In a rare move, for the first time since the repeal by Congress in 1971 of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution authorising the Vietnam War, the House of Representative has voted 246-to-182 formally repudiating President Bush's decision to send 21,500 new combat troops to Iraq. Below Farhang Jahanpour examines the background to this momentous decision.
The events of the past few months in the United States have been as bewildering as they have been tragic. The mid-term elections held in November had shown that the majority of Americans had decisively turned against President George Bush's failed policies and the threadbare plots of the Neoconservatives. The Democrats' control of both the House and the Senate had provided the hope of a change of direction or at least a course correction.
The unexpected dismissal of Donald Rumsfeld, one of the main architects of the Iraq war, and his replacement by pragmatic Richard Gates, who had been a member of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, and the sudden forced resignation of the Neoconservative UN Ambassador John Bolton had provided grounds for optimism. That feeling of optimism was further strengthened by the long awaited and much anticipated bipartisan Iraq Study Group's report. The Iraq Study Group, led by two respected veteran politicians, the former Republican Secretary of State James Baker and the former Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton, included some of the most experienced and prominent US politicians.
Domestic and Foreign Reversals
Having suffered major reversals in Iraq and in mid-term elections, President Bush and members of his Administration had indicated that they would welcome that report. Coming on the heels of the Administration's humiliating defeats at home and abroad, the success of the report seemed to be a certainty. As the level of chaos and killings in Iraq had increased, leading to a state of virtual civil war, even the president and some of his staunchest allies could no longer repeat the mantra of 'staying the course'. With the number of US casualties exceeding three thousand – not to mention over half a million Iraqis killed and the creation of two million refugees – the majority of Americans had turned against the continuation of the war.
According to a recent CNN poll, only 20 per cent of the American people supported it, a huge drop compared to the 75 per cent that had supported it at the beginning of the invasion when it was wrongly linked to the war against terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Therefore, it seemed that the time had come for the US Administration to take a fresh look at the realities and cut its losses, and also save Iraq from the continuing catastrophe.
The report did not pull any punches. After painting a dismal picture of America's options in Iraq, the report stated that there was an urgent need for a complete change of direction. It pointed out that the continuation of US policies in Iraq and the region would at best only postpone the most probable scenario: Iraq’s collapse into a failed and fragmented state, an intensifying and long-lasting civil war, as well as an increased risk of foreign meddling in Iraq. It pointed out that the US forces were seen as occupiers and not as liberators and their continued presence in Iraq acted only as a provocation and intensified the insurgency.
What was needed was a clean break both in the way the U.S. and other international actors dealt with the Iraqi government, and in the way the U.S. dealt with the region as a whole.
The report advocated an end to unilateral policies and a new multinational effort to achieve a new political compact between all relevant Iraqi constituents.
The Baker-Hamilton Iraqi Study Group made three important recommendations:
1. Withdrawal of US forces from Iraq;
2. A new U.S. regional strategy, including engagement with Iran and Syria, and an end to efforts at regime change;
3. Revitalisation of the moribund Arab-Israeli 'peace process'.
Supporting the findings of the report, Senior Fellow of the Centre for American Progress Lawrence J. Korb testified before the House Armed Services Committee, and spoke about many mistakes over the past 46 months that had created the current quagmire. He said:
1. The United States cannot solve Iraq’s problems militarily; resolving Iraq’s civil war requires a new political strategy.
2. Open-ended U.S. combat deployment fosters a culture of dependency.
3. The absence of a new diplomatic and political strategy is the missing link to Iraq’s neighbours playing a more constructive and necessary role.
4. The consequences of continued chaos in the Middle East would be disastrous.
5. Military escalation will not tackle the core problems with Iraq’s security forces and would likely exacerbate the situation.
6. An escalation in Iraq prevents soldiers from being re-deployed to other places.
7. Those who support military escalation lack credibility due to the fact that they are the ones responsible for this misadventure.
8. Congress must not let the president continue to ignore the American people and must exercise its constitutional powers to halt the escalation.
9. The United States must change course now rather than heed the dictates of a president who has continued to mislead us about this war.
