So, let’s see. We are asking our declared enemy in the Middle East to help prop up the puppet government we created for its benefit to push back an army we also brought into being, and which is now financed by our chief Arab ally.
The moral of the story: amateurs shouldn’t dabble at empire.
The British and French, when they had the run of the Middle East after World War I, were happy to deal with whomever the desert breeze blew in. Their goal was simple: to extract the greatest amount of oil at the cheapest price. In Iraq, which had a great deal of it, they left a Sunni ruling class to lord it over a Shiite majority.
That was the way it had been over the centuries of the Ottoman Empire, and there seemed no reason to mess with success. It worked with Saddam Hussein, whose rise to power we facilitated and who did us yeoman service in containing the one power in the region that no longer danced to our tune, Iran, until for reasons not yet adequately explained we turned on him back in 1990. It’s all been downhill from there, not only for us but for the entire region.
In the Middle East, the Sunni-Shiite balance of power matters as little else does. Just as in Iraq, a Sunni minority had long dominated a Shiite majority, so in Syria the local Shiites lorded it over a much larger population of Sunnis under the rule of the Assad family. This meant that Iraq was the only major Sunni-led state on a wide swath of territory between Afghanistan and the Mediterranean.
Saddam Hussein was also the only reliable bulwark against al-Qaida, the Sunni terrorist organization that sprung up in the wake of our intervention against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1970s and 1980s. Al-Qaida had training bases in Afghanistan, cells throughout the Middle East and Europe, and plentiful funding from our regional “ally,” Saudi Arabia. But it had no toehold in Iraq, where Saddam tolerated no power but his own. It arrived only in the chaos that ensued after our overthrow of him in 2003, which we justified in part by a concocted fable that he had been in cahoots with al-Qaida and was therefore complicit if not directly responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.
The result was predictable: al-Qaida penetrated the suddenly porous borders and made common cause with disaffected Sunnis. Civil war resulted. Meanwhile, the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, whose leading figures had close ties with Iran, became more and more openly allied with it as American occupation forces withdrew.
The three major consequences of our invasion of Iraq, were, therefore, all as catastrophic to American interests as could well be imagined: a direct and significant expansion of Iranian influence, with the possibility of Shiite hegemony across much of western Asia; a new base of operations for al-Qaida and its extension into sectarian Arab politics; and the possible breakup of Iraq itself into separate and hostile entities.
This was, however, only the beginning of the mischief. In 2011, revolutions broke out against dictatorial regimes in Tunisia and Egypt that soon deposed their leaders. Although domestic discontents were at the forefront of these events, the deposition of Saddam was an important precedent.
It was much more directly connected with the uprising against Bashar Assad in Syria, whose long border with Iraq had become destabilized and where an al-Qaida offshoot calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria had proclaimed nothing less than a revived caliphate — a pan-Arab empire preaching fundamentalist orthodoxy and a holy war against secular values and interests. A more “moderate” Sunni revolt against Assad also began, blessed by the Obama administration, which declared the Assad government “illegitimate” and confidently awaited its fall.
The geopolitical calculus in Washington was that Assad’s fall would compensate for the Shiite gains in Iraq, striking a blow against Iran and Syria’s major ally, Russia, which maintains a naval base on its coast. But Assad’s position in Syria was quite different from that of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and Syria’s allies remained staunch.
The Sunni faction favored by us had little traction and has now been effectively defeated, although no one has yet broken the news to John McCain. The principal consequence of the war, aside from its immense devastation, has been the entrenchment of ISIS in northern Syria and its spillover now into Iraq, where a revived alliance with local Sunni tribes has given it an ominous presence on the map.
The scare headlines generated by the fall of Mosul and other northern Iraqi strongholds are exaggerated. ISIS fighters number no more than a few thousand, and would have made little headway in Iraq without local Sunni support and manpower. That is an alliance of convenience that has fallen apart once and is unlikely to last long now.
The Sunni tribes in Iraq want independence from Baghdad, not incorporation into a new caliphate or subjection to fundamentalist Islam. Whether and under what terms this can be achieved remains to be seen, however, and the likelihood is that parts of Syria and Iraq will remain without effective administration from a recognized capital for some time to come.
Lebanon and Jordan, deeply stressed societies overwhelmed by refugees, are already casualties of these conflicts, and Saudi Arabia has massed troops on its border with Iraq. New tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, provoked by the feckless John Kerry round of negotiations ordered from Washington, add more fuel to the fire, and the Israelis have already bombed Syria.
Nor is that all. Libya has disintegrated in the wake of our overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi, with ripple effects through West and Central Africa; it must now be classified as a failed state. In South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen, the ill effects of American interference are likewise apparent. Where our footprint goes, blood follows.
When we left Iraq in 2010, we bequeathed the Maliki government in Baghdad an army of 50,000 men, trained and equipped at our expense, to help it do Tehran’s bidding in the region. That army collapsed at the first assault by ragtag militias in what must rank as one of the great fiascos of military history.
The threat to Baghdad itself led us to seek partnership with Iran, which scorned it. Now we have begun to reinsert troops into the country — 300 one week, up to 800 the next — without clear purpose or likely utility except to evacuate the American embassy. As in Saigon, Vietnam, that could be the last chapter of a failed quarter-century war.
No, empire is not for amateurs. But even amateurs learn from their mistakes. The word for those who don’t is fool.
Robert Zaller is a professor of history at Drexel University. He can be contacted at [email protected]