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Things Fall Apart

Events in Iraq over the last week have "boulversed" the Iraqis, the U.S., the Iranians, the Turks, and the whole Middle East. Attacks by the ISIS succeeded in capturing Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, along with other smaller cities to the south. Fears that Baghdad would fall seem to have abated for the moment. In the meantime, several items of historical interest have emerged:

  • Will Sykes-Picot be overturned? The French-English 1916 agreement to draw ME boundaries created Iraq. Is it time for colonial borders to be redrawn?
  • Who was responsible for disbanding the Iraqi army and civil service in 2003? Condolezza Rice? Paul Bremer? The Neocons? G.W. Bush? And who will be held responsible? Obama?
  • Were VP Joseph Biden and Envoy Peter Galbraith correct in calling for the break-up of Iraq during the 2006 civil war?
  • Will the U.S. and Iran mend fences and go to work to stave off another Iraqi civil war?
  • Will the Neocons reemerge as America's foreign policy gurus? See this NYTimes puff piece on Robert Kagan, who comes out in favor of Hillary Clinton.
  • Will Obama keep his cool?

About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.



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Sykes-Picot has been dead for decades - this is the final nail in the coffin and, one hopes, the final end of the colonial empires secret treatiies that paved the way for this debacle.

Army and Baath Party disbandenment - Cheney, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Bremer, and company.  Historical argument about:  Coalition Provisional Authority Order Number 2: Dissolution of Entities.

Funny how this failure is now being re-fought via books, autobiographies, etc.  Bush, Powell, and even Rumsfeld now say that they did not intend this or were not part of the process that Bremer approved?  It is obvious that both the CIA and the Pentagon were involved with Bremer on this.  Facts - Cheney and Rumsfeld had invasion plans formulated long befor 9/11 which was a pretext to support their intentions.  Rumsfeld and Cheney's war aims were to overthrow Hussein and his henchmen - they thought the Iraqis would welcome US troops, and so they projected a very short term war that would cost less than $500 million.  Thus, there were no contingency plans for post invasion.

Biden was correct and now watch some variation of his original plan go into action.

Iran - there will be some political dancing but nothing of substance.  Obama can't align the US military on the side of the Shia/Maliki - the problem is bigger than that and the Sunnis have a justifiable argument to make.  Obama will also have to support the Kurds and deflect any Iranian threats there.  His goal will be to limit terrorism, trainings, and killings plus stabilize quickly to limit or stop any humanitarian crises.

Neo-cons - nope, Obama doesn't want that nor do US citizens. 

Obama's cool - there is the million dollar question.....if he bombs, what a mistake.

It is no surprise that you cannot have peace in a nation with large populations of Sunnis and Shiites. Unless they share power and work together. Not easy. The other alternative is another Sadaam. The Shiite leadership created this by ignoring the Sunnis. Now he is crying to the US. Our aid is important insofar as preventing any ethnic cleansing. Otherwise the Iraqis will have to come to the table to work it out. 

@ Bill deHaas: What makes you think Iran will attack the Iraqi Kurds? Iran supported the Iraqi Kurds' bid for independence during the Iran-Iraq war. And I can't see what interest Iran would have in attacking the Kurds now.


Of course they supported the Kurdish bid for independence during their war with Iraq - it gave Iraq another front and worry.

Kurdish national claims extend into Iran, Turkey, Armenia - didn't say they would attack but will want to lay claim and keep the Kurds bottled up in Iraq - the Iranians want influence over their own dreams of hegemony in this region.  There is also the question of oilfelds and oil revenue - that may be underneath some of this and those moves will be hidden and secret.

This analysis by Dexter Filkins in the New Yorker touches on several of the questions Margaret raises in her post.

I do wonder how the Israelis feel about the prospects of a transnational Sunni/Shiite war.

Bacevitch's critique of Kagan is persuasive.

JP - what questions did Filkins answer - he merely repeated the boilerplate that is all over the media.  In fact, his general trends may be correct but the devil is in the details and doubt he has painted a correct picture.  It is far more complex that just Sunni vs. Shia or that Iran backs Maliki. 

He appears to ignore the various tribes, sects, etc. that have a stake in this crisis.  Just a guess, but once the Shia threat is removed, doubt that most Sunni tribes or sects will long tolerate the cruel imposition of the ISIL's Islamic interpretation.  Every current nation - Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, even Saudi Arabi (or Israel/Palestinians) are a mixture of many diverse tribes often delineated by their specific religious rites/practices; with their own claims to a certain area that provides sutenance/financial income, etc. 

In fact, Filkins' article says little beyond repeating what you can hear on any good media outlet currently.

