The Tangled Imperial Web: Iraq. War. Again.

by David Finkel

September 12, 2014

Imperialism creates crises that it cannot solve. That’s the ultimate takeaway from president Obama’s September 10 speech – and the entire series of cascading catastrophes from Syria and Iraq to Afghanistan and beyond. As the United States slip-slides into its next Middle East war, are there any reasons to expect this time will turn out differently?

Leaving aside the boilerplate twaddle about U.S. “leadership” in combating every global crisis from terrorism to Ebola – never mind our vanguard role in waterboarding, “extraordinary rendition,” drone bombs wiping out wedding parties in Afghanistan and Yemen, F-16s and Hellfire missiles supplied to Israel for serial massacres in Gaza – president Obama at least hasn’t recycled George W. Bush’s lies about a quick, cost-free victory that would be paid for by Iraq’s oil revenues. His address made it clear that to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the enemy will take time, money and risk.

Obama announces new U.S. deployments in Iraq, September 10, 2014.

Obama spoke of a broad coalition of allied nations, without actually naming a single one. The president’s insertion of 1500 or so U.S. military “advisors and trainers” certainly has the ring of euphemism. In tactical terms, however, the limited and specific aims he outlined are probably attainable. The question of what comes afterward in Iraq, Syria and the entire region opens onto a vast strategic void.

That the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” is a totalitarian and genocidal entity is beyond any doubt. But this monstrosity didn’t arise in a vacuum, or from doctrines of seventh-century Islam as some bigoted pundits would have us believe. It’s more a modern hybrid of Nazism and the Mafia, although without the powerful industrial base that powered Hitler’s Germany, or the honor codes that generally restrain Cosa Nostra from the mass slaughter of innocent noncombatants.

The “Islamic State in Iraq and al-Shams” (ISIS), as it was originally called, and its predecessor “al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia,” arose directly from the destruction of Iraq by the 2003 U.S. invasion. Roughly analogous to the rise of the Nazis from the humiliation and economic destruction imposed on Germany following World War I, the Iraqi al-Qaeda branch grew from the brilliant decision of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld to dismantle the Iraqi state and the ruling Baath party and abolish the Sunni-dominated army, replacing the institutions of the shattered state with – a vacuum.

Sectarian killing on an industrial scale ensued, mixed Sunni-Shia neighborhoods disappeared, Iraq largely melted down in civil war, and the U.S. occupation bogged down in disaster. In 2006-8, the United States paid Sunni tribal leaders to turn against al-Qaeda, with significant success. But the money dried up as the Bush and subsequently Obama administrations relied on the corrupt and sectarian al-Maliki government, and as U.S. combat troops inevitably withdrew. The prescient words of journalist Robert Fisk, in the very early days of the U.S. occupation, summed up the story: “The United States has to get out of Iraq. The United States will get out of Iraq. And the United States can’t get out of Iraq.”

Meanwhile, when the Arab Spring brought forth in 2011 a popular uprising in Syria and the Assad regime responded with massive military brutality, the United States found itself in a policy trap. While proclaiming “Assad must go,” Washington and its regional allies were fearful of the consequences of the rebellion. As a result the leaders of the loosely organized Free Syrian Army (aka “moderate opposition”) got the impression that the West would stand behind them, but actually received just about enough aid to guarantee they would lose – while Assad enjoyed all-out assistance from Iran, Russia and Lebanese Hezbollah.

Out of the Syrian tragedy arose the remnants of “al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia,” trading under the new name of ISIS, with some tactical complicity of the Assad regime (including freeing jihadist prisoners, and stealth purchase of oil from fields ISIS took over). And as Iraq reverted to chaos, ISIS erupted back into northern Iraq, seizing Mosul, executing hundreds of captured soldiers, massacring Christian and Yazidi communities, filming its atrocities as recruitment videos and pronouncing its ambition for expanded conquest as the “Islamic State.”

What next? Indeed, U.S. air power together with Kurdish forces and a partially reconstituted Iraqi army will blunt further ISIS territorial conquests. Its convoys caught in open territory can be annihilated. To the extent its weapons are warehoused, they can be destroyed. It has no weapons industry of its own. The incipient genocidal extermination of non-Sunni communities can be mostly prevented. And the flow of foreign jihadist youth will slow down when and if Turkey tightens its borders and, especially, as the “Islamic State” no longer looks like the winning side.

