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      Behind the "Madness" in Iraq: The Comeback of the Neocons

      Ethnic divisions in Iraq, as of 2012. (Photo: The University of Texas at Austin, General Libraries)American activist anti-war networks are perfectly right in standing against renewed US intervention in Iraq. So far Obama has been forced by events to send some 275 US troops for embassy protection, while a decision on bombing is being mulled. The confused Congress needs to be called upon to be a counterweight against the hawks who want nothing more than to blame Obama instead of themselves for "losing" Iraq. But there is far more to do. We are deep into the battle over memory.

      Wars start and end on the battlefields of memory. The "loss" of China, for example, presaged the McCarthy era of the Fifties. Thousands on the left lost their jobs and were discredited and demonized as enemies of the state. As a result, the Vietnam War began with a climate of anti-communism as its rationale, allowing the administration to babble about "falling dominoes". That war ended in predictable military defeat after hundreds of thousands of American soldiers were killed, maimed or sentenced to lifetime trauma. The dead in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were uncountable but in the millions. According to President George H. W. Bush, the early Iraq war was fought to purge what he called "the Vietnam syndrome" because he feared that Americans would turn skeptical towards unwinnable, unaffordable wars. Even today, to cover its Vietnam defeat and shame, our government is poised to be spending millions of dollars on sanitizing our Vietnam memory.

      In its fabricated origin, the invasion of Iraq was described as a response to the War on Terrorism, a latter-day Cold War against the sinister new global conspiracy of international terrorism. As in Vietnam, the fate of Iraqi women, children, and religious minorities was offered as propaganda for sadly gullible liberal humanitarians.

      Now that Iraq is on the verge of its unexpected collapse, the newly-manufactured myth is that American air strikes, guided by on-the-ground special intelligence units, is desperately needed to stave off the defeat of the corrupt Shiite regime, which thousands of young Americans died to install. The political effect of the myth is to pin the blame on Obama for withdrawing our troops as he promised. 

      The new myth is plausible for people who prefer hammers because they see every problem as a nail, as Obama noted in his recent speech.  American air strikes certainly could reek bloody carnage on the Shiite [ISIS] forces north of Baghdad. That would inflame the Arab world without changing the steady emergence of a Sunni liberated zone from southern Syria to northern Iraq.

      But what if the current ISIS talk of overrunning Baghdad is just overheated rhetoric? There are few if any Sunnis in Baghdad to join the fight. The Shiites already there used massive ethnic cleansing, detention and assassinations to clear the capitol city of its Sunni majority, which means that the advancing ISIS forces will be running into severe Shiite resistance if they over-extend themselves by entering Baghdad. They instead may want to consolidate their mini-Caliphate for now, rather than escalating a sectarian battle on uncertain terms. Armed Shiites from the south are flooding Baghdad at the call of their Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani. They will become a powerful and fanatic bulwark in an urban bloodbath. 

      US airstrikes would be utter folly if the specter of a further Sunni advance is false and if ISIS does advance to Baghdad, American bombing will have little effect on street to street fighting within an all Shiite city. Entrapping Obama in a foreign policy fiasco would be the real agenda.

      If the ISIS fanatics try taking the fight to Bagdad, US strikes might marginally disrupt their supply lines, but the resulting scene could be like the 1968 Tet Offensive. To this day, the US propaganda narrative is that North Vietnam and the Vietcong forces "lost" the Tet Offensive militarily; in fact they dealt a fatal blow to the myth that the US was winning the war. After Tet, the Saigon regime began disintegrating from within while American anti-war opinion emboldened the Congress to sever funding from the outside. Many historians believe that Henry Kissinger simply wanted a "decent interval" of two years between the withdrawal of American troops, the return of American POWs, and the predictable collapse of the Saigon government.

      Similarly, it seems, Obama wants that same "decent interval" before Iraq is left on its own to deal with its sectarian disease. The American people agree that we have shed enough blood and lost enough revenue in that country. The US government may simply want to protect its great power reputation while blaming Iraqis for the coming disaster "after all we have done for them." Is that the narrative we want as a legacy?  

