J. E. Dyer: Like it never even happened: Tikrit and the unwriting of modern history
This is an excellent long discussion of the historical background of today’s struggle for Iraq between ISIS and the modern Persian empire:
The eschatology of revolution and Western decline
All of this history is recent, in Persian terms. The ancient Persian Empire was old by the time Herodotus the Greek, father of Western history, walked the earth, 2,400 years ago. There are much older ghosts in the plain of Zahab – but the Islamic conquest of the 630s is the “break” that counts: the one that set Persia and modern Iran on course for their rendezvous with 2015.
Three and a half centuries after the Treaty of Zahab, a revolutionary Iran, sensitized to eschatological signs, found herself facing serious danger from an independent and radical Iraq. The pathway to Baghdad suddenly had geo-military significance again.
A year after the war with Iraq ended, the great brooding empire of the north, the Eurasian Warsaw Pact, began to crack up. Two years later, the empire’s core – the Soviet Union – had imploded from within.
Yet even before that, America had led a coalition invading Iraq. That would have been unthinkable in 1979 or 1980; to a Mahdist’s eyes, in 1991, it would have looked like a sign.
Throughout the period that started in 1980, Iran’s revolutionists cultivated a military geography that focused on leveraging strategic pathways: toward Israel’s borders, toward the region’s maritime chokepoints – and toward Baghdad, alongside the other main approaches to Mesopotamia. Iran’s preparations in the 1980s and ‘90s, supporting Iraqi Shia movements and armed militias, were never about Shia fraternity; they have been all along about the ghosts of Diyala and the potential for opportunity from the hand of Allah.
Just over two decades after Saddam’s invasion of 1980 suddenly brought Diyala front and center again, an American-led coalition invaded Iraq for a second time. Iran was ready for the turmoil that ensued in Mesopotamia. Iran’s senior commanders – including the now iconic General Soleimani – had mostly fought in the 1980-88 war. Soleimani’s band of “special groups” was ready to answer the call.
In Persian-historical terms, things have moved very fast since 1979. All in one generation, the men who run Iran’s military strategy and operations today have watched their opportunities open before them for 35 years, easily interpretable as portents by the clerics in Qom.
Not only has the West softened Iraq up for a subtle, under-the-radar takeover by Iran – it has obligingly lost its will and purpose just at the crucial moment. Everything laboriously achieved in Iraq by a sharpened and wiser American strategy from 2006 to 2009 was ultimately undone by the withdrawal and lack of interest after 2011. Whether that could have been predicted or not, it serves as another portent of opportunity, seemingly created for the Iranian Mahdists by Allah.
[. . .]
The midwifing of outcomes from this development will not be done the Westphalian way. Iran and Islamic State already know that, because they’re driving the train. Within a very short space of time, the other nations like Turkey, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia will be sure of it themselves, and will be doing whatever they have to, to maneuver in this gangland without a sheriff.
The utility of America’s residual power in this situation is almost extinguished. The hope that we will use it has been holding most of the nations in check. But that hope is fading rapidly now; I would say literally by the hour. Assuming Qassem Soleimani takes Tikrit without us, he can high-five the ghosts of 14 centuries after an advance of a mere 170 miles. He could get in a jeep and drive from Zahab to Tikrit as a conquering commander, from one scene of centuries-old defeat to the next, demonstrating the putative ascendancy of Shia Islam along the way.
The Westphalian West, with our UN, our EU, our negotiations and debt fights and demography-obsessed navel-gazing, will be off dropping bombs on a strategically meaningless mountaintop somewhere – and arguing over that.
This is where we are, as Iran nears a nuclear breakout. Not where most of the world would have expected to be, if we’d had to prognosticate 30, or 20, or even 10 years ago. Order, peace, and Westphalian principles don’t maintain themselves, if you neglect them and leave force and will to atrophy.
The sense is inescapable, moreover, that something very big is going on. We’ve had to learn this lesson about force and will before, in recent memory. But in the 2010s, we’re rolling back not decades but centuries to do it – in some ways, as if they never even happened.
The cause of the problem isn’t ISIS or Iran but the foreseeable power vacuum, now being filled, that was created by Obama’s reckless abandonment of Iraq. Most of what is now happening follows from that terrible decision, made to fulfill a stupid campaign promise Obama should have ignored once he was elected. And now, having made bad decisions and spurned reasonable allies, Obama is reduced to delusionally hoping that we will somehow come out ahead if Iran stops ISIS. (Or perhaps he is mainly concerned that the extent of the catastrophe doesn’t become obvious until after he has left office.)
Read the whole thing.
38 thoughts on ““The utility of America’s residual power in this situation is almost extinguished.””
