Malice Aforethought: Iraq, ISIS, and the American Caliphate

When five Guantanamo detainees were released in exchange for America’s last prisoner-of-war in Afghanistan, Bowe Bergdahl, the wolves of the right howled that President Obama was attempting to distract the nation’s attention from a politically toxic stream of revelations about mismanagement within the VA medical system. Apart from their assumption that the American people would see the VA crisis as entirely Obama’s fault, they neglected to mention that if their allegations were true, such cynical manipulation on Obama’s part could constitute further evidence that his professed admiration of Ronald Reagan was sincere, for it was the Great Communicator himself who “changed the narrative” by invading a small Caribbean country immediately after 241 U.S. Marines had been killed by a suicide bomber in their barracks in Lebanon. (These days, invading a foreign country is so commonplace that its value as a distraction has depreciated. And you can’t even lose four Americans overseas without people making up bumper stickers against you.) As silly as this point-scoring may have been, one can’t help wondering if a similar attempt to change the narrative is being implemented once again, with the difference this time that all parties are fully on board, and with good reason, since the world is witnessing a catastrophe of their joint creation.

How else to explain the remarkable personal involvement of a notoriously aloof chief executive in the immigration issue? Obama has ventured into hostile geographic and ideological territory, risking the wrath of nativists hell-bent on expelling Untouchables from the sacred soil that God obviously intended America to possess, even though He inexplicably gave it to other people first. The timing of this sudden obsession with a domestic issue – every bit as long-in-the-making as the VA crisis – is quite interesting. It did not come after America incited upheaval in the Ukraine: the Putin-as-Hitler message was far too tasty for all the propaganda predators to pass up. Instead, it has come after America’s decade of bloodshed in Iraq has brought that poor country to the brink of dissolution as a unified nation state. Our leaders have given us something else to think about at precisely that moment when Americans might be inclined to wonder why the most fabulous military on the planet – descendants of the Greatest Generation their history books credit with saving the world from Hitler and Tojo – could not keep the peace in only one small corner of that world, even with the benefit of trillions of dollars from the indefatigable American printing press. How terribly considerate of them to liberate us from the burden of pondering America’s “liberation” of Iraq, saving us from any possible crisis of conscience, sparing us from the mental exertion of a “teachable moment,” and absolving the nation of war crimes before any trial could even begin.

For those Americans who care what their country does in their name with their money, and whether – just a few days after Independence Day – America as a republican ideal is still alive at all, it has rarely been more imperative to refuse all invitations to take one’s eyes off the Iraqi ball.

Maintaining the Myth of American Munificence

Americans are generally disinclined to perceive their country as a failure. How can the Greatest Country on Earth possibly be a failure? If a project in which the United States has involved itself turns out badly, it must be someone else’s fault. Recognizing the prime directive to maintain faith in the imperial brand, both of America’s corporate factions have amplified this chauvinistic sentiment with high fidelity and rank hypocrisy, though the arrogance of the drumbeat is sometimes drowned out by the wailing of the front men.

Republicans, inevitably, have played the old Truman-lost-China card and blamed the emergence of ISIS on president Obama’s “weakness” in foreign policy, once again expecting the country to ignore the blood on their own hands (to say nothing of the institutional factors that unite both parties just beneath the deceptive veneer of divided government). Taking personal responsibility, after all, is only for the poor and the blacks, not for the ruling class. And religious concern for the well-being of embryos, so touchingly protected by the Supreme Court’s recent pronouncements, and so suddenly and strongly felt by America’s corporate Ubermenschen, does not extend to Iraqi embryos genetically deformed by America’s depleted uranium munitions, any more than it extends to Vietnamese and Cambodian embryos still being damaged by America’s carpet-bombing of Indochina with chemical weapons. (Only really bad countries, like Syria, have their chemical weapons confiscated and destroyed; good countries like the United States can be trusted not to abuse them.) While Republicans can hardly be expected to describe the freedom they claim to represent as freedom from coherent morality, it is not at all surprising to see them describing the victims of America’s imperialism as fully deserving of their fate. Muslims, we are told, have been fighting one another for centuries; they were never going to be able to put aside their primitive beliefs and worship the one true God, Mammon, like we do, even though we graciously took up the white man’s burden and gave them a chance. If they had played their cards right, why, they too could one day have been shopping at Wal-Mart, dining at McDonalds, and planting Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds in the soils of the Fertile Crescent, allowing America to complete the arc of civilization that first rose along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates.

