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Iraq War

Tag Archives | Iraq War

The Middle East Being Redrawn Again

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U.S. soldier provides security in Mahmudiyah, Iraq

The warm waters of the Gulf look quiet from where I am sitting, but such tranquility hardly reflects the conflicts this region continues to generate.

U.S. soldier provides security in Mahmudiyah, Iraq

The euphoria of the so-called Arab Spring is long gone, but what remains is a region that is rich with resources and burdened with easily manipulated history that is in a state of reckless transition. No one can see what the future will look like, but the possibilities are ample, and possibly tragic. In my many visits to the region, I have never encountered such a lack of clarity regarding the future, despite the fact that battle lines have been drawn like never before. Governments, intellectuals, sects and whole communities are lining up at both sides of many divides. This is taking place to various degrees everywhere in the Middle East, depending on the location of the conflict.

Some countries are directly engulfed in bloody and defining conflicts - revolutions gone stray, as in Egypt, or uprisings turned into most-destructive civil wars as in Syria. Conversely, those who are for now spared the agony of war, are very much involved in funding various war parties, transporting weapons, training fighters and leading media campaigns in support of one party against another. No such elusive concept as media objectivity exists anymore, not even in relative terms.

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Saudi Arabia Edges Closer to Open Syria Regime Collapse Policy

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Saudi Arabia's Saud Al Faisal addresses the Group of Friends of the Syrian People in New York.  JC McIlwaine/UN

Over the last year or so, I’ve taken the bet that Saudi Arabia is pursuing a strategy of regime collapse in Syria.  In practical terms, this means that Saudi Arabia won’t support a Syria peace process that achieves a measure of accommodation between the Ba’athist ruling party (with or without Assad) and the opposition, popular, overseas, or otherwise.

Saudi Arabia’s Saud Al Faisal addresses the Group of Friends of the Syrian People in New York. JC McIlwaine/UN

Saudi Arabia, in my view, is not interested in the humanitarian satisfactions of helping end the brutal civil war. Nor has it come around to the Obama administration’s increased wariness about the virtues of insurrection (especially when practiced by overmatched rebels who might be able to overthrow the regime with outside help but might not be able to run the country), given the post-intervention collapse of Libya into a failed state despite (or I guess maybe because of) the existence of sufficient oil reserves to fund a live-and-let-live pro-Western lifestyle.

No, I think Saudi Arabia has decided to play the long game, preferring instead the triumph of a largely Sunni insurrection that would drive the Ba’athists from power and install a new regime that is largely beholden to the GCC and fundamentally hostile to Iran. This would serve as a counterweight, threat and practitioner of destabilization against the Shi’ite-led and Iran-friendly government of Iraq, and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The most recent harbinger of Saudi radicalism on the Syria issue may be its high-profile decision to reject the non-permanent UN Security Council seat that it had presumably yearned and lobbied for over a period of years. The Saudi snub was couched in terms of the UNSC’s inability to take meaningful action on the Palestinian, Middle East nuclear free zone, and Syrian issues.

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Drone Strikes and a Strategic Case for Adversarial Due Process

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U.S. Reaper drones in a hangar at Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan. Photo: Noah Shachtman

U.S. Reaper drones in a hangar at Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan. Photo: Noah Shachtman

The literature on U.S. government targeted killings abounds with legal arguments in favor of improved oversight over drone strikes through greater executive or judicial due process. I argue that providing adversarial due process, in particular, could be further justified on the strategic ground that it would give the United States an innovative substitute for local community outreach in its global counterinsurgency strategy against Al Qaeda and related organizations.

Experts on counterinsurgency and experts on Al Qaeda alike describe the organization as part of a global Islamist insurgency movement. Based on well-established military doctrine, this should mean that the conflict formerly-known as the “War on Terror” cannot be won solely by the use of force; that victory will also require gaining the edge in popular legitimacy in the eyes of Al Qaeda’s target audiences. Accordingly, it should not be surprising that experts attributed Al Qaeda’s decline in recent years in key part to its loss of popular support in the Muslim world—a loss that was largely self-inflicted, on account of the organization’s indiscriminate attacks on fellow Muslims.

