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Is the Breakup of Iraq Good or Bad for America?

June 29th, 2014 - 1:00 pm

“It neither helps us nor hurts us, but exactly the opposite,” Mexican President Luis Echeverria is supposed to have said (“Ni nos benefica ni nos perjudica, sino todo lo contrario”). In the case of Iraq, as so often, it depends: the winner is the side best able to bear the burden of uncertainty. America should be the winner when our prospective enemies fight each other (as I argued in the February 2012 essay reposted below). In the language of option trading (see here), we should be long volatility, but instead are short volatility. That is because neither the Obama administration nor the Republican mainstream can admit that Iraq and Syria are not to be stabilized, and are stuck with the onus of apparent policy failure.

Iraq’s woes surely are good for the Russians and the Iranians. Russia just delivered five Sukhoi 25′s, their nimbler but less powerful competitor to our Warthog close-air-defense fighter (that’s the one the Pentagon proposes to eliminate), the first installment on a $500 million contract for a dozen of them. Russia also is selling $2 billion of arms, including attack helicopters, to Egypt, and with Saudi funding. The Iranians meanwhile have sent in special forces and armaments.

All of this makes our leadership in both parties look like idiots, and that is bad for America. Even those of us who think that our leadership are idiots cringe when it becomes obvious to the rest of the world. The American public by a margin of 71:22 thinks that the Iraq War wasn’t worth it. They are against any sort of intervention because there is no-one they trust to conduct intervention sensibly.

Putin is not smarter than we are. He is simply unburdened by the illusion that most of the countries in the region should or will succeed, and he is willing to stay one jump ahead of the game, maneuvering for advantage as opportunities emerge. We are fettered by Obama’s affirmative-action approach to the Muslim world as articulated in his July 2009 Cairo address and numerous subsequent statements, and the Republicans’ ideological belief that the mere form of parliamentary democracy fixes all problems.

The intrusion of reality benefits the likes of Putin, because Putin is a realist. It hurts us, because we refuse to accept reality. Our leaders live in ideological bubbles; they are incapable of considering the consequence of their errors, because they believe in their respective causes (the innate goodness of Islam or the innate propensity of people towards democracy) with religious intensity.

The U.S. needs to draw a line around its allies — the Gulf states and the kingdom of Jordan — and ensure that the ISIS problem is contained at their borders. What happens inside Iraq is not our concern, although we might want to quietly tweak this or that aspect of the facts on the ground. But it is pointless for another American to die in that miserable place. The Balkans, said Bismarck, wasn’t worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier. All the less so Mesopotamia.

What should we do in Iraq? Be the bad guy in the “Three Musketeers.”

Read my essay on the next page.

Conjuring the ghost of Richelieu
By Spengler

“The Pont d’Alma,” I told the taxi driver, and climbed into the back of the Citroen, balancing the big copper spittoon on one knee and the magnum of Chateau Petrus on the other.

“You are to meet someone, monsieur?,” inquired the driver. He must have seen the waders under my trench coat. “Richelieu. Richelieu. Richelieu,” I muttered. “That’s the first time I hear someone ask for it in dactylic hexameter,” the driver said. We pulled up in front of the entrance to the sewers of Paris at the Pont d’Alma – “the bridge of the soul”.

Carefully I descended to the ninth level below the Seine. And 20th-century tiles gave way to 19th-century bricks and 18th-century stonework, through the malodorous filth of the ages, until I found myself in the secret ossarium of the Carthusian monks. So thick was the darkness that the beam from my small flashlight

seemed to lose itself in the gloom. It could not have been cold, but I shivered uncontrollably. Pyramided skulls stared out like a theater audience.

With the spittoon planted into the muck at my feet, I broke the neck off the magnum and poured the fragrant Bordeaux into the copper receptacle. At once the ghosts appeared: A soldier in bloody armor carrying his head under one arm, the Can-Can chorus from Offenbach’s Orpheus, a grisette whom death could not dissuade from flirting, clerks, cooks and clerics.

A sad-faced Jaures and a prim Clemenceau approached the spittoon, but Francois Mitterand bowed them aside. Brandishing the wine bottle’s jagged neck, I fended them off until, at length, a pale figure appeared, a human form with the texture of a jellyfish. The others shrank away reverently as it knelt before the spittoon and inserted a gelatinous head, imbibing the wine until its translucent covering shone scarlet. It extracted its head from the spittoon with an ectoplasmic pop.

