Icarus's father knew it; scientists dropping iron
balls from leaning towers knew it; even markets in the
heady throes of bubbles begrudgingly know it: gravity eventually wins.
Gravity is the reason that the Iraq Study Group's recommendations will no more produce peace in Iraq than have Bush's already catastrophically failed policies. Eventually, gravity will reassert itself.
The political configuration of Iraq and of the whole
Middle East will return to earth. When that happens,
the new lay of the land will bear little resemblance
to what it is today.
Instead, the warring sectarian factions will override
the arbitrary national boundaries laid down at the
time of the nation's colonialist founding and will
align with their historic religious roots in
neighboring countries, especially Iran. Neither
Bush's delusion of democracy nor James Baker's
desperate attempt at saving the situation for the oil
companies will come to pass.
Iraq is a political fiction. It was created in the
aftermath of World War I so the British could control
its oil. The Ottoman Empire had mistakenly sided with
the Germans during the War and suffered dismemberment
as a result. Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and
Palestine sprung into fullblown existence as wards of
the victors: Britain and France.
Winston Churchill drew up Iraq's boundaries according
to Alexander the Great's redoubtable formula: divide and
conquer. Churchill enclosed rival Shi'ites, Sunnis,
and Kurds in the new country, placing three scorpions
in the same bottle, the better to fight amongst
themselves than against their new masters.
Then, the British imported an alien Sunni prince from
Arabia to act as king and overlord of the much larger
Shi'ite majority. When the Shi'ites revolted in 1920,
the British reinforced their Sunni puppet with the
world's first aerial bombing of civilians, killing
some 10,000 Iraqis. It was a bracing display of the distasteful but dutiful discharge of the white man's
burden: pacifying the restive natives.
But the uppity Shi'ites would never learn their place.
In 1953, in neighboring Iran, the world's leading
Shi'ite nation, the CIA ousted the democratically
elected Prime Minister, Muhammad Mossadegh. It
replaced him with a western-friendly henchman, Shah
Reza Pahlavi, who reliably pumped out the oil
according to British and U.S. dictates. That same
year, the U.S. shipped weapons to Iraq's Sunni
government to help suppress a strike by Shi'ite oil
In 1958, Iraqi colonel Abdul Kareem Qasim overthrew
the British-imposed monarchy in an anti-imperialist
uprising intended to return the country to the
governance of Iraqis. But Qasim's rule was
short-lived. In 1963 he himself was ousted in yet
another U.S.-engineered coup that replaced him with
the secular Ba'athist party whose chief operative was
In 1979, Iran overthrew the puppet the U.S. had
installed in the 1953 coup, the Shah. The Islamic
Revolution, headed by Ayatollah Khomeini, began the radicalization of Shi'ite politics in the Persian Gulf. To punish Iran, the U.S. backed Iraq in the bloody Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, providing Saddam with weapons of mass destruction that he used to gas Iranian troops.
Over a million people were killed in that war, almost
all of them Shi'ites. It was fewer than the 3 million
lost in Vietnam but more than the 600,000 killed so
far in the most recent Iraq war. Saddam, sitting atop
10% of the world's known oil supply, remained the
U.S.'s faithful ally until his ill-considered invasion
of Kuwait in 1990. Good puppets must know to stay on
What does this brief history portend for the eventual settlement of Iraq and the Middle East?
Iraq's majority Shi'ite population will eventually be
absorbed, either in fact or in effect, into Iran, the
world's largest Shi'ite nation. Iran, for obvious
reasons, is implacably anti-American. But the bitter
joke says it all: "The U.S war with Iraq is over.
Similarly, Iraq's 20% Sunni minority will move into
its natural ambit, Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia. But
Saudi Arabia, with 25% of the world's known oil
reserves, is perilously unstable, a ruthlessly
authoritarian medieval dictatorship that has only
survived with U.S. backing since 1945. It is
fracturing from religious tensions between
fundamentalist Sunnis and secular modernists and can
only be held together as a police state practicing ever-increasing repression.
These are the essential gravitational physics of
religion and nationality in the region. The trouble
this scenario leaves for the U.S. is that there will
be no "there" there as far as its desire to maintain
control of Persian Gulf oil. There will be no
government that will sponsor its continuing occupation
of the region.
This is what the Baker Commission had really hoped to
do: maintain enough military presence for long enough
so that a Baghdad government - any government - could
turn its oil leases over to US. companies. Bush's
efforts were clearly not leading to any such solution.
The commission's recommendation to include Iran and
Syria in the settlement is an attempt to co-opt their
support for such a solution, to buy them in by
promising a well- mannered neighbor, a well-behaved
The additional inducement to the Arab states is that
Baker is willing to have the U.S. throw over Israel,
to compel it to settle its 60 year war with the
Palestinians. This is the reason the Commission's
report is being savaged by Israel, U.S. neocons in
Israel's pay, the substantial U.S.-based Israeli
lobby, and its legions of obeisant Congressmen, media
pundits, editors, and think-tank talking heads.
But Iraq's neighbors will offer little succor to the
bleeding superpower. More than anything else, they
want an end to the near century-long western colonial occupation of the region. They have effectively defeated the invaders on the battlefield in the same way the Viet Cong had. They needn't cooperate with them in securing their own enduring subjugation.
Ironically, this is exactly the same process that
played out in the U.S. loss in Vietnam. Like Iraq,
South Vietnam was a political fiction, created by the
U.S. in 1956 to forestall the assumption to power of
communist nationalists who had defeated the
colonialist French occupiers. Once the U.S. army left
Vietnam, in 1973, "South" Vietnam quickly ceased to
exist and fell back to its natural gravitational
As the U.S. implodes in Iraq, its position in the
entire Middle East becomes at risk. In addition to
Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt are also dictatorships
propped up by decades of U.S. military and financial
support. The Iraq War has radicalized their
populations against the U.S., forcing both to impose
dramatic recisions of civil liberties in order to
quell the uprisings and save their leaders' skins.
Lebanon, another contrivance of the settlement of
World War I, is in full scale meltdown. Its war with
Israel this past summer was a contest between Syria
and Iran on the one hand and the U.S. on the other,
with Hezzbolah and Israel acting as proxies.
Israel's (and, indirectly, America's) nose was
bloodied, exposing, as Iraq has done, the impotence of
the western nations' traditional "shock and awe"
warfare against asymmetrical resistance by committed nationalist insurgents.
Neither Bush's delusional design for democracy in
Iraq, nor Baker's fantasized rapprochement in the
region is going to come to pass. Bush's 2003 invasion
kicked out from beneath Iraq the strongman support
that had allowed it to defy gravity for eight decades.
But that support is gone and cannot be gotten back.
Long suppressed religious and ethnic rivalries,
together with equally long suppressed nationalist
yearnings, all now unleashed, will wreak havoc for
years, perhaps decades to come. When things finally
settle back to earth, the U.S. will have no place in
This unraveling of the Middle East is simply the final
playing out of the same anti-colonialist dynamic that
shook the world in the aftermath of World War II.
Between 1945 and 1965, more than 100 nations threw off
the mantle of western colonial domination in wars of
national liberation. Of all the major regions of the
world, only the Middle East remained subjugated. It
is now peeling itself out of what, for the last 60
years, has been the American orbit.
America's own empire will be irreparably harmed. It
has long been based on control of the world's oil and,
through oil, on the dollar as the world's reserve
currency. Both of those props are rapidly failing and
will soon be gone. Neither Bush's nor Baker's vision
can halt the decline. Unfortunately, gravity is
unkind to the impetuous. Just ask Icarus.
Robert Freeman writes about economics, history, and
education. Email to: email@example.com