The War on Terror Ended
. . . And the Winner Was Not the United States
Baghdad, 2027 (Year of the Goat). Special for the Shanghai Post (proud member of the Global Murdoch Group).
Unlike some of my readers, I’m old enough to remember the time, during the American occupation of Baghdad, when this part of the city was known as the Green Zone. It was renamed the Yellow Peace Zone ten years ago, after Iraq joined the China-led Association of South-West Asian Nations (ASWAN). In fact, I’m digital-delivering this report on my Chinese-made RedPeony from Ali Baba’s Pagoda Hotel, which is located near the embassy of Greater China and which was built in 2015 in exactly the same location where, two years earlier, a devastating explosion triggered by fighters allied with the al-Sadr brigades destroyed the gigantic U.S. embassy, forcing thousands of American citizens to flee Baghdad and make their way to the Turkish-controlled northern part of Iraq.
Indeed, I was there in Baghdad on that historic day, October 12, 2013, and I watched as Lauren Bush, the last U.S. ambassador to Baghdad (and daughter of Neil Bush, a brother of former President George W. Bush), as well as other U.S. officials and Iraqi public figures, including Ahmed Chalabi, were evacuated. That last U.S. helicopter left the city on its way to the aircraft carrier USS Richard Cheney, which was positioned somewhere in the Persian Gulf. It was a sad and traumatic moment for many older Americans, recalling memories of another humiliating evacuation of U.S. diplomats and citizens from Ho Chi Minh City, following its liberation by the People’s Army of Vietnam on April 30, 1975 (an event the Americans refer to as the “Fall of Saigon”).
Long before the Americans decided to end their diplomatic presence in Baghdad in May 2013 (Mexico, a member of the North American Union, represents U.S. diplomatic interests in Iraq now), American pundits had already started debating the question of “Who lost Iraq?” After the Americans decided to close their last naval base near Haifa in Israel-Palestine, on September 17, 2016, the most popular topic at major conferences in think tanks in Washington, D.C., became “Who lost the Middle East?”
As an old Middle East hand, I was invited to address one such conference, at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington, D.C., on June 11, 2017. The event, held in the Richard Perle Auditorium at the Leo Strauss Building and sponsored by the Weekly Standard, was bursting with symbolism. After all, it was in the offices of this think tank that the so-called neoconservatives, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington of September 11, 2001, had drawn up the plans for the ousting of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and for “remaking” the Middle East under U.S. leadership. The neoconservative agenda of trying to establish U.S. hegemony in the Middle East—or an American Empire, as some had referred to it—as a way of advancing American interests and values was embraced by the administration of President George W. Bush. That, in turn, created the conditions for the collapse of U.S. power in the Middle East. In the aftermath of the Five-Year War (2008-13) between Iran and the Arab-Sunni Coalition headed by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Syria, the Quartet (China, India, Russia, and the European Union) helped bring some stability to the region, with Turkey playing a leading role in ending the civil wars in Iraq and Lebanon.
The conference at AEI brought together some of the surviving neocons, including former Weekly Standard editor (and advisor to failed Republican presidential candidate John McCain) Bill Kristol; Michael Ledeen, who, with aging Italian politician Alessandra Mussolini, is now running the Gabriele D’Annunzio Institute in Rome; and Paul Wolfowitz, the president of AEI, then writing The First Neocon, his biography of Leon Trotsky. Unfortunately, Perle, after whom the auditorium was named, passed away three years ago after choking on a bone in a fish restaurant in Paris—although some conspiracy theorists allege that he was poisoned by an agent of a “foreign power” who was worried that Perle was planning to reveal in his memoirs new details about the events that led to the U.S. decision to oust Saddam.
The title of my address was “The Gulf Wars: Was U.S. Strategic Loss Inevitable?” Discussing the dramatic events that unfolded in the first decade of the 21st century, starting with the September 11 terrorist attacks, I tried to draw the outlines of the counterfactual “what if” scenario and contrast it with what really happened. I started by suggesting that September 11 had highlighted the costs of the strategy of maintaining U.S. hegemony in the Middle East after the end of the Cold War and, particularly, in the aftermath of the Gulf War of 1991. That strategy had been embraced by both Republican President George H.W. Bush and the Democratic administration of President Bill Clinton, and it was based on the notion that an “over the horizon” presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states would be sufficient to contain the anti-status-quo powers of Iraq and Iran (a policy known as “off-shore balancing”) and that continuing American diplomacy aimed at fostering peace between Israel and the Palestinians would help win the support of the moderate Arab regimes in the region. In short, it was a low-cost strategy aimed at deterring potential challenges from regional players, such as Baghdad and Tehran, as well as global powers such as the European Union.