      The US had no business invading Iraq in the first place. We toppled Saddam's dictatorship using a fabricated 9/11 rationale, which plunged Iraq into a sectarian civil war inside the war with the United States. We left behind a vengeance-driven Shiite regime aligned with Iran. Now the related sectarian war in Syria is enlarging into a regional one between Sunnis and Shiites across borders. The original blame for this disaster is on the Bush administration, but also on all those who succumbed to a Superpower Syndrome, which claimed we could redesign the Middle East. There is no reason whatsoever to justify further loss of American lives or tax dollars on a conflict that we do not understand and that started before the United States was born.

      Anti-war voices need to be amplified to help Obama stave off the most irrational forces during this crisis. We need to construct a narrative that blocks the hawks from blaming Obama for "losing" Iraq, and turns the focus on the neo-conservatives, Republicans, and Democratic hawks who took this country and that sorrowful region into a sea of blood. Most of those hawks remain comfortably in power, unscathed and immune, even occupying high positions in this administration.

      For evidence that the very neo-conservatives who caused the first Iraq debacle are now resurgent, there is Robert Kagan's New Republic article, "Superpowers Don't Get to Retire", which reportedly has struck a sensitive nerve in the White House. Kagan, representing what the Times calls "one of America's first families of interventionism", is leading the intellectual charge against Obama's alleged surrender of the American sword. Kagan is married to the State Department's Victoria Nuland, recently caught in a telephone conversation plotting regime change in the Ukraine. Now the Kagan circle is a Trojan horse inside Obama's national security establishment trying to rebrand themselves as "liberal interventionists" and become advisers to Hillary Clinton. Any hope of Obama's to co-opt and quiet their voices has failed. The neo-cons are what John Dean once called a cancer on the presidency. 

      The primal fear among these rebranded neo-conservatives is not so much a Sunni insurgency, but the risen families of the dead and wounded, on all sides, who increasingly ask who exactly led them into an unwinnable, unaffordable war. The duty-driven bravery of those families' lost sons and daughters stands in direct contrast to shameless privilege of those elites who sent them into harm's way.

      As this immediate crisis unfolds, we must act to strip away certain delusions. The thinking of progressive anti-war critics will have to blend with Obama's centrist desire to avoid irrational military interventions so he can address nation-building at home. In the slogan of the late Tim Carpenter, "Health Care, Not Warfare."

      Some positions of the anti-Obama Left are too extreme to be helpful. For example, there are many in the anti-war movement who refused to believe that the US actually withdrew its troops from Iraq. This notion was meant to refute and discredit any notion that Obama had "ended" the war. Now that the raging debate is over whether to send US troops back, it's hard to argue that they are secretly still there. Instead, we have to defend the Obama withdrawal from Iraq and its fallout, which is rapidly reopening deep divisions in America's political culture.

      The far more widespread delusion is that of the neo-liberals and neo-conservatives that America could construct, through force of arms, a democratic and unified Iraqi state in which sectarian divisions would float away in a flood of free enterprise and oil revenue. The truth is that the bloody sectarian struggle long preceded the American invasion, was held in check only by the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, and was reignited by the US military overthrow of a Sunni-led regime in 2003.

      It is profoundly shameful to hear American officials cluck-cluck about the supposed "excesses" of the present Shiite al-Maliki regime, which they themselves installed.  As a result of al-Maliki's ascension, thousands of Sunnis were marginalized, imprisoned, tortured, denied employment and political representation. This latest cycle of tit-for-tat revenge was foretold and could not be forestalled forever. There is no doubt that Iraq was a Sunni-dominated dictatorship under Saddam, but it also had a middle class, higher education, and an economy employing thousands in state-owned enterprises that ranked well overall in the Middle East. Saddam's enemies were very understandably the Shiite population backed by crackpot Republican neo-cons with their faith-based privatization schemes, and elements in the Israeli and American national security circles who long feared an armed Arab nationalism. The latter group's lobbying for the Iraqi Shiites was purely opportunistic. It was based on yet another delusion, that religious Islam could be managed while Arab secular nationalism posed the greater security threat.

