Saudis Threaten to Back the Baathists (Again) in a New Iraq Proxy War

Never mind the report of James Baker’s Iraq Study Group, whose primary purpose appears to be achieving national unity in Washington, and whose broad recommendations for a slow drawdown of American troops and a new focus on regional diplomacy may already have been eclipsed by events, and will almost certainly be mangled by an Administration still wedded to too many of its most damaging illusions. The most important documents to surface in Washington this week were, instead, the memo by Bush’s national security adviser Stephen Hadley leaked to the New York Times, and an extraordinary op-ed in the Washington Post by a well-known senior adviser to the Saudi regime that threatened, among other things, that the Saudis would provide financial and military support to the Sunni insurgency if the U.S. begins a phased withdrawal from Iraq.

Both documents reflect the extent to which Iraq has been plunged into chaos, although the media may have misjudged the relative significance of each: It was generally reported that it was a fit of pique at the contents of the Hadley memo that prompted Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to snub Wednesday night’s scheduled dinner in Amman with Bush and King Abdulla. But, as my colleague Bobby Ghosh reports from Baghdad, Maliki was snubbing Abdullah rather than Bush:

Analysts say the Iraqi Prime Minister, a Shi’ite, doesn’t trust Jordan’s Sunni monarch and did not want to discuss sensitive issues with Bush in Abdullah’s presence.

Indeed, and that sentiment may have more to do with what is revealed in the Saudi op ed than in Hadley’s memo.

The most remarkable thing about Hadley’s memo is its spectacular naivete. Much of the media has focused on the fact that the document shows the Administration’s real assessment of Maliki is far removed from Bush’s public show of support for him. No question that to anyone who’s read Hadley’s report, or is familiar with the thinking of U.S. officials, Bush’s claim that “Maliki is the right guy for Iraq” sounds almost sarcastic. But even more alarming are the steps Hadley recommends Maliki should be pressed to take — break his alliance with Moqtada Sadr, the radical Shiite sectarian politician on whose support Maliki rode into power, appoint a cabinet of technocrats and abandon his Dawa party circle of advisers in favor of a more “representative” one, make more overtures to the Sunnis and Baathists, etc. Hadley warns

[Maliki] may simply not have the political or security capabilities to take such steps, which risk alienating his narrow Sadrist political base and require a greater number of more reliable forces. Pushing Maliki to take these steps without augmenting his capabilities could force him to failure — if the Parliament removes him from office with a majority vote or if action against the Mahdi militia (JAM) causes elements of the Iraqi Security Forces to fracture and leads to major Shia disturbances in southern Iraq. We must also be mindful of Maliki’s personal history as a figure in the Dawa Party — an underground conspiratorial movement — during Saddam’s rule. Maliki and those around him are naturally inclined to distrust new actors, and it may take strong assurances from the United States ultimately to convince him to expand his circle of advisers or take action against the interests of his own Shia coalition and for the benefit of Iraq as a whole…

…We could help him form a new political base among moderate politicians from Sunni, Shia, Kurdish and other communities. Ideally, this base would constitute a new parliamentary bloc that would free Maliki from his current narrow reliance on Shia actors. (This bloc would not require a new election, but would rather involve a realignment of political actors within the Parliament). In its creation, Maliki would need to be willing to risk alienating some of his Shia political base and may need to get the approval of Ayatollah Sistani for actions that could split the Shia politically.

