Dominic Tierney writes: In Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, Washington toppled regimes and then failed to plan for a new government or construct effective local forces — with the net result being over 7,000 dead U.S. soldiers, tens of thousands of injured troops, trillions of dollars expended, untold thousands of civilian fatalities, and three Islamic countries in various states of disorder. We might be able to explain a one-off failure in terms of allies screwing up. But three times in a decade suggests a deeper pattern in the American way of war.
In the American mind, there are good wars: campaigns to overthrow a despot, with the model being World War II. And there are bad wars: nation-building missions to stabilize a foreign country, including peacekeeping and counterinsurgency. For example, the U.S. military has traditionally seen its core mission as fighting conventional wars against foreign dictators, and dismissed stabilization missions as “military operations other than war,” or Mootwa. Back in the 1990s, the chairman of the joint chiefs reportedly said, “Real men don’t do Mootwa.” At the public level, wars against foreign dictators are consistently far more popular than nation-building operations.
The American way of war encourages officials to fixate on removing the bad guys and neglect the post-war stabilization phase. When I researched my book How We Fight, I found that Americans embraced wars for regime change but hated dealing with the messy consequences going back as far as the Civil War and southern reconstruction. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: There are roughly 5,000 American service members in Iraq according to current Pentagon estimates, but the number often varies, sometimes daily, by hundreds. That number is higher than the cap the White House set last year, which limited the number of troops to be deployed to Iraq to 3,870. But under policies created by the military after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, service members who are planning to spend less than four months in a war zone are not counted.
Sergeant Cardin [who was killed on March 19] and the Marines [with him at Fire Base Bell, south of Mosul] were scheduled to be deployed in Iraq temporarily, so they did not count against the cap.
At the height of the war in 2007, the United States had roughly 165,000 troops deployed in 500 bases and outposts across Iraq. Mr. Obama, who ran for president in 2008 vowing to end the United States’ involvement, fulfilled his pledge when he pulled all American troops out of the country in 2011. But as the Islamic State has strengthened its hold in the region in the past two years, Mr. Obama has sent thousands of American service members back in. [Continue reading…]
The third time around, the Pentagon evidently wants to do it right — truly right — this time. What other explanation could there be for dispatching 12 generals to Iraq (one for every 416 American troops estimated to be on the ground in that country, according to Nancy Youssef of the Daily Beast). And keep in mind that those 12 don’t include the generals and admirals overseeing the air war, naval support, or other aspects of the campaign against the Islamic State from elsewhere in the Middle East or back in the U.S., nor do they include generals from allied forces like those of Australia and Great Britain also in Iraq. Youssef offers a “conservative” count of 21 “flag officers,” including allies, now in that country to oversee the war there. Among other things, they are undoubtedly responsible for ensuring the success of the major goal proclaimed by both Washington and Baghdad for 2016: an offensive to retake the country’s second largest city, Mosul. Only weeks ago, it got off to a rousing start when the Iraqi army recaptured a few obscure villages on the road to that city. Soon after, however, the offensive reportedly ground to a dispiriting halt when parts of the American-retrained and rearmed Iraqi Army (which had collapsed in June 2014 in the face of far smaller numbers of far more determined Islamic State militants) began to crumble again, amid mass desertions.
In the meantime, in both Iraq and Syria, U.S. operations seem to be on an inexorable mission-creep upward, with ever more new troops and special ops types heading for those countries in a generally under-the-radar manner, assumedly with the objective of someday justifying the number of generals awaiting them there. Somewhere in a top-heavy Pentagon, there surely must be an office of déjà vu all over again, mustn’t there? (And talking about déjà vu, last week the U.S. launched yet another air strike in Somalia, supposedly knocking off yet another leader of al-Shabab, the indigenous terror movement. If you could win a war by repeatedly knocking off the leaders of such movements, the U.S. would by now be the greatest victor in the history of warfare.)
Meanwhile in Afghanistan… but do I really have to tell you about the ground taken by the resurgent Taliban in the last year, the arrival of ISIS in that country, the halting (yet again) of withdrawal plans for U.S. forces almost 15 years into the second American war there, or other tales from the crypt of this country’s never-ending wars? I think not. Even if you haven’t read the latest news, you can guess, can’t you?
