Middle Eastern regimes have waged war against America and the West since the 1960s. Because the U.S. government's occupation of Iraq violated the principles of statecraft, America is on the verge of losing a crucial round in that long war. And the responsibility for this impending debacle rests squarely on the uncomprehending U.S. foreign policy establishment—the officials, advisors, bureaucrats, prestige intellectuals, think-tank scholars, and journalists who have misunderstood what America is up against in the Middle East and mistaken our true national interest.
The occupation was unnecessary to any rational American purpose. As President George W. Bush spoke on April 30, 2003, under the banner "Mission Accomplished," representatives of the State and Defense Departments in Iraq were putting the finishing touches on the provisional government to which they were to devolve the country's affairs two weeks later. There was to be no occupation. Iraqis would sort out their own bloody quarrels. The victorious U.S. armed forces, having turned Saddam Hussein's regime over to its enemies, would challenge the Middle East's remaining terror regimes to adjust their behavior or suffer the same fate. But even as Bush seemed to be recruiting a sovereign Iraqi government, he was interviewing the disastrous Paul "Jerry" Bremer to be Iraq's viceroy and preparing United Nations resolution 1483 to "legitimize" the occupation. The Bush team then declared that occupying Iraq was necessary to transform it into a peaceful, united, liberal democracy, whose existence would coax nasty neighboring regimes to be nice. Bush had acceded to the private pleadings of then-Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, as well as of British Prime Minister Tony Blair—whose advice reflected the unanimous wishes of Arab governments. While the administration's newly minted mission was abstract and inherently beyond accomplishment, the Arab agendas—which had nothing in common with Bush's—were intensely practical. And they prevailed.
The occupation of Iraq should go down in history as a set of negative lessons about war, the relationship between ends and means, the need for unity of purpose and command, and dealing with the world as it is rather than as one imagines it to be. The occupation, a confection of the U.S. foreign policy establishment's hoariest recipes, is yet more evidence of that establishment's bankruptcy. Media myth notwithstanding, the administration's neoconservative component was sidelined as the occupation began. Bremer's political advisor was the realist Robert Blackwill of the Council on Foreign Relations, and his military advisor was Walter Slocombe, a liberal internationalist from the Carter and Clinton Administrations. By 2007 the occupation's military policy was being shaped by Stephen Biddle, another Kissingerian realist from the Council, for whom success means persuading somebody to accept America's surrender. Bush confused statecraft, the pursuit of the country's interests, with administrative politics—the consensus of constituencies in the bureaucracies (and their contractors), the prestige media, and the academy. As the disaster became undeniable, no one in the establishment dared to try to measure the occupation of Iraq against the standards of statecraft.
This essay is such an attempt. It draws from my own observation of events, as well as from books that have chronicled one or another aspect of the occupation. Bob Woodward's trilogy (which I reviewed in the Spring 2003 and Winter 2006/07 issues of the CRB) gives us a fly-on-the-wall view of the Bush team's deliberations. Ali Allawi's The Occupation of Iraq is a masterly history of the occupation from the standpoint of the occupied; it shows us what the various parts of Iraqi society have been concerned with and why, and therefore lets us see why the occupation could hardly have been other than foredoomed. John Agresto's Mugged by Reality is a thoughtful description of the confrontation between a neoconservative's ideals and Iraqi realities. In my "Victory Watch" series, the first installment of which was written within weeks of 9/11, I showed how the Bush team had failed in war's most essential task: the designation of the enemy whose undoing would give us the peace we want. I pointed out that overthrowing America's enemies made inherent sense, but that it made no sense to invade Iraq (or anyplace else) without quite knowing why.
Occupying Iraq, while Iraqis fought Iraqis for Iraqi stakes, made sense only to the U.S. foreign policy establishment. At odds with itself concerning who were our enemies and what were our objectives in this war, the establishment on which Bush relied never developed a coherent American agenda, but oscillated between various European and Middle Eastern agendas. Misunderstanding the character and especially the religion of the Iraqis and other Middle Easterners, our experts fostered illusions about what was and was not possible.
