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The Invasion of Iraq:
The Greatest Strategic Disaster in US History
By David Hirst
The Guardian, January 14, 2006
In March 2003, before US troops reached Baghdad, Middle East scholar Volker Perthes wrote that while the risks of this â€śillegitimateâ€ť war were enormous, those of â€śa US failure to stabilize postwar Iraq would be even higherâ€ť. With those words looking increasingly prophetic, no one, in picturing the implications of such failure, is now more lurid than the Bush administration.
The direness of the prospect has become its strongest argument for â€śstaying the courseâ€ť, but for others it is already a given, amounting to â€śthe greatest
strategic disaster in US historyâ€ť, in the words of the retired US Gen. William Odom.
If so, what will this disaster look like? In scale, it will surely be at least commensurate with the vast ambitions that came with the invasion in the first
place, Iraq being cast as the platform for reshaping the entire Middle East. A general US retreat from the region, with troop withdrawal at its core, is no doubt a prerequisite for, and yardstick of, the emergence of a healthy, self-reliant new Middle Eastern order. But, with the kind of ignominious scuttle from Iraq that failure would presumably entail, the region wonâ€™t just revert to
the status quo ante. Instead of Iraq becoming a beacon of all good things it will become the single most noxious wellspring of all the bad ones the invasion
was supposed to extinguish â€” and new ones to boot.
If the Middle East was a jungle before, it will be a wilder one afterward, with most elements of the decadent existing order, in their increased insecurity,
driven to even cruder methods â€” increased internal repression or external adventurism â€” to preserve themselves. And it will become even more
anti-American. For while a â€śgoodâ€ť retreat would decrease such sentiments, a â€śbadâ€ť Iraqi one will only spur and spread the active, often violent expression
of them. That is because, for the Arabs, Iraq was only the latest drastic episode in a long history of Western interference in their affairs. Until the
wider, pre-Iraqi consequences of that interference are remedied, the example of successful anti-American resistance in Iraq will only encourage it elsewhere,
especially in Palestine.
Saddamâ€™s Iraq was the very model of Arab tyranny â€” with sectarianism, in the shape of Sunni minority rule, as its main component. With American failure it
will become the model of Arab anarchy, embodying the two most disruptive forces in the Middle East today. One is a sectarianism (chiefly Sunni versus Shiite) or
ethnic antagonism (chiefly Kurd versus Arab, Turk and Iranian) as malevolent in its new pluralist form as it was in its more familiar despotic one. The other is
universalist, ideologically driven and extremist Islamism. Elections show that this is the dominant or rising force on both sides of Iraqâ€™s widening sectarian divide. Islamism will spawn its inevitable fanatical progeny and Iraq, till now
mainly a magnet for Pan-Islamic jihadists, will become, Afghan-style, a main exporter of them too; it already is, in fact, as the Jordanian suicide bombings illustrated.
The Arab states will be sucked into this Iraqi maelstrom. With the worldâ€™s only superpower on its way out, who but they â€” along with Turkey and Iran â€” are left to replace it there? But they will fail disastrously in their turn. In the past the regimes more or less controlled the business of interference in each otherâ€™s affairs, as they exerted such control over their domestic arenas. Now they will
be competing with those non-state forces, primarily the ethnic sectarian and Islamist ones, by which they also are increasingly challenged. In fact, almost all these countries are latent Iraqs, especially Baathist Syria. Far from
mastering Iraq, it is Iraq â€” in its death throes as a unified state â€” that is more likely to master them. Nor will Turkey and Iran, Iraqâ€™s strongest neighbors, be immune from the contagion, with Iraqi Kurdish emancipation already
contributing to a resurgence of Kurdish resistance in both.
If all this portends an unfathomable mess, one thing at least is already clear:
Iran will be the main beneficiary of US failure and the long-overdue accession of the Shiite majority, its coreligionists, to political ascendancy in Iraq. The increase in regional clout it derives from this will be used at Americaâ€™s
expense. The mullahs have long been readying themselves for a great reckoning.
With their new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, readiness seems to be mutating into active desire. He and those around him believe that only the US stands in
the way of Iranian regional dominance and that the US, seen as defeated in Iraq, is now a â€śsunset powerâ€ť.
For Iran, the sectarian ethnic and Islamist factors are now potent assets. Its Kurdish vulnerabilities are more than offset by improved Shiite influence throughout the region. This is a reality which, within the Sunni-dominated Arab
establishment, Jordan has been most publicly alarmed about. King Abdallah warns of a â€śShiite crescentâ€ť stretching from Iraq, via Syria (so long as its
pro-Iranian Alawite regime survives), to south Lebanon. Jordanian politicians even talk of building a â€śSunni wallâ€ť through Iraq to keep the peril at bay.
In addition, non-Arab Iran is now the main state patron of radical Islamism in the Arab world, and Palestine is its most profitable arena. Long an advocate of
Islamicizing the Palestinian struggle, nothing could better serve its ambition than the effect that US failure in Iraq will have on Hamas, which is now close
to supplanting the secular-nationalist Fatah as the dominant political force in the occupied territories.
But the thing that will really make it and Israel the most dangerous animals in the post-Iraqi Middle East jungle is Iranâ€™s apparent quest for nuclear weapons.
On the one hand, this commands grassroots popularity among the Arabs. They see it as a self-assertion that no Arab leader would dare offer against colonial-style Western bullying and the hypocrisy of the Westâ€™s acceptance of
Israelâ€™s nuclear monopoly.
On the other hand, no one invested greater expectations in the Iraqi adventure than Israel. US success, it thought, would transform its strategic position. But
with US failure, Israel will grow more repressive against the Palestinians, and more ready for military action against Iran. Should the US itself deal with Iran in the same violent and partisan fashion as it did Iraq, the adverse consequences of that new adventure will outstrip those of the earlier one. For there is no reason to doubt that Iranâ€™s response, from both itself and its strengthened Shiite and Islamist allies in the region, will be the devastating
one it constantly promises.
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