The first step in looking ahead is to look back and correct our misconceptions. Because the way we look ahead is based on our assumptions and the axioms we form from our assumptions. And if our axioms are wrong, then our deductions are guaranteed to be wrong.
So we look back this week. The air has been full with recriminations about who really lost Iraq, the guys who “broke it” in 2003 or the guys who “abandoned” it in 2011. Neither mistake was instrumental in leading to today’s “break” of Iraq, in our opinion. The mistake that led to today’s crisis was something else – the really big mistake.
1. What if America had not “broken” Iraq in 2003?
The “breaking” of Iraq concept stems from the succinct warning given by Secretary Colin Powell to President George W. Bush in 2003 – “If you break it, you own it“. The left-wingers blame President Bush for today’s crisis in Iraq because he “broke” the stable regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. They feel the current crisis would not have erupted in Iraq had Saddam Hussein remained in power.
So why did Syria blow up? America did not invade Syria. Saddam Hussein and Bashar Al-Assad were fellow Baathists who put down religious fervor wherever they found it in their lands. Both were determined foes of the Al Qaida organization & its philosophy. The Al-Assad regime was both tolerated & accepted for its ability to maintain “stability”.
Nobody from the outside “broke” Syria. It blew up from within due to a religion-inspired revolt. The reality is that the fervently religious hate Atheists/Non-believers far more than they hate other religions. And as far as the fervent Sunnis were concerned, Saddam Hussein and Bashar Al-Assad were birds of the same feather.
Any one who thinks Saddam Hussein would have been as effective in 2013-2014 as he was in 2001-2002 is being foolish. An ageing lion doesn’t survive for long in the jungle and Saddam Hussein would have been 77 years old today. His fate would have worse than that of Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. Egypt is a homogeneous country of Sunni Arabs while Iraq & Syria are artificially created collections of different religious sects & ethnic groups. Still Egypt came close to blowing up.
People forget that Saddam Hussein was fond of starting wars both to feed his own ego and to create a wave of nationalism in his land. Given his track record, wouldn’t he have begun an anti-Shia war with Iran to protect himself from an internal combustion? His megalomania might have persuaded him to imagine himself as the protector of Sunnis and he would have imagined he was doing a favor to America. Such an Iraq-Iran war would have been much more deadly for the Middle East that what we see today. If you doubt that, just imagine a military war today between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Look at it from the other side. The American Left was all gung ho about intervening in Syria, about bombing Al-Assad for his human rights crimes. Can you imagine how vociferous they would have been against the crimes Saddam Hussein would have committed to put down a Sunni rebellion? Libya under Gaddafi was relatively stable. Yet, the “liberal” west intervened to remove him and eventually kill him. And Saddam Hussein was far worse than Gaddafi and five years older. Had President Bush not invaded Iraq at the urging of neocons, then President Obama would have invaded Iraq at the urging of neolibs. He hates dictators far more than Bush did – just look at what happened to Mubarak & Gaddafi.
So it is wrong to blame President Bush for today’s crisis in Iraq. That Iraq and that Middle East were totally different.
2. Did President Obama cause today’s crisis by withdrawing US troops in 2011?
The argument is that maintaining about 10,000 US troops in Baghdad would have prevented ISIL from conquering much of northwestern Iraq. But this is just as fallacious as the above argument about Bush “breaking” Iraq.
Iraq was a bastion of stability in 2011, the year the winds of the Sunni Arab Spring began sweeping through the Middle East. That movement was hailed by the American left as a freedom movement for Sunni Arabs & as a march towards democracy. The Iraqi Spring had taken place one year before the Arab Spring of 2011. Iraq had already become a constitutional democracy. Iraq was peaceful and stable.
The American venture had succeeded and the American people wanted their troops to come back home. More importantly, the Iraqis wanted US troops out of Iraq. After all, Iraq would not be deemed a free independent nation if US troops remained in Iraq. The new Iraqi Government wanted US troops to leave and President Obama withdrew all US troops.
Imagine what would have happened if President Obama had kept US troops in Iraq against the wishes of the Iraqi Government & people. Both Shias & Sunnis would have resented American presence and slowly rage would have built up against US troops. No country likes a foreign occupier. Such anger & public pressure in both Iraq & America would have forced President Obama to withdraw US troops. Much better to go with a vote of thanks than to be pushed out.
President Obama made the right decision in leaving Iraq. Frankly, this act will be a big benefit going forward because no one in the Middle East thinks of America as an occupier or invader any more.
Then the Middle East changed.
3. The Big Mistake
The big mistake was neither entering Iraq nor exiting Iraq. The really big mistake was completely misunderstanding the nature of the Arab Spring. The Obama Administration was thrilled with how the Arab Spring began. It was a dream freedom movement for them – led by students & the young demanding their right to be free. An outpouring of support erupted from the American left like, to put it very crudely, a mass intellectual orgasm.
Passion makes you lose balance. The Obama Administration lost its balance in its analysis of the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring was a Sunni revolution against “secular” rule that had delivered nothing to the people, especially to young men who were unemployed or severely underemployed. Like the French revolution or the Iranian revolution, the Arab Spring was almost guaranteed to go bad. And it did so very quickly.
The traditional monarchies in the Middle East were hardly impacted by the Sunni spring. The royal families had legitimacy and they had taken great care to build support via generous donations to clerics and religious institutions. In contrast, the “secular” Sunni regimes like Egypt and Libya got hit hard. The “secular” army of Egypt took the longest to manage their revolution but they eventually did. Libya was invaded by neolibs and the Libyan regime was changed by the West. It remains unstable.
The worst hit were the “secular” regimes in multi-ethnic, multi-religious countries. Here is where the Sunni revolution morphed into an all out violent religious war. It was supported and fanned by the Sunni royal regimes like Saudi Arabia & Qatar. The Al-Assad regime in Syria was the first target. That regime has managed to survive only because of fighting support from Hezbollah and material support from Iran. But the Sunni revolution did succeed in “liberating” large areas of Sunni Syria, the areas that border Iraq.
The Obama Administration completely misunderstood the war inside Syria. Their analytical framework was unsound both historically and strategically. They never realized that the war in Syrian was a trans-border Sunni freedom movement draped in Sunni religious fervor that would not remain limited to Syria. The Obama Administration kept blaming Assad for his human rights crimes while completing ignoring the far more virulent nature of the Syrian Sunni fighters. These mistakes are doubly shocking because the Obama Administration is fighting a
similar war in Afghanistan against the Taleban.
Had the Obama Administration realized the true nature of the conflict in Syria, they would have prepared for the inevitable outflow into Sunni Iraq that borders Sunni Syria. Had the Obama Administration studied history, they would have understood the appeal of Sunni al-Sham. They could at least watched the Lawrence of Arabia. Had they done that, they would have seen in & heard from Faisal the magical appeal of Damascus. They would have known that if the Sunni army could not get Damascus, they would try get Baghdad, the other city with similar historical appeal.
Unfortunately, the Obama Administration fell into the trap of its own erroneous colonial framework. Add to that their dreamy asinine concept of the 21st century being somehow very different and more noble than the previous centuries. May be that is why they completely misunderstood the true nature of the Sunni hurricane of fire. Perhaps this is unfair to the Obama Administration. Perhaps no other administration would have understood it either. But it happened on their watch.
Now they reap the whirlwind.
Send your feedback to [email protected] OR @MacroViewpoints on Twitter.