Monday, February 26, 2007

A new "Devil's game", Iran-Contra style - with "blowback" certain to follow

Over the cliff with Dick Cheney? Cheney at the VFW convention in 2002 where he kicked off the final public phase of the run-up to war with Iraq

Sometimes I wish Seymour Hersh weren't such a good reporter. Because his articles on the Iraq War and the preparations for expanding it to Iran are often sad reading. It would be so much nicer to just get lost in the press corps' obsessions about Obama's body language or whether the word "mistake" escaped Hillary Clinton's lips.

But Hersh is doing what real journalists do, however rare a species they are becoming in the United States today. And his latest New Yorker piece is no exception:
The Redirection 03/05/07 issue; posted 02/25/07. The Establishment press at least managed to headline the story, with most comment I've seen so far focusing on his report that the Joint Chiefs of Staff have established "a special planning group" to create "a contingency bombing plan that can be implemented, upon order from the President, within twenty-four hours".

The entire article is well worth reading for anyone who wants to be informed about the US situation in the Middle East. To me the more concerning news in his article involves two things. One is that Cheney and his supporters have won the adoption of a strategy that is painfully reminiscent of the short-sighted support of Sunni Islamist groups that Robert Dreyfuss describes in detail in his book Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam (2005). That means that they are actively promoting and supporting Sunni Salafist opponents to the Alawi-dominated Syrian government and of Iran. The Al Qaida-type jihadism is an extreme version of the Salafi brand of Islamic fundamentalism.

The second is that they are apparently running the operation "Iran-Contra" style, with the Saudis providing funds and what are effectively rogue operators in the government bypassing the CIA in managing the covert operations.

The latter is easier to explain than the first. Elliott Abrams, a key Iran-Contra figure, is the National Security Council official in charge of "democracy promotion" in the Middle East (
The Last Man Standing by Michael Hirsh and Dan Ephron Newsweek 12/04/06 issue; Bush's frightening Middle East appointment by Gary Kamiya Salon 12/10/02). He is now involved with former Saudi Ambassador to the US Prince Bandar, whose Bush family nickname of "Bandar Bush" Michael Moore made famous in Fahrenheit 9/11, in pumping Saudi money to Salafist extremist groups. Hersh reports:

Iran-Contra was the subject of an informal “lessons learned” discussion two years ago among veterans of the scandal. Abrams led the discussion. One conclusion was that even though the program was eventually exposed, it had been possible to execute it without telling Congress. As to what the experience taught them, in terms of future covert operations, the participants found: “One, you can’t trust our friends. Two, the C.I.A. has got to be totally out of it. Three, you can’t trust the uniformed military, and four, it’s got to be run out of the Vice-President’s office”—a reference to Cheney’s role, the former senior intelligence official said.

I was subsequently told by the two government consultants and the former senior intelligence official that the echoes of Iran-Contra were a factor in Negroponte’s decision to resign from the National Intelligence directorship and accept a sub-Cabinet position of Deputy Secretary of State. (Negroponte declined to comment.) ...

The Pentagon consultant added that one difficulty, in terms of oversight, was accounting for covert funds. “There are many, many pots of black money, scattered in many places and used all over the world on a variety of missions,” he said. The budgetary chaos in Iraq, where billions of dollars are unaccounted for, has made it a vehicle for such transactions, according to the former senior intelligence official and the retired four-star general.

This goes back to Iran-Contra,” a former National Security Council aide told me. “And much of what they’re doing is to keep the agency [the CIA] out of it.” He said that Congress was not being briefed on the full extent of the U.S.-Saudi operations. And, he said, “The C.I.A. is asking, ‘What’s going on?’ They’re concerned, because they think it’s amateur hour.” (my emphasis)
Great. Amateur hour in Middle East policy. Anyone want to take bets on how that's going to work out?

The sectarian aspects of the policy are more tangled. Hersh does a good job of explaining them. But don't feel bad if your head feels like it might explode like one of those overwhelming Republicans in Tom Tomorrow's brilliant cartoons. Because the whole concept is a mess.

Iran and Iraq are Shi'a majority states. Syria is majority Sunni but the government is dominated by the Alawi sect, which is often regarded as Shi'a. Lebanese Hizbullah is Shi'a. About a third of Saudi Arabia is Shi'a, with the Shi'a concentrated in the area of the country where most of the oil is. Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are all majority-Sunni countries with Sunni governments.