The Baker-Hamilton report pointed out that President Bush's desire to bring peace to the Middle East, while at the same time providing total backing for all Israeli expansionist policies while pursuing a hostile policy towards Iran and Syria, were contradictory and unachievable. Senior members of the Congress from both parties urged the president to talk to Iran.
According to a recent poll, three-quarters of the American public also want the president to talk to Iran (including 72 percent of Republicans and 81 percent of Democrats). Even Secretary of Defence Robert Gates—when he was the co-chair of a 2004 Council of Foreign Relations task force—urged the president to talk to Iran. Three high-ranking former US generals opposed a troops surge in Iraq and warned against an attack on Iran.
A much-anticipated US intelligence report warned that the rising violence in Iraq could permanently tear the country apart and, in the worst case, create a state of anarchy with no legitimate authority that would combine “extreme ethnosectarian violence with debilitating intragroup clashes.”
Rejection of Baker-Hamilton Report
While everybody was waiting to see how President Bush would implement that important bipartisan report, the president did exactly the opposite.
Far from withdrawing forces from Iraq, he ordered 21,500 extra troops to be sent to Baghdad and to Anbar province. Instead of initiating a meaningful dialogue with Iran and Syria, he adopted an even more hostile policy towards those two countries and openly called on American troops to arrest or kill Iranians that they suspected of involvement in helping the insurgents in Iraq.
Meanwhile, simultaneously with the president's new directive, US forces attacked an Iranian liaison office in Erbil that was functioning with the knowledge and approval of the Iraqi government, and took five Iranian diplomats hostage. The Iraqi foreign minister said that the office was due to be formally turned into a consulate, the work that it had been doing in practice for the past 15 years. The illegal arrest of Iranian diplomats resulted in open condemnation by the Iraqi president and prime minister, as well as by the leader of the Iraqi Kurdistan, Mas'ud Barzani. Earlier on, US forces had arrested three Iranian diplomats who had been invited to Iraq by the Iraqi president during his visit to Tehran, and after extensive protests US forces released them.
A Neoconservative Plan
While all this might have come as a complete surprise to all those who were looking for a saner and more even-handed US policy in the Middle East, those who were familiar with the stranglehold that the neocons and the pro-Israeli lobbies have imposed on the Bush Administration were not surprised at all.
As soon as the contents of the Baker-Hamilton report were leaked, the neocons started a feverish campaign to undermine it. A leading Neoconservative ideologue, Frederick W. Kagan of American Enterprise Institute prepared a report entitled “Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq.” He argued:
* Victory is still an option in Iraq. America, a country of 300 million people with a GDP of $12 trillion, and more than 1 million soldiers and marines can regain control of Iraq, a state the size of California with a population of 25 million and a GDP under $100 billion. Victory in Iraq is vital to America’s security. Defeat will lead to regional conflict, humanitarian catastrophe, and increased global terrorism.
* Iraq has reached a critical point. The strategy of relying on a political process to eliminate the insurgency has failed. Rising sectarian violence threatens to break America’s will to fight. This violence will destroy the Iraqi government, armed forces, and people if it is not rapidly controlled.
He further argued that all the three courses of action that had been proposed would fail: 1) Withdraw immediately; 2) Engage Iraq’s neighbours, and 3) Increase embedded trainers dramatically. He suggested a fourth option: Increase American forces and crush opposition. He advocated a 'surge' of between 20,000-30,000 extra troops to directly fight the insurgents.
When one reads President Bush's major policy speech on 10 January or his State of the Union address, one will see that his policy is taken almost word for word from the above-mentioned document. All this shows that while the Neoconservatives are down, they certainly are not out and still exert a pernicious influence on the US Administration.
It is interesting that the Iraqi government was not consulted regarding the new strategy. President Jalal Talabani openly admitted that he had no idea of the new American plan. It is also clear that the Americans have no intention of leaving Iraq, as was openly admitted by Robert Gates who said that American forces would remain in Iraq for a long time.
The important point to bear in mind about the 'surge' of forces in Iraq is that it is not intended solely to fight the insurgents – there had been at least two such surges in the past and both had failed – but to intensify the pressure on Iran and Syria.