“Starting in the 1980s, Saddam tried to stack the province with Sunni loyalists, a process that turned the Kurds and Shias there, who had lived in relative harmony for many years, firmly against the regime.”
So much for American occupation being the root cause of the problem. Saddam’s regime was untenable and would have collapsed eventually with or without us. The only difference is it would have looked like a multi-sided civil war like what they have in Syria.
I don’t agree that this is such a slam dunk for Iran and its Shia clients. Soleimani and the Qods Force were losing until we stepped in to help them with intelligence and air cover. So they have F-14s. What are their radar and ground attack capabilities? Can they fly low enough to make a difference? We saw with the Jordanian pilot that when you attempt to get too close in a fighter you open yourself up to MANPADS (while our A-10s chew through them low and slow like a buzzsaw, incidentally).
“The most radical Iranian clerics, and IS’s leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, see the weakness and geopolitical collapse of America as a condition provided to them by Allah so that they can prosecute their apocalyptic visions.”
Yes, who could have foreseen that Americans would elect a man with no history or resume merely on the basis of racial angst and guilt to the presidency at a crucial time when our post Cold War alliances were frail and tenuous. I am very pessimistic about the electorate and its absence of wit, let alone common sense.
The absence of economic intelligence is a big part of the collapse. Another is the loss of any sense of history. We have all been here before, just the visuals differ.
“Everything laboriously achieved in Iraq by a sharpened and wiser American strategy from 2006 to 2009 was ultimately undone by the withdrawal and lack of interest after 2011.”
Kind of grandiloquent for a procedure which, roughly, in football terms, reduced the margin of victory by all anti-American forces from 35-14 early in the third quarter to 42-24 at the end of the game. (Read Nir Rosen’s Myth of the Surge for confirmation.)
Then the second myth. (Seems like we’re reliving Vietnam again when the revisionists would have had us winning that war too if we had only stayed the course, lol.)
This myth hides the fact that Obama did indeed pressure Maliki under the table for a SOFA agreement and was rejected. Fact is, if he had accepted, the insurgencies would have
immediately re-energized in protest. Moreover this arrogant imperial hubris hides the fact the US is hated by large majorities of Sunni and Shia, with only the minority
Kurd’s majority having wanted US troops around.
Yeah, America is “weak” by British imperial standards…weak in talent and weak in will, seeing as how we were founded to oppose Empires, not build them in the Mideast.
At any rate, to sustain American hegemony while maintaining Israel as an “ally(batross),” a draft would be necessary and the social fabric would unwind. Perhaps it would be doable if we
shelved Israel, which is kind of impossible if you bother to read Mearsheimer and Walt.
There was no Al Qaeda in Iraq while Saddam’s secular dictatorship was in place.
Saddam would have fed them and their extended families into a wood chipper.
Iran was not taking over Iraq when Saddam was in power.
Saddam would have sent every male Iraqi between 12 and 80 to the front to stop them.
Everything this article bemoans is happening because the United States, at gigantic cost in blood and treasure to itself, destroyed Iraq, which did nothing but pave the way for America’s enemies to come to power.
“Saddam’s regime was untenable and would have collapsed eventually with or without us.”
Pure speculation. Dictatorships can last for a long time, especially when they have mineral wealth and don’t need to be popular.
In any case, we should have propped him up.
The best type of government in that region is a secular dictatorship. The worst is anarchy. The second worst is Islamist tyranny. There no other options there.
ISIS is a cross between the two worse kinds.
ISIS exists because we paved a path for it.
Under Reagan we wisely propped up Saddam, Iran’s enemy, even when he used poison gas, which is now absurdly labelled a “WMD.”
Under Bush 41 we pushed Saddam out of Kuwait, defending the Westphalian state system, while leaving Saddam in place as a deterrent to Iran.
Under Bush 43 we gratuitously destroyed Iraq, the gravest damage to the Westphalian system since the Second World War.
Mea culpa. I fell for it at the time. But the facts were there, and there is no excuse for supporting the Iraq war.
The worst “own goal” in American history.
And it made Barack Obama possible.
It shows how bad it was that even causing Barack Obama to be president is not the worst consequence of the Iraq War.
We didn’t need Saddam. Bush corrected many of his early mistakes and by 2008 Iraq was reasonably stable politically and militarily. It didn’t start to go downhill until it became clear that we would leave. Obama could have held it together with 100,000 troops and clearly expressed resolve as we did Germany and Korea. Instead he doubled down in Afghanistan, which made no strategic sense, and walked away from Iraq. That was the fatal decision, it was all Obama’s, and it was obvious at the time that it would lead to disaster.
Iraq provides very little diversification in Iran’s economic base. Ultimately, if the age of oil ends, holding Iraq will not help. Rather it will be a tar baby for the Iranians, dysfunctional as their own economy and suffering the same transition pressures at the end of the age of oil.
Cratering the price of oil and finding alternatives so we no longer must empower dangerous theologies and ideologies in order to keep civilization’s lights on would seem to be the strategic pivot point that would provide the best outcome for the USA.
“if you bother to read Mearsheimer and Walt.”
Yes, there is a brilliant suggestion.
I agreed with Bush’s invasion because the sanctions were collapsing and we were being pushed out of Saudi Arabia. After 9/11, the images of us being run out of the middle east would have been worse than what happened. The mistake he made was Bremer. We could have allowed the exiles and the army to set up a dictatorship somewhat similar to the Egyptian one. By remaining in place with a large military presence and letting the Iraqis run things as they could have done, most likely, would have avoided the worst of the casualties by our troops.
We did not understand the tribal nature of the Iraqi society and that was a huge intelligence mistake. The Surge and Petraeus adoption of the counterinsurgency strategy, allowed a cooling off period which might have resulted in a relatively peaceful period. Obama’s cut and run strategy ended any chance of a peaceful period. The Sunnis and the Saddam generals are running ISIS, according to several people whose writing I respect.
IS forces are probing Baghdad. Several IS leaders are Iraqi Sunnis with ties to Saddam Hussein’s regime; they definitely want to seize control of Iraq. Two former Iraqi Army lieutenant colonels hold high positions in the IS military hierarchy. Al-Baghdadi met them when they were imprisoned at the old Camp Bucca detention complex.
IS leaders have goals beyond Iraq. Civilized people may dismiss their goals as sociopathic delusions, but men like al-Baghdadi believe control of Iraq and Libya will position them to seize Egypt (population resources) and Saudi Arabia (dominating energy resources). This regional caliphate then goes global.
Recall I mentioned anger as a legitimate civilized reaction. IS commanders are very angry men. Check out one of al-Baghdadi’s video rants. Listen to him. A grand, totalitarian anger consumes him. Watch him. If you see signs of narcissism, it’s there. So what if infidels and apostate Muslims react to IS videos with anger?
If I were to have a vote, I would support the Kurds and help them carve off a nation while others are distracted. Turkey is no friend but may be preoccupied right now. Iran, which also has a large Kurd population, has other irons in the fire.
The success of our energy policy in spite of Obama is our best chance to deal with this crisis from strength.
As I have said, I am very pessimistic about the wisdom of US voters, especially on the left as illustrated by the enthusiasm for Mearsheimer and Walt, two thuggish lefties.
“Pure speculation. Dictatorships can last for a long time, especially when they have mineral wealth and don’t need to be popular.”
True. One of the advantages of being an obscure, semi-anonymous poster on the internet is engaging in speculation and throwing it out there.
However, it’s not unsubstantiated. Some regimes have that lasting formula. Saddam did at one point, but it was completely lost sometime after the Gulf War and probably after the Iran-Iraq War. That’s why he kept up the charade of the WMD. He was never able to field a credible force again, even in defense of his own territory. The no fly zone signaled to the world that he was powerless.
The only thing propping him up was the ridiculous UN ‘Oil for Food’ program.
Also, the most destructive religious extremists emerged from his ethnic group and his home region. His dictatorship wasn’t supressing them or keeping them in line. His regime wasn’t providing stability. It was sheltering the instability. Whether they called themselves Baathists or Fedayeen Saddam or rebranded as Al Qaeda or ISIS or whatever. They were always there.
There are just too many ingredients in this stew to assign the source to just one.
What bugs me now is this notion that everything that is happening in Iraq now is the fault of United States, i.e. we created ISIS because of our occupation. This is a post hoc ergo propter hoc falllacy. As if Iraq history didn’t begin until 2003.
I agree the Iraq occupation was a humanitarian and military disaster. We totally bungled it. Also, we should have invaded Saudi Arabia, our real enemy on 9-11, instead. However, I’m not sad Saddam is gone. He didn’t televise his mass executions, but he killed more people and caused more suffering than ISIS ever will. The ongoing strife is his legacy.
“What bugs me now is this notion that everything that is happening in Iraq now is the fault of United States,”
This is to be expected. The Arabs will always blame others for their troubles which go back to Charles Martel. They were fighting and massacring Christians who had adopted a pacifist religion 500 years before. They got to Tours and found a nasty Frank who kicked their asses.
The Muslims were not aware, at that time, of the true strength of the Franks, or the fact that they were building a disciplined army instead of the typical barbarian hordes that had dominated Europe after Rome’s fall. The Arab Chronicles, the history of that age, show that Arab awareness of the Franks as a growing military power came only after the Battle of Tours when the Caliph expressed shock at his army’s catastrophic defeat.
The political left blames everything including the fragile eggshells of pelicans on America so why should we be spared this ?
Bush was far too interested in trying to build an Arab democracy but that ended like most Arab and African democracies. South Africa is well on its way to the destruction of the single African democracy and viable economy.
Eskom is set to axe as many as 3,389 skilled white employees, including 1,081 white engineers and managers, as it ramps up its affirmative action policy.
This is according to Solidarity, who said that the power utility aims to reflect the national demography by 31 March 2020.
“According to these targets, there are approximately 3,400, or 44%, white employees too many at Eskom. The job levels that will be hardest hit are those of qualified, experienced specialists and middle management. Trade unions must now be consulted about the new Eskom plans,” said Solidarity chief executive Dirk Hermann.
We are tiptoeing onto this assembly line here in America. Note that Chinese and Indians are not welcome in Africa either. Not very welcome in Arab lands as well.
An African I used to work with predicted the US would fail in the Middle East for the same reason similar efforts have failed in Africa, tribalism. He claimed you need a ‘strong man’ to hold it in check. At the time I thought he was wrong.
I recall reading that it takes 20 years to create a general. For a competitive political process, you have to have a minimum of 2 competent alternatives for every electoral position plus a cadre of technocrats for a civil service to provide continuity. What’s the time necessary to create a town councilman, a mayor, a provincial governor, or a president?
That isn’t to say that the preceding system did not turn out competent people. In between the butchers, even the worst dictatorships produce some competent people but at best case, converting a dictatorship to a free society puts you down 50% because of that requirement for a minimum two competent alternatives for the people to choose from. In reality, you’re likely to be down more than 50%, but you also can survive a certain number of incompetent politicos holding office if you are lucky.
I don’t believe I’ve ever seen that sort of calculation being made in terms of the civilian side of government. Was it ever done? Did we ever really engage seriously in growing a functional political class?
“Third World Confessional”
An elderly West Indian lady I knew pined for the days of Imperial governance. “T’was much better when the British were here”, she whispered as she leaned in with a disgusted look on her face. I heard her say this a number of times.
The British taught the Indians much about governing, not that Nehru listened. They also taught them bad habits such as contempt for occupations working with hands and trades. A British upper class term of derision was “In Trade.” The Indians experienced most British as upper class or would-be upper class bureaucrats.
It is still a problem, I understand, to get a car repaired in India but computer programming is common.
“He claimed you need a ‘strong man’ to hold it in check”
“Did we ever really engage seriously in growing a functional political class?”
We should have just concentrated on restoring civil order rather than trying to establish a political order. Sure Saddam kept the country together, but he had to kill a half million people to do it. The best thing we could have done is what has historically worked in that part of the world – separate enclaves for separate ethnic groups. We should have partitioned the country into 3 or 4 separate districts divided by race and religion and only intervene if one side was massacring the other such as what we have now.
As it stands now, this arrangement now could happen anyway but with war forcing it.
I think it could have succeeded under any of several different scenarios if we had had the will to stay and police the borders for a few decades. Reuven Brenner and perhaps others suggested many years ago that post-Saddam Iraq be partitioned between Kurds, Sunnis and Shias and that each Iraqi be given a proportionate ownership share in the national oil revenue stream and allowed to do with his share as he wished (or maybe he said that each regional govt be given control of its proportionate share; I don’t recall).
As it was, Iraqi democracy was beginning to function until Obama made clear he was serious about withdrawal. Then Maliki et al started maneuvering to cut deals with the Iranians and the situation gradually deteriorated.
“We should have just concentrated on restoring civil order rather than trying to establish a political order. ”
There were reasonable Iraqi generals that I recall reading about on a blog by an Army senior noncom who was working in a detention center for officers. I don;t know if they could have overcome the tribalism but they would have been better at it than we were.
Politico is going absolutely apesh*t over the Senate letter to Iran. Over 5000 comments and most by lefties who are hysterical. This is what we have to work with on our side. 47% of the country is into magical thinking.
Typical comment: Many agree that the Republicans have acted like traitors, and that Netanyahu and the GOP’s only alternative is military and war, with no diplomatic viable options. IN CONTRAST, Obama and other world leaders (P5 Plus one – U.S., UK, France, Russia, China, and Germany), as a COALITION, are trying to negotiate verifiable inspections, etc.
No concept of what is happening. How is anyone going to govern this seething mass of idiots, many with degrees in Social Justice?
Anyone with a brain could have told you that defeating Saddam, who held the majority Shia under the control of his minority Sunni population, would result in exactly what happened. Handing Iraq to Iran was not the plan?
PenGun, what would we do without your brilliance ?
“We did not understand the tribal nature of the Iraqi society and that was a huge intelligence mistake.” It certainly was, but I suspect that you and I are using ‘intelligence’ in different ways.
