Iraqi tribesmen gather to join Iraqi security forces in the fight against Jihadist militants. Photo from AFP / Getty Images.
The original blame for this disaster is on the Bush administration, but also on all those who succumbed to a Superpower Syndrome, which claimed we could redesign the Middle East.
By Tom Hayden |
June 17, 2014 - American activist anti-war networks are perfectly right in standing against renewed U.S. intervention in Iraq. So far Obama has been forced by events to send some 275 U.S. troops for embassy protection, while a decision on bombing is being mulled. The confused Congress needs to be called upon to be a counterweight against the hawks who want nothing more than to blame Obama instead of themselves for “losing” Iraq.
But there is far more to do. We are deep into the battle over memory.
Wars start and end on the battlefields of memory. The “loss” of China, for example, presaged the McCarthy era of the Fifties. Thousands on the left lost their jobs and were discredited and demonized as enemies of the state. As a result, the Vietnam War began with a climate of anti-communism as its rationale, allowing the administration to babble about “falling dominoes.” That war ended in predictable military defeat after hundreds of thousands of American soldiers were killed, maimed or sentenced to lifetime trauma. The dead in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were uncountable but in the millions.
According to President George H. W. Bush, the early Iraq war was fought to purge what he called the “Vietnam syndrome” because he feared that Americans would turn skeptical towards unwinnable, unaffordable wars. Even today, to cover its Vietnam defeat and shame, our government is poised to be spending millions of dollars on sanitizing our Vietnam memory.
In its fabricated origin, the invasion of Iraq was described as a response to the War on Terrorism, a latter-day Cold War against the sinister new global conspiracy of international terrorism. As in Vietnam, the fate of Iraqi women, children, and religious minorities was offered as propaganda for sadly gullible liberal humanitarians.
Now that Iraq is on the verge of its unexpected collapse, the newly-manufactured myth is that American air strikes, guided by on-the-ground special intelligence units, are desperately needed to stave off the defeat of the corrupt Shiite regime, which thousands of young Americans died to install. The political effect of the myth is to pin the blame on Obama for withdrawing our troops as he promised.
The new myth is plausible for people who prefer hammers because they see every problem as a nail, as Obama noted in his recent speech. American air strikes certainly could reek bloody carnage on the Shiite [ISIS] forces north of Baghdad. That would inflame the Arab world without changing the steady emergence of a Sunni liberated zone from southern Syria to northern Iraq.
But what if the current ISIS talk of overrunning Baghdad is just overheated rhetoric? There are few if any Sunnis in Baghdad to join the fight. The Shiites already there used massive ethnic cleansing, detention, and assassinations to clear the capitol city of its Sunni majority, which means that the advancing ISIS forces will be running into severe Shiite resistance if they overextend themselves by entering Baghdad.
They instead may want to consolidate their mini-Caliphate for now, rather than escalating a sectarian battle on uncertain terms. Armed Shiites from the south are flooding Baghdad at the call of their Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani. They will become a powerful and fanatic bulwark in an urban bloodbath.
U.S. airstrikes would be utter folly if the specter of a further Sunni advance is false and if ISIS does advance to Baghdad, American bombing will have little effect on street-to-street fighting within an all Shiite city. Entrapping Obama in a foreign policy fiasco would be the real agenda.
If the ISIS fanatics try taking the fight to Baghdad, U.S. strikes might marginally disrupt their supply lines, but the resulting scene could be like the 1968 Tet Offensive. To this day, the U.S. propaganda narrative is that North Vietnam and the Vietcong forces “lost” the Tet Offensive militarily; in fact they dealt a fatal blow to the myth that the U.S. was winning the war.
After Tet, the Saigon regime began disintegrating from within while American anti-war opinion emboldened the Congress to sever funding from the outside. Many historians believe that Henry Kissinger simply wanted a “decent interval” of two years between the withdrawal of American troops, the return of American POWs, and the predictable collapse of the Saigon government.
Similarly, it seems, Obama wants that same “decent interval” before Iraq is left on its own to deal with its sectarian disease. The American people agree that we have shed enough blood and lost enough revenue in that country. The U.S. government may simply want to protect its great power reputation while blaming Iraqis for the coming disaster “after all we have done for them.” Is that the narrative we want as a legacy?