War and Military Force
On September 11, the American people recognized as war the hijackings, bombings, and murders in the name of Arab causes that have gnawed at our peace for a generation. The millions who cheered the New York firemen's flag over the Twin Towers' rubble joined the rescue workers' shouts to George W. Bush: "Whatever it takes! Whatever it takes!" Wholly empowered, Bush declared war first on Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, as if their elimination would by itself make America safe, and then on "extremism" and later "Islamofascism." These enemy "isms" served the fiction that the secular Arab regimes were allies in the "war on terror." Until Syria's 2005 murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the U.S. government—led by the CIA—imagined that Damascus was an ally, and accepted at face value its "intelligence" about terrorism. The CIA even imagined that it had privileged relations with elements of Iraqi intelligence. But after 9/11 neither the elimination of al-Qaeda's base in the Indian subcontinent nor the chasing of Muslim guerrillas in the world's backwaters would keep the "war on terror" from looking phony. Circumstances—and the American people—demanded forcing some kind of attitude adjustment on the Arab world. Saddam's Iraq was the only Arab regime with which the U.S. government was not enamored. But the U.S. government disagreed within itself about whether to overthrow Saddam, and about much else. Searching for a rationalization to please as many and displease as few constituencies as possible, Bush settled on saving the world from Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. But as I wrote in 2002, this political lowest common denominator provided no guidance about whom the troops should kill in order to accomplish what political end, and amounted to "leading with America's political chin."
Even before the invasion, the various Iraqi factions had been pursuing their incompatible agendas. But this cockpit of pent-up conflicts need not have concerned America had the U.S. government carried through with its announced intention to let the Iraqis rule themselves. Almost as reasonably, the U.S. could have chosen sides among Iraq's contenders, helping some fulfill their dreams at the others' expense—the age-old imperial recipe. But at the State Department and the CIA, the partisans of occupation were never disposed to force their imperial preference—a milder version of secular Sunni dominance—on the Iraqis. Working as they did under the banner of democracy, State and the CIA's limited efforts on behalf of their favored Iraqi group (also that of the Saudis, Egyptians, and Jordanians)—the Sunni Arabs—fostered only vain hopes and fruitless strife. Moreover, few of these half-hearted imperialists realized how thoroughly the religious, social, and cultural identity of Iraq's Shia majority had been subsumed by political movements; nor did they anticipate that the Sunni minority would refuse to accept the loss of political power and socioeconomic primacy inevitable in the fall of the Ba'ath party dictatorship—their dictatorship. In short, the authors of the occupation imagined that the Iraqis could easily be induced to forget the things that were most precious to them, and to reconcile themselves to a regime invented for them in Washington.
What would be the role of the U.S. armed forces in all this? Ali Allawi, a former minister of defense and of the interior in post-Saddam Iraq, writes that the Americans' pervasive searches of houses for weapons and suspects—families rousted from their intimacies, men imprisoned at the soldiers' discretion—as well as searches at checkpoints, humiliated and made enemies of millions of Iraqis. But indiscriminate searches were evidence of military malpractice: failure at the highest level to distinguish enemies we wanted to crush from whatever groups might be disposed to join in the crushing of their enemies. For what were our troops searching? For weapons? But lots of people had weapons. Common sense says that weapons in some hands serve our purposes, while weapons in other hands work against us. But U.S. soldiers were ordered to disarm Iraqis on all sides. Our troops were not to be on anybody's side, but rather to foster reconciliation, supposing that the population was eager for it, and to target the few irreconcilables, supposedly spread evenly among all groups. Over and above the unreality of these apolitical suppositions (about which more below), the inescapable consequence of U.S. leaders' failure to identify our enemies was that it forced American soldiers to treat every Iraqi as one. Because American soldiers occupying Iraq were not sent to kill anyone in particular, many paid with their lives for not being trigger-happy enough, while in turn many Iraqis died when soldiers, for whom self-preservation became the default mission, proved too trigger-happy.
On April 25, 2007, as U.S. casualties in Iraq neared 30,000 and the U.S. government was rushing more troops to patrol Baghdad's streets, Major General Robert H. Scales, Jr., former commandant of the U.S. Army War College, recited to the Senate Armed Services Committee what had become the military's mantra: we need culturally aware soldiers who can solve complex social problems. "A corporal standing guard in Baghdad or Fallujah can commit an act that might well affect the strategic outcome of an entire campaign.... Killing power is of no use unless a soldier on patrol knows who to kill." Nodding senators agreed with the general that the job of telling friend from foe belongs to the soldiers in harm's way, not to those who sit in safety regulating, equipping, and ordering them! This abdication, this downward buck-passing and all its consequences, is the logical outcome of President Bush's sending troops around the world without telling them clearly whom they should kill.
