Donald Trump’s indictment of the Bush II administration for failing to prevent the 9/11 attacks presents an opportunity for more of a bird’s eye view of American foreign policy in the Middle East, a policy that has killed many hundreds of thousands, maimed countless more, and laid waste to entire societies.
As Peter Beinart reminds us, when George W. Bush took office in January 2001 he and his closest national-security staff showed little interest in al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, despite alarms set off by the CIA and National Security Council counterterrorism “czar” Richard Clarke. Al-Qaeda of course had attacked U.S. government assets in the decade before Bush became president. (Also see this.)
“But both Clarke and [CIA boss George] Tenet grew deeply frustrated by the way top Bush officials responded,” Beinart writes. “Clarke recounts that when he briefed [national security adviser Condoleezza] Rice about al-Qaeda, ‘her facial expression gave me the impression that she had never heard the term before.'”
Repeated attempts to get Bush’s attention were frustrated despite accelerating indications that “Bin Laden [was] Determined to Strike the US.” Even the prospect of aircraft hijackings was raised.
But Bush and his top national-security aides were interested in other things. What things? Ballistic-missile defense, which Bush had promised in his campaign, and Saddam Hussein, the dictator of Iraq. Let’s remember that the overthrow of Saddam, euphemistically dubbed “regime change,” was a U.S. goal at least since 1990. In 1991 Bush’s father, President George H. W. Bush, sent forces to expel the Iraqi army from Kuwait, but he didn’t go in for the kill and send the military to Baghdad to topple Saddam’s government. Instead Bush imposed a trade embargo on the Iraqi people, subjecting them to unspeakable hardship, a policy maintained by his successor, Bill Clinton. The deaths of half a million children — the result, among other things, of U.S. destruction of the sanitation and water infrastructure — constituted the price for regime change that Clinton’s UN ambassador, Madeleine Albright, infamously and coldly found “worth it.” (Clinton rewarded Albright by naming her secretary of state — something an enterprising reporter might want to ask Hillary Clinton about.) Bill Clinton also conducted regular bombing raids on Iraq in the name of maintaining no-fly zones. When will Clinton get his share of the responsibility for 9/11? (Another question for Hillary Clinton.)
So the Bush II administration had Iraq on its collective mind in the first eight months of its tenure not withstanding repeated warnings from its terrorism specialists that al-Qaeda was the likely immediate threat.
When that April [cabinet-level] meeting [demanded by Clarke] finally occurred, according to Clarke’s book, Against All Enemies, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz objected that “I just don’t understand why we are beginning by talking about this one man, bin Laden.” Clarke responded that, “We are talking about a network of terrorist organizations called al-Qaeda, that happens to be led by bin Laden, and we are talking about that network because it and it alone poses an immediate and serious threat to the United States.” To which Wolfowitz replied, “Well, there are others that do as well, at least as much. Iraqi terrorism for example.”
As soon as the 9/11 attacks occurred, the Bush administration’s eyes were on Iraq, and the intelligence agencies were ordered to get the proof. Detainees were even tortured to force them implicate Saddam Hussein, and false stories about contract between al-Qaeda and Saddam’s regime were floated.
Can we make any sense of this fixation on Iraq? I think we can.
It begins to make sense when we realize that American neoconservatives, who include Wolfowitz and a host of people in the Bush’s Pentagon and State Department, have for years acted as a brain trust for the right-wing of Israel’s ruling elite (Likud). In that capacity they issued papers, under the auspices of the Israeli Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies, expressing favor toward policies to destabilize the secular regimes in Iraq and Syria, as well as the governments in Lebanon (home of Hezbollah) and, ultimately, Iran — the Shia Crescent. (Hence the general demonization of Iran and the touting of the nonexistent nuclear threat.) These proposed policies would embody a change in strategy for Israel, from seeking a “comprehensive peace” with its neighbors to managing a balance of power. Those signing on to these papers, which were issued in the mid-1990s just as Benjamin Netanyahu was about to become Israel’s prime minister, were aware that, at least in the short run, radical Sunnis would profit from the destabilization and fill the vacuums created in Iraq and Syria. (The papers are here and here. The author is David Wurmser, who later worked in the Bush II administration for both Vice President Dick Cheney and John Bolton in the State Department. The “study group leader” who oversaw the preparation of the papers was Richard Pearle, a leading neoconservative intellectual.)
As the first of these papers stated, “Israel can shape its strategic environment, in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan, by weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria. This effort can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq — an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right — as a means of foiling Syria’s regional ambitions.” The paper envisioned, bizarrely, King Hussein of Jordan extending his rule over Iraq, a move that the neocon brain trust expected to unite Iraq’s Sunnis and Shi’ites and cut Iran out of the picture. Note how well that worked out.
