Bush Trifecta lands on Obama: Gaza, Iraq and Afghanistan Imploding

By Juan Cole

President Barack Obama of Hawaii had fondly dreamed of bidding turbulent and unrewarding West Asia farewell and turning the attentions of American diplomacy to East and South East Asia. From his point of view, the Bush administration had unwisely entangled the US too deeply in the Middle East, where no good deed goes unpunished. He had opposed the Iraq War, and thought the latter diverted attention from Afghanistan and the hunt for Bin Laden. He was willing to do a bit of Israel-Palestine diplomacy but not to really put his presidential prestige on the line the way Jimmy Carter had. And after all, Carter got almost no credit for averting decades more of Israel-Egypt wars.

The Bush administration’s activities in West Asia undermined stability there so badly, however, that the region has gone on haunting Obama and threatening to draw him into quagmires.


In January 2006, the Palestine Authority held elections in Gaza and the West Bank for the first time since 1996 when a parliament dominated by the Palestine Liberation Organization was elected. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon did not want Hamas (the Movement for Change) to be allowed to run, since the far-right Muslim fundamentalist organization had never accepted the Oslo Peace Process. Although back in the 1980s the Israelis had backed Hamas against its secular, nationalist rival, the PLO, by 2006 the two had fallen out.

The Bush administration was pushing its “Democracy Promotion” policy in “the Greater Middle East,” at the time, however, and insisted that Hamas must be allowed to run. Washington did not in any case think it could win.

But Hamas took more seats than the PLO in the Palestine National Council and formed a government, with Ismail Haniya as prime minister.

This outcome was unacceptable to the Israelis, who colluded with the PLO to stage a coup in the West Bank, which was turned over to Mahmoud Abbas (whose term ultimately came to an end but who remained president in the absence of new presidential elections).

The attempted coup in the Gaza Strip, however, failed. Hamas remained in control of its desperately poor million and a half population, having come to power through the ballot box. The Israeli government was disturbed, and in 2007 it placed the Gaza Strip under a severe blockade, intended to keep Palestinians there on the edge of hunger. The Palestinians were prevented from exporting most of what they produced, plunging them into severe unemployment. Israel hoped that the blockade would make Hamas unpopular and that the Gaza population would unseat it. They didn’t. Elements of the Israeli blockade on a non-combatant civilian population that is 50% children continue to this day. This is a violation of the 1949 Geneva Convention on the treatment of occupied populations by the military occupier.

I thought at the time that Hamas should not have been allowed to run because they are a paramilitary that has not committed to the rules of democracy. The Bush insistence that they be allowed to contest seats, followed by a fickle Bush complicity in the West Bank coup against them, created the current impasse. Hamas has stocked up on rockets with which to menace Israel psychologically (though don’t manage to hit much with the rockets). Israel wants to finish the job of the failed 2007 coup against Hamas, or short of that, to inflict attrition on their military capabilities.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s current military campaign in Gaza seeks to destroy or much reduce Hamas’s rockets stockpile. Netanyahu may hope that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who hates political Islam, will effectively prevent Hamas from rearming once its stockpiles of the more sophisticated missiles have been reduced or eliminated. Hamas was fickle, abandoning its patrons, Iran and Syria, for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood When the latter was overthrown last year this time, Hamas was left high and dry and vulnerable. Many Gaza youth are against it and formed a Rebellion movement on the Egyptian model. But It is Israel’s horrid treatment of the Palestinians of Gaza, sort of like Maynard keeps the Gimp in Pulp Fiction, that produces radical movements like Hamas or Islamic Jihad, and even if Netanyahu could polish them off, other similar ones would take their place. The problem is structural. You can’t kick people out of their homes and put them in a large open air concentration camp and expect to have peace with them.


In Afghanistan, the Bush administration should have used the Northern Alliance to overthrow the Taliban and then just left. Anand Gopal has argued convincingly that US troops left in Afghanistan got drawn into tribal feuds and destabilized the south and east of the country, whereas in the north, NATO forces that were less kinetic managed to keep calm. Bush’d decision to leave tens of thousands of US soldiers in Pushtun areas, engaging in the same sort of search and destroy tactics as had turned the South Vietnamese against the US military in the late 1960s, led to a neo-Taliban resurgence.