You have to wonder, where has Hadley been for the past three years? Maliki is a Shiite politician elected in a democratic process in which most Iraqis voted on the basis of sect or ethnicity. His political and quite possibly his physical survival depend on his place at the center of the ruling Shiite coalition, of which he is a partisan. He’s a longtime Dawa activist with historic ties to Iran and Syria. And he is obviously mindful of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s injunction that, above all, Shiite politicians are obliged to maintain their united front. And Hadley imagines that at the behest of a hapless Bush Administration, Maliki’s going to give up on everything that he is and instead, be remade as a political creature of the U.S. [EM] a second Iyad Allawi, if you like. (Allawi, the last U.S.-appointed prime minister who pursued a similar strategy to the one outlined by Hadley lost heavily in the last election, and today lives primarily in London.) Hadley appears to be still laboring under the illusions of 2003, in which the U.S. can seek out actors and mould the Iraqi political landscape to its satisfaction. Let’s just say that the week started for Maliki with the U.S. warning him to drop Moqtada Sadr or else, and Sadr telling him to drop the U.S. or else. And it ended with Moqtada saying maybe he wouldn’t quit the government after all. And I’d say it’s a safe bet that Maliki will welcome his renewed support, regardless of Hadley’s coalition plans.

The Saudis, on the other hand, have never shared the illusions that guided Team Bush’s invasion of Iraq. For Nawaf Obaid, known as a top adviser to the ruling royal family who would be unlikely to weigh in unless his views were approved by Riyadh, the current malaise in Iraq is simply vindication of King Abdullah’s warning that invading to topple Saddam would cause more problems than it would solve.

Obaid was blunt: If the U.S. starts scaling down its involvement, the Saudis would be obliged to rally to the defense of the Sunnis, primarily by supporting the Sunni insurgency against what he sees as the Iranian-led Shiites. Indeed, he warns, it would do so on behalf of Jordan and Egypt as well:

Over the past year, a chorus of voices has called for Saudi Arabia to protect the Sunni community in Iraq and thwart Iranian influence there. Senior Iraqi tribal and religious figures, along with the leaders of Egypt, Jordan and other Arab and Muslim countries, have petitioned the Saudi leadership to provide Iraqi Sunnis with weapons and financial support. Moreover, domestic pressure to intervene is intense. Major Saudi tribal confederations, which have extremely close historical and communal ties with their counterparts in Iraq, are demanding action.

Obaid says the Saudis have until now rebuffed those calls having promised Bush they would stay out, and that they couldn’t be sure that Sunni insurgent groups they backed wouldn’t attack U.S. forces. “They will, however, be heeded if American troops begin a phased withdrawal from Iraq,” he warns. Not only would the Saudis start funding and arming the insurgency (as they say Iran is doing to the Shiite militias), they would also — and here it gets plain nutty — consider pumping more oil (!!) to bring down the price and make it harder for Iran to sustain its support of its Iraqi allies. (Imagine if the Iranians took that seriously and decided to respond by stopping Saudi oil shipments through the Hormuz Straits…)

Obaid says the Saudis know they could set off a war, but they also believe that they have no option becuase the U.S. drawing down troops would leave the Sunnis vulnerable to massacre.

This extraordinary intervention not only reveals the extent of panic among Washington’s key regional allies; its willingness to countenance a return to the tradition of funding holy wars abroad in defense of Sunnis under attack — one way to get rid of the challenge of the radicals at home, of course (it was a similar impulse in the Afghan jihad that gave us Osama bin Laden, after all) is pretty bizarre. It also underscores the talk of a Sunni strategy, with Obaid stressing that talks with Cheney had been positive. What’s interesting here, though, is that the “Sunni Front” that the U.S. has hoped to build against Iran may be taking shape, but one of its prime objectives may be rolling back the Shiite-led government that Iraqi democracy produced. (There was a reason, after all, that the regimes of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt had supported Saddam in his war with Iran.)

