For if Iran is the 500 pound gorilla in the room with Iraq, it is the 800 pound monster in the Middle East. No real stability can be achieved without Iran. It is time for the president to go to Tehran.
Boots on the Ground
For all the talk about boots on the ground for America’s air offensive in Iraq and Syria, Obama ignored the ground truth: Iranian forces are already there. The Iranians also command enough attention in Baghdad to significantly enable or stall filling the cabinet positions of Defense and Interior (Maliki held both portfolios personally) that are key components of any sort of “inclusive” government. Tehran’s real advantage? Everyone in Iraq remembers it is the Iranians who never really withdrew after 2011.
The Iranians truly understand the cross-border nature of the Middle East. An Iran that works closely with America will yield some version of stability in Iraq, affect the war in Syria (Iran, through its many proxies, including Hezbollah, has supported Assad by fighting his Sunni rebel enemies, moderate and radical alike), perhaps reduce pressure on Israel, and could calm the entire region by acting less bellicose toward a less bellicose United States. This would enable the comprehensive actions needed in the Middle East to slam shut the doors the United States blew open in 2003. Obama’s Iraq plan has already failed in Libya, Yemen, and Somalia to produce any but the most fleeting “successes.” The Brits and Germans won’t fight in Syria, and Turkey is reluctant to go in deeper, weakening any talk of coalitions. As Obama becomes the fourth president in a row to order war in Iraq, a new solution is needed.
Obama Should Go to Tehran
There is little to lose. After the midterms, he will be a true lame duck. Candidates can run against his failure, or bask in his success. With a dramatic gesture, Obama can start the process of re-balancing the Middle East. Too many genies are out of the bottle to put things back where they were.
Tough realities will need to be acknowledged regarding nukes. Having watched America’s serial wars across the region, and the sort of odd deference shown to North Korea after it went nuclear, the Iranians will never back away completely. Tehran also watched closely what happened in Libya. Qaddafi gave up his nukes and ended up dead, while the Secretary of State laughed about it on TV. Obama cannot move forward without accepting that he cannot paint himself into a corner over Persian nukes. Israel has had the Bomb for a long time without creating a Middle East arms race. Let the Iranians stay comfortable, albeit in the threshold stage of nuclear weaponry.
To begin, follow the China model — set up the diplomatic machinery, create some fluid back channels, maybe try a cultural exchange or two. They don’t play ping-pong over there, but they are damn good at chess. Offer to bring Iran into the world system, slowly, and see if they don’t follow. Give the good guys in Tehran something to work with, something to go to their bosses with. Iran has reasons to play. Regional stability can benefit its own goals. Removal of sanctions can grow its economy, and allow it to sell oil in global markets. Calmer borders allow Iran to focus limited resources on domestic problems.
Change in Iran, like anywhere, has to come from within. Think China again. With prosperity comes a desire by the newly-rich to enjoy their money. They demand better education, more opportunities and a future for their kids. A repressive government yields to those demands for its own survival and before you know it, you’ve got iPads and McDonald’s. Despite some tough talk aimed at both sides’ domestic constituencies, America and China are trading partners, and have shared interests in regional stability. In a way, as China was to the Soviet Union, Iran can counter-balance undue Saudi influence on American actions. There will be friction, but it can be managed, what President Kennedy called during the Cold War the “precarious rules of the status quo.”
Islamic nationalism is a powerful force in the Middle East, and the defining mover of world events in our time. It is not going away. American attempts to create “good” governments failed in the Middle East. The new world order created a place for countries that are not a puppet of the United States, and not always an ally, but typically someone the nation can work with, maybe even influence occasionally. That’s statesmanship, and a chance at stability in the Middle East. Perhaps even a chance for a beleaguered and exhausted American president to finally earn his Nobel Peace Prize.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Iraq before our invasion was three separate pseudo-states held together by a powerful security apparatus under Saddam. If you like historical explanations, this disparate collection was midwifed by the British following WWI, as they drew borders in the MidEast to their own liking, with often no connection to the ground-truth of the real ethnic, religious and tribal boundaries.
