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Karl Rove Unintentionally Predicted the Current Chaos in Iraq

But it doesn't make him, or the Bush Administration, look wise.

| Thu Jun. 19, 2014 6:11 PM EDT

Creating an Arc of Instability

In the period before and after the invasion of Iraq, top Bush officials and their neocon supporters spoke with relish about taming an area stretching from northern Africa through the Middle East and deep into Central Asia that they termed an "arc of instability." In a February 2006 address to the American Legion focused on his Global War on Terror, for instance, President Bush typically said, "Slowly but surely, we're helping to transform the broader Middle East from an arc of instability into an arc of freedom. And as freedom reaches more people in this vital region, we'll have new allies in the war on terror, and new partners in the cause of moderation in the Muslim world and in the cause of peace."

By then that "arc," which in the period before 9/11 had been reasonably stable, was already aflame. Today, it is ablaze. Almost 13 years after the launching of the Global War on Terror and the first bombing runs in Afghanistan, 11 years after a global antiwar protest went unheard and the invasion of Iraq was launched, and three years after Americans gathered in front of the White House to cheer the death of Osama bin Laden, that arc has been destabilized in a stunning way.

As things recently went from bad to worse in Iraq, jihadist militants in Pakistan attacked Karachi International Airport, an assault that stunned the country and suggested that the reach of the Pakistani Taliban was growing. At the same time, after a six-month pause, the Obama administration resumed its CIA drone assassination campaign in the Pakistani tribal borderlands, a deeply unpopular program that has been a significant destabilizing factor in its own right. Meanwhile, in Yemen, where the US has for years been conducting a special operations and drone war against a growing al-Qaeda wannabe outfit, unknown militants knocked out the electricity in Sanaa, the capital, for days. The Syrian bloodbath, of course, continues with estimates of 160,000 or more deaths in that multi-sided conflict, while in Libya, now an essentially ungovernable and chaotic land of jihadist and other militias and ambitious generals, tensions and fighting increased.

Think of this as George W. Bush's nightmare and Osama bin Laden's wet dream. On September 11, 2001, a relatively small, modestly funded organization with a knack for planning terror surprises every couple of years had a remarkable stroke of televised luck. From those falling towers, everything followed, thanks in large part to the acts of the fundamentalists of the Bush administration, whose top officials thought they had spotted their main chance, geopolitically speaking, in the carnage of the moment.

Almost 13 years later, there is a jihadist proto-state, a fantasy caliphate, in the heart of the Middle East. Now a dime a dozen in the region, jihadists of an al-Qaedan bent are armed to the teeth with cast-off American weaponry. In northern Africa, other jihadists are using weaponry from the former arsenals of Libyan autocrat Muammar Gaddafi, looted in the aftermath of President Obama's can't-miss 2011 intervention in that country. The jihadists of ISIS now have hundreds of millions of dollars stolen from the Mosul branch of the Iraqi central bank for funding and have advanced toward Baghdad. Even Osama bin Laden might not have assumed things would go quite so swimmingly.
 

The Guns of Folly

In the wake of Mosul's fall, ISIS advanced even more rapidly than the American army heading for Baghdad in the spring of 2003. In some Sunni-dominated cities and towns, the takeovers were remarkably bloodless. In Baiji, with a power plant that supplies electricity to Baghdad and Iraq's largest oil refinery (now under attack), the insurgents reportedly called the police and asked them to leave town—and they complied. In Kirkuk, a city in northern Iraq that the Kurds have long claimed as the natural capital for an independent Kurdistan, Iraqi troops quietly abandoned their weaponry and uniforms and left town, while armed Kurdish forces moved in, undoubtedly permanently.

All in all, it's been a debacle the likes of which we've seen only twice in our history. In China, when in 1949 Chiang Kai-shek's largely American armed and trained military disintegrated before the insurgent forces of Communist leader Mao Zedong and a quarter-century later, when a purely American military creation, the South Vietnamese army, collapsed in the face of an offensive by North Vietnamese troops and local rebel forces. In each case, the resulting defeat was psychologically unnerving in the United States and led to bitter, exceedingly strange, and long-lasting debates about who "lost" China and who "lost" Vietnam.

