Those who believe that the United States (US) is gradually withdrawing from the Middle East (especially the Levant) are mistaken; those who advertise Barack Obama and his policy in the region as a “lame duck” have not been more wrong; and those who describe the US policy in the region as weak and stale have jumped to the wrong conclusions.
What the US is doing in the region does not necessarily reflect failure, inability or confusion; a careful reading of the US policy and decision-making process…suggests that the higher interests have not changed…guiding the overall course of events in order to serve the US policy is still the same… and the outcome of intervention by other powers (including the Russians)…eventually pours into the “American mill”!!
All what Obama did was change the American way of dealing with the region from a bloody, direct and costly intervention to achieving the same interests through soft power…which costs less… and perhaps even achieves better results. This is what he tried to implement through “Smart Management of Crisis.”
The second observation is that some who accuse the US of weakness and hesitation judge it on the basis that it is a superpower whose duty is to impose security and stability in its conventional “areas of influence.” But who said that the US policy makers are concerned, at this stage, with the achievement of stability, particularly in the Levant. If the American administration wanted to achieve some form of stability, it is not necessarily going to serve the aspirations of the people for freedom, progress and development; it would be based on its interests, and perhaps even leading to build on fragile sectarian and ethnic equations, or agent governments falling within the Western-US orbit.
This article focuses solely on Iraq as a model (followed by a second article about US policy on Syria). It attempts to determine the reality of the American perspective and practices towards the two countries… It states that American policy makers, after one hundred years of the Sykes-Picot agreement, are trying to draw borders not seen before on maps; borders on which walls of “blood” are built with the tragic-comic help of the region’s people themselves!!
US national interests:
The American administration international strategy focuses on maintaining its hegemony over the world and remaining the sole superpower for as long as possible (militarily, economically, scientifically, technologically, etc.), aiming to reshape the international system according to its interests. Such strategy is characterised by being greatly pragmatic and flexible, as well as highly adaptive.
Within this strategy, and away from indulging in the classification of American foreign policy schools, with their different levels and potential overlap, there are two main trends defining this policy. The first gives greater weight to security and power, describing itself as a representative of the values of freedom, and tends largely to intervene directly in foreign conflicts, albeit using military force to impose systems and regulations it deems commensurate with its values and interests and befitting with the US as the first global power. On the other hand, the second favors the role of “soft power” in change, and seeks to reform the global system. It focuses on the mechanisms of negotiations and agreements, advertising its interest in development and human rights. It also gives importance to local forces and their cultures, and shows respect to privacy and pluralism. It does not encourage military intervention unless the higher interests of the US are at risk.
Usually, the first trend is embraced by the followers of the Republican Party and the second is adopted by those supporting the Democratic Party.
Still, there is fluctuation between these two trends, especially when one of them fails… for instance, the “strong” Ronald Reagan replaced Carter whose focus was on soft power… and soft power dependent Obama replaced Bush Jr. who used force against Afghanistan and Iraq… However, these twin trends ultimately serve the same end, which are the higher interests of the US.
The US Strategy in the Middle East can be Summed up as Follows:
- Maintaining Israel and its security as a regional superpower is the cornerstone of the US policy in the region.
- Dominating oil fields to meet the needs of America and its allies, as leverage in international strategy.
- Controlling shipping routes and international trade in the region, including the Straits of Hormuz and Bab al-Mandeb, as well as the Suez Canal.
- Supporting pro-US political systems and those who maintain a good relationship with the US. Besides, defining and assigning roles and influence to the regimes in the region in order to serve, or at least be consistent with US interests.
- Being the only superpower to dominate the region against any other major competing country, except for a small margin that does not hurt the US strategic interests (including Russia).
Justification for the occupation of Iraq:
For twenty-five years, the US foreign policy on Iraq has always alternated between two trends: disempowerment and fragmentation. After the direct military intervention under the leadership of George HW Bush to destroy the Iraqi forces and liberate Kuwait in 1991, President Clinton continued (Jan 1993–Jan 2001) the disempowerment policy in order to exhaust Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime using “soft” means such as embargo and international sanctions. Furthermore, he provided air protection against the Iraqi air force over the Kurdish areas in northern Iraq. Then came George W. Bush who used direct military intervention to topple Saddam’s regime, and impose an environment of internal fragmentation. He was followed by Obama’s disempowerment policy, previously adopted by Clinton, using “soft” means while decreasing financial and military costs.
The disempowerment method used by Clinton against Iraq was inhuman, merciless and illogical when he punished the Iraqi people and destroyed Iraq’s economy. For instance, in an interview on Al Jazeera on 1/6/2001, Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Riyadh al-Qaisi said that the capital that the United Nations (UN) allowed per capita (over the previous five years) was $125 per year, knowing that the UN, for example, imported 28 dogs to deal with the mines issue and spent $33 thousand on feeding them over the course of 11 months, meaning that the average cost of feeding one dog was $1,286 a year, which is more than ten times the capital allowed to an Iraqi citizen. The Iraqi people were punished and humiliated under the pretext of punishing the regime, which was able to adapt and continue until the American occupation.