But the collapse of the Camp David talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians in 2000 and the start of the Second Intifada, followed by September 11, illustrated the need for replacing the Pax Americana approach in the Middle East and also provided Americans with a glimpse of Hell-on-Earth, of what could happen if the tensions between the West and the Islamic world degenerated into a bloody global confrontation. “In retrospect, it seems to me that a mix of the right policies, including effective security measures and creative diplomatic efforts following September 11, could have ensured that the primary goal of Osama bin Laden—forcing the United States and the West out of the Middle East and creating the conditions for a War of Civilizations—would not have been achieved,” I argued in my address.
“But as we know now, after September 11, U.S. foreign policy was hijacked by a bunch of American ideologues who exploited the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in order to advance a U.S.-led messianic crusade to remake the Middle East—in the most devastating way, as far as U.S. national interests and the Western presence in the Middle East was concerned,” I continued. And I speculated that, “in retrospect, the United States and the European Union, backed by Russia, China, and the rest of the international community as an effective Concert of Great Powers—a U.S.-led global oligopoly as opposed to the model American monopoly envisioned by the neocons—could have attempted to ensure that the goals of the invasion of Afghanistan were accomplished through the capture of Osama and the rest of the Al Qaeda leadership. That could have been followed by pursuing a common strategy aimed at the radical Muslim terrorist networks in Europe, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere, while working together with the pro-Western governments in the Middle East, including Hussein’s in Iraq.” The United States and her allies, in a 21st-century version of the Congress of Vienna, could also, with a little political imagination, have tried to manage some of the explosive policy issues that helped to ignite anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world, including the tensions with Iraq and Iran, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and the rise of political Islamic movements.
In raising this “what if” scenario, I stressed that I was not arguing that there would have been easy and quick solutions to these issues. When you are trying to treat a headache, however, there is a difference between banging your head against the wall and taking a rest and an aspirin. The Bush administration, led by a powerful group of neoconservative policymakers and their allies in the think tanks, media, and even the blogosphere, ended up placing the hunt for Osama on Washington’s back burner and, instead, launching a unilateral invasion of Iraq. The stated aims became “liberating” Iraq from the rule of Saddam Hussein and his secular regime and turning it into a shining model of freedom and democracy for the greater Middle East. The decision produced a fissure in the transatlantic relationship, ignited anti-American hostility in the Middle East and other parts of the world, and weakened the antiterrorism alliance. The Bush administration exacerbated the situation by giving a green light to Israel to destroy the infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority and refusing to move toward some form of rapprochement with Iran, with which Washington shared common interests in post-Taliban Afghanistan and in post-Saddam Iraq. At the same time, the neocon Democracy Project helped bring to power in Baghdad a coalition of Shiite clerics with ties to Iran, led to the election of the radical Islamic group Hamas in Palestine, and strengthened the power of the Shiite radical Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Putting all of these historic developments into context, I told the audience at AEI, one could have concluded that the post-September 11 U.S. policies were nothing short of a revolutionary attempt to weaken the very fragile foundations of the political status quo in the Middle East—without coming up with a viable and sustainable strategy aimed at replacing them in a way that would help protect long-term American and Western interests. The United States destroyed Iraq’s military power, the only counterbalance to Iran, without making an effort to co-opt Iran into the system. She got rid of an Arab-Sunni dictator who had kept the lid on the ethnic and religious powder keg of Iraq, and she helped create the conditions for a bloody civil war there without deploying the necessary military troops to deal with such an outcome. In the process, the United States strengthened the power of the Shiites in the Middle East who threatened the Arab-Sunni regimes, while empowering Kurdish nationalism, which alarmed Turkey and Iran. At the same time, U.S. policies that helped radicalize the Palestinians also enabled the election of the Palestinian offshoot of the radical Muslim Brotherhood, ensuring that the Palestinian-Israeli peace process would not be revived and providing a sense of political momentum to Muslim Brotherhood groups in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East.
Add to all of that the growing anti-Western emotions among Muslims worldwide, as demonstrated in the “cartoons war”; Iran’s drive to achieve nuclear-weapons capability; and the continuing domestic challenges faced by the pro-American regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan, and it became quite obvious that no one, not even the group of Wise Men (and one Wise Woman) who constituted the Iraq Study Group, could have pushed the rewind button, restored the status quo ante, and saved President Bush and the U.S. foreign-policy establishment. The powerful forces unleashed by the United States could not be stopped and ended up intertwining with other global developments, including Sino-American competition over energy and rising economic nationalism in the West, not to mention the expanding U.S. budget and trade deficits and the domestic political discontent that led to the election of an anti-Bush Democratic Congress in 2006. Not unlike the aftermath of World War I, which brought about the collapse of great empires (including that of the Ottomans in the Middle East), the dramatic changes that had taken place in the Middle East helped produce much instability in the coming years and ignited forces that challenged U.S. supremacy in the region and around the world.
