Will the U.S. return to the scene of the crimes?

June 19, 2014

U.S. intervention in Iraq is the source of the problem, not the solution.

THE DRUMS of war are sounding again in Washington.

In the span of a week, military forces led by the Sunni fundamentalists of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have gone on the offensive across northern Iraq, taking control of some of the biggest and most oil-rich cities in the country.

By Wednesday, June 18, Barack Obama was meeting with congressional leaders to tell them he didn't need congressional approval for whatever military means he might decide to deploy--based on Congress's authorization of the use of military force against Iraq that passed in 2002--which Obama had only recently called on Congress to repeal.

Obama said that the only measure he ruled out was sending U.S. troops back to Iraq--but then announced he had dispatched a few hundred U.S. military personnel. Obama also ordered an aircraft carrier and two guided-missile ships into the Persian Gulf, off Iraq's coast, and said he was weighing whether air strikes--possibly by drone, possibly by human-operated aircraft--should be used to defend the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki against a Sunni insurgency that is the product of years of bloodshed in both Iraq and Syria.

A U.S. soldier in Iraq

Meanwhile, an odd trio--Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Republican Sen. John McCain and Republican Chuck Hagel, Obama's Defense Secretary--were calling for Maliki to step down because of his failure to head off the crisis. "The Maliki government, candidly, has got to go if you want any reconciliation," said Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee.

But it's actually typical for debates over U.S. foreign policy to produce strange bedfellows. While party ideologues may look to score points, the foreign-policy realists and practical-minded politicians don't hesitate to join hands across party lines when it comes to Washington's wars.

To the strategists of the U.S. empire, a military crisis in the country it invaded and then occupied for almost a decade certainly calls for a clear and urgent response. Only there are no U.S. responses that can repair the damage done by years of American intervention--there are only bad options to choose from for the U.S. government.

The strain of Sunni fundamentalism that drives ISIS is reactionary and repulsive. But this is the predictable outcome of sectarian divisions that the U.S. relied on--in fact, promoted--during its years as Iraq's colonial overlord.

Meanwhile, Maliki's regime--installed and blessed by the U.S. in the years before American troops withdrew in 2011--has almost no support outside of Iraq's Shia-dominated areas. Of course, while the U.S. was forced to withdraw combat troops, it still operates the world's largest embassy in Baghdad, which employs 15,000 people.)

This new stage in Iraq's civil war is the bitter fruits of "constructive chaos"--the doctrine coined by George W. Bush's Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that summed up the neoconservative fantasy of redrawing the map of the Middle East after the 9/11 attacks in an attempt to lock in a new century of American dominance.

But in the end, the U.S. war caused enormous loss of life and suffering--many hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead and millions more driven from their homes--cost a staggering $3 trillion, inadvertently strengthened the regional influence of U.S. rival Iran, and now threatens to pull apart Iraq and the web of regional alliances that the U.S. has largely benefited from over the course of decades.

For the people of Iraq and the rest of the region, who daily live with the consequences of "constructive chaos," the return of the U.S.--whether in the form of troops, air strikes, economic sanctions or anything else--can only mean more suffering.

THE DEBATE gripping Washington over "what went wrong in Iraq" variously blames the Obama administration's supposedly "hasty withdrawal" of U.S. troops, the Maliki government or both. But there is a common thread uniting these and other claims--that sectarian hatred between Shia and Sunni Muslim, dating back centuries, is suddenly bursting forth.

"Al Qaeda-inspired extremists raising flags over Iraq's embattled cities triggers in me the same thing that runs through the minds of any veteran who served there, which is bitter disappointment that Iraq's leaders failed to unite for the good of their people," Gen. Martin Dempsey, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Senate subcommittee.

This is grotesque hypocrisy. Not only does Dempsey's statement manipulatively draw on the memory of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq--after the soldiers who survived have been denied decent medical and mental health care by the Department of Veterans Affairs--but it also ignores that the U.S. bears the chief responsibility for the sectarian violence in Iraq.

Iraq was once one of the region's most advanced countries, by economic, social and cultural measures. At least during the modern era, its various religious and ethnic communities identified with Iraq as a nation first and their other identities secondarily. In the words of Iraqi sociologist Sami Ramadani, writing in the Guardian:

Until the 1970s, nearly all Iraq's political organizations were secular, attracting people from all religions and none. The dividing lines were sharply political, mostly based on social class and political orientation. The growth of religious parties followed [Saddam Hussein's] ruthless elimination of all political entities other than the Baath Party. Places of worship became centers of political agitation and organization...

Commentators on Iraq often refer to ethnic wars waged against its Kurdish people. They fail to mention that none of these wars were popular but were ruthlessly pursued by repressive regimes, particularly Saddam's.