The strategy is a non-starter, of course, not only because it would set the U.S. against the majority of Iraqis, which is an untenable situation for an occupying army, but because the regional dynamic in the wake of the Iraq war has accelerated the collapse of the old regional order on which it is based. For all Obaid’s tough talk, the Iranians are unlikely to be quivering in their boots at the prospect of a more robust Saudi intervention in the region. The response of the region to last summer’s conflagration in Lebanon, where the Saudis initially blamed Hizballah and were then forced to retract as the Arab street rallied overwhelmingly behind the Shiite guerrilla movement, was a sign that as hostile as they may be to Iranian influence, the old Sunni autocracies of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt are increasingly marginal players in the region. Bush succeeded in his aim of breaking the old order when he invaded Iraq, but the new Middle East he has created is nothing like what he intended. But it remains highly unlikely that this Administration is ever going to be ready to engage with the realities that it has helped create — a region in which most of the traditional U.S. allies have been repudiated and the representative political forces tend to be Islamist in character and hostile to Washington’s influence.

So, instead, as Antonio Gramsci warned us about situations in which the old order is dying but the new cannot be born, “in this interregnum, morbid phenomena of the most varied kind come to pass.” Brace yourselves.

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33 Responses to Saudis Threaten to Back the Baathists (Again) in a New Iraq Proxy War

  1. Alex Morgan says:

    Brilliant analysis, Tony. Yep, the same thing jumped out at me from the Hadley memo… the utter lack of basic knowledge of the Iraqi political situation. Maliki is to be urged to get rid of Sadr??? On what planet is this guy living? Anybody who has been following the Iraqi disaster even a little bit, understands just how insane that suggestion is. The fact that a senior advisor in this administration is so clearly an utter ignoramus, just confirms the worst image one can have about how this whole gang operates.

    Here’s a thought. There is absolutely nothing the U.S. can do to prevent the Saudis from arming the Sunni insurgents in Iraq, should they decide to do so. What is our leverage with the Saudis? At this point, I’d have to say – zero. What are we going to do? If we go actively or passively for regime change in S.A., whoever replaces them will be quite certainly anti-American.

    Things will just keep getting worse for us in Iraq.

  2. Pat says:

    Tony, don’t know if you saw this, but the Sunni Iraqis might be abandoned even before the U.S. pulls out:

  3. Brad Mayer says:

    On the last point, it is probably the Sunni Iraqis that are dumping Uncle Sam, and not the other way around, especially if Obaid’s piece has any real weight.

    Why cut deals with the clueless and apparently soon to be retreating Americans when your brothers in the House of Saud will soon come to the rescue. They are already intervening big time in Lebanon by building up the very “sectarian militia in a police force” the U.S. condemns so much in Iraq:

    (Strangely, this article is titled “West helps Lebanon build militia to fight Hezbollah”, yeah you know, the West with the royal dictatorship and Sharia law…)

    Quite a spectacle to witness where the U.S. and Israel fail, the “other Zion” has to organize a rescue party. Those petrodollars really aren’t worth a hill of beans, are they, if they can’t buy good help these days. A dangerous game indeed.

  4. Abdul Gani says:

    In my eyes, there are only 2 western imperatives in the ME – oil and Israel. Oil is a strategic resource, and Israel determines who gets elected in Washington.

    Oil either needs to be under Western control, or at worst not controlled by a non-western power. Currently only Iranian oil is somewhat out of reach, and Iraqi oil is not available to anyone. That suits Washington, at least until the need for Iraqi oil becomes such that they can pull out bigger sticks in Iraq, “for the good of the Iraqi’s.” Of course the hope is that the Iraqi civil war would have drained any meaningful resistance by that point.

    The rest of the ME is safely under control – I do not see any meaningful resistance to the current oil producing regimes so long as western forces stay out of those countries. Most resistance can and will be met with overwhelming internal force with the US/UK providing cover via the UN and their media. Weapons from the US/UK will flow easily to the regimes to allow them to ‘combat the terrorists.’

    The regimes do need a distraction for their militants and currently Iraq is it. If the US withdraws (and I don’t see that happening) then the Saudi’s (with the other Sunni’s) will back one side in a civil war, not only to prevent the Shia’s from gaining control, but also, as has been mentioned, to provide an outlet for militants who would raise their weapons at home instead. And a civil war in Iraq would go on for much longer than that in either Afghanistan or Lebanon, seeing as the prize is oil.

