While the rest of the nation has long since passed judgment on George W. Bush’s invasion and occupation of Iraq, a few "deadenders" – as Donald Rumsfeld dubbed the Iraqi insurgents – persist in hailing this disaster as a "victory," albeit one that has been betrayed by the Obama administration. Even as the most ideological neoconservatives have, one by one, disavowed, apologized for, or otherwise sought to distance themselves from what retired Lt. Gen. William Odom called the "greatest strategic disaster in United States history," the two Republican Senators most identified with this catastrophe have continued to insist they were right. Now Gen. David Petraeus has joined the tag-team of Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham and taken to the pages of Foreign Policy magazine to make the case – and, in doing so, have merely succeeded in underscoring why they were so wrong to begin with.
Gen. Petraeus’s fifteen thousand word apologia – egregiously titled "How We Won In Iraq"! – is mostly jargon-filled gobbledygook combined with the tone of an Emmy Awards speech: in it, he seeks to paint a portrait of the so-called "surge" as a great victory, which somehow slipped from our fingers. The piece is a panegyric to himself interspersed with mentions of all the people he believes contributed to his great success. Ignoring all that nonsense, however, and focusing on the substantive parts, one is forced to conclude that the General lives in a parallel universe, one where up is down, right is left, and the "Arab Awakening" wasn’t a case of massive bribery but a "surge of ideas" that simply swept away Al Qaeda-in-Iraq and led our forces to a glorious triumph.
Left unmentioned by Petraeus is the fact that we had to bribe the foot-soldiers of the so-called Arab Awakening, and that whatever gripes they had with Al Qaeda or other "extremist" forces had little or nothing to do with their actual motivations for cooperating with US forces. And while the General has no problem trumpeting his own genius in creating this Sunni auxiliary to the occupation forces, the Office for the Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction could find no documentation supporting the General’s self-congratulatory conclusions of "success." The Inspector General "conducted a review of 98 SOI [Sons of Iraq] project files and found little information on project accomplishments or successes." One lengthy section of the report is entitled "Sons of Iraq May Have Contributed to Reducing Violence, but Lack of Documentation Precludes Drawing Empirically Based Conclusions." So I guess we’ll just have to take the General’s word for it….
Petraeus puts much emphasis on how the "surge" wasn’t just a military strategy but also a political tactic that involved giving the people of Iraq a real stake in supporting or at least tolerating the occupation. Reconstruction efforts, propaganda initiatives, and other "civil society" projects are touted – but once the US military departed, these supposed "success stories" evaporated like morning dew. The reason is because they were never real to begin with, but only the byproducts of the General’s confirmation bias and the grandiose delusions of his neoconservative supporters in Washington.
The reality is that the "surge" was "successful" only insofar as the extra 20,000 US troops it required could continue to tamp down the insurgency by simply outgunning it. Neutralizing the insurgency’s periphery by means of bribery no doubt had some effect, but putting thousands of Sunni fighters on the US government payroll indefinitely was never an option. Once the money dried up – along with the patience of the American people – these elements reverted to their old ways. Indeed, a good number of them are among the frontline fighters of the Islamist rebels in Syria – and back on Uncle Sam’s payroll.
While Petraeus is mainly concerned with salvaging what is left of his reputation, Sen. McCain is more concerned with somehow proving the Iraq war was not only a great victory, but that US troops should still be in Iraq. As unlikely – indeed, crazy – as this sounds, it highlights how committed McCain (and Graham) are to the wrongheaded notions of the Bush era, which deluded our political class into believing they could conquer, occupy, and transform a country thousands of miles away from our shores, turning it into the Middle Eastern equivalent of Kansas.
