As Iraq was unraveling last week and the possible outlines of the first jihadist state in modern history were coming into view, I remembered this nugget from the summer of 2002. At the time, journalist Ron Suskind had a meeting with “a senior advisor” to President George W. Bush (later identified as Karl Rove). Here’s how he described part of their conversation:
“The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That's not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’”
As events unfold increasingly chaotically across the region that officials of the Bush years liked to call the Greater Middle East, consider the eerie accuracy of that statement. The president, his vice president Dick Cheney, his defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and his national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, among others, were indeed “history’s actors.” They did create “new realities” and, just as Rove suggested, the rest of us are now left to “study” what they did.
And oh, what they did! Their geopolitical dreams couldn’t have been grander or more global. (Let’s avoid the word "megalomaniacal.") They expected to pacify the Greater Middle East,garrison Iraq for generations, make Syria and Iran bow down before American power, "drain" the global "swamp" of terrorists, and create a global Pax Americana based on a military so dominant that no other country or bloc of countries would ever challenge it.
It was quite a dream and none of it, not one smidgen, came true. Just as Rove suggested they would—just as in the summer of 2002, he already knew they would—they acted to create a world in their image, a world they imagined controlling like no imperial power in history. Using that unchallengeable military, they launched an invasion that blew a hole through the oil heartlands of the Middle East. They took a major capital, Baghdad, while “decapitating” (as the phrase then went) the regime that was running Iraq and had, in a particularly brutal fashion, kept the lid on internecine tensions.
They lacked nothing when it came to confidence. Among the first moves of L. Paul Bremer III, the proconsul they appointed to run their occupation, was an order demobilizing Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein’s 350,000-man army and the rest of his military as well. Their plan: to replace it with a lightly armed border protection force—initially of 12,000 troops and in the end perhaps 40,000 — armed and trained by Washington. Given their vision of the world, it made total sense. Why would Iraq need more than that with the US military hanging around for, well, ever, on a series of permanent bases the Pentagon's contractors were building? What dangers could there be in the neighborhood with that kind of force on hand? Soon enough, it became clear that what they had really done was turn the Iraqi officer corps and most of the country’s troops out onto unemployment lines, creating the basis for a militarily skilled Sunni insurgency. A brilliant start!
Note that these days the news is filled with commentary on the lack of a functional Iraqi air force. That’s why, in recent months, Prime Minister Maliki has been calling on the Obama administration to send American air power back into the breach. Saddam Hussein did have an air force. Once it had been one of the biggest in the Middle East. The Bush administration, however, came to the conclusion that the new Iraqi military would have no need for fighter planes, helicopters, or much of anything else, not when the US Air Force would be in the neighborhood on bases like Balad in Central Iraq. Who needed two air forces?
Be Careful What You Wish For
It was all to be a kind of war-fighting miracle. The American invaders would be greeted as liberators, the mission quickly accomplished, and “major combat operations” ended in a flash—as George Bush so infamously announced on May 1, 2003, after his Top Gun landing on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln. No less miraculous was the fact that it would essentially be a freebie. After all, as undersecretary Paul Wolfowitz pointed out at the time, Iraq “floats on a sea of oil,” which meant that a “liberated” country could cover all “reconstruction” costs without blinking.
The Busheviks entered Iraq with a powerful sense that they were building an American protectorate. So why wouldn't it be a snap to carry out their ambitious plans to privatize the Iraqi economy, dismantle the country’s vast public sector (throwing another army of employees out of work), and bring in crony corporations to help run the country and giant oil companies to rev up the energy economy, lagging from years of sanctions and ill-repair? In the end, Washington’s Iraq would—so they believed—pump enough crude out of one of the greatest fossil fuel reserves on the planet to sink OPEC, leaving American power free to float to ever greater heights on that sea of oil. As the occupying authority, with a hubris stunning to behold, they issued “orders” that read as if they had been written by officials from some nineteenth-century imperial power.
In short, this was one for the history books. And not a thing — nothing — worked out as planned. You could almost say that whatever it was they dreamed, the opposite invariably occurred. For those of us in the reality-based community, for instance, it’s long been apparent that their war and occupation would cost the US, literally and figuratively, an arm and a leg (and that the costs to Iraqis would prove beyond calculating). More than two trillion dollars later—without figuring in astronomical post-war costs still to come—Iraq is a catastrophe.
And $25 billion later, the last vestige of American Iraq, the security forces that, in the end, Washington built up to massive proportions, seem to be in a state of dissolution. Just over a week ago, faced with the advance of a reported 800–1,300 militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the opposition of tribal militias and local populations, close to 50,000army officers and troops abandoned their American weaponry to Sunni insurgents and foreign jihadis, shed their uniforms by various roadsides, and fled. As a result, significant parts of Iraq, including Mosul, its second largest city, fell into the hands of Sunni insurgents, some of a Saddamist coloration, and a small army of jihadis evidently funded by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, both US allies.
