists. The Iranians haven’t had the luxury of mobilizing a massive military-industrial complex for the deed. Their defense spending maxs out at $9 billion at best in a given year. But they haven’t had to. They have used brains rather than braun; behind the scenes guile rather than broadcasted shock and awe. And the return on their investment has been considerable.
Consider Iraq. With relatively little funding, today Iranian policy makers have managed to control the emerging political landscape much better than any American viceroy or corp commander. Shia political parties affiliated with Iran are poised to do quite well in Sunday’s parliamentary elections, thanks in no small part to a commission headed by Iranian backed politicians Ahmad Chalabi and Ali Al Lami which has disqualified many secular , Sunni and rival Shia candidates. Iranian backed Shia militias continue to harass, infiltrate, and intimidate both Iraqi security forces and withdrawing U.S. forces. Iran is not shy about projecting its influence into Iraq- most of the ruling elite in major Shia parties (including reigning PM Nuri Al Malaki) spent their exiled years as guests of the mullahs and many of them continue to keep their families in relatively safer Iran. Contrast this with the American posture in Iraq- 100,000 troops still on the ground, unable to move outside their bases without Iraqi consent. Tiny issues like whether a security company formerly named Blackwater is still active in the country can turn into full fledged political crises. The Iranians act in the shadows with impunity. The Americans are scrutinized at every turn and put on the defensive.
In Afghanistan the situation is similar although perhaps slightly less pervasive. Unlike America, Iran is smart. Why spend resources in a hinterland with no natural wealth over a few terrorist safe havens that can easily pick up and slide across borders when they are threatened. Iranian goals in Afghanistan are clear: secure their north west border from American influence and wait out American frustration with a nonexistent Afghan government in a land perpetually hostile to foreigners. In North Western Afghanistan the city of Herat is a virtual Iranian protectorate. Iranian development aid and investment purchase alot more loyalty and stability than humvees. Imagine, the Iranians are teaching the capitalist powerhouse this lesson. Of course, it helps that Herat has been tied culturally and linguistically to Iran for centuries. With the illegitimacy of the Karzai government only growing since a fraudulent election, local authority based on tribal and ethnic lines has strengthened. This also strengthens the Iranian hand in parts of Afghanistan that were never so susceptible to Iranian influence before the U.S. removed the Taliban.
Even when we away from the War on Terror and towards the nuclear issue, the Iranian regime has run circles around its American counterparts in dividing and diffusing pressure and avoiding concession. America expends all this diplomatic energy, arm twisting, and public relations bluster to rally the great powers of the world against Iran. Meanwhile, Iran quietly invites China and Russia to make major investments in its petro-chemical and government services sectors, locking them in against any provocative action that would threaten those investments. Carefully placed comments challenging the Holocaust keep Western powers divided between hard liners and negotiators and ultimately off balance. Iranian proxies with homemade rockets in Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq guarantee that military action will be costly, for America as well as the global economy.
In short, Iran is getting much more bang for its buck. It is projecting power much more effectively and at considerably less cost. It does not have seemingly unlimited resources for statecraft, and therefore it must think more creatively. And as a result, its power and influence is growing.
Where is the sophisticated super power with multiple levers of statecraft, from the latest technology to the most well trained operatives and diplomats? Your guess is as good as mine…