Who Won Iraq?

From the July-August 2014 PNL #836

by Tom Engelhardt

The following is excerpted from an original article published on July 3 on the Al-Ahram Weekly website.

You can find the full article at http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/News/6683/31/Who-won-Iraq-.aspx

As Iraq was unravelling last week and the possible outlines of the first jihadist state in modern history [the Islamic State, formerly known as ISIS] were coming into view, I remembered this nugget from the summer of 2002. At the time, journalist Ron Suskind had a meeting with “a senior advisor” to President George W. Bush (later identified as Karl Rove). Here’s how he described part of their conversation: “The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community’, which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality’. I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’”

Source: Wikipedia/BBC News

As events unfold increasingly chaotically across the region that officials of the Bush years liked to call the “Greater Middle East,” consider the eerie accuracy of that statement. The president, his Vice President Dick Cheney, his Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and his National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, among others, were indeed “history’s actors.” They did create “new realities” and, just as Rove suggested, the rest of us are now left to “study” what they did. And oh, what they did! Their geopolitical dreams couldn’t have been grander or more global. … They expected to pacify the Greater Middle East, garrison Iraq for generations, make Syria and Iran bow down before American power, “drain” the global “swamp” of terrorists, and create a global Pax Americana based on a military so dominant that no other country or bloc of countries would ever challenge it.

It was quite a dream and none of it, not one smidgen, came true. Just as Rove suggested they would—just as in the summer of 2002, he already knew they would—they acted to create a world in their image, a world they imagined controlling like no imperial power in history.

In short, this was one for the history books. And not a thing— nothing—worked out as planned. You could almost say that whatever it was they dreamed, the opposite invariably occurred. For those of us in the “reality-based community,” for instance, it’s long been apparent that their war and occupation would cost the US, literally and figuratively, an arm and a leg (and that the costs to Iraqis would prove beyond calculating). More than $2 trillion later—without figuring in astronomical post-war costs still to come—Iraq is a catastrophe.

The arrogance of those occupation years should still take anyone’s breath away. Bush and his top officials remade reality on an almost unimaginable scale and, as we study the region today, the results bear no relation to the world they imagined creating. None whatsoever. On the other hand, there were two dreams they had that, after a fashion, did come into existence.

Many Americans still remember the Bush administration’s bogus pre-invasion claims—complete with visions of mushroom clouds rising over American cities—that Saddam Hussein had a thriving nuclear program in Iraq. But who remembers that, as part of the justification for the invasion it had decided would be its destiny, the administration also claimed a “mature and symbiotic” relationship between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Al-Qaeda? In other words, the invasion was to be justified in some fashion as a response to the attacks of 9/11 (which Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with). Who remembers that, the year after US troops took Baghdad, evidence of the nuclear program having gone down the toilet, vice president Cheney, backed by Bush, doubled down on the Al-Qaeda claim?

“There clearly was a relationship. It’s been testified to,” said the vice president on CNBC in June 2004. “The evidence is overwhelming. It goes back to the early 90s. It involves a whole series of contacts, high-level contacts with Osama Bin Laden and Iraqi intelligence officials.” Based on cherry-picked intelligence, such claims proved fraudulent too, or as David Kay, the man assigned by the administration to hunt down that missing weaponry of mass destruction and those Al-Qaeda links, put it politely, “evidence free.”

Be careful, as they say, what you wish for. More than a decade after its invasion and occupation, after Cheney made those fervent claims, no administration would have the slightest problem linking Al-Qaeda to Iraq (or Syria, Yemen or a number of other countries).

In the period before and after the invasion of Iraq, top Bush officials and their neocon supporters spoke with relish about taming an area stretching from Northern Africa through the Middle East and deep into Central Asia that they termed an “arc of instability.” In a February 2006 address to the American Legion focused on his “global war on terror,” for instance, President Bush typically said: “Slowly but surely, we’re helping to transform the broader Middle East from an arc of instability into an arc of freedom. And as freedom reaches more people in this vital region, we’ll have new allies in the war on terror, and new partners in the cause of moderation in the Muslim world and in the cause of peace.”

By then that “arc,” which in the period before 9/11 had been reasonably stable, was already aflame. Today, it is ablaze.

In the wake of Mosul’s fall [in June 2014], ISIS advanced even more rapidly than the American army heading for Baghdad in the spring of 2003. In some Sunni-dominated cities and towns, the takeovers were remarkeably bloodless. In Baiji, with a power plant that supplies electricity to Baghdad and Iraq’s largest oil refinery (now under attack), the insurgents reportedly called the police and asked them to leave town—and they complied. In Kirkuk, a city in northern Iraq that the Kurds have long claimed as the natural capital for an independent Kurdistan, Iraqi troops quietly abandoned their weaponry and uniforms and left town, while armed Kurdish forces moved in, undoubtedly permanently.

All in all, it’s been a debacle the likes of which we’ve seen only twice in our history—in China, when in 1949 Chiang Kai-shek’s largely American armed and trained military disintegrated before the insurgent forces of communist leader Mao Zedong and a quarter-century later, when a purely American military creation, the South Vietnamese army, collapsed in the face of an offensive by North Vietnamese troops and local rebel forces. In each case, the resulting defeat was psychologically unnerving in the United States and led to bitter, exceedingly strange, and long-lasting debates about who “lost” China and who “lost” Vietnam.

In a country visibly sick of our wars of this century in which even many elite figures find further intervention in Iraq distasteful, “Who lost Iraq?” may never gain the sort of traction the other two “lost” debates did.

“We” may not have “lost” Iraq, but can there be any question that Washington lost in Iraq? American goals in the region went down in flames in a fashion so spectacular, so ignominious, that today nothing is left of them. To the question, “Who won Iraq?” there may be no answer at all, or perhaps just the grim response: no one. In the end, Iraqis will surely be the losers, big time, as Syrians are just across the now non-existent border between what until recently were two countries.

As for the future Washington has to offer, the Obama administration is, it seems, considering responding to the crisis in Iraq in the only way it knows how: with bombs, cruise missiles and drones.

The question that remains is: Will they or won’t they send American air power back into Iraq? Will they or won’t they, that is, let loose the guns of folly and so quite predictably destabilize a terrible situation further?

Tom is co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as A History of the Cold War.