McCain’s polemic takes up where Petraeus leaves off. While the General never says he wants US troops back in Iraq, and only implicitly criticizes the Obama administration for leaving, the Senate’s most consistent Mad Bomber and his sidekick openly declare we should never have left. We "lost" Iraq, says McCain-Graham, and the country is gong to pieces because the Obama administration didn’t negotiate an agreement to keep at least 15,000 US troops in the country:
"Nowhere was the Obama administration’s failure more pronounced than during the debate over whether to maintain a limited number of U.S. troops in Iraq beyond the 2011 expiration of the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) – a debate in which we were actively involved. Here, too, the administration is quick to lay blame on others for the fact that they tried, and failed, to keep a limited presence of troops in Iraq. They have blamed the Bush administration, of course, for mandating the withdrawal in the 2008 SOFA. This does not ring true, however, because as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has made clear, the plan all along was to renegotiate the agreement to allow for a continued presence of US forces in Iraq. ‘Everybody believed,’ she said in 2011, ‘it would be better if there was some kind of residual force.’"
Everybody, that is, but the Iraqis. The Americans thought any government that came out of the occupation would be pro-American: they were wrong. The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was and is pro-Iranian, sectarian Shi’ite, and at the time contained elements unalterably opposed to a US military presence of any size. Without the support of ultra-nationalist Muqtada al-Sadr and his fellow Sadrists in the Iraqi parliament, the Maliki government would have fallen.
Remember all the triumphalist guff we had to endure when the Iraqi elections were held? The neocon blogosphere was awash with images of ink-stained fingers held aloft, and the moment was hailed by Bush as a "resounding success," while his amen corner in the Anglo-American media agreed. “The world is hearing the voice of freedom from the center of the Middle East,” Bush bloviated. “In great numbers, and under great risk, Iraqis have shown their commitment to democracy.” Every network television station broadcast the news, showing Iraqis patiently standing in line to vote and proudly displaying their stained fingers. The neocon army to "liberate" the Middle East was on the march, and the few naysayers were ignored and/or mocked.
As I repeatedly and insistently pointed out at the time, however, the results of those elections did not bode well for the neocon dream of a “democratic” Iraq allied with Washington. The megalomaniacs in charge of the Occupation Authority thought they could get away with instituting a system of "caucus" elections that could be easily manipulated to ensure a "pro-American" result: those were the days when embezzler, "hero in error" (and Iranian agent) Ahmed Chalabi was being touted by Danielle Pletka and the gang over at the American Enterprise Institute as the future leader of a "democratic" Iraq.
But Chalabi, who was on the US payroll, had no support inside Iraq, and his "Iraqi National Congress" was simply the creation of Washington, which had funded the INC in return for the outrageous lies that passed for "intelligence" on Iraq’s alleged "weapons of mass destruction."
Aside from that little problem, there was the big problem of the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the powerful leader of Iraq’s majority Shi’ite sect, who was demanding direct elections. When the Occupation Authority tried to go ahead with the "caucus" plan anyway, Sistani called his followers out into the streets and the result was pandemonium. Forced to retreat, the Bush administration had no choice but to accede to the Ayatollah’s demand – or else face the prospect of a really massive rebellion that would make the Sunni insurgency seem like a Sunday school picnic.
It was inevitable that if truly democratic elections were held in Iraq the result was not going to be to Washington’s liking, and that is precisely what occurred. McCain doesn’t say it in so many words, but he would have liked to have seen Maliki simply issue an executive order approving the Status of Forces Agreement – with the boilerplate stipulation, encoded in every SOFA where US forces are stationed, immunizing American soldiers from prosecution by local courts. That provision was a deal-breaker for the Iraqi parliament, and particularly for Maliki’s own party and his coalition partners.
The legal immunity provision is the insignia of American hegemony in the countries where we have bases and "interests." By limiting the sovereignty of the empire’s provinces in this way, and on their own territory, Washington formalizes their subjugation in a "legal" sense. Maliki did not and could not agree to this – not without provoking a head on collision between the majority Shi’ites and the occupying forces.
If the "COINdinista" strategy advocated by Petraeus had any validity, we should have won at least enough hearts and minds in Iraq to make the presence of some 15,000 to 26,000 "residual" US troops somewhat palatable. As it was, not a single Iraqi party with parliamentary representation supported continuing the SOFA. In the end, even the 3,000 "trainers" who were supposed to stay on were asked to leave – a far cry indeed from the "they’ll greet us with rose petals" scenario projected by the armchair warriors over at Neocon Central.
