From Iraq to Libya, US flubs all along

Hillary Clinton’s comment that what happened in Benghazi was ‘complex and confounding’ is an honest admission of America’s problems

The daring and pre-planned killing of Christopher Stevens, US ambassador to Libya, and US consulate officials in Benghazi on September 11, though tragic, won’t have surprised hardnosed observers. There runs a common thread in what has happened in Benghazi and what’s happening in Cairo, Sanaa, Gaza and elsewhere in the Arab world.

It is the widespread undercurrent of anger against the US that erupts at the slightest provocation, be it an allegedly blasphemous book, a cartoon or a threat to burn Islam’s holy book. Over the years, so many factors have contributed to this anger.
Using the fig leaf of the UN resolution and egged on by the hawkish triumvirate of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz (they had naively conjured up alluring images of Iraqi oil fields under US control and oil prices tumbling to $12 per barrel), US President George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, purportedly to unearth WMDs and to foil an imminent attack against US interests by the Saddam Hussein-Al Qaeda nexus. His top aides also held before his eyes an enticing daydream that US soldiers would be greeted with flowers when they entered Baghdad on the fall of the dictator and democracy would flower in the whole region from Iraq to the Gulf. Well, Saddam did fall after long and intense bombing; hounded and dragged out of a hole months later, he was eventually hanged following a sham trial. American soldiers did receive some flowers, at least, on the first day. But nearly a decade later Iraq is a far cry from a true democracy. Its infrastructure is reduced to rubbles, militias rule the streets, Iran has emerged a huge beneficiary and Al Qaeda has gained a foothold where it never had one. Iraq minus Saddam is unstable, virtually divided, unsafe and chaotic notwithstanding elections. So is Libya after the killing of Gaddafi.
Millions of ordinary Arabs have been seething with impotent rage against the US for the brazen manner in which Saddam was toppled and hanged. Images of naked Iraqi soldiers chained, dragged and urinated on and attacked by dogs at the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo prison camps sharpened this anger. A sense of humiliation, hurt and having been wronged by the US and its allies was felt in the Arab world across national boundaries.
Al Qaeda and other radical outfits were able to exploit this anger with propaganda projecting the US as an enemy of Islam out to remove strong Arab leaders, occupy oil wealth and plant pliant rulers. American efforts to counter this negative perception by airing its version of its action in Iraq and stressing the benefits of democracy haven’t made any dent. The US failure to unearth any WMDs or any link between Saddam and Al Qaeda made it an unscrupulous liar in Arab eyes. To an American scholar, the invasion of Iraq exposed the “intellectual bankruptcy” of the decision-makers. Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski felt the Iraqi invasion “undermined international legitimacy”, “destroyed credibility” and “tarnished” the moral standing of the US on account of what happened at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. While the US hasn’t released any official figures of the deaths and casualties from the invasion, Iraqi War Logs, Associated Press, Iraqi Body Count, ORB Poll etc put the death toll at around 110,000. On the other hand, Lancer Study puts the figure as high as 6,549,545 from 2003-2006. Similarly, there is no unanimity about the total cost of the invasion; the figure has varied from $350 billion to $700 billion to $2.3 trillion!
It’s nearly two decades since the Oslo Peace Accords were inked by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, both Nobel peace laureates, under the benign gaze of President Clinton. Abu Ammar died without seeing the Palestinian state he always dreamt of; Rabin was gunned down by an Orthodox Jew. Two US Presidents have finished their terms but a Palestinian state and Israel side by side remain elusive. Meanwhile, thousands of Palestinians continue to live a humiliating existence; their youth filled with frustration and bitterness. While the large share of the blame for lack of concrete results must lie with Israel and some with the Palestinians, ordinary Arabs squarely blame the US — it hasn’t been an honest broker; its policies are dictated by the American Israeli lobby that no US President can afford to oppose.
The Arab Spring took the US and despotic rulers in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya by surprise. The US was quite happy doing business with these despots for decades while ignoring their authoritarian rule. The newly unleashed people’s power and the radical Islamic groups catapulated to power as the new rulers in the prevailing chaos are not necessarity America’s friends. The US is unable to influence the course of events as in the past; it has very little leverage with the current players.
US involvement in Afghanistan also seems to have been an unmitigated failure. Once, it fought the Taliban, but it is now prepared to negotiate with the “Good Taliban” and hopes to exit that country by 2014. Many believe, given Afghanistan’s strategic significance and discovery of huge reserves of rich minerals, that the US isn’t likely to completely wash its hands of Afghanistan; it would maintain a smaller and leaner but effective force to protect its interests. The killing of Osama bin Laden and nearly 2,000 Al Qaeda operatives and preventing any major terrorist attack in the US is the singular success of America’s anti-terrorism campaign. But has this diminished the menace of international terrorism? Iraq, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, Libya and Syria are emerging as safe havens and battle grounds for Al Qaeda supporters. Hillary Clinton’s comment that what happened in Benghazi was “complex and confounding” is an honest admission of America’s problems.
Substantial progress towards the establishment of a Palestinian state, dismantling of some Israeli settlements and proactive action in support of the people rising against totalitarian regimes can make a difference. But with the crucial US presidential election around the corner, who will show the courage to do what ought to be done? No one! Despotic Arab rulers are being replaced by radical Islamic groups through the ballot. Hopefully, over a period, they will learn the lessons of democracy. But in the short run, the Arab street will continue to be ruled by mobs rising on one issue or the other. Not a good omen.

The writer is a former secretary in the ministry of external affairs

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