The second paper, in speaking of Syria but with Iraq in mind, stated, “The issue here is whether the West and Israel can construct a strategy for limiting and expediting the chaotic collapse that will ensue in order to move on to the task of creating a better circumstance.” (Emphasis added.) Observe the hubris in assuming that chaos can be limited, that is, managed. (For more on these papers see Dan Sanchez’s writings here and here.)
If this is not enough to make sense of an otherwise seemingly senseless U.S. policy in the Middle East, we may also mention an earlier paper, written in the early 1980s by Oded Yinon, a journalist who had been in Israel’s foreign ministry. This paper saw the Arab world as a “house of cards” ripe for “dissolution” by Israel and the United States:
Lebanon’s total dissolution into five provinces serves as a precedent for the entire Arab world including Egypt, Syria, Iraq and the Arabian peninsula and is already following that track. The dissolution of Syria and Iraq later on into ethnically or religiously unqiue [sic] areas such as in Lebanon, is Israel’s primary target on the Eastern front in the long run, while the dissolution of the military power of those states serves as the primary short term target. Syria will fall apart, in accordance with its ethnic and religious structure, into several states such as in present day Lebanon, so that there will be a Shi’ite Alawi state along its coast, a Sunni state in the Aleppo area, another Sunni state in Damascus hostile to its northern neighbor, and the Druzes who will set up a state, maybe even in our Golan, and certainly in the Hauran and in northern Jordan. This state of affairs will be the guarantee for peace and security in the area in the long run, and that aim is already within our reach today….
Every kind of inter-Arab confrontation will assist us in the short run and will shorten the way to the more important aim of breaking up Iraq into denominations as in Syria and in Lebanon. In Iraq, a division into provinces along ethnic/religious lines as in Syria during Ottoman times is possible. So, three (or more) states will exist around the three major cities: Basra, Baghdad and Mosul, and Shi’ite areas in the south will separate from the Sunni and Kurdish north. It is possible that the present Iranian-Iraqi confrontation will deepen this polarization.
Inter-Arab confrontation promoted by the United States and Israel — let’s recall here Israel’s medical care for al-Qaeda fighters — would suit expansionist Israelis who have no wish to deal justly with the Palestinians and the Occupied Territories The more dangerous the Middle East appears, the more Israeli leaders can count on the United States not to push for a fair settlement with the Palestinians. The American people, moreover, are likely to be more lenient toward Israel’s brutality if chaos prevails in the neighboring states. Chaos would also undercut Hezbollah, which repelled Israel’s last invasion of Lebanon, and Hamas, which refuses to disappear despite savage Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip.
The success of radical Islamists in the wake of the destabilization of Iraq, Libya (home of Benghazi, a source of arms thanks to the CIA), and Syria came as no surprise to people in the know. Indeed, a 2012 Defense Information Agency report, widely circulated through the upper echelons of the U.S. government, noted that U.S. policies to “isolate the Syrian regime” — such as funneling arms indiscriminately to rebels — were enabling the emergence of a “Salafist principality” (i.e. an Islamic state), a development (the report said) that would be viewed favorably by the West and its regional allies. Since that time, U.S. policy in Syria, and Yemen (i.e., the backing of Saudi Arabia’s brutal war and starvation blockade), have worked to the advantage of al-Qaeda affiliates. Not coincidentally, in both cases the targets are interests that get support (in widely varying degrees) from Iran. This helps us understand why the Obama administration condemns Russian President Vladimir Putin for directing airstrikes against Islamists seeking to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
As a recent Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, put it, “The initial message about the Syrian issue was that we always wanted Bashar Assad to go, we always preferred the bad guys who weren’t backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran.” (Emphasis added.) Hence the suggestions, most notably from retired general and former CIA chief David Patraeus, that the U.S. government side with al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front in Syria — its “moderate” elements of course — against the Islamic State. (Nusra also opposes the Assad government.)
This is not to say that the neoconservative-Likud alliance is the only force driving U.S. policy. It is well known that Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states (which are no threat to Israel) wish to throttle Iran, perhaps fearful that a U.S.-Iran detente could be in the offing. Regime change in Syria would suit the Saudis’ anti-Iran, anti-Shi’ite agenda, which is another reason why arms, money, and fighters have flowed so freely to the Sunni rebels in Syria. (If bona fide moderates there be among the rebels, their chief role has been as arms conduits to the jihadis.) The U.S. government, it hardly needs saying, does not wish to alienate its Arab allies, as long as their interests do not conflict with Israel’s.
Thus we need not puzzle over a lethal and self-defeating U.S. policy that appears more aimed at Iran and its allies rather than at the radical jihadi network that perpetrated the 9/11 attacks. The U.S. government should not be intervening in the Middle East at all, but working with Israel and corrupt Arab states in order to create an instability that serves Islamist interests is simply crazy.