The U.S. government knew well enough that nearly all of those shooting at U.S. soldiers were Sunni Arabs, usually attached to Saddam's Ba'ath party, who were using foreign Wahabi suicide bombers—usually Saudis—as ordnance. Nevertheless, its response to the Sunni insurgency has been to try to co-opt it by arming and empowering those Sunni Ba'athist military figures who promise somehow to temper attacks on Americans. This purchase of truces as if there were no tomorrow was the hallmark of General David Petraeus's 2003 command in Mosul. It was the thinking behind turning Fallujah over to a Ba'athist general in 2004, who, in turn, made it into the insurrection's citadel. It is also, alas, the thinking behind the plan for extricating U.S. forces while maintaining a veneer of success that Petraeus was sent to execute in 2007, especially in Anbar province. The plan consisted of sending some 35,000 additional U.S. troops to provide "security" in Anbar province by working with some Sunnis, and in Baghdad by working against some Shia. Achieving lower U.S. body counts would underpin claims of success. But because one side's security is another's insecurity, troops on the ground know that "security" is inherently meaningless. This demoralized them, strengthened America's worst enemies among the Sunnis, and convinced the majority Shia that America was intent on double-crossing them. Whatever tactical victories the surge may bring, it is a formula for strategic defeat. Refusing to choose sides, the U.S. armed forces end up the enemy of all—and, surely worst of all, feared by none.
Itemizing the instances of the occupation's military malpractice is beyond my scope here. Note simply that most U.S. casualties result from roadside bombs—mines. Military manuals are clear about minefields: if they cannot be avoided, they must be cleared and crossed, once. The notion of living and driving around in replenished minefields, day after day, year after year, is contrary to military common sense. So is the notion of "nation-building." Armies don't build nations. If statesmen can point to people or things whose absence would do good, armies can kill or destroy them. But the most unnatural thing you can ever do with or to any army is to turn it from combat to occupation. After Vietnam, the U.S. officer corps resolved never to repeat the experience. Today's officers apparently like to talk as if occupation is the "new kind of war," and thus busy themselves buying new armor and perfecting techniques for searching houses. One wonders why. Better tactics can't rescue bad strategy.
Occupation policy was based substantially on the views of U.S. intelligence. Though the CIA station in Baghdad has over 500 officers, only a tiny handful speak Arabic well, fewer venture outside the Green Zone, and none could pass as anything but American. Even the armed forces, which have far more intimate contact with the population, are primarily the recipient of "intelligence" that reflects the agendas of the Iraqis supplying it. But since the CIA is dealing with less obviously verifiable matters, it is far more vulnerable to manipulation; doubly so, because it relies on the Iraqi intelligence service, made up largely of holdovers from the Saddam regime, with whom the CIA imagines it shares an agenda, and on "liaison relationships" with the Arab world's intelligence services. Thus do the Arab regimes mainline their agendas into the U.S. government.
Just how prone the CIA is to being manipulated continues to amaze. My own experience has been that, led by the CIA, the "intelligence community" passes rumors and disinformation up the line along with facts, displaying more regard for its own prejudices than for accuracy; and then repeats, masticates, and hypostatizes it all into official truths. I had thought it did this unconsciously. But in Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, published in June, Tim Weiner of the New York Times cites a report by the CIA's Inspector General, which shows that, between 1986 and 1994, the CIA passed to the president and cabinet reports from agents in the Soviet Union/Russia that it believed were controlled by the KGB. Doing so, says the report, was easier than admitting ignorance or failure. Moreover, senior officials believed the agent reports, albeit tainted, were telling the president things he needed to hear. This is not to say that U.S. intelligence is to blame for the U.S. government's collective mistakes in Iraq. But it is part of the problem.
The U.S. foreign policy establishment's vision of Iraq was of a country united and governed by a secular elite that would transcend confessional and racial differences. But those differences would not be transcended, except by violence. A vision at odds with reality could not be the basis of an agenda. Ali Allawi writes perceptively of "power struggles pitting all kinds of groups against each other, of which the CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority; effectively, the U.S.] was willfully ignorant. The problem was that the Coalition's project for Iraq was ill thought out and poorly executed. Its opponents knew what they wanted." Again, "America's only allies in Iraq were those who sought to manipulate the great power to their narrow advantage." By early 2004 nothing was left of the neoconservative agenda of democratic reform, except rhetoric and commitment to elections. The liberal internationalist agenda of secular nation-building attempted to merge piecemeal the clashing interests of Iraqi and American interest groups. The realist agenda, which dominated the occupation, consisted of trying one way after another to conciliate the Sunnis by empowering them, as well as to reconcile somehow the incompatible agendas of the region's various protagonists while pretending, vaguely, that America's interests were being served. The Bush team had too many agendas, and none.
