By William C. Shelton
(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville Times belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville Times, its staff or publishers)
As the American enterprise in Iraq collapses, those responsible point fingers at each other. Their specific criticisms may be accurate, but their aim is to distract attention from their own failures, continuing a 116-year-old pattern of arrogantly, ignorantly and violently interfering in other people’s business.
Over the past three weeks, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS, aka the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL) has conducted a blitzkrieg, capturing territory from Aleppo in Northern Syria to Diyala, 40 miles Northwest of Baghdad. The Iraqi Army, for which the U.S. paid $25 billion, has largely folded or fled.
As Vice President, Dick Cheney lied us into war, with cooked evidence of “weapons of mass destruction.” He promised that Americans would be celebrated as liberators and that oil revenues would pay for all our war costs. Instead, the intervention replaced a brutal dictator who was a bulwark against Iranian power with a brutal authoritarian who is loyal to Iran.
In a Wall Street Journal column, Cheney now says that it’s all President Obama’s fault because he did not, “negotiate an agreement to leave behind some residual American forces, training and intelligence capabilities to help secure the peace.” Cheney omits that fact that his own administration negotiated the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) governing American withdrawal.
Obama loyalists predictably respond that he did his best with a mess left by the previous administration. If what President Obama did was the best that he could do, then he should never have applied for his current job.
He inherited an Iraq in which Sunnis working with American troops had completely degraded al Qaeda in Iraq, creating the opportunity for an inclusive government. Instead, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki arrested Sunni Awakening fighters. Thousand of Sunni men disappeared into prison without charges. Al-Maliki’s 2010 electoral commission disqualified more than 500 Sunni candidates. Although the Iraquia List, an alliance with significant Sunni participation, won a plurality in that election, al-Maliki manipulated the judiciary into placing his own Dawa Party in power.
Obama and his aides wanted so much to put Iraq behind them that their tacit support of al-Maliki and their indifference to his sectarian brutality made renewed civil war almost inevitable. While it’s true that the Bush administration executed the SOFA, the Obama administration had an opportunity to modify its terms, leaving a contingent of American troops in place and some American leverage on al-Maliki. But Ambassador Jim Jeffrey says that he and his negotiators received no direction from the White House.
Getting in on the finger pointing, perennial warmongers John McCain and Lindsey Graham condemn the President without acknowledging their own role. Back when Obama had sufficient wisdom to not arm Syrian insurgents who might turn those arms against U.S. allies, McCain and Graham persuaded Saudi Arabia and Qatar to do so.
Qatar financed Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s official franchisee in Syria. Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, financed ISIS, al-Qaeda’s bastard child. ISIS is far more vicious than al-Qaeda ever was, rationalizing mass slaughter, crucifixion, beheading, amputation, and oppression of women as religious zealotry. The Saudis are now beside themselves, Prince Bandar has lost his job, and McCain and Graham are ass covering.
The only national politicians who seem willing to discuss the underlying cause for this disaster are those considered to be on their respective parties fringes, like Senators Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders.
That case is that, with breath-taking arrogance, American leaders project force into complex situations of which they are shamefully ignorant. The long-term consequences are almost inevitably disastrous.
In 1951, a British company that completely controlled Iranian oil production refused to negotiate an equal share of its profits with Iran. The Iranian Parliament nationalized the petroleum industry, with broad support from the electorate. At the request of the British government, the CIA overthrew the popular and democratically elected President Mohmmad Mossadegh in 1953.
U.S. oil companies got a share of the Iranian action, and Iranians got 26 years of rule by repression and torture, leading directly to the 1979 Islamist revolution. Today, Iran is developing nuclear weapons and supporting terrorist operations in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Israel.
In 1951 the people of Guatemala, elected Jacobo Arbenz in that country’s first-ever peaceful transition of power. To drive up commodity prices, the American-owned United Fruit Company had kept 85% of its vast land holdings uncultivated, while peasants starved. For years it told tax assessors that the land’s value was $3.00 per acre. When Guatemala undertook a land reform program, the government offered that amount in compensation.
CIA Director Allen Dulles sat on United Fruit’s board of directors. In 1954 the CIA engineered a coup that overthrew the government. The Agency’s internal review of 150,000 captured documents found no trace of the communist influence that it had claimed.
Nevertheless, U.S. Special Forces trained right-wing paramilitary organizations, and a fraudulent election brought military rule. Death squads and the army began a campaign that eventually slaughtered 200,000 political opponents and indigenous people. Guatemala’s children are now the most malnourished in the hemisphere.
In 1970 Cambodia’s Prince Norodom Sihanouk enjoyed the broad support of his people. A band of 6,000 communist guerillas called the “Khmer Rouge” was unable to make much headway.
Sihanouk steadfastly maintained neutrality in the Vietnam War. A coup in 1970 replaced him with General Lon Nol, who took his orders from the U.S. The Khmer Rouge’s ranks swelled nine fold, enabling them to seize power. Their executions, forced labor, and mass starvation killed two million people.
During the 1980s, the U.S. armed the Afghani mujahideen in their fight against Soviet occupation, despite the mujahideen’s Islamist anti-western ideology. With their combat experience and U.S.-supplied weapons, the mujahideen subsequently became the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
The pattern repeats itself: Mexico in 1917; Nicaragua in 1926; the Congo in 1960; Chile in 1973; Vietnam from 1955 to 1975; and on, and on. American foreign policy makers lack the humility to acknowledge their ignorance or the discipline to correct it. Their ham-fisted interventions bring mass murder, starvation, and brutal repression while squandering American blood, wealth, and world standing.
In 1905, George Santayana, then teaching at Harvard, wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” If our leaders are too hubris addicted to learn from the past, can’t we the people stop enabling them?