FRESNO, CA -- A funny thing happened on the floor of the Senate last week. Somebody asked a serious question: "If the war in Iraq is lost, then who won?"
Of course Sen. Lindsay Graham, the guy who asked the question, didn't mean it to be serious. He was just scoring points off Harry Reid, the world's only Democratic Mormon. Reid had made a "gaffe" by saying in public what everybody already knows: "The war in Iraq is lost." When you say something obviously true in politics, it's called a "gaffe."
So Graham, McCain's bitch, jumps in to embarrass Reid with his question.
But let's take the question seriously for a second here: who won in Iraq? To answer it, you have to start with a close-up of the region, then change magnification to look at the world picture. At a regional level the big winner is obvious: Iran. In fact, Iran wins so big in this war that I've already said that Dick Cheney's DNA should be checked out by a reputable lab, because he has to be a Persian mole. My theory is that they took a fiery young Revolutionary Guard from the slums of Tehran, dipped him in a vat of lye to get that pale, pasty Anglo skin, zapped his scalp for that authentic bald CEO look, squirted a quart of cholesterol into his arteries so he'd develop classic American cardiac disease, and parachuted him into the outskirts of some Wyoming town. And that's how our VP was born again, a half-frozen zombie with sagebrush twigs in his jumpsuit, stumbling into the first all-night coffee shop in Casper talking American with a Persian accent: "Hello my friends! Er, I mean, hello my fellow Americans! Coffee? I will have coffee at once, indeed, and is not free enterprise a glorious thing? Say, O brethren of the frosty tundra, what do you say we finish our donuts and march on Baghdad now, this very moment, to remove the Baathist abomination Saddam?"
It took a couple years for Cheney-ajad to get his American accent right and chew his way into Bush Jr.'s head, but he made it like one of Khan's earwigs, got us to do the Ayatollahs' dirty work for them by taking out Iraq, their only rival for regional power. Iraq is destroyed, and Tehran hasn't lost a single soldier in the process. Our invasion put their natural allies, the Shia, in power; gave their natural enemies, the Iraqi Sunni, a blood-draining feud that will never end; and provided them with a risk-free laboratory to spy on American forces in action. If they feel like trying out a new weapon or tactic to deal with U.S. armor, all they have to do is feed the supplies or diagrams to one of their puppet Shia groups, or even one of the Sunni suicide-commando clans.
All these claims that Iran is helping the insurgents really make my head spin. Of course they're helping. They'd be insane if they weren't. If somebody invades the country next door, any state worth mentioning has to act. If Mexico got invaded by China, you better believe the U.S. would react. We'd lynch any president who didn't.
Gentlemen's bet: which leader's country will benefit more from America's idiotic wars?
What really amazes me is how patient Iran has been about it, how quiet and careful. They've covered their tracks carefully and kept their intervention to R&D level: just enough to keep Iraq burning, and patiently test out news IEDs.
But that's the Persian way: behind all the yelling, they're sly, clever people. If Iranian intelligence really wanted to flood Iraq with weaponry that would turn our APCs into well-insulated BBQs, they could have done it long ago. It's clear they're not doing that. They're smart enough to follow Napoleon's advice not to interfere with an enemy in the process of destroying himself - and stockpiling the new IED designs on their side of the border in case we're stupid enough to invade.
The situation in Iraq right now is optimum for Iran. Iraq is like a nuclear reactor that they can control by inserting and removing control rods. If Shia/Sunni violence looks like cooling off, Tehran's agents, who've penetrated both sides of the fight, play the hothead in their assigned Sunni or Shia gangs and lobby for a spectacular attack on enemy civvies or shrines - whatever gets the locals' blood up. Then, if things get too hot, which would mean the U.S. getting fed up and leaving, they drop a control rod into the reactor core by telling Sadr to call off his militia or letting the Maliki regime stage some ceremony for the TV crews, the kind that keeps the Bushies back in Ohio convinced it's all going to come out fine.
They need to keep us there, because - makes me sick to say it but it's true - our troops are now the biggest, strongest control rod the Persians are using to set the temperature of this war. They want us there as long as possible, stoking the feuds and making sure nobody wins. That's what we just did under Petraeus: switched sides, Shia to Sunni, because the Shia were getting too strong. Yeah, God forbid we should be unfair to the Sunnis, God forbid we should do anything to let somebody win. Let's just make Tehran happy by keeping the feud going another few centuries.
One thing Iran is pretty clearly not scared of is every American amateur's dream: a punitive U.S. invasion of Iran. In fact, like North Korea, their partner in the Axis of Evil, Iran is all but begging us to invade. Guys in junior high used to hold their chins out, tap them with a finger and say, "Come on, fucker, come on, hit me!" That's Iran now, chin out and begging for a right hook. Because with all the anti-armor know-how they've gained by now, they have traps waiting for us that would make Lara Croft's cave expeditions look like a backyard tea party. Even Cheney's team knows that, which is why they're talking about air raids on Iran these days, not invasion.
Another way countries can win in a regional war like this is from the money flooding in. The big winners of the Vietnam War were Thailand, Malaysia and Hong Kong. Thailand went from a failed state with a half-dozen insurgencies everywhere outside its central valley to a rich, happy tourist paradise during Nam. Modern Thailand is a country built on the backs and, uh, other body parts of its bar girls. Every time a GI spent his pay at the ping-pong shows in Bangkok, Thailand gained foreign exchange. The neon got brighter, the huts went split-level, and the Commie rebels swatting mosquitoes out there in the elephant grass started to feel a little foolish. Finally they said the Hell with it, bought suits and went Yuppie.
