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Subject:        My simplistic take on Iraq
Date:   Sun, 8 Apr 2007 21:03:04 -0400
From:   Carl Coon
To:     Robert Keeley 
John Whitbeck

Gentlemen, you have been bombarding me with scores of erudite and
superbly well informed analyses of our manifold problems in the Middle
East. My cup started running over some time ago.

I gave a talk yesterday to a local humanist group on Iraq that reflected
some of this input. I offer it here as a small gesture of, I don't know,
gratitude? retaliation?


My Talk to WASH, 4/7/07

Ladies and gentlemen, thanks for the invitation, it’s a pleasure to be
here discussing a topical issue with an informed and sympathetic audience.

Our misadventure in Iraq has been a disaster in so many ways…for us, for
our standing and interests in the region and the world, for the region
itself, and, first of all, for Iraq and its people.

I’ll start with why our invasion of Iraq failed. It wasn’t for lack of
information or understanding, it was because the people in charge
wilfully ignored that information and understanding. Then I’ll take a
look at who did it, who the people and groups were who managed to launch
us on this crazy adventure. And finally, where do we go from here?

*We should have known better:*

Early in the 20th century, mapmakers in  Europe described boundaries in
the region and decreed that, hey presto, let there be nation states! All
that did was cover up existing divisions with a thin veneer of paint
that differentiated between Syrians and Saudis, Iraqis and Lebanese, and
so forth. Underneath that veneer  people continued to identify
themselves not as Iraqis or Lebanese but as Christians or Muslims, Shi’a
or Sunni, Orthodox or Maronite, and so forth. This meant among other
things that when you achieved a position of influence in a national
government your first loyalty was not to the state but to your extended
family and then to your local community, defined usually mainly by
religion but also by dialect and ethnicity. There was nothing inherently
defective about this form of social organization, it was just old-fashioned.

Here’s a personal recollection that drove this home for me. [/Husseini
in Damascus in 1952]./

All right, understanding that these ancient divisions still exist and
are still important is the beginning of wisdom about the Middle East,
but it isn’t the whole story. Over the last hundred years, Arab
societies have been changing, fairly rapidly in some cases. Nationalism
has been taking hold. Intersect marriages, rare at first, have been
growing in number. Millions of Arab emigres have resettled in the
Americas and adapted to Western ways. Millions more have been exposed to
western technology and ideas through colleges and universities like the
American University of Beirut. Arabs were beginning to shed old
attitudes and values and becoming part of the emerging global society.
Iraq was in the middle of this procession, less advanced than Lebanon
but well ahead of the peninsular Arab states.

Meanwhile the modernization process was increasing internal tensions.
Getting past this transitional stage, releasing those tensions in a
constructive manner, this was the main challenge for Iraq and all its
neighbors. Sure, get rid of the dictator and you release the tensions,
but this could be like getting rid of a hornet’s nest by bashing it with
a baseball bat, or getting rid of a land mine by jumping up and down on
it.  The name of the game had to be evolution, not revolution. Patience
and subtlety, not  a hammer.

We all understood this, all of us who had any experience with the Arab
states of the Middle East. My colleagues in the State Department knew it
well, as did our businessmen who worked in the region, journalists who
had covered the area, and millions of American citizens who had family
ties there.

During the first part of the runup before the invasion, after 9/11,
those of us who knew the region were disturbed by the some of the
postures our government was striking but we simply could not believe
that it was actually contemplating a military invasion. The rationales
were unconvincing even then, and we assumed Bush and company were just
playing hardball, running some kind of bluff. I remember at one point
Ray Close, a retired senior CIA official, sent me an email saying that
he was being forced to the conclusion the administration was committed
to a military track and, as he put it, “It blew my mind.”

When we actually invaded Iraq, it blew away far more than the minds of a
few of us retired geezers. Within Iraq, the war has blown away hope for
the millions of ordinary citizens who are dead or crippled or displaced.
It blew the lid off and allowed the cauldron of pent-up sectarian
hatreds to bubble up and create the mayhem that continues today. Equally
serious in terms of Iraq’s future, the war has blown away upwards of two
million Iraqis who have gotten out of the country. Many will never
return. None of them will as long as present chaos continues.

And who are these Iraqis who have left? They are the doctors and
engineers and scientists, the people who have married between sects, the
agents of change, the ones with some vision of a future Iraq that exists
as a prosperous nation within a peaceful community of nations. That
group may even have included a few humanists, it wouldn’t surprise
me…anyway, it was the group that held the key to the nation’s future. I
find it ironic that the sanctimonious demagogues in Washington who mouth
platitudes about right to life in individual abortion cases have gone
and aborted Iraq’s right to a life as a modern state-- at least for the
present generation, probably more!

