The abrupt resignation of the Saudi ambassador to the United States and the postponement of George W. Bush’s new Iraq policy speech mark a troubling new chapter for a U.S. strategy for the Middle East that continues to spiral toward catastrophe.

Prince Turki al-Faisal, the Saudi ambassador to Washington and the former chief of Saudi intelligence, informed the State Department on Dec. 11 that he had resigned after only 15 months on the job and flew home.

The unceremonious departure was seen as another signal of Saudi anger over Bush’s regional policies. In that view, Turki’s resignation was akin to the recall of an ambassador between two hostile states, albeit softened by Turki’s insistence that he was leaving to spend more time with his family.

Two weeks earlier, Saudi King Abdullah summoned Vice President Dick Cheney to Riyadh to express the kingdom’s displeasure with developments in Iraq, as the pro-Iranian Shiite majority gains the upper hand over the Sunni minority that dominated the country under Saddam Hussein.

The oil-rich Saudis, who represent the heart of Sunni power and influence in the Middle East, had long viewed a Sunni-led Iraq as a crucial buffer against the Shiite fundamentalists who gained control of Iran in 1979 by overthrowing the pro-U.S. Shah of Iran.

The Saudi royal family feared that Iran’s austere fundamentalism could spread across the Middle East, radicalizing the Shiite populations and threatening the pampered lifestyles of the Persian Gulf’s sheiks and princes. Iraq, with what was then the Arab world’s strongest army, was positioned to stop that.

So, in 1980, the Saudis privately conveyed to Saddam Hussein what they claimed was a “green light” from U.S. President Jimmy Carter for Hussein to attack Iran, according to a “top secret” document that then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig used to brief President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

[For more on the Haig document, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Saddam’s ‘Green Light’” or “Missing U.S.-Iraq History,” or see the actual document by clicking here. For his part, Carter has denied urging the invasion.]

After hearing the Saudi advice, Hussein invaded Iran in September 1980, touching off a bloody eight-year war that killed or maimed an estimated one million people.

Reagan’s Tilt

During the war, the Reagan administration tilted back and forth, secretly supplying weapons to both sides. CIA Director William Casey and other Reagan hard-liners privately relished how the two-sided policy let the Iraqis and Iranians kill each other while generating profits for favored arms suppliers.

But the war also created instability in the region that continues to play out to this day. Because of Iraq’s war debts and Kuwait’s demands for repayment, Saddam Hussein lashed out at what he saw as the Kuwaiti royal family’s ingratitude, leading to his invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the U.S.-led liberation of Kuwait in 1991.

That Persian Gulf War ended with a peace agreement forcing Iraq to accept strict international sanctions and with American neoconservatives complaining that President George H.W. Bush should have sent U.S. troops to Baghdad to finish off Hussein. That neocon opinion hardened during the 1990s.

So, when George W. Bush took office in 2001 and restored the neocons to power, he adopted their strategy of remaking the Middle East by invading Iraq, removing Hussein, and transforming Iraq into a pro-U.S. bastion that would allow the projection of U.S. power against Iran, Syria and other adversaries.

Spurning the cautionary advice of his father’s national security advisers, the younger George Bush implemented this neoconservative plan by invading Iraq in 2003, dismantling Hussein’s power structure and putting the long-oppressed Shiite majority into a position of dominance.

But the U.S. occupation of Iraq set off a string of unintended consequences that disrupted the power balance in the region.

Since Iran had long sheltered Iraqi Shiite leaders, Iran’s Islamic fundamentalist government emerged as a big winner, extending its influence across a Shiite crescent from Tehran through Iraq and Syria to southern Lebanon.

The Saudis were counted among the big losers, seeing their buffer against Iran disintegrate and their Iraqi Sunni brethren face political marginalization and ethnic cleansing at the hands of the Shiite-dominated security forces. Resisting this stark reversal of fortune, the Sunnis fought back with a determined insurgency.

The Saudis also watched with alarm as the staunchly pro-Israeli neocons who dominated the Bush administration persuaded Bush to give the Israelis a free hand in dealing with the Palestinians, who are predominantly Sunni. The killing of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank increased.

