Confronted with the greatest opportunity for global peace in nearly a century, George H. W. Bush did not hesitate: Upon the advice of his retainers, he immediately elected the path of war in the Persian Gulf.
This endeavor was hatched by Henry Kissinger’s economically illiterate protégés at the National Security Council and Bush’s Texas oilman secretary of state, James Baker. They falsely claimed that the will-o’-the-wisp of "oil security" was at stake, and that 500,000 American troops needed to be planted in the sands of Arabia.
That was a catastrophic error, and not only because the presence of "crusader" boots on the purportedly sacred soil of Arabia offended the CIA-recruited and trained mujahedin of Afghanistan, who had become unemployed when the Soviet Union collapsed.
The CNN-glorified war games in the Gulf during early 1991 also further empowered another group of unemployed crusaders. Namely, the neocon national-security fanatics who had misled Ronald Reagan into a massive military buildup to thwart what they claimed to be an ascendant Soviet Union bent on nuclear-war-winning capabilities and global conquest.
Needless to say, the gray men of the Kremlin by the 1980s were as evil as ever, but they were also quite rational and did not have a nuclear-war winning strategy in any way shape or form. That was just a pack of neocon lies, which, in any event, led to a massive defense buildup that had virtually nothing to do with containing the ballyhooed Soviet strategic nuclear threat. As it happened, the latter was being handled well enough by the already built, in-place and paid for strategic nuclear triad – forces which well pre-dated the Reagan buildup.
So when the defense budget went from $134 billion in 1980 to $304 billion in 1989, this unprecedented 130% peacetime rise (+50% in inflation-adjusted dollars) went overwhelmingly to the building of a globe-spanning conventional forces armada that was utterly unneeded in a world with or without the Soviet Union.
Accordingly, everything on land, sea and air was upgraded and expanded. This included the 600-ship Navy and 12 carrier battle groups; massive upgrades of the fleet of M1 tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles; and endless procurement of cruise missiles, fixed wing planes, rotary aircraft, air-and sea-lift capacity, surveillance and electronic warfare capacity and a black budget so large as to dwarf anything that had gone before.
In a word, the misguided Reagan defense buildup enabled the invasions and occupations that commenced almost instantly after the Soviet demise. That is to say, the neocon defense buildup of the 1980s fathered the "Forever Wars" of the 1990s and beyond.
The folly and deceit of the purportedly anti-Soviet defense buildup was evident enough at the time because by the mid-1980s the Evil Empire was already unraveling at the seams economically – and for the simply reason that communism and rigidly centralized command-and-control economics don’t work. But a few years later the Big Lie became abundantly clear to the entire world via the spectacle of Boris Yeltsin, vodka flask in hand, facing down the Red Army in 1991.
Like the proverbial last straw on the camel’s back, in the end the mighty Soviet Union was taken down by one of its own drunken apparatchiks.
That is to say, the entire neocon narrative of an ascendant, bent on world conquest Soviet Union was made a mockery. That alone should have sent the neocons into the permanent disrepute and obscurity they so richly deserved.
But Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, and rest of the neocon gang surrounding Bush the Elder managed to deftly pull a "bait and switch" maneuver of no mean extent. Suddenly, it wasn’t about the Soviet Union at all, but the alleged lesson from Washington’s Pyrrhic victory in Kuwait that "regime change" among the assorted tyrannies of the Middle East was in America’s national interest.
More fatally, the neocons now insisted that the first Gulf War proved regime change could be achieved through a sweeping interventionist menu of coalition diplomacy, security assistance, arms shipments, covert action and open military attack and occupation via the spanking new conventional forces armada that the Reagan Administration had bequeathed.
What the neocon doctrine of regime change actually did, of course, was to foster the Frankenstein that ultimately became ISIS. In fact, the only real terrorists in the world who have threatened normal civilian life in the West during the last three decades were the rogue offspring of Imperial Washington’s post-1990 machinations in the Middle East.
The CIA-trained and CIA-armed mujahedin mutated into al-Qaeda not because bin Laden suddenly had a religious epiphany that his Washington benefactors were actually the Great Satan owing to America’s freedom and liberty.
His murderous crusade was inspired by the Wahhabi fundamentalism loose in Saudi Arabia. This benighted religious fanaticism became agitated to a fever pitch by Imperial Washington’s violent plunge into Persian Gulf political and religious quarrels, the stationing of troops in Saudi Arabia, and the decade-long barrage of sanctions, embargoes, no-fly zones, covert actions and open hostility against the Sunni regime in Baghdad after 1991.