Here’s a current quote from John Waterbury, a respected scholar and
author who is just leaving the American University of Beirut after
serving for ten years as its President:

 "We have taken moderate, middle-class professional people, who

looked to the United States --not to come in and provide solutions,

but to help them carve out some political space in their own

countries-- and they now have given up hope and turned away from us.

That's bad in itself. But why I think it could get worse is those are

the very people who have the means to leave. They have connections

abroad. My fear is that they are going to start bailing out and

reestablish in Los Angeles, or Hamburg, or Paris, or Australia. So as

a political force in the region for moderation and a reasonable

dialogue with the West, they may begin to disappear. It happened in

Iran after the 1979 revolution. It is happening en masse in Iraq. If

there is reconciliation, I don't know who is left to reconcile. What

you leave behind are going to be very difficult and ornery actors let

alone elements that could sustain some kind of democratic system in


So much for our interest in spreading democracy in the Arab World. Let’s
try to figure out who got us into this mess.

* *


First let’s talk about the neoconservatives, the so-called neocons.
Their roots are in the Trotskyite movement in the 1930’s. The spiritual
grandparents of the present neocons were passionately anti-Soviet back
then, and their parents remained so throughout the cold war. The Trotsky
influence was masked by their early embrace of libertarian Republican
principles, which mutated into a strident defence of unbridled
capitalism. This was reinforced by their pronounced distaste for the
hippie counterculture in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s. All these rather disparate
influences blended to produce a relatively new kind of conservatism,
more militant and doctrinaire than anything the Republican Party used to
stand for. All along, the neocons were as passionate in their support of
Israel as they were in their opposition to the Soviet Union and communism.

If this hasn’t confused you enough, or if you don’t believe me, you can
check out an article in the March 1996 issue of Commentary magazine by
Norman Podhoretz, called “Neoconservatism: A Eulogy”. It has the whole

The neocons started out as intellectuals, lacking much practical
experience in either foreign affairs or domestic governance. They had a
small role in the Reagan administration, but until the 2000 election
their influence remained limited largely to a few universities and think
tanks, plus a couple of journals. But when Dubya won they moved into the
new administration like a swarm of locusts, taking over key positions at
levels just below cabinet officers. Paul Wolfowitz was the most
prominent newcomer, but several others moved into key subcabinet
positions, especially in the Defense department. There a special unit
was set up, the Office of Special Plans, under neocon Douglas Feith,
which cherrypicked information that could be construed as building a
case for war with Iraq. This infamous unit’s activities have been
exposed and debated at length and there’s no need for me to go into the
details. It is enough to point out that that is the office where the
case aganst Saddam Hussein was hand crafted through deliberate
assemblage of lies, false intelligance, and data picked out of context,
to provide some appearance of substance to Dubya’s claims about WMD in
Iraq (which didn’t exist) and Saddam’s alleged ties with Al Qaeda (which
also didn’t exist).

Feith is known to have been a partisan and supporter of the Israeli
right wing nationalists, as were several other prominent neocons.
Naturally people have wondered about these ties, and whether neocons
directing us toward war with Iraq were responding mainly to our
interests or those of Israel. Were the neocons coopted by the Likudniks
in Israel? Were they all part of the same movement? Conspiracy theorists
have had a field day here, and while I agree it’s an interesting
question, it’s also a very sensitive one, especially for the millions of
American Jews who did not support these shenanigans at all.

The best thing I’ve seen on this subject is an article in the Winter
2007 issue of the Middle East Journal by Ilag Peleg and Paul Scham,
“Israeli Neo-Revisionism and American Neoconservatism: The Unexplored
Parallels.” The authors examine the roots of both groups and conclude
that they originated independently. But an examination of the essential
elements of the world view of each reveals striking parallels:
        --Assertive nationalism (the “my way or the highway” approach)
        --Radical conservatism (conservative but with revolutionary
        --Militarism (contempt for diplomacy and preference for
military solutions)
        --Exceptionalism (we are a special people with a special mission)
        --Unilateralism (we like to go it alone; distaste for the UN)

There is also a major difference: Israeli Neo-Revisionism is narrowly
nationalistic and even xenophobic while the neocon philosophy has a
universalist, somewhat utopian aspect, presumably dating back to its
Trotskyist roots, that has led recently to this somewhat naïve notion
that democracy can be spread by fiat and thereby usher in a new and
better world.