Bush’s “Democracy Promotion” in Afghanistan led to corrupt politics and ballot fraud that went on and got worse after Bush left office. Now, the presidential elections have produced a nail-biting finale in which it seems Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai has nudged out Abdullah Abdullah, with 56% of the vote; but that strangely doubles his tally in the April first round, raising Abdullah Abdullah’s suspicions of fraud.

This is a disaster because very close elections often seem to people illegitimate. Abdullah Abdullah, whose constituency is the Dari Persian-speaking Tajiks and Shiite Hazaras, is refusing to concede the election to Ahmadzai, for whom many Pushtuns voted. As I write, Afghanistan could be on the brink of violence of an ethnic sort over the contested election results. All this doesn’t even take into account the Taliban resurgence. US troop strength is scheduled to go down to 10,000 by the end of this year and to almost nothing by Jan. 1, 2017. But as with Iraq, substantial instability could bring the US right back in.


Having illegally invaded and occupied Iraq, the Bush administration originally wanted phony ‘caucus-based’ elections in Iraq, wherein hand-picked elite Iraqis would elect corrupt financier and inveterate prevaricator Ahmad Chalabi as prime minister. Some say Chalabi was a double agent, working for Iran. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the spiritual head of Iraq’s majority Shiite population, over-ruled Bush and insisted on one-person one vote parliamentary elections. Being the majority, the Shiites won in January 2005, but not just any Shiites. It was the pro-Iran fundamentalist Shiites that Bush inadvertently brought to power. Ooops. They went on deeply to alienate the formerly dominant Sunni minority, leading to the present Sunni rebellion in northern and western Iraq, in alliance with an al-Qaeda offshoot None of this would be happening if Bush hadn’t invaded on false pretenses.

In all three cases, an oddly uninformed and narrow vision of democratic transition guaranteed that “democracy promotion” would fail. No attention was given to training a new judiciary in the rule of law. The US presence itself was destabilizing in Iraq and Afhanistan, both because of the corruption it fostered and because of way US military personnel took sides in tribal feuds that had almost nothing to do with terrorism. That process in turn inflamed ethnic divisions.

All this has broken on Obama’s head in the past 30 days. Unfortunately for him, he can’t just go off and initial contracts in Shanghai. He has to try to make coherent policy in service of calming things down. But in the medium term, Iraq’s political elite needs to stop fiddling while Rome burns. It also needs a new and better constitution that doesn’t consistently produce hung parliaments. Afghanistan needs a Pushtun reconciliation process between former Taliban and the Northern Alliance.

As for Israeli actions in Gaza & the West Bank, the US could end them quickly and surely by simply ceasing to wield the UNSC veto in Israel’s regard.


Related video

Euronews: “Afghanistan: defiant Abdullah claims victory in disputed presidential poll”

30 Responses

  1. Republican websites have a new T shirt that has “I Miss W” printed on the front along with a picture of Bush with that all too familiar “What Me Worry?” look on his face.

    • Here in New Mexico, the big Republican T being hawked by the Susana Martinez campaign reads “I’ll be damned … I’m a Republican!”

      Probably closer to the bone than they’d intended…

  2. Great summary, Dr. Cole! Meanwhile, closer to home, the Bush-era law which welcomed any Central American political refugees from countries which were “Not Mexico” is stirring cries of “Failure of leadership!” from the several Republican governors here along the southern border.

    If you ask me, the only “failure of leadership” is that of John Boehner, the Speaker of the House who has somehow been incapable of actually legislating, and has instead turned to the tort system.

  3. On August 19, 2009, in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Phoenix, Arizona, Obama intentionally misled the American people by calling the war in Afghanistan a “war of necessity” and sent 30,000 more U.S. troops to fight the Taliban.

    The so-called “good war” was really just another surged planned by Gen. David Petraeus and supported by Sec. of Defense Robert Gates. The COIN strategy was a complete BUST and never had a chance of working in a country with terrain like Afghanistan against the Pushtuns, the largest ethnic group by far (41%). The planned Big Battle of Kandahar against the Taliban never materialized. As a result, the U.S. got bogged down in the “good war” and Obama’s presidency never really recovered.