What happened in the Middle East could be described as dialectical thinking run amok. President Bush and his neoconservative advisors had pledged that, after ousting Saddam Hussein, they would succeed in transforming “liberated” Iraq into a prosperous democracy that would serve as a model of political and economic freedom for the Middle East. Westernized and secular Mesopotamia was supposed to have a “domino effect” on the rest of the authoritarian governments in the region. Hence, the withdrawal of Syria’s troops from Lebanon in the aftermath of the so-called Cedar Revolution, which was celebrated as an important chapter of the U.S.-led “democratization” of the Middle East, was supposed to help eradicate the sectarian splits in that country and make it possible to disarm and co-opt the Shiite-led Hezbollah into the political system. The expectation in Washington was that this would be followed by the collapse of the Ba’ath regime in Damascus, leading even to the downfall of the ayatollahs in Tehran. And finally, as the Bushies envisioned it, “the road from Baghdad would lead to Jerusalem.” That is, the dramatic explosion of freedom in the Arab world would make it more likely that the Palestinians would move to establish their own independent state and conclude a peace accord with Israel. In the first stage of that process, the Palestinians would hold a free election that would bring to power a moderate and peace-oriented leadership.
President Bush’s project to remake the Middle East collapsed within a year of its launch in 2003. Iraq did indeed become a model for the entire Middle East—a model of sectarian violence, religious extremism, and growing anti-American and anti-Western sentiments. If anything, Bush’s policies had made the Middle East safer for ethnic and religious strife, not for democracy. His policies helped to shift the balance of power in the region in the direction of Iran and Shiite and Sunni radicals. Iraq started exporting war and instability to the rest of the Middle East. Arab-Shiites and Arab-Sunnis were massacring each other throughout the country; the fighting gradually degenerated into a civil war and the splitting of Iraq into Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish ministates. In Baghdad, Saddam’s secular regime was replaced through an open election by a coalition of Shiite religious parties with links to the ruling Shiite clerics in Iran.
The main beneficiaries of these developments were Iran’s religious Shiite rulers, who strengthened their influence in Iraq and encouraged radical Shiite groups—including Hezbollah in Lebanon—in the so-called Shiite Triangle stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Levant to reassert their power and challenge the ruling (pro-American) Arab-Sunni governments there. In Iran herself, instead of the Democratic Spring that the neocons had predicted, the ayatollahs actually strengthened their hold on power, and a virulent anti-American (and anti-Israeli) figure was elected president through a mostly democratic process. In Lebanon, U.S. pressure forced the withdrawal of Syrian troops that had been invited by the Arab League to bring stability into that country in the aftermath of the civil war and the Israeli occupation in early 1982 (which had also helped give birth to Hezbollah). Then, the Americans celebrated the sectarian parliamentary election that helped increase the political power of Hezbollah and brought it into the government. Hence, Hezbollah gained more power and representation, while a weak central government lacked the power to disarm its militias, which continued to dominate southern Lebanon and the border with Israel. And the road from Baghdad did not lead to Jerusalem. The Bush administration failed to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and increased U.S. backing for Israel. At the same time, the Americans, resisting advice from Israelis and moderate Palestinians, insisted on holding free elections in the West Bank, which led to the victory of Hamas, an anti-Israeli, anti-American, radical Sunni group that is opposed to holding peace negotiations with Israel.
On one level, on the “democratic” side of the democratic empire in the Middle East, the Bush administration launched a revolutionary process that brought to power, and played into the hands of, the more radical, anti-American players in the region: Iran and her alliance of Shiite groups in Iraq and Lebanon, as well as Hamas in Palestine and, by extension, the Muslim Brotherhood in the rest of the Arab-Sunni world. On another level, on the “imperial” side of the democratic empire in the Middle East, the Americans moved aggressively to strengthen their hegemony in the region directly (Iraq), indirectly (Lebanon), and through proxies (Israel). They attempted to build up an international coalition to contain and isolate Iran and force her to give up her ambition to develop nuclear-weapons capability, and adopted a similarly punitive approach to Damascus while trying to oust Hamas from power.
