Jun 30th 2014

Making Up History to Make Your Case

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute
After long-simmering sectarian tensions exploded in Iraq a few weeks back, critics from the right and left have had field day taking their shots at the Obama Administration's Iraq policy, or lack thereof.

Recognizing that the situation is fraught with dangers, I appreciate this debate, wishing only that we had the same intense exchange of views eleven years ago when it might have prompted more caution - when caution was needed. What I haven't appreciated are the criticisms coming from those who have based their case on a fabricated reality they have invented to suit their purposes.

A case in point is the commentary written by former George W. Bush aide, Elliott Abrams which appeared earlier this week in Politico. Criticism is one thing, but making up history is something quite different— and that is exactly what Abrams’ has done. The piece is entitled "The Man Who Broke the Middle East" and begins with the truly outlandish claim that "The Middle East that Obama inherited in 2009 was largely at peace." Iraq, Abrams continues, had been stabilized; Iran was contained; and US relations with our regional allies "were very good." 

This near-idyllic situation, Abrams argues, was squandered by Obama because of the new president's "hubris" and his failure to understand the role of American power as the key factor that can promote stability, and "defend our allies our friends and our interests".

In creating this fictional history Abrams ignores the fact that the stage set by his Administration was in reality quite different from the one he imagines. In 2009, Iraq's peace was a faux peace. Lives had been shattered by the war, as had the social fabric of the country. Years of ethnic/sect cleansing had taken a toll. One-fifth of Iraq's population was either refugees or internally displaced. The US had imposed a Lebanon-like sectarian apportionment model on Iraqi politics, but inter-communal relations were too deeply strained. Iraq had been fractured, with the US playing the roles of the agent responsible for having broken the country, as well as the party who was now trying, in vain, to hold it together. To Abrams, Iraq may have appeared calm in 2009, but the appearance was deceiving.  

If Iraq was teetering from the damage done during the Bush era, so too was the position of the US. By unilaterally engaging in two failed wars designed to project American power and secure American dominance, the Bush Administration had accomplished exactly the opposite. They strained the capacity of our volunteer military. The costs in lives and treasure are still being tabulated with hundreds of thousands of returning veterans suffering from both physical and psychological wounds of war. The recent scandal that rocked our Veteran's Administration and revelations that we are losing over 20 veterans a day to suicide are testimony to the damage done.

The wars and our behaviors in them also had a devastating impact on our credibility, our values, and our standing in the world. Far from having "good relations" everywhere, our polls show that during the Bush Administration, attitudes toward the US were at all-time lows and foreign leaders who relied on US support did so at great risk given their public's growing hostility to President Bush and the US, itself.

Instead of securing American hegemony, our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had weakened us, while emboldening regional powers like Iran and Turkey, and others like Russia and China. 

In making the delusional claim that the Middle East was at peace in 2009, Abrams also conveniently ignores the December 2008/January 2009 war between Israel and Gaza. It was this devastating conflict that welcomed Obama to Washington.  During Bush's tenure, when Abrams was in charge of the Israeli-Palestinian portfolio, Washington made a miserable mess of the Israeli-Palestinian arena. They ignored the Mitchell Report and repeatedly disregarded the efforts of their own peace envoys. They insisted on the elections that brought Hamas to power and then, after the Hamas victory, set out to destroy that movement. They backed Ariel Sharon's every move, becoming enablers of and cheerleaders for Israeli bad behavior: its settlement expansion; its unilateral evacuation and then blockade of Gaza; and its wars in Lebanon in 2006 and in Gaza in 2006 and 2008/2009. 

The toll taken by eight years of Bush Administration policies had left the US reviled across much of the Arab World. And so it was in an effort to heal the deep wounds that the Bush crowd had inflicted on the US-Arab relationship that led Obama to Cairo in 2009. Abrams calls Obama's outreach "hubris”. But the president's "new beginning" initiative based, as it was, on mutual understanding, shared responsibility, and partnership was actually exactly "what the doctor ordered." 

Looking back over the past five years it is possible to note how in its conduct of Middle East policy the Obama Administration: was stymied by conservatives as they sought to make needed change; missed opportunities to exercise leadership when it might have made a difference; under-valued the importance of consulting with friends and allies, at home and abroad; or often appeared to be meandering, lacking a clear direction.

All these criticisms are fair and are worthy of debate. What Abrams has done, on the other hand, is not fair. It's downright strange.

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