One Year after #Iraq Day—A Conversation between Ian Masters and Robert Dreyfuss (part 1)

This is a conversation between Ian Masters on his radio program Background Briefing and Robert Dreyfuss, an investigative journalist who has written extensively on Iraq, the War on Terrorism, and national security issues, and is a senior correspondent for the American Prospect.  He is the author of “Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam”.   The subject of the conversation is Iraq one year after the anniversary of the US exit from that country.  The conversation was held on December 31st, 2012, and aired on January 2nd, 2013 on KPFK in Los Angeles, and I am splitting it up into two posts because of its length.

Ian Masters: We’re speaking on the one-year anniversary of the day when Iraqis celebrated “Iraq Day” when the US troops departed on December 31st 31st, 2011, which the Iraqis celebrated as “Iraq Day.”  One year later it looks like Iraq is coming apart at the seams.

Richard Dreyfuss: The conservative argument during the late Bush years and the early Obama year was that the United States should stay around in Iraq or else it would come apart at the seams. In fact, Iraq has been coming apart ever since we removed the cornerstone of Iraq, which was Saddam Hussein’s government, back in 2003. Ever since then it has fractured along ethnic and sectarian lines, and a lot of its neighbors have intervened. It verged on civil war for several years in 2006 and 2007. It was a mess years ago and it’s a mess now, and it doesn’t look like it’s getting any better.

Ian Masters: President Bush was not given any dissenting opinions by anybody about his decision to invade Iraq and, for reasons I’m still mystified by, his own father did not weigh in on the decision. Brent Scowcroft, who was his father’s national security advisor, understood the mistake that the Neocons and most of the Bush administration, largely led by Dick Chaney, were about to make. Bush, however, got no counsel to warn him except what Colin Powell apparently said to him using the Pottery Barn analogy, “if you break it, you own it.” So we broke Iraq but we left it in pieces. So who owns the pieces now? As far as I can tell, Iran does.

Richard Dreyfuss: The problem is we don’t own it. By the way, the Pottery Barn doesn’t actually have that rule. If you go into a Pottery Barn and break something, they’ll say, “oh, I’m sorry that this happened,” and they’ll clean it up, but you don’t have to buy it. So even Colin Powell was wrong about the so-called Pottery Barn rule. Iraq is a fractured state; we broke all the institutions of power, we shattered the economy, we destroyed the Army, we destroyed the Baath party, we shut down all the ministries, and they really didn’t get rebuilt properly. So Iraq is a catastrophe. It will take a generation to recover from the damage of the almost 10-year-long war that happened there.

What we see happening now is the consolidation of power by a pro-Iranian government under Prime Minster Maliki, who spent years living in Iran, and whose party was supported by Iran for decades before the US invasion going back to the 1970s. Maliki is doing what most leaders in a vacuum do in a former authoritarian state; he’s aggregating power to himself. He is trying to systematically knock off his rivals one by one, but really not having that much success because the Kurdish parties to the North and East of Iraq are really armed and have their own military and paramilitary forces and are not submitting to rule by Baghdad. The Sunni powers, not quite warlords, in the Western part of Iraq are growing increasingly angry about Maliki’s efforts to imprison or accuse or repress their various leaders, including the Finance Minister, the Vice President, and others who are opponents of Maliki. And now the Sunnis of Iraq are emboldened by the fact that a religiously-based insurgency is gaining momentum next door in Syria. So there is a lot of cross-pollination between the Syrian revolt and the revolt of the Sunnis in Iraq. Both of them, in turn, draw strength from folks in the Arab Gulf states, like Saudi Arabia and others, that are funneling money and support and weapons to the Sunnis in both of these countries, so it’s a very dangerous situation.

Ian Masters: Your point is well taken, that we shouldn’t tie the withdrawal of the United States to the fact is falling point. We broke it, and if anybody ended up owning it, it’s Iran. Now Iran is watching as in Syria, in what had been Iran’s major foreign policy success to date, the Assad family seems to be losing their grip. As you mentioned, this is emboldening the Sunnis in the Western Anbar province of Iraq. There have been a series of demonstrations now in Anbar province by the Sunnis because of Maliki’s order to arrest the Finance Minister. Even the Shia leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, has held a press conference yesterday criticizing Maliki’s government for not responding to the people. He even said he would go to Anbar to join in the demonstrations. He’s not a trustworthy character, but surely this indicates that this government we’ve helped put in there is completely unresponsive to the public. He’s consolidating power, and what’s happening to all that oil revenue? There’s no evidence that the condition and the lives of the average Iraqis are going in any direction but downwards.

Richard Dreyfuss: There’s a whole bunch of interrelated issues here. Maliki has certainly in the last year or two taken a number of steps indicating that he is moving closer to Iran. He has integrated some fairly radical Shiite militia groups, really terrorist groups, into his political establishment. He has released a number of people from prison, including Ali Musa Daqduq, who was an outright terrorist and supporter of Hezbollah. He has allowed Iran to transit Iraq in bringing supplies to Assad, even though the United States put a lot of pressure on Iraq not to release Daqduq and not to allow the Iranians to use overflight of Iraq to resupply Assad.

All things being equal, I think Iran would find it difficult to control Iraq as it began to develop its own oil industry and its own independence, because Iraqi nationalism would start to assert itself. But the problem is Iraq is caught between all of these conflicting crises. In order to bolster his position, Maliki, rather than trying to act as a nationalist, which he flirted with a couple of years ago, is now moving closer to Iran. I think he’ll move even closer to Iran as the crisis in Syria moves into its endgame.

Iraq has the potential to be independent because of its oil, because it can produce a vast amount of oil exports, which can allow Iraq to develop ties to countries like India, China, and even others like Japan which might want to buy Iraqi oil independently of the United States. Iraq has a lot of potential, but it is not capitalizing on that potential because it is caught in between a lot of big powers that are trying to gain hegemony in the region. The biggest conflict of all is that between Iran and the United States.

We don’t know what’s going to happen in the next year or so. I’m quite sure President Obama does not want war with Iran, and I’m sure he will work fairly hard to reach an agreement with Iran, although it may take a year or two. That is something that alarms some of the other countries in the region like Saudi Arabia, so they’re angling to increase their leverage so that the United States doesn’t make a deal with Iran that would work against their influence. Iraq is caught in the middle of all that.

The same thing is true of Turkey, which is a very powerful country both economically and militarily in the region; it’s a NATO member. It has a great deal of concern about Iraq and the problem of the Kurds because the Kurds have a huge presence inside Turkey and the southeastern part of that country.

It’s a huge regional tangle and I think it would be enormously useful if the United States and Iran could come to some sort of agreement, because that would then ease a lot of the pressure and the motives for conflict in that whole part of the world.

The rest of the conversation is in the next post.  


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