Far from tempering this deadly arrogance, our president has given it the official stamp of state approval. Although there is much more going on here than a failure to acknowledge responsibility (as we shall discuss in due course), the performance is worth watching for this element alone:

It is at moments such as this when the few intelligent Republicans left in the room must realize that their party’s constant animosity toward Barack Obama is wholly unwarranted. For while Mitt Romney may have enjoyed firing people, no one can hold a candle to Barack Obama’s comportment in the imperial task of killing people. Even a right-wing thug like Cal Thomas, reacting to the “surprise attack” by ISIS, cited a large figure for Iraqi deaths since the American onslaught commenced.1  There is none of that here – not even a token reference to Iraqi casualties. No, it is only the Americans who have sacrificed. The Iraqis simply haven’t been worthy of our efforts. It is not our fault that they have reverted to form and are killing one another in sectarian squabbles; nothing we did has in any way, shape, or form revived or exacerbated divisions within what had actually been (not that anyone in America knows this) a remarkably tolerant and integrated society before we decided to “improve” it.

Beneath Obama’s polite exterior, we find the same raw imperial arrogance as exhibited by another recipient of federal paychecks, a U.S. Army trainer working with Iraqi police. Presumably, this is all just “tough love,” the spirit of which was not lost in translation:

Many Americans agree with these sentiments and, if the comments on You Tube are any guide, would express them in similar language. One of the long-term consequences of the Iraq War within the United States itself has been a further entrenchment of the militarization of our culture. During the formative years of the republic, military men were viewed with suspicion and, in the case of soldiers of fortune, outright contempt. But America is not that kind of republic any more; it is a full-fledged military empire, in which citizens have been conditioned to see soldiers as embodiments of the nation and increasingly beyond reproach. The framers understood that this was an exceptionally dangerous attitude, a point which only a handful of today’s Americans understand.

(Yet) Another American Mulligan

Two of the Americans who dare to question this deference to the military are the columnist Chris Hedges and the military historian Andrew Bacevich. (Bacevich is a retired colonel whose son was killed in Iraq.) In their view, the unfolding catastrophe in Iraq is a result of American imperial arrogance, heralding a collapse of American power – hardly the message that our leaders wish to see disseminated. Here are a few key extracts from Hedges’ recent interview of Bacevich:2

Bacevich said the “military mind-set” has so infected the discourse of the power elite that when there is a foreign policy problem the usual response is to discuss “three different courses of military action. … Should it be airstrikes with drones? Should it be airstrikes with manned aircraft? Special operations forces? Or some combination of all three? And that’s what you get.” The press, he said, is an “echo chamber and reinforces the notion that those are the [only] options.” […]

“The invasion of Iraq was intended to be a catalyst,” he said. “It was supposed to be the catalyst that would enable us … to change the region. It turned out to be the catalyst that resulted in destabilization. The big question of the moment is not what can we do or is there anything we can do to salvage Iraq. The question is to what degree have our actions resulted in this larger regional mayhem. And to the extent they have, isn’t it time to rethink fundamentally our expectations of what American power, and particularly American military power, can achieve?”

“We need to take a radically different course,” Bacevich said. “There is an analogy to be made with Great Britain in the wake of World War I. It was in World War I that Britain and France collaborated to dismantle the Ottoman Empire to create the new Middle East. While on the one hand there was an awareness that Britain was in decline, at the level where policy was made there was not a willingness to consider the implications of that fact. It took World War II to drive it home—that the [British] empire was doomed. I think that is where we are.”

Out of this decline, Bacevich said, is emerging a multipolar order. The United States will no longer be able to operate as an unchallenged superpower. But, he said, similar to the condition that existed as the British Empire took its last gasps, “there is very little willingness in Washington or in policy circles to take on board the implications multipolarity would call for in terms of adjusting our policy.”

Bacevich’s invocation of imperial decline is really nothing new, and is more measured than Hedges’ penchant for the dramatic, which likens the American architects of the war to the very jihadists their campaign has unleashed, seeing both groups as demented fanatics who deserve one another. Indeed, Bacevich, despite his presentation of views that challenge the prevailing orthodoxy, is nowhere near as cynical about America’s imperial history as he could, and perhaps should, be. As Patrick Foy recently pointed out,3 Bacevich deplores the exploitation of America’s role in WWII as a justification for further militarism, but does not question the wisdom of America’s participation in either World War. Foy takes us beyond the limited critique of Bacevich, and offers a more useful framework than Chris Hedges’ aspersions:

My problem […] is with the Second World War itself and with its progenitor, the Great War of 1914-18. If we accept them as sacrosanct, legitimate undertakings by Washington, then we lend credence to the myth of American exceptionalism, which has turned out to be a dangerous, self-destructive idea.