“Make it brief,” said Armand Jean du Plessis, Cardinal-Duc de Richelieu. He looked rather like the portrait by Phillipe de Champaigne, but sounded like Maurice Chevalier.

“We are a bit confused about Syria,” I began. “Its leader, Bashar al-Assad, is slaughtering his own people to suppress an uprising. And he is allied to Iran, which wants to acquire nuclear weapons and dominate the region. If we overthrow Assad, Sunni radicals will replace him, and take revenge on the Syrian minorities. And a radical Sunni government in Syria would ally itself with the Sunni minority next door in Iraq and make civil war more likely.”

“I don’t understand the question,” Richelieu replied.

“Everyone is killing each other in Syria and some other places in the region, and the conflict might spread. What should we do about it?”

“How much does this cost you?”

“Nothing at all,” I answered.

“Then let them kill each other as long as possible, which is to say for 30 years or so. Do you know,” the ghastly Cardinal continued, “why really interesting wars last for 30 years? That has been true from the Peloponnesian War to my own century. First you kill the fathers, then you kill their sons. There aren’t usually enough men left for a third iteration.”

“We can’t go around saying that,” I remonstrated.

“I didn’t say it, either,” Richelieu replied. “But I managed to reduce the population of the German Empire by half in the space of a generation and make France the dominant land power in Europe for two centuries.

“Isn’t there some way to stabilize these countries?” I asked.

Richelieu looked at me with what might have been contempt. “It is a simple exercise in logique. You had two Ba’athist states, one in Iraq and one in Syria. Both were ruled by minorities. The Assad family came from the Alawite minority Syria and oppressed the Sunnis, while Saddam Hussein came from the Sunni minority in Iraq and oppressed the Shi’ites.

It is a matter of calculation – what today you would call game theory. If you compose a state from antagonistic elements to begin with, the rulers must come from one of the minorities. All the minorities will then feel safe, and the majority knows that there is a limit to how badly a minority can oppress a majority. That is why the Ba’ath Party regimes in Iraq and Syria – tyrannies founded on the same principle – were mirror images of each other.”

“What happens if the majority rules?,” I asked.

“The moment you introduce majority rule in the tribal world,” the cardinal replied, “you destroy the natural equilibrium of oppression.

“The minorities have no recourse but to fight, perhaps to the death. In the case of Iraq, the presence of oil mitigates the problem.

The Shi’ites have the oil, but the Sunnis want some of the revenue, and it is easier for the Shi’ites to share the revenue than to kill the Sunnis. On the other hand, the problem is exacerbated by the presence of an aggressive neighbor who also wants the oil.”

“So civil war is more likely because of Iran?”

“Yes,” said the shade, “and not only in Iraq. Without support from Iran, the Syrian Alawites – barely an eighth of the people – could not hope to crush the Sunnis. Iran will back Assad and the Alawites until the end, because if the Sunnis come to power in Syria, it will make it harder for Iran to suppress the Sunnis in Iraq. As I said, it is a matter of simple logic. Next time you visit, bring a second bottle of Petrus, and my friend Descartes will draw a diagram for you.”

“So the best thing we can do to stabilize the region is to neutralize Iran?”

“Bingeaux!” Richelieu replied.

“But there are people in the United States, like the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who say that attacking Iran would destabilize everything!”

“Such fools would not have lasted a week in my service,” the cardinal sniffed. “Again, it is a matter of simple logic. If Iran’s capacity to build nuclear weapons is removed by force, upon whom shall it avenge itself? No doubt its irregulars in Lebanon will shoot some missiles at Israel, but not so many as to provoke the Israelis to destroy Hezbollah. Iran might undertake acts of terrorism, but at the risk of fierce reprisals. Without nuclear weapons, Iran becomes a declining power with obsolete weapons and an indifferent conscript army.”

Richelieu’s shade already had lost some color. “What should the United States do in Syria?” I asked.

“As little as possible,” he replied. “Some anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles from Gaddafi’s stockpiles, enough to encourage the opposition and prevent Assad from crushing them, and without making it obvious who sent them.”

“And what will become of Syria?”

