Exclusive: The looming U.S. defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan represent a threat to the political fortunes of America’s neocons — if they get blamed for the disasters. However, if they can hang the failures around President Obama’s neck, the two lost wars might help bring the neocons back to power as early as 2013, writes Robert Parry.
By Robert Parry
June 8, 2011
American neocons still insist that they achieved “victory at last” in the Iraq War and can “win” in Afghanistan, although both bloody conflicts are now grinding inexorably toward grim conclusions as two of the worst strategic defeats in U.S. history.
Yet, paradoxically, the twin disasters carry possible political advantages for the neocons if they can shift the blame for the defeats onto President Barack Obama. That prospect could even contribute to Obama’s defeat in 2012 and open the door to the neocons reclaiming control of U.S. foreign policy in 2013.
If that trick can be pulled off, the neocons could keep U.S. military in the service of Israel’s Likud hardliners as they confront new dangers from their Arab neighbors and may want help attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities.
The neocons also realize that an Obama electoral loss in 2012 would protect the Pentagon’s budget which otherwise could face at least some modest trimming in a second Obama term. Republican leaders have declared that they would spare the Pentagon from budget cuts even as the GOP proposes slashing key social programs, including Medicare.
David Stockman, President Ronald Reagan’s first budget director, recently noted in a New York Times op-ed that congressional Republicans and their supposedly deficit-hawk budget chairman, Rep. Paul Ryan, backed away from challenging the neocons on military spending.
“Ingratiating himself with the neo-cons, Mr. Ryan has put the $700 billion defense and security budget off limits,” Stockman wrote.
In other words, a Republican victory in 2012, which has grown in likelihood given the stalling of the U.S. economic recovery, could well mean the neocons’ ambitious military agenda of forcing “regime change” in countries on Israel’s enemies list will be back in play.
Thus, the upcoming events in Iraq and Afghanistan and how they’re perceived could have powerful consequences for the direction of U.S. foreign and domestic policies.
The neocons, who remain extremely influential in Official Washington’s opinion-making circles, will try to spin the failures as examples of a timid President Obama snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. The neocons will do all they can to separate themselves from the disasters that they helped launch.
Specter of Defeat
But it is clear that the specter of defeat is now swirling up from the desert sands of Iraq and the dusty mountains of Afghanistan.
The U.S. military is even contemplating the prospect of American troops making their final retreat from Iraq in December under fire from Iraqi insurgents. The New York Times reported on Tuesday that inside Iraq, U.S. “commanders are bracing for what they fear could be the most dangerous remaining mission: getting the last troops out safely.”
To protect the exit, the U.S. military has resorted to essentially bribing Iraqi tribal leaders in the form of road maintenance contracts, the Times wrote.
If the bribes don’t work, the last of the 46,000 U.S. troops may have to run a gauntlet of ambushes and IEDs in a race through southern Iraq to the Kuwaiti border. Some resentful Iraqis might find the scene of a frenzied U.S. retreat fitting, given the suffering that they have endured since the U.S. invasion in 2003.
Already, as the numbers of U.S. troops dwindle, there are signs that the smaller force has become an inviting target for revenge-minded Iraqis. Times correspondent Michael S. Schmidt reported:
“In recent weeks, insurgent fighters have stepped up their efforts to kill American forces in what appears to be a strategy to press the United States to withdraw on schedule, undercut any resolve to leave troops in Iraq, and win a public relations victory at home by claiming credit for the American withdrawal.”
Meanwhile, new disclosures from al-Qaeda leaders buttress earlier evidence that President George W. Bush and the neocons fell into an al-Qaeda trap after 9/11.
Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, a new book by the recently slain Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad, quotes al-Qaeda leaders explaining how the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington were designed to provoke U.S. government “cowboys” into an over-reaction that would outrage the Muslim world and undermine pro-U.S. governments in the region.
The biggest gift to al-Qaeda was Bush’s unprovoked U.S. invasion of Iraq, Shahzad noted. Not only did the war lead to the deaths of more than 4,400 U.S. soldiers and cost Washington nearly $1 trillion and counting, but the massive loss of civilian life in Iraq generated intense anti-Americanism.