The arrogance of those occupation years should still take anyone’s breath away. Bush and his top officials remade reality on an almost unimaginable scale and, as we study the region today, the results bear no relation to the world they imagined creating. None whatsoever. On the other hand, there were two dreams they had that, after a fashion, did come into existence.
Many Americans still remember the Bush administration’s bogus pre-invasion claims — complete with visions of mushroom clouds rising over American cities—that Saddam Hussein had a thriving nuclear program in Iraq. But who remembers that, as part of the justification for the invasion it had decided would be its destiny, the administration also claimed a “mature and symbiotic” relationship between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and al-Qaeda? In other words, the invasion was to be justified in some fashion as a response to the attacks of 9/11 (which Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with). Who remembers that, the year after American troops took Baghdad, evidence of the nuclear program having gone down the toilet, Vice President Dick Cheney,backed by George W. Bush, doubled down on the al-Qaeda claim?
"There clearly was a relationship. It's been testified to," said the vice president on CNBC in June 2004. "The evidence is overwhelming. It goes back to the early '90s. It involves a whole series of contacts, high-level contacts with Osama bin Laden and Iraqi intelligence officials." Based on cherry-picked intelligence, such claims proved fraudulent, too, or as David Kay, the man assigned by the administration to hunt down that missing weaponry of mass destruction and those al-Qaeda links, put it politely, "evidence free." By then, however, 57% of Americans had been convinced that there was indeed some significant relationship between Saddam’s Iraq and al-Qaeda, and 20% believed that Saddam was linked directly to the 9/11 attacks.
Be careful, as they say, what you wish for. More than a decade after its invasion and occupation, after Cheney made those fervent claims, no administration would have the slightest problem linking al-Qaeda to Iraq (or Syria, Yemen, or a number of other countries). A decade later, the evidence is in. Sunni Iraq, along with areas of neighboring Syria, one of the countries that was supposed to bow down before American might, now houses a rudimentary jihadist state, a creature birthed into the world in significant part thanks to the dreams and fantasies of the visionaries of the Bush administration. Across the Greater Middle East, jihadism and al-Qaeda wannabes of every sort are on the rise, while terror groups are destabilizing regions from Pakistan to northern Africa.
Creating an Arc of Instability
In the period before and after the invasion of Iraq, top Bush officials and their neocon supporters spoke with relish about taming an area stretching from northern Africa through the Middle East and deep into Central Asia that they termed an “arc of instability.” In a February 2006 address to the American Legion focused on his Global War on Terror, for instance, President Bush typically said, “Slowly but surely, we're helping to transform the broader Middle East from an arc of instability into an arc of freedom. And as freedom reaches more people in this vital region, we'll have new allies in the war on terror, and new partners in the cause of moderation in the Muslim world and in the cause of peace.”
By then that “arc,” which in the period before 9/11 had been reasonably stable, was already aflame. Today, it is ablaze. Almost 13 years after the launching of the Global War on Terror and the first bombing runs in Afghanistan, 11 years after a global antiwar protest went unheard and the invasion of Iraq was launched, and three years after Americans gathered in front of the White House to cheer the death of Osama bin Laden, that arc has been destabilized in a stunning way.
As things recently went from bad to worse in Iraq, jihadist militants in Pakistan attacked Karachi International Airport, an assault that stunned the country and suggested that the reach of the Pakistani Taliban was growing. At the same time, after a six-month pause, the Obama administration resumed its CIA drone assassination campaign in the Pakistani tribal borderlands, a deeply unpopular program that has been a significant destabilizing factor in its own right. Meanwhile, in Yemen, where the US has for years been conducting a special operations and drone war against a growing al-Qaeda wannabe outfit, unknown militants knocked out the electricity in Sanaa, the capital, for days. The Syrian bloodbath, of course, continues with estimates of 160,000 or more deaths in that multi-sided conflict, while in Libya, now an essentially ungovernable and chaotic land of jihadist and other militias and ambitious generals, tensions and fighting increased.
Think of this as George W. Bush’s nightmare and Osama bin Laden’s wet dream. On September 11, 2001, a relatively small, modestly funded organization with a knack for planning terror surprises every couple of years had a remarkable stroke of televised luck. From those falling towers, everything followed, thanks in large part to the acts of the fundamentalists of the Bush administration, whose top officials thought they had spotted their main chance, geopolitically speaking, in the carnage of the moment.
Almost 13 years later, there is a jihadist proto-state, a fantasy caliphate, in the heart of the Middle East. Now a dime a dozen in the region, jihadists of an al-Qaedan bent are armed to the teeth with cast-off American weaponry. In northern Africa, other jihadists are using weaponry from the former arsenals of Libyan autocrat Muammar Gaddafi, looted in the aftermath of President Obama’s can’t-miss 2011 intervention in that country. The jihadists of ISIS now have hundreds of millions of dollars stolen from the Mosul branch of the Iraqi central bank for funding and have advanced toward Baghdad. Even Osama bin Laden might not have assumed things would go quite so swimmingly.
