“An optimist stays up until midnight to see the New Year in. A pessimist stays up to make sure the old year leaves.”
The late Bill Vaughan said that. He was famous for his Readers Digest folksy aphorisms and nothing else at all. But he got that wrong. The New Year is the old year, continuing. Thomas Mann got it right – “Time has no divisions to mark its passage; there is never a thunderstorm or blare of trumpets to announce the beginning of a new month or year. Even when a new century begins it is only we mortals who ring bells and fire off pistols.”
And this New Year is beginning with unfinished business. The Iraq War is not over. Crowds of angry Iraqis protesting America’s recent airstrikes against an Iran-backed militia laid siege to the our Embassy compound in Baghdad on New Year’s Eve, chanting “Down, Down USA!” as they stormed through a main gate, as if we had never “liberated” their country for them, as if we were the bad guys. George Bush’s 2003 “Mission Accomplished” speech was ridiculed soon enough. Things fell apart soon enough. We did create a monster after all.
We weren’t thinking. We got rid of the Sunni despot Saddam Hussein, claiming he was in cahoots with al-Qaeda, even if al-Qaeda had been saying for years that they hated Saddam Hussein. Sure, he was a Sunni like them, but he was a secular Sunni. He wore western suits. He lived a lavish (decadent) lifestyle. He never seemed to mention Allah. He wasn’t seventh-century austere. He wasn’t serious. They had no problem with America spending its blood and treasure, and ruining its reputation around the world, to get rid of that guy. And they could wait. America got rid of that Sunni fool for them.
They shouldn’t have wished for that. It was inevitable that Iraq would end up with that Maliki fellow – a Shiite strongman who marginalized and humiliated every Sunni in Iraq, just as Saddam Hussein had marginalized and humiliated every Shiite in sight for decades. The Sunnis were in trouble in Iraq this time, not the Shiites, and the sectarian civil war continued – with a new group, Al-Qaeda in Iraq. The local Sunnis had organized.
Our famous “surge” was supposed to end that sectarian civil war – we bribed the Sunni militias at the time to fight the new al-Qaeda in Iraq, their Sunni brothers, and told them that any new Shiite leader, like Maliki, would promise to be nice to Sunnis, because we’d tell him to.
Cool, but that wasn’t going to happen. Iraq would never be a whole nation of equals – there was too much bad blood. It’s no wonder Sunnis in Iraq now seem okay with ISIS at times. The ISIS crowd may be awful, but they’re better than that Shiite crowd in Baghdad, and at least they’re Sunnis. A little hope is better than none.
We set this up. Early on, Paul Bremmer ordered the Iraq Army disbanded, and ordered that every member of Saddam’s Baath Party be purged from government. We took sides, leaving a lot of people out of work, and many of those were people with guns and military expertise. They were angry, with nothing to do but seethe, so it’s no surprise that Sunni generals from the former Iraq Army became senior ISIS commanders, and many of the Sunni Baathists who lost everything became its foot soldiers. Paul Bremmer didn’t create ISIS, but he helped staff it. These guys want their old country back, or a new country where the old one was, but a Sunni caliphate this time.
There wasn’t much we could do. We pulled a few strings and got rid of Maliki, but the new guy, Haider al-Abadi, was little more than a more pleasant version of Maliki – a Shiite strongman who smiles and says he’s working on that be-nice-to-Sunnis thing. Now and then he made the right sounds. But when he sent his hapless army out to fight ISIS they ran away, so he calls in the Shiite militias to get the job done. They are freelancers mostly aligned with Iran, our bitter enemy who wants to rid the region of the Sunni bad guys. Some Iranian generals would show up to help out now and then too. We’d pretend they’re not there.
These things happen, and in the years since, Shiite Iraq has aligned itself closer and closer with Shiite Iran – our enemy. We freed Iraq only to have it happily join forces with our enemy, Iran – and pretend that’s not so, to keep us calm. ISIS got walloped along the way, but they’re rebuilding. The situation is a bit absurd.
