Once in a while the inconsistencies in American foreign policy become sufficiently clear to reveal the consistency in American foreign policy. Three contemporary inconsistencies in Iraq and Syria, all clearly connected, converge to throw America’s consistent foreign policy into sharp relief.
In an astonishing shift of geopolitical realities, America finds itself, literally, at war with itself. Though Syria and Iraq are consistently presented as two separate stories – the one in Syria as a hopeful rebellion; the one in Iraq as a terrorist uprising – the protagonist of the first story is the same character as the one cast as the antagonist in the second. As Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett have said, "Washington elites are effectively compartmentalizing these stories – but, in fact, they are intimately related." In Iraq, America opposes the Sunni rebellion led by ISIS; in Syria, America is backing the Sunni rebellion where, as Juan Cole has put it, the "most effective opposition is ISIS." So when Obama says at his West Point commencement that he will "ramp up" American support for Sunni rebels in Syria, and National Security Advisor Susan Rice, using the same phrase, explains that "the United States has ramped up its support . . . providing lethal and non-lethal support where we can to support both the civilian opposition and the military opposition" in one policy discussion, and then the President announces that he is sending nearly 300 marines and 300 special forces to Iraq as advisors in another policy discussion, the translation is that America is arming and advising both sides of the same war: that America is providing lethal support against its own marines and special forces. In a war with two fronts, with increasingly porous borders blending it increasingly into one front, America is fighting for opposing sides on each front: in a stark exposition of foreign policy inconsistency, America is effectively fighting itself.
But it’s not an inconsistency. It is only an inconsistency if your premise about American foreign policy is that it has anything to do with aiding the foreign country for which the policy is designed. If that premise were true, then ISIS couldn’t be a terrorist organization and a liberation army simultaneously. But if you change the premise and accept the unalterable facts on the ground, that American foreign policy is really an instrument of domestic policy, that it is designed to benefit American, and not foreign, interests, then the inconsistency disappears. It is not inconsistent to fight with ISIS on one front and against ISIS on the other if fighting with ISIS brings about a favorable American outcome on one front and fighting against ISIS brings about a favorable American outcome on the other. The consistency is the favorable American outcome on both fronts. The ironic choice of partners is merely the means to those consistent ends.
You can’t change the facts. So you have to change your premises to make sense of the facts. The fact is, America is fighting against itself: with ISIS and the Sunni rebels in Syria and against them in Iraq. That leaves only figuring out the premise. What is the consistent goal to be attained by the inconsistent means without which American foreign policy makes no sense?
America has long sought to remove Bashar Al-Assad because it viewed Syria as the closest and most important ally of Iran. But it seemed to take America longer to realize that part of the blowback from its regime change in Iraq was that that was no longer true. The closest and most important ally of Iran was now Nouri al-Maliki’s Iraq. The consistent goal on both fronts of the war seems to be the weakening of Iran by the severing or weakening of Iran’s alliances.
And that is why it should have come as no surprise that the White House announced simultaneously that "our national security team is looking into all the options" in "solidarity" with Nouri al-Maliki in the fight against the Sunni extremists and that "the Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, must leave office if it is to intervene militarily to stop the advance of Sunni extremists," as first reported by Patrick Cockburn.
And that makes sense of the second inconsistency. Al-Maliki was essentially installed in 2006 and maintained in 2010 by the U.S. But now the Americans want to remove the ruler they installed. But the inconsistency melts away with America’s slow realization that Iraq has become Iran’s closest ally because of al-Maliki’s cooperation with Iran. So the intended outcome in Iraq is the severing or weakening of Iraq’s relationship with Iran through the removal of al-Maliki or a weakening of his power through a more inclusive arrangement of power sharing. Ayatollah Khamenei has accused the US of "seeking an Iraq under its hegemony and ruled by its stooges."
Nouri al-Maliki is not the first Iraqi leader to be installed and removed by the US. There is a pattern that belies the consistency behind the apparent inconsistency. It is, of course, well know that Saddam Hussein was removed from power by the Bush administration. It is somewhat less well known that his installation was assisted by the Kennedy administration.
