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World

The Lost: Iraqi edition

Fifty years ago, the question on the lips in American political circles was, “Who lost China?” Is “Who lost Iraq?” going to be the next fault line for American politics? J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look at a question now coming to the fore.

During World War II, as part of the global struggle against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, the US thought it had found a real ally in Chiang Kai-Shek’s China, as part of an effort to forestall the seemingly unstoppable Japanese onslaught, in those early days after the collapse of British, French, Dutch and American power in East Asia. (Of course the Chinese had already been fighting the Japanese for years.)

In the midst of that global war, at least at the beginning, while only a relative trickle of aid could flow from the hard-pressed US to the Kuomintang government in the early 1940s, nevertheless, Chiang was elevated to the status of leader of a great power. This was despite China’s rather obvious lack of great power attributes, on the face of it.

By the time Japan was defeated in 1945, the civil war in China between the Kuomintang forces and Mao Zedong’s Communist Party army had broken out in earnest. By then, a growing flood of American military supplies was flowing to Chiang’s armies. There was another stream of special emissaries from Washington to the Chinese capital to galvanise the Chinese authorities into embracing American notions of political reform, economic stabilisation measures, and – perhaps most importantly – some forceful military action against their opponents.

But long-time US diplomatic observers of China like Owen Lattimore, John Stuart Service and John Paton Davies increasingly advised the US Government to come to terms with the idea Chiang’s forces would not prevail and that the US would need – sooner or later – to find a way to establish a relationship with a Communist Party-led China. By 1949, with the Nationalists’ defeat virtually complete, Lattimore, Service, Davies, among others, became exhibition A in increasingly histrionic charges – largely from Republicans like Senator Joseph McCarthy – that Nationalist China’s collapse was largely the fault of such presumably thoughtful men.

They, and the ideas they had promoted, had lost China. It was all – entirely – their fault. They had allowed China to slip away because of their tainted advice to senior policy makers, advice fatally infected by sympathies to America’s enemies. Never mind the larger reality that China was never really America’s to win or lose in the first place.

Regardless, there was the shock of seeing a country so many had pinned such great hopes on – a place that become virtually synonymous with the myth of a pacific, would-be-democratic China that had permeated much of the reportage during World War II, carried forward in popular fiction and movies, and from the ability of Chiang Kai Shek’s American-educated wife to woo Americans – abruptly falling into the hands of a Chinese Communist Party barely visible in the West since the mid-1930s.

The Nationalists’ collapse became a seismic shock to the American political system, helping freeze in place a reflexive, absolutist anti-communism in the national dialogue on foreign policy virtually throughout the entire Cold War. This “who lost” mind-set helped hem in most efforts to ease East-West tensions or find a modus vivendi with China, and it gave further credence to the symbolism of the grave possibilities of those falling dominos across all of Asia and Africa.

And that, of course, ultimately contributed mightily to the calamity that was Vietnam for America. But by contrast to China, perhaps, the American national distress over Vietnam eventually was so great that its national debate became one that was less over who lost Vietnam than whether the country should have entered such a conflict in the first place.

Vietnam did, of course, become the curse of the Democratic Party, as a struggle between the left and the right wings of that party convulsed it for over a decade. It became a long, drawn-out battle between those who had supported it on strategic (and largely anti-communist expansionist) grounds, in tandem with then-President Lyndon Johnson (whose administration was largely felled by that war) versus those in the party who had increasingly opposed it, largely on moral grounds.

And now there is the disaster that is Iraq. After George W Bush’s deep blunder of his invasion of Iraq a decade ago, Bush’s successor, Barack Obama’s electoral success had come about in significant part as a result of his pledge to end the American military presence in Iraq. At first, at least, there seemed to be some modest hope for that shattered nation, after the bloody sectarian warfare and chaos of the years following the end of Saddam Hussein’s regime because of the US invasion.

By the time the Obama administration began its troop withdrawals in earnest, Iraqi sectarian violence had actually decreased, the ability of the government to carry its writ nationally had become stronger, and a relatively tenuous balance between an autonomous Kurdish region in the north, a Sunni-dominated region from Baghdad to Mosul, and a predominately Shiite region to the south third of the nation apparently had been achieved. The country’s president, Nouri al-Maliki, an ethnic Shiite Moslem, had seemed, at first, to be aiming for a looser style of national administration, that is, until it became increasingly clear his loyalties were more clearly sectarian and partisan, rather than national in scope.

But as the revolt in neighbouring Syria – the final act of the so-called Arab Spring – broke out, those sectarian fissures in Iraq became more important. In a Syria consumed by violence, one of the groups fighting the Bashar al-Assad regime, a particularly bloodthirsty group, the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq – a group largely shunned by other anti-Assad groups and even, reportedly, by al-Qaeda-ist fighters – began to take control over much of the sparsely populated areas in the eastern part of Syria. As a vociferously Sunni militant group, ISIS’ ambitions were increasingly transnational, appealing in some part to the ancient ideal of a revival of the universal caliphate, and just as clearly opposed to those Moslem groups they deemed to be heretics – such as the Shiite and Alawite communities in Iraq and Syria. (The Alawites are a variant on Shiite practice and beliefs and form the largest part of Assad’s support.)