If I may Bernard -

Earlier post on dotCommonweal.  Bacevitch decontructs Kagan's tired, old, and failed approach.  So, Kagan basically repackages an *interventionist* meme (or, cynically, never met a war he didn't like).

One simple question - what has US intervention accomplished over the past 50 years:

- Vietnam  (think any objective historian or politician recognizes that the domino theory is disproved)

- Afghanistan (the same pattern we are seeing now in Iraq will play out there)

- Iraq (Kagan's use of the *surge* is a simplistic notion that hides or denies the reality that the surge actually is the foundation for what we see today - without a political solution the tribes and sects that were armed and financed and are Sunni are now exacting revenge)

- dating back a hundred years, what US intervention in Central America or the Caribbean has improved things?

- Arab Spring - the jury is still out in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon

- basically, Kagan et alii promote that the US not only intervene but then remain *forever* in order to control the region (talk about a modified form of colonialism)


It looks to me like  we deliberatly installed a Shia government knowing full well they would oppress the Sunnis.[the meme of those 9-11 hijackers were Sunnis].Once the Sunnis resist,we are quick to label them Alquada or Alquada sympathizers.Peaceful protests by Sunnis started in Fallujah a few years  ago and was met with violence by the Shia government! We were indifferent to that. Like they should be compliant and  live under government oppression.[We don't say that here about even a "stop and frisk" policy where many considred it so egrigeous the courts had to get involved to stop it.But those Iraqi Sunnis should acquiesce to being oppressed,with tactics alot worse then "stop and frisk" by their government?!] . In Syria we see the same thing;once the Sunnis rebel[peacefully at first] against the tyranical Assad regime, we, after doing nothing to assist them, declare they are too infiltrated by Alquada or Alquada sympathizers or now even worse, ISIS to do anything but hope Assad stops murdering Sunni men,women and children en masse! I recall Sarah Palin and other right wingers saying about the war in Syria; let Allah sort it out.I recall right wingers on right wing web sites saying;Muslims slaughtering Muslims;bring out the popcorn.Mc Cain and Graham ,Obama and Kerry DID want to stop the holocaust in Syria ,but the "war weary" people did not and the administration gave in to that sentiment.Now because US soldiers see the take over of cities they "liberated" and feel they fought and  were injured or died for nothing, cannot allow that to stand.Such a blatant blow to their sense of heroic  acomplishment has emboldened them to want war again.Before the propaganda line was "Saddam is coming here with wwmd's"[really though revenge for 9-11on the part of the recruits and by the government a seemingly ideal place   for a  a new military base and a new  safe supply of oil from a secular country, unlike fundamentalist  Arabia where we can't have whore houses and bars near the baes, and the regime might  not be secure with those natives called alquada getting uppity,so Iraq looked like it would serve our interests politically once we toppled that regime] . Now it's "ISIS is coming here to force us to be part of the  caliphate"and "we cannot tolerate having fought for nothing".   So now all these" war weary" right wing  Americans, too war weary to stop a holocaust by a Stalinist/ Russian ,Iranian backed mass murderer in Syria, suddenly are not so war weary but want to "get the job done right" in Iraq!;meaning what? Kill all Sunnis?!Very distrubing what is being expressed outright by the main stream media  pundits and by the politicians and by much of the public!

Having to just watch the tragedy unfolding in Iraq at this moment is the price that America must pay for not holding GWB, Cheney and the other neo-cons to account for their war crimes in Iraq.  

George W. Bush allowed Iraq to drift into and under the geopolitical sphere of Iran.  Maliki is a tool of the Iranians, and now the Sunnis are going to extract their revenge.  Of coure, it will be the Iraqi people who inherit the wind.  

Just like Dubbyah to create a catastrophy and then leave it to the rest of us, and especially the black guy, to clean-up his mess.  If the neo-cons are so desperate to rescue their "oil partners" in Iraq and "finish the job," then Cheney's daughters should enlist, and voluteer to lead the charge of a division of ground troops made up of all the children and grandchildren of the people like Bill Kristol, Donald Rumsfeld, Douglas Feith, Paul Wolfowitz- and most especially Condalezza Rice - who lied to the American people about the basis for their war, where tens of thousands of people died and were displaced, all so they could steal with impunity.  

It is not in our strategic national interests to unilaterally intervene with our military in Iraq's internecine sectarian conflicts.  The only horse we have in this race maybe - that a big maybe in my book - is when our national interests, our troops and diplomats maybe threatened - like when our embassy in Baghdad starts burning.