And that made this New Year’s Eve just more of the same:
Thousands of angry supporters of an Iranian-backed militia chanting “Death to America” stormed entrances to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on Tuesday, laying bare the fragility of the U.S. presence in Iraq despite hundreds of billions of dollars and 17 years of investment in the country.
Members of the U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces stood by as supporters of the Kataib Hezbollah militia surged into the usually heavily guarded Green Zone, breached the main embassy reception area and set it on fire.
They hung the flags of their militia on the barbed wire protecting the compound, daubed pro-Iranian slogans on its walls and tossed Molotov cocktails onto its lawns. “America is the Great Satan,” they chanted, and “Death to America” – slogans that echoed those of the Iranian revolutionaries who held U.S. diplomats hostage in Tehran 40 years ago.
The demonstrators then set up tents to camp outside for the night, saying they would not leave until all U.S. diplomats and troops had pulled out of Iraq.
It seems we fought that war for nothing:
As diplomats and staffers huddled together in a fortified safe room inside the embassy compound, the stage seemed to have been set for a potentially long siege that leaves the United States with little room for maneuver.
The Pentagon dispatched about 100 Marines and two Apache helicopters to reinforce security at the embassy, which was opened with much fanfare a little over a decade ago as the biggest and most heavily fortified U.S. embassy in the world, a symbol of America’s vast new influence in Iraq as well as of the threats that have always stalked its presence.
And all that was left was bluster:
President Trump was defiant, tweeting angrily that Iran was responsible for the siege, because it backed the militia.
“Iran killed an American contractor, wounding many,” Trump tweeted from his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. “We strongly responded, and always will. Now Iran is orchestrating an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. They will be held fully responsible. In addition, we expect Iraq to use its forces to protect the Embassy, and so notified!”
He hasn’t been paying attention. We’ve expected Iraq to do many things over the years, out of gratitude or something, and they shrug and go through the motions and those things don’t get done. But now Donald Trump, the man himself, not a fool like Bush or a wimp like Obama, says that they WILL use their forces to protect our embassy and our people, and people ALWAYS do what he says, because he’s The Donald.
Things don’t work that way:
The Marine Corps released photographs of the reinforcement unit deploying from Kuwait in the dark aboard MV-22 Osprey aircraft. The Marines are assigned to a task force that the service created in the wake of the 2012 attack on diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya, and are primarily infantrymen.
Later in the day, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said he had authorized the Army to deploy about 750 additional soldiers to the region in “an appropriate and precautionary action taken in response to increased threat levels against U.S. personnel and facilities, such as we witnessed in Baghdad today.”
The soldiers are from an “immediate response force” with the 82nd Airborne Division designed to deploy quickly in response to crises.
We’ll protect our embassy and our people, because no one else will:
After Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke by phone with Iraq’s acting prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, the threat of an imminent invasion of the embassy eased. An Iraqi army commander told the Iraqi security forces to prevent demonstrators from entering the compound. Abdul Mahdi issued a statement appealing for calm, and the security forces formed a cordon to prevent any further incursions.
But the demonstrators remained outside the embassy gates, denouncing America, attempting to tear down razor wire atop the compound’s walls and tossing Molotov cocktails over them.
Iraq’s acting prime minister, this Adel Abdul Mahdi fellow, is kind of useless, and this will get dangerous:
As the day wore on it became increasingly unclear whether the United States could safely retain a diplomatic and military presence in Iraq without embarking on a wholesale confrontation with the militia – and its Iranian backers – now effectively besieging the embassy.
Iraqi leaders, political figures and clerics have universally condemned the U.S. airstrikes that prompted the assault on the embassy, a situation Iran appears to be intent on exploiting, said a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Douglas A. Silliman.
Let that sink in. Iraqi leaders, political figures and clerics have all sided with Iran on this, and Iran will take that and run with that, and it will be just like old times:
Many drew comparisons with the Iran hostage crisis in 1979, the prelude to decades of hostility between Iran and the United States. “From the siege of their embassy in Tehran in 1979 to Baghdad in 2019, history repeats itself,” said Abu Alaa Al-Awalae, who heads one of the Iranian-backed militias that joined in the embassy attack.
