In February 2003, as he marshaled the United States for war, President George W. Bush declared: “A new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region.”
Now, as the U.S. military concludes its combat role--which President Barack Obama will formally announce from the Oval Office on Tuesday--Iraq is indeed a dramatic example for the Middle East, but not in the ways that Bush and his administration envisioned. Iraq did not become a beacon of democracy, nor did it create a domino effect that toppled other dictatorial regimes in the Arab world. Instead, the Iraq war has unleashed a new wave of sectarian hatred and upset the Persian Gulf's strategic balance, helping Iran consolidate its role as the dominant regional power.
The Bush administration argued that its goal was to protect U.S. interests and security in the long run. But the region is far more unstable and combustible than it was when U.S. forces began their march to Baghdad seven years ago. Throughout the Middle East, relations between Sunnis and Shiites are badly strained by the sectarian bloodletting in Iraq. Sunnis are worried about the regional ascendance of the Shiite-led regime in Iran; its nuclear program; its growing influence on the Iraqi leadership; and its meddling in other countries with large Shiite communities, especially Lebanon.
Iran is the biggest beneficiary of the American misadventure in Iraq. The U.S. ousted Tehran's sworn enemy, Saddam Hussein, from power. Then Washington helped install a Shiite government for the first time in Iraq's modern history. As U.S. troops became mired in fighting an insurgency and containing a civil war, Iran extended its influence over all of Iraq's Shiite factions.