The Secret History of the Iraq War

The Secret History of the Iraq War

Originally published at Frantzman Weekly Newsletter number 20
The Secret History of the Iraq War
March 5th, 2007
Seth J. Frantzman

Seymour W. Hersh (whose article appears after this one) has made some interesting claims lately regarding American policy in the Middle East. He said recently that the U.S ‘gave the green light to Israel’s attack on Lebanon’ and that the U.S is now funding Sunni jihadist groups along with Saudi Arabia to counter the growing influence of the Shiites in both Lebanon and Iraq, not to mention Iran. The rhetoric goes further, insinuating that Nasrallah, the Hizbullah chief, is in fact the victim, that he is now on the ‘hit list’ of the Israelis for being the leader of the first Arab group in history to defeat that country. He is therefore the true victim, and he is wrongly mislabeled as running a group whose symbols, slogans and propaganda, not to mention overall aesthetics, are like the Brown Shirts.

The problem is that people like Mr. Hersh, not to mention most informed people, have never understood the real reasons behind the war in Iraq. Let us return to the post 9/11 policy sessions at the White House. At that time it became clear that almost all the 9/11 hijackers, fifteen of nineteen to be exact, were from Saudi Arabia, which was second to Israel, America’s strongest ally in the Middle East. Many people in the administration, who after all were veteran Cold Warriors, had joined with the Saudis in the 1980s to funnel money to a CIA and Pakistani ISS program to fund the Jihad in Afghanistan against the Russians. Much romance was made of this Jihad at the time, as chronicled in the book Charlie Wilson’s War and it was popular with Democrats and Republicans, Neocons and Paleo-cons alike. But the Jihad was forgotten about. Few people saw the relationship that it had to all the other Jihads, in Thailand, the Philippines, Sudan, Chechnya, Bosnia, Israel, Lebanon and Algeria. For those who won in Afghanistan, many of whom were recruited from listless Arab groups such as the Palestinians and those with too much money, such as the Saudis, the victory in Afghanistan in 1990, which came after the battles in Lebanon in the 1980s, led them to join up with the terrorists in Algeria. ‘The Afghans’ became a pseudonym for those Arabs and other Muslims who were marching as part of a worldwide movement. They had changed strategy since the 1970s, when their terrorists focused on murdering Arab heads of state(Anwar Sadat being the high-point in 1973, as well as a raid on the Great Mosque in Mecca). Increasingly after defeat in the Algerian war in the 1990s they turned their eyes on the west and America.

This was a by-product, apparently unforeseen, to the Afghan struggle. America had long known the power of militant Islam, after all the Iranian revolution and the hostage Crises in 1979 and 1980 had been part of this struggle, but somehow America, having supported the Secular Socialist Baathist Saddam Hussein against the Iranians, had forgotten about this problem. The attacks on Americans were brazen and ignored in the 1990s, the U.S.S Cole, the Kaibur towers, the Tanzanian and Kenyan embassies, the ‘battle of the Black Sea’ in Mogadishu, the world trade center and numerous other incidents. America’s strongest Muslim allies, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, were the main centers of terrorist and Islamist training and ideology and yet they fell under the radar during the 1980s and 1990s. Oil was one reason, but their alliance with the U.S in the Cold War was the primary one. Men like Charlie Wilson absolutely loved and admired the ‘desert Arabs’ and the Pakistanis for their bravery in standing up to the Soviets. It was the Soviet allied regimes that had long been the thorn in America’s side in the Middle East, including the PLO and Syria. Nasser’s Arab Nationalists and the Baathists were the ones that brought U.S forced to Lebanon and Iran in the 1950s under the Eisenhower Doctrine and brought the English to the Canal Zone in 1956 and to Jordan in 1958.