They know that the good old days are back:
Among the crowd were some of Iran’s most powerful allies in Iraq, including Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the Badr Organization; Qais al-Khazali, who heads the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia and was once imprisoned by the U.S. military; and Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi, better known by his nom de guerre, Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, who spent years in prison in Kuwait for bombing the U.S. Embassy there.
The graffiti scrawled on the embassy walls signified allegiance to Iran: the names of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the powerful Quds Force commander, Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani. Other slogans simply read: “America get out.”
Forget staying up to make sure the old year leaves this time. There’s too much unfinished business for that, and the Washington Post team of Anne Gearan and Philip Rucker and Josh Dawsey adds this perspective:
President Trump on Tuesday was pulled toward the kind of Middle East tinderbox he has tried to avoid, as he blamed Iran for an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Iraq that further damaged U.S. relations with Baghdad and appeared to put Trump’s hopes for diplomacy with Tehran further out of reach…
Trump now faces a potentially combustible situation where the United States and Iran are elbowing for influence in Iraq as U.S. allies Israel and Saudi Arabia, along with some of Trump’s in-house advisers, urge a more forceful confrontation with Tehran over its aggressive tactics across the Middle East.
What will he do? He chose ambiguity:
The president struck a bellicose tone Tuesday, but it’s unclear what moves he will make next as he feels the tug between taking a tough line with Iran and trying to avoid getting more involved in the region.
“Iran will be held fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities. They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat,” Trump tweeted late Tuesday afternoon from Florida, where he is spending the holidays at his Mar-a-Lago resort. “Happy New Year!”
War will make this next year happy? Scratch that. He will play the “I am not Hillary Clinton” card:
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a Trump ally and foreign policy adviser, had breakfast with the president Tuesday and said in an interview that Trump was determined to “have no Benghazi on his watch,” a reference to the 2012 attack on U.S. government facilities in Libya that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
Republicans harshly criticized the Obama administration and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the response to the Benghazi attack, and Trump’s wariness over any comparisons between the two events was on display Tuesday.
“The Anti-Benghazi!” he tweeted about his administration’s response to the situation in Baghdad.
The one has little to do with the other, but everyone can agree that he is not Hillary Clinton. He’s taller. And right now he’s faking it:
Graham said Trump is not looking for a fight and hopes Iran will take steps that allow tensions to be ratcheted down soon.
“The goal is to de-escalate, but it takes two to do that,” he said, adding that Trump and his national security team are discussing “a lot of options” he would not detail…
The developments in Baghdad came on the eve of the New Year, when Trump is seeking reelection on a platform that boasts of strong international leadership and a commitment that the United States will not be a global policeman for age-old conflicts.
There’s contradiction there. We will lead and step back, simultaneously? Here’s that seems just wishful thinking:
Trump has long viewed U.S. involvement in the Middle East as a political loser that leads only to the loss of money and lives, according to a Trump adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the president’s views.
“I can tell you 100 percent that the president has no desire to get into some kind of new conflict in the Middle East during 2020,” the person said.
Speaking to reporters at Mar-a-Lago shortly before New Year’s Eve festivities there, Trump backed off his aggressive tone against Iran that he had leveled on Twitter earlier Tuesday.
“Do I want to? No,” he said when asked whether he would go to war against Iran. “I like peace. And Iran should want peace more than anybody. So I don’t see that happening.”
But he’s making that happen:
Trump has wanted to talk to Iran’s president in an effort to strike some kind of deal, a move opposed by many in his administration, that he contends would be far better than the nuclear agreement that the Obama administration reached with Tehran and that Trump abandoned soon after taking office. But there has been little progress on that front, and the attack on the embassy appeared to make those talks even less likely in the near future.
What did he expect? He reinstated crippling economic sanctions on Iran. He’ll ruin them, they’ll all die, unless they bend to his will and beg for mercy and do what he says. That was dumb:
Former Army general Barry McCaffrey, who has led troops in Iraq, said Trump is making it harder for Iran to back down.