That mess held together more or less until the U.S. foolishly broke it apart in 2003 with no real understanding of what it did. As Saddam was removed, and his security regime dissolved alongside most of civilian society, the seams broke open.
The Kurds quickly created a de facto state of their own, with its own military (the pesh merga), government and borders. U.S. money and pressure restrained them from proclaiming themselves independent, even as they waged border wars with Turkey and signed their own oil contracts.
The Sunni-Shia rift fueled everything that happened in Iraq, and is happening now. The U.S. never had a long game for this, but never stopped meddling in the short-term. The Surge was one example. The U.S. bought off the Sunni bulk with actual cash “salaries” to their fighters (the U.S. first called them the Orwellian “Concerned Local Citizens” and then switched to “Sons of Iraq,” which sounded like an old Bob Hope road movie title.) The U.S. then also used Special Forces to assassinate Sunni internal enemies– a favored sheik need only point at a rival, label him al-Qaeda, and the night raids happened. A lull in the killing did occur as a result of the Surge, but was only sustained as long as U.S. money flowed in. As the pay-off program was “transitioned” to the majority Shia central government, it quickly fell apart.
The Shias got their part of the deal when, in 2010, in a rush to conclude a Prime Ministerial election that would open the door to a U.S. excuse to pack up and leave Iraq, America allowed the Iranians to broker a deal where we failed. The Sunnis were marginalized, a Shia government was falsely legitimized and set about pushing aside the Sunni minority from the political process, Iranian influence increased, the U.S. claimed victory, and then scooted our military home. Everything since then between the U.S. and Iraq– pretending Maliki was a legitimate leader, the billions in aid, the military and police training, the World’s Largest Embassy– has been pantomime.
But the departure of the U.S. military, and the handing over of relations to the ever-limp fortress American embassy, left Iraq’s core problems intact. Last year’s Sunni siege of Fallujah only underscored the naughty secret that western Iraq had been and still is largely under Sunni control with very little (Shia) central government influence. That part of Iraq flows seamlessly over the artificial border with Syria, and the successes of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in a war zone that now takes in both countries should not be a surprise.
The titular head of Iraq now, Nuri al-Maliki, is watching it all unravel in real-time. He has become scared enough to call for U.S. airstrikes to protect his power. It is highly unlikely that the U.S. will comply, though covert strikes and some level of Special Forces action may happen behind the scenes. That won’t work of course. What the full weight of the U.S. military could not do over nine years, a few drone killings cannot do. It’s like using a can opener to try and catch fish.
What Might Happen Next
Things are evolving quickly in Iraq, but for now, here are some possible scenarios. The Kurds are the easy ones; they will keep on doing what they have been doing. They will fight back effectively and keep their oil flowing. They’ll see Baghdad’s influence only in the rear-view mirror.
The Sunnis will at least retain de facto control of western Iraq, maybe more. They are unlikely to be set up to govern in any formal way, but may create some sort of informal structure to collect taxes, enforce parts of the law and chase away as many Shias as they can. Violence will continue, sometimes hot and nasty, sometimes low-level score settling.
The Shias are the big variable. Maliki’s army seems in disarray, but if he only needs it to punish the Sunnis with violence it may prove up to that. Baghdad will not “fall.” The city is a Shia bastion now, and the militias will not give up their homes. A lot of blood may be spilled, but Baghdad will remain Shia-controlled and Maliki will remain in charge in some sort of limited way.
The U.S. will almost certainly pour arms and money into Iraq in the same drunken fashion we always have. Special Forces will quietly arrive to train and advise. It’ll be enough to keep Maliki in power but not much more than that. Domestically we’ll have to endure a barrage of “who lost Iraq?” and the Republicans will try and blast away at Obama for not “doing enough.” United States is poised to order an evacuation of the embassy, Fox News reported, but that is unlikely. “Unessential” personnel will be withdrawn, many of those slated to join the embassy out of Washington will be delayed or canceled, but the embarrassment of closing Fort Apache down would be too much for Washington to bear. The U.S. will use airstrike and drones if necessary to protect the embassy so that there will be no Benghazi scenario.
