Exclusive: The Sunni extremist offensive into central Iraq appears to have stalled, but the political battle rages in Washington where neocons see an opening to pressure President Obama into recommitting the U.S. military in support of neocon goals in the Middle East, writes Robert Parry.
By Robert Parry
As President Barack Obama ponders whether the United States should respond militarily to advances into Iraq by Sunni extremists, the more pertinent question may be why does the mainstream U.S. news media give so much attention and credence to the neocons who laid the foundations for this disaster a decade ago.
It seems that the go-to guys for commentary continue to be the likes of Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, two of the horsemen of this apocalypse, while many of the same editorial writers at the Washington Post and elsewhere who paved the way to this Iraqi hell still chastise Obama for pulling out the U.S. troops in 2011 and demand that he reinsert the U.S. military now.
Overall, Official Washington’s commentary on the advance by several thousand fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has bordered on the hysterical, with the panic being used to push Obama to commit U.S. air assets to Iraq and to expand U.S. intervention into Syria.
That’s the case although the ISIS offensive could be explained as more the result of the group facing pressure inside Syria from President Bashar al-Assad’s rejuvenated military and from al-Qaeda-backed militants of the rival Nusra Front than some “breakout” of the ISIS goal of carving a fundamentalist caliphate out of Syria and Iraq.
ISIS may simply have concluded that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s poorly led army was an easier target. Still, ISIS appears to have been surprised by how quickly several divisions of the Iraqi army fled the northern city of Mosul and other positions on the road to Baghdad.
Nevertheless, the result is that we are back to the neocon agenda of “regime change” across the Middle East, ousting governments that Israel finds objectionable, a strategy that evolved in the 1990s and led to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. If the Iraq War had not gone so badly, it was expected to set the stage for additional interventions in Syria and Iran.
To burnish their tarnished reputations, the neocons now promote a narrative that treats the Iraq invasion as a stunning success though they acknowledge that the ensuing occupation was poorly managed. But this narrative insists that those mistakes were rectified by President George W. Bush heeding neocon advice to “surge” U.S. troops in 2007, achieving “victory at last” by 2008.
According to the neocons, President Obama then squandered this “victory” by not extending the U.S. military occupation of Iraq indefinitely – and they assert that he also failed by not intervening more directly in Syria to overthrow President Assad.
A common refrain – even among liberal war hawks, like the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – is that Obama should have done much more to arm and train “moderate” rebels in Syria, although it’s never entirely clear who these “moderates” are and whether they have any significant base of support inside Syria.
But the useful myth is that somehow these muscled-up Syrian “moderates” would have prevailed in a two-front war against Assad’s army and the Islamic militants who have been strongly supported by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Sunni oil sheikdoms.
The more likely outcome would have been that the “moderate” fighters would have only contributed to the violent chaos that has engulfed Syria and thus made an outright victory by the Sunni extremists more likely, not less.
A Sunni extremist victory in Syria also could have been aided by the U.S. hawks’ desire last summer to have Obama launch a massive bombing campaign against Assad’s forces after a disputed Sarin gas attack outside Damascus on Aug. 21, 2013.
Though pro-war advocates, including Secretary of State John Kerry, rushed to pin the blame on Assad – despite his denials and indications that the rebels may have released the Sarin as a “false-flag” provocation – Obama veered away from the Syrian bombing at the last minute. Then, with help from Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad was convinced to surrender all his chemical weapons.
But that deal only fed the neocon narrative that Obama was weak and indecisive, while the liberal hawks kept embracing the dreamy alternative of the “moderate” rebels somehow winning their two-front war. Having never been fully tested and thus never fully disproved, this hypothetical outcome has remained an easy way to bash Obama.
Extrapolating from the “moderate rebel” myth, the U.S. hardliners argue that Obama is now responsible for the recent successes of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in its drive into central Iraq because – if it weren’t for Obama’s unwillingness to plunge into the Syrian civil war – Syria would not have become a staging base for ISIS, the argument goes.
The ISIS Offensive
But there is another way to view the ISIS offensive into Iraq – that it is more a sign of weakness in Syria than strength in Iraq. Inside Syria, these and other rebels have been on the defensive against the Syrian army. ISIS also appears to have lost some financial support from Saudi Arabia as the monarchy has retrenched from its regional proxy wars against Shiite-ruled Iran and Iranian allies, such as Assad.
It appears the waning enthusiasm of the Saudi government for the Syrian adventure has left some of the Sunni militants there in disarray, although the rebels may continue to get significant support from some Saudi princes and other Persian Gulf oil sheiks.
Still, official Saudi adventurism appears to have reached its peak in 2013 under the guidance of then-intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the longtime ambassador to the United States who has been a savvy and ruthless player on the global stage.
Bandar, who worked so closely with President George W. Bush and the Bush Family that he was called “Bandar Bush,” had a geopolitical vision that was complementary to the neocon strategy in Washington. It included an odd-couple alliance between Saudi Arabia and Israel in pursuit of their common goals of undermining Shiite-ruled Iran and removing the elected Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Israeli-Saudi Alliance Slips into View.”]
However, Bandar may have overplayed his hand. In a face-to-face meeting with Russia’s Putin last July, Bandar is reported to have implied that Russia’s continued support of Assad might lead Saudi-backed extremists to target the Sochi Winter Olympics with terrorist attacks. That warning prompted a return threat from Putin to hold Saudi Arabia accountable if the Olympics were attacked. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Russian-Saudi Showdown at Sochi.”]
Then, Saudi hopes that Obama would plunge into the Syrian civil war after the Aug. 21 Sarin attack were dashed as Putin helped steer Obama away from that abyss. Putin next assisted in negotiating an interim deal with Iran for restraining its nuclear program, undermining the prospects of a U.S. attack on Iran and solidifying Putin as the new bete noire of the neocons.
With those gambits for reengaging the U.S. military in the Middle East thwarted – and the Saudi hand more exposed than the Saudi monarchy likes – Bandar was sidelined in late 2013 and formally removed from his post on April 15, 2014.
However, I’m told that Bandar’s departure does not mean Saudi money has stopped flowing to the roving bands of Sunni extremists fighting in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere; the financial burden has simply shifted from the Saudi government to individual Saudi princes who have long financed militants with the quiet blessing of the monarchy.
The erstwhile Israel-Saudi alliance also appears to have tumbled along with Bandar’s fall. The cosmopolitan Bandar with his long experience in Washington did not share the hatred of Israeli Jews that is common among the Saudi hierarchy. Thus, Bandar was able to see the value of teaming up with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in areas of mutual interest, particularly antipathy toward Iran.
Yet, while that informal Saudi-Israeli collaboration may be in eclipse, the shared interests remain, underscoring why American neocons are so eager to blame Obama for this past week’s offensive by ISIS fighters as they captured Mosul and struck southward toward Baghdad. The offensive revives hope for resuming the neocon strategy of “regime change” in Syria and Iran.
Though now stalled, the ISIS offensive has become the latest rationale for arguing that Obama must recommit the U.S. military behind the neocon agenda. But the bigger question is why any American still takes the neocons seriously.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com). For a limited time, you also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.