It seemed that the Islamist inspired monarchy of Saudi was much more American in her conservative religious values and this appealed to many of the right wing Americans who supported the Jihad(this was part of the wider ‘Arab Cold War’ that took place between the Nasserist coup in 1952 and 1990 that split the Arab world between nationalists and monarchists, religious and secular). They also liked Zia al Haq of Pakistan who had been a longtime ally of the U.S. Pakistan had been the back-channel for American communications with China, and as an ally of China and the U.S, Pakistan was implicitly not only opposed to Soviet rule in Afghanistan but also to India, her longtime enemy since 1948. India under Nehru had steered herself into the non-aligned pact and thus along with Nasser, Tito and many others was strongly opposed to the U.S. Thus through the 1990s, despite the end of the Cold War, Cold war friends remained close to America. America did not change course on her policy vis-à-vis India, despite the victory of the BJP and the fall of the Socialist INC. Pakistan was the conduit for American influence there. Indonesia too, a Muslim state who had long suppressed non-Muslims in East Timor, Hindus in Bali and Chinese throughout the country had been a U.S ally since the 1970s.

But Sept. 11th did change all of that. Suddenly the perceptions of the Muslim religious regimes changed abruptly. Neo-conservatives who made up a large swath of influential voices in the administration and old Cold Warriors understood that a profound change of policy was needed. The invasion of Afghanistan in the fall and winter of 2001 and 2002 was an easy decision, that was where Al Quaida was. But the decision for Iraq was much more complicated.

Iraq, like the Saudi hijackers, had turned on America. Like the Jihadists in Afghanistan, Iraq had been a U.S ally against Iran. Long coveted by the Sunni loving Arabists who ran the State Department’s Near Eastern division(as chronicled in The Arabists), Saddam was a friend of the U.S until he went too far. Due to the debts he owed the other Arab nations, they had bankrolled him to fight for them and their security against the Iranian Shiite threat in the Persian gulf, Saddam resurrected an old 1920s dispute with Kuwait and invaded that country in 1990. The Cold War had just ended and as America was searching for a new role in the world, Islamists seemed to hand her that role, although it was not readily visible.

The Iraqi invasion presented a problem. Saddam was indeed a friend of the U.S, but the Iran-Iraq war, the reason for the friendship, had ended in 1989. Saddam invaded the Gulf Arab state because of money and because they undercut him in OPEC sales. But he threatened Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States(Qatar, the UAE and Bahrain) all of which were in many ways U.S protectorates, very close allies. America sided with Saudi Arabia because hers was the oldest relationship, dating back to the 1930s, and because Saddam had styled himself a new Saladin, he was vehemently anti-Israel, the PLO had sided with him and he was positioning himself to dominate more than 50% of the world’s Oil.

When the war was over Saddam was weakened and the U.S did indeed set up a Kurdish mini-state in northern Iraq, under the protection of the Special Forces and the U.S Air Force. However a Shiite uprising was not supported, no doubt the Saudis did not favor it since they had their own Shiite problems and they recalled the Iranian threat in the 1980s, Saddam was allowed in 1991 and 1992 to use his remaining helicopters to crush the Shiites.

However in 2001 the situation was different. Revelations that Saudi Arabia was funding radical Islamist doctrines across the world were met with dismay. In the old days such hatred had been directed at the atheistic Soviet Union, but in the 1990s it increasingly targeted Christians and the west. America realized the pernicious influence this was having the United States and also in Europe, among the burgeoning Muslim community.

A decision was made that it was imperative that America no longer rely solely on Saudi Arabia and the gulf states for her oil, since this money spent on oil was indeed funding terrorism. But other oil producing states such as Libya and Iran hated America, there was no chance of allying with them. However there was one state in the Middle East whose regime was secular, whose regime was weak and who had once been a U.S ally; Iraq. In the 1990s Bush Sr. had objected to taking out Saddam and so had Clinton, preferring containment and bombing, because an Iraq without Saddam would be a power vacuum into which radical Islam and all sorts of terrible things would come. There was also the problem of the Kurds and the Shiites and Sunnis.