What is Unlikely to Happen
The U.S. will not intervene in any big way, absent protecting the embassy. Obama has cited many times the ending of the U.S. portion of the Iraq war as one of his few foreign policy successes and he won’t throw that under the bus. The U.S. backed off from significant involvement in Syria, and has all but ignored Libya following Benghazi, and that won’t change.
The U.S. must also be aware that intervening to save Maliki puts us on the same side in this mess as the Iranians.
Almost none of this has to do with al Qaeda or international terrorism, though those forces always profit from chaos.
The Turks may continue to snipe at the Kurds on their disputed border, but that conflict won’t turn hot. The U.S. will keep the pressure on to prevent that, and everyone benefits if the oil continues to flow.
The Iranians will not intervene any more than the Americans might. A little help to Malaki here (there are reports of Iranian Revolutionary Guard in the fighting), some weapons there, but Iran is only interested in a secure western border and the Sunni Surge should not threaten that significantly enough to require a response. Iran also has no interest in giving the U.S. an excuse to fuss around in the area. A mild level of chaos in Iraq suits Iran’s needs just fine for now.
There are still many fools at loose in the castle. Here’s what Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics said: “There is hope… that this really scary, dangerous moment will serve as a catalyst to bring Iraqis together, to begin the process of reconciliation.”
Brett McGurk, the State Department’s point man on Iraq, brought out a tired trope, on Twitter no less: “The U.S. has a permanent Strategic Framework Agreement with Iraq. We have suffered and bled together, and we will help in time of crisis.”
The war in Iraq was lost as it started. There was no way for America to win it given all of the above, whether the troops stayed forever or not. The forces bubbling inside Iraq might have been contained a bit, or a bit longer, but that’s about all that could have been expected. Much of the general chaos throughout the Middle East now is related to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and how that upset multiple balances of power and uneasy relationships. The Iraq war will be seen as one of the most significant foreign policy failures of recent American history. That too is inevitable.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
This article is hilarious, just LOL funny. I gotta catch my breath. OK, The piece is from the ultra-conservative Hoover Institute at Stanford (Motto: Opposing Whatever You Like), people who still think Condi Rice was a great leader and that George Bush had nothing at all– nothing– to do with the mess in Iraq.
Ok, spoiler alert: It is all the black guy’s fault.
Where to begin? The Hooverite says:
Little more than two years ago, Iraq seemed headed on a sure path to stability. A new Iraqi state seemed to be emerging in which enduring U.S. interests—ensuring the stable flow of Iraq’s oil, denying Iraq as a base for terrorist groups, and preventing Iraq from destabilizing the broader region—would be secure.
All true, as long as you also don’t believe in gravity (“just a theory”) and ignore the constant sectarian violence that has eaten Iraq alive since unleashed by the US invasion of 2003.
The political pact among Iraq’s main parties—the accommodation that has guaranteed the dramatic reduction in violence since mid-2008—is unraveling. Whether driven by fear, or tempted by an opportunity not to be missed, or both, Prime Minister Nuri Maliki’s Da’wa party sparked a crisis on December 15 by moving to purge its top political rivals within hours of the ceremony marking the departure of the last U.S. forces.
What political pact? The half-assed efforts wrought by the US, or the Shiite-dominated power structure put in place by the Iranians eight months after the last US-led election failures.
Our troops have left Iraq because Prime Minister Maliki and his Da’wa party saw no compelling interest in our staying. Nor do Maliki and Da’wa see a compelling interest, at present, in securing the country against Iranian influence. This is because he and Da’wa are embarked on a project to consolidate power and permanently eliminate Baathism and former Baathists from public life, aims that our military presence tends to impede but that the Iranian regime and its Iraqi militant proxies often support.