False intelligence on Iran
In the same way that false intelligence was used prior to the invasion of Iraq in order to establish a link between Saddam's regime and al-Qa'ida, the neocons are busy doing the same in the case of Iran and Syria. Without providing any evidence, President Bush linked the Sunni insurgency with al-Qa'ida and Syria, and the Shi'i insurgency with Iran. He again linked the situation in Iraq with the events of 9/11. In the State of the Union address the president said: “This war is an ideological struggle. … To prevail, we must remove the conditions that inspire blind hatred and drove 19 men to get onto airplanes and to come to kill us.” He continued: “What every terrorist fears most is human freedom – societies where men and women make their own choices.”
More than 90 per cent of attacks on US forces have come from Sunni insurgents. Iraqi officials allege that the Sunni insurgents receive most of their support from Jordan and Saudi Arabia, yet President Bush singled out Iran for blame as a country that supported Iraqi insurgents. The overwhelming majority of those who are killed in suicide bombings and attacks are in Shi'i districts, yet President Bush blamed Iran for helping the Shi'is.
Leading neocons jumped on the bandwagon. Senator Joseph Lieberman repeated the threat-conflation mantra on Meet the Press on January 14. Trying to rally support for an escalation of the war in Iraq, he appealed to “the American people, who have been attacked on 9/11 by the same enemy that we’re fighting in Iraq today, supported by a rising Islamist radical super-powered [sic] government in Iran.” National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley declared the war in Iraq to be part of “a broad struggle going on in the Middle East between the forces of freedom and democracy and the forces of terror and tyranny—and Iran is behind a lot of that.”
Ominous signs of a new conflict
These threats have not remained purely at the level of rhetoric, but there are ominous signs of preparations for a conflict, this time involving Iran. These are some of the measures taken by the Bush administration in recent weeks. It has:
* Deployed additional aircraft carriers to the Persian Gulf.
* Deployed US Patriot missiles to the Arab states in the Persian Gulf.
* Deployed F16 fighter planes to the Incirlik base in Turkey.
* Increased the number of US nuclear submarines in the Persian Gulf.
* There has been increased rhetoric and provocation against Iran.
* It has cut off two of Iran’s largest banks from the U.S. financial system.
* Admiral Fallon has been named Centcom commander, a useful person in case of a naval attack on Iran.
* It has arrested several Iranian diplomats in Iraq in December and in January, arrested six more in a raid on an office opened in Kurdistan in 1992 that has been functioning as an Iranian consulate.
* Furthermore, Israeli pilots have undergone training for Iran bombing missions.
* In his January 10 speech to the nation the president said: “We will interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.”
Suspicions about the new plan
The exaggerated rhetoric also seems to signal a more sweeping intent. Official statements parrot claims prominent for the past year in the Neoconservative press, bizarrely linking Iran to September 11 and the president’s declared “war on terror.” This feverish campaign has even worried many US senators and congressmen. Senator Bill Nelson (D- FL) told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at a January 11 Senate hearing: “I have supported you and the administration on the war, but I cannot continue to support the administration's position…I have not been told the truth over and over again.”
Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, the West Virginia Democrat who has recently taken control of the intelligence committee, said that the administration was building a case against Tehran even as American intelligence agencies still know little about either Iran’s internal dynamics or its intentions in the Middle East. “To be quite honest, I’m a little concerned that it’s Iraq again,” Senator Rockefeller said during an interview in his office. “This whole concept of moving against Iran is bizarre.”
The former commander of CENTCOM, General John Abizaid and the former commander of US forces in Iraq General Casey in testimonies before the Senate opposed the need for a troop surge. Both of them were simply replaced.
Immediately after the president announced his new policy, both the British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice toured the Middle East to form an alliance of regional democracies such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan against Iran and Syria. During her trip to the Middle East Condoleezza Rice said: “On one side are reformers and responsible leaders”, in which she included “Saudi Arabia and the other countries of the Gulf, Egypt, Jordan, the young democracies of Lebanon, of the Palestinian territory led by Mahmoud Abbas [not the popularly elected government led by HAMAS], and in Iraq… But on the other side of that divide are Iran, Syria and Hezbollah and Hamas” who “…use violence to spread chaos, to undermine democratic governments, and to impose agendas of hatred and intolerance,” she declared.
