Who could fail to be baffled by the dramatic military successes of the Islamic group, known variously as ISIS, ISIL the Islamic Republic and Daesh? How, you might ask, is a lunatic rabble of religious extremists able to win formal set-piece battles against well-constructed armies?
It’s simple. They might be lunatics, they might be religious extremists, but they are most certainly not a rabble.
And if you want to know how they came into existence, the man to thank is Paul Bremer, the US Presidential Envoy to Iraq who ascended to his throne in May 2003. Bremer might not quite have worn a toga or laurel wreath on his head. He might not have had oiled Nubians fanning him with palm fronds. He might not have arrived in an imperial trireme. He might not quite have had slave-girls peeling his grapes, but in his own mind, Paulus Maximus was every inch the Proconsul, with absolute power to make whatever decision he thought fit in this new province of Pax Americana.
And what a singularly ignorant clod the idiot Emperor Georgius the Dense chose as his first Proconsul.
When Bremer made his disastrous decision in 2003 to disband the Iraqi Republican Guards and to sack any public servant with the remotest connection to the Ba’ath Party, he turned his back on the lessons of history. He failed to remember that at the end of WW2, the Allies promptly enlisted their former enemies as allies.
Having flattened Germany, the Allies immediately began rebuilding it. The defeated Germany was dealt with badly under the terms of the Versailles Treaty, but not crushed completely, so that within 20 years Europe was at war yet again. After 1945, when much of Germany was in ruins, the Western powers chose a path of reconstruction. They helped rebuild West Germany and co-opted it as an ally in NATO. Likewise in the Pacific war, after a savage conflict, the allies chose the expedient path of engaging with the Japanese, assisting in their economic recovery and ultimately consolidating a relatively permanent peace. They accepted the surrender of the Japanese in Indo-China, and immediately re-armed them to act as a military police force, thus saving the cost of occupation.
Of course there were occasional ugly incidents such as in Greece where the Allies turned on the Partisans who had supported them throughout, and annihilated their former friends, but most of the time we don’t like to talk about such things.
Bremer, who in his hubris once compared himself to Douglas MacArthur, also failed to study the writings of the master political adviser, Niccolo Macchiavelli who said that there are only two ways to deal with opponents: men should be either treated generously or destroyed.
Why? Because if you merely hurt them, they can eventually get back up and kill you, whereas if you show them kindness, you might win an ally.
Bremer, on the other hand, chose neither the path of utter destruction nor the path of reconciliation. Instead, the civil-servant-turned-viceroy, the man given complete executive power in Iraq, decided to sack every public servant with even the most tenuous links to the Ba’ath Party, thereby demonstrating a profound failure to understand the nature of totalitarian states, where it is necessary to have at least one family member in the Party, or else face exclusion.
Not only did Bremer sack the civil service and lose the services of the very people who could have managed the State apparatus for him, but he also disbanded the Republican Guard, a highly professional and battle-hardened branch of the Iraqi armed forces. Furthermore, by sacking so many civil servants and soldiers, Bremer removed the weekly wage from millions of people, thus ensuring that Iraq became even more unstable. Instead of recruiting the backbone of a new Iraqi army, he lost the services of the most professional soldiers and at one stroke he provided the insurgency with its best fighters.
History showed that Bremer and his masters were wrong. By demonising the Ba’ath party, Bremer revealed that he was just as much a victim of populist conditioning as everyone else. He demonstrated little understanding of the subtleties, instead relying on a good guy / bad guy John Wayne analysis. Someone should have taken him aside and reminded him that his own country co-opted the worst of the worst Nazis to work on their rocket programme because it made sense. If the US could work with Nazis, they could certainly work with Ba’athists, but unfortunately a comic-book level of political analysis won the day.
Bremer had defeated Captain Extreme. But even then, he wasn’t finished.
To compound all his other mistakes, Bremer insisted on immediately privatising the 200 or so companies that manufactured everything in Iraq, from paper to cement, from televisions to toilets, and this is where ideology creeps in. After all, why would an occupying power be so concerned about getting what they considered to be inefficient state enterprises into private hands, rather than stabilising a chaotic post-war economy?
In what sort of world-view is such a thing the priority, rather than restoring public services such as health, transport, water-supply, electricity or education? The answer is simple. It’s a priority among the small number of ideologues who surrounded the bumbling figure of GW Bush, including Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, to whom Bremer reported directly. The so-called neocons, whose unswerving belief in The Market cared nothing for culture or history, or for anything enduring in the world apart from profit. The neo-philistines.
From 1995 to 2000, Cheney was Chairman and CEO of Halliburton the vast energy conglomerate. He resigned from his position as Vice-President of Halliburton in 2000 when he ran successfully in the US Vice-Presidential election, and in compensation, received a severance payment of €36 million. Small surprise then that Halliburton should have received such a huge share of the spoils as Iraq was systematically asset-stripped following Bremer’s decrees. And what a shock that Halliburton, the company with which Cheney no longer had any connection, should be awarded the contracts to supply everything the US military needed as it bedded into the cradle of civilisation. Everything from porn to popcorn.
When Bremer decided to privatise Iraq, with a complete removal of all controls and all taxes, he might as well have put up a sign saying Vultures Welcome, because the carrion birds descended in flocks and they stripped bare the bones of the ancient country, old Mesopotamia, where the Euphrates meets the Tigris, where the Garden of Eden now bore the scars of tank tracks. A country, incidentally, that had never done a single thing to the United States.