Yes, bin Laden would have amputated Saddam’s secularist head if Washington hadn’t done it first, but that’s just the point. The attempt at regime change in March 2003 was one of the most foolish acts of state in American history.
Indeed, Bush the Younger’s neocon advisers had no clue about the sectarian animosities and historical grievances that Hussein had bottled up by parsing the oil loot and wielding the sword under the banner of Baathist nationalism. But "shock and awe" blew the lid and the de-Baathification campaign unleashed the furies.
Indeed, no sooner had George Bush pranced around on the deck of the Abraham Lincoln declaring "mission accomplished" than Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant and small-time specialist in hostage taking and poisons, emerged as a flamboyant agitator in the now-dispossessed Sunni heartland of Iraq .
The founder of ISIS succeeded in Fallujah and Anbar province just like the long list of other terrorist leaders Washington claims to have exterminated. That is, Zarqawi gained his following and notoriety among the region’s population of deprived, brutalized and humiliated young men by dint of being more brutal than their occupiers.
Indeed, even as Washington was crowing about its eventual liquidation of Zarqawi, the remnants of the Baathist regime and the hundreds of thousands of demobilized republican guards were coalescing into al-Qaeda in Iraq, and their future leaders were being incubated in a monstrous nearby detention center called Camp Bucca that contained more than 26,000 prisoners.
As one former U.S. Army officer, Mitchell Gray, later described it,
"You never see hatred like you saw on the faces of these detainees," Gray remembers of his 2008 tour. "When I say they hated us, I mean they looked like they would have killed us in a heartbeat if given the chance. I turned to the warrant officer I was with and I said, ‘If they could, they would rip our heads off and drink our blood.
What Gray didn’t know – but might have expected – was that he was not merely looking at the United States’ former enemies, but its future ones as well. According to intelligence experts and Department of Defense records, the vast majority of the leadership of what is today known as ISIS, including its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, did time at Camp Bucca.
And not only did the US feed, clothe and house these jihadists, it also played a vital, if unwitting, role in facilitating their transformation into the most formidable terrorist force in modern history.
Early in Bucca’s existence, the most extreme inmates were congregated in Compound 6. There were not enough Americans guards to safely enter the compound – and, in any event, the guards didn’t speak Arabic. So the detainees were left alone to preach to one another and share deadly vocational advice . . .
Bucca also housed Haji Bakr, a former colonel in Saddam Hussein’s air-defense force. Bakr was no religious zealot. He was just a guy who lost his job when the Coalition Provisional Authority disbanded the Iraqi military and instituted de-Baathification, a policy of banning Saddam’s past supporters from government work.
According to documents recently obtained by German newspaper Der Spiegel, Bakr was the real mastermind behind ISIS’ organizational structure and also mapped out the strategies that fueled its early successes. Bakr, who died in fighting in 2014, was incarcerated at Bucca from 2006-’ 08, along with a dozen or more of ISIS’ top lieutenants."
The point is, regime change and nation building can never be accomplished by the lethal violence of 21st-century armed forces; and they were an especially preposterous assignment in the context of a land rent with 13-century-old religious fissures and animosities.
In fact, the wobbly, synthetic state of Iraq was doomed the minute Cheney and his bloody gang decided to liberate it from the brutal but serviceable and secular tyranny of Saddam’s Baathist regime. That’s because the process of elections and majority rule necessarily imposed by Washington was guaranteed to elect a government beholden to the Shiite majority.
After decades of mistreatment and Saddam’s brutal suppression of their 1991 uprising, did the latter have revenge on their minds and in their communal DNA? Did the Kurds have dreams of an independent Kurdistan spilling into Turkey and Syria that had been denied their 30-million-strong tribe way back at Versailles and ever since?
Yes, they did. So the $25 billion spent on training and equipping the putative armed forces of post-liberation Iraq was bound to end up in the hands of sectarian militias, not a national army.
In fact, when the Shiite commanders fled Sunni-dominated Mosul in June 2014 they transformed the ISIS uprising against the government in Baghdad into a vicious fledgling state in one fell swoop. But it wasn’t by beheadings and fiery jihadist sermons that it quickly enslaved dozens of towns and several million people in western Iraq and the Euphrates Valley of Syria.