Negative reactions to the plan in the Middle East
The new US plan has come under a barrage of criticism at home and abroad. Opinion polls in the United States have shown that nearly two-thirds of Americans disapprove of the Bush plan. Even the countries that are supposed to be the recipients of US favour do not seem to have been persuaded by this new policy.
Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem bin Jabr al-Thani chastised Washington for failing to consult the Gulf Co-operation Council before formulating its new policy. He went on: “I think it's important for American friends to coordinate their policies with countries in the region … before adopting them.” “The region's countries will be the first to be affected by their policies,” he said in Doha at a press conference with his Italian counterpart Massimo D'Alema. “Those policies that led to this situation have harmed the region.”
The comments in most of the Middle East press, even in countries that are friendly to America, have been dismissive of the plan.
In Saudi Arabia, the Okaz newspaper wrote: “The American administration has no right to ask Iraqis and other countries of the region to follow its strategy… when the administration itself is incapable of convincing even Americans of this policy.” It continued: “A good number of observers do not expect the new American strategy to succeed in improving the situation in Iraq. On the contrary, they believe that it will lead to more chaos, more terrorist acts and more victims.” The US government should “first of all convince its own people about the strategy before trying to convince the world,” it said.
In the United Arab Emirates, the headline on the Al-Khaleej mocked: “Rice comes… as a tourist.” “If Rice has come only to listen, it's a mixture of sarcasm and provocation. Rice knows only too well the positions of the countries she is visiting and doesn't need to listen further.” The paper asked: “And even after listening and understanding what others want, will she take that on board?”
In Jordan, another key US regional ally, the independent Al-Arab Al-Yawm also dismissed the chance of Rice winning support for Bush's plans for Iraq. It wrote: “Rice is not expected to be successful in promoting Bush's strategy. When the secretary of state asks moderate Arab countries to support the Maliki government, she is in fact asking them to support Iran's influence in Iraq.”
“The former pressure was an illusion and the lack of any pressure now will push the crisis between the people and their rulers to the edge,” said Ibrahim Eissa, the editor of Al Dustoor, a weekly independent newspaper in Egypt that is critical of the government. That eliminates “all false appearances that the Arab regimes are against the United States in defense of their independent sovereignty and that the United States is supporting democracy when it is in strict alliance with the oppressive regimes,” he added.
The leading Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram carried an article by Hassan Nafaa, professor of political science at Cairo University, entitled “Time to say no”. It argued: “To continue kowtowing to the US administration's demands over Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine would be suicidal.”
Referring to the recent US policies towards Iran and Iraq, Nafaa wrote: “Arab leaders who believed the claims that ridding Iraq of Saddam Hussein would eliminate one of the greatest impediments to regional stability should look at what has in fact been eliminated. It is Iraq as a state that has been destroyed… As important as the strategic relationship with the US might be, Arab leaders should realise that Bush and his gang of neo-conservatives are not synonymous with the United States. They are a band of thugs bent on steering the world to unmitigated disaster, a fact grasped by the majority of the American people upon whom it has dawned that this administration is no less fanatical and racist than Hitler and the Nazis.”
These are strong words by a major commentator in a country that is allegedly friendly towards the United States.
The complete bankruptcy
All this shows the complete bankruptcy of US foreign policy and the state of confusion in which the American foreign policy-makers find themselves.
Theirs is a foreign policy that has gone totally berserk. It is opposed by the vast majority of the American people. It is opposed by a sizeable majority of senators and congressmen. It is opposed by many in the military. It was initiated behind the back of the 'democratically-elected' Iraqi government. It is rejected by the people in the Middle East. It is simply meant to please a shrinking number of fanatical neocons who do not seem to have had their fill of war and bloodshed yet.
The Neoconservatives that pushed America towards perhaps the worst disaster in her history, namely the illegal war in Iraq, are likely to push her towards an even more disastrous decision if they can manufacture an American invasion of Iran. The first time many Americans were fooled by their false intelligence and extensive propaganda.
If they allow themselves to be fooled a second time, it will be unforgivable.
Farhang Jahanpour is a former professor and dean of the Faculty of Languages at the University of Isfahan, and a part-time tutor in the Department of Continuing Education at the University of Oxford. Other articles by Jahanpour in The Transnational Foundation website.