The cardinal said sourly, “The same thing will happen to the present occupants of Syria that happened to the previous occupants: the Assyrians, and the Seleucids, and the Byzantines before them. You seem to think the Syrians are at existential risk because they are fighting to the death. On the contrary: they are fighting to the death because they were at existential risk before the first shot was fired. They have no oil. They do not even have water. They manufacture nothing. They cling to ancient hatred as a drowning man grasps a stone.”

“Isn’t there anything we can do about it?” I shouted.

But Richelieu had turned back into a cardinal-shaped jellyfish, and if he gave an answer, I could not hear it. As the he faded, the other ghosts crept out of the stonework and encircled me. Among them I recognized a miracle-working rabbi of Chelm, who screamed, “Spengler! What are you doing here, conjuring spirits of the dead?” I tried to say, “Rabbi, I don’t eat here!” but my lips wouldn’t move and my tongue burned. I woke up with an unspeakable hangover, next to an empty Armagnac bottle and a copy of the Weekly Standard.

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Top Rated Comments   
Good grief...everyone is going on about this minority or that minority in Iraq, and if this is all anti-Semitic and on and on.

Iraq, less Kurdistan, which we should recognize and get the Turks to do the same (since they seem willing) is a pest hole, along with Syria and Iran. They aren't getting any better. They are tribal hell holes and they need to kill each other until everyone bad is dead. But more that that, they ARE going to kill each other. We need to build a wall (metaphorically speaking) and stand back and watch it happen. If there are any Sephardic Jews left, I'd advocate helping them relocate if they wisely run for the border. Israel seems a good choice, it's civilized and a has a decent economy because the people there are not tribal sociopaths bent on murder.

We tried. I foolishly supported that, having read Spengler and (on some level) knowing better, still hoped maybe the human spirit would rear up in Iraq and people who loved their kids would work for peace.

I was naïve and so were our leaders and all of us who supported this nightmare have blood on our hands. I for one don't want any more. You broke it you bought it may be true, but we paid for it. Now its time to put it in the dumpster.

I'd also like to freeze all the bank accounts of the Saudi Royal Family and take back the oil fields that they never did a thing to develop that foreign oil companies didn't do for them. We gave a bunch of tribal savages insane amounts of money so we could feel all Wilsonian. We need to go back to 1905 standards vis-à-vis the Arabs and start holding their countries fully accountable for their actions. The only thing these people respect is naked power, and that is the only way to communicate with them.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
100 years ago yesterday, this cacophony was set in motion. It will take another several decades to sort out.

If you think the middle-east is bad, wait until Africa gets going. Rwanda was just a warm up.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment

In medieval times, people created fairy tales and magical creatures to make sense of their world. One of the most endearing is the unicorn, a horse with a single horn that symbolized purity and wholesomeness. In our modern times, people in Europe and the United States consider themselves more sophisticated and rational than people from the Middle Ages, but we still create myths, albeit more subtle ones.

Daily we hear reports of violent acts committed by Islamic terrorists on every inhabited continent. We try to wish it away with the myth of the ‘Moderate Muslim’, telling ourselves the Islamic agenda has been’ hijacked’ by a tiny minority of 'islamists’ and that soon the huge, silent, 'moderate majority' of Muslims will take charge and change things. However, post 9/11 very few Muslims have condemned terrorist actions. We are still waiting for 'moderates' to stand and deliver, identifying and removing 'extremist thugs' from their mosques and their communities. Waiting for this self-correction is our modern version of searching for unicorns.

Any "Moderate" Muslims will not be able to wrest control of the agenda for several reasons. First of all, Mohammed, the Messenger of Allah’s eternal word, was not moderate. No "moderate" can legitimately tell another Muslim to stop doing the things Mohammed himself did. The Qur’an not only condones but commands violence and coercion to further the Islamic agenda. People whom some call 'moderates' are labeled hypocrites by Allah Himself in the Qur’an. Any 'Moderates' will always lose the argument because, as ex-Muslim author Ibn Warraq says, “There may be 'moderates' in Islam but Islam itself is not moderate.”

Islamic expert Daniel Pipes and others estimate ten percent of the Islamic world to be militant. In 1933 when the Nazi party took control of Germany it had 2 million members, comprising only three percent of Germany’s sixty-six million citizens. A tiny minority of 'extremists' can control a vast number of "moderates", making them irrelevant.

