Iraq Debacle: Ending It Tied to Engagement with Iran

This time the message was delivered by the Pentagon’s own premier educational institute.  The opening line of a report released April 17 by the National Institute for Strategic Studies read: “Measured in blood and treasure, the war in Iraq has achieved the status of a major war and a major debacle.”

The document goes on to admit that the war’s outcome “is in doubt.”

The “On-To-Victory” crowd (now led by John McCain as well as George Bush) wants to drown out such reports by any means necessary.  Unfortunately for them, fear-mongering proclamations that “winning” in Iraq is essential to “keep America safe” don’t have the impact they once did.  The latest polls show only 30% of the public believes “victory” in Iraq is crucial to defeating terrorism.  So Bush, McCain, & friends have shifted their rationale for war yet again.  They’ve turned to hyping the alleged “danger from Iran” as the main justification for staying in Iraq — and perhaps even launching another preemptive war.

This updated propaganda line was the centerpiece of General David Petraeus’ early-April testimony before Congress.  Bush and McCain had hoped their savior-general would decisively shift public debate in their favor.  But the crash of their mythologized “surge” — as indicated by the failure of their attack on Basra (see below) just before Petraeus’ appearance — buried this fantasy.

Even so, the “Iran danger” bait-and-switch does target a vulnerable point in public opinion.  It exerts a strong pull on elite critics of the Iraq war (particularly those most beholden to the Israel Lobby) to keep their mouths shut out of loyalty to the “larger goal” of U.S. domination of the Middle East.

All this has made the close inter-relationship between ending the occupation of Iraq and forcing Washington to engage Iran diplomatically clearer than ever.

Despite the new round of fear-mongering, prospects for accomplishing this are more favorable than in previous years.  Public sentiment against the war in Iraq is higher than ever.  A record 63% of the population now says the invasion was a mistake.  And at the end of March five Washington heavyweights — former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Warren Christopher, Madeline Albright and Colin Powell — all urged the administration to open a dialogue with Iran (and to close Guantánamo prison).


The Pentagon “debacle” report was written last fall.  That’s before the full extent of the surge’s failure became clear.  Though Bush and McCain still bluster that “the surge is a success,” the April fighting in Basra ripped apart that imperial claim.  The Nation‘s Tom Engelhardt laid out the reality (April 7):

They came, they saw, they deserted.  That, in short form, is the story of the recent Iraqi government “offensive” in Basra (and Baghdad).  It took a few days, but the headlines now tell a grim tale . . . .  Sudarsan Raghavan and Ernesto Londono of the Washington Post suggest that 30% of government troops had “abandoned the fight before a cease-fire was reached.”  Tina Susman of the Los Angeles Times offers 50% as an estimate for police desertions in the midst of battle in Sadr City. . . .

In other words, after years of intensive training and an investment of $22 billion, U.S. military spokesmen are once again left trying to put the best face on a strategic disaster (from which they were rescued thanks to negotiations between Muqtada al-Sadr and advisors to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, brokered in Iran by General Qassem Suleimani, a man on the U.S. Treasury Department’s terrorist watch list). . . .

This week, with surge commander General David Petraeus back from Baghdad’s ever redder, ever more dangerous “Green Zone,” here are a few realities to keep in mind:

1. The situation in Iraq is getting worse: Don’t believe anyone who says otherwise.  The surge-ified, “less violent” Iraq the general has presided over so confidently is, in fact, a chaotic, violent tinderbox.  Think nightmare.

2. The Bush administration has no learning curve.  Its top officials are unable to absorb the realities of Iraq (or the region) and so, like the generals of World War I, simply send their soldiers surging “over the top” again and again, with minor changes in tactics, to the same dismal end. . . .

3. The “success” of the surge was always an expensive illusion, essentially a Ponzi scheme. . .  the Bush administration put out IOUs in Iraq to be paid in future chaos and violence.  It now hopes to slip out of office before these fully come due.


A big part of Bush’s effort to postpone payment — and avoid accountability for the entire Iraq disaster — is to blame everything on Iran.  John McCain may not know the difference between Sunni and Shia.  But he thinks it’s a vote-getter to demonize Iranians (and tap into lingering chauvinism going back to the 1979 “hostage crisis” provoked by U.S. backing the Shah).  George Bush might or might not remember that his own National Intelligence Estimate declared that Iran had no nuclear weapons program.  But with the lowest approval rating of any President since polling was invented, he figures one more lie hardly matters if it can whip up war hysteria and “protect his legacy.”

But even within the top guardians of empire (no fans of Iran there), there is strong resistance to this course.

For starters, there’s plenty of evidence that most of the military brass knows it’s not Iran behind the anti-occupation resistance in Iraq and is adamantly opposed to launching another war.  (Admiral William Fallon, forced to step down in March as commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East, made the mistake of voicing this position too publicly.  But Fallon’s views are shared widely in the military command.  Unfortunately, not by Petraeus, who has been nominated to succeed him.)