And this, of course, is exactly the repetitive world of war (and failure) into which the young, especially in America’s poorest high schools, are being recruited, even if they don’t know it, via JROTC. It’s a Pentagon-funded program that promises to pave the way for your future college education, give meaning to your life, and send you to exotic lands, while ensuring that the country’s all-volunteer military never lacks for new troops to dispatch to old (verging on ancient) conflicts. As Ann Jones has written, “It should be no secret that the United States has the biggest, most efficiently organized, most effective system for recruiting child soldiers in the world. With uncharacteristic modesty, however, the Pentagon doesn’t call it that. Its term is ‘youth development program.’” So let’s offer thanks for small favors when someone — in this case, ex-Army Ranger and TomDispatch regular Rory Fanning (author of Worth Fighting For: An Army Ranger’s Journey Out of the Military and Across America) — feels the urge to do something about that massive, militarized propaganda effort in our schools. In my book, Fanning is the equivalent of any 12 of our generals and we need more like him both in those schools and in our country. Tom Engelhardt
The wars in our schools
An ex-Army Ranger finds a new mission
By Rory Fanning
Early each New Year’s Day I head for Lake Michigan with a handful of friends. We look for a quiet stretch of what, only six months earlier, was warm Chicago beach. Then we trudge through knee-deep snow in bathing suits and boots, fighting wind gusts and hangovers. Sooner or later, we arrive where the snowpack meets the shore and boot through a thick crust of lake ice, yelling and swearing as we dive into near-freezing water.
It took me a while to begin to understand why I do this every year, or for that matter why for the last decade since I left the military I’ve continued to inflict other types of pain on myself with such unnerving regularity. Most days, for instance, I lift weights at the gym to the point of crippling exhaustion. On summer nights, I sometimes swim out alone as far as I can through mats of hairy algae into the black water of Lake Michigan in search of what I can only describe as a feeling of falling.
In his newly released book, Consequence: A Memoir, Eric Fair writes: I take the time to ask the general about his life and learn what I can about Iraq. I do this with most prisoners, whether they have intelligence value or not. When I write the report, I’m supposed to call this the approach phase. I’m supposed to be building rapport. Some interrogators talk about how good they are at this, how they develop relationships with prisoners and come to some sort of understanding, opening lines of communication that will eventually produce good intelligence.
It’s all bullshit. This is Abu Ghraib prison. The Iraqis hate all of us.
As I talk to the general about the village where he grew up, his service in the Iran-Iraq War, and how much he loves his sons, I ignore the memories from the previous night, when I interrogated a young man in one of the uncomfortable interrogation booths. I made him stand with his arms in the air until he dropped them in exhaustion. He lied to me, said he didn’t know anything about the men he was captured with or the bomb that had been buried in the road. So I hurt him. Now I’m in a decent room serving decent tea and acting like a decent man. The comfortable interrogation booth is all I need to convince myself that the general and I are enjoying this conversation. I’ve fallen for my own stupid trick. When I pour the tea and turn up the heater, I complete the illusion.
As we drink our tea, the translator starts a conversation with the general about what it was like growing up as a Christian in Iraq and how her Muslim neighbors always took good care of her. I was an Arabic linguist in the Army, and while my language skills have faded,
I understand enough to allow the translator to steer the conversation for a bit. The general says he was never very religious, but as he gets older he attends Friday prayers more often. The translator seems to like him. I do, too. I pretend the general feels the same way about me.
I talk about growing up in Pennsylvania and attending a Presbyterian church as a boy and how hearing the call to prayer from the mosques of Baghdad reminds me that I should be praying to my god more often. “No, no,” the general says in English. “Not a different god. Same god. Same god.” He points at both the translator and me.
“We are same god.” [Continue reading…]
The Daily Beast interviewed Fair: Your upbringing as a devout Presbyterian plays a large role in the pages of Consequence, and you very openly explore the role that faith has had on your life, before, during and after Iraq. Why was that important to you?
It’s a foundational part of who I am and how I view my place in my world. And it has been my entire life, just how I was raised and how I’m raising my son now. It’s been a lifelong upbringing. I remember a youth pastor teaching me as child that faith was not this mystical experience, or not just it. Faith takes a lot of work and it takes a lot reading and care. Having that foundation helped me prepare for when things went totally wrong, which will happen one way or another to just about everybody.
Since Iraq, I will say that I’m far more cautious to suggest that my faith gives me any sort of right or privilege to tell anyone else what they’re doing is right or wrong. Approaching my faith with this type of humility is something I learned to do more of over time.