34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
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All Comments   (104)
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America to this day is living in the giant contradiction of at the same time supporting, often actively, the most extremist and violent version of Islam, through its support of its promoters the Saudis and other Wahhabis, and struggling against some (not all) of its practitioners Al Qaeda and such.

That contradiction already costed the USA dearly, starting but not limited to the 9/11 attacks. Failed attempts by part of the US leadership to use American justified anger at these attacks in order to skew Middle East politics for strategic and financial energy interests also have costed dearly, in treasure, in blood and in strategic position. (*)

Same American contradiction is at play in Syria, where America is supporting the likes of Al Qaeda, which are her sworn enemies at the same time as the enemies of Bachar al Assad and the protégés of America's Gulf Arab allies. France is also in the same contradiction, battling Jihadists in Mali and supporting them in Syria.

Russia by contrast has a consistent Middle East policy, and knows who are her allies: those who oppose Wahhabi Jihadists, that is primarily Shias and Alawis, along with Christians. Rationales for this policy are several:
- Wahhabi Jihadism has proven many times it is the enemy of Russia, in Chechnya and in other parts of Russian Caucasus
- Wahhabi Jihadism tends to dissolve States, leaving in their place failed countries with non-State forces that one cannot live along with, because they are always ready to get at your throat even when it's at their own detriment. You cannot use diplomacy with such forces like you could with a State, even an enemy one
- Middle East enemies of Wahhabis tend to be far less religiously aggressive than them, leaving Christian minorities in peace, meaning that supporting them amounts to supporting Christian minorities, going well with Russia's new - or old - idea of itself as a Christian nation

In a nutshell, Russia's advantage over America in the Middle-East is not that she has less illusions, it is that she knows how to choose her allies.

America may aim at playing the spoiler, and emulating not the real Cardinal Richelieu but the myth about him, however will it be good for her in the long term? Russia is the one and only developed nation which doesn't need oil imports. On the other hand, American economy is dependent on oil imports, will remain in that position for a long time if one believes the promises of shale and tight oil salesmen - and indefinitely if one reads through their massaged statistics. That dependence entails high sensitivity of US economy to the erratic variations in the price of oil that would result from continued wars in Iraq.

It should be reminded that the International Energy Agency deems crucial to mid term oil price stability the possibility to extend Iraqi oil production. Which extension will be impossible if Iraq falls in similar armed anarchy where Libya is now - much to the contrary, Libyan oil production has collapsed. So America could aim at puting more fuel on the fires of Iraqi civil war, but in the end it would be at the expense of her own economy.

(*) Costs have been orders of magnitude larger for the Iraqi nation that was the place where the US leadership chose to play, of course. Human, economic and civil war devastation was their lot. Saddam Hussein's error was not to try getting nuclear weapons in the 1970s/80s, it was to fail getting them.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
A quick summary of the Cardinal's view. Why wars are fought:
1. gain
2. defend the homeland
3. establish boundaries to limit enemy expansion
4. utterly defeat an enemy so they don't rise again
5. significantly weaken an enemy

Wars fought for any other reasons are long-term unwinnable. Unwinnable wars s/b avoided because they weaken, setting up a future defeat.

It seems that all of the reasons for going to war against ISIS are quite weak, except maybe item 3, to support friendly countries in defending their borders, which would be similar to keeping bases in S. Korea or Germany.

On the other hand, NOT getting involved keeps us from weakening ourselves, and encourages ISIS to expend resources, thereby weakening itself. We should save our strength until we are willing to attack the head of the octopus, Iran, under item 5.

34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
We need to understand the Iraq War was not primarily about WMD's, Saddam, or democracy but about the legitimate geostrategic containment of the Iranian Islamic Revolution in our national interests. The U.S. couldn't go to war with Iran so it waged indirect war with Iran by occupying Iraq, the next square on the domino board of Iranian expansion. But indirect war, as Machiavelli pointed out, is hard to legitimize to parents sending their adult children to war. So other secondary reasons for the war such as WMD's, Saddam, and democracy were employed, but they were weak reasons and thus viewed as "lies." So the American public has always been left with uncertainty as Mr. Goldman points out. And it is difficult to legitimize wars with uncertainty.

