Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com
Think of it as the American half-century in the Middle East: from August 17, 1953, when a CIA oil coup brought down democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh and installed the Shah as Washington's man in Tehran, to May 1, 2003, when George W. Bush landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln off the coast of southern California. (The planes from that aircraft carrier had only recently dropped 1.6 million pounds of ordnance on Iraq.) There, standing under a White House-produced banner that read "Mission Accomplished," the president dramatically announced that "major combat operations in Iraq have ended" and hailed "the arrival of a new era."
Today, we know that those combat operations had barely begun. Almost 12 years later, with the Obama administration pursuing a bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State, they have yet to end. On only one thing was President Bush right: with the invasion of Iraq, a new era had indeed been launched. His top officials and their neoconservative allies imagined the moment as the coronation of a new order in the Middle East, the guarantee of another American half-century or more of domination. Iraq, that crucial state in the oil heartlands of the planet, was to be garrisoned for decades (on the "Korea model"); the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad was to be brought to heel; and above all, fundamentalist Iran was to be crushed. That country's rulers were to find themselves in an ever-tightening geopolitical vise, with American Iraq on one side and American Afghanistan on the other. (A quip of the moment caught the mood of Washington and its high-flown hopes perfectly: "Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.") The Bush administration would ensure that the great blemish on the American half-century in the region, the reversal of the CIA's coup by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 and the humiliation of having American diplomats taken hostage for 444 days in Tehran -- would be wiped away. The regime of the Ayatollahs was soon to be history.
Of course, it all turned out so unimaginably otherwise, leaving us today knee-deep in the chaos of that "new era." Shock and awe, indeed! The American half-century has been swept away as definitively as was the Soviet Cold-War version of the same before it. Someday, the disastrous invasion of Iraq will have its historian and we'll understand more fully just what that moment really launched, what forces already building in the region it let devastatingly loose. It certainly blew a hole in the heart of the Middle East in ways we have yet to come to grips with and prepared the ground, as dynamite does a construction site, for the disintegration of both the European and the American versions of "order" in the region, as well as for the building of we know not what... yet.
Today, amid remarkable fragmentation, roiling conflict, sectarian struggles, the growth and spread of extremist groups, and the creation of one failed state after another, including Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen, two key energy states still remain in place: Saudi Arabia and Iran. And the Saudis, a repressive Sunni kingdom with a restive Shia minority population whose rulers have used the country's immense oil wealth to buy social peace, are visibly nervous. Hence, their decision to begin a terror-bombing campaign in disintegrating Yemen, with the threat of a ground invasion (possibly involving Egyptian and other troops) to follow. As the Americans have already shown, far more "precise" bombing than the Saudi air force is capable of has a history of not resolving, or even further stoking, conflicts. Just what kind of blowback the Saudis will experience from their rash decision to strike in Yemen is impossible to know, but it's not hard to guess that, as with Washington's drive through "the gates of hell" in Iraq in 2003, it's unlikely to be whatever that country's rulers are now imagining.
Keep in mind that the destabilization of Saudi Arabia in any fashion would be a daunting prospect in the Middle East and, given its key role in oil production, globally as well. As for Iran, like the cheese of nursery rhyme fame, today it stands alone. In "The Iranian Ascendancy," Peter Van Buren (who, as a State Department official, lived through the beginnings of Bush's "new era" in occupied Iraq) suggests that in the coming years it may prove to be the single cohesive nation in the neighborhood. So, whatever we don't know about the future of the Middle East, it's certainly not too early to say, "Mission Accomplished," and congratulate George W. on his new era.