The Kurds wanted to retreat from Iraq in pursuit of ever greater independence. They would not even think of giving up their peshmerga, their army. The Turks sought above all to minimize Kurdish independence. Unwilling to invade Kurdistan lest they aggravate their domestic Kurdish problem, the Turks prodded the U.S. to satisfy their concerns. The Saudi and Gulf regimes, oppressors of large Shia populations within their own borders and terrified of the prospect that Iraq's Shia majority would arouse them by freeing itself from Sunni dominance, sought to restore as much of the Ba'athist regime as possible. On the one hand, they provided the Sunni insurgents with money and fighters; on the other, they warned the U.S. about the instability that they were themselves fostering. Moreover, they persuaded Americans that the Shia were agents of Iranian imperialism. The occupation allowed the double-dealing Arab regimes to focus their peoples' hate on America (and away from their own detestable selves) while at the same time using America for their own anti-Shia and anti-Iranian purposes. The Arab double game was not as remarkable as America's acquiescence in it. Not until August 2007 did the U.S. secretary of state and secretary of defense protest to the Saudis the war they were waging against Shia and U.S. troops in Iraq. But the Americans muffled their weak protest by declaring solidarity with the Sunni world against Iran, and promising to sell the Saudis American precision-guided bombs.
Iraq's Sunni Arabs, who after coming under Saudi Wahabi influence loathed the Shia more than ever, sought to force the Americans to re-empower them, to somehow restore the Sunnis' leading role in the country's institutions—especially the military and secret services. The Shia majority included the millions of slum dwellers whom the Ayatollah Muhammad al-Sadr had helped and organized in the darkest years of Saddam's tyranny, and who now followed his son Muqtada, and it embraced several political parties with more or less Islamist agendas. All followed the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Having lost thousands to Sunni violence, the Shia sought safety through control of the Iraqi army, police, intelligence, and their own militias. The Iranians rejoiced in their Iraqi co-religionists' newfound freedom, and looked to safeguard it against the Sunni insurgency supported by the Arab regimes, as well as against America's betrayal. The Iranians dreamt of expanding a crescent of Shia power from Iraq to Lebanon that would liberate the Arab world's minorities, increasingly oppressed by increasingly Wahabi Sunnis.
The U.S. government fishtailed between these exigencies and called it an agenda. Allawi writes that during the neoconservatives' early ascendancy, America tilted towards the Shia and the Kurds, because it regarded the Saudi monarchy "as the guilty party in the radicalization of Sunni Islam and as an ‘unindicted co-conspirator' in the 9/11 outrages." But this ended quickly. Bush would not "jettison long-term allies or at least reduce reliance on them." And whereas the U.S. had expected that the Iraqi Shia would elect liberals, they found instead that the Shia were listening to ayatollahs and saw Iran as a friend.
The "second phase" of U.S. policy, writes Allawi, was fulfilled in the spring 2004 installation of the interim government. It reversed allegiances and empowered as many people as reassuring to the Sunnis as possible, including a minister of defense, a chief of the army, and a head of the intelligence service, who together led a wholesale "return of Ba'athists to public service." But this aggressively secular "national security state," headed by the longtime CIA agent Iyad Allawi, frightened the "empowered Shia groups lurking in the wings." As an "attempt to undercut the appeal and spread of the insurgency by appeasing and empowering part of its ‘moderate' political base," the U.S. ploy was "forlorn and foredoomed." The Sunnis escalated their insurgency, fighting less against the U.S. than for power over the Shia. American liberals and realists wanted to postpone the January 2005 elections in order to sweeten the Sunnis' pot further. But the Shia were the majority, America had promised elections, and the ayatollahs insisted on them. The U.S. campaigned for its Iraqi proxies. They came in last. Vox populi.
But whereas democracy means government by those who win elections, vox Bushi decreed it should mean that winners and losers must govern together for ends beloved by neither. In 2005, Allawi writes, the U.S. "adopted a new policy direction, premised on coaxing credible representatives of the Sunni Arabs into the political process"—meaning into power. While earlier it had sought to placate the Sunnis by excluding the Shia majority's unofficial leaders from office, suddenly the U.S. sought to persuade these same leaders, now elected by the voters, to act against the wishes of those voters. The U.S. also placed unelected Sunnis in positions of power and ran the Iraqi army and intelligence service as if Iraqi elected officials didn't exist. At the same time, the U.S. urged these elected officials, some of whom also led Shia religious groups, to disband Shia militias. But the more the U.S. exercised Sunni-friendly control over the army and police, the more desperately did the Shia cling to the only forces they really trusted. The more the U.S. government talked about the danger of Iranian influence, the more the Shia saw the Americans as ignorant pawns of the Saudi Wahabis—blood enemies of the Shia as deadly as Saddam had been. The Wahabis' near genocide of the Shia around Karbala in the 19th century is burned in every Shiite's historical memory.