Yet no crime committed by Hussein was too appalling during the era when the U.S. considered him an ally. During the 1980s, he infamously used chemical weapons--supplied courtesy of the Reagan administration--against the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988, killing thousands of civilians.

BUT THE cancer of sectarianism really took hold after Hussein's downfall with the U.S. invasion in 2003, according to Ramadani:

Every tribe in Iraq has Sunnis and Shia in its ranks. Every town and city has a mix of communities. My experience of Iraq, and that of all friends and relatives, is that of an amazing mix of coexisting communities, despite successive divide-and-rule regimes.

The most serious sectarian and ethnic tensions in Iraq's modern history followed the 2003 U.S.-led occupation, which faced massive popular opposition and resistance. The U.S. had its own divide-and-rule policy, promoting Iraqi organizations founded on religion, ethnicity, nationality or sect, rather than politics. Many senior officers in the newly formed Iraqi army came from these organizations and Saddam's army. This was exacerbated three years ago, when sectarian groups in Syria were backed by the U.S., Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

During its occupation, the U.S. consciously appealed to the resentments of the Shia communities neglected by Hussein's primarily Sunni Baath Party. According to Middle East expert Juan Cole:

The U.S. overthrew Saddam Hussein of the Baath Party in 2003 in alliance with Shiite groups primarily. Those Shiite groups wanted revenge on the disproportionately Sunni Baath Party. They carried out a program of "de-Baathification," in which they fired tens of thousands of Sunni Arabs from their government jobs as bureaucrats and even teachers. They hired Shiite clients instead...

In the new Iraq, Sunni high status was turned upside down. The Sunnis had been the top graduates of the officer training academies, the equivalent of West Point. They disproportionately dominated the officer corps. They were at the top of the Baath Party. They were the rich entrepreneurs to whom lucrative government contracts were given. Now they were made unemployed, or given menial jobs, while the goodies went to the members of Shiite religious parties. Massive unemployment swept the Sunni cities in 2003-2004...

Sunni Iraqis had been, in the 20th century, cosmopolitan and often modernists. Many were liberals yearning for democracy...[Today] they have turned in desperation to rural fundamentalists who want a medieval caliphate, only because of the vast reversal in their fortunes resulting from the Bush invasion and occupation, and the unfair policies of the Shiite government, which has turned them from an elite into an underclass. They are capable, trained, educated people. They aren't going to put up with that, and if turning to al-Qaeda is the only way to avoid that fate, they are often willing now to do it.

IN 1945, a U.S. State Department document described the Middle East's vast oil reserves as "one of the greatest material prizes in world history." At the beginning of the first Gulf War against Iraq, in 1991, Lawrence Korb, assistant defense secretary in the Reagan administration, reinforced the point about U.S. imperial motivations following Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait: "If Kuwait grew carrots, we wouldn't give a damn."

Since the end of the Second World War, the U.S. has invested literally trillions of dollars and squandered countless lives--mostly Middle Eastern lives, but also those of U.S. soldiers--to guarantee American imperialism's control over the oil resources of Middle Eastern nations.

Since 1991, Iraq has paid a terrible price--millions dead, maimed or ruined by military warfare, millions more by economic warfare. This was meant to as a cautionary tale to any regime--in the Middle East or around the world--that might dare to defy U.S. interests.

Washington followed through on the 1991 pledge of Secretary of State James Baker to Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz that the U.S. would bomb Iraq back to the Stone Age. After that came a decade of sanctions--which Bill Clinton's Secretary of State Madeleine Albright responded to with the obscene statement that the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children was "worth it"--another devastating war and now an ongoing nightmare of sectarian violence.

For the rulers of U.S. imperialism, all of this "collateral damage" is a mere sideshow in its pursuit of the world's greatest material prize: oil.

But what is unfolding in Iraq now poses a threat to the carefully constructed, delicately balanced, intricate web of alliances crisscrossing the Middle East that have allowed the U.S. to maintain its strategic dominance in the region and guaranteed the flow of enormous profits to multinational oil companies.

This is what really lies behind Barack Obama's talk of trying to insure "stability" in Iraq.

But "stability" for U.S. political leaders means "instability" for millions of people in Iraq displaced from their homes, fearing renewed violence, suffering from poverty and unemployment, and enduring a civilian infrastructure devastated by decades of U.S. war.

When justice is finally served, the U.S. will be compelled to pay many, many billions of dollars in reparations to the Iraqi people. Until then, our efforts need to be directed at keeping the U.S. from continuing to menace Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. Whether this takes the form of air strikes by warplanes or drones, troops on the ground or "negotiations" at the point of a gun, we must demand that the U.S. government keep its hands off Iraq.

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