“I want him to be comfortable in the quiet.” This is my favorite line in a book full of beautiful writing. It’s about your son and his own developing faith, but what does Being Comfortable in the Quiet mean to you now, as a person, father and author?
Growing up in the Bethlehem community, the Presbyterian Church had this beautiful choir, a very well known choir, at least in our area. Bethlehem Steel had purchased this beautiful pipe organ for the church many years before … anyhow, every Sunday, they’d put on this incredible, incredible performance. Afterwards, though, there’d be nothing but silence. You were not to applaud or express outward admiration. And if you did, you were looked upon as someone who didn’t quite know what they were doing. The idea was that you modeled everything in your life after this approach—you don’t do things for show, or with expectations of affirmation. You simply just had to be comfortable in the quiet, and had to be willing to listen, and listen in a way that meant actually hearing what others were saying, rather than just waiting for your turn to speak.
The theological side of that quiet is when a person can experience God, or the Holy Spirit, or something spiritual, or what have you. Those moments of quiet are when we all chart our course of life, whatever it may be. And that’s what I want for my son.
“War stories aren’t for me.” We’ve talked before about hearing that from friends and readers alike. What’s your response to that sort of mindset, especially in regards to Consequence?
Well, certainly a reader can make their own decision, but I’m of the thought that war stories are, unfortunately, for everyone. That’s particularly the case in a country such as ours, a democracy, a republic. On some level there’s an obligation to be engaged with some war stories … that doesn’t mean that people have to read mine, but I think that if someone wants to self-identify as well informed, and well-read, and as a good citizen of the country, you need to interact and encounter this stuff. Literature is just one way to do that. [Continue reading…]
Garry Kasparov writes: The 21st century has been marked by two complementary trends in global security: the rise of new and unexpected threats and the return of old ones. Terrorist organizations have adapted modern technology to deadly purpose and paired it with global ambition. Nineteen well-trained individuals killed more Americans on 9/11 than the entire Japanese fleet killed in Pearl Harbor. Our ubiquitous smartphones and social networks turned out to be agnostic tools, serving both good and evil. They are boons for economic empowerment and cultural exchange, but also allow terror movements to recruit internationally, creating a homegrown terror threat that no border wall or refugee ban will prevent.
The old menaces of the 20th century have reappeared in updated forms. Communism as a political ideology is as bankrupt as ever, but the aggressive despotism that enforced it for decades before the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Soviet Union has returned to the world stage, due largely to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The United States, a global hegemon alternately over-eager or reluctant, has reacted in dramatically inconsistent ways to the new threats while mostly ignoring the resurgence of the old ones.
The checks and balances that frustrate every president domestically do little to prevent the commander-in-chief from wielding the power of life and death all over the world. The overwhelming military might of the United States is inherently agnostic as well. It can be used to attack or to defend, to protect innocent lives or to take them, to remove dictatorships or to support them.
The use of this fearsome power is guided by the American constitution and the founding American values of democracy and freedom. But it is up to the occupant of the White House to follow the Constitution and to live up to those values. The executive has found countless ways to evade checks on his authority, from signing “agreements” instead of treaties, to escalating foreign “police actions” instead of declaring war. American values have been applied selectively as well, as decades of relative unity in containing the Communist threat has given way to a neo-isolationist trend in both major American political parties. Instead of debating how the U.S. should act on the world stage, today’s presidential candidates are arguing about whether or not the U.S. should act at all. The specter of the 2003 Iraq War looms over every potential American action.
Such reflection is commendable, but in the seven years of the Obama administration we have seen that inaction can also have the gravest consequences. Inaction can fracture alliances. Inaction can empower dictators and provoke terrorists and enflame regional conflicts. Inaction can slaughter innocent people and create millions of refugees. We have the horrific proof in Syria, where Barack Obama’s infamous “red line” has been painted over in blood. [Continue reading…]
Jason Leopold reports: Thirteen years ago, the intelligence community concluded in a 93-page classified document used to justify the invasion of Iraq that it lacked “specific information” on “many key aspects” of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs.
But that’s not what top Bush administration officials said during their campaign to sell the war to the American public. Those officials, citing the same classified document, asserted with no uncertainty that Iraq was actively pursuing nuclear weapons, concealing a vast chemical and biological weapons arsenal, and posing an immediate and grave threat to US national security.
