"May his name be blotted out!" declares the most terrible Hebrew curse. History
has devised a curse more terrible still, that is, to have one's memory blotted
out, all except for a name that popular usage links to disaster.
Schoolchildren no longer learn about King Pyrrhus of Epirus, who won battles
against Rome at such heavy cost that he lost the war, but everyone knows that a
"Pyrrhic victory" is to be avoided. Few remember Grigory Potyomkin (1739-1791),
Catherine the Great's statesman and lover, but everyone knows the idiom
"Potemkin Village", a facade constructed to deceive passing inspection.
Why not call it "Petraeus village"? General David Petraeus, now
America's commander in Afghanistan, pacified Iraq by putting 100,000 fighters
for the country's Sunni minority on the American payroll. Now that America has
withdrawn combat troops from Iraq and the Shi'ite-majority government in
Baghdad has embraced Iran's military arm, the Sunni fighters are quitting by
the thousand, and joining the anti-government guerrilla movement associated
with al-Qaeda. This we learn from the October 17 New York Times:
there are no firm figures, security and political officials say hundreds of the
well-disciplined fighters - many of whom have gained extensive knowledge about
the American military - appear to have rejoined al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Beyond
that, officials say that even many of the Awakening fighters still on the Iraqi
government payroll, possibly thousands of them, covertly aid the insurgency.
The defections have been driven in part by frustration with the Shi'ite-led
government, which Awakening members say is intent on destroying them, as well
as by pressure from al-Qaeda. The exodus has accelerated since Iraq's
inconclusive parliamentary elections in March, which have left Sunnis uncertain
of retaining what little political influence they have and which appear to have
provided al-Qaeda new opportunities to lure back fighters.
September 27, the Washington Post reported that the Iraqi government had fired
Sunni police officers in Anbar province.
When Petraeus held the Iraq command, he put over 100,000 Sunni gunmen on the
American payroll, offering them money and weapons to lie low for the interim.
That arrangement lasted until the government of Nuri al-Maliki invited the
Iranian-backed party of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to join his government -
the same Muqtada whose Mahdi Army battled American forces for control of Sadr
City in 2004. News reports on October 15 cited unnamed Washington sources
saying that the Obama administration would end its support for Maliki if he
allied with Muqtada, although it is not clear what that might entail.
Sectarian war is playing out in the predictable way, and America will have
nothing to show for a trillion dollars' worth of "nation-building" and several
thousand dead soldiers except a civil war much bloodier than might have
occurred without America's provision of money and guns to the Sunni Awakening.
In May, I reviewed this likelihood in an essay titled
General Petraeus' Thirty Years War (Asia Times Online, May 4, 2010.)
The "surge" turns out to be the facade of a Potemkin - or perhaps we should say
Petraeus - village, a facade like the old Hollywood Western sets, behind which
prospective combatants oil their weapons and refill their magazines.
The Republican establishment hailed the "surge" as proof that the George W Bush
administration's nation-building exercise had succeeded, and Petraeus has been
invited to address every conservative association from the American Enterprise
Institute to Commentary magazine.
Last week, I heard a prominent conservative commentator brag to a conservative
gathering (off the record) that the surge reduced American war deaths in Iraq
in July 2008 to only one, while the military's monthly average rate of
accidental death was three. What about Iran?, the conservative sage was asked.
The American public simply isn't ready for the consequences of bombing Iran, he
explained: if we were to attack Iran's nuclear facilities, the result would be
a terrible outbreak of terrorism, along with a spike in oil prices.
I stared into my souffle. How did it come to the point that America had to fear
retaliation by Iran? In effect, this conservative opinion-maker conceded what I
have alleged since 2004, in this publication and elsewhere, that Washington had
a de facto agreement with Iran: do not make trouble in Iraq, and we will let
you build up your nuclear capacity as well as your terrorist capabilities
The chairman of President Barack Obama's Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike
Mullen, admitted as much in a March 16, 2009, interview with Charlie Rose:
"What I worry about in terms of an attack on Iran is, in addition to the
immediate effect, the effect of the attack, it's the unintended consequences.
It's the further destabilization in the region. It's how they would respond. We
have lots of Americans who live in that region who are under the threat
envelope right now [because of the] capability that Iran has across the Gulf.
