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The Gravitational Physics of a Settlement in Iraq

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 workers. 

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 Saddam Hussein. 

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 their strings. 

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. Iran won." 

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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 occupation. 

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 state: Vietnam. 

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 the region. 

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

Robert Freeman

Robert Freeman is the author of The Best One Hour History series, which includes World War I, The French Revolution, The Vietnam War, and other titles.  He is the founder of One Dollar For Life, a nonprofit that builds infrastructure projects in the developing world from donations as small as one dollar.

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