“Catastrophic Success” in Iraq, the Fifty-First State

Sure, Paul Krugman is basically a DLC economist. There's lots of talk about him getting a job in the upcoming Kerry administration. My politics and my economics are far to the left of his.

But he writes well, and he seems not to fear the right-wing attack machine. This is a rare combination these days. It's an unusual editorialist who will say what he or she thinks regardless of the fact that the attack machine will be on them in minutes. There are some reporters in this category, for example Dana Milbank, Jim Lobe, and Warren Strobel; as a Zen Buddhist I say thank God we still have people like these, and that these three aren't the only ones. But these days, few people in the media simply say what they think is true; rather, they attempt to provide a “balanced” report: half the time on what one side said, half the time on the other side's version. I appreciate their provision of material for The Daily Show as much as anyone; I think it was Steven Colbert who recently said that he didn't see it as his job to stand between the people speaking to him and the people listening to him.

Krugman has apparently explained his fearlessness by saying that if the Times fires him his income will go up: he'll spend the time on more remunerative tasks. But while this is probably true, it doesn't reduce the contribution to the common wealth that he makes by speaking fearlessly:

For a long time, anyone suggesting analogies with Vietnam was ridiculed. But Iraq optimists have, by my count, already declared victory three times. First there was "Mission Accomplished" - followed by an escalating insurgency. Then there was the capture of Saddam - followed by April's bloody uprising. Finally there was the furtive transfer of formal sovereignty to Ayad Allawi, with implausible claims that this showed progress - a fantasy exploded by the guns of August.

Now, serious security analysts have begun to admit that the goal of a democratic, pro-American Iraq has receded out of reach. Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies - no peacenik - writes that "there is little prospect for peace and stability in Iraq before late 2005, if then."

Despite feeling that these hyphens should be em-dashes, I appreciate his points. (I checked the original Times version, and they're hyphens there, too.) It's still not popular to make such statements, especially in right-wing tabloids like the Times is becoming.

Fred Kaplan of Slate is even more pessimistic. "This is a terribly grim thing to say," he wrote recently, "but there might be no solution to the problem of Iraq" - no way to produce "a stable, secure, let alone democratic regime. And there's no way we can just pull out without plunging the country, the region, and possibly beyond into still deeper disaster." Deeper disaster? Yes: people who worried about Ramadi are now worrying about Pakistan.

I suppose that to many of my friends, and some of my readers, I'm sounding like a broken record, if anyone remembers what those were. But I can't help pointing out what Chalmers Johnson said a couple of months ago when asked whether one might not conclude that the Bushies are “spectacular screwups” rather than “grand imperialists”:

Well, undoubtedly they bungled things in Iraq, from not using enough troops to misreading the intelligence, and there is more evidence of it every day. But there was never a plan to leave Iraq because there is no intention of leaving Iraq. We are currently building 14 bases there. Dick Cheney can't imagine giving up that oil. And the military can't imagine giving up those bases. That's why they can't come up with a plan to leave.

This is damning evidence, but it's not the only evidence.

For example, the Pentagon's plan for Iraqi reconstruction originally involved an armed force of 40,000, far less than any of Iraq's neighbors. Of course Iraq's neighbors had reason to fear invasion by Iraq, especially since the last Iraqi invasion appears to have been sanctioned by the US, in fact by the father of the current inhabitant of the White House; so for Iraq's neighbors to build up a large military is understandable. But now that Saddam and his huge (if poorly equipped) army are history, the vulnerability is reversed, and the oil prize awaits whichever neighbor, say, Iran, decides it's worth the cost.

In such a situation, to plan for an army that is clearly not capable of defending the country is to plan for at least a long-term occupation. Disbanding the Iraqi army was widely condemned as stupid because it dispersed three or four hundred thousand armed angry men throughout the country. But it might actually have moved the ball down the field from the neo-con point of view, producing, in the President's classic statement, a “catastrophic success”—in this light, a phrase that is less internally contradictory than at first appeared.

After all, every report I've read says the neo-con plan included “regime change” in every country in the Middle East that does not kow-tow to Likud. No government centered around Iraqi Muslims, whether secular, Sunni, or Shia, is likely to be friendly to Israel, promises to the contrary from everyone's favorite con man Chalabi notwithstanding. The Kurds, it's true, have been allowing Mossad to use their territory as a base for spying on Iran, a country with which Israel has an interesting and complex relationship. But the Kurds have been screwed so many times (“fourth time we've double-crossed Kurds, counting Henry Kissinger's triple-cross only once”, says Molly Ivins—damn, I love Molly Ivins) that they'll take any allies they can get, without necessarily trusting any of them. At least, that's what I'd do in their position.

So what am I suggesting, a huge multi-national conspiracy? Well, to begin with, let's define our terms:

The phrase "conspiracy theory" is used to discourage institutional analysis.

So here's my classically contrarian institutional analysis.