I conclude that these two movements, ours and the parallel one in
Israel,  are not blood kin but are good friends, with strong ties based
on similar interests. They are like two drunks in a bar, egging each
other on to “have one more for the road” when wiser counsel would be to
go home and sleep it off. Our neocons, who happen to be close friends of
Israel, get the US into an unnecessary war against Iraq, while the
neo-revisionists in Israel stand on the sidelines and cheer silently.
Then the neorevisionists in Israel get into an equally pointless fight
with Hezbollah and start beating up on Lebanon, while our neocons cheer
and egg them on. Now both of these drunk-with-power pals are urging each
other to have “just one more” and take a crack at Iran.

Let’s move on, and take a look at our other main suspect, Christian
Zionism. This is the approved term for that major portion of the whole
Christian fundamentalist movement that believes it is doing God’s work
by pushing the USA into creating as much death and terror as possible in
the Middle East. All the fundamentalists draw strength from their
positions on domestic issues like abortion and gay rights, but the
Zionist freaks also advocate militant policies in the Middle East, for
absurd reasons that involve end-of-the-world fantasies. Frankly, I find
it incredible that scores of millions of American voters are so
dimwitted that they let themselves be led around by snake oil merchants
like Jerry Falwell and John Hagee, but the evidence is right there in
plain sight. Just check out the “Left Behind” series of novels, that
have been runaway best sellers. Evidently if you are brainwashed to the
point you believe the Bible is the literal truth, you can believe anything.

Incidentally, some of the Christian revisionists are now quoting the
Book of Esther  to proclaim that the USA must now attack Iran. I kid you
not. Talk about breaking down the wall separating church and state!

The Christian Zionists are not the brainchild of some Israeli
neorevisionist or of some neocon, but started on their own and evolved
independently. Probably the first neocon who ran into them had to hold
his nose during the meeting. But opportunism and cynicism and lust for
power prevailed, as it so often does in our fair capital, and here they
are, in an unholy coalition of forces that has succeeded in hijacking
our government.

If there is a God up there, it must have a weird sense of humor to have
caused this coalition to happen in the first place, and it must be
having a monster cackle right now, at the sight of neocon chicken hawks
in Washington and neorevisionist toughs in Israel bellying up to the bar
and boozing it up with these pious holier-than-thou Christians from the
Bible Belt.

But since I cannot honestly attribute this ungodly coalition to divine
intervention, I have to fall back on the next best explanation, namely
Karl Rove. (And here, I admit, I have to speculate a bit. The opinions
I’ve already expressed I can back up with fairly well substantiated
documentation, but nobody has explained what has been in Karl Rove’s
mind, at least so far, at least as far as I know).

Karl Rove is a man with imagination, plus an uncanny ability to count
votes. Let’s speculate a bit: as 2001 begins, he is given the task of
ensuring the reelection of a man who is rapidly demonstrating that he
lacks the capacity to serve as town dogcatcher, let alone chief of
state. What to do? Rove can muster substantial political support from
the religious right by having Bush push hot button issues like abortion
and gay marriage, but there are limits. Then along comes 9/11, and Rove
sees his chance. Bush can become a great leader by scaring the bejesus
out of the great American public. All of a sudden, therefore, we find
ourselves in a war on terror, though it isn’t really a war as there is
no state that is our enemy, only an international gang of malcontents,
and terror is a technique not a definable enemy. Never mind, if there is
no real war we can make one, and if there is no real state to fight we
can fix that too. Who is to manage this transformation? The neocons are
right there, ready and waiting to impose a world view and a strategy to
justify the new war on terror, and the Israeli connection will help as
far as keeping Congress in line. But where will the votes come from?
Enter the Christian Zionists with their Bible-thumping, millenial views,
and millions of brainwashed voters. They are easy to coopt since Bush is
broadly sympathetic to their religious views.

The rest, as they say, is history. The neocons, running true to their
ideology, forced a stance down the reluctant throat of the State
department that stiff-armed our allies, while scorning the UN and other
international agencies. Then they leaned on the CIA and other
intelligence agencies and cooked the evidence to justify an attack on Iraq.

Why was Iraq selected for the dubious honor of being our number one
target in the war on terror? Well, it happened to be ruled by an odious
dictator. But it hadn’t actually done anything important to get in our
way recently. Its role as a major oil producer certainly played a part,
as did Israeli concerns over Iraq as a long-term threat. The WMD issue
and the question of ties with Al Qaeda were fabricated in the DOD and
the neocon high command must have known this at the time (since they
were doing the fabrication). We may never know the exact mix of motives,
but presumably, as far as both Rove and the neocons were concerned, the
overriding issue was that there had to be some target, we had declared
war and we had the biggest army and we had to do something somewhere.