Iraq under Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated but secular regime had been the chief Sunni opponent of theocratic Shi'a Iran. That's why the Reagan administration supported Saddam's Iraq against Iran in their long war during the 1980s, even to the point of making the US an active belligerent in
naval skirmishes of 1987-88 against Iran. Good Republicans like that bold Maverick John McCain, future Vice President Dan Quayle, John Warner and Bob Dole were adamantly in favor of backing the regime of Saddam Hussein - the worstest, awfulest dicatator since Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot, to hear war supporters tell it in 2002-2003 - against those fanatical Shi'a Iranians.

Now, when our Dear Leader Bush invaded in 2003 and ousted Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime, it was soon replaced a Shi'a-dominated regime, the Shi'a being the majority in that country. The main leaders of the Iraqi government today - our allies - are the SCIRI and Da'wa parties, both heavily pro-Iranian. They depend on the support, or at least the tolerance, of Muqtada al-Sadr's Shi'a militia, the JAM (Mahdi Army). Muqtada is more Iraqi-nationalist oriented, but has also made it clear that his group will support Iran against American attacks.

So far, the McCain escalation policy now being implemented by Cheney and Bush in Iraq looks primarily like US forces fighting against Sunni militias in Baghdad and elsewhere on behalf of the Shi'a government. The Shi'a militias, primarily those of SCIRI and JAM, dominate the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). So it appears more and more that the US role is becoming one of supporting the Iraqi Shi'a against the Iraqi Sunnis.

That has some strategic sense in itself. Because most of the actual insurgents fighting against the Shi'a government are Sunnis. (The Iraqi Kurds are a major factor, too, but for Hersh's piece that's not an immediate issue.)

The problem is that the Sunni governments in that area, including the American oil industry's wealthy Saudi friends, are upset by the relative increase of Shi'a power in general and Iranian power in particular. This is a direct consequence of the Iraq War. Instead of a hostile secular-Sunni regime in Iraq with a big army, Iran now has a friendly Shi'a fundamentalist regime in Iraq that is allied with Iran and willingly so.

But now, according to Hersh's article, the Cheney-Bush administration is backing Sunni opponents to the Shi'a regime of Syria and Iran using Saudi money. Including the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, at least indirectly. That group, known also as the Brotherhood or the Brothers, is essentially the mother-ship of present-day Sunni fundamentalism (if "mother"-ship applies to a group called "the Brothers").

It was a similar arrangement that was developed to support the "mujahadeen" groups in Afghanistan when the Soviets were occupying that country. We referred to those groups as brave Freedom Fighters in those days. But the "blowback" from that experience was the current jihadist movement, including Al Qaida. That movement has multiple sources, of course. But, as Dreyfuss recounts in Devil's Game, the US and Israel promoted Islamic fundamentalist groups for years in the Middle East to undercut the appeal of secular Arab nationalism, without thinking through the potential consequences for the future very carefully.

Now, under the brillian leadership of Dark Lord Cheney, we're doing it again.

Remember, to steady your head: in Iraq, we're supporting the Shi'a fundamentalists in their civil war against the Sunnis; in Iran and Syria, we're backing some of the most extreme Sunni fundamentalists against the Shi'a regimes there.

Hersh reports:

The key players behind the redirection [of policy] are Vice-President Dick Cheney, the deputy national-security adviser Elliott Abrams, the departing Ambassador to Iraq (and nominee for United Nations Ambassador), Zalmay Khalilzad, and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi national-security adviser. While Rice has been deeply involved in shaping the public policy, former and current officials said that the clandestine side has been guided by Cheney. (Cheney’s office and the White House declined to comment for this story; the Pentagon did not respond to specific queries but said, “The United States is not planning to go to war with Iran.”)

The policy shift has brought Saudi Arabia and Israel into a new strategic embrace, largely because both countries see Iran as an existential threat. They have been involved in direct talks, and the Saudis, who believe that greater stability in Israel and Palestine will give Iran less leverage in the region, have become more involved in Arab-Israeli negotiations.

The new strategy “is a major shift in American policy—it’s a sea change,” a U.S. government consultant with close ties to Israel said. The Sunni states “were petrified of a Shiite resurgence, and there was growing resentment with our gambling on the moderate Shiites in Iraq,” he said. “We cannot reverse the Shiite gain in Iraq, but we can contain it.”