Put otherwise, the stupidity and ignorance that underlay this policy beggars belief.
“Handing Iraq to Iran was not the plan?”
PenGun is right on this one.
Destroying the Iraqi state, which was a poorly formed state as it was, destroyed the dam holding back the Iranians. We knew this under Reagan in the 1980s. We knew it under Bush I and Clinton in the 1990s. For some reason Bush II and his courtiers did not understand it.
“Put otherwise, the stupidity and ignorance that underlay this policy beggars belief.”
Putting aside the mendacity for a moment, the US had almost no intelligence assets in Iraq, nor in Iran for that matter. By 2003, we had been in the Kurdish region for a decade and Jay Garner had done a competent job with them.
After the invasion, Garner was the logical choice to run the transition to an Iraqi government, probably using the exiles.
In 2003 Garner was selected to lead the post-war reconstruction efforts in Iraq, along with three deputies, including British Major-General Tim Cross. Garner was regarded as a natural choice by the Bush administration given his earlier similar role in the north. General Garner was to develop and implement plans to assist the Iraqis in developing governance and reconstructing the country once Saddam Hussein was deposed.
However, Bremer romanced Bush somehow and was named Viceroy with Garner dismissed.
The Bush Administration selected Lieutenant General Jay Garner to lead the Coalition Provisional Authority (an intermediary government) in an attempt to rid Iraq of the chaos and anarchy that consumed the area. Garner’s plan was to choose government officials from the former Iraqi regime to help lead the country.
Garner began reconstruction efforts in March 2003 with plans aiming for Iraqis to hold elections within 90 days and for the U.S. to quickly pull troops out of the cities to a desert base. Talabani, a member of Jay Garner’s staff in Kuwait before the war, was consulted on several occasions to help the U.S. select a liberal Iraqi government; this would be the first liberal Government to exist in Iraq. In an interview with Time magazine, Garner stated that “as in any totalitarian regime, there were many people who needed to join the Baath Party in order to get ahead in their careers. We don’t have a problem with most of them. But we do have a problem with those who were part of the thug mechanism under Saddam.
This sounds a bit like Patton about the Nazis in Germany in 1946 where he was more interested in getting things running that chopping off heads. Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Treasury, which ran the FBI, was far more interested in Nazi chasing and he was the author of the Morgenthau Plan, which would have flattened Germany.
Once the leaders were selected, a plan to hold elections in Iraq, where members would be selected, began on May 6, 2003 and ended on November 14, 2003, when the plan was abandoned. General Garner would be replaced by a new American Ambassador to Iraq, Paul Bremer, who took his role as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority. Following Garner’s dismissal, it was planned that an Iraq government would take power in June 2004. Iyad Allawi was designated to lead the Iraqi interim authority. Allawi was a former Baathist of Shiite origin. Allawi had many credentials, including previous work experience with the CIA.
I submit that the failure of Iraq was here, in this postwar palace coup by State and CIA, than the actual invasion. The reasons for the invasion are far more complex and compelling than almost all are willing to admit these days.
When Garner was replaced in his role by Paul Bremer on May 11, 2003, there was quite a bit of speculation as to why he was replaced so abruptly. It has been suggested that Garner was moved aside because he did not agree with the White House about who should decide how to reconstruct Iraq. He wanted early elections—90 days after the fall of Baghdad—and the new government to decide how to run the country and what to do with its assets. Garner said “I don’t think [Iraqis] need to go by the U.S. plan, I think that what we need to do is set an Iraqi government that represents the freely elected will of the people. It’s their country … their oil.”
Paul Bremer and General William Westmoreland (Who was a competent artillery battalion commander) have done an immense amount of harm to the US which will only be apparent to historians. And then only if history is still being written.
Wasn’t the real mistake in Iraq believing that we could turn it into a non-sectarian “democracy”? If so, Garner’s plan would not have worked, either. Perhaps, after overthrowing Saddam, we should have left the Iraqi Army intact and turned the country over to less dangerous, more pliable, hopefully less barbaric Sunni Arab general who had not been in Saddam’s inner circle. Of course, if we had done that, the Democrats, the global Left and their Islamist allies would have assailed Bush for imposing a dictatorship on the Iraqi people. Which leads me to think that we should not have invaded in the first place – especially given that the real danger has always been from Iran, which we mostly ignored while we were preoccupied with Iraq.
Destroying the Iraqi state, which was a poorly formed state as it was, destroyed the dam holding back the Iranians.
But the Iraqi state was functioning again, with our help, by 2008. Obama’s decision to pull out is what brought the Iranians in.
“T’was much better when the British were here”,
I knew more than one person in [then-] southern Sudan who said exactly the same thing.