Statecraft would have required viewing Iraq's realities—which reflected the growing worldwide enmity between Sunni and Shia, between Arabs and Persians—from the standpoint of what America could do to crush or cow regimes that export terror, whether Arab or Persian, Sunni or Shia. After the invasion, only our occupation prevented Iraq's Shia majority from ripping out the Ba'ath party's last bloody roots, both to avenge its tyranny and because it is Sunni. Had the Shia done this, the Arab world's Sunni regimes would have begged America not to let the same fate befall them. The Shia, for their part, would not have had to be persuaded by what America had done for them, but would have been impressed by what it could let happen to them. The lesson for all would have been that America turns its enemies over to their enemies' tender mercies. In short, statecraft would have meant subordinating the wishes of the Iranian, Turk, and Arab regimes to American interests—not fighting their battles for them or trying to compose their differences. America fights only its own enemies. Only by denying the logic of statecraft did occupying Iraq make sense. But once the occupation commenced and reality began to bite, only a double denial of statecraft's logic prevented our establishment from enabling one side's victory over the others, or crushing all.
Religion, Character, and Democracy
The foreign policy establishment in the U.S. is "value free," and politically neutral logic is part of a mentality that also misunderstands religion, democracy, and conflict. Because the U.S. foreign policy establishment is religiously illiterate, because none of its members can imagine serious people taking God seriously, it cannot understand a world that is overwhelmingly religious. Having concluded that mankind is outgrowing religion, our experts react to religion's presence in the Islamic world—and in America—by inventing the distinction between "moderate" religion, acceptable because not taken seriously, and "fundamentalism," i.e., actually believing in God and His commandments, the immoderate first of which reads in part: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me."
For those who see the world through this lens, no religion is better or worse than any other, and certainly no truer, and the distinction between orthodoxy and heresy is merely that between winners and losers. Hence U.S. establishmentarians, who regard all religion as hokum, cannot fathom the differences between the Sunni and Shia variants of Islam, which mean so much to Muslims. Hence our experts have also been unable to tell the difference between serious Muslims and the secular legions that clothe their hate and contempt for us in Muslim garb. Our establishment thinks that because religion is the mother of strife, the enemy of modernity, it must be humored and subdued in the short term, then marginalized and eventually eliminated. This mindset prevents intelligent judgment about why we might prefer some religious expressions to others, and ensures the enmity of all who believe in God.
John Agresto, the former president of St. John's College, Santa Fe, who became the American advisor in charge of reconstructing Iraq's higher education during the occupation, writes that "the single most important ‘neoconservative' rationale for the liberation of Iraq and the connection between that liberation and the war on terror" was beckoning the Muslim world to follow the West into modernity, which he (as an East Coast Straussian) defines as turning "our eyes from up to down—from heaven toward the things of this world." In this world, religion can serve to moderate pursuit of "the self-interest" that is the essence of "modernity." The occupation's aim was "to get the Iraqis to go to the mall instead of the mosque." Realists and liberals would not have put it so elegantly, but they agreed. Unfortunately, the occupation's depreciation of religion made it seem that Americans endangered their souls as well as their bodies. Any believer in God should have regarded this attitude as an insulting invitation to corruption, an attack on his identity.
In the decades before the invasion, the social, economic, and political identities of the Sunni and Shia communities had merged with their religion more than ever before and hardened divisions between them. Those identities diverged in the struggles over Mohammed's succession in the 7th century A.D. The Shia lost out, and, except in Iran, have been the Muslim world's oppressed minority ever since. Separate clerical hierarchies produced theological differences, as well as important philosophical ones having to do with the role of reason. Saddam's Iraq oppressed and murdered the Shia far more than even Saudi Arabia had, driving the co-religionists together. Then, after 1991, Saddam eased up a bit on Shia organizations, perhaps confident that he had domesticated them and partly because he sought to ride the rising tiger of political Islam. As a result, by the time Saddam was overthrown, religious authority was the Iraqi Shia's only source of guidance and succor. Moreover, growing Wahabism had increased the Sunnis' traditional loathing of Shia, and hence, in turn, the Shias' fear of the Sunni. Officially, three out of five Iraqis are Shia. But the Kurds' retreat into their enclave means that Arab Iraq has three Shia for every Sunni. That is why the 2003 invasion opened the door to the Shias' dreams and to the Sunnis' nightmares.