So we invaded Iraq. The purely military part was easy. The military ran
the show and it was a cakewalk. But then the sticky part came, and the
neocons stepped in and demonstrated that ideology is no substitute for
experience when you mess around in the Middle East. We put all the wrong
people in charge during the occupation’s early stages. Jerry Bremer was
one. Perhaps I’m being a little unfair, for it was indeed a tough job he
faced. But when we served together in the State Department he was known
as an opportunist and a quick study--of what his superiors wanted. A
“radfahrer” as one of my colleagues observed, or bicycle rider, whose
head is always bowed to that which is above while his feet keep pressing
down on that which is below. His disastrous decisions to dismantle
existing Iraqi military and security forces were, I strongly suspect,
based more on the expectations of uninformed superiors back in the White
House than on the expert views that must have been available at the time.

There was a critical period before, during, and just after Jerry’s
tenure when we could have mitigated the bad fallout from our bad
decision to invade Iraq in the first place. But that was the period when
ideology ruled, and experience took a back seat. More recently cooler
heads are at work, but it’s really too late.

*Where do we go from here?*

That brings us to the critical juncture we find ourselves at now. We
have reached the point where have to choose whether to keep up the
occupation until Iraq can stand on its own feet, or whether to withdraw
our troops soon, on some sort of timetable.

The President insists that we ought to “stay the course” and keep our
forces in Iraq until order is restored and democracy puts down roots. He
says we are making progress and in some respects we are. However, as
long as the killing continues and even gets worse, it seems to me we
have to consider alternatives. But this the President refuses to do.
With him it is all or nothing, my way or the highway. I fear this is
partly a stubborn resistance on his part to admit he was wrong in
ordering the invasion in the first place. And it may reflect Rove’s
sense that if we can drag the occupation out until 2009, then the onus
for admitting defeat will fall on a Democratic successor. Neither of
these arguments carry weight. What does carry weight with most Americans
is the sense of “if you broke it, you own it”. We made a mess and it’s
up to us to fix it. This is an honorable concern but I think it is

What we broke in Iraq was the infrastructure of a modern state, not only
the physical plant, but the technicians and the middle class
entrpreneurs and other educated elites that made a modern state
possible. We are trying to help restore the physical plant, though
present turmoil makes that difficult, and anyway it is not a job for the
military. The people are more of a problem. As I noted earlier, many of
those people have gone. Some are dead, and many have fled. There are not
enough of them left to take power back from the traditional power
elites, the religious and tribal leaders. This was not the case when we
occupied Germany and Japan after World War II. The locals were all
modern, not traditional, and modern institutions of governance quickly
replaced our forces as they left. So the notion that we can “fix” Iraq
if we keep our soldiers there long enough just doesn’t match up with the
circumstances. Iraq will be “fixed” eventually, but by a long
evolutionary process.

Meanwhile the presence of our troops is an enormous liability both
internationally and domestically. The amount of prestige and influence
we have lost with almost every country in the world is incalculably
large. Of course this loss is particularly marked in the Middle East but
it is everywhere.  And domestically, the loss in terms of political
disunity is if anything even more important than the enormous financial
drain and the pain and loss of individual Americans who have died or
been crippled in this misplaced campaign.

I try to see our continued military presence in Iraq through Iraqi eyes,
and through the eyes of other Arabs. What I see is a kind of big
splinter embedded in the body of the Arab World, an alien intrusion that
will go on causing pain and infection until it is removed. As long as we
have uniformed soldiers in Iraq this situation will continue. I believe,
therefore, that we should end our military involvement as soon as we
can. Our only concern as to timing should be managing the evacuation in
ways that ensure the safety of our forces. Our motto should be, support
our troops, bring them home!

Then the healing process can begin, in Iraq, and here at home. If we
revert to projecting America in the Middle East by sending out our
educators and welcoming their students to our shores, we shall gradually
recover the kind of prestige and access we should have had all along, if
we had not lost our way.

There’s another reason for insisting on ending our occupation as soon as
possible. A decision to this effect will mark a decisive turning point
away from the disastrous policies, and the failed leadership that got us
into the Iraq mess. It is urgent that we decide as a nation that neither
the neocons nor the Christian Zionists are qualified to participate in
national decision making. They must be rejected, and soon. Their poison
still infects the upper reaches of our government, to the point that a
military adventure in Iran is still a real possibility. That would be an
even worse calamity than the Iraq misadventure.

But I am running out of time. Let’s move on to a discussion.

Carl Coon 5/7/07