Why aren't the Israelis and Saudis, to whom the US have given mountains of military aid, and who have the capability to make a difference, and frankly much more skinny in this game than Americans, not rushing to in to stop the slaughter?  Because it is not in their national interests to do so.  Neither is it in ours.

The American people have written in blood the lessons we have learned from the Bush Wars so that we will never forget them:  "As you sow, so shall you reap."  

Let's just get used to it.  Let it burn!  

"...the center cannot hold," to continue the poem. That has been the case for a long time, though.

"Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world," although under a different name. The thugs are calling themselves Jihadists of the new Caliphate. It could have been the New World Order. Give it a name, and thuggery doesn't have to justify itself. The new Caliph is arming himself by robbing banks. That's how Stalin got his start. too.

.".. The best lack all conviction." That might be said about the administration. "Don't screw up" isn't a slogan to inspire enlistments, even in a nonviolent cause.

"...While the worst are fuill of passionate intensity." If we had tossed some of the worst into the slammer when the opportunity yawned before us, maybe we wouldn't have them yawping now that if they only had a few more years they could have turned Maliki into the mayor of Dubuque, his army into a crack fighting force and Iraq into a shining bulwark of free markets and free entrepreneurs. They had approximately twice as much time as MacArthur had with China. But the best, lacking all conviction, ruled the worst to have been above the law (thank you, Gen. Holder), and now we have to listen to their blather again.

Consider traditional Just War theory. One of its criteria is that there is good reason to think that going to war will be both successful and cause less harm that not doing so. Wcwn on this theory, military intervention by the U. S. is very hard to justify. Would that the USCCB would bestir itself at least to call the nation's attention to the constraints that Just War theory embodies.

MacArthur did it in Japan. Duh. Japan should have been harder than Iraq, but not to watch the Bushies trry it.

@rose-ellen caminer: I don't think America wanted Maliki to oppress the Sunnis. The Americans, while they were in Iraq, bought off or otherwise pacified a number of the Sunni tribal leaders to get them working for us. From what I read, we had hoped Maliki would try to keep those good relations we had built up. Obviously he didn't, but that is not our fault.

Also, my impression is that the hawks who want to go to war in Iraq again are mostly the same hawks who wanted to go to war in Syria.

A word for rose-ellen: paragraphs!

They not only help the reader to digest what is otherwise one great and intimidating black blob, but they also usually help the writer to organize material into rational and coherent parcels of thought and thus present a better argument. Give them a try.

People talk about culture and what you can and cannot do. But the international community has to set certain basic laws which must be followed. Like you cannot discriminate against any group (here Sunnis) nor economic status or gender. Even here obervance only comes with law. If we did not have laws it would be open season. Like the billionaire in CA. who is being told that he cannot prevent people from going to a public beach even if his property is there....

Selfishness and greed rules unless the laws are observed and people who try to bribe justice are arrested.......

Those who think that to connect Iraq's current debacles with the 2003 invasion is "bizarre" (Tony Blair( should remember what Colin Powell said:

Jumping in belatedly. Bill de Haas: Sykes-Picot dead? How so? The former territories of the Ottoman Empire were divided up by the British and French who drew those boundaries to suit their own purposes. It may be too late to remedy the damage, but the current boundaries don't seem to serve anyone's purposes, except perhaps Israel's. (Note, I say perhaps.)  It may be that the populations of these countries: Iraq, Syria, Lebannon, Jordan would have come to some of the same boundaries but as long as they didn't (and don't) every ethnic-religious-linguistic-class issue is cause for conflict.

I think VP Biden also suggested back in 2006 that the Iraqis should be allowed to settle their own civil war. Was he right?

As so many policy wonks like to say: We can't want peace more than they do!

Does Ireland offer any lessons here? Sectarian violence going back to the Battle of the Boyne hundreds of years ago. It wasn't until the English bowed out (and people got equally sick of Ian Paisley and the IRA) that the two areas were able to reach an amicable division and peace.

I have no opinions here, only questions, and I'm not hearing clear answers (because maybe there aren't any) to many of them:

Is our presence bringing peace? Or do we and other Western nations involved in the region merely act as a goad? To what extent will our alliance with any given faction(s) result in stability, peace, and justice? To what extent will those alliances give us friends in the region? To what extent do we understand Islam, its sects, and the way ethnic forces affect sectarian afiliation? What would our policy in the Middle East look like if Israel were not our Number One priority? (And why is it?) What real economic or strategic interests to do we have in the Middle East that need to be protected? 

The nap meme as foreign policy.

The countries of the Middle East, like those in Africa, are in the main artificial constructs without any real consideration of ethnic and tribal realities.  Rwanda (and Europe's own Yugoslavia) were good examples of that gone wrong.  Now Iraq.  Unless there is a strong leader in charge of many of these places, they are doomed to dissolution once the said leader goes away.

