Further evidence that the neocons are continuing their pro-ISIS tilt can be found in a column by Philip D. Zelikow that ran in The International New York Times on July 5. Zelikow, a high-ranking member of George W. Bush’s State Department, executive director the 9/11 commission, and of course an enthusiastic supporter of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, had this to say about the dismemberment of Iraq and Syria:
The most destructive outside force pushing violent Islamist extremism is the Islamic Republic of Iran and its Revolutionary Guards. Our current policy seems to recognize that, but we must stick to it, swayed neither by artificial deadlines nor dreams of holding Iraq together by going easier on Tehran. Iran’s interventions across the region are part of the problem; they cannot reliably be restrained by agreement. Still, negotiators can make Iran choose between economic recovery and military advancement, as we are now trying to do in the nuclear talks. Sanctions should be relieved only if Iran offers to comprehensively roll back that program. If needed, American military power can be readied to maintain or strengthen the sanctions.
Second, the United States should not join in the Iraqi government counteroffensive to reconquer northern and western Iraq. Let that divisive government, like the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, reap the balance of power that its narrow policies have sown. The United States should not expect to be able to fashion desirable replacement regimes, and there is no compelling American interest now in restoring the unity of Iraq or Syria. Their borders reflect only the British-French bargains that divided the spoils of World War I.
ISIS may seem like a super-Al Qaeda, but Zelikow’s advice is not to be deceived. Iran remains “the most destructive outside force pushing violent Islamic terrorism” and hence is still the real enemy in the Middle East. Because ISIS is only a pale imitation, moreover, the Obama administration should do nothing to challenge it head on. It should not support Iraq’s counteroffensive and should continue to apply military pressure against Iraq’s main ally, the Islamic Republic of Iran. It should also see the ISIS-Kurdish dismemberment of Iraq as a fait accompli and recognize that Maliki — and, by implication, Syria’s Assad — are now reaping the whirlwind that their “narrow policies have sown.”
Could anyone imagine a more glaring violation of the old Bush doctrine that people like Zelikow once espoused? According to Bush, Al Qaeda represents pure metaphysical evil and anyone who has anything to do with it will wind up morally besmirched. “If you harbor a terrorist, you’re equally as guilty as the terrorists,” he declared. But now Zelikow informs us that ISIS is less important than Iran, that the U.S. should not allow itself to be dragged into the fight to roll it back, and that, in any event, its rise is somehow a case of poetic justice.
Indeed, his column implies something more. In expressing a certain satisfaction that Maliki and Assad are reaping what they have sown, he is essentially advising the White House to recognize ISIS as a de-facto asset. Obama obviously should not embrace it too closely, but neither should he be unduly concerned about its activities. For the moment, ISIS’ efforts do not go counter to U.S. interests, so why not leave al-Baghdadi alone in his mini-caliphate and hope that he continues to apply pressure against Bashar al-Assad?
Zelikow is a blazing hypocrite, obviously. But to be fair, the Middle East has never been more overflowing with hypocrisy. ISIS created a mini-revolution with its June blitzkrieg. It completely upset all the old alliances, which were coming apart at the seams but now are completely in tatters. Everyone is scrambling for new allies as a consequence and tossing old principles overboard. The U.S. professes to be anti-terrorist but, in sponsoring sectarian warfare against Assad, it has in fact been playing footsie for years with people who make Osama bin Laden look like Bill Moyers. Now it thinks it can make use of ISIS to secure a momentary advantage against Syria, Iran, and, to a degree, Iraq as well. Israel also claims to be anti-terrorist. But since a battle-hardened Baathist state is the last thing it wants on its northern border, it would not be unduly upset if ragtag Salafists caused heads to roll in Damascus.
Saudi attitudes are particularly complex. Contrary to Zelikow, the people who have really sown the whirlwind are King Abdullah and the exceedingly mysterious Bandar bin Sultan, Dubya’s former bosom buddy and, until recently, chief of Saudi intelligence. Today’s Wall Street Journal quotes an unnamed U.S. official as declaring, “There was no question that Bandar and private Saudi people were pouring money into” anti-Maliki tribal groups who became the backbone of the ISIS-led Sunni jihad. But now Abdullah is worried that he has gone too far and that a victorious ISIS will turn against him just as Al-Qaeda turned against the Saudi monarchy in the years following 9/11. If so, his fear is that he will wind up as the latest victim of Chop Chop Square, the Riyadh plaza famous for its public decapitations. It would be real poetic justice if he did. But with neocons like Zelikow now firmly in control of U.S. foreign policy, the Obama administration is determined to stand by its oldest Mideastern ally — at least for now.