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Tomgram: Peter Van Buren, The Great War in the Middle East

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From flickr.com/photos/8605011@N02/3075880458/: What if the U.S. had not invaded Iraq in 2003?
What if the U.S. had not invaded Iraq in 2003?
(Image by Kurdistan Photo كوردستان)
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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com.

Sometimes I imagine the last 14 years of American war policy in the Greater Middle East as a set of dismal Mad Libs. An example might be: The United States has spent [your choice of multiple billions of dollars] building up [fill in name of Greater Middle Eastern country]'s army and equipping it with [range of weaponry of your choosing]. That army was recently routed by the [rebel or terrorist group of your choice] and fled, abandoning [list U.S. weaponry and equipment]. Washington has just sent in more [choose from: trainers/weaponry/equipment/all of the above] and [continue the sentence ad infinitum]. Or here's another: After [number, and make it large] years and a [choose one or more: war, air war, drone assassination campaign, intervention, counterinsurgency program, counterterror effort, occupation] in [Greater Middle Eastern country of your choice] that seems to be [choose from: failing, unraveling, going nowhere, achieving nothing], the [fill in office of top U.S. official of your choice] has just stated that a U.S. withdrawal would be [choose from: counterproductive, self-defeating, inconceivable, politically unpalatable, dangerous to the homeland, mad] because [leave this blank, since no one knows].

The president recently made just such an announcement about Afghanistan 14 years after the U.S. first invaded. Undoubtedly, his "legacy" would have been at stake if he had withdrawn U.S. forces from that country (as he promised to do in 2013) and the Afghan army and police into which the U.S. has sunk an estimated $65 billion had unraveled, as American officials clearly now fear might happen. This means that a baby born somewhere in the United States on September 12, 2001, who is already 14 years old, will turn 16 with America's second Afghan War still ongoing and, given the trend in American wars in the Greater Middle East (always in, never out), might at 18 be able to join the U.S. military and continue the fight either there, in Iraq, or perhaps in Syria or elsewhere. It couldn't be a grimmer tale, one in which, as TomDispatch regular Peter Van Buren suggests today, there is a single injunction when it comes to Washington policy: such wars can never end, even if we no longer have a clue as to why.

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Van Buren has been writing a prescient series of pieces for TomDispatch under the rubric: What could possibly go wrong? The predictable answer, of course, is you name it and, increasingly, you -- that is, Washington -- should have expected it. Tom

What If They Gave a War and Everyone Came?
What Could Possibly Go Wrong (October 2015 Edition)
By Peter Van Buren

What if the U.S. had not invaded Iraq in 2003? How would things be different in the Middle East today? Was Iraq, in the words of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, the "worst foreign policy blunder" in American history? Let's take a big-picture tour of the Middle East and try to answer those questions. But first, a request: after each paragraph that follows, could you make sure to add the question "What could possibly go wrong?"

Let the History Begin

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In March 2003, when the Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq, the region, though simmering as ever, looked like this: Libya was stable, ruled by the same strongman for 42 years; in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak had been in power since 1983; Syria had been run by the Assad family since 1971; Saddam Hussein had essentially been in charge of Iraq since 1969, formally becoming president in 1979; the Turks and Kurds had an uneasy but functional ceasefire; and Yemen was quiet enough, other than the terror attack on the USS Cole in 2000. Relations between the U.S. and most of these nations were so warm that Washington was routinely rendering "terrorists" to their dungeons for some outsourced torture.

Soon after March 2003, when U.S. troops invaded Iraq, neighboring Iran faced two American armies at the peak of their strength. To the east, the U.S. military had effectively destroyed the Taliban and significantly weakened al-Qaeda, both enemies of Iran, but had replaced them as an occupying force. To the west, Iran's decades-old enemy, Saddam, was gone, but similarly replaced by another massive occupying force. From this position of weakness, Iran's leaders, no doubt terrified that the Americans would pour across its borders, sought real diplomatic rapprochement with Washington for the first time since 1979. The Iranian efforts were rebuffed by the Bush administration.

The Precipitating Event

Nailing down causation is a tricky thing. But like the June 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that kicked off the Great War, the one to end all others, America's 2003 invasion was what novelists refer to as "the precipitating event," the thing that may not actively cause every plot twist to come, but that certainly sets them in motion.

There hadn't been such an upset in the balance of power in the Middle East since, well, World War I, when Great Britain and France secretly reached the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which, among other things, divided up most of the Arab lands that had been under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Because the national boundaries created then did not respect on-the-ground tribal, political, ethnic, and religious realities, they could be said to have set the stage for much that was to come.

Now, fast forward to 2003, as the Middle East we had come to know began to unravel. Those U.S. troops had rolled into Baghdad only to find themselves standing there, slack-jawed, gazing at the chaos. Now, fast forward one more time to 2015 and let the grand tour of the unraveling begin!

The Sick Men of the Middle East: It's easy enough to hustle through three countries in the region in various states of decay before heading into the heart of the chaos: Libya is a failed state, bleeding mayhem into northern Africa; Egypt failed its Arab Spring test and relies on the United States to support its anti-democratic (as well as anti-Islamic fundamentalist) militarized government; and Yemen is a disastrously failed state, now the scene of a proxy war between U.S.-backed Saudi Arabia and Iranian-backed Houthi rebels (with a thriving al-Qaeda outfit and a small but growing arm of the Islamic State [ISIS] thrown into the bargain).

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Iraq: Obama is now the fourth American president in a row to have ordered the bombing of Iraq and his successor will almost certainly be the fifth. If ever a post-Vietnam American adventure deserved to inherit the moniker of quagmire, Iraq is it.

And here's the saddest part of the tale: the forces loosed there in 2003 have yet to reach their natural end point. Your money should be on the Shias, but imagining that there is only one Shia horse to bet on means missing just how broad the field really is. What passes for a Shia "government" in Baghdad today is a collection of interest groups, each with its own militia. Having replaced the old strongman prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, with a weak one, Haider al-Abadi, and with ISIS chased from the gates of Baghdad, each Shia faction is now free to jockey for position. The full impact of the cleaving of Iraq has yet to be felt. At some point expect a civil war inside a civil war.

Iran: If there is any unifying authority left in Iraq, it is Iran. After the initial 2003 blitzkrieg, the Bush administration's version of neocolonial management in Iraq resulted in the rise of Sunni insurgents, Shia militias, and an influx of determined foreign fighters. Tehran rushed into the power vacuum, and, in 2011, in an agreement brokered by the departing Bush administration and carried out by President Obama, the Americans ran for the exits. The Iranians stayed. Now, they have entered an odd-couple marriage with the U.S. against what Washington pretends is a common foe -- ISIS -- but which the Iranians and their allies in Baghdad see as a war against the Sunnis in general. At this point, Washington has all but ceded Iraq to the new Persian Empire; everyone is just waiting for the paperwork to clear.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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