JH: Good questions!! Don't have the answers. But here's some thoughts.


"Is our presence bringing peace?" Obviously not. Would our absence bring peace? We overlook or ignore the role of Saudi money and its Islamic fundamentalism in the mix. They send their wingnuts to fight in other countries so they will be left in peace. The U.S. and Europe, or at least, Britain cooperate in this policy for the sake of oil. What would change this? Energy independence, partly. On the other hand, no one would want the jihadis to get their hands on the revenues from Saudi oil.

"To what extent do we understand Islam, its sects, and the way ethnic forces affect sectarian afiliation?" We don't. Or at least the people in charge of making policy didn't and don't.

"What would our policy in the Middle East look like if Israel were not our Number One priority? (And why is it?)" We would have more even-handed and mixed policies if Israel were, say our number two or three priority. Israel has benefited enormously from the fractious behavior of its neighbors. And then there's the Amen Corner in the U.S. Congress. Obama is pushing the envelope a bit on this. We'll see how that works. But not if Hillary Clinton is elected in 2016. (You heard it hear first!)

"Or do we and other Western nations involved in the region merely act as a goad? To what extent will our alliance with any given faction(s) result in stability, peace, and justice? To what extent will those alliances give us friends in the region?" Don't know.  

"What real economic or strategic interests to do we have in the Middle East that need to be protected?" Oil. Oil. Oil. and Oil.

Will Sykes-Picot be overturned?

The  map of current  historical reality.

PC: Maps look good; not sure about the byline, Kimberly Kagan!

Oil. Oil. Oil.

Well, maybe not. We get about a third from domestic sources, another third from Canada/Latin America. About 12 percent of our imported oil comes from the ME, 8 percent from Saudi Arabia. So the strategic interest argument strikes me as weak. Twelve percent is significant, but vital to our national interests?

Ah, yes, the Rapture Ready in Congress. There's a whole other sect that has to be figured into the mix. The fact that Pope Francis is a Jesuit has got to have their Rapture Alert at one minute to midnight as per this exegesis on Revelation. The pope even has glasses like Francis!

Saudis are very good (and reliable) at cranking up the oil during crises so that prices don't get out of control. How much that affects our relations I don't know. Probably some. But just as Obama is trying to wean us from Israeli priorities, the 12 percent figure you give suggests that perhaps we are trying to do the same vis a vis SA (it would be interesting to see what it was, say in 1980). The fungibility of Oil and Money may give the Saudis an outsize role given their reserves.

Rapture Ready! there's a metaphor.

I know this isn't all about oil, but U.S. Department of Energy has import statistics since 2008. You can make a little chart with selected countries. Sort of interesting to go over there and play around with the info:

MOS @2:24pm - So this is who she is. Didn't know.

Like a 12 year old boy, I didn't read the articles that followed the maps; too many words. 

JH: Nice chart....good thing we're on friendly terms with Canada--and they with us (check it out all:  Canada is the largest supplier of U.S. crude oil, 1993-2014).

Not nit picking: but there's oil and oil...some of it is sludge and some of it you could probably cook with. One of the reasons Libya was once so important is that it's oil was very light and very good (this year, we hardly imported any according to the chart.)

PC: We can't all read everything to the end. I was impressed with the maps though puzzled by no distinction about who had captured what. Reading down I realized that this gang has no distinctions to make... Kirkuk, which the Kurds captured, is certainly not part of the ISIS coalition, though its loss may be part of the break-up of Iraq, which the Kaganites seems to be dead set against. (All: the Kagan family: Robert, Frederick, Kimberly (and Victoria Nuland) are part of the Neocon tribal war council.)

The problem is much bigger than the pundits seem to understand. The Muslim faith is spread  all over North Africa down to mid and even southern Africa. It encompasses most of old Asia Minor, all the Arabian countries,Southern Russia, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and even northern India, and all the way through Malasia.

This could erupt into a major Sunni vs. Shiite bloodbath in every county and some we are not thinking of. Just as Catholics and Protestants battled for well over 2 centuries (and perhaps through WWII), the issues on each side do not settle easily in negotiations. Israel has to be alarmed, surrounded as it is by muslims at war. Christian remnant communities are already being fired upon and are emigrating to safe ground. Countries which have adopted a secular approach to governing remain in danger of which ever majority Sunni or Shiite population seems to prevail. Worse, they are not accustomed to settling disputes at the ballot box; they are far more likely to retrieve their military arms from under floorboards and military storehouses and begin firing away at friend and foe alike. Neutral troops will be resented and also fired upon by both sides. The President must avoid a crossfire and appearing to favor Shiites over Sunnis. Both are to be blamed along with the inflamatory oratory from their religious, military, and civil leaders.

