I'm having a difficult time understanding what Stephen Walt means by this:
[Wednesday] we learn that Iran is resupplying the Assad regime in Syria via Iraqi airspace. Hardly surprising, for two reasons. First, Syria is a key Iranian ally, so naturally Iran is doing what it can to keep Assad in power. Second, the al-Maliki government is not nearly as anti-Iranian as Saddam Hussein was, and in some ways is sympathetic to Tehran's position.
All of which reminds us what dunderheads the neocons were when they dreamed up the idea of invading Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein. Of course, all those liberal hawks who eventually went along with the idea were nearly as foolish.Emphasis added. The situation that Walt believes indicates that the U.S.'s geopolitical position has been enormously weakened is one in one which its primary rivals in the region (Iraq) has been turned into a weakened neutral state, in which another of its rivals (Iran) has has faced massive internal dissent from the Green Revolution, in which the regime of Iran's chief regional ally is under grave threat from within and without, in which the broader region is undergoing a spasm of democratization, in which the U.S. has been largely successful in working with its allies to build up a strong sanctions regime to hamper Iran, in which the U.S. was able to work with NATO to intervene in Libya (thus preventing the worst of the possible outcomes from occurring), in which nearly all of the terrorist networks that have threatened the U.S. and its allies -- as well as the governments which sponsored or at least tolerated them -- have been dismantled or are in disarray, in which the U.S. is less dependent on the region for energy supply than it has been in decades, and in which the U.S. is able to laugh off a threat from Iran to close the Strait of Hormuz.
No, this is not nostalgia for Saddam Hussein. He was a thug and tyrant with as much blood on his hands as Assad, and I don't mourn either his ouster or his passing. But the negative consequences have been enormous, in lives and money and in geopolitical position, as this latest revelation makes clear.
How does any of this indicate that the geopolitical position of the U.S. has been weakened? The U.S.'s antagonists are quite literally fighting for their lives, the neocon goal of regional democratization is underway -- albeit not in the way they had expected -- and the broader transformation of the region is proceeding in a direction that is amenable to the U.S.'s long-term interests. The Middle East is less engaged in proliferation than it was a decade ago, Tehran's intransigence notwithstanding. There are fewer security dilemmas in operation than at any point in decades. Moreover, the frictions that many believed had developed between the U.S. and its NATO allies over Iraq appear to have been transitory rather than permanent.
Yet Walt believes that the fact that Iran is cutting through Iraqi airspace in a desperate attempt to keep its primary ally from being decapitated is more telling than all of that. Excuse me?
Put in a way that a realist should understand, it is obvious enough that the relative power gap between the U.S. and its rivals in the Middle East has widened over the past decade, not narrowed. A region of the world that has troubled the U.S. since World War II has now lost enough significance for the U.S. to "pivot" away from it to East Asia. In a short time the U.S. has shown some capacity to work with several newly-democratized governments, laying the groundwork for productive relationships moving forward.
Think back ten years. If you had asked neocons then what the best possible outcome for the next decade of the Middle East, they would probably have listed some of the following: a general process of regional democratization; governments which refuse to democratize face fierce internal opposition movements and strong external pressure from the international community; Hussein, Gaddafi, Mubarak, Saleh and Ben Ali all removed from power, while the grip of Assad and Khameini is tenuous; al-Qaeda dismembered and other terrorist networks contained; Pakistan outed as a basketcase; and where the NATO force has shown a willingness to collaborate in support of political reform throughout the region. Seriously... read the Project for a New American Century's "Statement of Principles" and tell me which recent developments in the Middle East contradict them.
Certainly not everything is wine and roses, but neither was it a decade ago. Certainly things could change for the worse in the future, but at a fundamental level recent developments in the Middle East have a high probability of benefiting the U.S. over the long-run. Perhaps quite a lot. From the perspective of the U.S.'s geopolitical position the current Middle East has been an enormous improvement over the status quo ante.
None of this, or at the very least not all of it, can be attributed to the U.S.'s decision to remove Saddam Hussein from power. But neither can it be said that the Iraq invasion hamstrung the U.S.'s geopolitical ambitions in the Middle East. In the end the costs may have out-weighed the gains, but the final accounting is far from finished and the further out we get the more broadly advantageous the U.S.'s position appears to be.
Walt titles his post, snidely, "Another neocon 'success story'". It's entirely possible that the statement is more accurate without the scare quotes.