What is not so easy to understand is why anyone championing democracy would be shocked that voters would choose to be governed by people who at least pretend to think and believe as they do. John Agresto, mugged by reality, now understands that elections will reflect the people's character, and that the Muslim world's character is inherently illiberal. Hence any truly Muslim democracy must be illiberal. Moreover, when peoples' identities are defined by their enmities, democracy can only enable those enmities.
Allawi and Agresto agree in describing the often selfish, corrupt, and cruel character of the Iraqi people. The Iraqis' understanding of their religion is consistent with this way of life. But these realities—hardly secrets—mugged Agresto, and the policy of occupation that he served, because his mind was restricted by one version or another of the narrow discipline of Western modernity. Agresto's supposition, that the liberality, devotion to truth, decency, friendship, and tolerance that mark American democracy come from the "taming" of Christianity by modern selfishness, is one of those intellectual flowers that can only thrive in highly controlled environments.
A Typical Performance
What follows from the foreign policy establishment's apolitical division of mankind into "moderates" and "extremists" is an art of politics, if that's the right term, that prevents considering what anyone is, or should be, moderate or extreme about. It abstracts from right and wrong, honor and shame. It leads to moderation in pursuit of America's interests. Then, in the hope of avoiding worse threats to our modest interests, it leads to finding moderation in those who threaten us. It becomes the promotion of "moderation" for its own sake, and then boils down to coaxing "extremists" into "moderation" by involving them in profitable and (supposedly) addictive arrangements. Our establishmentarians imagine they can moderate our enemies by promising them that they can get most of what they want through cooperation; and tell the American people that if we were to forcefully oppose our enemies, that would only radicalize them further.
During the Cold War, this logic led from Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman's support of the "moderate" Stalin against the phantom "extremist anti-party group" to Henry Kissinger's dètente with the Soviet Union; from President George H.W. Bush's efforts to keep Mikhail Gorbachev's "moderate" Soviet Union alive to his successors' efforts to appease the neo-Soviet Vladimir Putin by limiting U.S. missile defenses to tokens. By this logic, the more anyone threatens, the greater the incentive to treat him as a "moderate," lest he threaten us more. In our time this has been the basis of the bloody "peace processes" that the U.S. has foisted on so much of the world.
As the establishment encountered Middle Eastern terrorism, it strove to designate as "moderates" the states, groups, and individuals involved with it, and to "get them on our side" by making as many concessions as possible to them. The apotheosis of such thinking is, of course, the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Yasser Arafat, his invitation to speak to the U.N. General Assembly (though he represented no state and wore a gun), the grant to him of near-state power over the Palestinians, and the flow (through him) of more foreign—aid money per capita than has ever been bestowed on any people in history. U.S. officials did not doubt that it was Arafat's voice they heard in a phone intercept ordering the 1973 murder of U.S. ambassador Cleo Noel. Nor did anyone doubt that he had ordered the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972, or any number of other murders; and his control of such murder franchises as Force 17 and the al-Aqsa Martyrs' brigade went undisputed. Our experts overlooked as well his organization's indoctrination of children into suicide bombing. These blind eyes were considered necessary to stave off the ascendancy of really "extreme" people. It was enough for U.S. officials to hear Arafat and his PLO's disclaimer that the terrorists they paid (usually with U.S. money) to slaughter innocents, and whom Arafat praised to the heavens, were acting on their own. If America could just squeeze some more concessions from Israel, this "moderate"—and later his even more "moderate" successor, Mahmoud Abbas—could deliver some diminution of terrorism. The concessions came, the Americans delivered tons of arms and intelligence equipment to the PLO—and its terrorism proliferated. Meanwhile, the PLO's "extreme" competitor, Hamas, decided it could enrich and empower itself by playing the same game. No sooner did Hamas oust the PLO from Gaza in June 2007 than the U.S. government sent the group $20 million in "humanitarian" aid, a first token of recognition as "moderate."