Congress eventually concluded that the Bush administration had “overstated” its dire warnings about the Iraqi threat, and that the administration’s claims about Iraq’s WMD program were “not supported by the underlying intelligence reporting.” But that underlying intelligence reporting — contained in the so-called National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that was used to justify the invasion — has remained shrouded in mystery until now. [Continue reading…]
Rasha Al Aqeedi writes: Yearning for Saddam’s Iraq, in many cases, has little to do with Saddam or his style of ruling.
As Nada, a Twitter personality with a significant following among frustrated Sunnis, put it: “Many love Iraq and are heart-broken to witness its deterioration, which they feel happened after the invasion and the emergence of failing leaders.”
Dina Al Azawi, a writer now living in the United States but who has a large Facebook following in Iraq, lost her brother and cousin in the violence that engulfed the country in 2004.
“Under Saddam, our foreign policy was balanced, and the world respected us,” she wrote. “Iraq was not a proxy for a foreign agenda. Yes, we were independent and sovereign. It was a tyranny, but it was a state. Iraq does not even resemble a state today. It is not about who rules, it is about how we were ruled.”
She is one of many Iraqi Sunnis who compare life before and after the 2003 fall of Saddam, often concluding that tyrannical rule is better than the chaos of today’s Iraq.
More than two million Sunnis in Iraq are displaced. The government has accomplished little in the way of reconciliation and thousands of Sunnis remain in prisons without trial. Meanwhile, no charges have been laid over the horrific massacre of Hawija in 2013 when government security forces fired at peaceful unarmed protesters, killing 54 and injuring hundreds. More recently, news of Shia militias’ continuing torture of Sunnis has been confirmed. Nostalgia for better days is predictable.
Ihsan Nouri, a political writer, said he understood what was driving this: “They had the best posts in the governments and military. They lived in the posh areas of Baghdad and they were respected wherever they went; just their last name is enough to get them out of any fix. Most of those people were Sunnis.” [Continue reading…]
Shadi Hamid writes: On October 2, 2002, Barack Obama gave a speech opposing war in Iraq—perhaps, in retrospect, the most important speech he ever gave. He was right, of course, and the foreign-policy establishment was largely wrong. The problem is that politicians who were right about Iraq tend to overestimate what that says about their foreign-policy judgment. For Obama, the effects of being right are magnified. He became president, in part, because of Iraq and the considerable damage the conflict had done to the country. Obama offered the promise of a decisive correction and, for true believers, a kind of spiritual atonement.
It is unclear what being right on Iraq would mean for your likelihood of being right on Syria, since the contexts in question are, in a way, opposites: Civil war in Iraq began after the United States intervened. Civil war in Syria happened in the absence of intervention. History will have to judge, but it may actually be the case that being right on Iraq made you more likely to be wrong about subsequent interventions. The tragedy of Iraq, if you weren’t careful, was likely to distort your perception of everything that followed, for wholly understandable reasons.
Iraq’s dark shadow seems to be everywhere in Jeffrey Goldberg’s fascinating yet unsettling exchanges with Obama. “Multilateralism regulates hubris,” Obama says. And he is right: It does. What is left unsaid is why, exactly, regulating hubris should, seven years after the conclusion of the Bush era, remain a primary preoccupation. It is hard to imagine any world leader citing the hubris of overextension as the problem that the United States, today, must take extra care to correct for or guard against. Obama has already corrected for it, many times over. [Continue reading…]
Kyle Orton writes: Last week, a judgment in United States District Court in Washington, D.C., awarded nearly $350 million to the families of two Americans killed in Jordan in 2005 by the predecessor organization to the Islamic State (ISIS). The important point of the case was who the court found liable: the regime of Bashar al-Assad, currently presenting itself to the world as the last line of defense to a terrorist takeover of Syria. This case highlights a neglected history, which began in 2002, where the Assad regime underwrote ISIS and fostered its growth, first to destabilize post-Saddam Iraq and later Lebanon, and since 2011 to discredit and destroy the uprising against Assad in Syria.
The group now known as ISIS was founded in early 2000 with Al-Qaeda seed money at a camp in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. ISIS’ founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, did not formally swear allegiance to Osama bin Laden until 2004, but the two pooled resources, notably on the Millennium Plot, which was meant to target Zarqawi’s Jordanian homeland and Los Angeles International Airport.