Consider an alternative narrative in which America’s entry into both world wars was unnecessary, ill-advised, and brought about by chicanery in service to a private agenda. […] Contrary to what you may have learned in school, these were not unselfish wars to make the world safe for democracy. That was a cover story. These were wars for economic advantage on the part of Washington and London, and were fought to maintain the prestige of the near-bankrupt British Empire–and then replace it with the American empire. They were at variance with the dictum delivered by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams in 1821 that America, “…goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

Bacevich’s focus on the Iraq War planners’ misguided belief in American military invincibility essentially categorizes the war as a mere mistake, albeit a complex of personal failures to learn from the history of other empires and institutional failures that allowed a small group of zealots to harness a massive killing machine to their agenda. As Foy’s alternative narrative suggests, this lets American imperialism as a system off the hook rather too easily. In a sense that neither Bacevich nor Hedges probably intends, the idea of the Iraq War as a disastrous series of mistakes is itself a form of cover story, preventing the nation from perceiving deeper truths that could, if broadly understood, shatter the legitimacy of the American regime at home and abroad. Assuming, as most reasonable people would, that the destabilization and regional mayhem decried by Bacevich are undesirable, Chris Hedges himself has been prevented from seeing just how demented the American empire has become. For, as we have argued before, chaos is the American empire’s best friend.

The American Caliphate

The awful truth that America’s political leadership and corporate media are hiding (in many cases from themselves as well as from us) is that the disintegration of Iraq we are now witnessing is no mistake; it was planned. America’s overarching goal in the Middle East is not much different from that of the empires that preceded it. The United States is not the slightest bit interested in turning the region into a peaceful group of Western-style democracies, with ornate parliaments populated by bloviating politicians. Only a child would believe that. What the United States wants is a region that is easy to control and easy to exploit, and the key to realizing that objective is to eliminate significant power structures that could resist imperial domination. Large states need to be broken up into smaller ones, preferably with dissimilar orientations to prevent any possibility of ganging up against the overlord, either militarily or commercially. It is painfully obvious that this plan is well on the way to completion. The only significant stumbling block – the worm spoiling the apple pie – is Iran. The Iranians know that; the Israelis know that; Barack Obama knows that; and one must assume that Vladimir Putin also knows that.

The first item of evidence in support of this contention is the revelation in 2007 by the retired General Wesley Clark that the Pentagon was planning to overthrow seven countries in the region in the space of five years, starting with Iraq. (Iraq was the obvious starting point, as selling the war would be easy after years of demonizing Saddam Hussein. The few voices raised in protest were easily marginalized or eliminated.) But the most compelling indicator is the map of a remade Middle East drawn up by Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters in 2006 and used for the training of senior officers at NATO’s Defense College. The map anticipates the likely fate of Iraq with disturbing precision, showing a Shia Arab rump state in the area around Baghdad (possibly to include parts of Iran), an independent Kurdistan to the north, and a “Sunni Iraq” adjoining Syria in the areas that have been overrun by ISIS.

Lieutenant-Colonel Ralph Peters' redrawn map of the Middle East

Image courtesy of the Center for Research on Globalization.

It was around this time, according to journalist Seymour Hersh, that the U.S.’s approach to the region underwent a “redirection,” with an explicit acknowledgement that sectarian animosities could be exploited to counter the rising influence of Iran (a phenomenon that anyone who was alive during the Iran-Iraq War should have been able to predict, but which apparently surprised the Pentagon). Hersh’s landmark reporting highlighted the involvement of the Saudis in joint clandestine operations with both the Americans and the Israelis:

The policy shift has brought Saudi Arabia and Israel into a new strategic embrace, largely because both countries see Iran as an existential threat. They have been involved in direct talks, and the Saudis, who believe that greater stability in Israel and Palestine will give Iran less leverage in the region, have become more involved in Arab-Israeli negotiations.

The new strategy “is a major shift in American policy—it’s a sea change,” a U.S. government consultant with close ties to Israel said. The Sunni states “were petrified of a Shiite resurgence, and there was growing resentment with our gambling on the moderate Shiites in Iraq,” he said. “We cannot reverse the Shiite gain in Iraq, but we can contain it.”

“It seems there has been a debate inside the government over what’s the biggest danger—Iran or Sunni radicals,” Vali Nasr, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who has written widely on Shiites, Iran, and Iraq, told me. “The Saudis and some in the Administration have been arguing that the biggest threat is Iran and the Sunni radicals are the lesser enemies. This is a victory for the Saudi line.” […]

The Administration’s effort to diminish Iranian authority in the Middle East has relied heavily on Saudi Arabia and on Prince Bandar, the Saudi national-security adviser. Bandar served as the Ambassador to the United States for twenty-two years, until 2005, and has maintained a friendship with President Bush and Vice-President Cheney. In his new post, he continues to meet privately with them. Senior White House officials have made several visits to Saudi Arabia recently, some of them not disclosed.

Last November, Cheney flew to Saudi Arabia for a surprise meeting with King Abdullah and Bandar. The Times reported that the King warned Cheney that Saudi Arabia would back its fellow-Sunnis in Iraq if the United States were to withdraw. A European intelligence official told me that the meeting also focussed on more general Saudi fears about “the rise of the Shiites.” In response, “The Saudis are starting to use their leverage—money.” [Emphasis added.]