The Guns of Folly
In the wake of Mosul's fall, ISIS advanced even more rapidly than the American army heading for Baghdad in the spring of 2003. In some Sunni-dominated cities and towns, the takeovers were remarkably bloodless. In Baiji, with a power plant that supplies electricity to Baghdad and Iraq’s largest oil refinery (now under attack), the insurgents reportedly called the police and asked them to leave town—and they complied. In Kirkuk, a city in northern Iraq that the Kurds have long claimed as the natural capital for an independent Kurdistan, Iraqi troops quietly abandoned their weaponry and uniforms and left town, while armed Kurdish forces moved in, undoubtedly permanently.
All in all, it’s been a debacle the likes of which we’ve seen only twice in our history. In China, when in 1949 Chiang Kai-shek’s largely American armed and trained military disintegrated before the insurgent forces of Communist leader Mao Zedong and a quarter-century later, when a purely American military creation, the South Vietnamese army, collapsed in the face of an offensive by North Vietnamese troops and local rebel forces. In each case, the resulting defeat was psychologically unnerving in the United States and led to bitter, exceedingly strange, and long-lasting debates about who “lost” China and who “lost” Vietnam.
Early signs of an equally bizarre debate over the “loss” of Iraq are already appearing here. This should surprise no one, as the only thing left to pass around is blame. Senator John McCain, a fervent supporter of the 2003 invasion and occupation, launched the most recent round of the blame game. He pinned fault for the onrushing events on the Obama administration’s decision to pull US forces out of Iraq in 2011 (thanks to an agreement negotiated by the Bush administration) without leaving a significant presence behind. Citing himself as if he were someone else, he said, “Lindsey Graham and John McCain were right. Our failure to leave forces in Iraq is why Senator Graham and I predicted this would happen.”
Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri was typical of the Republican politicians who began promoting this line. “It’s a desperate situation,” he said. “It’s moving quickly. It appears to me that the chickens are coming home to roost for our policy of not leaving anybody there to be a stabilizing force.” In a similar blast, the Wall Street Journal editorial page wrote, “In withdrawing from Iraq in toto, Mr. Obama put his desire to have a talking point for his re-election campaign above America's strategic interests. Now we and the world are facing this reality: A civil war in Iraq and the birth of a terrorist haven that has the confidence, and is fast acquiring the means, to raise a banner for a new generation of jihadists, both in Iraq and beyond.”
And so it goes. In this case, however, none of it may matter much. In a country visibly sick of our wars of this century in which even many elite figures find further intervention in Iraq distasteful, “Who lost Iraq?” may never gain the sort of traction the other two “lost” debates did.
In the meantime, however, the world of the Middle East is being turned upside down. Take the example of Iran. Once upon a time, Iraq was thought to be just a way station. As neocons of that moment liked to quip, “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.” As it happened, the neighborhood around Baghdad quickly grew so ugly and the Bush administration soon found itself so bogged down in unwinnable minority insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan that it never put the US military on that road to Tehran.
Today, the Iranians, it seems, are riding to Washington’s rescue in Iraq. It's already rumored that they may be sending, or considering sending, elements of the Republican Guard in to protect Baghdad. As a result, the US finds itself in a tacit alliance with Iran in Iraq, while still in opposition to it in Syria. At the same time, it's still allied with Saudi Arabia in Syria against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, while facing the disastrous fruits of Saudi funding of the brutal newborn jihadi state at least temporarily coming into existence in the Sunni borderlands of Iraq and Syria.
The Middle Eastern system as once known has, with the singular exception of Israel, largely evaporated and where it was, there is now increasingly chaos. In all likelihood, it will only get worse. “We” may not have “lost” Iraq, but can there be any question that Washington lost in Iraq? American goals in the region went down in flames in a fashion so spectacular, so ignominious, that today nothing is left of them. To the question, “Who won Iraq?” there may be no answer at all, or perhaps just the grim response: no one. In the end, Iraqis will surely be the losers, big time, as Syrians are just across the now nonexistent border between what until recently were two countries.
As for the future Washington has on offer, the Obama administration is, it seems, considering responding to the crisis in Iraq in the only way it knows how: with bombs, cruise missiles, and drones. The geopolitical dreams of the Bush era are buried somewhere deep in the rubble of Iraq, while the present White House has neither visionaries nor global dreams, grandiose or otherwise. There are only managers and bureaucrats desperately trying to handle an uncooperative planet. The question that remains is: Will they or won’t they send American air power back into Iraq? Will they or won’t they, that is, loose the guns of folly and so quite predictably destabilize a terrible situation further?
In the meantime, a small footnote to future history: given what we’ve just seen, it might be worth taking with a grain of salt the news out of Afghanistan about the increasingly impressive abilities of the Afghan security forces, another gigantic crew set up, funded, trained, and armed by the US military (and associated private contractors). After all, haven’t we heard that somewhere before?