A Breaking Point

Almost six years into the Bush presidency, the Saudis now view the predicament of the region’s Sunnis as grave and worsening. The Saudis are reportedly upset, too, that one Iraq War strategy supposedly favored by Cheney’s neocon advisers is to throw U.S. backing behind Iraq’s Shiites and Kurds, the so-called “80-percent solution.”

That could mean that the Sunnis, making up about 20 percent of Iraq’s population of around 25 million, could face massacres and even genocide as the Shiite militias take revenge for past Sunni atrocities against Shiites.

The Saudis have indicated they might be forced to intervene to protect Iraq’s Sunnis if U.S. forces are no longer around to do the job.

The Bush administration has countered by trying to enlist a coalition of Sunni-Arab states to take on Shiite-led Iran and Syria, in effect, pitting the governments of one Muslim sect against governments of another.

A related option, favored by Israel’s government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, would have the United States step up pressure against Iran, whose nuclear program has been deemed by Olmert an “existential threat” to Israel.

The Israelis, who themselves possess a sophisticated nuclear arsenal, want the Bush administration to keep open the option of military strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities if negotiations don’t force the Iranians to back off their nuclear ambitions.

Complicating matters further, Bush’s decision in 2002 to shift U.S. forces away from Afghanistan -- and the pursuit of al-Qaeda leaders -- toward the Iraq invasion has contributed to a resurgence of Taliban and other anti-U.S. forces in Afghanistan and along the border in Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden and his chief deputies are believed hiding.

The unresolved conflict in Afghanistan and its spillover to Pakistan also is undermining Pakistan’s military dictatorship of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who has defied Islamic fundamentalists by maintaining an alliance with Washington.

If Musharraf should fall, Pakistani Islamists allied with al-Qaeda could gain possession of Pakistan’s nuclear bombs, thus accelerating the nightmare scenario that Bush has claimed his Middle East policy is designed to prevent, a weapon of mass destruction in the hands of terrorists.

In other words, Bush is now confronting a region-wide crisis that largely resulted from the neocon strategy that he embraced in 2001. Instead of dealing narrowly with bin Laden and his al-Qaeda terrorists after the 9/11 attacks, Bush chose to invade Iraq and shake up the entire region.

But it now appears that Iraq was only one piece of a regional Rubik’s Cube that Bush has turned and twisted with growing frustration, getting no closer to a solution and indeed making matters worse.

Now, with U.S. public patience for his Iraq War evaporating and the bipartisan Iraq Study Group urging a gradual withdrawal of U.S. combat forces, Bush is finding himself increasingly isolated as he continues to proclaim his goal of “victory” in Iraq and his unwillingness to talk with Iran and Syria.

Bush’s inability to reconcile the grand ambitions of neocon theory with the practical realities on the ground has led him to postpone what his aides had billed as a major pre-Christmas speech charting a course forward in Iraq. Bush has now put off that address until January.

Meanwhile, Bush has splashed cold water on the expectation that he will do much more than tweak the current policy. Instead of following the Iraq Study Group’s advice, he is eyeing a possible “surge” in U.S. troop levels in Iraq combined with a half-hearted call for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, some lecturing of Iran and Syria, and a few new slogans.

While Washington’s conventional wisdom briefly held that Bush would use the cover of the Iraq Study Group’s report to extricate the nation from the Iraq quagmire, the odds now appear to favor either a repackaged stay-the-course strategy or a significant escalation in Iraq and a possible expansion of the conflict into Iran.

Lessons for the Future

So, given this unfolding disaster, what are the lessons that should be learned and what might a genuine new course forward look like?

First, the American people should hold accountable everyone who advocated or enabled the Iraq War in 2002-03 – Democrats, Republicans, pundits and journalists whether they promoted the policy or just went with the flow.

These public figures either demonstrated a lack of judgment or a lack of courage. They represent threats to U.S. national security – and should be viewed in that harsh light. Conversely, early skeptics of the war should be rewarded, not only out of a sense of fairness but from a practical appreciation of their farsightedness and bravery.

When looking for someone to lead the way out of this quagmire, it doesn’t make much sense to rely on the people who led the way in.