“The economic sanctions on Iran are choking them, and they’re looking for a way out. Our own demands have been maximalist – and in public,” he said. “It’s a pressure cooker, and it’s going to blow.”
McCaffrey noted that Iran has more military resources in and around Iraq than the United States.
“Trump has dealt with this in the worst possible way. He’s publicly, not privately, confronting the Iranians not on a conflict of our choosing but of their choosing,” McCaffrey said.
That may be the real problem here. Max Boot says this:
This is another reminder that in the long-running conflict between the United States of America and the Islamic Republic of Iran, we have repeatedly been humbled and hurt by a smaller but more determined and ruthless adversary. Indeed, for the past 41 years, Iran has put on a master class in irregular warfare, leaving the United States flummoxed about how to respond.
So it’s not just Trump:
In the 1980s, Iranian-backed forces took dozens of Americans hostage in Lebanon and demolished both the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut with truck bombs that killed hundreds. President Ronald Reagan was so desperate to free the hostages that he was willing to sell missiles to Iran – a backroom maneuver that blew up into the biggest scandal of the Reagan administration after the proceeds were secretly diverted to the Nicaraguan Contras.
In 1987, Reagan sent U.S. naval forces to prevent Iran from closing the Persian Gulf as part of its war against Iraq. One U.S. Navy frigate was nearly sunk by an Iraqi missile and another by an Iranian mine, but U.S. forces inflicted heavy damages on Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Navy and accidentally shot down an Iranian passenger airliner.
This was the first and last time that U.S. and Iranian forces engaged in direct battle. Iran prefers to do most of its damage via proxies. Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iranian-sponsored Shiite militias killed hundreds of U.S. service members. President George W. Bush condemned Iran as part of the “Axis of Evil,” but wisely decided against escalating hostilities. The United States was mired in enough wars without starting another one against a nation of 81 million people.
Fine, but there was that original mistake now metastasized:
The Iranians took advantage of Bush’s ill-advised decision to overthrow their nemesis Saddam Hussein to extend Iranian influence across Iraq under the very noses of American occupiers. Iran was already the dominant player in Lebanon. In the past two decades, it has become the dominant player in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, too. The new Persian Empire stretches from Tehran to Beirut.
And only Obama gets half a cheer here, for a reasonable move that Trump ruined:
The only effective U.S. response to the Iranian threat since Reagan’s tanker war was President Barack Obama’s decision to conclude a deal with Iran in 2015 that would freeze its nuclear program. The deal did nothing to curb Iran’s regional power play and may have even fueled it by lifting economic sanctions, which is why I and others opposed it at the time. But it did at least stop Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. President Trump blundered by exiting the nuclear deal in 2018 and imposing economic sanctions on Iran in 2019, even though it was complying with the agreement.
And that has now screwed up everything:
Pushed into a corner, Iran and its proxies have lashed out by allegedly attacking oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, shooting down a U.S. drone, hitting a major Saudi oil facility with cruise missiles – and now rocketing a compound near Kirkuk, Iraq. The latter attack, which killed an American contractor and injured four U.S. troops on Friday, led Trump to retaliate with airstrikes across Iraq and Syria that killed 25 members of Kataib Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militia blamed for the rocket attack, and sparked anti-American outrage. The embassy invasion on Tuesday was Iran’s riposte to make clear that it will not bow to American pressure.
And now we’re stuck:
The United States has only two ways out of this escalating crisis: fight or negotiate. A war with Iran could be the mother of all quagmires; it could easily spin out of control with tit-for-tat responses of the kind we have seen in recent days. Better to negotiate. That would mean trying to rebuild a tougher nuclear deal in return for the lifting of U.S. sanctions.
But Trump shows little interest in either seriously negotiating or fighting. He has waged economic warfare on Iran while doing nothing to curb its regional aggression; indeed, by withdrawing U.S. troops from part of northern Syria, he has allowed an extension of Iranian influence.
So we are left with the worst of all possible worlds: Iran is once again waging a low-intensity conflict, and America once again has no effective response.
And thus the coming year will be like the forty-one previous years. So it’s 2020 now. Is it? There’s still too much unfinished business. There always is.