However in 2001 it was determined that the time was ripe to finish the job. It should be an easy war, Saddam had a weak army, and there were no Weapons of Mass Destruction to fear, U.S intelligence confirmed both these things. It was not a Haliburton ‘war for oil’ but it was supposed to be a war that would garner America a new ally in the Middle East, a secular style democracy with diverse groups to balance one another and a record of a strong middle class(Iraq had that into the 1980s and the public was highly literate and intellectual and not prone to fanaticism). That was the assessment, for a short war, there would be a new ally. America would dismantle her bases in Saudi and move them to her new friend in Iraq, just across the border. Iraq and Kuwait would form the new bulwark of U.S influence in the Middle East. Saudi would be left to wither, after the war, the U.S would scale back her influence there and her alliance. Also with Iraq as a U.S ally America would have more leverage with the Saudis, now when she condemned Saudi for sex-slave trafficking, human rights violations and supporting terrorism she could back it up with sanctions, Saudi could no longer use the oil weapon effectively because oil reserves would be secured in Iraq(recall that in the 1980s Saudi was Americas only oil producing friend in the middle east, outside the gulf states, where Saudi wielded great influence due to her size and power).

That was the secret history of the Gulf War. Iraq was supposed to be a pushover. It had one been governed by the British, it had a history of moderation. It was supposed to be transformed into a U.S ally. The Iraqi national congress opposition groups assured America of that as did CIA allies like Chalabi. The Shiite threat(they were the dominant demographic group) was downplayed. America understood that al Quaida would set up groups in Iraq to fight the U.S but it was felt that fighting them on their own soil would be easier than waiting for them to attack, and that the fight would go America’s way as it had in Afghanistan. The Kurds were already strong U.S allies. It was felt that the Iraqi army and infrastructure would be left intact after the war and that America might even hire many of the Sunni Iraqis who had the know how to plan post-war Iraq, they were reliable secularists and Saddam had hated al Quaida so they would too, and they hated Iran, which America did too.

Much has been written about the neo-cons influence and the doctrine of pre-emption championed by Paul Wolfowitz but this idea has been mislabeled. It was not necessarily pre-emptive if one accepts that high level American leaders knew that Saddam was no immediate threat(certainly less than North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran). The idea that Democracy would lead to peace and allies in the Middle East(The Democratic peace scenario) was certainly at the forefront but it was not a neo-con idea either. The neo-con, if they had as much influence as they have been credited with, revolution was one that saw a strengthened more muscular, more involved U.S foreign policy, a Wilsonian like, making the world safe for democracy, as should have been done in the 1930s(the Americans who went to fight in Spain have euphemistically been called ‘early pre-emptionists’). The neo-cons were profoundly repulsed by Clinton’s lobbing of bombs at the Serbs(twice) and at Sudan and Afghanistan and Iraq and not doing anything, as they were dismayed by America’s useless invasion of Haiti that changed nothing and put a dictator(Jean Birtrand Aristide) back into power. Neo-conservativism was first coined as a phrase and ideology in the early 1980s to label those men, many of whome who had been leftists, who converted to Reagenism, such as Jean Kirkpatrick and Norman Podhoretz, and advocated the Reagan doctrine against the Soviets, the notion that Containment was a failure and so was détente and that the ‘evil empire’ had to be rolled back. These were the ideas that came to the fore again after being in abatement since 1988(Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Brent Scowcroft and the other advisers to Bush Sr. were not interventionists or Wilsonians. Clinton’s advisors such as Madeline Albright. Richard Holbroke and Bill Richardson as well as Carter holdovers such as Zvignew Brizinski believed that America should be sort of a worldwide Svengali policing human rights abuses and wielding the unwieldy power of Nato and the U.N to accomplish her goals. Profoundly more pro-European than the Reaganites or neo-cons, it trusted in the ability to solve most problems through bombing and negotiations, which seems like a TR carrot and stick approach but is not, there was no follow through and this author has referred to the Clinton era in foreign policy as the ‘walk in the clouds’. From Somalia(1992) to Haiti(1994) to Rwanda(1994) to North Korea(1996) to Bosnia(1996) to Kosovo(1998) to Sudan(1997) to Afghanistan(1997) to the bombings of Iraq(1994, 1996, 1998, 1999) the Clinton years netted not one policy success and in fact there does not appear to have been any policy, like Bush Sr. there was a desire to ‘put out fires’ but not anticipate them and in putting them out they were never extinguished).

