Back in the George W. Bush administration’s darkest days occupying Iraq, I ran into a guy who was about as close to Bush as you could get without being Bush himself. We were at one of those Davos cocktail parties where you can barely hear what you are saying yourself, much less what’s being said to you. But I wanted to press this guy on all that had gone wrong in Iraq, especially the fact that the mullahs of Iran were gaining so much power and influence on the American dime.
“All that blood and treasure and we might as well have handed Baghdad to Tehran on a platter,” I shouted.
The Bush clone looked at me—and I don’t know if this was just an off-the-cuff kiss-off, or a half-considered bon mot, or some perverse quasi-serious notion of his (not speaking for the president, of course)—but what he said was, “If you really want to fuck Iran, let ’em have Iraq.”
I was speechless and we were both kind of hoarse by then. We drifted our separate ways. But the idea stayed with me as one of those notions that is so logical, yet so outside the box, that nobody ever will take it seriously.
Well, now, maybe we should.
It’s time the Iraqi Pottery Barn rule—“You break it, you pay a trillion dollars for it”—applied to someone else. And Iran’s a very good candidate.
The people of the United States have done all that they should do, giving their lives, their taxes and their sacred honor to try to set straight the mess created on the basis of bad intelligence, bad judgment, and bald lies.
The good news is that we did get rid of Saddam Hussein, one of the most evil men the world has seen. But when the people we put in power strung him up on the gallows his last words proved almost true. “Iraq without me is nothing,” he said.
For sure it was shattered. And by the time the last American troops pulled out in 2011, the Iraqi amphora might not have looked like new. There were plenty of seams showing. But it had been glued together into a recognizable form.
Then the Iranians and their Iraqi allies and dependents, notably Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, started playing games with it. That Sunni fragment that took so long to fit in place? Maliki no longer wanted to pay for the glue that kept it there. And the Kurds? They were always ready to drop off. Now that’s just what they’re doing.
Leaving aside the metaphors for a moment: the Sunnis’ worst nightmare was that Iran would take over their country, and Maliki showed them every way he could that they were right to be afraid—very, very afraid.
One of the supreme ironies in the tragedy playing out before us now is that the Iranians were supposed to be so much smarter than we were in dealing with the region. Ask ’em, they’ll tell you. Neighboring nations often hold each other in contempt, but the Persian view of Arabs— “lizard eaters,” as the saying goes—is beyond the Aryan Iranian pale.
Again and again we were told by sundry Middle East experts that the wise mullahs had every interest in maintaining a stable Iraq. And maybe the wise ones did. But they were not the ones who went into action.
As the whole region started to teeter on the brink of chaos after the Arab revolts against the old faces of oppression began in 2011, the mullahs who had barely weathered their own “spring” in 2009 sent their Mr. Fixit, Qassem Suleimani, and his redoubtable Quds Force to deal with the problem among their allies.
Suleimani brought in his old Hezbollah protégés from Lebanon to help shore up the teetering Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, so it wouldn’t have to negotiate with anybody. He counseled Maliki on how to deal with Sunni subversives in Iraq: arrest, force into exile or otherwise eliminate any Sunni in a position of real influence.
And the result? Syria is destroyed, and now Iraq is, too. Meanwhile Shiites who put their faith in Tehran are being slaughtered en masse. Way to go, Qassem!
The consequences of this devastation in the Fertile Crescent are almost incalculable for the people, for the land, and for the ancient history that is rooted there. But, much as we might mourn the losses, why should the United States be in the business of trying to hold it all together now?
Let’s see: There is a humanitarian argument, yes. There is probably an oil argument, as always in the Middle East. But the only argument that holds any real weight with the American people is that terrorists will make the newly self-declared caliphate in the ISIS-conquered lands a base of operations against the United States. You remember the old Bush-era slogan that helped get us into Iraq in the first place? “We’ve got to fight them over there (Iraq) so we don’t have to fight them here (meaning, say, Kansas).”
Think again. There’s a risk to the U.S., yes. But very little of the ISIS ethos has to do with hitting the Freedom Tower or the Capitol Dome. It's all about slaughtering Shiites, like, you know, the Iranians.
Did I mention the nuclear negotiations with Iran? No. What's striking about them now is their irrelevance.
All along, the atomic minuet with Tehran has been built on assumptions—ours and theirs—that are, as it turns out, erroneous.
The Iranians thought they needed a credible nuclear deterrent, even if it was virtual, to assure the survival of their regime. Thence comes all the back and forth about how much nuclear fuel enrichment capacity they have or not: it comes down to how many months they are away from a bomb, if they want to build one, when the final deal is signed and sealed. But up against the storm blowing toward them now from the caliphate, they’ll find their nuclear deterrence, real or virtual, is just about as useless as ours.
On the American side there’s developed a collective neurosis about impotence. The Senate and House are full of old farts and dysfunctional Tea Partiers warning that if the United States doesn’t flex its pumped-up muscles it will turn into the proverbial 98-pound weakling. Not so. This is, precisely, the moment to step back, cross our arms, and let somebody else do the crippling work trying to impose order in the lands of the Apocalypse.
So, yeah, when it comes to Iraq, go for it, Iran. You deserve it.