      One of the leading militants on the road to Baghdad today is Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a Baath Party military commander who was on the equally delusional "deck of cards" displayed by the Pentagon public relations officers. Al-Douri stopped last week at the grave of Saddam Hussein before resuming his vengeful ride with jihadists towards Baghdad.

      Besides the delusions that blinded us there always was one lucid and Great Power agenda. It was not principally about oil, as Antonia Juhasz, Rachel Maddow and Dennis Kucinich have reasonably claimed. Any Baghdad regime would sell oil to the West, whether or not it was privatized. The deeper agenda was about imposing division and chaos on the Arab world. The dominant Western Arabist and former British intelligence officerBernard Lewis was a leading proponent of dismembering Arab nationalism. He wrote in Foreign Affairs in 1992:

      "If the central power is sufficiently weakened, there is no real civil society to hold the polity together, no real sense of common identity...The state then disintegrates...into a chaos of squabbling, feuding, fighting sects, tribes, regions, and parties."

      An identical point was made by the very liberal Israeli foreign ministry official, Shlomo Avineri in a Los Angeles Times opinion piece on December 4, 2005, titled "Israel Could Live with a Fractured, Failed Iraq":

      "An Iraq split into three semi-autonomous mini-states, or an Iraq in civil war, means that the kind of threat posed by unlikely to rise again."

      This is what is presently happening amidst Obama's urgent calls for a government of national unity [one which still would marginalize the Sunnis].  Because of the sectarian war in Syria, the Sunnis of Iraq have gained a massive "rear base" from which to launch their cross-border insurgency. By one estimate in the New York Times, their fighting force is only 3,000 to 5,000 combatants, a tiny fraction of the massive Iraqi army. When and if the blood ever dries, Iraq still will be divided by hate among the Sunnis mainly in the northern provinces, the Kurds in Kurdistan, and Shiites from Baghdad to the south, who themselves may split and revolt against al-Maliki. 

      From the Bernard Lewis perspective, that would be a "Mission Accomplished". Dismembering Iraq as a coherent Arab state has been the underlying agenda all along while the US officially promoted the delusion of a post-sectarian democracy. Consider this list: at one time or another, the subdivision of Iraq has been advocated by Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations, Peter Galbraith, the de facto ambassador to the Kurds, and then-Senator Joe Biden, at least before he became vice-president in 2008. John Yoo, the author of the Bush administration's torture memos and now a University of California law professor, chimed in with a 2005 op-ed titled, "A United Iraq, What's the Point?"

      Even in the unlikely event that a new three-way power-sharing agreement emerges in Baghdad, it will continue the dismantling of Iraq as a powerful nation state. In addition, the briefly hopeful Arab Spring of 2011 has ended - at least for now - with the decapitation of the elected Morsi government in Egypt and the derailment of political hope for an entire younger generation in the Middle East.

      The real agenda was muttered by Henry Kissinger, commenting on the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s, "I hope they kill each other...Too bad they both can't lose."[1] Again promised by President Bush when he vowed that, "We will...turn them one against another."[2] And more bluntly stated by a US deputy commander during the sectarian fighting of 2006, "We sit back and watch because that can only benefit us."[3]

      Since this real scenario cannot be explained to or even understood by most Americans, the political scapegoating will continue intensify. That's the last battleground where the peace movement must resist the invasion of the American mind.



      [1] Barry Lando, Web of Deceit [Other Press], 2007, p. 48

      [2] Address to Congress, Sept. 20, 2001

      [3] New York Times, Dec. 28, 2006


      "Behind the 'Madness' in Iraq" was published in an original format on June 13, 2014 on Huffington Post.