Pointing out that the FBI and the Pentagon are investigating “close collaboration between prominent U.S. neo-conservatives and Israel dating back some 30 years” does not, I assert, make me crazy or anti-Semitic; it's simply a factual observation. And pointing out that the neo-cons who seem to have hijacked US foreign policy are the same individuals being investigated does not make me a KKKer. Unlike a neighbor of mine, I don't have LaRouche signs in my yard, for the very good reason that I consider Lyndon to be completely wacko. (Which is not to say that every statement he's ever made is completely false; even a stopped watch is right twice a day.)

The right-wing attack machine seems to employ techniques that are similar to those used by militant Zionists against anyone who complains about the actions of the Israeli government. Does that prove a connection? Certainly not. Still, three of the neo-cons with tremendous influence over American foreign policy (Feith, Perle, and Wurmser) wrote a report for Benjamin Netanyahu (when he was Israeli Prime Minister) called “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm”. Their plan looks a lot like the one Bush has been following. From James Bamford's excellent book A Pretext for War:

A key part of the plan was to get the United States to pull out of peace negotiations and simply let Israel take care of the Palestinians as it saw fit. "Israel," said the report, "can manage its own affairs. Such self-reliance will grant Israel greater freedom of action and remove a significant lever of pressure used against it in the past."

But the centerpiece of their recommendations was the removal of Saddam Hussein as the first step in remaking the Middle East into a region friendly, instead of hostile, to Israel. [...]

As part of their "grand strategy," they recommended that once Iraq was conquered and Saddam Hussein overthrown, he should be replaced by a puppet leader friendly to Israel. "Whoever inherits Iraq," they wrote, "dominates the entire Levant strategically." Then they suggested that Syria would be the next country to be invaded. "Israel can shape its strategic environment," they said.

This would be done, they recommended to Netanyahu, "by establishing the principle of preemption" and by "rolling back" its Arab neighbors. From then on, the principle would be to strike first and and expand, a dangerous and provocative change in philosophy. They recommended launching a major unprovoked regional war in the Middle East, attacking Lebanon and Syria and ousting Iraq's Saddam Hussein. Then, to gain the support of the American government and public, a phony pretext would be used as the reason for the original invasion.

Despite the peculiarity of “a trio of former, and potentially future, high-ranking American government officials” making such recommendations to a foreign government,

[Richard] Perle felt their "Clean Break" recommendations were so important that he personally hand-carried the report to Netanyahu.

Wisely, Netanyahu rejected the task force's plan. But now, with the election of a receptive George W. Bush, they dusted off their preemptive war strategy and began getting ready to put it to use.

Seems to me that in situations like this there are basically two ways of explaining the evidence: conspiracy theory or coincidence theory. I have issues with both, but it's harder for me to imagine this particular set of events being a coincidence than a conspiracy, assuming reasonable definitions of both terms.

So to answer my previous self-question, no, I'm not suggesting a multi-national conspiracy. In the spirit of the current election campaign, I'm proposing something a bit more nuanced: that there is a world-wide game with a variety of names along the lines of “geostrategy”. Players of that game have included such famous Americans as Henry Kissinger and Madeline Albright, two of my least favorite people. In fact many Secretaries of State and National Security Advisors are in this group. As with any complex game, some players are more skilled than others. Their levels of understanding and of honesty vary widely. Their goals even vary; it's not a game like chess, where “winning” is well defined.

But certain themes are in regular use. For example, the battle over resources has been critical for centuries, and the increasing likelihood that oil is on its way out as an available commodity makes it a prominent theme. A constant theme is long-term planning. Americans, used to a government that appears never to plan past the next election, might find it hard to believe that long-term planning motivates any US government action. But this is to ignore, for example, the famous formulation of geostrategist George Kennan in a 1948 State Department document:

We have about 50 percent of the world's wealth, but only 6.3 percent of its population... In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity... We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction... We should cease to talk about vague and... unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.

In the game of geostrategy, as in complex board games like chess, very few moves are made for a single reason; most moves have several motivations, and the final choice is a tradeoff. So I would say that oil is one reason for the US to occupy Iraq. Keeping a US hand on the German and Japanese oil spigot has been a preoccupation for decades, along with ensuring that the wealth generated by oil stays in British and US banks. As Karen Kwiatkowski pointed out, preventing Iraq from switching its oil sales from a dollar to a euro basis was also vital to US economic interests. Benefits to our lieutenant in the Middle East constitute another reason. The flaunting of US ability to ignore international law and the opinions of our erstwhile allies is still another. Doubtless there are others as well; the enmity between Judaism and Islam is a good candidate, for example.

I expect many readers will disagree, some vehemently. I welcome discussion of what I consider a very important topic. But please, if you plan to attack my arguments, at least read the LA Weekly interviews of Chalmers Johnson and Karen Kwiatkowski, her article Spies in the Pentagon?, and Gabriel Kolko's Alliances and the American election first. If your argument supersedes or at least counters theirs, I'm definitely interested in hearing it.

But at this point, I have to admit that I'm attracted to an argument made back in April by Juan Cole:

Since Iraq is now for all practical purposes the 51st state, I say we let the Iraqis vote in the US elections in November.

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