Second, the U.S. press and politicians should cool the heated rhetoric about “terrorism” – and start using the word more precisely and less ideologically. The definition should be confined to intentional violence against civilians to achieve a political goal. Plus, the word should be applied evenhandedly, not as a propaganda weapon.

When the word is hurled against any militant group that’s unpopular with Washington or that has attacked U.S. soldiers, it becomes not only a way to incite irrational hatred, but an impediment to rational policy. Also, overusing the word serves the interests of actual terrorists such as al-Qaeda by lumping them together with, say, Iraqi insurgents.

Another harsh truth is that virtually no ethnic group, race, religion or nation has clean hands when it comes to “terrorism.” Historians can point to a long record of Americans employing terror tactics going back to the origins of the country and continuing through recent atrocities and indiscriminate killings committed against Iraqi civilians.

It’s also true that some Jewish extremists used terrorism against British administrators and Palestinians to advance the founding of Israel. Some of these extremists, such as Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, later rose to positions of prominence, including the post of prime minister.

So, avoid selective outrage.

Third, the United States must recognize that the best way to help Israel is not always doing what the Israeli government and its influential backers demand.

Possibly one of the greatest contributions to Israeli security was the Sinai peace deal with Egypt that President Jimmy Carter hammered out in the late 1970s, often over the angry objections of Prime Minister Begin and Israeli hard-liners.

On the other hand, the yoking of U.S. and Israeli positions during George W. Bush’s administration has caused severe damage to Israeli security interests, including a stunning military-diplomatic misadventure in Lebanon in summer 2006 and a disturbing rise in Islamic extremism across the region.

Fourth, if the United States is to protect its interests in the strategic Middle East and improve prospects for regional peace, a dramatic change in policy is needed – one that respects and addresses the legitimate grievances of all sides.

To reestablish credibility with the Islamic world, Washington must demonstrate more than lip service on the issue of Israel-Palestinian peace and on Israeli peace talks with its Arab neighbors. Simultaneously, the United States must renounce any neo-imperialist designs on the region.

Both these goals could be advanced if, for instance, the United States began a phased withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq and used them to help Israel dismantle Israeli settlements on the Golan Heights and in the West Bank.

These settlements have become major impediments to peace negotiations with Syria and the Palestinians. But the Israeli government lacks the military strength and, in many cases, the political will to remove the settlers.

By peacefully assisting Israel in this difficult task, U.S. troops could both clear the way for Israel to negotiate meaningful peace agreements with its neighbors and make clear to the Arabs that the United States is sincere about respecting their concerns.

U.S. forces could then stay positioned in the Golan Heights and the West Bank as peacekeepers until satisfactory agreements are reached between Israel and Syria and between Israel and the Palestinians, respectively.

American forces also could provide logistical support for improving the Palestinian infrastructure and building an access route between Gaza and the West Bank, with Israel possibly exchanging some rights to that territory in exchange for land around Jerusalem.

By staying in the region on this peace mission, U.S. forces also would be available, if needed, to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in Iraq or to assist Iraqi forces in eliminating al-Qaeda operatives trying to exploit the American withdrawal.

Fifth, once Israel has reached peace agreements with its neighbors, it should reach out to the Arab world, offering its technological and scientific expertise, possibly becoming a commercial center for the region and cementing positive relations with Arab countries.

A constructive Israeli engagement with Iran, possibly including Israel’s help in constructing Iranian oil refineries, might prove to be a more effective way of stopping or slowing Iran’s development of nuclear weapons than air strikes.

Eventually, perhaps, Israel could join with other countries, including Pakistan and India, in trying to make the Near East a nuclear-free zone.

Other nuclear powers, such as the United Kingdom and France, might agree to join in disposing of their nuclear arsenals, and the major nuclear powers – the United States, Russia and China – might at least begin to reduce their stockpiles.

Overall, the goal of this way forward would be to wind down the tensions and the hatreds, rather than ratcheting them up.

Granted, the prospects for such a peace initiative do not seem bright. It is especially hard to envision President Bush canning his tough talk in favor of peace talks.

But just as the prospects of the gallows are said to focus one’s mind, it should be equally true that the likelihood of a political-military cataclysm in the oil-rich Middle East should convince Washington’s policymakers to engage, finally, in some fresh thinking.

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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