However, in the wake of the troop drawdown in Afghanistan and the full withdrawal from Iraq, it seems that the Obama administration has developed a different doctrine all of its own, by centering its policy against Al Qaeda and its “associates” on nominally-covert campaigns of targeted killings via drone strikes in countries like Yemen and Pakistan. Unsurprisingly also, this Obama doctrine has been very unpopular in these countries—and in the Muslim world at-large. Seemingly as a direct result, Al Qaeda is now resurging in Yemen (where many local tribesmen have joined the organization “not out of any shared sense of ideology, but rather out of a desire to get revenge”), while general “recruitment to violent non-state armed groups” is on the rise in Pakistan (where an estimated 74% now consider the United States an enemy).

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The Need to Reframe the Syria Debate

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President Barack Obama faces few if any realistic choices in Syria. Should he intervene he faces the likelihood that the situation could spiral out of control

“What on earth is the American national interest?” writes Andrew Sullivan in his visceral attack on President Barack Obama’s decision last month to send small arms to the Free Syrian Army.

President Barack Obama faces few if any realistic choices in Syria. Should he intervene he faces the likelihood that the situation could spiral out of control

Taking up his own question, Sullivan considers Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, its role in the regional Shiite-Sunni conflict, and its civil war’s impact on domestic terrorism, before concluding that the United States has no national interest at stake in the “ancient sectarian conflict.” Sullivan’s question is meant to rally anti-interventionists against Obama’s decision. It should offer no less sting to advocates of intervention, who have failed to make the most compelling case for military action by accepting the framing of the Syrian question in terms of narrow, short-term hard power regional interests, instead of the United States’ long-term interest in implementing the Responsibility to Protect doctrine– the United Nations framework which stipulates the conditions under which international actors ought intervene to protect victims of mass atrocity crimes.

That the Syrian debate within the United States has transpired outside of the international framework that compels intervention is no fault of anti-interventionists like Sullivan; that his view has become mainstream, with its implicit assumption of unilateral American action and its explicit demand for narrowly defined American interest, demonstrates the extent to which humanitarian interventionists have failed to shape the debate. Rather than appeal to international human rights standards, interventionists have chosen to frame the question in terms of American hard power interests. In his major address at the Brookings Institute last month, Senator John McCain, a leading Congressional interventionist, argued that, “Decisive action in Syria could create a new leverage to counter Iran’s ambition of regional hegemony.”

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Revisiting the Iraq War

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Former Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld gestures to emphasize his point during a press briefing with Ambassador Paul Bremer in the Pentagon on July 24, 2003

Neoliberalism has become the dominant strand of economics since the failings of Keynesianism were presented in the early 1970′s. Neoliberalism is influenced by the free market ideology of Milton Friedman and has been expanded globally by Western states, namely the United States.

Former Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld gestures to emphasize his point during a press briefing with Ambassador Paul Bremer in the Pentagon on July 24, 2003

Neoliberal economics stemmed from Milton Friedman and his critique of Keynesian economics. Friedman predicted an underlying problem of Keynesianism, the issue of inflation. Since the ‘New Deal’ Friedman has argued against government action to eliminate unemployment. Friedman claims that government attempts to eliminate unemployment are ultimately futile; this is because the government will be perpetually relinquishing money to maintain high employment. A state pursuing free market economics, in theory, should therefore favour individual property rights, the rule of law, free markets and free trade. According to Friedman, the individual is held responsible for his or her own well-being, as opposed to looking to the state for support. Individual success or failure is therefore attributed to entrepreneurial virtues or personal failings.

The pursuit of neoliberalism in US policy originated in the Reagan administration. The fundamental notion was that markets corrected themselves, allocated resources efficiently and served the public interest well. It was this notion of self-regulation that underlay Thatcherism, Reaganomics and the ‘Washington Consensus.’ The Washington Consensus presented ten reforms that would enable economic growth in a neoliberal state. The reforms emphasized the reduction of deficits, privatization of the public sector, the reduction of taxes and the encouragement of international trade. It was these ten principles, which helped guide US foreign policy and aid during the 1990′s. Through institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank the US government began to withdraw funds and support for statist regimes.

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25 Steps towards a Smarter U.S. Foreign Policy

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Chuck Hagel during his confirmation hearing in Washington D.C.

Major events like September 11th, the US invasion of Iraq, and the global financial crisis disrupted the Western-driven globalization process and revitalized a state-centric political model of the world.

Chuck Hagel during his confirmation hearing in Washington D.C.

