Iraq War’s ‘Trifecta of Failure’

Official Washington likes to pretend that the neocon-driven Iraq War “surge” secured a “victory,” rather than face the evidence of a multi-faceted failure. But the news of an Iraqi arms deal with Moscow underscores the scope of the U.S. policy disaster, observes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, sales of munitions were a major instrument that the Soviet Union used, most conspicuously in the Middle East, to cultivate influence and close ties with other regimes. Such sales also had obvious benefits for the Soviet arms industry.

In addition to such clients as Egypt and Syria, Iraq became a major customer after a military coup in 1958 led by General Abdel Karim Kassem ended the Iraqi monarchy. Kassem lifted a ban on the Iraqi Communist Party, severed Iraq’s security ties with the West (which had included membership in the Baghdad Pact), and turned to the USSR as his principal security patron and arms supplier.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday. (Official Iraqi government photo)

Kassem lost his power and his life when a Baathist coup overthrew him in 1963. The United States had good information about the coup plot and evidently smiled on it, out of concern over growing communist influence under Kassem.

Several years of instability and short-lived regimes in Iraq followed until the Baath Party regained control and Saddam Hussein emerged from it to establish his dictatorship. The Soviets sold plenty more arms to Iraq under the Baathists, regardless of what U.S. officials may have hoped for in 1958.

Moscow’s arms market in Iraq was disrupted when the U.S. invasion overthrew Saddam. But now the current Iraqi government of Nuri al-Maliki has concluded a contract to buy Russian arms worth more than $4.2 billion, according to a joint statement issued after negotiations between Maliki and Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev. The deal features attack helicopters and surface-to-air missile systems.

Further discussions under way between Russia and Iraq aim at additional arms sales that would include MiG-29 fighters, more helicopters and other heavy weaponry. The Russians of today, like the Soviets of yesteryear, do not seem to have any of the compunctions, which sometimes figure into American deliberations about arms exports, including to Iraq, about the recipient’s human-rights record or other political conditions in the recipient country. It is not out of the question for Russia to replace the United States in the foreseeable future as Iraq’s largest arms supplier.

We can draw several implications from this news. One is that it fills in further the picture of what legacy was left in Iraq by the U.S. war that ousted Saddam. The regime that emerged from the rubble is not only increasingly authoritarian and narrowly sectarian and not only chummy with Iran; it also is becoming a client of Moscow. A trifecta of failure.

A second lesson concerns the notion that committing military support to a new regime in the making is essential for having a good relationship with it and to be considered a friend rather than an adversary once such a regime comes to power. This idea is being heard increasingly as an argument for doing more to assist rebels in Syria.

We need to get in on the ground floor with the new bunch and accept risks and commit major resources, it is said, in order to be held in favor by whatever regime emerges from that rubble. But the United States got in on the ground floor more than once in Iraq, with the Baathists in 1958 and with the successors to Saddam after he was overthrown. In the latter case it did so with the expenditure of enormous resources. And look how much friendship and influence it bought.

Finally, the fact that Iraq’s latest turn is reminiscent of what happened in the late 1950s suggests that the arrow of time in the Middle East does not point as much in one direction as many like to think it does. The progression of events there, even with pushes or leadership by the United States, does not necessarily run in the direction of more political freedom, more free enterprise, or whatever.

Maybe in thinking about this we can get help not from the monotheistic religions of the Middle East but instead from religions of South Asia, the ones that envision a wheel of life on which we keep going round and round. Buddhists would say it is possible in a sense to get off the wheel, but only through self-enlightenment and not through a push from someone else.

This is what Thomas Friedman seems to be saying in his column on Wednesday when he writes, “the Middle East only puts a smile on your face when change starts with them [i.e., Middle Easterners], not us.”

Think about that the next time someone talks about how the Middle East would be more to our liking if the United States would only be more assertive there.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post  at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

7 comments for “Iraq War’s ‘Trifecta of Failure’

  1. Hillary
    October 13, 2012 at 10:57

    Israel neocon strategy for Iraq & Syria was laid out many years ago by the likes of Oded Yinon & the neocons .

    Promoting (via Israel’s puppet US administration) a civil war in Syria, removing Assad and turning Syria into a mess of armed militias and leaving the way clear for Israeli jets to attack Iran and anywhere else it wished.

    The largest protest in history took place on February 15, 2003 when over 15 million people marched against the war in Iraq, in over 800 cities around the world but failed to get the attention of the MSM.

    The Bankers in the City of London and the US Federal Reserve gave permission and $3- $4 Trillion US was printed up to pay for it.

  2. incontinent reader
    October 12, 2012 at 18:41

    How can we not expect Iraq to look for protection from Russia, especially if we have coerced it and its allies so many times already without legitimate reason or notice. Iraq is not irrational when it seeks to purchase military equipment from the Russians and obtain economic help from China. We initiated an unprovoked war against Iraq and created lasting devastation, we imposed a new order, we balkanized the country- and even now seek to balkanize it further, e.g., by establishing a military presence directly and through our proxy, Israel, and by giving the go-ahead to Exxon Mobil to sign oil contracts with the province of Kurdistan without central Iraqi government authorization- and we are trying to destroy Iraq’s allies, Syria and Iran, in unprovoked and undeclared wars. Nor should we forget that approximately one million Iraqi refugees from the Iraq War were taken in by Syria, and are being dislocated yet again by our efforts to create a civil war in Syria. So, now, after having forced the issue, we must face the consequences, even if our Secretary of State may profess ignorance as to why there has been blowback.