Now, most recently, in collusion with many Sunni tribal groups in northern Iraq, columns of ISIS fighters have quickly moved through much of the country and they are now reported to be forming up to within just a short distance from Baghdad. Some of their more terrible retributions on government troops disseminated via social media have apparently included the mass killings of now-unarmed Iraqi national army soldiers who had fled the battlefield, shucked off their uniforms, and abandoned their weapons.

The Kurds, meanwhile, took the opportunity to seize the northern city of Kirkuk, a primarily Kurdish town with a petroleum producing hinterland that had previously been left out of their autonomous region. In response to this growing civil conflict, the increasingly Shiite population of the capital has now been called to the colours, asked to join voluntary militia units for the defence of the capital. As a result of this rapidly exploding civil conflict, Iran, the world’s major primarily Shiite Moslem society, has now pledged military support for the now-beleaguered regime in Baghdad – and the Obama administration is caught in a whole series of nearly-impossible dilemmas.

Despite its troubled relationship with the al-Maliki regime, it is nevertheless true that regime is more an American creation than anybody else’s. To abandon it entirely to its fates would likely be to see it collapse, if ISIS’ present momentum could continue. At the same time, the Obama administration is almost certainly unable to consider the possibility of any sort of significant commitment of troops on the ground to support it. This is partly because such a decision would run diametrically counter to its policies of the past five years (and that significantly had brought it to office), and partly because the population as a whole has clearly demonstrated in poll after poll that they are now thoroughly unwilling to countenance such a commitment. Moreover, to join in some serious support for the potentially losing hand of the al-Maliki government would find the US in league with the Iranian government – when the two nations do not even have diplomatic relations with each other in the wake of the collapse of the Shah’s regime over a generation ago.

Meanwhile, to fail to intervene in some way – even if it just boils down to limited air strikes against ISIS forces, conveys and marshalling areas – means signalling it is now acceptant of a radical Sunni, transnational entity controlling a large swathe of contiguous territory with all the potentially unsavoury implications that will have for governments in the region or the possibility of even more – unpredictable – transnational conflict. That, in turn, means the entire nation state system set in motion in 1916 for the Middle East via that secret British-French agreement to dismember a tottering Ottoman Empire and carve it into respective areas of control and proto-states, could begin to unravel in earnest – producing years of possible chaos and conflict across the region.

But no matter which way Barack Obama and his advisors go on this one, they run the real risk domestically of a rebirth of the “who lost China”-style charge – something that is already being muttered about by some in the wilder provinces of the right-wing Republican echo chamber. And commentators and partisan columnists in newspapers and even some think tanks are debating the question – with varying answers – increasingly vigorously as well. In this, his opponents will certainly charge Obama and company have simply followed their defeatist pattern of drawing one of those red lines in the sand, only to be pushed into drawing yet other lines further on, as with those Syrian chemical weapons or Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.

On the other hand, if the Obama administration elects to throw significant support behind al-Maliki with air strikes and military material support, it runs the risk of further antagonising Sunni extremist groups around the world – or any other likeminded opportunistic group – to carry out retaliatory acts against American targets somewhere. Even if the Iraqi regime ultimately carries the day, that certainly does not guarantee a stable Iraq or the lack of terror attacks.

And in domestic political terms, the Obama administration would run the risk of serious opposition within his own party in response to any kind of vigorous support for the al-Maliki government in a new involvement in Iraq. There would also be, inevitably, sniping by his Republican tormenters for having caused this mess in the first place, by virtue of his decision to carry through on withdrawing all troops from Iraq, and failing to reach a status of forces agreement with that government to keep a residual force there under bilateral agreement.

No doubt about it now, the next several weeks will be a testing time for an Obama administration already under siege by its critics on a range of foreign policy and domestic policy grounds, facing a difficult mid-term election, and looking forward to a further two years of partisan warfare in political terms. And, of course, the real tragedy on the ground is being borne by the people in Iraq – and Syria and possibly beyond – as once again the nation is fought over by intractable antagonists. DM

Read more:

  • Heritage’s Ugly Benghazi Panel, a column by Dana Milbank in the Washington Post
  • Piercing Together the Shattering Middle East, a column by David Ignatius in the Washington Post
  • Iraq Military Situation Report, a report by Kenneth Pollack for the Brookings Institution
  • Who lost Iraq? The Iraqis did, with an assist from George W. Bush, a column by Fareed Zakaria in the Washington Post;
  • Who Lost Iraq? That depends on whether you ever thought it could be won, a column by David Aaron Miller in Foreign Policy.

Photo: Iraqi Shiite gunmen carry weapons during a demonstration in Baghdad’s Shuala district, Iraq, 16 June 2014. Jihadist militants fighting the Iraqi government on 16 June claimed further advances in the north of the troubled country, as neighboring Jordan doubled its forces on the border. The rapid advance of The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and other fighters from Iraq’s Sunni minority – who complain of discrimination at the hands of al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government – has caused international concern. EPA/STRINGER

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