    Dr. Cole, back in 2009, you warned against Obama’s foolish escalation. So did many others, including some in Reagan’s administration who had NO DOUBT about the fighting capability of Afghans who fought against the Soviet Union.

  4. Obama wanted to ‘pivot to the East’ because he knows or understands or cares very little about the Middle East and just wants it to go away. He has not a clue what to do about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict except to hand it over to George Mitchell and then, when that failed, to hand it to John Kerry and to leave it to them to solve the problem without any guidance at all and without any presidential pressure being applied to Israel
    On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Obama accepts completely the Zionist narrative of people longing for a homeland for two thousand years and then creating a state because of Nazi oppression, amplifying the myth of expulsion of Jews from Palestine 70 AD, which did not happen, and that the of the ‘longing to return’ persisting over two millennia.

    In fact there was no longing of Jews to “return” to Palestine and the Jewish embrace of Zionism did not occur until the 1880’s. It did so in the Russian Pale because of the onset of waves of anti-Semitism.
    The Jewish embrace of Zionism was preceded and conditioned by four centuries of Christian Zionism with almost the entire nineteenth century leadership of England exerting it best efforts to promote a Jewish ingathering in Palestine.
    The Zionist movement has never credited the contribution of the Christian Zionists in creating and then promoting Zionism.

  5. Well put…that’s about right,only ,nobody but nobody can stop the Israeli/Arab war of attrition…it’s a fight for the Posseson of the same land..both sides are in no position to push the other out….so on and on it goes

  6. Joseph Arrieta

    If everybody had an electric car couldn’t we just bail on the middle east? At least not spend a trillion dollars for this hell?

  7. “the Bush administration had unwisely entangled the US too deeply in the Middle East, where no good deed goes unpunished.” Our disasters in the Middle East are the result of our good deeds being punished????

  8. After 6 years of following the same policies as Bush, Obama is just as responsible as Bush for the mess we find ourselves in. If Bush invaded Iraq under false pretenses , Obama got elected with the false promise of “Change”.
    As soon as he got into Office, Obama buddied up with the same crew of fools that wrecked the world economy and set us on the path of perpetual War for oil and the greed addicted 1%.

    Our only slim hope is to form a people’s party not working for the 1%, but the people and the planet.

  9. As much as I DESPISE George W. Bush (with every fiber in my being) DO NOT DO NOT DO NOT pin the blame for Gaza on him! Or Iraq, or Afghanistan.

    The US government HAS ALWAYS SUPPORTED WHATEVER ISRAEL WANTED, and the socio-economic-political partitions that are now physically Gaza, the West Bank etc PRE-EXISTED George W. Bush’s birth by decades.

    US foreign policy in the Middle East since WWII is responsible for Gaza, the Baathist party’s rise to power in Iraq (and later a rationale to take them down), along with so many other global travesties such as the CIA and NATO’s consorting with Muj all over Central and South Asia with the able assistance of a mercenary recruiter commonly known as Osama bin-Laden.

    Why don’t we all simply admit Presidents are figureheads. They DO NOT make foreign policy nor do they even guide it anymore. Presidents are simply media-groomed administrators and GW Bush was the one we were supposed to look at, say “Jeez! He’s dumb!”,, as his cronies (actually higher on the corporatist food chain… Dick Cheney etc) did all the ‘wet work’ while we watched ‘boy wonder’ in dumbstruck horror.

    Stop vilifying him now. It’s ABSOLUTELY COUNTERPRODUCTIVE. The Obama administration is now responsible for MORE WAR CRIMES and ATROCITIES than GW was, and the NEXT president, no matter the party, will, in my estimation, surpass them all, with perhaps another world war waiting in the wings for us.

  10. Juan, great piece as usual. I would take exception with your ‘no good deed’ at the beginning. It may have been tongue in cheek, but the U.S. like other countries promote their own interests, not ‘good’ deeds. In the ME we’re there primarily to keep relatively cheap oil flowing and, geopolitically, to promote the Zionist agenda. To those ends we promote peace and ‘democracy’. We’ve supported murderous thugs throughout the world (think School of the Americas as an example), so our democratic credentials are murky at best!