Where to begin. Removing the Baathists was America’s goal in 2003, dumbass. Maliki spent his Saddam years in exile in Iran, and came to power in 2010 through Iranian influence. Of course he will seek closer ties with Iran. Why could anyone possibly be surprised by this?
Historians will puzzle over how a nine-year American military campaign resulted not in democracy, but in an Iraq led by a would-be strongman, riven by sectarianism and separatism, and increasingly aligned with America’s regional adversaries… Perhaps, in the end, this is what comes of having declared an end to a war that is not over.
I am speechless. Hooverman, read my book if you want answers. If you don’t like my version, try Tom Rick’s Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq. America got exactly the Iraq we created. The problems began in 2003, because of 2003. Don’t try now to blame it on Obama.
In the almost two years since I left Iraq, and left behind the stories in my book, sadly little has happened that challenges the thesis in We Meant Well, that we failed in the reconstruction of Iraq and through that failure, lost the war. The last US troops gratefully departed Iraq in 2011. The cost of the war is thus calculable, finite in its grimness, hard to look at like staring into that desert sun: 4484 Americans dead, over 100,000 Iraqis dead, tens of thousands wounded, thousands without limbs, thousands more whose minds were destroyed by what they saw and did as surely as any IED would shred their flesh.
The Iraq we created with our war is a mean place, unsafe and unstable. Life goes on there, as it does, surely, but a careful reading of the international news shows the ongoing angry symphony of suicide bombers and targeted killings continues, just continues.
Oh, but it was worth it (we got rid of an evil dictator, Iraq is free, oil, whatever). Proof that that is wrong: Iraqi maternity hospitals are seeing a new born trend: children given “neutral” names that don’t reveal their family’s religious or political affiliations. Because in Iraq, having the wrong name in the wrong place can still get you killed. The office at the entrance to the Salam Hospital in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul is full of people. This is the office where births are registered and it’s located next to the delivery and operating rooms, near the main entrance. A male clerk there is doing his routine work: he receives forms on which new born babies’ times of birth, sex, fathers and intended names are written. And this clerk has noticed a significant trend: parents are giving their newborns names that don’t give away which sect of Islam their family belongs to, Shiite or Sunni Muslim. They’re calling their children names that are either neutral – so it’s impossible to say whether the child’s family is Shiite or Sunni – or they’re being christened with totally new monikers that have no such history, the clerk says.
“The people are using these new names to protect the next generation from a civil war,” a local writer says. “Many murders have been motivated by sectarian motives and, according to police records, a lot of people died because their names revealed their sectarian allegiances.”
There remains our legacy, and while the US public may have changed the channel to a more exciting show in Syria or Iran, the Iraqis are held in amber.
Well, she sounds like a candidate. Hillary said this recently, and I could not agree with her more on priorities:
Rather than spending money on implements of war, feed your people, provide education and health care.
The problem of course was that Dear Hillary was talking through the media to the Dear Leader in North Korea. While America slides endlessly into its Wiemar state, Clinton is all full of good advice for North Korea.
The bad news is that she once again coupled her good advice with the same old passive-aggressive crap that the US seems to peddle as a foreign policy. Hils just couldn’t stop herself from adding “Kim Jung Un has a choice to make– become a transformative leader or continue the Communist nation’s existing policies, which would lead to its demise.”
Yawn. On Syria, Clinton said “Assad’s days are numbered,” and “the sand is running out of the hourglass.” With Iran, it was “We want them to take concrete steps,” and “I am convinced that one of the reasons that Iran came back to the negotiating table was because of the success of our pressure strategy.” On Libya, it was famously “We came, we saw, he died.”