Although the US chose an economic-centered globalization strategy and relied on international political institutions in the 1990s, national sovereignty became the new norm and the global system shifted from globalist rationale to geopolitical realism. Fear, war, the threat of war, provocation, territory, regional influence and military build-ups weakened international institutions as nation-states countered each other to reassume power.

There is now an unfettered international political instability crisis as a result of stalled engines of globalization all stemming from this neglect of the “political” dimension in the international system. The decline of liberal international foundations did not occur because people no longer desired them, but because of the lack of a strong ideological commitment from the world’s declining superpower and partners. The consequences of rising authoritarian states present crisis conditions for international liberalism and stability. They are also now in direct proportion to the decline of the Western political influence. Thus, as the West weakens, other challengers will present and push their perception of what they desire the global system to become.

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Chuck Hagel’s Confirmation Hearing: Neocons Search for Relevance

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President Barack Obama and former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2009.  Image via WBUR

President Barack Obama and former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2009

Chuck Hagel’s going over at the hands of Republican members of the Senate Armed Services Committee was more than an argument over political and policy differences; it was another spasm in the efforts of neoconservatives to define U.S. security policy in their own image.

Chuck Hagel, a Republican former two-term senator from Nebraska, had once been considered one of the neoconservatives’ own, at least for a while. After joining the Senate in 1997, he quickly became one of Republican Sen. John McCain’s more avid wingmen. He helped run the Arizonan’s 2000 campaign for the party’s presidential nomination. Hagel also voted for the 2002 resolution to authorize U.S. action against Iraq, the precursor to the March 2003 invasion.  But the Iraq war changed Hagel, but not McCain and the Republicans’ neocon core. Hagel distanced himself from many of the Bush administration’s failed war policies. When Bush sought to send 30,000 extra troops there in 2007, Hagel dissented, as did the man who nominated Hagel to be the next Defense Secretary, Barack Obama.

Now, as Obama’s nominee, Hagel finds himself in the middle of a more-than-40-year war over control of U.S. military and national security policy. The neoconservatives who fought against Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and now Obama recognize that Hagel’s confirmation would reverse the policies of “peace through strength” that dominated the George W. Bush and Reagan administrations.

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Opposition to Hagel’s Nomination for Defense Secretary

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Chuck Hagel

“Chuck Hagel, if confirmed to be the secretary of defense, would be the most antagonistic secretary of defense toward the state of Israel in our nation’s history.” – Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC)

Chuck Hagel

Over protests from some Senate Republicans, former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) will be nominated as Secretary of Defense. Upon reading various opinion pieces on a Hagel nomination one gets the impression that the gates of Hell will open should the nomination occur. They won’t and U.S. foreign policy will continue more or less along the same trajectory under his leadership at the Pentagon. In other words, the United States will continue to be a staunch ally of Israel despite the impression given by Hagel’s opponents that he’s anti-Israel.

Hagel’s allies view him as uniquely qualified to take over the Pentagon. He’s a Vietnam veteran, twice wounded and awarded two Purple Hearts, and more importantly as a Senator, in 2003, when many of his colleagues were in lockstep with the Bush administration, he questioned the wisdom of invading Iraq. Ultimately he voted for the 2003 invasion but later said he regretted his vote.

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Review of Thomas P.M. Barnett’s The Pentagon’s New Map

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Columbia Pictures
Columbia Pictures

Columbia Pictures

While in graduate school, I had the opportunity to study the theories and strategies involved in post-conflict reconstruction and security stabilization efforts throughout the world. As in all international relations courses, we delved into case studies and analyzed the successes and inadequacies found in the individual scenarios, and, as a student at a military college, the ones centering on America’s response to situations overseas elicited many fascinating, in-depth discussions on the Pentagon’s role in reconstruction efforts. With topics focusing primarily on how to develop and implement security frameworks to not only end conflicts but also insure they do not arise, again, in the near-term, it seemed to me that the conversations focused primarily on short-term objectives, rather than the long-term dynamics important when implementing post-conflict stabilization efforts.

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World Braces for Syrian Trainwreck

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Free Syrian Army fighter Mohammad Jaffar patrols a street in Bustan Al Basha, one of Aleppo's most volatile front lines, Oct. 22, 2012.  Sebastiano Tomada/Sipa USA

According to Russia’s TASS news agency, a grim milestone was achieved in Syria: several peaceful demonstrators in Aleppo were massacred.