Not only that, but Cheney’s former company took control of the oil industry and, out of the profits, they forced Iraqis to pay the USA for invading and destroying their country as well as taking a healthy slice for themselves and their ex CEO who of course had absolutely nothing to do with any of it, having resigned in 2000. Interestingly, Cheney is now a board member of Genie, the energy company exploring in Israel and Palestine, just as news filters through of a massive gas discovery off the coast of Gaza.
All of this gives a clue to the nature of this apparently-new thing called ISIL or ISIS or simply the Islamic State, an extreme Sunni movement with strong links to the vile intolerant Wahhabi sect that rules Saudi Arabia.
Saddam Hussein was not a religious Muslim. Indeed, he wasn’t religious at all, but he was still a Sunni, in the same way that many Irish people call themselves Catholic or Protestant even though they believe nothing and never step inside the door of a church. It’s a cultural thing.
Saddam’s power-base was the Sunni people of Iraq, only 20% of the population, and his domination of the majority Shia caused vast resentment, especially with his war against the Shia-dominated Iran, egged on by his US handlers. Let’s not forget that in those days, he was the Americans’ favourite dictator, though that was to change when he made a fatal mistake.
Suddenly we had talk of weapons of mass destruction, and we had the embarrassing spectacle of Colin Powell showing the UN little cartoon pictures of trucks for which, to his credit, he subsequently confessed his shame. Even at the time, before the slick graphics we have these days, it was a patently silly attempt to pin the blame on Saddam for something he did not do, despite all his other domestic crimes.
He was a vile dictator. We can all agree on that, but the world is full of vile dictators, and none more vile than the ones who run Saudi Arabia, yet nobody ever spoke of invading them, for some reason. At the time of the invasion, there was another dictator, Kim Jong-Il, who was threatening to fire genuine, verified weapons of mass destruction at an American ally, Japan, but nobody suggested invading North Korea.
Meanwhile, Dick Cheney, whose official role as Vice President consisted of nothing at all apart from staying alive in case the President croaked, launched an unconstitutional campaign to drag America into a war of aggression on behalf of Halliburton. Every speech he made mentioned Saddam and 9/11 in the same breath, and his campaign was so successful that, to this day, a sizeable proportion of Americans believe Iraq was behind the attack on New York, even though Saddam and Osama Bin Laden were sworn enemies.
For all his faults, Saddam was not an ideological Muslim. In his Iraq, women could do whatever they wanted including rising to the tops of their professions, dressing as they wished, acquiring a full education, marrying whoever they wanted to and all the other things that Bin Laden detested, as a religious ideologue. Alcohol was freely available. There were no religious police.
And yet, bafflingly, Saddam was the one targeted as the extreme Islamic terrorist, whatever that word means.
There could be only one explanation: oil, which was Saddam’s fatal mistake. He thought he could he could trade oil in Euros instead of dollars and that was the line he crossed, the line that Cheney’s people simply would not tolerate. Saddam had to go.
Let us return to the Republican Guards, an elite force composed mainly of Arab Sunnis. There were no Sunni Kurds, though there were a few Arab Shia and a few Christians, but of course, that’s no surprise. After all, even Saddam’s foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, was himself a Christian. It wasn’t so much about belief as about identity, in much the same way that Northern Ireland loyalists identify as Protestant without having the slightest understanding of what the term means.
In a blink, Bremer threw all these people out of a job. The best, most highly-trained soldiers in Iraq, from General to Private, were kicked out at the side of the road without a penny in their pockets which in itself was a gigantic affront to the traditional Arab notion of dignity. Furthermore, old tribal enmities began to reassert themselves, now that the Sunni hegemony was so unceremoniously deposed, and thus, with nowhere else to go, the professional soldiers of the old Republican Guard, people trained to the highest standard by Britain and the US, expert in strategy, engineering, logistics, artillery, special operations, armour, mechanised infantry and everything else, were suddenly at the disposal of the extreme Islamist movements who saw the opportunity to move into Iraq and fill the power vacuum.
At the same time, the US supported an Iraqi government which was completely dominated by Shia, thus guaranteeing that the disenchanted insurgents would be forever excluded and continually militant. Who wouldn’t be?
Bremer, by his utter stupidity, won no friends. Even the arch-conservative Newt Gingrich called him the largest single disaster in American foreign policy in modern times.
— Head to Head (@AJHeadtoHead) December 3, 2015
It’s no surprise that the ISIL crowd have taken so much land in Iraq. This is not a disorganised rabble. This is the former military elite in Iraq, a force trained in Harvard Business School, the LSE, Sandhurst and West Point.
Make no mistake. We’re not dealing with religious lunatics. This is the old Saddam elite seeking to re-establish itself in Iraq, and if they have to put up with a few nutcases for the moment, that’s an inconvenience they’re prepared to tolerate. But let’s not make the other mistake of thinking that this is a bunch of desert tribesmen riding camels and waving antique rifles.
Never mind what ranting fool of a mullah is put forward as their supposed leader. There are real brains behind this movement. This is a formidable, highly-trained professional force, created and drilled to the most exacting standards by the West.
It would make sense to do a deal with them because they won’t simply go away.
A different view : ISIS consolidates