Don't forget Andrew Bacevich's brilliant dissection of Robert Kagan's version of events since 1945. Right here at Commonweal.

Ms. Steinfels - here you reference to the end of Sykes-Picot has more to do with Iraq and Syria -

A question on this centennial anniversary of the start of World War I is how long will US and its allies be condemned to repeat the past, to favor policy built on the faulty understanding and perceived stability the flawed lines of Sykes-Picot have represented for so long? It looks now like ISIS may be answering that question for history, and redrawing lines on the map of the Middle East not with pen and ink but with blood.



I have seen many articles asking what the US and President Obama will do about ISIS and the multiple crises in the Middle East.

I have seen pretty much nothing about a role for the United Nations.  Why is that?  If the Iranian mullahs oppose ISIS, is it too much to hope that the Security Council could be unified?  Don't tell me that Putin supports ISIS?


BdH: "Sykes-Picot has been dead for decades - this is the final nail in the coffin and, one hopes, the final end of the colonial empires secret treatiies that paved the way for this debacle."

MOBS: "Sykes-Picot dead? How so?"

Okay...not quite dead! if a final nail is needed. So, you agree however, I guess, per your post @7:27 that it's still operational, at this moment, but that ISIS will do away with it. Or??? someone else will? Or that the U.S. has no obligation to defend it??? Which, if any outcome, do you think will bury it?


Bill deHass - thank you sharing the Vox and  Tower links. The Vox maps, with bite size text,  are digestable and informative for this lazy internet reader. :)

Ms. Steinfels - okay, things can change every day but I do believe that ISIL will redraw the map and also seal the reality that the Kurds have had their own nation for some time.

The Sunni-Shia divide will not be solved easily - the current land grabs will be left in place for a number of reasons:

- Assad is too weak to drive ISIL out of Syria

- Maliki (even with Iranian help) does not have the ability to recapture cities/land lost to ISIL

- Obama is looking for some type of political resolution - recognition of the balance between Sunni and Shia rights.  Not sure that this will happen for some time now that the Shias need to defend Baghdad and southern Iraq.  US can not afford to allow Iran free rein to enter Iraq with military forces.

- Unknown - if ISIL truly implements a rigid, Islamic, quasi-Taliban regime, that will also lead to issues.  Eventually, some of the awakening tribes, off-shoot Baathists, etc. will contest ISIL dominance. 

- suggest that we will be into some type of quasi-stand off within weeks.  ISIL will not be able to move on Baghdad; there will be on-going skirmishes in cities such as Samarra, etc. Lines will be drawn and some type of separation will occur.  Then, the political games will begin.


BdH: Sounds plausible.

Two Questions:

What role is Turkey going to play in all of this, especially with its large Kurdish population? 

What have you read about the role of former Iraqi military (from Saddam's era) in assisting in the capture of Mosul and in cooperating with ISIS?

Take a look at this:  "There is a 'trbal revolution' in Iraq: Anbar tribal chief."  HT: Pat Lang

Ms. Steinfels - Turkey - sorry, no crystal ball.  It is having its own share on internal squabbles.  They recently signed an agreement with the Kurds - if memory serves, it reinforces the current borders, oil trade, and security arrangments.

Just guessing but can see Turkey supporting Kurdish independence while negotiating that the current borders and Turkish Kurds would remain Turkey.

The link - just love the quotes from Lindsey Graham - talk about being out of the loop and just shooting from the hip.  It is like McCain:

- first he was for closing Guantanamo - now he is against it (wait a few weeks)

- 2003 comment that the Sunnis and Shias really do get along

- his continued belief that the surge was a fantastic success (despite contrary evidence)

Talk about a weathervane.

Yes - would suggest that there are some Baathist, awakening tribal shieks, and former Iraqi military who are aiding, directing, and abetting ISIL.

There is a serious and, in my reading, solid book about Sykes-Picot: The Anglo-French Struggle for the Middle East, 1914-1948 by James Barr.

Ms. Steinfels - great book; well written - *A Line in the Sand:  The Anglo-French Struggle for the Middle East, 1914-1948......James Barr.

Hmm - this morning, the word was that the Iraqi Army (or at least Shiite forces) were reasserting themselves.  Then on this evening news, the report is that ISIS will soon have captured Iraq's latest oil field, a development seen as devastating.  Fog of war, I guess.

I'd still like to understand what role the UN can play.

I haven't seen a word about the UN in connection with this. Am I missing something? Or is there no word?

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