But something went horribly wrong. The Shiites formed militias including the Mahdi army and they didn’t take to Democracy so well, and then they understood too well that Democracy would bring them dictatorial rule and they tried to suppress and destroy the Sunnis, who were long time allies of the U.S, horrifying the Saudis who now contemplated funding the very terrorist groups confronting the U.S and Shiites in Iraq. The Shiite plague spread to Pakistan and also to Lebanon. People spoke of a Shiite Ascendancy and the election of Ahmadinjad a hard line Holocaust denying, nuke building, fascist in Iraq, was no helpful. The de-Baathification that took place in the first few days in Iraq harmed U.S interests. It turned out the Defense Department hadn’t planned for a post war Iraq (see Fiasco). Even the idea that America would fight al Quaida ‘over their’ instead of in New York proved wrong because it turned out the Sunni Islamists preferred murdering Iraqi Shiites and vice-versa more so than Americans and a semi-Civil war began in 2006.

American boggling also led to a number of major setbacks. The over-reliance on civilian contractors, whose deaths and lynching at Fallujah led to numerous struggles in the ‘Sunni triangle’. The inability to consider self-determination for the Kurds (as was considered for the Kosovars) in the wake of the Baker-Hamilton report of 2005. Most ruinous was the first weeks after the conquest of Baghdad, the dismantling of the Iraqi army, the failure of Rumsfeld to come up with a post-Iraq plan, feuding between the State Department(pro-Sunni Arabists), the CIA(who were pro-Chalabi), NSA(pro-Israel) and the Defense Department. The apparently idiotic attempt to ‘learn’ from the Israel experience in the West Bank and the French experience in Algeria as to how best to win against insurgents, incapsulated in the twin Pentagon documents; A paper by Major Gregory D. Peterson, TheFrench Experience in Algeria, 1954-62: Blueprint for U.S. Operations in Iraq, Ft Leavenworth, KS: School of Advanced Military Studies, and the less than brilliant screening of the film The Battle of Algiers at the Pentagon where the informative poster for it read “How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.” Anyone thinking that the term ‘the French have a Plan’ was going to turn out well could only hope to be quickly dismayed. America was at least saved lives when it turned out that the ‘insurgency’ in Iraq was primarily one between two or more rival Arab groups(Sunni versus Shia, Al Quaids versus the Mahdi army, Zarqawi versus al Sadr, foreigners versus Iraqis, Arabs versus Kurds, Assyrians and Turcomen). The result of the insurgency was eventually to drive all the former secular Baathists and other secular people out of the country, including any progressive Muslims and Christians. The Palestinians who had found refuge also all were forced to flee to Jordan and Syria, complaining as they have in the past against others of ‘ethnic-cleansing’.

America found herself relying more than ever on Saudi Arabia. There is no clear end to the Iraq war in sight. 3,000 Americans have died. America hasn’t even dared to partition the country so as to get a Kurdish ally out of it with oil fields at Karkuk for fear of alienating Turkey and Saudi(because the Shiites would implicitly get autonomy then too).

All America can do is watch it get worse and watch the Islamists kill eachother, which isn’t a terrible thing, but was not the original intention.