Further, arch Cold Warrior Zbigniew Brzezinki (now an adviser to Barack Obama) speaks for a growing faction of policy-makers who believe ramping up tensions with Iran is the road to catastrophe for the empire he is committed to defend.  In an op-ed titled “The Smart Way Out of a Foolish War” (Washington Post, March 30), Brzezinki wrote:

The overall goal of a comprehensive U.S. strategy to undo the errors of recent years should be cooling down the Middle East, instead of heating it up.  The “unipolar moment” that the Bush administration’s zealots touted after the collapse of the Soviet Union has been squandered to generate a policy based on the unilateral use of force, military threats and occupation masquerading as democratization — all of which has pointlessly heated up tensions, fueled anti-colonial resentments and bred religious fanaticism.  The long-range stability of the Middle East has been placed in increasing jeopardy.

Terminating the war in Iraq is the necessary first step to calming the Middle East, but other measures will be needed.  It is in the U.S. interest to engage Iran in serious negotiations — on both regional security and the nuclear challenge it poses.  But such negotiations are unlikely as long as Washington’s price of participation is unreciprocated concessions from Tehran.  Threats to use force on Iran are also counterproductive. . . .


A negative factor in the U.S. elite debate is the stance of the Israeli government and the blank-check-for-Israel grouping in U.S. political life.  They are among the loudest voices whipping up hostility toward Iran.

It’s hard-nosed realpolitik.  Israel is not letting up one bit in its squeeze on the Palestinians.  The latest person to call the Israeli siege of Gaza a “crime,” an “atrocity” and an “abomination” is former President Jimmy Carter.  Carter met with Hamas officials in late April and afterwards top Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal l told the Associated Press: “We have offered a truce of 10 years if Israel withdraws to the 1967 borders.”  Israel, while claiming that it always goes the extra mile for peace, dismissed the offer and reaffirmed its policy of refusing to talk to Hamas.  And on the very day talks were reopened with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Israel announced it was expanding settlements in the West Bank.

The Israeli government is worried that, given those kinds of daily actions, even people in the U.S. might wake up to the fact Israel is more interested in seizing Palestinian land than avoiding violence.  And what with the balance of military power between Israel and the Palestinians, it’s harder and harder for Tel Aviv to keep claiming that the beleaguered Palestinian people pose an “existential threat” to Israel.  So to keep wavering supporters in line, a “better enemy” must be found.  Iran is currently the top choice, despite the inconvenient fact that Iran has no nuclear weapons and Israel has 200-plus.

The influence, direct and indirect, of the Israeli establishment pushing this view should not be underestimated.  (Note Hillary Clinton’s recent threat to “totally obliterate” Iran.)  At the same time, this high-stakes gamble could well backfire.  The U.S. policy-making elite are, after all, dealing with “debacle” all across the region.  Iraq is the centerpiece.  But they are also facing disaster in Afghanistan, which is causing major divisions within the NATO alliance.  They are rapidly losing their grip on Pakistan in the wake of Musharraf’s electoral humiliation.  And their client dictatorships in Egypt and Saudi Arabia are full of anxiety.

All this is translating into more and more sectors of the U.S. elite looking for some way to (in Brzezinski’s words) “cool down the Middle East” instead of heat it up.  And it is becoming obvious to these same sectors that Israeli policies — from Gaza to the West Bank to war-drum-beating against Iran — are among the biggest obstacles to “cooling down.”  Most are not prepared to follow Jimmy Carter’s footsteps.  But rumblings are there just below the surface.  That’s why articles and books along the lines of 2006’s “The Israel Lobby” by “realist” heavyweights John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt are starting to make a wave or two.

The outcome is very much in doubt.  But if the U.S. is forced to turn to a “cooling down” strategy instead of Bush/McCain and their Hundred Years War, changes in Washington’s “special relationship” to Tel Aviv are not out of the question.


A key element in how things play out will be the extent of pressure for peace and diplomacy coming “from below.”  Public opposition to the continuing occupation of Iraq is a central factor in all elite calculations.  The April 20 New York Times revelations about the White House orchestrating a massive campaign of deception and lies by retired military officers is just the latest proof that the war-makers are anxious as hell about the potential impact of public sentiment — “the second superpower.”

In solidifying peace sentiment and translating it into tangible pressure, Iraq is still the centerpiece and Washington’s most vulnerable point.  But as another moment of decision — retrench or escalate — looms, the complexities of the entire region come into play.  Washington’s relationships with Iran and with Israel/Palestine become relevant not just analytically but in terms of practical politics.  And even regarding Iraq itself, an elite decision to retrench does not yet mean acceptance of total withdrawal from Iraq.  That will only be won with even higher levels of popular pressure.

In the streets and in the electoral arena, in direct action and in counter-recruitment, in long-term anti-militarist organizing and in dealing with each week’s twists and turns — the antiwar movement has our work cut out for us.

Max Elbaum Max Elbaum is the author of Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che (Verso 2002).  Elbaum is also a member of War Times/Tiempo de Guerras, a group represented on the steering committee of United for Peace and Justice.  War Times/Tiempo de Guerras invites you to sign on to its announcement list (3-4 messages per month) to receive regular reports, interviews, flyers, and news recaps.  Go to the War Times website at  War Times/Tiempo de Guerras is a fiscally sponsored project of the Center for Third World Organizing.  Donations to War Times are tax-deductible; you can donate on-line at or send a check to War Times/Tiempo de Guerras, c/o P.O. Box 99096, Emeryville, CA 94662.

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