We keep the old myth alive that America is some special place, but in fact we’re like some mean old man, reduced to feeling good about himself yelling at the kids to get off the lawn. In my town, that was Mr. Voriseky. He’d always be upset about anyone stepping on his grass, or a ball in his yard. Sometimes he’d come out shouting with a baseball bat, or, in some versions, a shotgun (though repeated by generations of high school kids no one ever actually saw a gun, though many older brothers’ friends’ friends did). Nobody respected old man Voriseky, even after we found out he was in the war or was some survivor of something or whatever. We stayed off his lawn because he had that bat, nothing more.
What’s so surprising is how quickly it all happened. American went from big empty space to king of the world in a handful of generations, rode the wave for only two or three and now this. The generations that lived this dream we keep hearing about could fit into a weekend family reunion but we keep talking about them like they lasted longer than the dinosaurs. People stay away because of the big bat but it isn’t respect and doesn’t last after the old man turns his back, cursing, and goes back inside to Family Feud reruns.
Hillary, haven’t you heard? No one is listening.
I didn’t plan it this way, but I ended up with three articles on ForeignPolicy.com today. Take a look if you have a chance.
In the interest of a fair and balanced portrayal of things, here is one comment received by ForeignPolicy about my Iran article:
After 1 year as a PRT team leader in Iraq you seem to think you are an expert. You cannot have it both ways, claim “The work was done by amateurs like me, sent to Iraq on one-year tours without guidance or training” and provide analysis of Iraq and be expect to be taken seriously. While of course some of your conclusions are accurate, (the sun shines on a dogs ass occasionally too), the rationale behind them provided here clearly demonstrates that although you were in Iraq for a year, judging by this piece you could have never been there and are merely regurgitating highlights from the latest SIGIR quarterly report.
Those of us who have put in real time (much more than 1 year), and REAL effort, and continue to do so, can see right through your “analysis” errrr.. attempt to pander to media outlets and grab a headline in order to promote yourself and your book. Whether it is your ridiculous self-promotional photo, or your half-baked writing style, it is clear that you, like so many other FSOs hitting the 20 year mark, are interested in improving your post-Department prospects and instead of doing real work to improve conditions, whether in Washington or Baghdad, you are now taking the easy way out. Enjoy your 15, I mean 14 minutes of “fame”.
Go for it. More power to you.
Once you’ve come and gone, those of us who are determined not to give up on correcting mistakes made by your generation will still be striving to get these things right, and not throwing up our hands and allowing failure to happen on our watch, and simply point the finger at the other guy.
So Mom, c’mon, stop writing in to web sites about me…
I’ve finally figured this all out: Iraq is part of the upside down world, where everything is the opposite of “our” reality. So, after eight years of war and 4473 American dead and over 100,000 Iraqi dead and a couple o’ trillion dollars spent, the recent report by the Special Inspector General for Iraqi Reconstruction (SIGIR) is good news!
“Iraq remains an extraordinarily dangerous place to work,” Stuart Bowen of SIGIR said in the report published on Saturday. “It is less safe, in my judgment, than 12 months ago.”
He added the transition of responsibility for reconstruction from the US military to the embassy was occurring “against the backdrop of a security situation in Iraq that continues to deteriorate.”
Bowen noted June was the deadliest month for US military personnel since April 2009, and that April-July saw the highest number of assassinations of senior Iraqi officials since SIGIR began tracking such figures (emphasis added after I blew coffee out through my nose).
He warned that while joint efforts by the US and Iraq had lowered the threat posed by insurgent groups, “foreign militias have become cause for concern,” and added that the past quarter “also saw an increase in the number of rockets hitting the International Zone and the US embassy compound as well.”
The US Embassy in Baghdad declined comment on the SIGIR report, referring requests for a response to the State Department in Washington (true).
The State Department in Washington was closed for the weekend, and so issued no comment. Officials responsible for commenting were reportedly at the Jos. A. Banks sale, stocking up on smart khaki slacks and blue blazers for the much-anticipated “casual Friday” hootenanny scheduled next week at Foggy Bottom (satire, maybe).
The death brings to 4,460 the number of American service members who have died in Iraq since the war began in 2003.
Five other American soldiers died earlier this week in a rocket attack on what used to be FOB Loyalty in Baghdad.
