Questions for Potus and Veep

So, Vice President Dick Cheney says the chaos, violence and lack of “progress” toward reconstruction in Iraq following the Anglo-American invasion and occupation is mostly Saddam Hussein’s fault.

More importantly, according to an Associated Press report of an interview Cheney gave to Don Imus, the veep said last week “that he overestimated the pace of Iraq’s recovery from the US-led invasion because [Cheney] didn’t realize the lasting devastation wrought by Saddam Hussein on his people after the Gulf War.”

Do tell.

Okay, let’s consider for a minute more than a decade of sanctions, of the partial de-industrialization of Iraq under those sanctions, of the country’s inability to trade openly, of the nearly constant low-grade war (that was sometime not so low grade) waged on Iraq by both the Clinton and Bush regimes. All contributed to the misery, deprivation and isolation of Iraq, and made it easy for the dictatorship to continue its policies by using the constant threat of attack to rally enough of the population to support the government.

Given all that, Cheney is actually, kind-of, right. But not the way he thinks.

The veep (doesn’t “Potus and Veep” sound like the name of a cartoon about an impetuous little boy and his cranky little dog?) blamed the brutal methods used by the Iraq regime to suppress the 1991 uprising in the south. An uprising, I think the veep ought to remember, that was more or less tacitly encouraged by the then-Bush Il Sung administration. In which Cheney skulked around as defense minister.

Several Iraq refugees I spoke to a couple of years after the fact who had participated in that failed uprising, and then fled the country, said they had all been promised American help in toppling their government. And were bitter, even as refugees living in the United States, that it never came.

Cheney, however, is only given to slightly more reflection and contemplation than his boss Potus. “I would chalk that one up as a miscalculation, where I thought things would have recovered more quickly,” AP said Cheney told Imus.

I don’t know if Cheney bothered asking around for advice on what would likely happen with societies brutalized by party-states with strong leaders who are determined to maintain their power and position regardless of the cost to individuals or society. (I mean, asked anyone but Paul Wolfowitz or that crew of nincompoops over at the American Enterprise Institute.) If he had, he might have gotten some better advice. He would at least have gotten an honest assessment that a violent, unstable and disunited Iraq was a better than likely outcome.

I’ve written about party-leader states before, and Iraq was just such a nation. The damage Saddam Hussein did to Iraq came a long time before the Iraqi army plowed through Karbala, Samawah and Nasiriyah in the wake of the 1991 uprising. It came in the 1970s and 1980s, when Saddam was an essential ally, as he was toasted and celebrated by the likes of Rumsfeld and Kansas Sen. Bob Dole. As he was extended US government-backed credits to buy wheat and international loans to buy assorted engines of death from hither and yon (including not only French missiles, fighter jets and helicopters, but apparently, spare parts for US military equipment captured from Iran).

Saddam Hussein had held power in one form or another since the Ba’ath coup of 1968, either as the behind-the-scenes strongman or, until his elevation to the presidency in 1979, as the leader himself. He used that power to create a privileged class — the party, the army, and the security forces — dependent on his personal rule. At the same time, he made sure that the state became the center of society by subduing everything to the party and the state: Sunni clergy, professional urban society, intellectual life, education, recreation, art, commerce.

What the Iraqi state couldn’t nationalize, it could subdue. There was a campaign of terror, aimed mostly at Kurds, Shia, and potential dissident elements of the Sunni elites. It was not a constant campaign of terror, but it didn’t need to be in order to be effective.

The only two things the Ba’ath Party could not nationalize, could not get inside in order to disrupt and control: the Shia clergy and tribal allegiances. Hussein’s government could co-opt tribes, especially the important Sunni tribes in the center-west section of the country. But it could rarely force tribes — especially very large ones on their ancestral lands — to do much of anything they didn’t already want to do. Same for the Shia clergy, though the Iraqi government felt the need to kill the occasional uppity ayat’allah to help keep them in line.

“Civil society,” a quaint term popularly used to refer to do-gooder non-governmental organizations approved by the UN and George Soros but actually means just about anything not organized by the state and not necessarily for the state, was snuffed out in Iraq. Saddam could not allow any potential alternatives to Ba’ath power to exist anywhere in Iraqi society.

For some reason, the fate of nations where “civil society” had been extinguished was a big deal with a few political scientists in the late 1990s, and when I was working on my MA in Arab Studies at Georgetown at that same time, some of us would often mull the futures of such countries. The Middle East, after all, is full of them, some of them worse than others. The most egregious examples, the states most like Iraq and the ones worthy of the most concern (from a what happens next standpoint) are Libya (unchanged despite the Blair-Bush seal of approval) and Syria.

I suspect that in late 2002 or early 2003, someone somewhere actually tried to tell the veep that because there were virtually no non-state institutions left in Iraq, toppling that state would effectively leave that society adrift without any way of organizing or mobilizing people for any good end. It will be much worse if you attempt to administer Iraq, since the prolonged presence of American soldiers will only be seen as an offense and the country’s surviving “civil society” — tribes and the Shia scholars — are unlikely to work too closely with you. And would even be inclined to work against you.

But I’m guessing that Dick never listened, never read the report, tossed it in the trash or even upbraided its author for his “lack of vision and confidence.”

Ten of thousands — at least — are dead, many thousands more impoverished and injured, and the veep calls it a “miscalculation.”