Free Syrian Army fighter Mohammad Jaffar patrols a street in Bustan Al Basha, one of Aleppo’s most volatile front lines, Oct. 22, 2012. Sebastiano Tomada/Sipa USA

The twist is that the demonstrators were calling for protection by the Syrian army to end the destruction of the city; they were shot by insurgents. A single, thinly sourced news item is not needed to demonstrate the profound moral and strategic disarray afflicting the Syrian insurrection as the country totters toward collapse. A handier and more reliable reference point is the abrupt and forcible reorganization of the overseas Syrian opposition at the behest of the United States. The Syrian National Council (SNC) is now just a junior partner in a broader opposition grouping, the “Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces” (SNCORF). Reportedly, this new group was formed at the insistence of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She is retiring in a few weeks and apparently wished to pull the plug on the ineffectual SNC and replace it with something less overtly Sunni/Muslim Brotherhood-esque. The SNC’s major sponsor, Qatar, and the great minds at the Doha branch of the Brookings Institute responded with the marvel that is SNCORF.

SNCORF is striving for rainbow-coalition inclusiveness. The big tent includes secularists, Christians, Alawites, and women - and also 22 SNC/Muslim Brotherhood holdovers - but, for the time being, no Kurds. Also, none of the Western reporting indicated that representatives of the most inclusive and legitimate in-country opposition, the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, led by Hassan Abdul Azim, attended the meeting. In an attempt to have its communal cake and eat it too, SNCORF announced that this inclusive grouping would be headed by a Sunni cleric, an ex-imam of the Umayyad Mosque, one Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, who appeared in a suit and tie to advertise, if not his secularism, his secular-friendly taste in attire.

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Raising the Stakes in Asia

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Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivers her opening statement at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, September 5, 2012

“Harnessing Asia’s growth and dynamism is central to American economic and strategic interests.” – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivers her opening statement at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, September 5, 2012

Depending on one’s ideological bent, America’s so-called “pivot to Asia” could be interpreted in varying ways. However, one thing that is increasingly clear is that the Obama administration is intent on re-asserting America’s strategic centrality in the Asia-Pacific. This was very explicit in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2011 piece for Foreign Policy, entitled “America’s Pacific Century.” The U.S. pivot to Asia is motivated and shaped by both economic and military-strategic factors. Essentially, it is still an ongoing process that will depend on the cooperation of regional allies as well as the evolving patterns of Sino-American relations.

While the proponents of the pivot argue that it enhances regional security, it is in reality precipitating a much more explicit Sino-American rivalry, thus undermining the prospects of an amicable and pluralistic regional order. Ultimately, America’s growing military presence in the region could backfire, giving birth to what it dearly seeks to prevent: as it tightens the noose around China, the pivot could become a self-fulfilling prophecy by encouraging Beijing to take more drastic and aggressive counter-measures. China’s growing naval assertiveness in adjacent disputed waters is already an indication of this ominous trend.

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U.S. Politics and the Middle East

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President Barack Obama visiting NASA's headquarters in Florida. Photo: Bill Ingalls

US elections are manifestly linked to the Middle East, at least rhetorically.

President Barack Obama visiting NASA’s headquarters in Florida. Photo: Bill Ingalls

In practical terms, however, US foreign policies in the region are compelled by the Middle East’s own dynamics and the US’ own political climate, economic woes, or ambitions. There is little historic evidence that US foreign policy in the Arab world has been guided by moral compulsion. When it comes to the Middle East – and much of the world - it is mostly about style. The country’s two leading political parties have proven equally to be interventionists. In the last two decades Democrats seemed to lean more towards unilateralism in foreign policy as in war, while Republicans, as highlighted by the administration of George W. Bush, are much less worried about the mere definitions of their conducts.

The US administration of Bill Clinton (1993-2001) maintained a draconian siege on Iraq that caused what former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark described as ‘genocide.’ Two years later, W. Bush chose the direct war path, which simply rebranded the ongoing ‘genocide’. In both cases, hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis died. Despite the warrior-like saber-rattling by former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney about his intentions to transform the Middle East to suit US interests shall he be elected, few would take that as more than despairing attempts at reaching out to the most zealous members and groups of his party, especially those who wield political influence, media access and, of course, funds. The pro-Israeli gambling magnate Sheldon Adelson is referenced more than others, but there are many others who demand such satisfactory rhetoric before reaching out for their checkbooks.