The Kurdistan regional government and its peshmerga armed forces, whatever their flaws, are fighting for their own freedom as well as resisting the threat of ISIS. They have the right to all the assistance they need, wherever they can get it. Theirs are the most important “boots on the ground” in pushing back the ISIS knife from the throats of threatened populations.

All that’s more or less the easy part. What happens next is a lot harder, as intelligence analyst George Friedman points out:

The Islamic State will disperse its forces, denying conventional aircraft a target. Attempting to defeat the Islamic State by distinguishing its supporters from other Sunni groups and killing them will founder at the first step…They are now part of the fabric of the Sunni community, and only the Sunni community can root them out.

That’s particularly true, obviously, where ISIS is embedded in cities like Mosul and Fallujah in Iraq, or Raqaa in Syria and can’t be bombed out.

ISIS fighters in Mosul.

In short, if the new Iraqi government (still with key ministries still unfilled) looks like a reshuffle of the al-Maliki regime, and if the United States collaborates with the Syrian regime — whose military power, and atrocities against civilians, exceed those of the “Islamic State” by orders of magnitude – then the narrative of the Sunni jihadists will be confirmed, and their influence will persist and metastasize even if ISIS no longer looks like a conquering army.

There are plenty of lessons from recent experience for anyone who’s paying attention. President Obama’s great success in killing Osama bin Laden turned out to change nothing. If anything, creating a polio vaccination program as a CIA front in tracking down bin Laden gave the fundamentalist crazies in Pakistan a pretext for killing vaccination workers, posing a public health disaster.

Bush’s war in Afghanistan, which Obama thought was the United States’ “smart war,” is ending about as badly as could have been imagined. His claims that U.S. drones have improved things in Yemen and Somalia are flights of fantasy. And let’s be honest: President Obama’s image as a strong leader is hardly enhanced by the spectacle of Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu kicking him in the teeth, over and over and over again

The regional political and sectarian conflicts, which seem impossible to balance, are only the beginning of the intractable contradictions facing this new intervention and U.S. imperial policy globally. They extend further: Since the cooperation of Iran is now essential in restoring the Iraqi army, what does that mean for the U.S. attempt to undercut Assad, or for the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program? With Europe in turmoil over the Russian occupation-by-proxies in eastern Ukraine, and facing the threat of freezing in the dark this winter if Russian natural gas supplies are curtailed, how is the Obama administration going to “provide leadership” on multiple crises at once?

All this occurs at the moment when atmospheric carbon dioxide has reached the ominous level of 396 parts per million and the impacts of climate change ravaging the planet can only be made worse by war. The global terror of imperialism generates its ugly local and regional counterparts from Taliban to the “Islamic State.” The terrorist forces arising in shattered societies can’t be eradicated without uprooting the global system that inevitably breeds them.

David Finkel is an editor of Against the Current and member of Solidarity.


3 responses to “The Tangled Imperial Web: Iraq. War. Again.”

