What It Would Take to Stop It

Johannesburg, South Africa

From its inception, the US occupation was a lose-lose proposition. Simply rolling into Iraq — a society of which the Bush neocons had so distorted a conception and US occupation commanders and foot soldiers had no grasp at all – was a formula for doom. But US policy in the Middle East has now advanced to a new stage and the risk to the rest of us has changed. For stopping an attack on Iran, which is the only way to avert final regional disaster, may require action in Washington that falls outside the parameters of what is normally politically possible.

For the first two years of the occupation, the US dilemma was plain to everyone. On the one hand, pulling out “prematurely” promised an internal Iraqi melee for power and the quick collapse of the feeble pro-US Iraqi government. On the other hand, the ongoing presence of American troops and the inevitable brutalities of occupation could only inspire more armed resistance, progressively wreck US legitimacy, and make things worse. As it staggered forward, wreaking tens of thousands of direct Iraqi casualties (and possibly hundreds of thousands in indirect ones), the US occupation fed an unprecedented surge of anti-US and anti-western militancy. As a result, three short years later, five decades of largely uncontested US hegemony in the Middle East are collapsing into the same clouds of dust now engulfing Iraq’s national society — the World Trade Center towers going down in slo-mo.

Yet in a sense, the occupation has already done its work on the support structure, as the US occupation has already combusted on social forces that its architects never comprehended even as they manipulated them. From the beginning, the Bush neocons viewed the region through an Orientalist lens, and therefore saw tribes everywhere, as mentors like Daniel Pipes encouraged them to do. Viewing the Middle East also through an Israeli lens, they saw ethnicity as the best way to break up national and pan-Arab solidarities. Their staggering ignorance of the region was perhaps best exposed by their early faith in the charlatan Ahmed Chalabi, who promised a pro-Israeli Shi’a-led Iraqi government. On such rampant idiocy were their enthusiasm and deceitful arguments for war fueled.

Predictably, their neocolonial efforts to foster and employ ethnic divides – e.g., creating Shi’a militias to attack Sunni neighborhoods to root out Baathi insurgents — have resulted in blowback. The soaring death count (at this writing, some 100 Iraqis are dying daily) is grim testimony of the country’s slide out of the US’s hammy hands. Every day, old norms of Sunni-Shi’a ethnic coexistence are transforming further into mutual fears and murderous mutual hatreds. With every death, the Iraqis’ own ability to reconcile this deepening ethnic bitterness dwindles. Every day the US stays in the country, the ethnic militias grow in size and legitimacy. The US capacity to contain them has withered to nothing. One might think the US military architects would grasp their fatal blunder and try to amend their ethnic machinations, but the latest US plan is to send Kurdish troops to patrol Baghdad, on the insane premise that a third ethnic force will somehow defuse the other two. (Kurdish naivety in collaborating in this fatal plan is equally impressive.)

The report of the Iraq Study Group gets several things wrong, but its appraisal of what must happen now is credible and widely accepted. The only way to salvage US standing in the region, they argue, is to withdraw as fast as possible, while obtaining essential Iranian and Syrian help in multi-lateral efforts toward forging a new national consensus in Iraq. From the Iraqis’ perspective, too, the only hope is an immediate US withdrawal, which can allow them to begin tortuous negotiations toward national reconciliation. This effort cannot be started as long as the US is there, not only because the US still controls practically everything in the country, making genuine domestic politics impossible, but because the US presence itself will inevitably distort and discredit any new political process or leadership that tries to arise.

Still, in setting out its package of recommendations, the supremely pragmatic Iraq Study Group neglected one glaring political fact. It assumed that the package was a real possibility — i.e., that the Bush administration could muster the necessary energy and faith to engage in the multilateral diplomacy essential to it. The Bush neocons have no talent or faith in multilateral politics and indeed openly deride them. And they are still in charge, whatever the changing political climate in Washington and mounting popular hostility to the Iraq war. The Great Decider is still the president. Mr. Cheney is still the Vice-President. All the old villains, like Douglas Feith and David Wurmser and the scary Michael Ledeen, are still in government or guiding events from Isengards like the American Enterprise Institute. They have exactly two years to complete the agenda they formulated in the 1990s: that is, reshape the entire Middle East, in the interest of Israel and their own construction, security, and oil companies, by taking out any regional rival to Israel’s uncontested military hegemony.

Hence we have increasingly clear signals that, far from withdrawing troops, the US plans to take the next disastrous step in their program: bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities and, they hope, change Iran’s regime.

Long in the making, a US attack on Iran has been maturing over the past year. Most graphic, although not catching much public alarm until now, was the transfer last year of two US naval carrier groups to the Persian Gulf (each flanked by nuclear submarines and battleships, carrying fleets of attack jets, and holding special Marine landing forces). Now some staff changes in the US security and command staff are drawing worried comment. One change is the replacement of General Abizaid (who did not favor a troop increase) with the Pacific theatre’s top naval commander, Admiral Fallon, hitherto in charge of those same carrier groups (which were posted in the Pacific). Another signal, less widely noted, is that Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte, who downplayed the nuclear threat from Iran, has been replaced by Vice Admiral John Michael “Mike” McConnell, also a Navy man seen as much more compliant (having already facilitated the Bush administration’s programs to monitor international financial transfers).

