TWQ: The Iraq War and Asia: Assessing the Legacy - Spring 2008
April 1, 2008
Whereas the media is preoccupied with the war in Iraq, future historians will likely judge the rise of Asia as the more important challenge to the international system in this era. There is no denying that the conflict in Iraq has been unpopular around the world, including in Asia. That has not meant, however, that the Iraq war has galvanized Asia's rising powers to align to balance perceived U.S. unilateralism. If anything, most major powers in Asia have used the war on terrorism and the conflict in Iraq to align more closely with the United States in order to balance rivals within the region or to advance their global standing. Nor has the damage to U.S. moral authority caused by the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo caused a significant backlash against the norms of the U.S.-led neoliberal order. On the contrary, the universal principles of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law have never had more currency in Asia than they do today.
These trends in Asia contradict the prevailing wisdom among critics of the Iraq war that the United States has lost influence and moral authority around the world as a direct result of the war. Yet, the Iraq war has had one important pernicious impact on U.S. interests in Asia: it has consumed U.S. attention in a way that has limited the ability of the administration and Congress to reinforce positive developments in the region and to build on partnerships and institutions that will be critical over the course of this century. This problem has been a gradual and indirect result of the war. It is not irreparable but will require attention and recalibration.
An assessment of the impact of the Iraq war on Asia must be separated from the domestic U.S. and transatlantic debates about the war and instead judged in terms of U.S. strategic objectives for Asia itself. Those objectives have been broadly consistent over the past three administrations: to strengthen U.S. alliances, convince China to play a positive role in the world, roll back the North Korean nuclear threat, and foster politically liberal and economically sustainable development in Southeast Asia. Five years after the Iraq war began, the United States has seen progress on all of these fronts (except perhaps with North Korea) because Asian nations are preoccupied with economic development, balance of power, and internal legitimacy. The Iraq war has had a second- and third-order impact on some of these areas, but it has not changed the basic need in Asia for a strong U.S. strategic presence in the region.
The ultimate legacy of the Iraq war on Asia will therefore depend on whether the United States has the will to see through its commitment to bring stability in Iraq. A failure of U.S. leadership in Iraq will reverberate in Asia more than in any region other than the Middle East itself. Should the United States abandon Iraq, friends and foes alike in Asia will draw conclusions about the willpower and commitment of the United States in their own region, where potentially dangerous power competition and rivalry linger just beneath the placid exterior of growing trade and economic interdependence. The importance of Asia should not be used as an excuse for precipitous withdrawal from Iraq, but neither should the preoccupation with Iraq lead to a search for quick solutions and easy headlines with respect to the strategic challenges in Asia. It is possible and indeed critical to prevail in Iraq while increasing strategic attention to Asia.