Genesis of a Fatal War, pt. 5 What Are We To Do About Iraq ? Pierre Tristam / Candide’s Notebooks, April 2, 2007
This is the last of five parts marking the fourth anniversary of the Iraq War.
It’s well known that for eight years before the first Gulf War, the Reagan administration never had a problem with Saddam Hussein. It saw in him a buffer against Iran , if not a way to defeat the Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution, the way it saw in al-Qaeda’s founders a way to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and the way it sees the current regime in Iraq as a mean of countering the insurgency. Manufacturing monsters is an American foreign-policy specialty with a long and bloody tradition behind it. The Reagan administration not only enabled Saddam Hussein’s repressive regime and gave him military and intelligence support in his war against Iran . Less well known is that Reagan’s men did so even after Saddam used chemical weapons against the Kurds. Even less well known is the depth of the administration’s alliance with Saddam Hussein despite, and probably because of, his use of chemical weapons against Iranians.
There’s an area at the southernmost tip of Iraq called the Fao Peninsula . It’s an extremely valuable piece of real estate that enables Iraq to have access to the Persian Gulf through which it exports a good deal of its oil. The Iranians took over the peninsula during the Iran-Iraq war. The United States was doing what it could to help Iraq reclaim it, and in late 1987, Iraq did. In August 2002, the New York Times’ lead story reported this: “Though senior officials of the Reagan administration publicly condemned Iraq's employment of mustard gas, sarin, VX and other poisonous agents, [several] American military officers said President Reagan, Vice President George Bush and senior national security aides never withdrew their support for the highly classified program in which more than 60 officers of the Defense Intelligence Agency were secretly providing detailed information on Iranian deployments, tactical planning for battles, plans for airstrikes and bomb-damage assessments for Iraq. […] In early 1988, after the Iraqi Army, with American planning assistance, retook the Fao Peninsula in an attack that reopened Iraq 's access to the Persian Gulf , a defense intelligence officer, Lt. Col. Rick Francona, now retired, was sent to tour the battlefield with Iraqi officers […]. He reported that Iraq had used chemical weapons to cinch its victory […]. Colonel Francona saw zones marked off for chemical contamination, and containers for the drug atropine scattered around, indicating that Iraqi soldiers had taken injections to protect themselves from the effects of gas that might blow back over their positions.”
Francona now appears regularly on NBC News’ various franchises as a big fan of the Iraq war, and writes a blog that’s a warmonger’s dream. This guy flew missions with the Iraqi Air Force of Saddam Hussein. Now he’s lecturing us about taking the fight to the Iraqis. That’s the sort of irony and double-talk that pollutes just about everything the Bush administration touched in the run-up to the Iraq war and since.
The founding problem of that run-up wasn’t those deceptions though. The deceptions were just the tactics, the enactment of something bigger, although it took the shape of that simple something we keep coming back to, that question, What are we to do about Iraq ?
here’s no question that every nation big and small must have a foreign policy. The more powerful the nation, the heavier the burden of influence and responsibility. I’m not suggesting that the United States , being the only superpower on the planet, should just sit back and let all other nations be no matter what. But the presumption behind the question the Bush administration posed about Iraq was different from the presumption behind the question, say, Ronald Reagan or Harry Truman or Richard Nixon posed about the Soviet Union . Back then we were engaged in a war against an ideology that, like radical Islam, was supposedly out to destroy us. (I don’t buy the preposterous idea that radical Islam is out to destroy the West or that it gives a hoot about the West’s decadence. But play along for a moment). The difference then was that the Soviets had about, oh, 6,000 to 12,000 nuclear warheads pointing in the direction of the United States . It’s not as if any of the presidents during the Cold War could fancy “regime change” in Moscow, no matter how many millions were dying in Stalin’s Gulag, no matter how many millions were denied their freedom and their democracy subsequently, no matter how many kinds of weapons of mass destruction, biological and chemical included, we knew the Soviets to have stockpiled—as the United States had them stockpiled, and has them still. That’s why we had containment based on mutually assured destruction. The United States would do what it could to contain the Soviets within their sphere, and both sides scared the hell out of each other with the knowledge that if either dared fire a missile, it would be the end for everyone. That may not have been the wisest policy in the world. But we’re still here. So in that regard it worked.