Demonstrators in Masul on Monday wave Al Quada flags and chant support for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Image from NBC News.
The U.S. had no business invading Iraq in the first place. We toppled Saddam’s dictatorship using a fabricated 9/11 rationale, which plunged Iraq into a sectarian civil war inside the war with the United States. We left behind a vengeance-driven Shiite regime aligned with Iran. Now the related sectarian war in Syria is enlarging into a regional one between Sunnis and Shiites across borders.
The original blame for this disaster is on the Bush administration, but also on all those who succumbed to a Superpower Syndrome, which claimed we could redesign the Middle East. There is no reason whatsoever to justify further loss of American lives or tax dollars on a conflict that we do not understand and that started before the United States was born.
Anti-war voices need to be amplified to help Obama stave off the most irrational forces during this crisis.
Anti-war voices need to be amplified to help Obama stave off the most irrational forces during this crisis. We need to construct a narrative that blocks the hawks from blaming Obama for “losing” Iraq, and turns the focus on the neoconservatives, Republicans, and Democratic hawks who took this country and that sorrowful region into a sea of blood. Most of those hawks remain comfortably in power, unscathed and immune, even occupying high positions in this administration.
For evidence that the very neoconservatives who caused the first Iraq debacle are now resurgent, there is Robert Kagan’s New Republic article, “Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire,” which reportedly has struck a sensitive nerve in the White House. Kagan, representing what the Times calls “one of America’s first families of interventionism,” is leading the intellectual charge against Obama’s alleged surrender of the American sword.
Kagan is married to the State Department’s Victoria Nuland, recently caught in a telephone conversation plotting regime change in the Ukraine. Now the Kagan circle is a Trojan horse inside Obama’s national security establishment trying to rebrand themselves as “liberal interventionists” and become advisers to Hillary Clinton. Any hope of Obama’s to co-opt and quiet their voices has failed. The neocons are what John Dean once called a cancer on the presidency.
The primal fear among these rebranded neoconservatives is not so much a Sunni insurgency, but the risen families of the dead and wounded, on all sides, who increasingly ask who exactly led them into an unwinnable, unaffordable war. The duty-driven bravery of those families’ lost sons and daughters stands in direct contrast to shameless privilege of those elites who sent them into harm’s way.
As this immediate crisis unfolds, we must act to strip away certain delusions. The thinking of progressive anti-war critics will have to blend with Obama’s centrist desire to avoid irrational military interventions so he can address nation-building at home. In the slogan of the late Tim Carpenter, “Health Care, Not Warfare.”
Some positions of the anti-Obama Left are too extreme to be helpful. For example, there are many in the anti-war movement who refused to believe that the U.S. actually withdrew its troops from Iraq. This notion was meant to refute and discredit any belief that Obama had “ended” the war.
Now that the raging debate is over whether to send U.S. troops back, it’s hard to argue that they are secretly still there. Instead, we have to defend the Obama withdrawal from Iraq and its fallout, which is rapidly reopening deep divisions in America’s political culture.
The far more widespread delusion is that of the neoliberals and neoconservatives that America could construct, through force of arms, a democratic and unified Iraqi state in which sectarian divisions would float away in a flood of free enterprise and oil revenue. The truth is that the bloody sectarian struggle long preceded the American invasion, was held in check only by the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, and was reignited by the U.S. military overthrow of a Sunni-led regime in 2003.
It is profoundly shameful to hear American officials cluck-cluck about the supposed “excesses” of the present Shiite al-Maliki regime, which they themselves installed. As a result of al-Maliki’s ascension, thousands of Sunnis were marginalized, imprisoned, tortured, denied employment and political representation. This latest cycle of tit-for-tat revenge was foretold and could not be forestalled forever.
There is no doubt that Iraq was a Sunni-dominated dictatorship under Saddam, but it also had a middle class, higher education, and an economy employing thousands in state-owned enterprises that ranked well overall in the Middle East.
Saddam’s enemies were very understandably the Shiite population backed by crackpot Republican neocons with their faith-based privatization schemes, and elements in the Israeli and American national security circles who long feared an armed Arab nationalism. The latter group’s lobbying for the Iraqi Shiites was purely opportunistic. It was based on yet another delusion, that religious Islam could be managed while Arab secular nationalism posed the greater security threat.
