“America’s failure to act the part of a superpower in dealing with a minor regional theocracy, its reluctance take on its responsibilities as defined in the Carter Doctrine and the Reagan Corollary, will result in a Russia-dominated Middle East.”This is the first of a two-part discussion of a decade-long failure of American policy in the Middle East. In the first part the discussion focuses on the costs of this failure on the “world’s only superpower.” Part 2 will turn to the costs for the nations of the region.
In 1980 Jimmy Carter drew the line in the sand against a threat to America’s interests in the Middle East. "Let our position be absolutely clear,” states The Carter Doctrine: “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force." The following year his successor to the presidency recommitted to the Doctrine and added, "We cannot permit Saudi Arabia to become Iran..." This was called The Reagan Corollary.
For America’s role in the Middle East the Bush presidency was a game-changer. Whatever motive History eventually assigns to the war in Iraq, according to White House insiders this administration entered office already intent on deposing the Iraqi tyrant. The al-Quaida 9/11 outrage created the emotional conditions for revenge, and the administration provided the outlet. Embarking on the war became only a matter of timing. Sadam’s assumed complicity with al Quaeda in planning 9/11, his presumed possession of WMD (weapons of mass destruction) were all the reason necessary to sell the invasion.
It is now known that the White House was aware that Iraq had no connection to the attack, and did not possess WMD. For the architects of the war, information contradicting the attack was unwelcome and was either ignored, as in the case of Israeli and Saudi intelligence warnings that attacking Iraq would destabilize the region; or in eliminating the source, as in the forced retirement of the officer charged with planning the attack. General Shinseki insisted that a force twice the size which the administration was willing to commit would be necessary to contain the sectarian violence that would follow removing the totalitarian regime. Defense secretary Rumsfeld and the president were convinced that the Americans would be greeted as liberators.
Not that the president or his defense secretary ignored all advice. Ahmed Chalabi, an Iraqi Shiite expatriate was a valued source of information regarding the existence and placement of Iraqi WMD. Chalabi was so respected that he was the administration’s choice to head the post-invasion, Shiite-led coalition to be in place following the war. Only later, after the overthrow of Sadam, was it disclosed that Chalabi was actually an Iranian agent tasked to encourage the overthrow of Sadam, Iran’s arch enemy.
Iran had suffered more than a million casualties during its 1980’s eight year war with Iraq and had little stomach for a rematch. If Bush wanted to do the job of removing Sadam for them the ayatollahs were only to willing to encourage the Americans to do so.
But the war failed to follow administration expectations and four years into the civil war expected by General Shinseki the administration proposed a “surge” of 20,000 more troops to quell the violence. Instead the violence increased, and the numbers of American casualties increased. The impact of the 2007 “surge” would only be felt months later.
At least in the Iraqi capital, where most of the “surge” forces had been sent, fighting slowed towards the end of March, 2008. It was at this time that Iranian president Ahmadinejad encouraged Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr withdraw his Mehdi Army from the fight in Baghdad. Three months later, on June 24, 2008 a CBS headline announced, " US Mulls New Diplomatic Presence In Iran." That “presence,” a State Department interest section in Teheran, brought to a close America’s thirty year policy of non-recognition of the Islamic Republic.
On July 9, 2009, not long after President Obama took office, Kyrgyzstan, taking its cue from its Russian patron, informed the US that it would not renew the lease to the Manas Transit Center, America’s supply line to Afghanistan. The problem for Obama was that there were few alternate routes to replace Manas. To supply from the Far East meant transiting China, far longer and diplomatically difficult to arrange. Then there was the Persian Gulf, but this involved seeking an accommodation with Iran to provide tha air corridor. Since the Iranians had already provided the US emergency landing privileges for aircraft in trouble over Afghanistan, it was not unreasonable to expect their agreement. But this would have been publicly embarrassing. Still, reports circulated at the time that the administration may have been quietly discussing the possibility with the Iranians. In the end Obama was spared the embarrassment when Russia/Kyrgyzstan decided to allow the US continued access to Manas. The price, according to George Friedman of Stratfor, Russia gained America’s support for its war against Chechen rebels.
How explain the United States’ entente with Iran, our meek response to Iran’s open and increasingly brazen challenge to America’s regional standing? One central policy of the Obama presidency is nuclear proliferation; but in the case of Iran he is willing to make an exception? I will return to this in more detail in Part 2. For the moment, long before US forces arrived in Kuwait in the months leading up to the invasion Iran was busily preparing the ground in Iraq. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was organizing local Shiite communities for self-governance, was training and providing weapons to local Shiite militias; Iran had, in fact, anticipated the invasion it was promoting, and the resistance following the fall of Sadam Hussein. And the more than 150,000 troops which Bush assumed would be seen as liberators were, instead, hostages to Iranian good will.
Faced with an increasingly unpopular war at home, limiting US combat casualties by appeasing Iran might make good press, at home; on the ground in the Middle East it was seen by all as weak and irresolute. If one goal of the invasion, as suggested by George Friedman’s book, was to demonstrate US resolve to protect its interests and its allies in the region then its conduct projected an image just the opposite; of weakness, caution and a lack of understanding and commitment.
Turkey read the tea leaves and concluded that American assurances regarding safeguarding the region against a nuclear Iran are not credible. By their actions over the past several years the Turks are distancing themselves from their previous alliance with Washington and Israel. Safer, their actions say, to seek accommodation with Iran. The Egypt, the Saudis and the Gulf emirates have throughout the unfolding Iraq misadventure repeatedly expressed the same concerns; they also are drifting towards accommodation with the emerging and unchallenged nuclear hegemon, Iran.
America’s lack of focus on core national interests, the failure of its leadership to recognize its weaknesses and failures; the rigid adherence to past policy despite its obvious failure will, in the end, cost the United States far more than Iraq and Afghanistan, both wars lost before they began. America will lose as well control over the Middle East oil; it will lose control of the waterway connecting west and east, the Suez Canal; it will lose control of the strategic military ground that is the region sitting astride the land routes from east to west, north to south.
And in the end the US will discover what should have been obvious in 2003, that radical Iran, like radical Egypt in the 1950’s, is not America’s real strategic problem in the neighborhood but her Russian patron and protector. As Iran grew increasingly confident faced with American military caution and diplomatic hesitation so also has Russia grown stronger and more confident.America''s failure to act the part of a superpower in dealing with a minor regional theocracy, its reluctance to take on its responsibilities as defined in the Carter Doctrine and the Reagan Corollary, will result in a Russia-dominated Middle East and the United States returning to its 19th century posture as isolationist, living the comforting illusion of protection from the outside world by surrounding oceans.