After the U.S. overthrew the Taliban in the wake of 9/11, Bin Laden went to Pakistan and Zarqawi went to Iran. Zarqawi then moved into Iraqi Kurdistan in April 2002, joining Ansar al-Islam, a group he and Al-Qaeda had co-sponsored, which was waging war against the elected Kurdish government that was protected by the Anglo-American no-fly zone. Ansar was penetrated at senior levels by agents of the Saddam Hussein regime, according to Kurdish intelligence, which also caught Saddam providing “logistical support, money, weapons, transportation [and] safe houses” to Ansar. Any enemy of the Kurds was a friend of Saddam’s — even before the reorientation of Saddam’s foreign policy in the mid-1980s toward instrumentalizing Islamist groups for the Baathist government’s own ends (which was later extended to internal policy).
By May 2002, Zarqawi was in Baghdad with a group of more than a dozen Al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists, including: Zarqawi’s successor, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, a long-time Qaeda-affiliated Egyptian who was arrested in 2014 while training jihadists in Libya, Thirwat Shehata, and Abu Humam al-Suri, who went on to become the military chief of Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Qaeda in Syria). Zarqawi, who had “relatively free” movement within Iraq, departed Iraq in the early summer of 2002 to go on a recruitment-drive in the Levant.
First, Zarqawi went to Ain al-Hilweh, a Palestinian camp in southern Lebanon known for its Islamist militancy, and then to Syria. Zarqawi recruited numerous Syrians, notably ISIS’ current spokesman, Taha Falaha, better known as Abu Mohammed al-Adnani. From Syria, Zarqawi organized — with the complicity of Assad — the assassination of a U.S. diplomat, Laurence Foley, in Jordan. More importantly, Zarqawi set up, in collaboration with the Syrian secret police, the networks that would bring the foreign jihadists into Iraq after the fall of Saddam.
During the invasion of Iraq, Mahmoud al-Aghasi (pseudonym: Abu al-Qaqa), a Salafi agitator in Aleppo, had gone door-to-door rounding up young men to go and wage jihad in Iraq, who were then allowed to pass into Iraq unhindered by Syrian border guards. Al-Aghasi was an asset of Assad’s intelligence. Throughout the entire U.S.-led occupation of Iraq, Syria was the main conduit for ISIS’ foreign volunteers who formed the overwhelming majority of the suicide bombers. [Continue reading…]
In a review of Kilcullen’s new book, Blood Year: Islamic State and the Failures of the War on Terror, David Gardner writes: “The greatest strategic screw-up since Hitler’s invasion of Russia” is how David Kilcullen describes George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. If anyone thinks that is a throwaway line they should read on. For it comes from one of the architects of the 2007-08 “surge” into Iraq that sought to restore security to a society the US-led occupation broke, and to create space to rebuild a state it destroyed.
Kilcullen was a young lieutenant colonel in the Australian army who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan, a scholar steeped in counter-insurgency theory, “watching closely and keeping notes as this enormous slow-motion train wreck took place”. In 2007 he was seconded to US forces as chief adviser to General David Petraeus, commander of the surge. This strategy combined a big influx of American troops with co-opted Sunni tribal fighters to defeat al-Qaeda. The jihadis, later to transmute into the far greater threat of Isis, had virtually no presence in Iraq prior to the invasion — but used it to turn the country into a charnel house and trigger the region-wide war between Sunni and Shia Islam that has now ripped Syria apart.
Put simply, Kilcullen argues we should never have gone into Iraq, with the job still unfinished in Afghanistan after 9/11. But the US and its allies were morally and legally obliged afterwards to try to “halt the carnage and restore some normality”. Like many soldiers, Kilcullen does not do gore. So when he mentions, in the sparest of prose given the depravity of the sectarian bloodletting, the “commercial kidnapping gangs auctioning off terrified children for slaughter, in a makeshift night market that operated under lights near the soccer stadium”, it is a kick in the stomach.
The surge sharply reduced the violence. But the US, now under President Barack Obama, had exhausted its attention span. Meanwhile, Iraqi leaders twisted by sectarianism would not use the space this success created for reconciliation.