    Meanwhile, the Administration and the Romney team lack a coherent policy for the region and are generally still locked into the neocon agenda, with the exception of Obama’s hybrid agenda for Iran, which, while it contains the seeds of a solution also contains the seedlings of a major war. Too much of what the Administration is doing has been designed to deflect domestic politics, retain the image of power, and too little to meet the long term core interests of the U.S., Iraq the other countries and peoples in the region. Meanwhile, the opportunities to make peace and do business continue to be squandered.

  3. FoonTheElder
    October 12, 2012 at 16:37

    The Republicans want to send another incompetent crew to the White House to repeat the Iraq mess yet again.

    Cheney/Bush planned to invade Iraq for its oil prior to the inauguration date. They were so incompetent that not only did the US taxpayer pay for the invasion and failed occupation, but Cheney/Bush ended up giving away all of the future oil to Russian and Chinese companies. End result? Nothing for the average American but the debt on money paid to the military industrial complex.

    The Russians and Chinese should give a big thank you to the American taxpayer for providing them with their future supply of oil. We already know we can expect nothing from the big corporate militarists but perpetual wars.

  4. Aaron
    October 12, 2012 at 08:22

    Not surprising. That includes oil deals with China, Why ? Because Baghdad takes orders from Tehran and it’s the perfect way to piss off the United States all because of the Washington-London axis who bully the Iranians over their nuclear program with no proof that it’s specifically designed to build bombs.

  5. John Puma
    October 12, 2012 at 07:47

    Strings attached? US considers human rights and political conditions before arms sales? Quoting Friedman?

    My goodness, author and commenter, have you forgotten that we’ve been waging war in Iraq since 1991, with an interim, but no less deadly, “economic sanctions” of 12 years.

    I’d say 2 million dead and 5 million displaced constitutes “attached strings” but with NO arms sales. There is no possibility of human rights for those we’ve murdered and it is a miracle that Iraq is not in total political chaos after what we’ve done to it.

    As for Friedman, George Bush was an expert on terrorism – on Sept 12. Thanks for nothing, Tom, the point is that what you say is true for ALL the countries we have harassed and/or trashed and is has been painfully evident since about half-way through Viet Nam for my generation. You don’t get it, our government doesn’t get it and, therefore, the motivation for terrorism escalates.

    Mr Pillar, invoking Friedman does nothing positive for your credentials!!!

    • F. G. Sanford
      October 12, 2012 at 11:52

      I guess you never heard Bill Hicks’ stand-up comedy routine. Q: “How do we know Saddam has chemical weapons?” A: “Well, it’s right here, on the bill of sale.” Does everyone forget the press photos of Don Rumsfeld in Baghdad schmoozing with Saddam? Or Madelaine Albright’s famous comment, “Yes, it was worth it”[?] Or the fact that once upon a time, we sent “suspects” to Syria for “questioning”? I wonder if Madam Clinton still thinks Libya was “worth it”. How about George Bush looking into Putin’s eyes and proclaiming, “I saw into his soul”? Or better yet, his “Gog and Magog” rationale for war? Or Ronald Reagan’s astrologer? It isn’t just that U. S. foreign policy is plagued by incompetence or hypocrisy. That would imply a strategy, no matter how misguided. What we see is something that is about as predictable as a Ouija board, but not as sophisticated. Have you noticed that none of our foreign policy “experts” is ever a humble professor of history, philosophy or humanities? They are always people with vast sums of money and connections to oil and industry. There is nothing “merit based” about who we choose as diplomats. Consider for example that paragon of charm and human warmth John Bolton, at whose confirmation hearings former State Department intelligence chief Carl W. Ford called a “serial abuser.” Bolton has most recently championed the delisting of the MEK from the FTO. Their leader, Massoud Rajavi, has been described as the “Pol Pot” of Iran because Iranian Americans believe, “he would conduct wholesale massacres of his political opponents should the current regime implode and the MEK seize power through organized street violence. In the group’s “16 points” for a future “democratic” Iran, they promise political freedom to all – except their political enemies.” (Timmerman, Kenneth (2006-01-20) When Making a Revolution, Allies Matter, FrontPage Magazine) Our policies shift with the sands of economic opportunity, or worse yet, the whim of the moment. A simple case in point would be our friendly relations with those champions of democracy, the Bahrainis. The bottom line is, I think Professor Pillar made quite clear the hypocrisy to which you object.

  6. F. G. Sanford
    October 12, 2012 at 00:50

    GREAT article. When it comes to arms deals, it seems there are always the proverbial “strings” attached. When Salvador Allende accepted military aid from the U.S.S.R., I wonder if he realized Henry Kissinger had the other end. Looking at the picture, I can’t help but think how much al-Maliki resembles Allende. Let’s see, we had a green revolution in Iran, a blue revolution in Kuwait, I can’t remember what color that one in Venezuela was, but we’re still smarting over it. I guess we haven’t picked a color for Assad yet. Maybe we could call his the ‘rendition revolution’. Our puppet in the Philippines got a yellow one, and…didn’t they already have a purple revolution in Iraq? Maybe al-Maliki is safe for a while…the colors are running out. Are we becoming the new euphemism about [Trojans] bearing gifts? Beware of Americans selling arms? If I were al-Maliki, I wouldn’t want to follow in Saddam’s footsteps…or Allende’s. I wonder if he’ll get the “double whammy” for the triple threat?

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