Hersh goes on to elaborate on the Saudis’ fears about Iranian influence both throughout the region and within Saudi Arabia itself, which has a significant Shiite population in its Eastern Province, a region of major oil fields that has been experiencing terrorist attacks. Perhaps of most relevance is the Saudi royal family’s desire to cling to power. Naturally, they have nothing to fear from America’s burning desire to promote democracy and protect the dignity and rights of women. But they are threatened by Sunni extremists who object to their decadence, and have attempted to ward off that threat by funding religious schools and charities linked to the extremists. This, of course, contributed to the rise of Osama bin Laden, and raises the obvious risk, as one of Hersh’s contacts put it, that once you get the radicals out of the box, you won’t be able to put them back. But the Saudis have reassured the United States that they can control the Sunni extremists. From all of this emerged the agreement to start funding Sunni rebels in Syria, which has been a major supporter of the Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon (who were probably responsible for the Beirut bombing that never became Reagan’s Benghazi). While the United States and Saudi Arabia attempted to prop up the government of Lebanon against Hezbollah, it was agreed even then that Syria was the gateway to Iran, and that Sunni radicals in Syria would become pivotal. In a secret meeting with Hersh, Hezbollah’s leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, told him that it was obvious that the United States intended to partition Iraq, despite its public protestations to the contrary, and aimed to reduce the entire region to small states that would be dwarfed by the local power of Israel. Hersh seemed skeptical at the time, but he should have listened to the man that Richard Armitage described as the “smartest man in the Middle East” when it came to political gamesmanship.

Fast forward to today. The Sunni radicals of ISIS have “suddenly” poured out of Syria and marched towards Baghdad, the Shiite center of Iraq. The ISIS rebels have received most of their funding from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Anyone who thinks – or who attempts to convince the American public – that these “terrorists” are “enemies of America” who have been allowed by a feckless President Obama to undo the noble cause of President Bush’s Iraqi project is either ignorant of the larger picture or deliberately concealing it. The only remotely plausible argument against an intentional creation of ISIS is the possibility that Saudi Arabia has not been able to keep its promise to control the extremists it sponsors. This argument fails the credibility test for several reasons, among which are the extremely suspicious ease with which ISIS took Mosul (as discussed by Prof. Michel Chossudovsky), and the blatantly obvious manner in which Barack Obama is throwing Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, under the bus by doing essentially nothing to help him. (Obama’s statement that no other country, including the United States, has any business deciding the identity of Iraq’s Prime Minister, deserved a Nobel Prize for Sick Jokes.) Last but not least, we must not forget that Vice President Joe Biden, The Man Who Would Be King, was publicly advocating the partition of Iraq while he was still “serving” on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. While the Associated Press maintains the fiction that America does not want to see the emergence of an independent Kurdistan (such a sad ending to all our brave efforts on behalf of the Iraqi nation!), the Israelis – our Best Friends Forever – have already started receiving deliveries of oil from the Kurds by way of Turkey (a NATO member with major U.S. military bases). Some of that oil has come from fields the Kurds have only recently “acquired.” No one is wasting any time getting on with the program; it’s just that the American people have no idea what the program is.

The suggestion emanating from some media circles that Iran might partner with the United States to support Maliki against ISIS is ludicrous, and showcases the complete bankruptcy of the American media. ISIS is a monster created by America and its willing partners in crime; the ISIS “caliphate” should more properly be considered an American caliphate. If this creation can also be used at home to encourage even more submission to the surveillance state that offers “protection” from terrorists, while also distracting attention from spectacular economic inequality, so much the better for our glorious, plutocratic empire. But make no mistake about it: the United States is playing a deadly game, fully conscious of the human costs and the risk of a regional war with Iran. The demented war cry of George W. Bush echoes down the ages: “Bring it on!”

The disintegration of Iraq is exactly what America wants. To the extent that this process claims the lives of innocent human beings, it ought to expose the United States to criminal charges of intentional murder, and ought to expose the American people to charges of criminal negligence for allowing the authorities to whom they have delegated their power to commit such acts. (The people may offer the defense that the United States is no longer a republic, and that this destructive power was not derived from them, but why did they allow their republic to be taken away from them?) Ought to, but won’t, for America’s public morality disintegrated long before the latest of its many victims.


  1. Of course, his quoted figure of 134,000 was absurdly low. And it was cited not to deplore the bloodshed of war inflicted on an innocent people, as one might have hoped from a professed Christian, but to argue that they will have died for nothing if Barack Obama allows America to fail in its mission to make Iraq all it could be.
  2. The interview appeared in full on, which appears to have removed the content as of 8/2017.
  3. As of 7/15, Counterpunch’s servers no longer contained this article.

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