The Vietnam War was also an indirect war waged against Communist expansion. Even though Saigon and South Vietnam fell, the U.S. won its domino war by containing Communist expansion. The Vietnam War was waged to protect Japan. After the war the Asian Tiger nations of Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea had booming Capitalist economies because the U.S. was able to contain Communist expansion. Eventually Capitalism's success even "invaded" China.

When I was stationed in Cu Chi with the 25th Infantry Division in South Vietnam, one observation I had about war was that it was like opening up all the prisons and arming the gangs and worst elements of society to the teeth. Domestically, we tried what Obama is doing in Iraq now by letting each gang war over their turf. This policy didn't work domestically in the U.S. with gangs as we learned we had to put the gang leaders in prison, form special gang courts using anti-racketeering laws, and mobilize special police anti-gang task forces.

Obama's policy would be like letting Ho Chi Minh go to war with Taiwan, Indonesia and the Philippines. The circle of containment would have to grow wider. That is where we are with Obama's policy in Iraq. Now the war is metastasizing and chemotherapy won't work any longer and "debulking" the cancer by surgery has been abandoned. Now how do we contain the cancer to just one organ?
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
not surprised your essay failed to mention the kurds even once.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
I've mentioned the Kurds many times in the past, and have always argued that Kurdish statehood is inevitable and that the US should support it.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
I think if Obama hadn't run away from Iraq and left a few thousand troops there, we could protected the seedling of Democracy we spent so much blood and treasure planting there. But now I have to agree with David, Obama pissed it all away, and it's only divine providence that a strategy of "Divide and Conquer" has fallen into our laps. As long as the Jihadists are focusing their resources on killing each other, they will have little attention or resources for murdering innocent westerners.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
" we could protected the seedling of Democracy we spent so much blood and treasure planting there."

There was no "seedling" to protect. It was an illusion. Liberty cannot be built where there is no moral foundation to support it.

The only thing Iraq has, and has ever had, is factions vying for superiority. There is no love of virtue, therefore there can be no love of liberty, only of power.

Trying to graft liberty (not "democracy") onto a culture of corruption is worse than a waste of time, treasure, and blood. It was worse than a mistake.

It was a crime.

You should try reading some of Jackson. You might learn something about liberty.

34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
With this idiot in the White House, does it matter?
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
Sensible article, recognizing the failings of both obama and the neocons, and stating a sensible realistic policy.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
Added note. I think there was a chance for Iraq to come out OK if Obama had left in the stabilization force for about 10 more years, and paid more attention, since by 2009 the surge had killed off most of the bad actors, and Iraq had more sensible actors left, like the Sunni awakening, and secular anti Iranian shias, but Obama betrayed them all when he pulled out, and now no sensible factions are left there, other than the Kurds.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
Mr. Goldman, can you comment on two questions I have:

1) this region is strategic to China's interests. What are they thinking and doing about it now?

2) if this is truly a proxy war between Saudi and Iran, what keeps. Iran from striking inside of the Kingdom?
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
1) I don't know. I don't think the Chinese know. But they depend on Saudi oil and will not stand idly by if KSA is seriously threatened.
2) What keeps Iran from striking inside the Kingdom is deterrence. Saudi Arabia has a powerful military (and, according to my friend Jed Babbn, a former Undersecretary of Defense, a pretty good air force). Saudi Arabia also has a lot of influence in Pakistan, and Iran is rightly afraid of Pakistan. Iran is unlikely to strike directly at the Kingdom any time soon, but will use proxies (including perhaps ISIS) to destabilize it. Eastern province, where most of the oil is pumped, is majority Shia.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
2) if this is truly a proxy war between Saudi and Iran, what keeps. Iran from striking inside of the Kingdom? SNIP

Our Fifth Fleet.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
If they were to try anything, I would expect them to do targeted assassinations of key Saudi Aramco people for example. Nothing that the Fifth Fleet could do much about.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
This part of the world cannot be understood by the West.
We are still paying for the blinders of WWI--Sykes-Picot
for one. A Union general once asked a Confederate boy in
Georgia why he was fighting. "Because you're down here."
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
"The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible."
George Washington

Or said another way; "the business of the United States is business" and under Obama (and Bush before him), business has been bad.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
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