Thanks for excerpt. There was so much spamware and popup windows at the link, I couldn’t read the article.
America lost interest in Europe after WW1. Result: socialism, communism, fascism, nazism. (EUropeans must be be EUropeans—that part can’t be helped.) Then in WW2 made sure one monstrous socialist power won over the other. How’d that work out? Millions murdered by Communism as it spread around the world, even to Venezuela today.
Now some argue we should intervene to force a victory by Sunni over Shia, by choosing as our side the side which bombed the World Trade Center. Yeah, right.
If we’re gonna intervene, I want beneficiaries to pay for it: $1 trillion in oil, priced in the price of oil in 1950 and not adjusted for inflation. America to occupy the fields and refineries until the debt is paid. Power to remake the boundaries of dar-al-Islam at will without regard for existing regimes.
A fantasy. The USA, without a declaration of war, will pay for it out its government largesse with lives of its subjects (formerly citizens).
I believe the US should make it clear this is Europe’s problem. Europe drew the boundaries, let them deal with it. Why should America inherit the Europeans’ colonial problems?
The EU proclaimed itself the counter-weight (always opposed) to America. A religious war should be solvable by the atheistic soft power of the EU. At least the EU should act instead of sitting on their hands.
“They also taught them bad habits such as contempt for occupations ..”: the idea that Indians needed such instruction is delightfully silly. You have heard of the caste system?
“The Indians experienced most British as ..”: as clerks of the East India Company probably. Upper class they were not.
Jonathan – “The Iraq state was functioning again, with our help, in 2008.” The rapid collapse of the “Iraq state” shows that it was a Potemkin village. There is no such thing as the “Iraq state” any more than there is such a thing as the “Congo Republic” or the “Libyan nation”.
The “Caliphate of ISIS” is probably a slightly more meaningful phrase than the “Iraq state”. None of the phrases in quotes has much to do with reality.
The Iraqi state failed after we abandoned it. That means we shouldn’t have abandoned it. What Obama did in Iraq was like withdrawing American forces from West Germany in 1947.
Djf: “Which leads me to think that we should not have invaded in the first place – especially given that the real danger has always been from Iran, which we mostly ignored while we were preoccupied with Iraq.”
Let’s think about that for a minute. Certainly a nuclear Iran is now a massive potential threat, but, setting aside that for a moment, we experienced some real danger already on 9-11. Those terrorists were all Sunni Arabs.
If Jim is correct that there’s no “Iraq state” then there sure isn’t a “Syria state”. A “Jordan state” is probably just as fragile, being a collection of tribes where the one tribe that rules isn’t even originally from the region encompassing the country and only does so because it was granted to them by the British long ago under circumstances completely irrelevant to today. The “Gulf states” – feudal fiefdoms founded on an economic paradigm that’s now crumbling.
Isn’t it true that if all those Arab nations are just Western colonial fabrications, then we should only recognize the “Sunni Nation” – our enemy on 9-11.
If the issue is terrorism like 9/11, the best way to prevent that is through controls on who gets into our country. The idea that we can wipe out terrorist movements in the Middle East through some combination of military action and cooperation with local governments, as both the present and previous administrations have attempted, is absurd.
Nuclear weapons development, on the other hand, can be addressed militarily, if caught early enough.
We should stop worrying about how Muslims govern themselves and make protecting our country from the threat growing out of their societies our top priority in dealing with the Islamic world.
Actually – I always saw the Iraq War as an attempt by Bush to force change in Iran. Think about it.
Iraq was a much easier target than Iran. A clear casus belli existed that could marshall international support. Iraq is much smaller than Iran, both in area and population, and the terrain is very favorable to American heavy armor. The quick removal of Saddam from power was even easier than expected, and certainly much easier than a serious campaign against the mullahs would be.
Iraq is actually the heart of Shia Islam. Assuming it was possible, a properous democratic Iraq puts enourmous pressure on Iran, since all the key Shia pilgrimmage sites are in Iraq, and Iranians would see that. A more-or-less permanent US military pressence in Iraq would also pressure Iran as NATO pressured the Soviet Union. If everything works out the Iranian regime is crippled without the need for direct invasion.
Of course the Iranians could see the threat this posed as well, and did everything they could to prevent this from happening. The failure to anticipate what Iran would do was the flaw in the Bremer program. The US was never going to have the time it needed to establish democracy in Iraq because the Iranians would be working to subvert the project from day 1. Nation-building is hard under the best of circumstances. Seeding chaos is much easier.
There’s going to be some kind of state in Iraq. The question is whether our interests are better served if that state is controlled by a flawed representative govt or by a dictatorship. People who confidently assert that Arabs are incapable of democracy should explain why the situation in Iraq in 2008 wasn’t better than what existed before, and should acknowledge that things fell apart there because we left (and even then the deterioration was gradual).