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Left Behind: Re-Evaluating American Hegemony

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President Barack Obama and President Hu Jintao of China attend a meeting with business leaders in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building of the White House, Jan. 19, 2011. Samantha Appleton/White House

President Barack Obama and President Hu Jintao of China attend a meeting with business leaders in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building of the White House, Jan. 19, 2011. Samantha Appleton/White House

Over the past decade, amidst appalling civilian casualties in one war of questionable legality and another of dubious wisdom, American foreign policy became the great bogey-man of the political left the world over. For liberal Americans, the bullish behavior of the Bush Administration induced the pretension of Canadian citizenship abroad and a previously unimaginable mainstream audience for leftist favorites Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky at home. Polled Europeans named the United States as the greatest threat to world peace.

Failure to intervene in Darfur only added further evidence to the conclusion that American foreign policy was, as Bill Clinton said in reference to Rwanda, driven by American interest, and American interest alone. Just as American foreign policy seemed excessively unilateral, Europe’s cohesive opposition to the Iraq campaign rendered perceptively possible an alternative world-order. In a decade in which the United States was the lawless school bully and Europe the measured school principal, when principled Continental opposition illuminated self-interested American hubris, America’s critics had the luxury of imagining a rules-based international system characterized by regulations governing everything from torture to pollution.

With this alternative in mind, liberal-leftists were right to leverage a no-holds-barred critique of the ends to which the United States leveraged its hegemonic might.

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Post-Assad Syria: A Region in Turmoil

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A Free Syrian Army fighter takes cover during clashes with the Syrian Army in the Salaheddine neighbourhood of central Aleppo on August 7, 2012. Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

Syria is in dire straits. The once regal and prosperous cities of Damascus and Aleppo have now become the primary battlefields of the Syrian Army against opposition forces.

A Free Syrian Army fighter takes cover during clashes with the Syrian Army in the Salaheddine neighbourhood of central Aleppo on August 7, 2012. Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

Since the start of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, the calm and serenity of both Damascus and Aleppo were often touted by the Syrian regime to the world as indicators of Syrian stability. The swift change from peace to turmoil however, has happened almost overnight, with President Assad describing the current battle in Aleppo as decisive of Syria’s fate. The massive explosion which occurred on July 18 in the heart of the Syrian regime’s security organization in Damascus killed a number of people within Assad’s security and military inner circle, shocking the Syrian government and severely shaking the stability of the regime’s pillars.

Despite support from allies such as Iran, Russia and China, Assad’s days and those of his regime seem numbered. The rapid changes occurring at ground level within Syria bear testament to the fact, that the world, together with the Syrians, has started envisioning a post-Assad Syria. That being said, there is a very fine line between the dream of democracy and the nightmare of civil war – both of which may very well happen in a post-Assad Syria. What would the aftermath of a regime collapse in Syria be? Will the country follow in the footsteps of Libya? Or will it fall into civil war the way Lebanon did in the 1970s?

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Neocons vs. the ‘Arab Spring’

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Protest in Cairo's Tahrir Square.  Source: Al Jazeera

Protest in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Source: Al Jazeera

Neoconservatives are back with a vengeance. While popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and other Arab countries had briefly rendered them irrelevant in the region, Western intervention in Libya signaled a new opportunity. Now Syria promises to usher a full return of neoconservatives into the Middle East fray. “Washington must stop subcontracting Syria policy to the Turks, Saudis and Qataris. They are clearly part of the anti-Assad effort, but the United States cannot tolerate Syria becoming a proxy state for yet another regional power,” wrote Danielle Pletka, vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Pletka, like many of her peers from neoconservative, pro-Israeli ‘think tanks’, should be a familiar name among Arab reporters, who are also well aware of the level of destruction brought to the Middle East as a result of neoconservative wisdom and policies. Rarely though are such infamous names evoked when the ongoing conflict in Syria is reported - as if the main powers responsible for redrawing the geopolitical maps of the region are suddenly insignificant. Pletka was the biggest supporter of Ahmad Chalabi, the once exiled Iraqi, who she once described as “a trusted associate of the Central Intelligence Agency (and) the key player in a unsuccessful coup to overthrow Saddam Hussein” in the 1990s.

Chalabi led the Iraqi National Congress, which was falsely slated as an authentic Iraqi national initiative. Eventually, members of the council, composed mostly of Iraqi exiles with links to the CIA and other Western intelligences, managed to sway the pendulum their way, and Iraq was destroyed.

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