McCain blames the Obama administration for the failure of the SOFA negotiations, but is vague about what, specifically, US officials should have done short of forcing the Iraqis to comply with our demands and simply refusing to leave.
Iraq is in chaos today for a simple reason: we blasted the Iraqi Humpty-Dumpty to bits and there’s no putting it back together again. McCain and Graham complain that the Sunnis are up in arms, Al Qaeda is back, and the Kurds are growing restive – and yet it was the “two amigos” who were loudest in their support of a war that destroyed the only force that had kept the country together since the 1960s.
While "what if" is, properly speaking, a category of fiction, it’s useful in this case to construct a likely alternative history. What if George W. Bush had rejected the advice of his neoconservative advisors and "Operation Iraqi Freedom" never happened? Given that the "Arab Spring" was already in the cards, and the conditions prevailing in secular dictatorships like Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia were replicated in Ba’athist Iraq, Saddam’s regime would likely have fallen to the same turmoil that engulfed Hosni Mubarak and Qadaffi. If only we had waited, we would’ve seen Saddam’s end in the by and by.
While this may not have resulted in a political system up to the standards of the National Endowment for Democracy and "Freedom House," one can hardly imagine it would have been worse than what we see in Iraq today.
The very idea that we have "lost" Iraq is indicative of the Senators’ mindset, and the whole reason why the invasion will go down in history along with the Vietnam war as an unmitigated disaster for the United States: Iraq was never ours to begin with, since it is, you know, a foreign country. We have no more "lost" Iraq than we "lost" Mexico after withdrawing from that country in the aftermath of the Mexican-American war.
Like Teddy Roosevelt, whom he clearly patterns himself after, McCain is an out-and-out advocate of imperialism: Teddy wanted to annex Cuba, and the Philippines. McCain and Graham clothe their expansionist agenda in "democratic" raiment, but the idea is the same: he wishes US troops were still in Iraq, as they would be in Syria if he’d had his way there.
It was Max Boot, one of many neocon Napoleons, who wrote a piece for the Weekly Standard openly making "The Case for American Empire," and the McCain-Graham duo have been its biggest advocates. Yet they are completely isolated, at this point, even in their own party – or, I might say, especially in their own party, where the dreaded "isolationists" (i.e. anti-interventionists who reflect the views of the American people) are in the ascendant.
I don’t know what the McCain-Graham-Petraeus triumvirate is trying to accomplish with their revisionist history project, beyond scoring some points off the Obama administration: perhaps there’s some ass-covering involved, too. Because the only occasion we’ll see US troops back in Iraq in any numbers is in the event of war with Iran, in which case what Petraeus insists on calling the Land of the Two Rivers will be a big part of the battlefield.
This is an outcome McCain and Graham would dearly love to see, but they are swimming against the political tides. Because it wasn’t just the resistance on the part of the Iraqis that made the continued presence of US troops in Iraq untenable – by the time the SOFA negotiations were going full swing, the American people were done with Iraq – and with the entire region. If the Obama administration had kept our troops there, they would have faced an open rebellion in Congress, in their own party, and in the country at large. Just like Maliki, they faced a choice: either get US troops out of there, or else risk their own political legitimacy.
McCain still hasn’t learned the lesson of the Syrian debate, when the country rose up and demanded that President Obama abandon his plans to intervene in Syria’s civil war. The American people don’t want an empire – they want out of the "world leadership" business. They don’t want another Teddy Roosevelt – they want someone like Dwight Eisenhower, who ended the Korean war, cut the military budget, and warned against what he called the "military-industrial complex." In the early years of this decade, it wasn’t so clear that the McCains and Grahams of this world were and are the voice of that Complex: today, however, they’ve quite clearly been unmasked. Their days as forces to be reckoned with have already passed. They just don’t know it yet.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.