The establishment behaved toward Arab terrorist states as it did toward terrorist individuals and groups. After all, inspiration, money, and organization for anti-American terrorism does not come from Mars. It comes from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Qatar, Iran, and elsewhere; until 2003 it came from Iraq. The official disclaimer that these states' media, schools, and private wealth and infrastructure enable terrorism, independent of government authority, is as incredible as the PLO's. These regimes embody anti-American causes. If they treated anti-U.S. terrorism as they do terrorism against themselves, the world would sleep safely. One reason they do not is that the U.S. designates them as "moderates," making their activities acceptable and their goals generally praiseworthy. Indeed, preserving these regimes' health and comfort has been one of the U.S. establishment's prime concerns. By contrast, statecraft is about our national interest.
The occupation of Iraq, and the way it was managed, was another expression of our establishment's art of politics. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the U.S. government did not pursue a distinctly American agenda. Rather, it sought to please as many of Iraq's neighbors as possible. The Saudis wanted relief from the military—political pressure that Saddam's conquest of Kuwait had generated. The Syrians wanted their Ba'athist rival's wings clipped. The Egyptians and other Arab governments, worried that their peoples might find Saddam attractive, also wanted him taken down a peg. But all, including the Turks, feared that Saddam's fall would lead to Iraq's breakup—which the Iranians craved. Had the U.S. government avoided the Gulf War and continued sponsoring Saddam as it had been doing, it might have ridden him to greater influence than ever over his weak neighbors. On the other hand, having decided that Saddam was bidding to lead the Arab world into even greater enmity and contempt for America, the U.S. might easily have overthrown him, and let the Sunni Arab world deal with the fact that Iraq's Shia majority would be free and pro-Iranian. Either of those courses of action would have left America's real and potential enemies weaker and seeking America's favor. Instead, as a favor to the Sunni Arab world, American troops killed and died to do Saddam a little harm. America's pursuit of moderation earned it more hatred and contempt. As a result of having withstood America and of having put on Islamic airs, Saddam became the Arab world's prime engine of anti-Americanism.
When, after 9/11, the Bush Administration decided once and for all to rid America of Saddam, it did not at the same time rid itself of the approach to international affairs that had turned military victory into strategic defeat in 1990-91. Rhetoric aside, its strategic priorities in 2003 were identical to those of the previous decade: catering to the Sunni Arab world's supposedly "moderate" interests. Arab governments strongly opposed the invasion. But once it happened, they just as strongly demanded, for the same reason, that the U.S. occupy Iraq: above all, they wanted Iraq's Shia majority to be kept under some sort of Sunni control. That meant keeping Iraq together, but keeping its majority from ruling. Our establishment answered the call by occupying Iraq for half a decade, tergiversating between democracy, meaning Shia power, and "national unity," code for re-empowering Sunnis. No surprise then that the U.S. government's penultimate act in Iraq, the "surge" begun in 2007, aimed to arm as many Sunni militias as would take U.S. arms, ostensibly to fight other Sunnis we choose to call al-Qaeda, and to forcefully suppress some Shia militias in Baghdad. The media have passed along the U.S. government's ignorant acceptance of some terrorists' baseless self-identification as al-Qaeda, and "Liaison Services" reports that this or that group is part of al-Qaeda. The original al-Qaeda, made up of "Afghan Arabs," was never much and is mostly gone. But countless people use the name to frighten America and to shield their sponsors. Labeling Sunni violence al-Qaeda lets the U.S. government pretend that the struggle in Iraq is not between Iraqis for Iraqi stakes, with Sunnis supported by Arabs and Shia supported by Persians. Credulity covers its continuing effort to co-opt the Sunnis. Thus did our establishment further enable Iraq's factions to fight one another, and motivate all to fight us.
But note well: all of the above policies work against the interest of the United States, which is to force Arab rulers to clamp down on any and all who might harm Americans, lest the Arab rulers themselves be killed.
Withdraw? In whose favor? To accomplish what? Depending on how we do it, withdrawing from Iraq must advantage some and disadvantage others—just as our entering Iraq and our staying there advantaged some against others. To what extent is anyone's advantage also America's? In 2007, as in 2003 and 2001, our establishment has refused to consider these questions because it is unwilling to deal with the fundamental reality of international affairs, namely that it involves dealing with foreigners in conflict with each other, whom we can neither govern nor police, and that it is all about pursuing our interests, not theirs.
No one doubted in 2001 any more than when terrorism started in the 1960s that the terrorists were Arabs from Arab countries fighting for causes that those countries supported, and that, as Thomas Friedman has written, 98% of terrorism is what regimes want to happen or let happen. Nevertheless, our establishment sought to deal with terrorism as if it were some disembodied "extremism" extraneous to Arab states and their conflicts, and sought to displease these regimes as little as possible. But the occupation has (almost) taught our experts that terror is the Middle East's political currency, and that the immediate problem in Iraq is part of the larger struggle between Sunni and Shia, Arabs and Persians, Saudis and Iranians. So let us see how we can end this war in our interest.
