Friday, June 20, 2014

Somebody Told Us There'd Be Days Like These

With chaos returning to Iraq due to the growing power of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) in the north, the partisan divide over the American war there has resurfaced as well. Supporters of the war charge President Obama with losing Iraq because he withdrew American forces, while critics of the war fume at the gall of the architects of that disastrous war now posing as experts on the region.

Because the debate has been largely partisan, with Republicans and Democrats lining up rather predictably, there is a sense that this is merely a partisan dispute. It is not. Unfortunately, the partisan nature of the current debate makes it seem so.

Rather than go back to the 2003 debate, I decided to look back a little further--to the first war with Iraq in 1991, and the criticism of the George H. W. Bush administration for its refusal to go "on to Baghdad." Those Republican foreign policy leaders defended their decision by predicting undesirable outcomes--ones which we are now seeing come to fruition.

Re-reading the memoirs of Colin Powell (then Chair of the Joint Chiefs) and James Baker (then Secretary of State), it becomes immediately apparent that they foresaw today's events as the nearly inevitable outcome of a U.S. invasion to topple Saddam.

President George H. W. Bush, Secretary of State James Baker, National
Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, Gen. Colin Powell, Jan. 15, 1991
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
Writing in 1995, Gen. Powell quoted U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Charles Freeman, who wrote in a 1991 cable: "For a range of reasons, we cannot pursue Iraq's unconditional surrender and occupation by us. It is not in our interest to destroy Iraq or weaken it to the point that Iran and/or Syria are not constrained by it."

Baker also observed in 1995 that "as much as Saddam's neighbors wanted to see him gone, they feared that Iraq might fragment in unpredictable ways that would play into the hands of the mullahs in Iran, who could export their brands of Islamic fundamentalism with the help of Iraq's Shi'ites and quickly transform themselves into the dominant regional power."

Supporters of the war who now bemoan the growth of Iran's influence in Iraq have no one but themselves to blame. We were told it would be like this.

The current situation--a stable Kurdistan, ISIS in control of much of the Sunni-dominated areas, Shi'ites rallying to the defense of their holy sites--portends the possible partition of Iraq, either formally or de facto. That, too, was foreseen in 1991.

Powell: "It would not contribute to the stability we want in the Middle East to have Iraq fragmented into separate Sunni, Shia, and Kurd political entities. The only way to have avoided this outcome was to have undertaken a largely U.S. conquest and occupation of a remote nation of twenty million people."

The United States spent eight long years doing just that, occupying Iraq to keep it together. But that was never a sustainable long-term prospect. It went on too long as it was. Nevertheless, there are some neocons today suggesting that the United States never should have left Iraq.

Baker, who was known for his domestic political skills before he went to the State Department, knew that scenario was untenable: "Even if Saddam were captured and his regime toppled, American forces would still be confronted with the specter of a military occupation of indefinite duration to pacify the country and sustain a new government in power. The ensuing urban warfare would surely result in more casualties to American GIs than the war itself, thus creating a political firestorm at home."

Twenty years ago, these Republican statesmen predicted the situation we now see in Iraq. They warned anyone who would listen that an American intervention to overthrow Saddam Hussein would have undesirable consequences contrary to American interests, regardless of any specific actions the United States did or did not take in pursuit of that larger goal.

Keep in mind that they said these things would happen with their president in charge, with themselves making policy. They understood that there are forces that such an act would set loose which the United States could not control, no matter who was in office. They said all this long before anyone had ever even heard of Barack Obama. The idea that any specific act by the president is primarily responsible for the current state of affairs in Iraq is absurd on the face of it.

That won't stop people from saying so. But it should keep the rest of us from believing it.

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