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 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 Nuri al-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 Sham (ISIS) and the opposition of tribal militias and local populations, close to 50,000 army 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.