“It seems there has been a debate inside the government over what’s the biggest danger—Iran or Sunni radicals,” Vali Nasr, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who has written widely on Shiites, Iran, and Iraq, told me. “The Saudis and some in the Administration have been arguing that the biggest threat is Iran and the Sunni radicals are the lesser enemies. This is a victory for the Saudi line.” (my emphasis)
And Dick Cheney is running this crackpot scheme. Even if it were a brilliant policy (and it's not) operating under ideal conditions (no way), Cheney's leadership would doom it to being a mess.

Hersh's article is a fascinating account of the diplomacy behind this whole messy scheme. Not encouraging reading. But I highly recommend it to anyone looking to understand the current US Middle East policy.

Another aspect of Hersh's report caught my attention in particular:

The U.S. military also has arrested and interrogated hundreds of Iranians in Iraq. “The word went out last August for the military to snatch as many Iranians in Iraq as they can,” a former senior intelligence official said. “They had five hundred locked up at one time. We’re working these guys and getting information from them. The White House goal is to build a case that the Iranians have been fomenting the insurgency and they’ve been doing it all along—that Iran is, in fact, supporting the killing of Americans.” The Pentagon consultant confirmed that hundreds of Iranians have been captured by American forces in recent months. But he told me that that total includes many Iranian humanitarian and aid workers who “get scooped up and released in a short time,” after they have been interrogated. (my emphasis)
Given what we know about the use of torture in Abu Ghuraib, Guantanamo, Bagram and other stations of the Bush Gulag, the statement, "We’re working these guys and getting information from them," has an especially sinister ring.

See also Steve Soto's post discussing the Hersh article,
Media Is Missing The Story The Left Coaster blog 02/26/07.

Soto also references a
CNN report of 11/25/06 that gives some background on the US-Saudi arrangement to promote radical Salafist groups against Iraq and Syria. International correspondent Nic Robertson reports there on Dick Cheney's surprise visit to Saudi Arabia that had just occurred:

What the Saudis would like to see come out of this meeting, they would like to see the United States not pull its troops out of Iraq because they believe that that will add to the unrest in Iraq, add to the war in Iraq and potentially spill over into Saudi Arabia.

Another of Saudi Arabia's very big concerns, at this time, is what they see as growing Iranian influence in the region. They see that in particular, they say in Iraq, they say they also see it in Lebanon where they say Iran, along with Syria, is helping rearm Hezbollah in Lebanon and undermine the pro-Western government, there. That, of course, something of concern for the United States as well.

What Dick Cheney could hope to get from the Saudis is for the Saudis to bring their influence to bear with the Sunni community in Iraq to help stabilize the situation there to help calm the tensions and passions down. But at this stage where the violence is so high and so strong in Iraq, any immediate agreement here today is very unlikely to see an immediate change on the ground in Iraq.

What I was told by one Saudi advisor was that the Saudis expect to be involved heavily with the United States in the region and in Iraq over the next two years, what exactly that involvement will be is unclear. The Saudi advisor also described this as a broad new initiative that will encompass not just Iran, not just Iraq, not just Syria and Lebanon, but will also deal with the militancy of Hamas. (my emphasis)
Soto writes:

...[Hersh] reports that the administration has been working with the Saudis to bankroll Sunni insurgent efforts against Hezbollah inside Lebanon, and against Shiite militias and Iran inside Iraq. Nic Robertson already broke this story months ago for CNN.
Though Soto apparent reads more into Robertson's November comment to which he links than was there (he doesn't say that Saudi Arabia and the US are promoting Sunni jihadist-type groups), he does touch an important point. I didn't take from Hersh's article that the US is specifically supporting the Saudis in giving aid to Salafi extremist group in Iraq to operate against the Shi'a. But we know from other news reports Saudi Arabia and Jordan are providing significant aid to the Sunni insurgency there, the forces that are killing most of the Americans in that war. So we may be getting the "blowback" already, in real-time.

It would seem unlikely in the extreme that the US would actively encourage such a think in Iraq. In effect, it would mean supporting both sides (Sunni and Shi'a) in a civil war in which the main US effort is focusing on backing one of the sides (Shi'a) over the other (Sunni).

But did I mention that Dick Cheney was directed this bizarre scheme? And if they are using Iran-Contra as a template, such a practice (helping Sunni militias in Iraq fighting against Americans) is not so terribly implausible. After all the "Iran" part of the Iran-Contra scandal involved selling advanced TOW missiles to Iran while the Reagan administration was actively backing Saddam Hussein's Iraq against Iran in their war that lasted nearly a decade.

But I still woundn't want get ahead of the facts on this. And what Hersh's report tells us is bad enough.

, , , ,

No comments: