On August 31, 2010 President Obama officially called to an end the war in Iraq. I use the word officially because of the US’s long standing tradition of adhering to the Hotel California principle of troop withdrawal. That is they may check out any time, but they will never leave. Which is why they still have a significant military presence in Europe, Japan, and Korea, decades after they ceased to be theaters of war. Now Iraq will be added to that long list with 50,000 US servicemen staying back, post-withdrawal, to “support” the Iraqi government.
History will look upon this as possibly the biggest American foreign policy blunder ever (and there is stiff competition for this honor), a war fought for the wrong reasons against the wrong enemy, a war for “cheap oil” that pushed oil prices up, a war to limit Iran’s influence that made Iran more powerful, a war to eliminate Al Qaeda that established a base for them where none existed, a war to establish US’s hegemony over the world that ended up increasing further its indebtedness to China and overall compromised its position as a military and economic superpower in a way not even the most dangerous radical Islam plot could ever hope to accomplish.
Reams have been written about the culpability of George Bush’s administration, wherein powerful members had direct financial interests in the conduct of the war and in the reconstruction efforts that followed. Comparatively less attention has been focused on the many Democrats who sided with the decision to invade Iraq (but quicky turned anti-war when the casualties started coming in and the war became the protracted long-drawn mess that it will be remembered for) and the many mainstream media pundits who stayed silent when the drumroll was being sounded, not pointing out, perhaps because they themselves did not appreciate the nuances of the situation, the sheer ridiculousness of the alleged nexus between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein which served as one of the justifying reasons for the aggression (the other being the equally bogus claim of WMD possession).
To understand why this is ridiculous, one must go back a bit, to one of the most significant historical events of modern times—-the Iranian revolution of 1979. The United States of America, ostensibly because Iran was a listening post to monitor arch-rival USSR as well as a source of oil, had a vital strategic interest in keeping it “friendly” (euphemism for “as a vassal state”). This is why the CIA had overthrown the democratically elected, popular leader Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 and installed the puppet regime of the Shah. In 1979, Shia cleric, Ayatollah Khomeni led a popular revolt of clerics against the Shah, seized power dramatically in a widely televised insurrection, held US embassy officials hostage and sparked off what many historians like Vali Nassr have called the “Shia revival”. It was unprecedented in its assertion of the power of political Islam, a display so stirring that it threw the Middle East into a tizzy. For long, the people on the streets in Cairo, Damascus and Gaza had become disillusioned with the largely secular Arabic leadership which they felt had achieved nothing with regards to solving the Palestine problem because they were weak, corrupt and always bickering. Now, Ayatollah’s revolution showed the people on the streets what a powerful ideological umbrella Islam could be.
This assertion of radical, virulently anti-American Islam as a potent political force was not only disquieting for the Americans but also for the House of Saud, the ruling family of Saudi Arabia. Like the Shah, they too were autocrats, lived lives of luxuriant opulence on the basis of their petroleum wealth and were militarily propped up by the Americans. And also, just like the Shah, they were facing increasingly strident rumblings from their clerical class, who wanted a greater say in the running of the country and of course the spoils of oil. The House of Saud, initially tried to placate them through placation and subjugation—the carrot consisted of endorsing an increasingly radical and medieval implementation of Islam and the stick was the imprisonment of many Islamic dissidents. That strategy worked to a point but the clerical class in Saudi Arabia, tapping into the discontent in the region, kept on getting stronger.
The Iranian revolution was seen, by the House of Saud, a blueprint for how they too could be toppled. This made them desperate to ensure that the rule of the clerics in Iran was overthrown. And if that was not enough reason to hate Ayatollah’s Iran, there was also the small matter of the fact that while Saudis were Sunnis, the Iranis were Shias, whom the Sunnis hate with a passion. And here was the Ayatollah making grand statements about the Palestine conflict, propping up the Hezbollah with their oil money and in general meddling in Saudi turf, throwing a barely concealed challenge to their authority in the region.
It was in this context that the Saudis approached Saddam Hussein, the ruler of Iraq. Saddam was a rather interesting specimen. Politically he was a Ba’athist, the Ba’ath philosophy an expression of radically socialist, Communist-leaning, secular Arab nationalism. He was also a megalomaniac in the best traditions of African despots, with grand designs of emerging as a mythic Arab hero. He was also a Sunni ruling a majority Shia country, where radical Shias, with support from Iran, were trying to overthrow him. The Saudis convinced Saddam to launch an assault against Shia Iran, promising him financial backing and logistic and military support from the United States. This last thing was supervised by, among other people, Reagan’s special envoy to the Middle East, one Donald Rumsfeld, who would in a few years become to Saddam, and here I am translating Dilip Kumar in Saudagar, the most dangerous type of enemy a man can have, the ex-best-friend.
But the Iranians held on in the face of a dirty war, one which saw chemical warfare being used. Soon it was Saddam’s Iraq which went on the backfoot. When Saddam turned to Saudi Arabia for more cash, he only heard the sound of doors closing in Riyadh. The Sauds had become sick of his craziness and corruption and refused to finance this war further. In petulance, Saddam decided to attack Kuwait with the aim of using its oil revenue to shore up his depleted coffers.
Lets leave the story here and go back to the Iranian revolution of 1979 again. Besides unleashing the beast of political Islam, it also provoked the Russians to make the hasty decision to invade Afghanistan, driven by the fear that with Iran lost, the Americans would move their listening posts there. The Americans, with logistic support provided by the ISI, decided to create an army of radical Sunni Islam Mujahideen to take on the Russians. The most radical Islamic crazies, languishing in prisons in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, were given the opportunity to come to Afghanistan and wage jihad against the Godless Communists.That they did, training in special military camps collectively referred to as The Base. Or Al Qaeda.
There was but one problem, to unite this diverse group of Egyptians, Syrians, Palestinians and Saudis, a figurehead would be needed, preferably someone with royal blood. Now the Saudi princes,while fine with donating money for a holy cause, were not going to leave their lives of luxurious debauchery and fight in the badlands of Afghanistan against a ruthless enemy. Well all except one, a second-rate royal, considered fanatically crazy and lethal by the Saudis themselves. One Osama Bin Laden.
Osama and his friends, once they had defeated the Russians, needed a new place to fight the infidels. Here the key figures in Al Qaeda differed among themselves. Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian, wanted to take the fight to the Israelis in Pakistan. Egyptian cleric, Ayman al-Zawahiri wanted to overthrow the secular government in Egypt which was cracking down on Islamic Jihad and the Brotherhood. The ISI wanted the Mujahideen to fight in Kashmir. While Osama, emboldened by having defeated one superpower, felt strong enough to take on the other and establish the empire of Islam. In the struggle for the future of Al Qaeda, Osama won—Azzam was assassinated by a bomb blast and al-Zawahiri, smart man no doubt, threw in his hat with Osama.
It was around this time that Saddam’s army rolled into Kuwait. Osama went to Saudi Arabia, offered King Fahd the services of his band of Jihadis to fight Saddam, who he perceived as Godless secular communist, an enemy of his vision of Islam. The Sauds, very wisely, preferred the organized army of the United States over the ragtag fighters of Osama. And so when the US forced set foot in Saudi Arabia to start Desert Shield, Osama declared war on not only the US but also on the house of Saud.
This long recounting of history was needed just to demonstrate how unlikely it would have been for Osama and Saddam, sworn enemies of each other, to cooperate with each other, even against their sworn enemy the US. And yet, there was hardly any mention of this deep visceral ideological schism between the two (and for people like Osama, ideology is everything and not pragmatics) in the run-in to the Iraq war in the popular space. To the average Americans, and afraid to say even those in power, everyone in that region was just Muslim—Shia or Sunni be damned, purely defined by their opposition to the US and never by their own deep divisions and blood feuds.
Even today, the Republican foreign policy agenda remains to engage aggressively with Iran. Here too, none of the major political commentators seem to want to call out the entity that would benefit most from an US-Iran conflict, namely Saudi Arabia. The same entity that benefited the most from Saddam’s overthrow, the same entity that would love for the US to fight their regional battles for them, with the US taxpayer footing the bill.
Instead most popular discourse follows predictable and simplistic ideological fault lines—-for the conservative press every Muslim country is evil, driven solely by their hatred of the “greatest nation in the world” and for the liberals, “Israel and the conservatives” are the bogyemen. [As an example, Michael Moore shows how the Bush family has had close ties with the Bin Ladens, primarily as a means to personally discredit the Bushes without analyzing the wider political ramifications of the many interests of the Saudi ruling class in all sections of the American political landscape, including a large stake in the mouthpiece of the Conservatives—Fox Networks]
It is because of the pervasive ignorance of the region’s complexities, that the US press never asks the questions they should be asking like “Do explain to me why sworn enemies and utter loonies like Saddam and Bin Laden would co-operate with each other” or “Is it a co-incidence that every time we end up overthrowing a regime, that regime just happens to be one of the biggest enemies of the Saudis?”
Which is also why the US will keep getting shepherded from one destructive war to another on the falsest of pretexts.