In the winter of 2003, the Journal of the International Institute published commentary from a panel on the pending Iraq war[1]. Two of the panelists featured in that discussion, Robert Howse (U-M Law School) and Juan Cole (U-M Department of History), here provide new reflections on the state of the war, implications for U.S. policy in the region, and consequences for stability and security in the Middle East.

    In a previous discussion published in this journal in late 2002, before the Iraq War, I listed the risks of peace with Iraq and the likely costs of the war. My analysis then, I believe, was sound and has generally proved correct. What are the implications of this analysis for U.S. policy in the region today?

    A consequence or risk of peace, I argued, included the continued suffering of the Iraqi civilian population who, prior to the war, were subjected to a brutal sanctions regime estimated to have cost the lives of 500,000 Iraqis, many of them children. I pointed to the ways in which these sanctions were promoting hatred for the U.S. in the Muslim world.

    I dismissed the idea that the Iraqi regime had weapons that posed a real threat to the United States itself, and that the secular Arab nationalist Baath regime was connected to al-Qaeda or the September 11 attacks on the United States. I admitted that the militaristic character of the Saddam Hussein regime made it a security problem for its neighbors, and pointed to the virtually genocidal policies of that regime toward Kurds and Shiites. I recognized that energy security for the United States and its allies, given the central place of Persian Gulf gas and oil, continued to be imperiled.

    Events of the past four years have shown that I was right about Iraq posing no real military threat to the United States, and that Iraq had no operational links to al-Qaeda, as the 9/11 Commission later found. The benefits to Iraqis of an overthrow of the Baath regime that my analysis predicted, including an end to U.S./United Nations sanctions and an end to the authoritarian killing fields, however, did not materialize.

    The Bush administration’s policies, and resistance to them by Sunni Arab guerrillas and Shiite militias, have turned post-Saddam Iraq into a failed state. The Lancet study published in fall of 2006 found that excess Iraqi deaths from violence in the three years after the U.S. invasion came to 600,000. Hospitals continue to be poorly provisioned and medical personnel have fled abroad because of the lack of security. Electricity, water, and other services are grossly inadequate, and bombings and sniping are routine. Nearly a million Iraqis have fled abroad since April, 2003 because of the poor security, and many more have been internally displaced.

    Among the risks of a U.S. war with Iraq, I included a wave of revulsion against America as a neo-imperial power in the Arab and Muslim worlds.I predicted that American neocolonialism in Iraq would be a boon to al-Qaeda recruitment, and lead to U.S. interests being hit. I predicted that the Sunni Arabs of Iraq, a mainstay of secular nationalism, might in the wake of a crushing of the Baath Party turn to radical Islamism and even al-Qaeda. I wrote, “Iraqi Shi’ites might become easier to recruit into Khomeinism of the Iranian sort, and become a bulwark for the shaky regime in Shi’ite Iran.”

    I warned that a post-war Iraq might well be “riven with factionalism that impedes the development of a well-ensconced new government.” I warned of Sunni-Shiite disputes over whose version of Islamic law would be implemented, Shiite on Shiite violence, and I warned that “tens of thousands of Iraqi Shi’ites are in exile in Iran and want to come back under the banner of ayatollahs.” I admitted that contending groups in an Iraq under U.S. occupation could not deploy large-scale armies for set piece battles, as had happened in Yugoslavia, because U.S. air power could forestall them; but I pointed out that the U.S. could not stop factional fighting of other sorts.

    With regard to the implications for the region, I signaled the likelihood of severe Turkish-Kurdish tensions over the disposition of Kirkuk and Kurdistan autonomy. I wrote, “Shi’ite Iran will certainly attempt to increase its influence among Iraqi Shi’ites once the Baath is defeated. Shi’ite political parties may well turn to Tehran for funding. A U.S.-occupied country where the Iranian ayatollahs have substantial influence is a disaster waiting to happen.”

    The implication of my article in late 2002 was that the risks of war were substantially greater than the costs of peace. In retrospect, this conclusion has for some time been glaringly obvious. For the reasons given above, continued U.S. military occupation of Iraq and further implementation of poor Washington policies there will only increase the misery of Iraqis, and will profoundly endanger the security of the United States. A U.S. exit from Iraq in the context of a locally, regionally, and internationally negotiated settlement of the current civil war there is the only prudent course. If the U.S. attempts to remain in Iraq as an occupying power, the resulting waves of chaos and hatred will make the dark predictions I ventured in 2002 for the International Institute Journal seem like a pleasant reverie.

    Juan R. I. Cole is professor of modern Middle East and South Asian history. He has written extensively about modern Islamic movements in Egypt, the Persian Gulf, and South Asia. He has given numerous media and press interviews on the War on Terrorism since September 11, 2001, as well as concerning the Iraq War in 2003.

      1. “Iraq: The Costs of War and the Risks of Peace,” Journal of the International Institute (volume 10, no. 2, winter 2003), page 1. On the web at to text