When the question started getting asked about Iraq , by the Bush administration anyway, containment was passé. So was the Soviet Union . And Gulf War I had proved that this old Rambo may just have a sequel or two in his belt. Ironically, the policy of “rollback” favored by conservatives of the 1950s against the Soviet Union , and justly discredited then as reckless—“rollback” proponents believed in taking the fight to the Soviets rather than containing them—is what really made a come-back in neo-con clothing in 2001. In other works there was nothing neo about the cons. They were rolling back to their Neolithic roots of the 1950s. The idea was: how can we go in, remove Saddam, and install a régime friendly to the United States in the heart of the Arab world, and maybe cause a domino effect throughout the Middle East that would bring about some democratic change. In fairness to the Bush version of the story, there’s no question that some destabilization of Arab regimes was warranted. This is a region of autocrats and tyrants, all of it, from Pakistan on the Asian subcontinent to the tip of northwest Africa , where the sunny despotism of Tunisia and Morocco reigns on. But most of these countries are also American allies. We even outsource our prisoners to their prisons where they can be tortured in peace. So that kind of discredits Bush’s claim that he’s out to free the Middle East . The truth is that he’s bothered a couple of countries aren’t in the American camp yet where they can be predictably controlled.
But invasions and occupations of any Arab or Islamic land cannot work. The French and the British found out the hard way in the first half of the 20 th century in places like Algeria and Iraq . In fact, Woodrow Wilson knew it before the French and the British found out, way back in 1919 when, at Versailles , the victorious European powers offered the United States a share of the spoils from the Ottoman Empire . The United States could have had a mandate even then over places like Syria or Jordan or Iraq . Woodrow Wilson’s answer was simple: We don’t do colonialism, no matter how you disguise it. The lessons of the 20 th century are a distant memory and Americans have never been good at history that doesn’t entail a love story, a fabulous shoot-out and the saving of the planet by a cast of People Magazine’s best-dressed and most-eligible sexpots. That’s why Gore Vidal calls us the United States of Amnesia. Still, without a shred of history, a majority of Americans would have known that something was too rotten in the Kingdom of Iraq to bother fishing after it had the Bush administration not been dishonest about Iraq’s bogus links to 9/11 or its bogus links to al-Qaeda or its bogus nuclear weapons program or its bogus chemical and biological weapons program.
It’s not that the stories of dishonesty and scheming weren’t there for the public to read. A minority of Americans and a majority of the world knew that the Bush administration was on a collision course with catastrophe in 2002 and 2003. But the presidency still carries enormous credibility. People, and for good reason, don’t want to assume that their president is lying to them. They don’t want to imagine that what the president represents could amount to nothing more than a clever pack of lies. But that’s not enough of an excuse. There was also a collective willingness to ignore the doubts and the skepticism because the seduction of America as the all-knowing savior, as those eligible bachelor sexpots saving the world, is too powerful an impulse. What are we to do about Iraq was and remains the founding problem. The rest was the fulfillment of a prophesy.
This being a Holy Land time zone, prophesy had been fulfilled already once before. The United States had had its own recent taste of playing nation-building in the Arab world when it sent the Marines to Beirut in 1982 and 1983, supposedly to help Lebanon get back on its feet. Lebanon has a lot of similarities with Iraq. About a third of the population is Shiite. About a quarter is Christian, a quarter or so is Sunni Muslim. There’s even a good minority of Kurds. Unlike Iraq, Lebanon has at least a small tradition of democracy. But it has a long tradition of civil war, too. No need to bore you with details. Let’s just say that at first the Americans were received with rice and open arms. They set up shop in the heart of Shiite country in the southern slums of Beirut. The Marines drove around Beirut, made friends with the locals, exchanged goodies and snapshots and souvenirs, Shiite kids played near their compound. It looked like a miracle of hope. It didn’t last. The Lebanese Christian president saw an opportunity. Why not use the Americans to solidify the Christians’ power base, supposedly under the guise of rebuilding Lebanon as a good, strong American ally and even a peace-maker with Israel? Ronald Reagan may have had his moments. This was not one of them. He fell into the trap. He sided with the Christians, and things started going downhill from there. That’s when the Shiites started taking pot-shots at the Americans, then sniper-shots, then laying ambushes, and then, in April 1983, there was that car bombing of the American Embassy that killed 63 people, taking out most of the CIA contingent working in the Middle East by the way. No one knew it then but Hezbollah was born that year. The bombing was its coming out. Six months later, two suicide bombers rammed into the Marines’ barracks and the French barracks within minutes of each other. Two hundred and forty one Marines were killed, so were fifty-three French soldiers. Not long after that the Marines “redeployed,” as Reagan called it, to their ships in the Mediterranean sea. They’d failed in Beirut because they made the mistake of thinking that they could take sides, that they could negotiate an Arab country’s war by being part of the war, something very different from negotiating a war as a mediator, the way Jimmy Carter negotiated the Camp David accord in 1978.