After George W. Bush took over as president, a major shift in the US strategy for the region occurred when, driven by the “Security and Power” school, encircled by the neo-conservative movement controlling foreign policy and blatantly taking advantage of the situation following the 9/11 events, Bush implemented his own agendas, which had nothing to do with the events themselves. The occupation of Iraq was the biggest example of this new strategy.
The two main pretexts under which the US sought to justify the occupation of Iraq were:
- Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), or more or less having a WMD program in violation of its international obligations, thus posing a threat to the countries of the region.
- Iraqi regime’s support for terrorism and sheltering terrorists.
On 6/7/2016, John Chilcot’s “The Report of the Iraq Inquiry” related to the illegality of Britain’s participation in the invasion of Iraq was published. The report confirms the falseness of the stated reasons for the occupation of Iraq stressing that they were flimsy and non-existent. It is clear from the report that the aim was not to target Saddam Hussein and his regime only, but Iraq itself, without any logical declared reasons. However, there were no serious demands to punish or hold accountable those who lied and waged the war to destroy Iraq. The report did not make a profound impact or bring about enough media pressure to penalise those responsible, and it will be buried like other reports.
It has been proven that the US claims about the WMD existence in Iraq are absolutely false. As for the story about supporting terrorism… it was clear that it was just a media bubble… the Iraqi regime did not have any relations with al-Qaeda or the like… on the contrary, it was one the most successful regimes in the suppression of “political Islam” movements…. Not one individual from the regime participated in the September 11 attacks… or any other attacks on Western interests…. Thus, the question is simple: if those two pretexts were false, why did the US occupy Iraq?!
Failure of the economic justification:
Many analyses which rejected the US justification for the occupation and stated that the economic aspect reflected in controlling Iraq’s resources and taking its wealth, especially oil, was the real reason for the occupation… The school endorsing such analyses is still popular to this day. However, a careful reading of the costs of the US war on Iraq reveals that the war expenses and financial losses were much greater than the Iraqi oil, even at preferential prices or almost free!! Nevertheless, the US administration did not pillage Iraq’s oil, and oil prices did not fall during the American occupation of Iraq.
The US Department of Defense admitted that its direct spending on the war between 2003–2010 amounted to about $758 billion. The study prepared by the Watson Institute for International Studies and Public Affairs at Brown University showed that the war costs for the same period exceeded $1,100 billion; an average of $2 billion and $640 million a week. US economist Joseph Stiglitz, winner of Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, prepared a study in collaboration with Linda Bielmez from Harvard University stating that the spending on the war on Iraq will cost the US economy about three trillion dollars (three thousand billion) at an average rate; using minimum numbers.
Less than a week after the aggression against Iraq (March 2003), Vice President Dick Cheney declared that the war in its first year would cost $80 million, and that there would be a need to spend about $20 billion over the course of the following two years to help Iraq to recover. However, he did not talk about the costs of keeping the US army in Iraq. Did he deliberately not talk about the potential costs of keeping the army so as not to adversely affect the American public opinion, or was it a miscalculation that he did not expect his army to stay for more than two years in Iraq?!
The US economy may have benefited from getting the Iraqi oil at preferential prices, making contracts for reconstruction in Iraq, and even pushing the region’s countries to buy American weapons…to serve the US economy… but all these factors were not enough to justify the occupation of Iraq and pay such enormous prices… in an apparently losing investment.
So there were no economic gains from the war on Iraq… on the contrary, the enormous costs damaged the US economy in a way or another… leading the American voter to choose the Democratic candidate Obama.
Geo-strategic dimensions and cultural and religious backgrounds:
It seems that the religious and cultural backgrounds of the neo-conservatives who surrounded President George W. Bush, and the will to take advantage of the anti- “terrorism” global atmosphere, which grew up and was promoted after the 9/11 attacks, pushed America’s decision-maker to adopt the visions of re-dividing the region on sectarian and ethnic bases, thus facilitating more American hegemony over it and serving the Israel. One of the most prominent thinkers who called for the division of the Arab world was Bernard Lewis; who had a significant impact on the neo-conservative school, and on George W. Bush himself, objecting to the Sykes-Picot error in not taking into account the sectarian and ethnic bases. American author Ralph Peters built on Lewis’ studies and called for the break-up of the Middle East in his article “Blood Borders”, which he published in the US army’s journal “Armed Forces Journal” in June 2006. He spoke blatantly about dividing Iraq and Saudi Arabia suggesting the foundation of a state for Arab Shia in southern Iraq extending to al-Ahsa and south western Iran bordering the Gulf, particularly Ahvaz and Arabistan. He also suggested creating a state for Sunni Arabs in central Iraq and another for Kurds stretching over northern Iraq, north-western Syria, eastern Turkey and north-western Iran. Therefore, there was a desire to attack and internally fragment Iraq, regardless of any real, legal justification or threats against US national security.