    In Lebanon the prize is for Israel: Hezbolla destroyed. Israel wants that for no other reason than Israel is not prepared to countenance any potential adversaries, even one who can beat back an Israeli invasion, but are not capable of attacking Israel in any meaningful manner. Israel are determined to be king of the hill, even if it kills them. And I mean that literally.

    They are prepared to forment a civil war in Lebanon and are agitating for an attack on Iran to prevent even a hint of a rival that would force them to back down from their goal of a Jewish only state on as much stolen land as possible, because they are aware that peace in the ME means the end of the Zionist project. Ironically an attack on Iran is about the only thing that could unite the entire ME against the US/Israeli’s on a scale only hinted at in their summer escapade into Lebanon.

    The militants will unite and attack the US/UK/CoW forces. Israel itself will probably be spared any real damage, and will respond to the minor damage inflicted upon it with usual savagery. But I suspect that at that point world opinion will turn decisively against them, and so they will lose all the levers they usually (mis)use, like the holocaust and anti-semitism. I suspect that the US ruling class will also be forced to turn against Israel as a result of the disaster that will unfold for the US forces. This will likely tip the hand towards the Palestinians and if not a one-state solution, then a 2 state-solution will be impose upon Israel.

    Needless to say that a one-state solution is an automatic end to the Zionist project (although let us not forget that in South Africa, by and large, the whites still control the country.)

    A 2 state solution means the Israel has to give up land and water. A political settlement of that conflict wil mean that Israel will have to move to accommodating it’s Arab population and a real democracy will eventually result in a minority Jewish state.

    Finally – always keep in mind that Tony Blair is a much more dangerous man than George Bush.

  5. stevenp says:

    “This will likely tip the hand towards the Palestinians and if not a one-state solution, then a 2 state-solution will be impose upon Israel.”

    The point of the whole neocon escapade was to prevent just that and they are succeeding.

    Before 9/11 and the War On Terror, Israel was threatened by the international community over its treatement of Palestinians. The Durban Conference, where Zionism was being equated with racism, was being held and Israel was well on its way to going the way of South African Apartheid.

    In addition, after half a century as a failed state, Israel still needs massive subsidies from the US every year. Considering the sheer scale of the debt mountain that is building in the US, Israel knows this can’t last forever either.

    Nuclear fortress Israel is helpless before these twin threats (international siege and subsidy cut-off). The neocon PNAC plan was designed to trigger chaos in the ME, embroil Iran, cause Hormuz to shut down and force a rerouting of gulf oil overland across existing pipleine networks to within 50km of Haifa’s refineries.

    We are now three steps away to Israel becoming the world’s oil broker and freeing itself from the threat of international sanctions and/or subsidy cut-offs.

    Step 1. False flag attack on American naval assets in Gulf to be blamed on Iran.

    Step 2. Blocking the Strait of Hormuz with sunken shipping.

    Step 3. Organizing emergency pipeline laying to connect gulf oil to Haifa accompanied by 24/24 “Berlin airlift”-style cheerleading from media.

  6. My mother and father were stationed in Saudi Arabia in 1975, right before they were moved (CIA) to Beijing.

    They dealt with Faisal. When they left, they said, his rule was unstable and the oil companies would conspire to overthrow him and voila!

    Was done.

    Since then, the corrupt brother who took the throne has been a dog of the American corporate interest unlike Faisal who was slated to be removed for his successful oil boycott over the Israeli war, and we got our own way and now all is disinitigrating and the Saudi royals have ZERO chance of suriving this.

    trust me on this.

  7. john driessler says:

    The United States must reinstate the draft. Surely we have more-than-enough patriots to field iraq with 700,000 combat troops. After we kill all of the Iraqis we can level what’s left and build a Disneyland Mid-East.
    Sanity is totally absent in this current White House.

