War can be such an exciting thing for some, and it is particularly so for those who keep failing when practising it. The process of pursuing it, most notably those states claiming a liberal-democratic pedigree, comes in distinct stages. First come the jingoes and war mongers who see war as necessary to punish the international outcasts, the brutal figures, the modern equivalent of banditti; then come the state-builders and oracles of civilization. Often, the outcome of such an experiment is an act of fashioned criminality and childish sentimentalism. The sage and the imperialist rarely find form in one person.
The institutions created in such a case tend to be fragile, artificial expressions of an occupying force intent on cultivating compliant regimes. This is particularly so if the hands of American power are behind it. In the school of imperialism, the US is both bully and dunce, the low grade achiever who so happens to have nuclear weapons and the rather bad habit of cant.
The invasion of Iraq in 2003, which unleased the gods of war on an entire Sunni-Shiite fault line, is a regular reminder for those in Washington how misguided the operation was. Saddam Hussein had moved from saviour of the month (he was the strong man on permanent call to combat Islamic fundamentalism) to gangster of the week. The evangelists had taken charge of the controls in Washington, and they wanted their man.
In the event there is an afterlife, Saddam will be gloating with bitterness at the advances made by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which threatens to reconstitute an Iraqi state which is already a shambles. Showing that history is a process of events devoid of sober reason, ISIS was itself disavowed by al-Qaeda, despite claiming pretensions in following the theocratic playbook of the organisation. The perversion becomes even more acute given the fictitious links drawn between al-Qaeda and Saddam’s regime in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion.
In destroying Saddam’s regime, the US mission had all the credentials of a cartoon outfit. The invasion force was inadequate. It was empire on the cheap; a heavily discounted WalMart version without the bulk. The US State Department and Donald Rumsfeld in the Pentagon were at odds about how best to savage Iraq. After destroying the country’s regime, what next?
Rumsfeld felt a small, trim force, hard hitting and swift in execution, followed by the disbanding of the Iraqi security establishment, was the most appropriate recipe. The State Department had serious issues with the streamlined operation. Doom lay for those taking it. After all, when cutting the head of a system, what does the body do?
The result has been a mutant creation. The Iraqi state has become a dependent entity, a frail, sickly child of Western interventions and adjustments, with a shot immune system. It is a child that risks a premature death at the hands of such movements as ISIS. In a viral sense, the current government is doomed. In every practical sense, it is doing its best to estrange Sunnis further, rounding up Sunni men, and employing costly airstrikes against targets in Falluja and Ramadi.
Many Sunnis are neither in sympathy with the government, nor with rampaging exploits of ISIS. But ISIS, in contrast to the authorities in Baghdad, is keeping its legendary status as a brutal force in check. The public relations voice in their ranks is speaking loudly: let the government forces do the work for you, and you might just as well be treated as liberators.
The Sunni-Shiite battle within Iraq is reaching a crescendo. Sheik Abdul Mehdi al-Karbalaie, representative of the high ranking Shiite cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, uses the image of volunteers plugging the gaps left by conventional security forces. Volunteers against ISIS and its allies were needed to “fill the gaps within the security forces” (NYT, Jun 14-5). The narrative of defending holy sites is ever present, and Al-Sistani has urged Shiites to take the plunge.
The distorted, hideous masterpiece left by the American-led occupation created a wild terrain of factions who will battle till the country is bled white. Tourist jihadis are everywhere, assuming that the conflict in Iraq must be read as a regional and global one. They are to be found on both the Sunni and Shiite sides. The elder Ali Mohsin Alwan al-Amiri typifies this sentiment. “We heard Ali Sistani’s call for jihad, and we’re coming here to fight the terrorism everywhere, not just in Iraq.” Travel agents specialising in booking charter trips for gun-toting fundamentalists must be well and truly in the pink.
The language from President Obama in response to the advances of ISIS strikes the most hollow of notes. “Ultimately, it’s up to the Iraqis a sovereign nation to solve their problems.” Given that Iraq has been in an effective state of occupation since 2003, be it formally by US forces and their allies, or informally by their continued presence, the argument of sovereignty is grandiosely fatuous.
Commentators such as David Brooks feel that the American imperial footprint could have been more competently defined. The Obama administration is at fault for not pressing for some continued NATO presence after the official withdrawal of US forces in 2011. With naïve sentimentality, Brooks commits the cardinal sin in using the patronising voice of empire: control lowly states and their leaders, because they simply do not know any better. “There were no advisers left to restrain [Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-]Maliki’s sectarian tendencies.”
While Obama has ruled out sending troops back into Iraq, he has tried to give the impression that something will be done. “The United States is not simply going to involve itself in the absence of a political plan by the Iraqi that gives us some assurance that they’re prepared to work together.” But pure American spectatorship is bound to be off the cards if Iran decides to jump ahead of the queue. The commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, Gen. Qassim Suleimani, was in Baghdad on Thursday to review the capabilities of Shiite militia forces. Iraq a sovereign state? Banish the thought.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org