Mr Obama, to be fair, was elected on a pledge to extract Americans from Middle East wars. Yet in Kilcullen’s judgment, he left Iraq irresponsibly early. He failed to register how Nouri al-Maliki, the Shia Islamist premier and joint protégé of the US and Iran, was stampeding Iraq’s Sunni minority into jihadi arms by his sectarian power grab. With al-Qaeda wounded by its “near death experience” with the surge, few noticed its rebirth in the ashes of Syria. Recklessness in Iraq was followed by fecklessness in Syria — “passivity in the face of catastrophe” that spells strategic disaster for the US and the west. [Continue reading…]
Costas Lapavitsas writes: he current influx of refugees into Greece has major humanitarian implications but it also poses a direct threat to the European Union. Together with the neverending eurozone crisis and the Brexit referendum, it could throw the EU into an existential crisis in 2016. Visionary leadership is called for, which at present looks in short supply.
According to the UNHCR, in 2014 Syria was the main source of refugees in the world, and 95% of Syrian refugees were located in surrounding countries. Turkey held the largest number at roughly 1.6 million. It is worth noting that developing countries took 86% of the world’s refugees in 2014. The poor proved more compassionate and generous than the rich yet again.
In 2015 Greece became the main point of entry into the EU of refugees and migrants from Turkey; it is believed 850,000 people undertook the perilous crossing of the Aegean. In January and February more than 120,000 have arrived – far more than the same period last year. At this rate there will be millions of men, women and children who will risk their lives in shoddy rubber dinghies between Turkey and Greece in 2016. Up to 90% are likely to be from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
These are not economic migrants. There is absolutely no doubt that the wave of refugees and migrants into Europe is a direct result of the destruction of the three countries largely due to western intervention during the last three decades. [Continue reading…]
John Walcott writes: On September 9, 2002, as the George W. Bush administration was launching its campaign to invade Iraq, a classified report landed on the desk of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It came from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and it carried an ominous note.
“Please take a look at this material as to what we don’t know about WMD,” Rumsfeld wrote to Air Force General Richard Myers. “It is big.”
The report was an inventory of what U.S. intelligence knew — or more importantly didn’t know — about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Its assessment was blunt: “We’ve struggled to estimate the unknowns. … We range from 0% to about 75% knowledge on various aspects of their program.”
Myers already knew about the report. The Joint Staff’s director for intelligence had prepared it, but Rumsfeld’s urgent tone said a great deal about how seriously the head of the Defense Department viewed the report’s potential to undermine the Bush administration’s case for war. But he never shared the eight-page report with key members of the administration such as then-Secretary of State Colin Powell or top officials at the CIA, according to multiple sources at the State Department, White House and CIA who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity. Instead, the report disappeared, and with it a potentially powerful counter-narrative to the administration’s argument that Saddam Hussein’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapons posed a grave threat to the U.S. and its allies, which was beginning to gain traction in major news outlets, led by the New York Times.
While the threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iraq was at the heart of the administration’s case for war, the JCS report conceded: “Our knowledge of the Iraqi (nuclear) weapons program is based largely — perhaps 90% — on analysis of imprecise intelligence.”
The rationale for the invasion has long since been discredited, but the JCS report, now declassified, which a former Bush administration official forwarded in December, nevertheless has implications for both sides in the 2016 presidential race, in particular the GOP candidates who are relying for foreign policy advice on some of the architects of the war, and the Democratic front-runner, who once again is coming under fire from her primary opponent for supporting the invasion. [Continue reading…]
Kyle Orton writes: About three weeks ago I wrote a piece for The New York Times explaining the evolution of Saddam Hussein’s regime away from the hard-secularism of its Ba’athist origins, and how this had prepared the ground for the Islamic State (IS). I received much positive feedback, but the social media reaction was inevitable: little thought and much anger, particularly from people who view Iraqi history through a political prism and felt I was trying to exculpate George W. Bush. With rare exceptions, the critique could hardly be called thoughtful. So it is nice to finally have such a critique to deal with, from Samuel Helfont and Michael Brill in today’s Foreign Affairs.
To dive right in: the authors contend that their “rigorous study” of the Saddam regime records “has found no evidence that Saddam or his Baathist regime in Iraq displayed any sympathy for Islamism, Salafism, or Wahhabism.” As the authors note, even those who see Saddam’s regime having Islamized note the anti-Wahhabi component to the Faith Campaign. But the authors are unconvinced by the distinction between Salafism and Wahhabism. Saddam was “equally antagonistic toward them,” Helfont and Brill write. Later in the piece, however, the authors note: “Domestically, Saddam also opposed Islamism and those promoting any other version of Islam than his own.” Exactly.