That’s neat. Can I get away with this kind of thing next time I do the math wrong on my tax return?

So now there’s talk about attacking Iran, about preventing the “mad ayat’allahs” of Tehran from getting their grimy, theocratic hands on nuclear weapons, and even a furtive belief on the part of foolish men and women that once bombs start falling, young Iranians in particular will rise up and topple their government.

While I understand Bush Jong Il’s precious ego will not allow him to say “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me,” you would think he’d be up to saying “once bitten, twice shy.” Or don’t they worry about snakes in Texas anymore?

Near as I can tell, there is no solid evidence that the Bush administration wants to attack Iran soon. Or at all, even. Yes, some in the oil industry believe the reason Team Bush is filling the Strategic Petroleum Reserve as fast as possible (hopes to top it off at 700 million barrels by late spring) is to ensure an adequate reserve when war with Iran disrupts the global oil supply chain. The veep’s own remarks last year, that the SPR would be tapped only if the US lost half or more of the 10 million barrels-per-day it imports, a disruption not even the collapse of Venezuela would trigger, seem to point at least in that direction.

And there is that obnoxious inaugural speech, worthy of Lenin’s attempts to foment socialist revolution in Central Asia and Middle East, along with that very same veep-Imus interview, in which Cheney said that Iran now tops the list of “the world’s potential trouble spots” and wouldn’t it be a shame if Israel bombed the place and left everyone else to clean up the “mess.”

On the flip side, Halliburton, or rather, a Dubai-based Halliburton subsidiary, recently got a contract to manage a natural gas field in Iran as part of a big Japanese-Korean investment. That alone convinces me that an attack on Iran is much less likely.

Therefore, I’m guessing that Bush Jong Il himself has not yet decided on war with Iran. Some very powerful voices are yelling in his ear “do it!” while others, true to form, are worming around, mumbling “I dunno” as they remember what happens to “no-men” in this administration.

So here’s my advice for our Dear Leader Comrade. Or at least things he and his people ought to be asking themselves. Not that they are likely to.

First, it is said by those with better connections than I that some in the Pentagon believe US military action would prompt young Iranians, who have been agitating in favor of change for years, to act and rebel. I suppose it is possible. But if I were you, I would not count on this. A couple of years ago, one of my former Georgetown professors (who taught me most of what I know about Saddam Hussein’s Iraq), an Israeli who recently spent some time as a research fellow at the US Institute for Peace (and is much closer ideologically to you than to me), told me at one of our infrequent lunches together that the Iranian students have pretty well isolated themselves from mainstream Iran, and have very little popular support. Even if they do, it would not be wise to expect a mass uprising against the mullahs in the event bombs fall hither, thither and yon.

In fact, I would brace for a patriotic upsurge in Iran, including lots of young men and women enlisting in both the army and the Revolutionary Guards. And possibly even signing up for suicide bomber school.

Second, even if you decide on a very limited series of strikes aimed only at military command and control centers as well as suspected nuclear installations, expect oil markets to go nuts. Do you want $100 per barrel oil? Are you ready to live with that possibility? War of one kind or another would almost certainly take a good portion of Iran’s 4 million barrel-per-day production off world markets — oil that cannot right now be made up by anyone outside the region. That doesn’t even begin to deal with the rise in insurance and tanker rates that would follow any major and sustained attack on Iran. Or the speculative frenzy that would devour the London, New York and Singapore crude oil markets.

Also, Iran is not as isolated as Iraq was and its leaders nowhere near as delusional or incompetent as Saddam Hussein. Suppose they fight back? The entire Persian Gulf oil infrastructure is open and very vulnerable — terminals, fields, refineries, storage tanks. A committed Iranian government could, if it chose to, wreck exceptional havoc across the region — the only part of the world with significant excess installed production capacity — from Iraq to Abu Dhabi. If Iranian suicide commando squads hit oil targets across the Gulf, sank or damaged tankers, then I have no idea where oil prices would go. Neither do you. The loss of oil combined with a major rise in prices will wound the world economy, perhaps severely. Are you prepared for a major recession? Or a depression?

How will you pay for this war? More bond issues to the Chinese? How long do you expect them to pay for your wars without demanding something in return?

That 700 million barrel crude reserve sitting in salt caverns underneath Louisiana and Texas sounds like a lot. But it isn’t. It’ll go quicker than you think. Are you prepared to ration it?

We have a rather large army sitting in Iraq. As anyone who has been paying attention the last 18 months has learned, it is hugely vulnerable. Iranian soldiers do not need to pour across the border. Only enough of them need to cross, well-trained and highly motivated and willing to give their lives. They could add extensively to that damage. And there’s no guarantee that you’ll have any friends in Iraq when this happens, especially if you use Iraqi territory to launch the strikes.

Do you plan on occupying Iran, even parts of it? If so, exactly what army are you planning on using?

There’s also no guarantee that any strike aimed at decapitating Iran’s nuclear weapons program will even get everything. I would assume, if I were you, that the Iranians have duplicated and hidden as much as they can. Expect an attack could likely accelerate any Iranian nuclear weapons program. Especially if you, like last time, hamfistedly telegraph your intention to attack a year ahead of time.

Finally, my last piece of advice: Don’t. Just don’t.

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing in energy, the Middle East, and Islam. He lives with his wife Jennifer in Alexandria, Virginia.