First, we must abandon the nonsense about reconciling Iraqis. Whether or how Iraqis reconcile is their business. As for evenhandedness, we shall be unevenly on our own side. The only Iraqi groups who have ever had anything to do with anti-American terror are Sunni. Keeping them out of power in Baghdad will require only that we stop arming Sunnis. Absent our interference, the Shia will make short work of them in the capital. Neither the Saudis nor the Syrians can invade to save Baghdad's Sunni remnant. Both would want to send money and fighters, however, to the poor rump region in western Iraq where the Sunni population would concentrate. But perhaps even without American or Iranian encouragement, these states' Shia populations would give their regimes enough trouble to keep them busy at home. Of course Iraq would be divided, as Bosnia is. Dealing with three distinct interests is better than with a single confused set.
Our establishment's problems in Iraq stem from its crazy commitment to the Saudis' and other Sunnis' struggle against Shia Iran. Designating the Sunni world as Islam's "moderate" wing, despite the increasing influence of Saudi Wahabism within it, takes no small dishonesty. So does forgetting that the overwhelming majority of anti-American terrorists, their media, and their money come from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Gulf states, and Palestine—the Sunni world. Nor will the excuse wash that appeasing the Sunni world is some kind of shield against Iran's soon-to-be nuclear armament. How could that be? Moreover, Iran's nukes would be directed at the Sunni world foremost—just as a hypothetical Egyptian or Saudi bomb would be directed against Iran. Israel seems to have followed us in a de facto alliance with the Sunni world against Iran. But that the Saudis, et al., might shield Israel against Iran is even less plausible than that they might shield America. Since we Americans have even less control than we have interest in this struggle, we should not make it ours nor export silly notions.
Our interest lies in being feared and respected by both sides. Secretary of State Rice's and Defense Secretary Gates's statements in July and August 2007 that amount to verbal co-belligerency with Saudis against Iranians frighten no one. Their promises of U.S. precision-guided bombs for Saudis should frighten Americans as well as Israelis. Their assurance that each shot will hit its mark will prove an irresistible temptation to some of the Saudi regime's many factions to send some pilots to do spectacular damage. Instead of arming the Saudis, we should awaken their ultimate fear—revolt of their Shia and Hashemite elements. This would be the natural result of our withdrawing from Iraq and leaving the Shia in control of Baghdad. Shutting off access to U.S. visas for Saudi citizens, the expulsion from the U.S. of Wahabi clergy and of Wahabi "charities," would betoken our seriousness. Holding Saudi oil revenues liable to attachment—to compensate for damages caused by terrorist incidents attributable to Saudi citizens—would be a further step. Conveying seriousness to Iran is no bigger problem. In Lebanon, Iran has waged proxy war through Hezbollah. It is easy enough to test its claim that it is doing so to relieve Sunni oppression of Lebanon's Shia: in exchange for Iran dismantling Lebanon's Hezbollah, the U.S. would stop supporting the country's constitutional arrangements and political parties that disadvantage the Shia. Iran's ultimate wish is that the U.S. switch sides and support all Shia against all Sunnis. While granting that wish would be foolish, getting off the Sunni side of the street is in our interest as well as Iran's. But the Iranians should know that if they wanted to be enemies, we would oblige them seriously, first by placing a naval blockade until they dropped Hezbollah and other manifestations of enmity.
The occupation of Iraq was a bad idea. But it must end in a way that diminishes the contempt for America that it has so richly earned. The only way to banish contempt is to act forcefully on our own behalf.
There is no excuse for losing a war. Those whose disregard for statecraft is responsible for this mess are more highly credentialed, paid, and honored than they deserve. Empowered to do away with anti-American terrorism, they could not decide whom to kill. Instead they decided to station the flower of the U.S. armed forces among the warring subjects of a former empire while they themselves, either in Washington or in its extension in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, cajoled and bribed locals to implement the half-baked plans that emerged from their ever-changing bureaucratic balances of power. Incompetence about so many things over such a long period of time disqualifies them from being taken seriously ever again, and discredits the institutions, foundations, and publications that have accredited them. It challenges us to ascertain what intellectual viruses disabled otherwise functional minds, and to educate leaders who will be free of them.