      Resource: Los Angeles Times Interactive Map of ISIS' expansion from Syria into Iraq

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      Reader Comments (8)

      I don't think I ever read an article of yours that I disagreed with before. The question is not if Iraq will be divided in three, but when we will acknowledge it. ISIS fighters are shredding their Arab passports and drawing new borders. The Syria-Iraq border is gone. It is unlikely that ISIS will undertake an invasion of Baghdad, dominantly-Shiite and very large for such a small force. If there is action in Baghdad it will be like Khe Sanh, fought to divert American eyes from TET, and to consolidate political and military gains in the rest of Iraq. As Richard A. Clarke said last night, the fight, the war, is between the Sunnis and Shiite Iran, and “There is nothing that we can do about it.” (Bill Maher Show). ISIS has no power to take southern Iraq. The Kurds are not cowed by ISIS and will hang on to their gains of oil fields and cities in the north. And ISIS, unlike al Qaeda, is not a stateless actor. It is making a new state and wiping out borders of Arab nations drawn in a British Army tent. In fact, ISIS has split al Qaeda. ISIS has repaired wounds with tribes that it inflicted during the American "Awakening," and, highly-organized politically and militarily like the Vietnamese communists were, ISIS is engaged in serious nation-building, issuing voluminous, yearly, progress reports. Like the Vietnamese, it uses terror effectively. If the US learned any lesson at all from the Vietnam War it should have been that Americans cannot and will not sustain a protracted war. Time and numbers is on their side. If the US resorts to military action it has no option other than to do it in Syria, where it can put pressure on ISIS' rear and cut its supply line. The majority of Americans, including and especially the working class, opposed that war as early as 1967, but refused to come out and be identified with "dope-smoking, free-love hippies." The students of that day could not and would not ally themselves with workers that they could not identify with, just as workers today refuse to be identified with same-sex marriages, abortionists, and gay lifestyles among the antiwar forces. As in almost every war of the last 100 years, this one too is an Energy War. There are many good reasons for the US not to re-engage militarily, but saving the phony "Arab Spring" is not one of them. Most Americans frankly do not give a damn if they murder one another, and Iraq was never a "powerful, viable, Arab state" anyway. It was always a puppet, and now it still is little more than a pawn. The antiwar movement needs to re-think its shibboleths and write a better "narrative" about itself. It did not stop the Vietnam War. The communists did. It will not stop this one either. Only the Muslims can. This is a new war and a new game with new rules. You can’t just shout “Out Now!” and expect Americans to say, what the hell, who needs oil for a modern industrial society anyway? Finally, if anybody still subscribes to the hero-villain theory of history, and think that President Obama is the decider in all this, then he/she does not know a thing about how the US government works.

      June 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMike Havenar

      Very good analysis, Tom. Also an excellent counterpoint by Mike Havenar.

      It is a sad commentary on where we are at now that politics, not objective analysis plays the decisive factor in policy judgments. Now might be a good time for reconsidering possible legal action against Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld for their deceptions in getting us into this mess.

      June 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRichard Klinger

      Once historians look back on the late 20th and early 21st centuries, they will no doubt conclude that the fall of the USSR and the rise of the hubristic and incompetent neocons with their certainty that the world was theirs for the taking, was the primary cause for the collapse, and none too soon, of the American Empire.

      Our one trick pony foreign policy which boiled down to which ordnance to drop on which country, a naïve belief in the efficacy of militarism from a group of people who almost uniformly had no military, much less combat experience, has come up lame, and remarkably soon, too..

      As Obama sits in the Oval office, it must now be dawning on him that all those experts he called on, most of whom had proven their incompetence over a succession of decades, but did so with utmost conviction and certitude, have led him astray and he has no one but himself to blame for not putting an end to our overseas adventures as he took power in a country grown tired of war, having been enthralled with the opening strokes of "Shock and Awe", but having since learned that such shows are impressive, but irrelevant.