Over the years, U.S. intelligence came to recognize that al-Qaeda, Bush and the neocons enjoyed what amounted to a symbiotic relationship in that they all favored an open-ended U.S. military occupation of Iraq.
For instance, an intercepted message in 2006 revealed that a senior al-Qaeda leader in Pakistan, known as Atiyah, was telling al-Qaeda leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, that “prolonging the war is in our interest.”
But Bush and the neocons were so locked in on the political need to delay the U.S. public’s recognition of their failure in Iraq that they pressed ahead with the war and even escalated it with the “surge” in 2007. Nearly a thousand more U.S. soldiers died during the “surge” along with countless Iraqis but the “surge” served an important political purpose.
When the intensity of violence in Iraq declined somewhat in 2008, Bush and the neocons claimed that the “surge” did it although other non-surge factors, such as bribing Sunni tribal leaders not to shoot Americans and the de facto ethnic cleansing of Baghdad and other cities, were surely bigger factors.
In Official Washington, however, the neocons were hailed for their courageous support for the “successful surge,” rehabilitating their tattered image as inept warmongers. By February 2010, Newsweek crowned the neocons’ comeback with a cover story declaring “victory at last.”
The avoidance of accountability for the neocons also meant that they were still in key spots to press President Obama to apply a similar “surge” strategy to Afghanistan, which he did at the urging of Bush holdovers, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Gen. David Petraeus, two of the Iraq “surge” supporters.
Yet, even as the Iraq War staggers toward a final U.S. retreat that could remind the world of the humiliating Soviet departure from Afghanistan in 1989, the 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan may soon be facing a similar end game.
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is among those who have now reached the glum conclusion that the Afghan War amounts to a lost cause. Referencing similar bloody frustrations in the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Iraq War, Kissinger wrote in Wednesday’s Washington Post:
“The American role in Afghanistan is drawing to a close in a manner paralleling the pattern of three other inconclusive wars since the Allied victory in World War II: a wide consensus in entering them, and growing disillusionment as the war drags on, shading into an intense national search for an exit strategy with the emphasis on exit rather than strategy.”
Kissinger, known as a geopolitical “realist” sometimes at odds with the neoncons, concluded that the fallout from the Afghan and Iraq adventures, combined with other dramatic changes in the Middle East, presented the United States with the need to pursue negotiations. He wrote:
“After America’s withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan and the constraint to our strategic reach produced by the revolution in Egypt, a new definition of American leadership and America’s national interest is inescapable. A sustainable regional settlement in Afghanistan would be a worthy start.”
However, the neocons have never abandoned their grandiose plan of using U.S. military force to remake the Middle East in a way to minimize threats to Israel.
In the neocon dreams of a decade ago, the invasion of Iraq was supposed to transform it into an ally of Israel and a base to pressure other hard-line Muslim states for “regime change,” especially Syria and Iran.
Then, once “regime change” came to Syria and Iran, the neocons hoped support would dry up for Hezbollah in Lebanon and for Hamas in the Palestinian territories, freeing Israel to dictate terms to its Arab neighbors and thus bring a form of enforced peace to the region.
The early outlines of this aggressive concept for remaking the Middle East predated the 9/11 attacks by half a decade, when a group of American neocons, including Richard Perle and Douglas Feith, went to work for Israeli Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu during his 1996 campaign for prime minister.
The neocon strategy paper, called “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” advanced the idea that only regime change in hostile Muslim countries could achieve the necessary “clean break” from the diplomatic standoffs that had followed inconclusive Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
Under the “clean break,” Israel would no longer seek peace through mutual understanding and compromise, but rather through confrontation, including the violent removal of leaders such as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.
The plan called Hussein’s ouster “an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right,” but also one that would destabilize the Assad dynasty in Syria and thus topple the power dominoes into Lebanon, where Hezbollah might soon find itself without its key Syrian ally. Iran also could find itself in the cross-hairs of “regime change.”
But what the “clean break” needed was the military might of the United States, since some of the targets like Iraq were too far away and too powerful to be defeated even by Israel’s highly efficient military. The cost in Israeli lives and to Israel’s economy from such overreach would have been staggering.