So, I worry about their responses and I worry about it escalating in ways that
we couldn't predict."
In return for a temporary truce in Iraq - a truce that is now crumbling as Iran
inserts its military proxies into the Baghdad government and the Sunni fighters
defect - America allowed Iran time to possibly produce weapons-grade uranium,
stock Hezbollah in Lebanon with advanced missiles, and deploy terrorist
networks wherever it wanted.
All of this is blowing up in America's face, along with the twin farce in
Afghanistan. The same talking heads who cheer-led the Bush administration claim
that the problem is that Obama has encouraged the enemy by signaling his desire
to withdraw. They know perfectly well that American voters cannot make sense of
why so much blood and treasure has been poured into countries about which they
Organizations exist in order to protect their members from the consequences of
error, and that is as true of the organs of the conservative movement as any
other. Collectively and individually, the Republicans cannot easily admit that
the whole business of nation-building was a gigantic blunder, not after a
trillion dollars and four thousand dead.
The right-wing social engineers who planted the idea into the impressionable
mind of Bush have their reputations to defend, and they will circle the wagons
and fight to the death. Academics, journalists and think-tankers live hand to
mouth, and have nothing to justify their next paycheck except for their street
cred. No matter what the outcome, and no matter how deep the accumulation of
facts, they will not admit error. If only Obama had continued the Bush policy,
they insist, we would have triumphed in Iraq.
No one has excoriated Obama's foreign policy more than I (Life
and premature death of Pax Obamicana Asia Times Online, December 24,
2009). But it seems self-serving to blame the present administration for the
vast expansion of Iran's power.
Last week Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad toured Lebanon like a triumphant
overlord and threatened Israel with destruction. How did Lebanon turn into an
Iranian protectorate? The Bush administration bears a great deal of
responsibility for promoting the delusion that Hezbollah could be enticed into
Lebanon's parliamentary system. Bush personally offered the idiotic thought
that once Hezbollah officials had to fix potholes they would abandon their
declared ambition to turn the Middle East into an Iranian-led Islamic Republic.
On March 16, 2006, Bush told the press:
Our policy is this: We want
there to be a thriving democracy in Lebanon. We believe that there will be a
thriving democracy, but only if - but only if - Syria withdraws ... her troops
completely out of Lebanon ... I like the idea of people running for office.
There's a positive effect when you run for office. Maybe some will run for
office and say, vote for me, I look forward to blowing up America. I don't
know, I don't know if that will be their platform or not. But it's - I don't
think so. I think people who generally run for office say, vote for me, I'm
looking forward to fixing your potholes, or making sure you got bread on the
The Bush administration failed to scotch the Persian
serpent when the costs of doing so would have been limited. These costs,
though, would have been borne first of all by American troops in Iraq in
constant contact with a hostile population. If attacked, Iran - just as Mullen
explained - would have used such proxies as Muqtada's Mahdi Army to kill
Americans. The Bush administration would have paid for it at the polls, which
it did, despite the Potemkin, er, Petraeus Village success of the "surge". To
dig Iran out of Lebanon today would require drastic action. It will be ugly,
and to some extent it will be the fault of the Bush administration.
American voters are in a mood to blame Obama, and rightly so; his economic
policy has failed miserably and he has no cards left to play. Republicans will
blame him for strategic disaster as well, and Obama surely deserves his share
of the blame. After the mid-term elections, though, and the likely loss of a
Democratic majority in both Houses of Congress, Obama will demand of the
Republicans: "What would you do?" The Republican answer cannot be to send
American combat troops back to Iraq. They will try to blame Obama for the
failure of a war that he inherited, and it will not wash with the voters.
At some point, the Republicans, if they wish to govern, will have to explain to
the American public that America needs to fight fire with fire, asymmetric
warfare against asymmetric warfare. There are many ways to do this, ranging
from cyber-war to promotion of competing Islamic heresies, as I suggested in a
September 14, 2010 essay (Terry
Jones, asymmetrical warrior).
None of them are pleasant, and none of them should be discussed in detail. But
in some fashion, the Republicans must explain to the voters that rather than
wasting American blood and treasure in a quest to stabilize fractious and
fragile countries in the Middle East, America will do what it far easier and
more effective; that is, destabilize its enemies.
Spengler is channeled by David P Goldman, senior editor at First Things