The week the American invasion of Iraq started, I wrote a column called “Icarus on Crack. I told this story about the Lebanese mess, and I concluded my column with these three paragraphs: “It is into that mayhem, that Lebanon writ large, that President Bush is sending his army. American soldiers will probably get the rice treatment in Iraq. They'll get the hugs and the roses. The pictures will be grist for a month of Bush-pumping propaganda back in the ‘homeland.’ But the gratefulness of liberation doesn’t outlast the afternoon nap. Those trigger-happy Shiites the Marines last knew in Lebanon, incidentally, form Iraq’s majority, and the country is crawling with Balkan-tempered minorities. Planning the California-scale creation of a pro-American nation out of a Washington Beltway blueprint in the Arab heartland is science fiction with a death wish. It is colossal hubris. It is Icarus on crack. With Afghanistan still smoldering from chaos, the Anglo-American country-hoppers don't know what gothic nightmare they're getting into in Iraq , what they're getting us all into. And it won't end well, no matter the bushels of rice riddling Americans’ welcome along Mesopotamia’s shimmering, shifty sands.”
I take no pride in those words being proven right. But I do take pride in the fact that we live in a country where open discussion and soul-searching, even when it happens late, does happen. If the last election and what Congress is doing now are any sign, the realization is such that it was all a mistake. Unfortunately for this story made in Texas, it’s not like an episode of “ Dallas” where J.R. or Bobby or whoever it was in that shower pops out from the dead because whatever had happened the previous year was all a dream. The nightmare continues, and the question remains: what are we to do about Iraq, or to put it more accurately, what are we to do with the ungodly mess we have created in Iraq?
To some extent I think even that question should not be asked, because it masks the answer we should be giving regardless of the questions being posed: get out of Iraq now, phase it, stagger it, bench-mark it, do whatever you like to mitigate whatever catastrophe that might trigger, but set a deadline that goes no further than the next election—because this must happen on Bush’s broken watch—and get the hell out. As we wrote at the News-Journal recently, “There isn’t a neat solution Americans can embrace—no conditional occupation that Iraqis will accommodate, no withdrawal with honor, not even a peace negotiated under American aegis. The objective, in any case, can no longer afford to be illusory. Democracy won’t work for now. American policing isn’t working. But the killing must stop. The American presence is contributing to the killing. Would withdrawal make it worse? No one knows the answer to that question as much as we know what is happening as long as Americans remain.”
What is happening is not just the continued dismemberment of Iraq, but the regrouping of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with the complicity of the Pakistani regime, which pretends to be an ally of the United States with one hand while sitting on a nuclear stockpile with the other. If you think Iraq’s imaginary weapons of mass destruction were a problem in the wrong hands—namely, Bush’s—just wait and see what Pakistan’s very real nuclear weapons will be like in the wrong hands—namely, a Taliban-like regime that overthrows Pakistan’s president and dares what’s left of Bush to do something about it. Forget Iran. The threat is in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In other words, nothing has changed since 2001. So back in Iraq, Americans should withdraw and let Arabs and Iranians deal with the next step. There are precedents for Arab involvement to end wars. The 15-year Lebanese civil war was as sectarian and bloody as Iraq’s. It ended in 1991 thanks to an accord negotiated in Saudi Arabia. “The objective,” we wrote, “wasn’t to create a new Lebanon, but to end the killing. It worked, even if Lebanon isn’t close to being a functioning democracy. Last month, the so-called Mecca Agreement ended the burgeoning civil war between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority in Gaza and the West Bank. For Iraq, a regional conference involving all of Iraq’s warring factions and Iraq’s neighbors is the best hope to end the killing—even if it relegates American influence to distant bleachers. The nation that wrecked Iraq deserves nothing more. The nations paying the greatest price of Iraq’s wreckage should now decide its fate.”
Maybe all this sounds like a bad joke to American ears. But the entire story of the Iraq war has been a lot worse than a bad joke to the world’s ears, and primarily to the ears of Iraqis. It’s about time the tables were reversed, because the only laughter anyone should hear is the silenced laughter of 70,000 Iraqi and American dead since March 20 th, 2003.