The Islamic State Was Washington’s Very Own Frankenstein
To the contrary, its instruments of terror and occupation were the best weapons that the American taxpayers could buy. That included 2,300 Humvees and tens of thousands of automatic weapons, as well as vast stores of ammunition, trucks, rockets, artillery pieces and even tanks and helicopters.
And that wasn’t the half of it. The Islamic State also filled the power vacuum in Syria created by its so-called civil war. But in truth that was another exercise in Washington-inspired and Washington-financed regime change undertaken in connivance with Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
The princes of the petro-states were surely not interested in expelling the tyranny next door. Instead, the rebellion was about removing Iran’s Alawite/Shiite ally from power in Damascus and laying the gas pipelines to Europe – which Assad had vetoed – across the upper Euphrates Valley.
In any event, due to Washington’s regime change policy in Syria, ISIS soon had even more troves of American weapons. Some of them were supplied to Sunni radicals by way of Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
More came up the so-called "ratline" from Qaddafi’s former arsenals in Benghazi through Turkey. And still more came through Jordan from the "moderate" opposition trained there by the CIA, which more often than not sold them or defected to the other side.
That the Islamic State was Washington’s Frankenstein monster, therefore, became evident from the moment it rushed upon the scene in mid-2014. But even then the Washington War Party could not resist adding fuel to the fire, whooping up another round of Islamophobia among the American public and forcing the Obama White House into a futile bombing campaign for the third time in a quarter century.
But the Short-Lived Islamic State Was Never a Real Threat to America’s Homeland Security
The dusty, broken, impoverished towns and villages along the margins of the Euphrates River and in the bombed-out precincts of Anbar province did not attract thousands of wannabe jihadists from the failed states of the Middle East and the alienated Muslim townships of Europe because the caliphate offered prosperity, salvation or any future at all.
What recruited them was outrage at the bombs and drones dropped on Sunni communities by the US Air Force and by the cruise missiles launched from the bowels of the Mediterranean that ripped apart homes, shops, offices and mosques which mostly contained as many innocent civilians as ISIS terrorists.
The truth is, the Islamic State was destined for a short half-life anyway. It had been contained by the Kurds in the North and East and by Turkey with NATO’s second-largest army and air force in the Northwest. And it was further surrounded by the Shiite Crescent in the populated, economically viable regions of lower Syria and Iraq.
Absent Washington’s misbegotten campaign to unseat Assad in Damascus and demonize his confession-based Iranian ally, there would have been nowhere for the murderous fanatics who had pitched a makeshift capital in Raqqa to go. They would have run out of money, recruits, momentum and public acquiescence in their horrific rule in any event.
But with the US Air Force functioning as their recruiting arm and France’s anti-Assad foreign policy helping to foment a final spasm of anarchy in Syria, the gates of hell had been opened wide, unnecessarily.
What has been puked out was not an organized war on Western civilization as former French president Hollande so hysterically proclaimed in response to one of the predictable terrorist episodes of mayhem in Paris.
It was just blow-back carried out by that infinitesimally small contingent of mentally deformed young men who can be persuaded to strap on a suicide belt.
In any event, bombing did not defeat ISIS; it just temporarily made more of them.
Ironically, what did extinguish the Islamic State was the Assad military, the Russian air force invited into Syria by its official government and the ground forces of its Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard allies. It was they who settled an ancient quarrel that had never been any of America’s business anyway.
But Imperial Washington was so caught up in its myths, lies and hegemonic stupidity that it could not see the obvious. Accordingly, 31 years after the Cold War ended and several years after Syria and friends extinguished the Islamic State, Washington has learned no lessons.
The American Imperium still stalks the planet for new monsters to destroy – presently in the precincts of Russian-speaking eastern and southern Ukraine that are utterly irrelevant to America’s peace and security, as we will summarize, again, in the final Part 4 essay.
David Stockman was a two-term Congressman from Michigan. He was also the Director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Ronald Reagan. After leaving the White House, Stockman had a 20-year career on Wall Street. He’s the author of three books, The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed, The Great Deformation: The Corruption of Capitalism in America and TRUMPED! A Nation on the Brink of Ruin… And How to Bring It Back. He also is founder of David Stockman’s Contra Corner and David Stockman’s Bubble Finance Trader.