The New Hampshire governor’s office says one of the five American soldiers was Pfc. Michael Cook. Monday, the day of the attack, was Cook’s 27th birthday. He is survived by a wife and two young children in Kansas.
al Qaeda claims “credit” for the attack, but that is bullshit. FOB Loyalty sits right near Sadr City, a Shiite enclave and not anywhere al Qaeda would be welcome. The attacks are more likely to have been carried out by Iranian-sponsored militia. Fellow-blogger Musings on Iraq has video up on additional Hezbollah brigades’ attacks on US Forces.
The Future of Iraq: Troops Face Dangers in South outlines the increasing dangers US troops, as well as the rest of Iraq, face in the volatile south. The southern regions of Iraq are and always have been Shiite strongholds, a fertile crescent of Iranian influence and happy places for al Sadr’s people. Unfortunately, that’s also where much of the easy-to-get oil is.
Another sign that the south is going to be trouble for some time was today’s rocket attack against an Iraqi oil storage depot that set one tank ablaze in a rare assault on strategic southern oilfields. Dhiya Jaffar, head of the state-run South Oil Company, told Reuters the attack set ablaze one tank at the Zubair 1 storage facility. An Iraqi police source said bombs targeted four tanks at the facility, but only one of the tanks hit contained crude and ignited. Another bomb hit an empty tank and bombs at two other tanks were deactivated, the police source said.
While the attack disrupted relatively little of the oil flow, it was not for lack of trying. Expect more as the US-Iran proxy war and Iraq’s problems with raising its oil output continue to collide in the South.
Still want more evidence of the Southern mess? Have a look at the growing tensions in Maysan, where the new Governor refused to meet with US PRT personnel, and told local agencies and non-government organizations not to cooperate with them either. The Americans responded in turn, by cutting their training of local forces there. Can’t see all that leading anywhere good.
Note that the continued presence of US troops in the area simply adds fuel to the fire; there are enough soldiers to keep tensions high, but without the mandate or the force (after eight years!) to tamp down the sparks (end of fire metaphor).
Another round in the Proxy War, as valiant US underdog and lickspittal Bahrain claims that Iranian-friended Hezbollah is actively plotting to overthrow the country’s ruling family. CNN reports that “Evidence confirms that Bahraini elements are being trained in Hezbollah camps specifically established to train assets from the Gulf.”
Bahrain will no doubt respond by democratically killing more demonstrators, for their freedom, which is definitely not about oil or US naval bases, no sir.
See below for more on the US-Iran Proxy War
Following my article on the ongoing US-Iran proxy war in the MidEast, here are two more indications of the struggle:
The AP reported Bahrain said Monday that 1500 Saudi Arabian troops will remain “indefinitely as a counter to perceived threats from Iran.” Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa “told reporters that Iran is a real threat and the Gulf force is needed to counter Tehran’s ‘sustained campaign’ in Bahrain.”
The Wall Street Journal stated that moves by the new Egyptian government to re-establish relations with Tehran are worrying the US and Egypt’s neighbors in the region. US officials have expressed concerns that Egypt’s decision to mend ties with Iran is part of a broader foreign policy plan that could shift the balance of power in the region.
Meanwhile, boneheads like this worry that the loss of our pet dictators in the Middle East will undermine the US’ war on/of terror. Without friendly thugs, how will we outsource our torturing?
By the time my tour in Iraq was wrapping up, the mine resistant vehicles we traveled in could take a solid hit from pretty much anything out there and get us home alive, except for one thing: (allegedly, cough, cough) Iranian-made IEDs. These shaped lens explosively formed penetrating devices fired a liquefied white hot slug of molten copper that was about the only weapon that really scared us. The Iranians were players in all parts of Iraqi society post-2003, including the daily violence. You found Iranian products in the markets, and the tourism business around significant Shia shrines was run by and for Iranians. They were at minimum fighting a proxy war in Iraq, and that war was very, very real for me.