Features of contemporary American attitude in the region:
The US occupation of Iraq in 2003 under George W. Bush inaugurated a new phase of direct American indulgence in reshaping or coercing political regimes in the region, then Obama came to follow the same tactic of disempowerment and coercion using soft means. However, the American administration attitude remained “practically” within a number of lines and parameters including:
- Weakening the region’s regimes politically, economically and militarily so as to facilitate their subjection in a way that they do not pose any danger to Israel and the US interests.
- Helping “smartly” in creating environment for sectarian and ethnic conflicts, resulting in tearing the social fabric within states, causing hatred among people; even without necessarily drawing new political borders.
- Adopting undeclared policies of creating suitable environment for regional conflicts and tensions between the region’s countries and peoples along sectarian and ethnic lines (Sunnis against Shiites, Arabs against Persians, Turks, Kurds…) so as to exhaust them in such animosities, away from the common enemy “Israel.”
- Preventing any projects aimed at development or unity in the region, thus stopping any threats against the US interests or the Israeli state.
This US attitude would not have found a good market, had the corrupt, authoritarian and repressive regimes in the region succeeded in their projects of development and unity. They failed to build a modern national state and strengthen social structures, as well as develop a sense of citizenship and loyalty among their people, away from religious and ethnic fanaticism.
The US policy makers attitude was concerned with creating suitable environment for escalating sectarian and ethnic tensions without taking a direct, blatant role in this regard, as such action would spoil the American administration plan and direct accusations towards them. All they had to do (after destroying the central government) was to “open the door” and leave the rest to movements and forces in the Iraqi arena that were ready to add fuel to the sectarian and ethnic fire.
Examples of procedures and policies implemented by the Americans:
- Disband the Iraqi army in an arbitrary way; allowing the creation of a new army largely dominated by sectarian forces.
- Provide cover for the Kurds in northern Iraq for the purpose of strengthening their autonomy by reinforcing their infrastructure in order to move away from the central government and secede.
- Condoning the formation of military, sectarian militias, which exercised incitement and were an essential part of bloody sectarian conflicts right under the nose of the Americans.
- Neglect the spread of administrative, financial and political corruption in all aspects of the state, encourage infrastructure-related sectarian and ethnic quota systems… and turn a blind eye to the theft of billions of dollars’ worth from the wealth of Iraq and its people, made by influential Iraqi individuals and entities. According to ‘Adel ‘Abdul-Mahdi, former Iraqi Minister of Oil, corruption cost the country $450 billion from 2003 until 2015. In addition, ‘Adel Nouri, the Iraqi Commission of Integrity spokesman, informed the Iraqi parliament about the disappearance of $500 billion from the Iraqi treasury during the rule of al-Maliki between 2006–2014. The former head of the Iraqi Commission of Integrity, Rahim al-‘Akili, said that 6 thousand fake contracts amounting to $227 billion were made… An earlier report by the Finance Committee in the Iraqi parliament had stated that the financial waste during the rule of al-Maliki government reached $109 billion. All that made Iraq, during the “American era,” on the list of ‘Most Corrupt Countries in the World,” and among the last five countries in the world in the Transparency Index.
Interestingly, those who took the huge complicated costly task of occupying Iraq, did not exert the minimum effort required to re-establish its administrative and financial systems on transparent and efficient bases.
- The American and Western policy promoted a rhetoric that took every occasion to speak about southern Shiites, central Sunnis and northern Kurds… so that it would become commonplace in the conscious and subconscious of Iraqis, Arabs, and people around the world.
- There are big question marks around the fact that the extremism phenomena spread under the American occupation… and the number of those affiliated with “extremist” groups increased to reach thousands after they were non-existent under the rule of Saddam Hussein. This means that the growth of “extremist” forces actually occurred under the American occupation… not necessarily because the US made or encouraged them, but because the occupation itself provoked feelings against US and its policies, in disciplined and undisciplined ways. The emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the relative American inefficient action against it is an example.
- Deliberate or unjustified dereliction of duty regarding the protection of the Iraqi heritage, artefacts, history and national identity… This was manifested when the US remained silent after the looting of the National Museum.
The US occupation and its policies caused one of the greatest humanitarian disasters in modern and contemporary history. During the ten-year period of occupation, more than 134 thousand civilians were killed; perhaps even four times this number (according to “moderate” estimates by Brown University); let alone for hundreds of thousands of injuries and millions of displaced people. Worse still, high walls of blood arose among the components of Iraqi society.
We continue this discussion in an upcoming article on US policy in Syria.
The Arabic version of this article appeared on Al Jazeera.net on 30/7/2016. Translated by Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations, 12/8/2016
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.