It is not exactly the best of times for the United States in the Middle East. The prospects of Palestinian-Israeli peace grow dimmer by the day. Hamas continues to rule in Gaza. Hizballah's stock of missiles steadily grows, even as it threatens to upend the tenuous civil peace in Lebanon if any of its members are indicted by the Special International Tribunal investigating the death of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri. It took Iraq eight grueling months to form a government after U.S.-backed elections, and then only after Muqtada al-Sadr, the fiercest opponent of the American presence in Iraq, played king-maker. Iran might or might not be willing to negotiate with the P5 + 1, but not about its nuclear program, and it continues to act as if it is the rising power in the region.
Why does the United States have all these problems? Because of the Iraq War of 2003, which created two important vacuums in regional politics -- one in the region's balance of power and the other inside of Iraq, each with its own negative consequences for American interests. It would be unlikely that any major upheaval in the distribution of power would fail to have long-term effects on politics across the region. That is certainly what the last administration hoped -- that a brilliant victory in Iraq would not only replace Saddam Hussein with a stable, pro-American democratic government, but also lead to pressure on America's regional enemies (Iran and Syria), encourage democratic reform in America's friends (Egypt and Saudi Arabia), spur Arab-Israeli peace and reduce regional terrorism. The neo-cons and Bushies were right that the war would have a substantial regional impact; they were just wrong about its nature and direction.
The first vaccuum created by the war was in the regional balance of power. While Saddam's Iraq was hardly an American asset, it had ceased to be a serious threat to our interests. But it was a balancer against Iran, however imperfect and problematic. With Iraq out of the regional picture, a playing field rather than a player, Iranian ambitions had freer rein. Those ambitions, not absent but muted during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, could flower under his bumptious and blustery successor Mahmoud Ahmedenejad.
As important, Iran's regional allies -- Syria, Hamas, Hizballah -- read the changes in the regional balance as permission to push their agendas more aggressively. Bashar al-Asad slowly but surely restored Syrian influence in Lebanon after his ignominious retreat of 2005. Hamas confronted Fatah (America's ally) militarily and took control of Gaza in 2007. Hizballah asserted its power and cowed its Lebanese rivals (America's allies) by taking over downtown Beirut in 2008, demonstrating that nothing could happen in Lebanon without its permission. Would these things have happened without the Iraq War? We will never know, but it is hard to argue that the war has made America's regional enemies less aggressive, as it was supposed to.
The changing regional power picture has not only emboldened America's enemies, it has also affected the strategic calculations of America's closest Middle East ally -- Israel -- in ways that have made American policy on the peace process more difficult. With Iraq no longer balancing Iran in the Gulf, it has fallen upon Israel to do so from afar -- widening the scope of regional conflict while raising the stakes on Iran's nuclear program. Whether Prime Minister Netanyahu's insistence that the Iranian problem be dealt with before Israel can make peace is a sincere stance or simply a ruse to deflect American pressure (or, most likely, something of both), the rise of Iranian regional power has made Israel less likely to move toward peace. Can anyone argue that the Iraq War advanced the peace process?
This shift in the regional power balance has led to countervailing regional moves, as balance of power theory would predict. Saudi Arabia has moved to check Iranian influence from Lebanon to Yemen to Iraq and the Persian Gulf, with varying success. Egypt and Jordan have joined with the Saudis to support the Palestinian Authority, the Lebanese government of Sa'd al-Hariri and Iyad Allawi's Iraqiyya list in Iraq. All these countries have, to a greater or lesser extent, strengthened their strategic ties to the United States in response to Iran's rise. America's NATO ally Turkey under the AKP government has asserted a more active Middle Eastern role than at any time in the republic's history, though right now it seems more inclined to conciliate Iran than to aggressively check it. But the undeniable fact is that, in the eyes of all the players in the Middle East, Iran's regional role has increased since 2003 as a result of the Iraq War. And not much good has happened for American regional interests since then.
At the heart of the vacuum in the regional balance of power created by the Iraq War is the second vacuum -- the vacuum in the domestic politics of Iraq itself. By destroying not just the Saddam Hussein regime, but the structures of the Iraqi state itself (disbanding the army and stripping the bureaucracy of its Baathist-appointed technocratic managers), the Iraq War created a new field for regional contestation within Iraqi domestic politics itself. The Iraqi state, to the extent that it can govern at all, lacks the ability to fend off the interventions of outsiders into its domestic affairs. Just the opposite: each party and group in Iraq seeks out foreign support in its contest with its domestic foes, inviting foreign influences into the country. Unfortunately, Iran is the best-positioned regional power to take advantage of Iraqi domestic weakness, and it has. This is not to argue that Iraqis like Nouri al-Maliki are perpetual clients of Iran. They are not. But as long as the struggle for power within Iraq itself is their dominant concern, they will seek allies and support wherever they can. And Iran is best positioned to provide that support. As long as the Iraqi state remains weak in terms of its governing capacities and the struggle for power in Iraq remains as fierce as it is, foreign powers -- Iran in the lead -- are going to play a major role in Iraqi politics.
Iraq's domestic weakness highlights the problem that weak states present in the Middle Eastern regional balance of power. Because of the importance of transnational ties based on Islam, sectarianism, Arabism, sub-state identity (Kurdish, Palestinian, tribal) in the Middle East, what outsiders might see as "foreign" meddling in the domestic politics of other states is regarded by substantial Middle Eastern constituencies as the natural concern that fellow (fill in the blank: Shiites, Sunnis, Arabs, etc.) have for their brothers and sisters abroad. These shared identities are natural pathways of influence for foreign intervention into domestic politics, interventions welcomed for their own reasons by local groups. This is as true of Hizballah's and Hamas' connections to Iran as it is to Saudi Arabia's support for Iyad Allawi's Iraqiyya party in Iraq and Sa'd al-Hariri's Future Party in Lebanon.
During times of intense regional rivalries, the major players play out their contest for influence within the domestic politics of weaker states. They do not have the military capability to take each other on directly, and both the United States and Israel stand ready to use their superior military forces against regional powers that throw their military weight around. So, from the "Arab Cold War" of the days of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser to today, Middle East power struggles get played out in the domestic politics of local states too weak to fend off political interventions. As the regional power struggle intensified after the Iraq War, the domestic politics not only of Iraq, but also of other weak Arab states -- Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority and now even Yemen -- have become the testing grounds of regional influence. Consider Lebanese domestic politics, relatively (if uneasily) calm from the early 1990s to 2003, and since then the site of intense competition, regional interventions and a short but extremely violent Arab-Israeli war.
Iraq since 2003 is the hole in the Middle East donut -- a regional vacuum in which Iran has been able to advance its interests and a domestic vacuum in which that regional struggle has played itself out. America's war in Iraq created both of these vacuums, and American interests have suffered as a result. As "decision points" go, it was a pretty bad one.
F. Gregory Gause, III teaches political science at the University of Vermont and is the author of The International Politics of the Persian Gulf (Cambridge University Press, 2010).