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You break it, you own it: American misadventures in the Middle East

The US seems to have a knack for seeing what isn’t there - Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction - while missing what is

At least Barack Obama was frank. The president admitted to CBS 60 Minutes, and therefore to the nation, that the US really hasn’t had much idea what is going on in the Middle East recently.

Obama acknowledged that American intelligence services failed to grasp the rapid rise of the forces behind the Islamic State (IS) and that somehow, without the US noticing at the time, Syria “became ground zero for jihadists around the world.” Washington also managed to miss that the Iraqi army, trained and equipped by the American military, did not amount to a fighting force of any great use against IS.

It was a pretty damning admission in this age of mass surveillance, drones and vast intelligence budgets, yet Obama was neither fazed nor apologetic. Instead, the interview had an air of resignation about it as the president who came to power promising to extricate the US from two wars that most Americans had tired of and increasingly questioned now prepared them for an open-ended conflict against IS that seems likely to drag on after he has left office.

The president didn’t sound wholly persuasive when he described the US’s military strategy.

“We just have to push them back, and shrink their space, and go after their command and control, and their capacity, and their weapons, and their fuelling, and cut off their financing, and work to eliminate the flow of foreign fighters,” he said.

Obama repeatedly sidestepped calling it a war, but bombing two countries feels to many Americans like war, and certainly a step up from the years of air assaults on Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan which hardly figure in the public consciousness. 

The president tried to reassure Americans that their soldiers won’t be going back into Iraq to do the fighting on the ground. Counter-terrorism is different than occupation, he said. But opinion polls show that most Americans think that US troops will again fight there.

The Republican speaker of the US House of Representatives, John Boehner, suggested on Sunday that American soldiers may have to go back in if others aren’t up to the task. There are already a few hundred US soldiers back in Iraq, labelled as advisors, but the advice they proffer is how to fight so they might more accurately be considered commanders.

Obama’s Republican critics will no doubt once again use the admission to renew accusations that his administration took its eye off the ball in the Middle East by pulling US troops out of Iraq in the first place and failing to back the original anti-Assad rebels in Syria. 

But Washington’s political partisanship aside, there’s little doubt that the White House was stumbling around in the twilight for months without any clear strategy, other than to avoid getting pulled into another conflict without a full understanding of the situation. When it all became clear as IS burst across Iraq, the US administration hastily patched together a policy.

On 60 Minutes, the president defended his earlier claims that al-Qaeda’s international network was rendered “ineffective” by the US military campaign and technically he may be right that the old networks have been broken up. But to the average American, it looks as if the same enemy is back in another form, except this time it controls swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria and is armed with tanks, armoured vehicles and big guns, many of them made by the US. 

The president explained the emergence of IS this way.

“Essentially what happened with ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) was that you had al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was a vicious group, but our Marines were able to quash with the help of Sunni tribes. They went back underground. But over the past couple of years, during the chaos of the Syrian civil war, where essentially you have huge swaths of the country that are completely ungoverned, they were able to reconstitute themselves and take advantage of that chaos.”

Obama blamed Iraqi leaders for the collapse of their own country in the face of the IS challenge. He said they had “squandered” the democratic system and new army the US left behind because the prime minister, Nuri al-Malaki, sought to consolidate his power with divisive politics in favour of his Shiite power base. Left unmentioned by the president, and his interviewer, was the role the US invasion played in unleashing those extremist forces in the first place. 

Still, the president was obliged to acknowledge that all of this has put him in the strange position of helping the man the US has been trying to oust from power for the past three years, the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. Attacking IS provides relief for Assad’s forces. 

“I recognise the contradiction in a contradictory land and a contradictory circumstance. We are not going to stabilise Syria under the rule of Assad,” he said. “For a long-term political settlement, for Syria to remain unified, it is not possible that Assad presides over that entire process. On the other hand, in terms of immediate threats to the United States, ISIL, Khorasan Group, those folks could kill Americans.”

Those threats look grave to Americans since the beheadings of two US reporters and a British aid worker. They have been ratcheted up with alleged plans to attack planes with bombs in toothpaste tubes and mobile phones, and exploding clothes. But the claims have been met with scepticism from those who note that they come from the same intelligence services that failed to notice IS’s rise in the first place. 

Perhaps the intelligence failures shouldn’t be much of a surprise. The CIA was caught off guard by the Arab Spring and the speed of the collapse of the regimes in Libya and Egypt, as seen in its scramble to prop up Hosni Mubarak and then manage his transition from power. 

US intelligence services seem to have a knack for seeing what isn’t there - Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and endless communist plots in an earlier era - while missing what is. The CIA famously failed to spot the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union but it has also missed the pretty conspicuous warning signs of looming catastrophes where benign American action could have saved a lot of lives, such as the genocide in Rwanda two decades ago.

Another open-ended war is not why Americans elected Obama. The president tried to sweeten the pill by preening feathers. He said the US is forced to lead the fight against IS as the “indispensable nation” that the world comes to - not Beijing, not Moscow - in times of trouble.

The alternative view is the one offered by then US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, in warning the Bush administration of the dangers of invading Iraq: “You break it, you own it.”

- Chris McGreal is a former correspondent for the Guardian in Washington, Jerusalem and Johannesburg. He now reports from the US. He has won several awards including the Martha Gellhorn prize, the James Cameron award and Amnesty International press reporter of the year. McGreal is author of Chaplains of the Militia, an investigation of the Catholic church’s complicity in the Rwandan genocide (http://guardianshorts.co.uk/chaplainsofthemilitia/). He is working on a book about Israel and apartheid.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo credit: US President Barack Obama speaks at the 69th session of the UN General Assembly in New York, USA, on 24 September 2014 (Anadolu)