“May his name be blotted out!” declares the most terrible Hebrew curse. History has devised a curse more terrible still, that is, to have one’s memory blotted out, all except for a name that popular usage links to disaster.
Schoolchildren no longer learn about King Pyrrhus of Epirus, who won battles against Rome at such heavy cost that he lost the war, but everyone knows that a “Pyrrhic victory” is to be avoided. Few remember Grigory Potyomkin (1739-1791), Catherine the Great’s statesman and lover, but everyone knows the idiom “Potemkin Village,” a facade constructed to deceive passing inspection.
Why not call it “Petraeus village”? General David Petraeus, now America’s commander in Afghanistan, pacified Iraq by putting 100,000 fighters for the country’s Sunni minority on the American payroll. Now that America has withdrawn combat troops from Iraq and the Shi’ite-majority government in Baghdad has embraced Iran’s military arm, the Sunni fighters are quitting by the thousand, and joining the anti-government guerrilla movement associated with al-Qaeda. This we learn from the October 17 New York Times:
Although there are no firm figures, security and political officials say hundreds of the well-disciplined fighters – many of whom have gained extensive knowledge about the American military – appear to have rejoined al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Beyond that, officials say that even many of the Awakening fighters still on the Iraqi government payroll, possibly thousands of them, covertly aid the insurgency.
The defections have been driven in part by frustration with the Shi’ite-led government, which Awakening members say is intent on destroying them, as well as by pressure from al-Qaeda. The exodus has accelerated since Iraq’s inconclusive parliamentary elections in March, which have left Sunnis uncertain of retaining what little political influence they have and which appear to have provided al-Qaeda new opportunities to lure back fighters.
On September 27, the Washington Post reported that the Iraqi government had fired Sunni police officers in Anbar province.
When Petraeus held the Iraq command, he put over 100,000 Sunni gunmen on the American payroll, offering them money and weapons to lie low for the interim. That arrangement lasted until the government of Nuri al-Maliki invited the Iranian-backed party of Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to join his government – the same Muqtada whose Mahdi Army battled American forces for control of Sadr City in 2004. News reports on October 15 cited unnamed Washington sources saying that the Obama administration would end its support for Maliki if he allied with Muqtada, although it is not clear what that might entail.
Sectarian war is playing out in the predictable way, and America will have nothing to show for a trillion dollars’ worth of “nation-building” and several thousand dead soldiers except a civil war much bloodier than might have occurred without America’s provision of money and guns to the Sunni Awakening. In May, I reviewed this likelihood in an essay titled General Petraeus’ Thirty Years War (Asia Times Online, May 4, 2010.)
The “surge” turns out to be the facade of a Potemkin – or perhaps we should say Petraeus – village, a facade like the old Hollywood Western sets, behind which prospective combatants oil their weapons and refill their magazines.
The Republican establishment hailed the “surge” as proof that the George W Bush administration’s nation-building exercise had succeeded, and Petraeus has been invited to address every conservative association from the American Enterprise Institute to Commentary magazine.
Last week, I heard a prominent conservative commentator brag to a conservative gathering (off the record) that the surge reduced American war deaths in Iraq in July 2008 to only one, while the military’s monthly average rate of accidental death was three. What about Iran?, the conservative sage was asked. The American public simply isn’t ready for the consequences of bombing Iran, he explained: if we were to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, the result would be a terrible outbreak of terrorism, along with a spike in oil prices.
I stared into my souffle. How did it come to the point that America had to fear retaliation by Iran? In effect, this conservative opinion-maker conceded what I have alleged since 2004, in this publication and elsewhere, that Washington had a de facto agreement with Iran: do not make trouble in Iraq, and we will let you build up your nuclear capacity as well as your terrorist capabilities elsewhere.
The chairman of President Barack Obama’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, admitted as much in a March 16, 2009, interview with Charlie Rose: “What I worry about in terms of an attack on Iran is, in addition to the immediate effect, the effect of the attack, it’s the unintended consequences. It’s the further destabilization in the region. It’s how they would respond. We have lots of Americans who live in that region who are under the threat envelope right now [because of the] capability that Iran has across the Gulf. So, I worry about their responses and I worry about it escalating in ways that we couldn’t predict.”
