It was no surprise that the first Arab nation on Joe Biden’s must-call list was Iraq, a state whose destiny has been entwined with America’s for three decades.
The timing of the call, however, was interesting. The US president called Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi on Feb. 23, the eve of the 30th anniversary of the US-led coalition ground assault that freed Kuwait from Iraqi occupation, but in the process triggered a chain of events from which Iraq has still not recovered.
#4Corners China didn't start this military escalation, the USA & Australia did in 2011. After years of destroying the Middle East, Obama "pivoted" to Asia, moving 60% of US military into Asia, including US Marines in Darwin. If a dangerous country threatens you, what do you do? pic.twitter.com/oKxUoGQugu— Robert Barwick (@RobbieBarwick) March 1, 2021
After considering the cascade of events since then, there is surely an argument to be made for America to reconsider its role in the Middle East.
Saddam Hussein’s madness had put Iraq’s future on hold, where it remains today, and drew America into a quagmire that grips it still. The First Gulf War, which ended 30 years ago, was one of the shortest conflicts in history.
Saddam invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990. The US, which at the time was heavily dependent on Gulf oil, brought together a coalition of nations and over the next few months built up a vast army on Saudi Arabia’s border. This was Desert Shield, the operation to defend the kingdom.
On Jan. 17, 1991 it became Desert Storm, a 41-day aerial campaign followed by a ground assault that liberated Kuwait and destroyed Saddam’s army in just four days. But on Feb. 28, 1991, the entire Middle East stood at a crossroad.
USA imperialism in the Middle East summarized: pic.twitter.com/7RWMkQ5sjO— Progressive democratic socialist BLM 🌹 (@SocialistBLM) March 2, 2021
With the remnants of Saddam’s army forced back deep into Iraqi territory and the bodies of thousands of its soldiers scattered across the desert, President George HW Bush had a crucial decision to make. Press on and overthrow Saddam? Or declare “mission accomplished” and pull out his troops?
At the time, option A seemed riskier. Advisors argued that the cost in American lives would be too high, that the US would lose the support of its Arab coalition partners and that whoever replaced Saddam might be just as bad.
But, as history tells us, the decision to go with option B lit a fuse. Within a decade, the Americans would be back and this time the cost – to the US, Iraq and the entire region – would be incalculably higher.
America’s return to Iraq in 2003 was the indirect product of another unenviable choice. The decision by King Fahd to allow American troops onto Saudi soil in 1990 was courageous – many argued against it. But the king was adamant – and right; under the circumstances it had to be done.
The U.S. military remains entrenched in the Middle East and hotspots around the globe - often at a staggering cost the American public may not know - data from Brown University's Costs of War project shows. https://t.co/kAQ1BWgi3Y— USA TODAY Politics (@usatodayDC) February 27, 2021
Among the Saudis who objected, however, was Osama bin Laden, the founder of Al-Qaeda, which, with the support of the US, had been fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. When the Soviets withdrew in 1989, bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia, where in 1990 he spoke out against the king’s decision to invite Western troops onto the sacred soil.
Al-Qaeda’s brief alliance of convenience with America was over. Bin Laden was exiled, his citizenship revoked, and Al-Qaeda set its sights on the US. The First Gulf War, in other words, led to the 9/11 attacks, which in turn led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Operation Iraqi Freedom began on March 20, 2003. Less than two months later, the second President Bush, George W, seemingly having finished the job his father had started, declared mission accomplished. But it wasn’t. Chaos and insurrection followed. It would be eight years before the majority of US troops pulled out. By then 4,500 Americans had been killed, along with tens of thousands of Iraqis.
Meanwhile, most Americans believe it’s important for the U.S. to have the No. 1 military in the world – but many are also against the “endless wars” of the past two decades. https://t.co/TOpjjY9rhJ— USA TODAY (@USATODAY) February 25, 2021
The chaos of post-war Iraq also served as the breeding ground for ISIS, which by 2015 had seized a large swath of territory extending from Iraq to Syria and perpetrated a series of murderous outrages. And the rise of ISIS had yet another consequence – the opening of a door to further Iranian meddling throughout the region.
In the battles to destroy ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Iran found itself briefly on the same side as the Americans. But the proxy militias trained, armed and funded by Tehran are now ambassadors for Iran’s revolutionary message and political influence, especially in Iraq and Syria.
"The #Kurds are one of the world’s largest peoples without a state, making up sizable minorities in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Their century-old quest for independence is marked by marginalization and persecution."— KRG-USA (@KRG_USA) February 28, 2021
Read more: https://t.co/W8tXSCe6M6
In his call to Kadhimi, Biden focused on the recent spate of rocket attacks in the country, including on the US Embassy in Baghdad and a coalition airbase in Irbil, where one contractor was killed on Feb. 15. Within days of the call, Biden authorized a US strike on “multiple facilities located at a border control point used by a number of Iranian-backed militant groups.” About 17 fighters were killed.
There is a depressing circularity to all of this.
Thirty years ago, the Gulf states needed American protection against the insanity of Saddam Hussein. Today, the GCC states are more than capable of manning their own barricades, and of forming a united front against Iran – or, indeed, of working to come to terms with their neighbor.
Since the end of the Gulf War it has been clear that it is the physical presence of US forces in the region that has been the “recruiting sergeant” for the extremists. If Biden can find the courage to resist the political pressure to act tough, he can do the right thing – for America and for the Middle East.
America has been policing the Middle East for 30 years and every action it has taken has made matters worse, not better. The “sheriff” needs to hang up his badge and gun.
Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK. THE DAILY STAR published this commentary in collaboration with Syndication Bureau ©(www.syndicationbureau.com)
This article has been adapted from its original source.
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