Yesterday, other than a few headlines noting that 365 days had come and gone since the hanging/decapitation of Saddam Hussein, few mourned the passing of a man who was, except for certain Sunnis in Iraq and admirers of his defiant brand of Arab nationalism, a rather despicable and cruel dictator. I can say this, though I will also say that the US decision to invade Iraq under multiple false pretenses was the biggest US blunder of all time. Why trade a despicably cruel dictator that you know, for unknown devils that have now been unleashed?
The Fate of Uppity Arab Nationalists
It's almost guaranteed that even Democratic opponents of the US invasion of Iraq (or at least opponents of the continued US occupation of Iraq) will say something like "a great success" (John Edwards) when queried on whether Iraqis (and the US) are better off without Saddam Hussein. I am not so sure. While it was necessary to keep Saddam in a box (no fly zones, arms embargoes, eviction from Kuwait), at least Iraq was a sovereign entity, counterbalancing a restive Shia Iran next door. That's all gone now - the stability, the unity, the balance of power - and what is left? An independent-minded Iraqi Kurdistan that gets bombed by Turkey with increasing regularity; a Shia-dominated government linked to fundamentalist clerics in Iraq and Iran; a surge-induced calm, dependent on the (purchased) goodwill of Sunni tribal elders. Not quite the new dawn promised by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz 5 years ago.
Here is how Dilem, the Algerian political cartoonist of "Liberte" summed up the beginning of Annus Horribilis 2007. President George W. Bush, who actually appeared to be bothered by the circumstances of Saddam's execution (he said it resembled a "revenge killing"), is shown here as telling the Arabs: "Happy New Year," with the French greeting "Meilleurs voeux" converted to "Meilleurs noeuds," a dark pun on the hangman's knot.
At the time, I happened to be phoning Algiers in connection with a conference that I was preparing. An Algerian contact, one who had studied in the US, and was sympathetic to what he saw as the shared Algerian-American struggle against terrorism, was nonetheless appalled at the atmospherics, at the message, at the sheer bad timing (Saddam was executed by what had all the hallmarks of an official Shia lynch mob on the very morning of the Eid al Kebir, what is normally a joyous Muslim feast day). Last year the Eid fell in between Christmas and New Year's, and should have been a nonstop time of Muslim-Christian festivities. Instead, my Algerian friend told me, some people could barely bring themselves to sacrifice the traditional lamb, so sickened were they by the expeditious execution of this still proud and defiant leader.
Blowback on Blowback: "No Ideas, Only Bombers"
Benazir Bhutto's father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was hanged too, by the military dictator who had overthrown him. At the time, his hanging was seen as another illustration of the near impossibility of peaceful transfer of power in the modern world's first Islamic state. Now, almost thirty years later, his daughter is the latest martyr of - what? The cause of democracy? Maybe, but her record was not flawless in that regard. A martyr for American interests? Her death certainly does show the fragility of building plans based on personalities, who can be here today, gone tomorrow. As to "what should Washington do now?" the author of "The New American Militarism," Andrew Bacevich says in yesterday's LA Times
To pose such questions is to presume that decisions made in Washington will decisively influence the course of events in Islamabad. Yet the lesson to be drawn from the developments of the last several days -- and from U.S. involvement in Pakistan over the course of decades -- suggests just the opposite: The United States has next to no ability to determine Pakistan's fate.
And yet the US will try just that - to mold events to suit American interests. But when previous efforts have been such a dismal failure, aren't all such attempts only guaranteed to make things worse?
"SWA" or "Southwest Asia," is only useful as a geographic concept if you're in the US military, from which the term derives. Lumping linguistic, religious, and ethnic groups, not to speak of widely varied historical/cultural contexts, because they happen to fit into a quadrant of the globe, balancing the Southeast Asia of the Vietnam era, is probably a bad idea. But using the faulty term for the sake of argument, to say that the US has made rather a mess of an area from the Mediterranean to the Indus Valley, the area that it once tried to make into a NATO clone with the Central Treaty Organization - that's the link I'm trying to show in juxtaposing the deaths of Saddam Hussein and Benazir Bhutto.
I leave you with this excellent essay from Ambassador (Ret'd) Chas Freeman, who wrote of his Impressions of Arabia in "Snuffysmith's Blog," a somewhat oddly-named (can I talk?) blog of really terrific foreign policy writing. Discussing a recent trip through the Middle East (Freeman served as US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia 1989-92), he ends with this rumination on the fallen position of the US
In urging action to counter Tehran, most are simply expressing nostalgia for a past in which they routinely looked to the United States as patron-protector to come up with some way of solving problems without demanding anything of them except, perhaps, some of their money. But the U.S. now seems to have no ideas, only bombers.
"No idea, only bombers..." Not a very rich panoply of "elements of national power," as practitioners of foreign policy like to deploy. To engage in ideas, "SWA" will have to await a new US president.