Democracy has been a patent failure in the Middle East. It has brought Hamas to power in the Palestinian territories, Hizbullah to power in Lebanon, strengthened the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and it has brought Shiite fascists to power in Iraq. America should have been aware that Islamism had the greatest popularity on the street in the Arab and Muslim world. The victory in Algeria of Islamists in a 1990 election led to a decade long civil war there, someone should have realized that Islamism was ascendant by the late 1980s. Someone forget that democracy has not always led to peace. The Democratic peace theory, championed by most political scientists (it apparently competes with the ‘economic peace’ theory that claims free markets lead to peace) claims that democracies have never fought one another. This is in fact a massive lie. Democracy allowed fascists to seize power in Italy and Germany and gave them great inroads in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Spain in the 1920s and 1930s. Democracy, in a tragic way, was responsible for the weakness of Weimar Germany that led to Nazism. Indeed Mussolini and Hitler ended Democracy but no one can forget that it was Democracy that brought them to power. Democracy is the concept that more than half the people make correct choices more than half the time. However as Churchill pointed out it was merely the least of a number of bad choices for how to organize government, the only countries that didn’t go fascist in the 1930s were those with long Democratic traditions(the U.S and England, France doesn’t count). If Fascism was brought to power through democracy why would anyone assume Islamism would be different and Islamist parties openly speak of their scorn for democracy, despite exploiting it, are they any different in their ideology than the fascists? No. Indeed the idea that democracy alone will solve the world’s problems, along with self-determination, those Wilsonian ideas, were proved mostly wrong long ago. However Dictatorship does no better.

And Shiism is indeed ascendant in the Middle East.

Some have claimed the oft-repeated ‘America gave the green light’ to Israel’s response to a Lebanese kidnapping attempt in the summer of 2006 which led to a month long Israeli bombing campaign and partial invasion of Lebanon which then led to a perception that Israel lost the war because she failed to win. When one survey’s overall America’s allies in the Middle East one therefore finds that the two pillars, Israel and Saudi Arabia, are weakened of late. The Mersheimier and Walt ‘working paper’ from Harvard that claimed that the Israel lobby endangers U.S foreign policy in the Middle East was mistaken(an old Arabist canard) but it is true that an enfeebled Israel and a Saudi that is afraid of the Shiites is not helping the U.S. Egypt received billions of U.S aid and military equipment(per the Camp David accords) but she is only barely a strong ally. Jordan is an ally but is also weakened by the Iraq problems. Syria, Iran and Hizullah have formed an arc of terror hostile to the U.S stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Mediteranean. Turkey is now run by Islamists, rejected U.S troop placements in the second Iraq War, and cannot resolve its own Kurdish problems. Algeria and Libya are not U.S allies. Morrocco is but has no influence. Pakistan, an ally, is also host to Bin Laden and the Taliban. The only good thing to come out of the last 6 years has been a reorientation in American policy towards supporting any regime that is anti-Islamist and thus garnered the U.S alliances with India and Ethiopia, which will serve the U.S well in the future. However the U.S missed a chance to ally closely with Thailand’s Thaksin Shinuat before his fall from power in 2006. Singapore, a long time anti-communist ally under Lee Kwan Hew is still close to the U.S. America has worked to gain closer relationships with Uzbekistan but recent anti-opposition crack downs in all the central asian states (Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgizistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) has not served the U.S and U.S bases have been thrown out of at least one of those countries. Kazakhstan is still firmly in the Russian orbit. There is great fear that they will all go Islamist once their Soviet holdover leaders die. Kosovo and Bosnia have proved to be failures in terms of the international effort to make them states. The U.S policy in the Balkans has therefore also proved to have been a failure. The U.S should have sided with Serbia and Macedonia. Now the U.S has the problem of being beholden to weakened allies in the Middle East and confronting not only Sunni Al Quaida Islamism but also Shiism (in the 1980s the U.S briefly confronted the Shiites in Lebanon after the marine barracks bombing and the embassy bombing, but the conflict resulted in the death of the CIA station chief, dozens of kidnappings, Iran-Contra, and the death of the president of the American University of Beirut, and the withdrawal of U.S troops in 1984). The American contest with the Shiites in Iran in 1979(chronicled recently in Guests of the Ayatollah) was also a failure.

Wither American foreign policy in the world?

The author was a long time Republican Activist in Southern Arizona, a clerk to Congressman Jim Kolbe and a leader of the Bush2000 campaign in Arizona. Through this work and a variety of other channels he became privy to information regarding a number of revelations about the road to America’s war in Iraq of 2003. His study of the conflict since moving to the Middle East in 2002 has only confirmed these views.

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