In 1958, a revolution in Iraq brought to power a triumvirate of General Abdul Karim Qasim, the Iraqi Communist Party and Arab nationalists who supported Nasser’s United Arab Republic. Because America feared that Qasim’s Iraq would become communist and because of its antipathy toward Nasser’s Pan-Arab nationalism, the US supported the Ba’ath Party because it opposed the Iraqi regime. In both 1958 and 1959, the States approved of coup attempts against Qasim and neglected to warn him of the coup preparations that American diplomats knew about. In Resurrecting Empire, Rashid Khalidi refers to a report on an interview with former US and U.K. intelligence officers and diplomats that identifies Saddam Hussein as part of a "CIA authorized six man squad" that failed to kill Qasim. According to 1975 Congressional Select Committee on Intelligence, Saddam Hussein was "among party members colluding with the CIA in 1962 and 1963." The US actively supported the successful Ba’ath coup of 1963 and then provided lists of Iraqi Communist Party members to be murdered. After the Ba’ath Party briefly lost power, it returned to power in yet another US backed coup. In Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, Tim Weiner quotes Ali Saleh Sa’adi, the Ba’ath Party Interior Minister in the late 1960’s as saying, "We came to power on a CIA train."
The third apparent inconsistency follows from the second: the removal of the American installed Nouri al-Maliki. Someone needs to replace him. And, according to the New York Times, one of the chief names being "floated so far" is Ahmed Chalabi.
The irony here is that al-Maliki was the man America wanted while Chalabi is the man America realized was its enemy. So America is "floating" the replacement of its friend by its enemy. Chalabi was the source of much of the information on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that led America to war in Iraq in the first place. The problem was, according to UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter, that "the ‘sensitive information’ Ahmed Chalabi had been selling America (and the U.N.) was nothing less than snake poison." The information turned out to be "lies and distortions. . . . fabrications and misrepresentations of fact." What’s worse, now that Iran and not Iraq is our enemy, is that, according to Andrew Cockburn, "Chalabi’s connection to the most hardline elements in Iran, particularly the intelligence officers of the Revolutionary Guards, are longstanding." Chalabi told Ritter that "he had tremendous connections with Iranian intelligence. He said that some of his best intelligence came from the Iranians. . . ." Chalabi, it seems, was helping Iran manipulate America into doing its work in Iraq. Chalabi would later be accused by the CIA of passing information on to Iran about US intelligence sources and methods.
So the irony and inconsistency here is layered. America is considering replacing al-Maliki with a man who is not only a betrayer of America, but an ally of Iran, who is now America’s primary enemy.
So how do you make sense of that inconsistency? Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has said that Iran could be willing to cooperate with the US in Iraq. The United States has said that they may be willing to consider nonmilitary forms of cooperation, and William Burns, the US Deputy Secretary of State, is said to have discussed the situation in Iraq with Iran on the sidelines of the P5+1 nuclear talks. If the cooperation has to be nonmilitary, that leaves political or diplomatic cooperation. And the reemergence of Chalabi may suggest that that is happening behind the scenes. Why else would America consider Chalabi?
The Americans want to replace or weaken al-Maliki. Iran probably doesn’t. For a new Iraqi leader to succeed, he would need Iranian support. Chalabi could be a compromise, with Iran agreeing to remove al-Maliki if the new Shiite leader is Chalabi, who they could support because he is at least as close to Iran as al-Maliki. Ironically, the apparent inconsistency could be resolved by the realization that the man whom America first wanted to lead Iraq, Chalabi, and then rejected is necessary to replace the man America then wanted to lead Iraq, al-Maliki, and is now rejecting.
And one final piece of the irony puzzle of replacing friends with enemies. On the Syrian front, it is Bashar al-Assad who has to go. But, until recently, Assad was actually seen as trying to establish a friendship with America and the west. Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, says that Assad had been anxious to pursue talks with Israel and that, eager for international legitimacy, he was willing to give security guarantees and full diplomatic relations to Israel in exchange for a peace agreement. Seymour Hersh says that Assad and Israel, at one point, had reached "agreements in principle on the normalization of diplomatic relations." Hersh even quotes then Senator John Kerry, who met with Assad on several occasions, as saying that Assad "wants to engage with the west . . . . Assad is willing to do the things he needs to do in order to change his relationship with the United States."
So, in the Syrian conflict between the Sunni rebels and ISIS and Assad, America is siding with its enemy over someone anxious to be a friend. This inconsistency is, once again, explained by the consistency of the desired foreign policy outcome of weakening Iran by severing or weakening its alliances.
All of the apparent inconsistencies – that America is against ISIS in Iraq but with them in Syria, that America wants to remove the Iraqi President it installed and maintained, that America is considering replacing him with the man who betrayed them and sold their secrets, and that America wants to replace a potential friend in Syria with the Sunni extremists that are its primary enemy – can be resolved by replacing the premise that America’s foreign policy has anything to do with benefiting the foreign country for whom it was designed with the premise that American foreign policy is designed to bring about outcomes favorable to America. All of the apparent inconsistencies that seem to make no sense start to make sense when you insert the outcome that is favorable to America: weakening Iran.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.