  1. Daniel Read Avatar
    Daniel Read

    I was also taken aback by the citation of a “Russian occupation-by-proxies in eastern Ukraine”. Given that the situation in the east was dealt with in a very in-depth and thoughtful manner in the article “Understanding the Civil War in Ukraine” by David Mandel, I’m a touch confused now as to what Solidarity’s position might be on this issue. I’m broadly in agreement with Mandel’s article (and I encourage everyone to read it if you have not done so already) but to my knowledge the situation in the east changed markedly in response to the heavy-handed (indeed murderous) response of Kiev to the initial separatist rising. What may have (and is by no means certain) involved Russian intelligence assets initially, soon appeared to morph into a popular movement to resist, not merely an illegitimate government in the capital, but the actual physical annihilation of Russian speakers. This is not far fetched, and we can see that even traditionally pro-US organisations such as Human Rights Watch have not been shy about exposing Kiev’s absurdly violent response to events and their barbarous treatment of civilians. It seems to me to be well within the realm of possibility that if Euromaidan had indeed constituted a progressive bloc (it didn’t) then the character of the regime it subsequently helped to mould would have been markedly different, especially in it’s attitude and response to moves from Easterners for their own self-determination. Instead we have calls for NATO intervention, the attempted banning of the Russian language, the banning and persecution of the Party of Regions/Communists, the prolific use of anti-slav/racist terminology at the highest levels of Ukrainian politics, the physical intimidation and beating of political dissidents, the increasing reliance of the armed forces on far-right volunteers, the resurrection of the pro-fascist, anti-Soviet legacy of Ukrainian nationalism in WWII, the use of heavy weapons (including cluster bombs) on civilian targets (including schools) and, last but not least, the murder of numerous leftists/oppositions by neo-fascists at Odessa. It’s these events, more than anything, that have been responsible for the rise of resistance and rebellion in the east, something which the (unproven) machinations of Russian intelligence could not have done alone.

  2. Bob Lyons Avatar
    Bob Lyons

    Frankel’s comment that the class war and the Resistance by the Ukrainian working class, whose proletarian heart is in the Donbass, is an occupation by proxy is indeed a novel concept. Since when do people who are fighting an imperialist backed puppet regime, and whose towns and cities are being attacked by an oligarchic regime bent on carrying out the wishes of the IMF and World bank, become an occupying force? How can this be? Only if you deny that there is a class component to the war taking place, a denial which would put you in blatant disregard of empirical evidence undertaken by Ukrainian sociological investigative agencies, could you continue shilling for the US and European imperialists pedaling the same position.

  3. Traven L. Avatar
    Traven L.

    Statement by the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign (UK)

    Pro-Russian para-militaries are surrounded in the cities of Luhansk and Donetsk but peace in Ukraine is far from certain, the remaining inhabitants are in a perilous position. Since April more than 1,543 military and civilians have been killed, some 4,396 confirmed wounded, across Ukraine there are up to 400,000 internally displaced persons.

    The Ukraine Solidarity Campaign (USC) declares its solidarity with the Ukrainian labour movement that stands for unity and all efforts to reinstate peace. USC supports the anti-war movement in Russia and demands the release of all political prisoners and an end to the repression in Russia.

    To stop the war USC campaigns for the following as path for independence, peace and democracy:

    • for the self-determination Ukraine as a whole, free from the intrigues and corporate business-interests of Russia and the western powers
    • for an immediate ceasefire by all opposing armed forces, including irregular forces
    • for the deployment of neutral observers to monitor ceasefire lines, and the opening of humanitarian corridors supervised by bodies such as the International Red Cross
    • for the immediate withdrawal of Russian and pro-Russian para-military forces from Ukraine
    • all military personnel and civilians detained as a result of the hostilities to be either exchanged or released under the supervision of the International Red Cross
    • the creation of a wide demilitarised zone around Ukraine’s borders.
    • the return to barracks of the Ukrainian armed forces, disbandment and of removal of ultra-right nationalist organisations from positions in the Government of Ukraine, the Armed Forces and the interior ministry organs.
    • the restoration of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea with a fully democratic referendum on the status of Crimea
    • a leading role for trade unions and community organisations independent of oligarchs and ultra-right nationalists, in sustaining peace in Donbas
    • for an independent inquiry into the violence and killings at the Kyiv and the Odessa trade union buildings, all those responsible for war crimes and extra-judicial killings to be brought to justice.
    • the creation of an all-Ukraine system of autonomous, local self-government and abolition of regional governors
    • for a neutral Ukraine, cessation of NATO involvement in Ukraine, repeal Yanukovych’s agreement to the program of cooperation with NATO
    • the restoration of the Budapest Treaty and recognition of Ukraine as a united, nuclear free, neutral state.
    • For the cancellation of all IMF and EU debt and payment of reparations by Russia for the reconstruction of Donbas

    USC calls for full solidarity with the Ukrainian labour movement, and not those who would seek to divide workers to serve the vested interests of rival powers.

    We oppose the attempt of Russian imperialism to dominate Ukraine, just as we oppose the efforts of Western and American imperialism to do the same thing.