In return for a temporary truce in Iraq – a truce that is now crumbling as Iran inserts its military proxies into the Baghdad government and the Sunni fighters defect – America allowed Iran time to possibly produce weapons-grade uranium, stock Hezbollah in Lebanon with advanced missiles, and deploy terrorist networks wherever it wanted.
All of this is blowing up in America’s face, along with the twin farce in Afghanistan. The same talking heads who cheer-led the Bush administration claim that the problem is that Obama has encouraged the enemy by signaling his desire to withdraw. They know perfectly well that American voters cannot make sense of why so much blood and treasure has been poured into countries about which they care little.
Organizations exist in order to protect their members from the consequences of error, and that is as true of the organs of the conservative movement as any other. Collectively and individually, the Republicans cannot easily admit that the whole business of nation-building was a gigantic blunder, not after a trillion dollars and four thousand dead.
The right-wing social engineers who planted the idea into the impressionable mind of Bush have their reputations to defend, and they will circle the wagons and fight to the death. Academics, journalists and think-tankers live hand to mouth, and have nothing to justify their next paycheck except for their street cred. No matter what the outcome, and no matter how deep the accumulation of facts, they will not admit error. If only Obama had continued the Bush policy, they insist, we would have triumphed in Iraq.
No one has excoriated Obama’s foreign policy more than I (Life and premature death of Pax Obamicana Asia Times Online, December 24, 2009). But it seems self-serving to blame the present administration for the vast expansion of Iran’s power.
Last week Iran’s President Mahmud Ahmadinejad toured Lebanon like a triumphant overlord and threatened Israel with destruction. How did Lebanon turn into an Iranian protectorate? The Bush administration bears a great deal of responsibility for promoting the delusion that Hezbollah could be enticed into Lebanon’s parliamentary system. Bush personally offered the idiotic thought that once Hezbollah officials had to fix potholes they would abandon their declared ambition to turn the Middle East into an Iranian-led Islamic Republic. On March 16, 2006, Bush told the press:
Our policy is this: We want there to be a thriving democracy in Lebanon. We believe that there will be a thriving democracy, but only if – but only if – Syria withdraws … her troops completely out of Lebanon … I like the idea of people running for office. There’s a positive effect when you run for office. Maybe some will run for office and say, vote for me, I look forward to blowing up America. I don’t know, I don’t know if that will be their platform or not. But it’s – I don’t think so. I think people who generally run for office say, vote for me, I’m looking forward to fixing your potholes, or making sure you got bread on the table.
The Bush administration failed to scotch the Persian serpent when the costs of doing so would have been limited. These costs, though, would have been borne first of all by American troops in Iraq in constant contact with a hostile population. If attacked, Iran – just as Mullen explained – would have used such proxies as Muqtada’s Mahdi Army to kill Americans. The Bush administration would have paid for it at the polls, which it did, despite the Potemkin, er, Petraeus Village success of the “surge.” To dig Iran out of Lebanon today would require drastic action. It will be ugly, and to some extent it will be the fault of the Bush administration.
American voters are in a mood to blame Obama, and rightly so; his economic policy has failed miserably and he has no cards left to play. Republicans will blame him for strategic disaster as well, and Obama surely deserves his share of the blame. After the mid-term elections, though, and the likely loss of a Democratic majority in both Houses of Congress, Obama will demand of the Republicans: “What would you do?” The Republican answer cannot be to send American combat troops back to Iraq. They will try to blame Obama for the failure of a war that he inherited, and it will not wash with the voters.
At some point, the Republicans, if they wish to govern, will have to explain to the American public that America needs to fight fire with fire, asymmetric warfare against asymmetric warfare. There are many ways to do this, ranging from cyber-war to promotion of competing Islamic heresies, as I suggested in a September 14, 2010 essay (Terry Jones, asymmetrical warrior).
None of them are pleasant, and none of them should be discussed in detail. But in some fashion, the Republicans must explain to the voters that rather than wasting American blood and treasure in a quest to stabilize fractious and fragile countries in the Middle East, America will do what it far easier and more effective; that is, destabilize its enemies.