I had a longer comment ready about hindsight and our justifications for invading Iraq, but Phwest said it much better.
(1) The government that existed in Iraq from 2008 until our withdrawal, while obviously better than what exists now, did not deserve to be called a “democracy,” and could not be called sustainable if it required an indefinite US military presence to keep it going. At some point, sooner or later, US forces were going to be removed.
(2) My suggestion is that US interests would have been best been served by a more manageable Sunni Arab dictator in Iraq, although putting one in power may not have been doable for P.R. reasons.
(3) The notion that we could have turned Iraq into a “prosperous, democratic” society (perhaps like Vermont circa 1950?) and thereby trigger the implosion of the Iranian regime is sheer fantasy. Also, notwithstanding Islam’s Arabian origins and Arabic holy books, Persians – who were a major world power, with a highly developed literary civilization, a millennium before Muhammad, an epoch during which the Arabs were primitive, pre-literate nomads – look down on Arabs, whether Shia or Sunni.
I agree that the initial success in Afghanistan and Iraq probably caused us to start looking at hitting Iran next, but I don’t think that Iran was the original target all along. If you believe this version we were working with the Iranians starting just after 9-11. Only later did Iran start using their proxies in Iraq against us.
In the chaotic days after the attacks of September 11th, Ryan Crocker, then a senior State Department official, flew discreetly to Geneva to meet a group of Iranian diplomats. “I’d fly out on a Friday and then back on Sunday, so nobody in the office knew where I’d been,” Crocker told me. “We’d stay up all night in those meetings.” It seemed clear to Crocker that the Iranians were answering to Suleimani, whom they referred to as “Haji Qassem,” and that they were eager to help the United States destroy their mutual enemy, the Taliban. Although the United States and Iran broke off diplomatic relations in 1980, after American diplomats in Tehran were taken hostage, Crocker wasn’t surprised to find that Suleimani was flexible. “You don’t live through eight years of brutal war without being pretty pragmatic,” he said. Sometimes Suleimani passed messages to Crocker, but he avoided putting anything in writing. “Haji Qassem’s way too smart for that,” Crocker said. “He’s not going to leave paper trails for the Americans.”
Before the bombing began, Crocker sensed that the Iranians were growing impatient with the Bush Administration, thinking that it was taking too long to attack the Taliban. At a meeting in early October, 2001, the lead Iranian negotiator stood up and slammed a sheaf of papers on the table. “If you guys don’t stop building these fairy-tale governments in the sky, and actually start doing some shooting on the ground, none of this is ever going to happen!” he shouted. “When you’re ready to talk about serious fighting, you know where to find me.” He stomped out of the room. “It was a great moment,” Crocker said.
The cooperation between the two countries lasted through the initial phase of the war. At one point, the lead negotiator handed Crocker a map detailing the disposition of Taliban forces. “Here’s our advice: hit them here first, and then hit them over here. And here’s the logic.” Stunned, Crocker asked, “Can I take notes?” The negotiator replied, “You can keep the map.” The flow of information went both ways. On one occasion, Crocker said, he gave his counterparts the location of an Al Qaeda facilitator living in the eastern city of Mashhad. The Iranians detained him and brought him to Afghanistan’s new leaders, who, Crocker believes, turned him over to the U.S. The negotiator told Crocker, “Haji Qassem is very pleased with our cooperation.”
The good will didn’t last. In January, 2002, Crocker, who was by then the deputy chief of the American Embassy in Kabul, was awakened one night by aides, who told him that President George W. Bush, in his State of the Union Address, had named Iran as part of an “Axis of Evil.” Like many senior diplomats, Crocker was caught off guard. He saw the negotiator the next day at the U.N. compound in Kabul, and he was furious. “You completely damaged me,” Crocker recalled him saying. “Suleimani is in a tearing rage. He feels compromised.” The negotiator told Crocker that, at great political risk, Suleimani had been contemplating a complete reëvaluation of the United States, saying, “Maybe it’s time to rethink our relationship with the Americans.” The Axis of Evil speech brought the meetings to an end. Reformers inside the government, who had advocated a rapprochement with the United States, were put on the defensive. Recalling that time, Crocker shook his head. “We were just that close,” he said. “One word in one speech changed history.”
After the invasion began, in March, 2003, Iranian officials were frantic to let the Americans know that they wanted peace. Many of them watched the regimes topple in Afghanistan and Iraq and were convinced that they were next. “They were scared shitless,” Maguire, the former C.I.A. officer in Baghdad, told me. “They were sending runners across the border to our élite elements saying, ‘Look, we don’t want any trouble with you.’ We had an enormous upper hand.” That same year, American officials determined that Iran had reconfigured its plans to develop a nuclear weapon to proceed more slowly and covertly, lest it invite a Western attack.
