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Archive for December, 2007

Chronicle of a mess foretold

[Originally published in the Rutland Herald.]

The recent crossborder Turkish attacks on Kurdish (PKK) rebels in Northern Iraq provide stark proof that the Bush Administration’s foreign policy is based on its own ideology rather than on any imperatives presented by the objective facts that exist on the ground in Kurdish Iraq.

Many past administrations, both Republican and Democrat, have made foreign policy decisions not only on the basis of the objective facts in the area under consideration, but rather on the basis of their domestic political needs or their own ideology. It is difficult, however, to recall an administration that has so blatantly ignored objective realities as this one.

There is a long U.S. history of diplomatic, academic, commercial, journalistic and intelligence involvement in the Middle East. America has been engaged in that part of the world throughout its history, starting with the Barbary Pirates in the 18th Century. In today’s world, we have been heavily involved since the end of the Second World War, the creation of Israel, and the exponential increase of the importance of oil to the world economy. In that time, America has developed a cadre of citizens who really are expert in matters concerning the Middle East.

It is not a recent phenomenon that there are fundamental conflicts between Shia and Sunni, between Kurd and Turk, between Arab and Persian (Iranian), between Iraq and Iran, between the Taliban and Iraq. Some of those conflicts have been going on for millennia, some for centuries, the rest for decades. In fact, virtually all of them are well known to a broad swath of American experts and all of them strongly influenced American policy in the Middle East until the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Under the Bush Senior, we saw the most recent example of area knowledge and understanding of the complicated crosscurrents and nuances of the Middle East helping us avoid a catastrophe. He stuck to his guns in early 1991 by not continuing on to Baghdad and in the process avoided all the problems that beset us today in the area.

Careful reading of the reasons why we did not go on to Baghdad under Bush Senior provides a primer on realities in the Middle East.

At the time, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney said, “So, I think we got it right, both when we decided to expel him (Saddam) from Kuwait, but also when the president made the decision that we’d achieved our objectives and we were not going to go get bogged down in the problems of trying to take over and govern Iraq.”

Those problems were well known to American experts at the time and even better known on the eve of the U.S. invasion of lraq in 2003.

They represent the crux of the problems we now face. They were simply ignored by the Bush administration. All the bad things that have happened were predictable and predicted: The Sunni/Shia carnage in Iraq was and remains part of the 15-century-old schism between those two branches of Islam and remains at the heart of the intractable struggle between them for the control of Iraq.

The meddling of Iran (Persia) was inevitable. Iran is a country that has sought hegemony over the Persian Gulf since it was lost by them to the Arab Caliphate in the 7th Century. The rebirth of this quest was enabled by the U.S. invasion and the rise of the power of Iraqi Shia who are their co-religionists and whose increasing influence in Iraq blunted the power of one of their major competitors for Gulf hegemony — Iraq.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq removed two major Iranian competitors in the region, Taliban-governed Afghanistan and Saddam’s Iraq, with whom they had fought an eight-year war. That, in turn, diminished the power and influence of the Gulf Arabs, including Saudi Arabia and made Iranian Gulf hegemony more likely.

The increasing independence of Iraqi Kurdistan brought on by our invasion and Saddam’s downfall virtually guaranteed conflict between the Turkey and the Kurds who have millions of Kurdish brethren living as second-class citizens in Turkey.

Some governmental and nongovernmental experts predicted all of these consequences of our Invasion. The problem is that the Administration did not listen to them. In fact, those critics of the Bush policy were shouted down, belittled, humiliated and attacked as “unpatriotic” by the Administration.

So, we are in this Middle East mess not because of a failure of intelligence and expertise, but because of the Bush Administration’s refusal to listen to the voices of the many real experts on the area. America can do better.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in East and West Europe and the Middle East and as chief of the Counterterrorism Staff. He lives in Williston, Vt.

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