|March 2003, Baghdad, Iraq, Shock and Awe|
War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. - John Stuart Mill English economist & philosopher (1806 - 1873)
Among some foreign policy analysts, the popular conclusion regarding the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq is that the U.S. won the war…for Iran.
In practical terms, however, predicting anything about the future of the Middle East these days is likely to leave one looking foolish. Who thought Tunisians would toss out their dictator? Or that Egyptians would demand and get Mubarack to resign? Or that Syrians, after two generations of dictatorship, would turn on the Assad family? Revolution is in the air in the Middle East which is to say that change—rapid change—is the order of the day.
President Obama’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops entirely from Iraq is ignorant of history and dismissive of reality. When the Axis was defeated in World War Two, the U.S. retained troops in Europe to ensure a transition to democracy. Same with Japan. And later, the same with South Korea.
President Obama, so reluctant to admit that the U.S. has ever done anything right and ill-inclined to let it happen, has led to the full-scale withdrawal of U.S. troops and, I suggest, set up a situation in which a newly emerging democracy—a distinct rarity in the Middle East—could be deprived of the time to be fully and securely established.
There were real reasons for invading Iraq twice in recent times; first to force Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait and second to remove him as a dangerous, destabilizing force who threatened all the Gulf States.
Forgotten by most, Iraq under Saddam Hussein engaged Iran in war for eight years from 1979 to 1988. Inasmuch as Iran’s Islamic revolution had taken U.S. diplomats hostage in 1979 and held them for 444 days, the U.S. backed Saddam, though officially it took a neutral position.
U.S. policymakers in the administrations following the Carter years regarded Ayatollah Khomeini as a serious threat to the stability of the region and nothing has changed since them. His successors are nothing but trouble.
Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki found sanctuary in Iran to avoid being killed by Saddam. He is said to have strong ties to the current regime in Iran which is, after all, a very big neighbor with a long common border to the east of Iraq.
On the occasion of the official end of the war and the withdrawal of U.S. military, Maliki’s close ties to Iran were on display at the White House when he brought Iraqi Transportation Minister Hadi Farhan al-Amiri with him. Farhan had formerly been a member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. The Guards are suspected by U.S. law enforcement of participating in the 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. servicemen billeted there.
Had the invasion of Iraq in 2003 been a limited mission, Saddam might have been toppled and the Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis would have been left to kill each other in the typical Arab fashion of resolving disputes. Also in the mix would have been the Kurds in northern Iraq whom Saddam persecuted and killed throughout his regime.
Eight years later, the tendency of the media has been to focus on U.S. and Iraqi war dead, but there is little mention of the earlier Iraq-Iran conflict with estimates between 500,000 and a million war dead, 1-2 million wounded, and more than 80,000 prisoners. In one 1985 battle alone when Iran launched an offensive to cut the main highway between Baghdad and Basra, it is estimated that the combined total of dead numbered 40,000.
The U.S. still does not have diplomatic relations with Iran, a situation in place since 1979. Iran has declared the U.S. to be its biggest enemy and makes no secret of its intention to destroy Israel. Much of the world is wondering when Israel will attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. The failure of the U.S. to support this would be a strategic mistake on the order of the British PM, Neville Chamberlain’s claim to have achieved “peace in our time” after negotiations with Adolf Hitler.
Obama’s “diplomatic” efforts with Iran have been a total failure. The latest embarrassment was his “request” for the return of the drone spycraft that the Iranians brought down, apparently without firing a shot. Obama has worried out loud that U.S. diplomats would be targeted for assassination in Iraq…after bargaining away force protection.
It is no stretch to say that President Obama has been a global diplomatic disaster, routinely offending and insulting other nations out of pure ignorance and indifference. His successors will be mending fences in the Middle East and elsewhere for decades.
In the course of three years in office, Obama has only succeeded in fleeing what he regarded as a “dumb” war. He was elected largely on his opposition to it.
A recent Wall Street Journal editorial warned that the failure of the Obama administration to consolidate an alliance with Iraq ignored the Middle East’s upheavals and, in particular, in Iran’s longtime ally, Syria. In the best of outcomes, Iraq could have become an outpost of stability in the Middle East, but Obama’s indifference may contribute to its falling “prey to Tehran’s encroachments.”
In an analysis by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, published in Beirut’s The Daily Star, he anticipates that most of the future violence in Iraq will be between “political factions, even those of the same ethnic and religious group.” The Sunnis are the predominant Islamic sect in most of the Middle East, but the Shiites are the largest sect in both Iraq and Iran.
Al-Maliki heads a loose confederation of many different political parties, but seems to have asserted a very strong level of control over government policies at this point. Ironically, both Saddam and now Al-Maliki must contend with a semi-autonomous Kurdish faction that is pushing for resolution of territorial boundaries, seeking to reverse changes made by Saddam in Arab-Kurdish areas.
Ultimately, everything in the Middle East involves who controls oil revenues.
Iraq’s 2005 constitution promised a hydrocarbon law that would settle issues related to who had the final say of various oil deals. No such law has been legislated to date and the Kurds have pretty much gone their own way. Al-Maliki’s government has declared Kurdish contracts with oil companies illegal, banning companies that have signed them from bidding on oil business in the rest of Iraq.
In the recent history of the Middle East, dating from the fall of the Ottoman Empire following World War I, its nations have been ruled by dictators and monarchs. Such “democracy” as exists is mostly one in which the ruling regime stuffs the ballot boxes and the military determines the winner. Egypt’s recent turmoil is an example. Syria’s ruthless suppression of its people is another. Iran remains a prison state intent on imposing its hegemony over the region.
Can Iraq sustain its fledgling democracy? Nobody knows. If history is any guide the prospect is not good. Only a strong America could have played a role and Obama has chosen to leave.
© Alan Caruba, 2011