It makes perfect sense that out of the horrors of the war in Iraq a resistance army would arise that is far more pernicious, ruthless, and fanatical than the original enemy the US sought to defeat. The level of sectarian violence Iraq has experienced from 2003 to the present is a direct consequence of the US invasion, which long ago showed the world how wrongheaded the decision to invade was.
We’ve recently heard prattling in the mainstream media about how successful the 2007 “surge” had been in Iraq and how President Barack Obama somehow “failed” because he didn’t follow the neo-con prescription of endless occupation. But the “surge” had not altered the underlying civil and sectarian ruptures in Iraqi society the US invasion unleashed.
Neo-cons and elite media personalities who got everything wrong on Iraq now darken my TV screen telling me to ignore the invasion, the eight-year occupation, the lies about weapons of mass destruction, “mushroom clouds” becoming “smoking guns,” the torture at Abu Ghraib prison, and everything else and pretend the war started with General David Petraeus’s miraculous “surge” where everything was wonderful in Iraq until the “dove” Obama pulled the plug.
It’s a nice narrative if your goal is partisan advantage, but like so much else we’ve heard from policy elites regarding Iraq, it has nothing to do with reality.
When placed in the context of the ghastly human costs of the US occupation the “surge” was only a small part of the wider picture. One reason why there was a lull in the car bombs, IEDs, and suicide bombers for a brief time was because the CIA was dispersing millions of US tax dollars via satchels full of cash to the cutthroats, killers, and warlords among the “Arab Awakening” in (Sunni) Anbar Province. Many of these same elements are now part of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The other cause for the cosmetic “success” of the “surge” was that Baghdad had been already ethnically cleansed by the time the “Baghdad Security Plan” was launched in February 2007.
You won’t hear anybody on TV talk about the 2.2 million Iraqis who were internally displaced within the country at the time of the “surge” (and another 2 million that fled the country). Along with the steady increase of the refugee population in Iraq came the greater authority and expansion of the sectarian militias.
The leader of ISIL, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, reportedly spent years inside one of the many American-run prisons in Iraq. According to the New York Times ISIL’s “rise is directly connected to the American legacy in Iraq. The American prisons were fertile grounds for jihadist leaders, and virtual universities, where leaders would indoctrinate their recruits with hard-line ideologies.” (New York Times, June 15, 2014 p. 11)
After all the car bombs, suicide bombers, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs); after all the torture and collateral murder; after all the beheadings, massacres, and power drills used as “interrogation” tools; it should come as no surprise that the US invasion of Iraq continues to produce more violence and horror.
The Kenneth Pollacks and the Michael O’Hanlons and the Robert Kagans and the Paul Wolfowitzes and others think-tankers and esteemed members of the commentariat all claim to be great “strategic” thinkers. Yet none of them are asked to explain how they missed the neon signposts that ousting the Sunni government in Baghdad would strengthen the power in the region of the clerical Shia government of Iran.
Nothing proves better the folly (or disingenuousness) of the neo-con “strategic vision” for the Middle East than the United States today being forced to seek assistance from Iran to contain a Sunni jihadist insurgency in Iraq that didn’t even exist until the US invaded.
Since many of the neo-cons cut their teeth inside the Reagan Administration it’s hard to believe they were unacquainted with the “strategic” contours of the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. America’s Sunni Arab allies in Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia wouldn’t support the US invasion of Iraq, in part, because they saw Saddam Hussein as a buffer against Iranian influence.
So, even based on the neo-cons’ own “strategic” terms the Iraq invasion was a total failure.
Despite their impressive credentials and pedigree, the intellectuals among US foreign policy elites often lack common sense. They tend to see countries not as peoples and cultures and histories, but as pieces on a game board. It’s hard to believe they could be so blind to the idea that invading Iraq would breed heightened nationalism, hatred for the West, and a long-term resistance struggle against military occupation.
The US invasion also initiated the most radical and ill-informed experiment in forced privatization that any imperial power has ever attempted. In 2004, President George W. Bush sent L. Paul Bremer III to act as a kind of Viceroy in Iraq in the guise of the head of something called the “Coalition Provisional Authority.” Bremer is a blueblood corporate guy who apparently didn’t have a clue about the people over which he ruled.
For a time Bremer’s power was total and he didn’t hesitate to use it. Soon he was issuing daily “orders” all designed in one way or another to turn Iraqi society into an Ayn Rand novel. For example, “Order Number 39” privatized Iraq’s 200 state-owned enterprises; allowed for 100 percent foreign ownership of Iraqi businesses; and gave away unrestricted, tax-free remittances of all profits and other funds to foreign companies (i.e. American and British) working under 40-year ownership licenses.
Bremer’s “Order Number 1,” with its ostensible aim of “de-Baathifying” the Iraqi state, destroyed just about every major governmental institution left standing in Iraq. He disbanded the Iraqi Army and police, cutting off the salaries and pensions of high-ranking officers and enlisted soldiers. With one imperial stroke of his pen Bremer swelled the ranks of the resistance against the American occupation with capable fighters, field engineers, and other security technicians.
And none of Bremer’s “orders” were legal under international laws dating back to 1907 because an occupying power has no right to change the legal system of the country it is occupying.
The car bombs and IEDs that became a permanent fixture of Iraqi life mirrored the exact skill set of the Sunni technocratic class that Bremer sent packing. It has been reported that former officers of the Baath Party are directing some of the Sunni organizations that fight alongside ISIL.
The US-directed power shift in Baghdad gave a once-in-a-millennium opportunity to Iraq’s Shia population to seize and hold power. After all the bloodshed and resistance one of the only viable Iraqi politicians left standing was Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who headed the first EVER Shia government in Baghdad.
Lately, pundits and even State Department officials have been maligning Maliki for “fomenting” sectarian division. But Maliki’s ability to hold power always depended on his ability to establish a modicum of security for ordinary Iraqis while making a credible claim to be standing up for independence and Iraqi nationalism.
Politically, Maliki could not accept the Americans’ Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) granting immunity to American military personnel from Iraqi laws, not after the many killings of innocents at the hands of the Americans and their contractors, (such as Haditha), which enraged Iraqi public opinion. He also couldn’t sign a SOFA with the United States giving Americans carte blanche to do as they please in Iraq when millions of his own people already believed he was a US puppet.
And what could Maliki do after Sunni extremists persisted in setting off car bombs in Shia open markets and neighborhoods? As the leader of the government in Baghdad (such as it is) he has a responsibility to try to provide security.
On February 22, 2006, men wearing Iraqi police uniforms tied up the guards at the al-Askari Shia shrine in Samarra, set up explosive charges around the interior of the structure, and blew it up. This was the spark that expanded the sectarian conflict in Baghdad into a raging civil war. The bombing of the Golden Dome mosque in Samarra was carried out not only to punish Shia rivals for power, but also to spark a sectarian bloodletting that would make the place ungovernable for the American occupiers. It was both an act of nationalistic resistance to foreign occupation and a statement against the new US-imposed order that kicked the Sunni Baathists out of the government.
Sunni nationalists sparked civil war, in part, to make the US occupation untenable, or at least uncomfortable. In this sense, the fomenting of chaos for the sake of chaos had a similar aim as the August 20, 2003 cement truck bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, which killed the renowned diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello. At the outset, Iraqi resistance fighters (Sunni and Shia) didn’t want the UN to help facilitate stability under American rule.
Taking a trip down memory lane — there was a time in 2003 when neo-cons were actually arguing that it was “good” for the United States military to attract “terrorists” in Iraq like a magnet attracts metal filings because it would be easier to identify them and kill them off. It was in that context of twisted attempts to conjure a “strategic” benefit for the invasion of Iraq in the global “War on Terror” when President George W. Bush said: “Bring ‘Em On.” There was a time when Bush held up an American military action in the city of Tal Afar as a shining symbol of success. Now that city has been lost.
In his 2008 biography of the Iraqi Shia leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, the journalist Patrick Cockburn writes:
“Each community had isolated enclaves that were too small to be defended. The Shia majority controlled the police, the police commandos, and part of the army. The majority of the dreadful harvest of bodies found dumped in the streets every morning in Baghdad were Sunni, often people picked up at police . . . checkpoints. The main form of Sunni retaliation was vehicle-borne suicide bombs exploded in crowded Shia markets or in places where laborers would gather early in the morning to look for work. On the outskirts of Baghdad it was usually the Sunni who were in the ascendancy because their gunmen controlled all the roads radiating out of Baghdad. Shia workers on their way to work in the capital were regularly slaughtered there.” (Cockburn, Muqtada, p. 182)
“While Bush and Blair were absurdly denying that a civil war was taking place, hundreds of local civil skirmishes were erupting in central Iraq, turning every village, town, and city district into a battlefield. These bloody conflicts were difficult to follow because of the paucity of information and the complexity of Iraq’s sectarian mosaic.” (p. 183)
“Contradictory allegiances were the outcome not just of the byzantine and treacherous nature of Iraqi politics but of the muddled and contradictory nature of American policy in Iraq.” (p. 192)
“American politicians and foreign media focused too exclusively on war and the number killed as the sole indicators of what was wrong in Iraq. Too little attention was paid to other failures, such as the collapse of the food-rationing system, which reduced the millions of Iraqis to a life of malnutrition and near starvation. By the end of 2007 food rations were half what they had been under Saddam Hussein four years earlier. Some five million Iraqis depended on the state-subsidized ration to survive, but two million of these people were no longer being fed because they had been forced to flee their homes.” (p. 193)
“The US government, Iraqi politicians, and the Western media habitually failed to recognize the extent to which hostility to the occupation drove Iraqi politics and, in the eyes of Iraqis, delegitimized the leaders associated with it.” (p. 200)
No elite voice in this country seems capable of coming to terms with the fact that the Iraq war was “lost” the moment it was launched. It was lost because it was based on lies and deception. It was lost because it violated international law. What a pathetic narrative people like John McCain and Lindsey Graham regurgitate this late in the game: that things were “won” in Iraq by Bush the Younger and then “lost” by Obama with the US withdrawal. We lose IQ points even listening to that drivel.
The neo-cons brought the country the Iraq war and we should remember that fact, particularly since it appears that these dead-enders have burrowed themselves so deeply into the foreign policy establishment their bullshit views are still widely ventilated.
Those who serve the 1 percent among America’s foreign policy elite can be proven wrong, they can fall on their faces, they can fail miserably and repeatedly, cause death and destruction for hundreds of thousands of innocent people, yet they’re never held accountable. In fact, they most likely will be promoted to prominent positions in some future administration. But the kind of interventionist foreign policy the neo-cons and their ilk never tire of advocating has become deeply unpopular outside the Beltway. The intellectuals associated with the “Foundation for Defense of Democracies” claim to understand “history” and believe that democracy can be exported.
They believe they know so much about democracy and its promotion internationally, yet they fail to see that bringing this country to war is the biggest single decision a people can make in a democracy. The nepotism and clubbiness that characterizes American foreign policy elites, and the behind-closed-doors insularity of the “debate” in Washington about the US’s role in the world, are the opposite of “democracy.”
And when these elites pop up on the talk shows calling for more war and how they stand for “democracy” we should remind them that, for now at least, in America there is no longer any popular support for their imperial adventurism.
They’re just going to have to wait a while before they get their next war.