In what I wrote in The Times, I said: “In the Sunni areas … the [Faith] campaign was effective, creating a religious movement I call Baathi-Salafism, under Mr. Hussein’s leadership.” I have previously written of this aspect of the Faith Campaign, dealing with the claim that it was really anti-religious because it involved the infiltration and even assassination of leaders of the religious trend that (I think the evidence shows) Saddam had aligned with. This is about Saddam’s approach to power, not his ideology:
Of course Saddam’s regime infiltrated the Salafi Trend and tried to bring it under control … Saddam still believed that only his movement was the true one, even if others were complementary. In a regime where the intelligence agencies spied on one-another, Saddam’s approach to the Salafi Trend is hardly a surprise. The Salafi Trend largely made its peace with the Islamized Saddam regime but it remained independent of the regime, and therefore a possible threat.
Or, as Amatzia Baram put it, “For Saddam the defining question was whose religious activities were to be targeted. … He was not at all suspicious [of religious activities], provided those activities were his.”
The authors contend,
Saddam had expressed the desire to instrumentalize these Baathist views on Islam as far back as the 1970s, but it was not until the 1990s that his regime developed the institutional capacity to teach its Arab nationalist version of Islam and the security architecture to ensure that doing so did not unintentionally aid hostile religious movements. The maturation of these capabilities rather than ideological shifts was the basis of the Faith Campaign.
This is exactly the wrong way around. When the Ba’ath regime was powerful enough in the early 1970s — after it was stabilized from the 1968 coup — that was when it showed its stern secularism and even what Baram calls “implied atheism”. The construction of a giant statue of the Abbasid poet Abu Nuwas, whose verse consists primarily of homoeroticism and wine, in 1972 cannot have been other than to provoke the traditionalists (see especially the bucket-sized wine glass in the statue’s hand). The Ba’ath was at this time also competing with the Communists for the urban intelligentsia and its high-brow produce, namely the magazine, “The Arab Intellectual,” produced in Baghdad between 1970 and 1975, laid the implied atheism on thickly, with its references to “science” and “progress” and a cosmological design that conspicuously didn’t mention god. It was during the war with Iran, when the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s propaganda calling Saddam an “infidel” was finding an audience inside Iraq, not least because Iran was winning on the battlefield, identifying Islam with power as well as right, that Saddam turned to Islam for legitimation. This intensified after the crushing defeat in Kuwait. The Islamization of Saddam’s regime was, among many other things, a profound admission of failure. [Continue reading…]
The Middle East is now suffering from neoconservative sins of commission and realist sins of omission
Muhammad Idrees Ahmad writes: By now it is clear that US policy in Iraq and Syria is a disaster. In neither country has the situation been improved by the US military presence. In Iraq it empowers the same sectarian militias that forced alienated Sunnis into the arms of ISIS. In Syria it ignores, even accommodates, the regime whose brutality spawned the jihadi menace in the first place. In both its actions address symptoms rather than causes and alienate people without providing any commensurate security gains.
But would the situation improve if the United States were to withdraw? Ask the Yazidis of Iraq, whose tragedy would have been much larger had it not been for the timely US intervention; ask the Kurds of Syria, who would have been routed in Kobani had it not been for the sustained airstrikes that helped them repel an ISIS offensive. The Sunnis of Iraq might well ask who would protect them from the revanchist fury of the newly empowered sectarian militias, absent a US presence.
The issue then is not so much the fact of US military involvement as the nature of this involvement.
The United States bears responsibility for much of the current turmoil in the Levant. Had it not been for George W. Bush’s war and the fracturing of the Iraqi society, the region wouldn’t have turned into an incubator for jihadism. Had it not been for Barack Obama’s betrayal of the Syrian revolution — by making lofty promises and offering meager support; by following brave words with conspicuous inaction; and by demanding that Syrians submit their political aspirations to US security concerns — a quarter-million people would not have lost their lives, millions would not have been displaced, and thousands would not have drowned. The region suffers today from neoconservative sins of commission and realist sins of omission.
The United States could exit the Middle East and, in Sarah Palin’s immortal words, “let Allah sort it out.” But it would have condemned the region to perpetual war. Isolationism in the face of serious geopolitical challenges is not only an abdication of responsibility, but also a recipe for disaster. [Continue reading…]