Unexamined Premises

In the Middle East, the End of the Beginning



The coming fall of the artificial nation-state called “Iraq” should come as a surprise to exactly nobody. There never was such a place, other than in the minds of the British Foreign Office, which carved it and other equally imaginary countries out of the rump of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. Now, an “insurgent” group nobody had even heard of two weeks ago, known by the pretty Egyptian-flavored acronym of ISIS,  has gone and done the West a favor, if only we are smart enough to understand it, accept it and deal with it.

The Iraq wars, begun and not concluded by President George H.W. Bush, continued half-heartedly by Bill Clinton, disastrously expanded by George W. Bush and cravenly abandoned by Barack Hussein Obama, are coming to a close. The real war, against a unified and motivated “caliphate” of vengeful anti-Western Islamist Muslims, is about to begin. If anything argues more forcefully against a continuation of the Bush/Clinton/Bush/Clinton cycle of elections, this alone ought to do it. No Jeb, no Hillary, nohow, never. Mene, mene tekel upharsin.

Meanwhile, back in the real world beyond the Beltway, “Iraq’s borders are disappearing,” writes Tom Rogan in the Telegraph. Britain’s Tory newspaper; “this is a disaster.” But is it, really?

The Islamic State of Iraq and greater Syria (ISIS) is shredding Iraq. After seizing the northern city of Mosul on Monday, on Tuesday ISIS stormed down Iraq’s route 1 highway to take Tikrit. This victory has left them emboldened and only 110 miles from Baghdad. The Iraqi military seemingly overrun, Nouri al-Maliki’s government is greatly concerned.

Unfortunately, the disaster isn’t confined to Iraq. After all, ISIS isn’t interested in Iraq per se. Instead, it seeks a caliphate that stretches from western Syria to Iraq’s eastern border with Iran. A dominion preserved under an iron fist of brutality (think Fallujah 2004) and a base from which to export global terrorism.

What’s happening in Iraq and Syria today is the nightmare that drove George W Bush to gamble everything on his January 2007 surge. He knew that Iraq’s collapse might enable Al-Qaeda in Iraq to rip the Middle East apart. And today Al-Qaeda in Iraq’s successor – ISIS – have never been closer to their dream.

The crack “Iraqi security forces,” trained at so dear a cost by the American military and then abandoned to their fate by the Obama administration when it failed to negotiate a status of forces agreement with the Maliki government, apparently are fleeing the battlefields. As the Independent reports. “Sunni insurgents advancing on Baghdad after taking Mosul have captured the city of Tikrit, the home town of Saddam Hussein, as government forces disintegrate and fail to offer resistance. Iraqi soldiers and police are reported to have discarded their uniforms, changed into civilian clothes and fled after firing only a few shots.” Brave Sir Robin, indeed, but about what we’ve come to expect from Arab armies whose hearts are clearly not in the fight.

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For a veteran of the fighting there—and proponent of the counterinsurgency strategy that provided a chance for the country to stabilize—watching the recent unraveling of Iraq has been disheartening but not surprising.

Thus speaks John Nagl, a veteran of both Iraqi campaigns, writing in the Washington Post:

I returned to a Pentagon that was in denial, but I found a few who believed that a new strategy of building Iraqi forces to take over the fight could eventually succeed. We struggled to provide trainers and equipment and to find ways to partner with our Iraqi comrades but managed to succeed in the nick of time, pulling Iraq into a possible win. That was the surge. Then, by declining to provide a long-term security assistance force to an Iraq not yet able to handle the fight itself, we pulled defeat from the jaws of victory and increased the peril our Iraqi friends would face…

This is not the end state my friends fought for and died for.

Indeed not. But such an outcome was dictated the moment the first president Bush stopped short of total victory in the Gulf War and left Saddam Hussein in power. And it was guaranteed by his son’s second inaugural address of 2005, which ought to live in infamy as a triumph of soft-headed sentimentalism over the brutal reality of power politics in a non-Western culture:

Some, I know, have questioned the global appeal of liberty – though this time in history, four decades defined by the swiftest advance of freedom ever seen, is an odd time for doubt. Americans, of all people, should never be surprised by the power of our ideals. Eventually, the call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul. We do not accept the existence of permanent tyranny because we do not accept the possibility of permanent slavery. Liberty will come to those who love it…

In America’s ideal of freedom, the public interest depends on private character – on integrity, and tolerance toward others, and the rule of conscience in our own lives. Self-government relies, in the end, on the governing of the self. That edifice of character is built in families, supported by communities with standards, and sustained in our national life by the truths of Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount, the words of the Koran, and the varied faiths of our people.

What’s happening now in Iraq is not just ISIS, the latest in a long line of jihadis that reaches back in Victorian times to the Mahdi’s dervishes at Khartoum, who first needed to slaughter the infidel Turks based in Cairo before encountering Kitchener and his guns at Omdurman, at which point the Arabs  got the message that (in Belloc’s famous couplet) the West had the Maxim gun, and they had not. Rather, it’s the collapse of the Three Cups of Tea school of foreign relations and military doctrine, the bastard idiot child of the “hearts and minds” philosophy that lost the Vietnam War. In that sense, poor Bowe Bergdahl is the perfect face of the modern American military: wan, weak, foolish and lost. Not to mention a likely deserter and a possible traitor — which of course only endears him to the Left, which views any form of self-defense as morally illegitimate.

bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim

‘bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim’

So here we are, in the ruins of a bipartisan Middle Eastern policy whose intellectual and moral bankruptcy is now playing out from the shores of Tripoli to Mesopotamia to Afghanistan. Thousands of American dead, many more maimed, the longest war in our history — and for what? By toppling Saddam, the first Bush administration let the genie out of the bottle; by not finishing it, Bush and Clinton gave rise to bin Laden and al-Qaeda; by restarting it after 9/11 — when the clear enemies were Saudi Arabia and Iran, not Iraq — Bush II ensured that Islamicism would wax, not wane; and by hampering our troops with metrosexual rules of engagement overseen by a purged general staff, Obama has guaranteed defeat in this particular round of the longest conflict in human history, one that dates back to the eighth century.

So what’s the favor? The favor is this: we now can see clearly that there are no real nation-states in the Islamic world, only the ummah, of which the caliphate for which ISIS and other groups are fighting is its political expression. We can no longer hide behind legalistic fictions that render us helpless in the face of continuing attacks, because we cannot find the “government” responsible. At last we have met the enemy, and he is the same enemy he has always been. Some things never change:

Then and now

plus ça change…

His goals are clear. Are ours? Obama likes to boast that he ends wars. But wars only end when one side gives up.