In 1998, the U.S. neocon brain trust pushed the “clean break” plan another step forward with the creation of the Project for the New American Century, which urged President Bill Clinton to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
However, Clinton would only go so far, maintaining a harsh embargo on Iraq and enforcing a “no-fly zone” which involved U.S. aircraft conducting periodic bombing raids. Still, with Clinton or his heir apparent, Al Gore, in the White House, a full-scale invasion of Iraq appeared out of the question.
The first key political obstacle was removed when the neocons helped engineer George W. Bush’s ascension to the presidency in Election 2000. However, the path was not fully cleared until al-Qaeda terrorists attacked New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, leaving behind a political climate across America for war and revenge.
The unprovoked U.S. attack on Iraq in March 2003 had other motives besides Israeli security from Bush’s personal animus toward Saddam Hussein to controlling Iraq’s oil resources but a principal goal of the neocons was the projection of American power deep into the Muslim world, to strike at enemy states beyond Israel’s limited military reach.
Of course, these geopolitical motives were rarely mentioned publicly. Instead, the American people were fed falsehoods about Iraq’s WMDs and Hussein’s ties to al-Qaeda.
The neocon plan might have worked, except that the violent resistance in Iraq to the U.S. occupation soon made it clear that the neocons’ grander plan of extending “regime change” to Syria and Iran had to be put on hold.
Still, before leaving office, Bush hoped to negotiate a status-of-forces-agreement (or SOFA) that would permit an open-ended American military presence in Iraq, thus locking his presidential successor into an indefinite continuation of the war. But Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued a series of escalating demands regarding setting a timetable for a full U.S. withdrawal.
Given broad Iraqi opposition to the U.S. occupation, Iraqi political factions decided to position themselves as defenders of the nation’s sovereignty, not as American puppets. To get any SOFA at all for allowing American troops to remain legally after the end of 2008, Bush was forced to accept a deadline for the U.S. pullout, something that he had long resisted.
Key elements in Maliki’s governing coalition, especially the faction loyal to Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, continue to resist any concessions on the U.S. withdrawal date. Thus, the likely outcome in Iraq now appears to be the departure of U.S. forces in December with Washington left with little to show for its eight-year investment.
As for Iraq, it seems doomed to continue as a country plagued by sectarian divisions. The Shiite majority can be expected to firm up ties with neighboring Shiite-ruled Iran; the Sunnis will remain resentful over their reduced status; and the Kurds will insist on their autonomous region in the north.
Whether any form of democracy can survive long amid these tensions and after years of horrific violence is doubtful. More likely might be a Balkanization of the country into sectarian enclaves or the emergence of another strongman in the mold of Saddam Hussein.
But the American neocons will never admit to failure. From their influential perches on op-ed pages and inside think tanks, these war hawks have reacted to Obama’s presidency as a time for delay, preventing any dramatic shift in American policy while consolidating the conventional wisdom about their “victory at last” in Iraq.
The Afghan Debacle
The neocons also are fighting a rearguard action against anti-war Democrats and a few Republicans who favor a substantial drawdown of the 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The neocons insist on a longer counterinsurgency mission in Afghanistan.
However, even if Obama accedes to the slow withdrawal favored by neocon favorites Gates and Petraeus and even if the President agrees to a renegotiation of the final U.S. departure date from Iraq the longer troop commitments appear likely to only delay the day of reckoning.
Despite the massive commitment of blood and treasure, the United States will almost surely emerge from the two wars as the perceived loser. Still, any delay could be valuable for the neocons because the postponements will give them more time to shift blame to Obama.
The longer the wars can be stretched out the easier it will be to count on the famous historical amnesia of the American voters and fault Obama for the eventual defeats. It will be Obama who “lost Iraq” and “lost Afghanistan.”
That will play into the core Republican theme about Obama’s feckless leadership, failing to straighten out the economy and ready to accept U.S. decline around the world. Any suggestion that Bush deserves the blame will be met with the talking point, “there you go again, blaming Bush. When will Obama take responsibility for his own failures?”
The stage will be set for another Republican presidential victory in November 2012 and a return by the neocons to the war rooms of the White House and the Pentagon.
[For more on these topics, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, now available in a two-book set for the discount price of only $19. For details, click here.]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.