“Was it surprising,” I asked, “that this mishmash of idealistic democracy-promotion crusades and a unipolar approach aimed at establishing U.S. hegemony in the Middle East ended up producing an ad hoc, informal coalition of anti-American players, who were emboldened thanks to Washington’s policies and who are now trying to challenge U.S. power?” Iran, whose leaders sensed that she was gradually becoming a regional power, and an isolated and angry Syrian regime decided in 2006 to utilize their proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas, to deliver an indirect blow to American power by making aggressive moves against an American proxy, Israel. Indeed, it was in that geopolitical and regional context that one must place the killing and kidnapping of the Israeli soldiers on Israel’s borders with Gaza and Lebanon that led to the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. The goal of this action was to demonstrate that, against the backdrop of the U.S. quagmire in Iraq and the increasing influence of Iran, Washington would find it difficult to maintain the status quo in the region. And that is exactly what happened. The Bush administration had given Israel a green light to attack Hezbollah, hoping that Israeli military power would succeed in defeating Hezbollah and Hamas and leave the Americans in a position to counterbalance Iran’s growing power. Instead, by launching missile attacks against targets in Israel, including Haifa, and resisting an Israeli ground invasion of southern Lebanon, Hezbollah demonstrated its growing military and political power, while the Israeli air bombardment of Lebanon only produced more anti-American sentiments in the Middle East. “Ironically, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice explained to me and other reporters, who had traveled with her to Lebanon as she was trying to defuse the crisis, that the scenes of death, destruction, and human misery from Beirut, Haifa, and Gaza are—get this!—‘birth pangs of a new Middle East,’” I recalled.
If anything, the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war was probably the turning point in the American imperial project in the Middle East. The war exposed the weakness of Israel and her American patron while shifting the balance of power in the direction of Iran and Syria. Demonstrating the rising U.S. problems in the region, Washington, with its military overstretched in Iraq and Afghanistan, had to plead with the French and the Germans (and the Chinese) to deploy peacekeeping troops to Lebanon. And, in another attempt to counterbalance the Iranians, the Americans, with the support of the Saudis, gave a green light to the Israelis at the end of 2007 to strike alleged nuclear military sites in Iran. As in Lebanon, the Israeli aerial bombardment resulted in thousands of civilian casualties while failing to destroy the main and secret nuclear military site. Iran retaliated by attacking oil platforms and tankers, closing the Strait of Hormuz, and hitting oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates. Iraq’s Shiite government announced its support for Tehran and called on the United States to withdraw her troops from Iraq. And Hezbollah’s forces in Lebanon launched another set of devastating missile attacks on Israel, hitting Tel Aviv and oil refineries in Haifa, while its militias succeeded in overrunning the forces that backed the pro-Western government in Beirut. Israel reacted by invading southern Lebanon and taking control of the roads leading to Damascus, while U.S. Marines and French forces landed in Beirut. At the same time, American air and missile attacks destroyed Iran’s oil installations and crippled her economy.
While the United States and Israel emerged as victorious from the military campaign, not unlike the British, French, and Israelis after the 1956 Suez Campaign against Egypt, they found themselves totally isolated in the international community and facing enormous diplomatic and economic pressure to reverse their policies. As oil prices soared to more than $125 per barrel, Venezuela imposed an oil embargo on the United States, and China threatened to create the conditions for the collapse of the dollar by selling her U.S. Treasury bonds if Washington did not agree to convene an international conference on the Middle East that would determine the political future of Iraq and Lebanon, as well as take steps toward imposing a peace accord on Israel and Palestine. This international pressure, combined with a deteriorating economy at home and growing political opposition, including threats by Congress to impeach Bush, forced the White House to agree to take part in such a conference, which produced an interim and loose confederal arrangement backed by fragile cease-fires in Iraq, Lebanon, and Israel-Palestine in June 2008. Unfortunately, growing tensions between Damascus and Baghdad along the border, following the deployment of Syrian troops into the Arab-Sunni enclave of Iraq, resulted in the collapse of the cease-fire agreements in the region and marked the start of the bloody Five-Year War. The only good news for Washington was the decision by the government of the Israel-Palestine Federation to refrain from taking sides in the Sunni-Shiite conflict and to ask the Americans and the Europeans to provide it with security guarantees. However, after President George P. Bush (the nephew of George W.), a.k.a the First Hispanic-American President, announced his decision to close down the U.S. naval base in Israel-Palestine, the government in Jerusalem decided to follow in the footsteps of most of its neighbors and join the China-led ASWAN. In fact, Beijing announced that the headquarters of its alliance in Western Asia—Americans still refer to the region as the “Middle East”—would be located in Tel Aviv.
Leon Hadar is a research fellow in foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute, where he analyzes global politics and economics.
This article first appeared in the March 2007 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.