That's one way to beat an insurgency: bribe it. Unfortunately, the two neighboring states likely to benefit from the Iraq war are...yup, those twin towers of evil, Syria and Iran. Just imagine how much money is flowing into their border provinces right now. Need any U.S.-issue supplies, weapons, toilet paper, or GPS units cheap? Just ask at any bazaar in Damascus or Tehran. Uncle Sam's guarantee of quality - fell off the back of a two-and-a-half ton truck.
See, this is why I keep thinking Cheney's got to be an Iranian mole. How could he not see that a war in Iraq benefits noncombatant neighboring states? He had to know. He can't be that stup - Wait, I withdraw the comment.
Some paranoids want to list Israel among the winners, but I don't see it. Perle, Feith and Wolfowitz thought invading Iraq would help Israel, or rather Likud, but like everything else these geniuses predicted, it didn't happen. Iraq was never a threat to Israel. Iran is. And Iran is much stronger now. Last summer's war with Hezbollah was one the Israelis didn't really want to fight, but Cheney insisted. That was the deal, I guess: the U.S. takes out Saddam, then you take out Hezbollah. Instead, the IDF looked scared and weak in South Lebanon, so now Hezbollah and Iran are the poster-boys of every red-blooded Muslim kid on the planet.
Turkey, America's one real ally in the Middle East, is a huge loser in this war. We slapped them in the face, gave the Kurds a base to destabilize southeastern Turkey, and helped elect the first Islamist president in what used to be a proudly secular country. Happy now, Cheney, you Khomeini-loving, anti-American mole?
When you zoom farther out to look at the global picture, the question "Who won Iraq?" doesn't have such an obvious answer. It's much easier to see who lost: Us, and anybody who backed us. We looked invincible after taking out the Taliban. Not no more. If you use armored columns as stationary cops in enemy neighborhoods, you give the locals plenty of time to figure out their weak spots. That's what we did: gave the Arabs a trillion-dollar, multi-year seminar in how to defeat U.S. forces. Another lesson in the Brecher Doctrine: Nuke 'em, bribe 'em or leave 'em alone.
To find a winner in this war means looking outside the box, like they say - or rather outside the theater of war. Because the winners are the countries smart enough to stay out of it.
A little historical perspective first. Who won the Thirty Years War? France and England, the European powers that stayed out or just dabbled. France played that war a lot like Iran has played this one: tinkered around, tampered, spied and whispered to all the contenders, but never risked a big chunk of money or force. Every country that took part lost, and the Germans, who had what you might call the home field disadvantage, lost most of all, up to a third of their population. So if you cared about the Iraqis, which I don't and neither do you, then they'd win the Oscar for biggest losers here. But then they had that one locked up already.
So the likely winner of a war like this is an up-n-coming world economic power that has been investing in its own economy while we blow a trillion - yep, a trillion - dollars on nothing. Not hard to figure out who the likely suspects are here.
China understands that an army is most effective when kept penned in and on parade, rather than riding around a hostile, far-away country.
The answer to "Who won Iraq?" is Iran in the short run, and in the long run, China and India.
While we flounder around in the Dust Bowl, they've been running up their reserves, putting the money into infrastructure and bullion. The moment you wait for in a setup like this is the inevitable alliance between the regional winner and the global winners. And voila, it's already happened: In February Iran and India signed a pipeline deal sending Iranian oil to the exploding Indian market, bypassing Bush's Saudi/U.S. petro-outpost. If it weren't for Pakistan, the pipeline would already be in
place. And as you might have guessed, Iran and India are talking about how easily the pipeline can be looped over the Himalayas to China - an overland route invulnerable to U.S. sea power.
Luckily Pakistan lies right across the route and Pakistan is so hopelessly messed up that the CIA and ISI between them should be able to keep the black smoke pouring out of any section of line the Asiatics manage to finish.
But even that's bad news: we're reduced to a spoiler role, conspiring with the nastiest creeps in the world, the ISI, to keep our blood enemy Iran from forming a natural, inevitable market relationship with the two rising powers that have spent their money smart while we pissed it down the Tigris. A country as big and resilient as America can afford to lose a war now and then, especially when it's in a place like Nam, way off the trade routes. But a war like this... I don't know.
What's worst is that the war's made us dumber. When Sen. Graham asked his question, "Who won Iraq?" he thought he was being clever. He thought we're too dumb and soft to face that question and its answers. Because there are answers, pretty grim ones. I just hope people are tough enough to start thinking about them.
Anyway, for those of you collecting War Nerd guidelines, here's what I think are some general rules for "Who wins wars?"
1) In a big bloodbath like the Thirty Years War or WWI, the winner is usually the powers that don't fight, but dabble in spycraft and wet ops, meanwhile consolidating their own economic power.
2) The biggest loser is almost always the country on whose territory the war is fought. (Note: You could argue that America entered WWII fairly early and still came out ahead, but on the European Front up to D-Day our role was supplying materiel to the Russians and letting them do all the bleeding for us. On both fronts we were far away from the action and that allowed us to pick where and when to commit money and troops, so the generalization still holds: the further away you are, the better.)
3) In a regional war, the big winner will be any neighboring states that can stay out of the war and work out supply contracts with the richer combatant (Thailand during Nam, Argentina in WWI, Switzerland in every war since Ur took on Ur South).
4) However, if there's an ethnic spillover, like Turkey has with the Kurds, this relationship can backfire.
5) The worst thing a major power can do is go to war alone for "moral" reasons. This is how medieval France wasted its huge advantages on pointless Middle Eastern crusades that did nothing but revitalize the Muslims and drive down the price of white slaves in the Cairo market.
Damn, another unbelievably infuriating deja vu deal: we end up wasting our armies in the deserts of the Middle East, just like the French. Except even the French were too smart to fall for it this time around.