Early signs of an equally bizarre debate over the "loss" of Iraq are already appearing here. This should surprise no one, as the only thing left to pass around is blame. Senator John McCain, a fervent supporter of the 2003 invasion and occupation, launched the most recent round of the blame game. He pinned fault for the onrushing events on the Obama administration's decision to pull US forces out of Iraq in 2011 (thanks to an agreement negotiated by the Bush administration) without leaving a significant presence behind. Citing himself as if he were someone else, he said, "Lindsey Graham and John McCain were right. Our failure to leave forces in Iraq is why Senator Graham and I predicted this would happen."

Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri was typical of the Republican politicians who began promoting this line. "It's a desperate situation," he said. "It's moving quickly. It appears to me that the chickens are coming home to roost for our policy of not leaving anybody there to be a stabilizing force." In a similar blast, the Wall Street Journal editorial page wrote, "In withdrawing from Iraq in toto, Mr. Obama put his desire to have a talking point for his re-election campaign above America's strategic interests. Now we and the world are facing this reality: A civil war in Iraq and the birth of a terrorist haven that has the confidence, and is fast acquiring the means, to raise a banner for a new generation of jihadists, both in Iraq and beyond."

And so it goes. In this case, however, none of it may matter much. In a country visibly sick of our wars of this century in which even many elite figures find further intervention in Iraq distasteful, "Who lost Iraq?" may never gain the sort of traction the other two "lost" debates did.

In the meantime, however, the world of the Middle East is being turned upside down. Take the example of Iran. Once upon a time, Iraq was thought to be just a way station. As neocons of that moment liked to quip, "Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran." As it happened, the neighborhood around Baghdad quickly grew so ugly and the Bush administration soon found itself so bogged down in unwinnable minority insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan that it never put the US military on that road to Tehran.

Today, the Iranians, it seems, are riding to Washington's rescue in Iraq. It's already rumored that they may be sending, or considering sending, elements of the Republican Guard in to protect Baghdad. As a result, the US finds itself in a tacit alliance with Iran in Iraq, while still in opposition to it in Syria. At the same time, it's still allied with Saudi Arabia in Syria against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, while facing the disastrous fruits of Saudi funding of the brutal newborn jihadi state at least temporarily coming into existence in the Sunni borderlands of Iraq and Syria.

The Middle Eastern system as once known has, with the singular exception of Israel, largely evaporated and where it was, there is now increasingly chaos. In all likelihood, it will only get worse. "We" may not have "lost" Iraq, but can there be any question that Washington lost in Iraq? American goals in the region went down in flames in a fashion so spectacular, so ignominious, that today nothing is left of them. To the question, "Who won Iraq?" there may be no answer at all, or perhaps just the grim response: no one. In the end, Iraqis will surely be the losers, big time, as Syrians are just across the now nonexistent border between what until recently were two countries.

As for the future Washington has on offer, the Obama administration is, it seems, considering responding to the crisis in Iraq in the only way it knows how: with bombs, cruise missiles, and drones. The geopolitical dreams of the Bush era are buried somewhere deep in the rubble of Iraq, while the present White House has neither visionaries nor global dreams, grandiose or otherwise. There are only managers and bureaucrats desperately trying to handle an uncooperative planet. The question that remains is: Will they or won't they send American air power back into Iraq? Will they or won't they, that is, loose the guns of folly and so quite predictably destabilize a terrible situation further?

In the meantime, a small footnote to future history: given what we've just seen, it might be worth taking with a grain of salt the news out of Afghanistan about the increasingly impressive abilities of the Afghan security forces, another gigantic crew set up, funded, trained, and armed by the US military (and associated private contractors). After all, haven't we heard that somewhere before?

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

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