      If anyone in D.C. had a shred of integrity or conscience, they would admit that our gold plated military and their child like belief in it have all been a national disaster, that they have failed the nation and should immediately begin withdrawing our forces from Afghanistan and ask for our forgiveness. When the end comes in Afghanistan, it will be far more humiliating than what is transpiring in Iraq.

      Instead, we will get a choice between Hillary and some Repub bozo. Of such choices do declining empires try to bluff their obvious decline.

      Anyhow, I'll be in Pershing Square this Saturday at noon, along with the other 200 people who still give a fuck.

      June 18, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermichael nola

      Still soft on Obama? To wit:

      He was "forced" to send in the Marines?

      "Help him" to resist hawks?

      Leftists "not helpful"?

      We simply point out that he wanted to keep 10-20,000 troops after Bush's withdrawal deadline had
      passed and that he kept almost 10,000 Americans behind anyway (5,000 in the embassy who included many military members, contractors (500 from Lockheed alone at Balal AFB) and an unknown number of military advisors and trainers.

      June 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMike Munk

      An interesting article but it perpetuates the often-repeated claim that Sadaam Hussein's brutal dictatorship was necessary to prevent Iraqis from slaughtering each other. Where is the evidence for that assertion. Iraq's diverse people lived in relative harmony for much longer than the U.S. has existed. The only clear example of large-scale inter-ethnic conflict was around 1950 when Iraqi Jewish businesses and synagogues were attacked. This was later found to have been the work of Zionists who were concerned at world Jewry's lack of interest in populating the new state of Israel and was an attempt into scaring Iraqi Jews into migrating.

      June 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterFelipe

      Fortunately, I understand what Hayden's article and Havenar's comment letter are both pontificating about and that is "men are behaving badly" yet again AND have been since the advent of patriarchy! Ironically, the male enemy this month is named ISIS - I don't think she would approve of what men have done to our world. STOP already - turn the world over to sensible women and mothers but not to the female leaders who hold to the male model of "the end justifies the means". We have not seen the "means" work in the "end" for a numerous decades. What have we spawned for hopeful young people in countries around the world - what have we left for them? I am of the peace and conspiracy generation and I call for the same tools to emerge again; protests, walk ins, love ins and a call for all major male political and military leaders to step down - resign. Let women for peace talk and present a paradigm that women in all countries can agree upon... and let us silence the men. As Alice Walker suggests - it is our job as women to remind (stop) men when they have cut down to many trees, raped to many women and killed to many young people. Men world wide should be ashamed of the job they have done being men. I know thousands of truly human and courageous women but not more than a handful of such men. Let women emerge before it is to late for us to be human if we survive at all.

      June 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJayne DeMente

      What I find most interesting in Iraq and Syria is how quickly ISIS is becoming a major power player in the region. All they needed was a source of oil revenues they controlled for an extended period of time. They have leveraged their assets well. A small fighting force appeared to be all that they truly needed to accomplish their present goals. Someone in the ISIS organization knows what they are doing.

      One advantage of a small fighting force is payroll costs are manageable. Can ISIS increase the size of that fighting force at will. I believe they can by enlisting former Sunni soldiers into their ranks. It will be very interesting to see how they develop the new resources they have acquired with their push into Iraq. Will the Sunni's they have Quote "Rescued from Shia repression and Maliki" be war mongers or nation builders and what role will the liberated Sunni's play in ISIS. We will find out soon enough

      One thing is for sure, no country is allowed to prosper as a puppet of the US, so in the grand scheme of things the Sunni's under ISIS will be far better of in the long run than they were a few weeks ago,

      I fail to see why having a Shia community, representing 60% of the population being separated from Iran and a Sunni north no being a part of a Sunni nation tied to Syria. These borders were designed in the first place to make sure majorities were denied access and control of their own resources. This design has some serious structural flaws (like installing corrupt puppets to run things) and it just might be unsustainable.

      June 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJay Lindberg

      Dismembering Yugoslavia as a coherent pan-Slavic nation was the underlying agenda all along while NATO officially promoted the delusion of peace in the Balkans.

      July 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterEd Smeloff
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