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And the Winner Is...

Twenty years after the Iraq invasion: America’s humiliation was China’s gain.

American Soldiers by Portrait of Saddam Hussein
(Photo by Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

Twenty years after President George W. Bush ordered U.S. forces to invade Iraq, we are just now beginning to glimpse what that conflict produced by way of outcomes. Who won? Well, not the United States, that’s for sure.

It appears increasingly that the victor’s laurels belong to the People’s Republic of China, which prudently avoided any direct involvement in the Iraq War whatsoever. Rather than a go-for-broke war of choice, China opted for diplomacy. That effort now shows signs of paying off.


Looking past the fog of propaganda generated by Bush and his lieutenants, Operation Iraqi Freedom had almost nothing to do with freeing Iraqis. Its actual purpose was to crush any doubts about who calls the shots in the Persian Gulf. The humiliation of 9/11—the United States unable to fend off a brutal attack by nineteen hijackers—had called American regional primacy into question. A quick, decisive victory over Saddam Hussein would teach an object lesson to any nation or group tempted to have a go at the United States. 

Alas, the war did not follow the Bush administration’s script. I will refrain from reiterating the tangible costs sustained by the United States—the thousands of U.S. dead, maimed, and mutilated and the trillions of dollars expended, all without benefit. Suffice it to say that in the contemporary ranking of self-inflicted wounds, the U.S. invasion of Iraq ranks right up there with the 1979 Soviet incursion into Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein’s abbreviated annexation of Kuwait in 1990. 

More difficult to measure with precision are the war’s secondary effects. But at a minimum, they include the destabilization of the region and the poisoning of American politics. Put simply, the recklessness of the U.S. in embarking on this needless war contributed mightily to the emergence of ISIS and to Donald Trump’s rise to national political prominence.

China prudently chose not to interfere with America’s march to folly and now finds itself in a position to benefit at Washington’s expense. Beijing’s success in brokering an agreement involving Saudi Arabia and Iran to restore diplomatic relations between those two nations is, according to the New York Times, one of the “topsiest and turviest of developments anyone could have imagined.” 

Alternatively, it might be one of the savviest, with China exploiting to its own advantage the mess created by the heavy-handed U.S. pursuit of militarized hegemony in the Persian Gulf. 


Whether this China-led peace initiative will lead to anything even remotely resembling peace remains very much to be seen. Even so, the immediate psychological impact is significant. The Americans, the Times reports, “now find themselves on the sidelines during a moment of significant change,” with the Chinese having “suddenly transformed themselves into the new power player.”

There is considerable hyperbole at work here. On the sidelines? Nonsense. In fact, the Pentagon maintains bases all over the Middle East while the Chinese have virtually none. That said, it offends the amour-propre of the American establishment to have anyone other than ourselves exercising initiative in a part of the world that Washington habitually categorizes as vitally important to the United States.

Even so, the question is worth asking: Might China’s surprise demarche offer Washington an opportunity worth considering? Twenty years after the United States went to war in Iraq with expectations of establishing a regional order favorable to U.S. interests and reflecting American values, perhaps it is time to move on. Perhaps it is time to reassess the importance of the Persian Gulf to our own security and prosperity.

Does China’s President Xi want to assume responsibility for sorting out the ancient animosities that beset the region? Well, why not let him give it a try? After all, China has a far greater need for Persian Gulf oil than we do. 

The twentieth anniversary of U.S. troops entering Iraq just might be the right moment to acknowledge the obvious: We have failed. So let us get out and allow Beijing to have a shot at paying any price and bearing any burden. It ought to be interesting.


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