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Why Are Obama and Kerry Wasting Their Time With 'Iraq?'

07/02/2014 02:30 pm ET | Updated Sep 01, 2014

What we have called "Iraq" since the British and French carved up the old Ottoman Empire after World War I is obviously over. So why are President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, in the midst of the unfolding Gulf War III, wasting time pretending they might save the old carcass?

That sound you are hearing is the completion of a slow-motion prat fall upon the opening of an Iraqi parliament session which the Obama administration has hoped will result in a new government of "national salvation."

After weeks of Kerry missions to Iraq and Europe to spin up support within and without the Iraqi state for its continuance -- the Shia dictatorship having proved untenable -- the whole enterprise was revealed as farce on Tuesday when the new national parliament convened only briefly before imploding. The legislative body couldn't even organize itself by electing a speaker, much less begin the process of choosing to retain Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki or replace him with someone at least cosmetically better at conveying the impression of national reconciliation between Shia, Sunni, and Kurd.

It's as if the Obama administration is playing at Model UN, holding a host of meetings to try to do the right thing because, well, that's what you do. But who says propping up an old colonial construct is the right thing? And even if it would be safest if it were possible, events have simply overtaken old thinking.


A spokesperson for ISIS, which has just dubbed itself the Islamic State, conducts a mini-tour highlighting its theme of destroying Middle Eastern borders laid out nearly 100 years ago by British diplomat/spy Mark Sykes and French diplomat Francois George-Picot.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who made Obama's national career possible by tapping the then little known Midwestern state legislator to give what turned out to be the great keynote address of the 2004 Democratic national convention, engaged in a lengthy flurry of meetings to prop up the Iraqi government in Europe, the Middle East, and of course Iraq itself. It was reminiscent of his attempt to jump-start the obviously moribund Middle East peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. And I would say that it has had a similar result but for the fact that the exercise this time around has been even more useless.

It's obvious to anyone who knows the history that what we call "Iraq" is an artifact of post-World War I colonialism, its borders quite arbitrarily determined by British and French imperial bureaucrats in a secret 1916 accord to carve up the Ottoman Empire after snookering the Arabs into helping the war effort in the Middle East.

In its post-colonial days, Iraq was kept together by the brutally efficient police state run by Saddam Hussein. Iran was kept in check by the Saddam regime. And Saddam was kept in check by the first President Bush as well, who in Gulf War I rolled back an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait that would have made Saddam too powerful but opted not to take on the task of administering Iraq itself by making what would have been an easy drive to Baghdad.

All that changed when some of the most incompetent imperialists in history, in the administration of the second President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, used utterly spurious excuses about non-existent links to 9/11 and weapons of mass destruction to launch Gulf War II. They had US forces invade Iraq, depose Saddam, and destroy a very functional regime in favor of an airhead nation-building project.

Now we are in the midst of Gulf War III, a complex struggle triggered largely by the American over-reaction to 9/11, leading to the overthrow of Saddam, the failure of American nation-building, the rise of Iran, and the advent of the Arab Spring and reactions against it in Egypt, Syria, and Libya.

Part of the evolution of the region is a devolution to more basic and arguably natural religious and ethnic groupings. A religious war may lie that way. But is it more likely if people are kept together against their will or if they are allowed to split apart?

The splitting apart is what we are seeing in Iraq and part of Syria. After years of incompetent Shia-centric/Sunny-repressive rule from the Maliki regime, the rise of the Al Qaeda offshoot commonly known as ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) is pushing Iraq swiftly into the partition into three -- Shia, Sunni, and Kurd -- advocated by then Senator Joe Biden in 2006. Biden argued for a federal system, with the three big groups (the Shia being 60 percent of the population to the Sunni 20 percent and Kurd 17 percent) gaining great autonomy in the regions of the country they dominate but with a central government still existing in Baghdad. Despite that big concession to underlying realities, Biden was still pilloried by establishment thinkers. The unsustainable Iraq "surge" created a short-lived illusion of Iraqi national coherence, but we have since seen what "Iraq" defaults to.

So has Israel.

Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, who strongly advocated the US invasion of Iraq, on Sunday gave up the ghost on the Iraq project. He strongly endorsed the establishment of an independent Kurdish state, seeing it as a potential "moderate ally" in a largely unfriendly region. It's certainly coherent, in terms of spirit, governance, and military capability. And with control over some of Iraq's biggest oil fields, which the Kurdish regional government is making plain it has no intention of surrendering to Baghdad, it will have the financial base for a state.


Israel now supports the independence of Kurdistan, which is still officially a part of Iraq.

When you take Kurdistan out of Iraq, you are left with a Shia-dominated central government in Baghad, a population with three times as many Shias as Sunnis, and the highly effective ISIS, in alliance with disaffected Sunni groups, carving away what it has just dubbed the "Islamic State" (attempting to rename the group in the process) from vast swathes of Iraq and Syria. A counter-offensive by Iraqi government forces, increasingly buttressed by Shia paramilitary militias, made a little headway before stalling early in the week.

Meanwhile, Obama has just dispatched another 300 troops to Iraq for security at the US Embassy, Baghdad International Airport, and city routes regularly traveled by US personnel. That's 800 US troops dispatched to Iraq in the last few weeks.

Despite the evident nervousness in Washington about American personnel in Baghdad, the capital city's defenses notably stiffened following the arrival of Iranian General Qassem Suleimani. And there are US special forces advisors on the scene as well.

But with the US emphasis on pursuing a political initiative centering on a thoroughly dysfunctional Iraqi politics, ISIS has been allowed to mostly run wild. Things have happened much too slowly. It took five days to get the US advisors in there, supposedly because it took that long for the Maliki regime to agree that only US courts have jurisdiction over US troops, i.e., per the standard old status of forces agreement.

If it takes that long to get special forces advisors in place, maybe the people getting the advice don't really want it, right?

While giving a cool welcome to the Americans, Maliki welcomed Syrian air strikes and the shipment of Russian jet fighters.

Obama and Kerry, who nearly careened into the Syrian civil war (in which they would have been on the same side as ISIS) last September, are continuing the basic structure of US involvement in Iraq laid out by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, who in turn entertained a latter-day version of the imperial dreams implicit in the creation of Iraq by the British and French foreign ministries after World War I.

Unlike the administration of his father, the administration of the second President Bush destroyed a functioning state in Iraq and promised to replace it with one of their making. Not only could they not get the politics right, they couldn't get even get the lights on much of the time. Electric power in Iraq is just a fraction of its level before the US invasion.

Now Obama and Kerry, with far less leverage than the Bush/Cheney administration had, and certainly zero appetite among their own constituents for a renewal of the nation-building nonsense in Iraq, are trying to talk an Iraqi state into being. It obviously won't work.

Best to focus on the only realistic objectives we ever had for any post-9/11 interventions: The disruption of radical fundamentalist groups which can launch transnational attacks against us. The denial of major resources that can build the groups up, especially oil reserves and refining capacity and water, which provides the sustenance of life in a drought-ridden region impacted by climate change and generates scarce electricity. (In addition to oil fields, ISIS has seized key dams and is moving on others.) This approach should be coupled with a diplomatic initiatives to minimize antipathy to America,

Everything else is half-baked empire-building, something that those who are so inclined are obviously not only not very good at, but also not very intelligent about.

After all, when the notorious disinformation artist Ahmed Chalabi, who did so much to spin up the pre-US invasion neocon line with bogus tales, is touted as a serious potential prime minister to replace Maliki, you know we're in a world of mentally deficient fantasy.

A new poll for the Christian Science Monitor indicates that Americans are very concerned about the Iraq crisis but less sure about what to do about it.

79 percent say they are following the crisis closely.

69 percent say Obama has no clear policy on Iraq.

While 70 percent say no ground troops should be sent in to fight, 53 percent say ISIS advances constitute clear threat to America.

But only a slender plurality of 49 percent support US air strikes against ISIS.

While you shouldn't base specific moves on popular polls of people who don't have enough information or expertise to make the call, polls give us important basic signals about where people want to go. And where they don't want to go. And the big signal from this poll is that Americans are very concerned but very wary, meaning that any actions have to be carefully chosen and of limited scope.