  8. Abdul Gani says:

    “We are now three steps away to Israel becoming the world’s oil broker and freeing itself from the threat of international sanctions and/or subsidy cut-offs.”

    Wouldn’t this plan falter on the vulnerability of oil pipelines?

  9. Jafar sadiq says:

    Akh Tony Tony !
    truly an immaculate conception, sometimes I feel you are secretly a true muwahhid /Muslim (after all, isn’t Islam merely a Jewish heresy, and a viable one at that ? according to my Hebrew Sufi brothers) . . .
    Yes, Obaid is scaremongering to massage the debate inside the Beltway; the last thing the Kingdom seeks is for America to exit gracefully, not with a bang but a whimper. To this end, threatening armed support of the insurgency in the Land between the Two Rivers may have a certain resonance in the Bush house. Your instincts are sound: it is only a breath, a voice, a wind … a tinkling of the camel bell.
    American Islam (the Kingdom) will eventually make accomodation with the Mullahs, if only to safeguard their petrol infrastructure in al-Hasa.
    Thank you Tony, though but a human you often display a degree of ‘ismah or infallibility.
    — Jafar

  10. stevenp says:

    Abdul gani, “Wouldn’t this plan falter on the vulnerability of oil pipelines?”

    It might. The scale of insurgent violence/sabotage didn’t turn out as the PNAC neocons expected when they rolled the dice. But then again, Israel is cornered and these are risks they’d take anyway.

  11. Map the Money says:

    I predicted this a while ago. The US is trying to assemble a Sunni coalition to counter the influence of the Shiites. It’s all part of the good Muslim/bad Muslim game that the US has been playing in the region for decades.

    The problem is that many Sunni Arabs will see how this plays into the hands of Israel and exact revenge on their corrupt and undemocratic leaders. Like World War I, the Arab ancien regimes will be swept away.

  12. PBJ says:

    Interesting that Hadley’s memo paints the US as looking ignorant of the sectarian rivalry in Iraq. Yet nothing could be more to the contrary.

    David Wurmser’s 1996 paper, Coping with Crumbling States shows that the Bush administration was aware of the growing chaos in Iraq between the Sunnis and Shias. Wurmser was recruited to advise the Pentagon by Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith so he had plenty of opportunity to warn the White House as to what they were about to unleash.

    So what kind of game is Bush & Co. playing?

  13. Jorge says:

    If the U.S. starts scaling down its involvement, the Saudis would be obliged to rally to the defense of the Sunnis, primarily by supporting the Sunni insurgency against what he sees as the Iranian-led Shiites….

    “Over the past year, a chorus of voices has called for Saudi Arabia to protect the Sunni community in Iraq…”

    Nawaf Obaid

    This is the perspective I was trying to describe earlier.

    I previously wrote that I thought the U.S. should “defend (I meant ‘protect’ because I think there’s a militaristic distinction) the Sunni minority and threaten al-Maliki with restoring the Sunnis to power if he and al-Sadr do not negotiate with the Sunnis in good faith.

    …The longer we continue to ‘cooperate’ with al-Maliki, the longer this conflict will drag on and American troops will lose their lives needlessly (although I’m not sure there’s ever a time when it is necessary for troops to lose their lives). ”

    I long ago believed we weren’t in Iraq to overthrown a dicatorship or to defend ourselves from WMD, etc.. I’m not sure EXACTLY what this war is really about, but I knew when it was all over we’d return to the same position, only with different puppets on the strings.

    Indeed, I had the opportunity to ask Sen. Dick Durbin (D) and Rep. Ray LaHood (R) of Illinois before the war if overthrowing Saddam Hussein meant we would never support dicatorships in the world. Both sat silently as the questioned was answered by a professor of Middle East studies who was also on the panel.

    Hmm… it just dawned on me how this is very similar to the deposing of Col. Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now.” Saddam left the reservation and he had to be eliminated with extreme prejudice. Just a thought.

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