One of the leading militants on the road to Baghdad today is Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a Baath Party military commander who was on the equally delusional “deck of cards” displayed by the Pentagon public relations officers. Al-Douri stopped last week at the grave of Saddam Hussein before resuming his vengeful ride with jihadists towards Baghdad.
Besides the delusions that blinded us there always was one lucid and Great Power agenda. It was not principally about oil, as Antonia Juhasz, Rachel Maddow, and Dennis Kucinich have reasonably claimed. Any Baghdad regime would sell oil to the West, whether or not it was privatized. The deeper agenda was about imposing division and chaos on the Arab world. The dominant Western Arabist and former British intelligence officer Bernard Lewis was a leading proponent of dismembering Arab nationalism. He wrote in Foreign Affairs in 1992:
Vietnam Syndrome: Unwinnable wars. Image from the Archdiocese of Washington.
If the central power is sufficiently weakened, there is no real civil society to hold the polity together, no real sense of common identity… The state then disintegrates…into a chaos of squabbling, feuding, fighting sects, tribes, regions, and parties.
An identical point was made by the very liberal Israeli foreign ministry official, Shlomo Avineri, in a Los Angeles Times opinion piece on December 4, 2005, titled “Israel Could Live with a Fractured, Failed Iraq“:
An Iraq split into three semi-autonomous mini-states, or an Iraq in civil war, means that the kind of threat posed by Hussein…is unlikely to rise again.
This is what is presently happening amidst Obama’s urgent calls for a government of national unity (one which still would marginalize the Sunnis). Because of the sectarian war in Syria, the Sunnis of Iraq have gained a massive “rear base” from which to launch their cross-border insurgency. By one estimate in The New York Times, their fighting force is only 3,000 to 5,000 combatants, a tiny fraction of the massive Iraqi army.
When and if the blood ever dries, Iraq still will be divided by hate.
When and if the blood ever dries, Iraq still will be divided by hate among the Sunnis mainly in the northern provinces, the Kurds in Kurdistan, and Shiites from Baghdad to the south, who themselves may split and revolt against al-Maliki.
From the Bernard Lewis perspective, that would be a “Mission Accomplished.” Dismembering Iraq as a coherent Arab state has been the underlying agenda all along while the U.S. officially promoted the delusion of a post-sectarian democracy. Consider this list: at one time or another, the subdivision of Iraq has been advocated by Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations; Peter Galbraith, the de facto ambassador to the Kurds; and then-Senator Joe Biden, at least before he became vice-president in 2008. John Yoo, the author of the Bush administration’s torture memos and now a University of California law professor, chimed in with a 2005 op-ed titled, “A United Iraq, What’s the Point?”
Even in the unlikely event that a new three-way power-sharing agreement emerges in Baghdad, it will continue the dismantling of Iraq as a powerful nation state. In addition, the briefly hopeful Arab Spring of 2011 has ended — at least for now — with the decapitation of the elected Morsi government in Egypt and the derailment of political hope for an entire younger generation in the Middle East.
The real agenda was muttered by Henry Kissinger, commenting on the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s, “I hope they kill each other…Too bad they both can’t lose.” Again promised by President Bush when he vowed that, “We will…turn them one against another.” And more bluntly stated by a U.S. deputy commander during the sectarian fighting of 2006, “We sit back and watch because that can only benefit us.”
Since this real scenario cannot be explained to or even understood by most Americans, the political scapegoating will continue to intensify. That’s the last battleground where the peace movement must resist the invasion of the American mind.
 Barry Lando, Web of Deceit [Other Press], 2007, p. 48
 Address to Congress, Sept. 20, 2001
 New York Times, Dec. 28, 2006
This is an updated and expanded version of an article that appeared at The Huffington Post.
Read more of Tom Hayden’s writing on The Rag Blog.
[Tom Hayden is a former California state senator and leader of Sixties peace, justice, and environmental movements. He currently teaches at Pitzer College in Los Angeles. His latest book is The Long Sixties. Hayden is director of the Peace and Justice Resource center and editor of The Peace Exchange Bulletin. ]