  11. By providing $500 Million in arms to “moderates” in Syria, is Obama indirectly supporting ISIS in Iraq?

    Is this a conscious US policy?

  12. When the US finally leaves or is pushed permanently out, China will come in and make deals for the mineral riches of Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq, in exchange for huge infrastructure projects like it undertakes in Africa and South America. It’s just a matter of “when,” not “if.”

  13. So much talk about nothing that will bring peace and prosperity the 98% of the world.

    The secrecy of governments, corporations allows them to the play the sick game of wealth, wars, depressions, etc.

    Real democracy and capitalism do not exist in America nor in most of the world.

    Real democracy includes:
    1. All people “honestly informed” so that they can “consciously vote” for “honest leaders”. Honesty without secrecy is the key.

    2. Equal treatment and equal rights for everyone.

    Who controls the money, the banking system controls the people.
    A major turning point in America occurred in 1911 when the Federal Reserve Act was slipped through Congress during the Christmas holidays when the billionaires and millionaires seeded Congress. The control of money in America was given to the privately banks of the rich.

    Close down the Fed and IMF, return the control of money back to the people, to their honest government.
    Close down the Military Industrial and Intelligence complexes.
    Close down the billionaires and millionaires: tax them and spread the wealth to all.
    Replace the phony elections with honest elections with honest information on all candidates.
    Take the money out of elections.
    Eliminate all secrecy in governments.

    Honesty, honesty, honesty………
    No secrecy in governments. No secrecy in governments.

  14. Obama is not just cleaning up the mess that Bush left. Obama’s inaction on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has allowed the situation to deteriorate, much like a physician leaving an open wound to fester while just wishing it would go away.

    During the Obama administration, Palestinian rights and property and resources have further diminished at an accelerating pace while the Israeli government has become more entrenched in its program of ethnic cleansing, and the settlers and settlements more entrenched in the occupied territories.

    Obama’s consistent and predictable vetoes of any Security Council resolution attempting to bring Israel into compliance with international law sets the precedence of a Jewish state above the law and international norms.

  15. I fear we are about to see another Operation Cast Lead. How many Palestinians will die in this round, and how many homes and how much infrastructure will be left? If Obama is the only person who could stop this, and going on past performance he won’t, he will have yet more blood on his hands.

    • Saf, I’ve heard it said that one of the geopolitical rationales for the US to be present in Afghanistan ‘endlessly’, and the purpose of building Afghanistan highway one ring road is to pull the sociocultural influences AWAY from Pakistan. Towards India. That is what I’ve heard. Further The New America Foundation (Twitter: @NewAmerica, Neoliberal) is promoting an author who says 14 years of destroying Afghanistan was a waste. We should be destroying Pakistan. Blogged a while back with a map of the ring road.

    • Yep, have to acknowledge and encourage and acquiesce in that notion and its relatives and corollaries, since “we” have to continue overt and covert support for “extraterroritoriality” if “we” are to continue to do what “we” so ardently are about, under some claim of That’s How The Game Is Played (and “we” are major players, all of “us” conspiring and competing to see who will get to consume the last drop of the oil G_D gave us, and combust the last cubic centimeter of methane mix). It’s just the inevitable Way Things Are, ans Smart People figure out how to maximize their own pleasures by surfing the waning wave of kleptocombustoconsumption…

  16. The myth that Obama opposed the Iraq War never dies. Actually Obama, along with H. Clinton, supported every war spending bill while he was in the senate. Prior to entering the senate, when he didn’t have any national authority, Obama might have remarked that he was against the war. But that isn’t really “opposing” it either, is it, compared to those of us who marched as early as December 2002.

  17. Grand Ayatollah Sistani didn’t overrule the Bush administration on one man, one vote. He forced them to bend to his will by putting on two large demonstrations in January, 2004.

    Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney bear the real blame for regime change. In 1991, Bush sr. invaded Iraq with close to 500,000 troops. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Shinseki said it would take “several hundred thousand” troops for long-term occupation in 2003. Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz insisted that figure was “much too high” and went ahead and invaded with ONLY 150,000 troops. Our “iddy-biddy imperial army” was how one military friend describe the woefully inadequate troop numbers. Rummy was about a quarter of million troops short.

    People blame George Bush because it makes them feel better to blame someone who they see as intellectually limited rather than admitting they were duped by their intellectually superiors. The American public were fooled by Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld and Darth Cheney. Their propaganda campaign leading to the invasion of Iraq was simply diabolically BRILLIANT. By the time we cut loose, most of the public was BARKING FOR WAR ’cause they thought Saddam was about to NUKE ‘MERICA!!!


  18. Add Honduras to the list, now showing in south Texas and in your local neighborhood.

    • Jeff […]Add Honduras to the list, now showing in south Texas and in your local neighborhood…

      …Except of course, that wasn’t Bush, it was Obama.[…]

      Wait what? Who was responsible for NAFTA? I have an anecdote, living near the EX-produce cooling houses of Watsonville California and having seen it’s effects on commercial agriculture. I worked as a professional sound technician for touring band in the early 1980s and we had a stop in the cowtown of El Paso Texas, right on the border with the Mexican city of Juarez. They were both sleepy little cow towns back then.

      I ventured through again on my way back from my father’s funeral in 2007. El Paso is HUGE, and Juarez? That’s where all the Maquiladoras, AKA border Free Trade Zone sweatshops are. Juarez has a current population of 2.7 MILLION people (2013) and a cosmetics company ATTEMPTED to market a set of shades for women based on the overworked under-slept look of those slave laborers that make all the crap we consume. Women’s groups worldwide shut THAT down with bad pr in every womans mag.

      The children fleeing from Honduras? They MAY be looking for work, but the root of THAT migration is traceable to a US BACKED COUP in the country. Remember that? Forged resignation papers allegedly signed by the president and a quick trip out of the country courtesy of US Special Operators… AN “Aristide” as they’re known in the biz (snigger).

  19. Even though he is just a placeholder figurehead front man, Barack Obama, the Only President We Currently Got, does not deserve any kind of pass for what has transpired on his watch. He may be riding a tiger or hanging on to a hungry lioness by the root of its tail, but there sure appears to be a lot that a person in that position could do to at least change the direction and speed of the charge. Not so likely, of course, if the rider is enamored of, and in bed with, the worst of “us,” whether it’s “Wall Street” or “K Street” or “C Street” or that amorphous fog of special pleaders and “policy mavens” and and invisible-in-plain-sight-e.g.,-Whoops!anotherproblemtrillion$F-35 MIC thieves and sneaky-petes, all of whom, like the waves of cilia and peristaltic contractions of our national bowels, drive healthy food past the tapeworms “we” host, for their profit and delectation, on its way to exhausted excretion into the septic pit of history. He signs the death warrants for droning and Black Ops, he bolsters the Security State at every turn, he fosters “all of the above continued combustion policy” while doing shell games with large but faux announcements of “cutting back coal plant emissions 30% (wink wink).” He and his loved ones will live out their lives in luxurious comfort, he will glean other wishful and undeserved “honors” like Nobel Peace Prizes, and I hope I live long enough to see what his memorial library looks like, where it’s located, what it “features” and what’s in its collection that’s available to students of stupidity and idiocy and disingenuity. One wonders what he is convinced of, regarding where “we” are on the slide into species extinction and screwed-up planetary ecology. I bet, a whole lot more than he lets on… Thanks for sharing, Mr. President! There once was more than enough to go all the way around — too bad you had either no interest in, or no ability to accomplish, seeing it stabilized and shelled out fairly and decently and sustainably…

  20. One cannot even imagine Obama engaging Israel the way Jimmy Carter engaged the Israeli leader Manachem Begin, and Anwar el Sadat at Camp David. Obama simply does not have the knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to engage Netanyahu in the same kind of extended debates which took place between Carter and Begin at Camp David in 1978.

  21. You might want to recheck your history of Palestinian politics. Mahmoud Abbas was elected PA president in 2005 and his term had not expired when Hamas took over Gaza in 2007.

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