After Saddam’s regime collapsed, Crocker was dispatched to Baghdad to organize a fledgling government, called the Iraqi Governing Council. He realized that many Iraqi politicians were flying to Tehran for consultations, and he jumped at the chance to negotiate indirectly with Suleimani. In the course of the summer, Crocker passed him the names of prospective Shiite candidates, and the two men vetted each one. Crocker did not offer veto power, but he abandoned candidates whom Suleimani found especially objectionable. “The formation of the governing council was in its essence a negotiation between Tehran and Washington,” he said.
Before the meetings fell apart, Crocker talked with the lead negotiator about the possibility of war in Iraq. “Look,” Crocker said, “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I do have some responsibility for Iraq—it’s my portfolio—and I can read the signs, and I think we’re going to go in.” He saw an enormous opportunity. The Iranians despised Saddam, and Crocker figured that they would be willing to work with the U.S. “I was not a fan of the invasion,” he told me. “But I was thinking, If we’re going to do it, let’s see if we can flip an enemy into a friend—at least tactically for this, and then let’s see where we can take it.” The negotiator indicated that the Iranians were willing to talk, and that Iraq, like Afghanistan, was part of Suleimani’s brief: “It’s one guy running both shows.”
That exchange was the high point of Iranian-American coöperation. “After we formed the governing council, everything collapsed,” Crocker said. As the American occupation faltered, Suleimani began an aggressive campaign of sabotage. Many Americans and Iraqis I interviewed thought that the change of strategy was the result of opportunism: the Iranians became aggressive when the fear of an American invasion began to recede.
” My suggestion is that US interests would have been best been served by a more manageable Sunni Arab dictator in Iraq, although putting one in power may not have been doable for P.R. reasons.”
My idea exactly. Bush got the “democracy bug” but cooler heads were available had he asked.
I even said so at the time. He (McCaffrey) believes that we have another 18 months to get the Iraqi Army and Police up to speed so we can start to draw down our forces. The most serious error the Bush Administration has made this far, in my opinion, is the failure to expand the Army. McCaffrey has some serious things to say about this:
I posted a link to this report from Barry McCaffrey>
The struggle for stability in the Iraqi Civil War has entered a new phase with dramatically reduced levels of civilian sectarian violence, political assassinations, abductions, and small arms/ indirect fire and IED attacks on US and Iraqi Police and Army Forces.
This is the unmistakable new reality —and must be taken into account as the US debates its options going forward. The national security debate must move on to an analysis of why this new political and security situation exists—not whether it exists.
General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker have provided brilliant collective leadership to US Forces and have ably engaged the Iraqi political and military leadership.
It didn’t last.
Djf – I don’t disagree that the thought of a “prosperous, democratic Iraq” was and is a fantasy. The point is more that the invasion of Iraq was not inconsistent with a view that Iran was the more serious enemy. If you look at the Bush administrations military activities post 9/11 you see a pattern of encircling Iran with US bases, like placing chits on a map. The remarks from Crocker certainly suggest the Iranians perceived this to be the case. Leaving aside the question of whether this was correct strategy, failing to recognize that the Iranians wouldn’t just sit quietly by while this happened (and actually could do things about it) was folly, and is why we got a bloody tragedy instead of a corrupt farce (a la the first decade or so of Karzai).
There has been a long-standing blind spot in US policy (indeed in most democratic societies when it comes to foriegn policy) when it comes to what actions an opponent can take to counter American power. No successful politician can be ignorant of the fact that opponents will try to stop you, and yet somehow that is never planned for. I see the same behavior in American business as well (I work for a large Fortune 100 company) – senior management presses for share gains without consideration of the fact that what we do will trigger responses from our competitors. I suspect it is a natural bias towards focusing on what you can control over what you can’t, but it makes for plans that contain a large element of fantasy.
Phwest – That’s a good point, though I don’t think it would have been possible to turn Iraq into a democracy even without Iran’s intervention. Further to your point, when the US enters into an agreement with a foreign adversary, our government seems to just assume the other side will abide by it, and the State Dept becomes desperately emotionally invested in denying that there’s any reason to believe that the other side is cheating. To this pathology one can add the refusal of the American government (aside from the military) to reexamine its premises, to acknowledge failure, figure out why failure occurred and learn lessons from it, and to consider changing course. For example, for about a quarter century, the US foreign policy establishment sang the chorus that the Assad regime in Syria “held the key” to a “solution” of the Israel-Arab conflit, and relentlessly pressured Israel to do a “peace” deal with Syria involving return of the Golan Heights. Thank God Syria consistently refused to negotiate seriously. The US government has advanced ideological dementia.
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