It is over-obvious that, while the Navy is a vital support to US operations throughout the Middle East, a massive carrier build-up in the Gulf cannot possibly assist the US occupation in Iraq. But it is absolutely pivotal to launching an attack on Iran and containing Iran’s retaliation. In this context, even Bush’s proposed troop “surge”, otherwise puzzlingly meaningless, may be intended to support an attack on Iran, as the US will need more ground troops to consolidate its transportation lines in the event of Iranian or allied Iraqi-guerrilla reprisals. (That the “surge” itself can only prolong and worsen Iraq’s suffering and further demolish US standing in the region is relatively unimportant.)

Bombing Iran will cast the Middle East into such a frenzy of violence, however, that desperate editorials denouncing it are starting to appear all over the world press. But the Bush neocons — and, of course, Israel – also have utter contempt for world opinion and indeed any analysis outside their immediate crazed circle. Certainly the little question of international law, which makes a preemptive strike on Iran entirely illegal, does not figure for them in the slightest. (It did not stop them from raiding and seizing Iranian consular staff and archives in Arbil, which was also entirely illegal and has recklessly imperiled US consular relations globally.)

The only hope of stopping a US strike on Iran is therefore the Democrats, who now control the purse strings for US war-making and are already sending signals that the troop “surge” might be in trouble. Whether they have sufficient spine to stop the attack on Iran is universally questioned. But even if a US attack is somehow stalled by domestic action, Israel can always strike Iran instead. It is still not widely debated that, over the past few years, Israel has purchased a cluster of advanced German Dolphin submarines, which would allow sea-based missile launches on Iran from the Indian Ocean, as well as a new fleet of attack jets and thousands of “bunker-busting” bombs. Or that last year Israel was running test bombing runs on a mock-up site of the Natanz reactor, well ahead of its recently revealed long-distance bombing test flights to Gibraltar.

Why such a dangerous US-Israeli alliance in such a clearly crazed mission? The old necon strategy of A Clean Break is one obvious answer. But the goals may go further. A strike on Iran by Israel might be the magic bullet for the sinking US neocons and their stumbling military global mission. No Democrat now breathing is going to vote to withhold the US funds necessary to “defending Israel” from an Iranian counter-attack. Generating a direct threat to Israel may indeed now be their only way to ensure that war funding continues to flow lavishly.

If an Israeli attack is indeed pending, only something close to a coup in Washington can stop it. The real question now, therefore, is whether the same pragmatists who entered US politics unbidden to comprise the Iraq Study Group (led by Baker but representing the old Cold-War guard, including now-frightened Pentagon officers, desperate State Department experts, and even alarmed oil men) will conclude that the US national interest is indeed in such imminent peril that they must launch emergency political measures to preclude a US or Israeli attack. This effort could take several shapes, but the normal options are not promising. Hearings to expose White House malfeasance (lying, fraud, graft) in the Iraq war, leading even to an impeachment process, could fatally cripple the attack plan, but would take more time than we have and would not stop Israel in any case. Hearings to expose Israeli espionage and discredit Israel’s role in US foreign policymaking could stymie an Israeli attack, but the AIPAC-saturated Congress would never countenance them. Normal Washington peer pressure, represented by the Iraq Study Group, has demonstrably failed. More urgent methods, that might be pursued in other countries facing such a crisis, are precluded in the US by very potent political and military cultures that preclude any open revolt against a sitting president or the civilian command. (Recall General Powell’s quiet capitulation to lies, deceit, and foolery that he could not possibly support.) No one wants the US to operate otherwise.

The challenge to the US political system is therefore now extremely grave: somehow to retake rational control of US foreign policy, from people known to be lying criminals, within as little as two months, yet with no precedent for doing so. It should not be impossible. Insider Washington pressures must should now become ultimatums. But insider operations require political backing that can only be obtained through a pincer strategy: rapid public revelations of White House criminality by serving officials, with responsible headline coverage by the national press sufficient rapidly to cripple White House foreign policymaking. This political rebellion would require rare political will.

The US occupation of Iraq has appeared since its inception like a large and cumbersome truck driven into a swamp. We have been watching, in horrified fascination, as it slowly sinks. In recent months, we have been certain that even the drivers must soon surely abandon the truck, jump for shore, and try to preserve some shred of dignity as it goes down. Instead, we are seeing those drivers flinging out ropes around everything in sight and getting ready to haul, apparently in the hope of dragging the whole carcass back onto solid ground and rolling on to glory. That they can only strangle the rest of us, and bind everyone into the swamp with them, must finally inspire decisive collective action. Washington insiders and key players in the new Democratic Congress, with political backing from an alarmed electorate and frantic international allies, can still stop the neocons’ rush to disaster. But it would require rare determination, initiative, transparency, and courage, and it would have to happen fast.

VIRGINIA TILLEY is an alarmed US citizen now working at the Human Sciences Research Council in South Africa. She can be reached at tilley@hws.edu.




VIRGINIA TILLEY is associate professor of Political Science and International Relations, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and author of The One-State Solution: A Breakthrough for Peace in the Israeli-Palestinian Deadlock. She can be reached at: virginia.tilley@gmail.com.