If I had to distill American strategic defeat and loss of purpose in the Middle East into a single image, it would be the Iraqi-Jordanian border post in June 2014. As I wrote in The [Un]documented Mark Steyn:
Eleven years ago, a few weeks after the fall of Saddam, on little more than a whim, I rented a beat-up Nissan and, without telling the car-hire bloke, drove from Amman through the eastern Jordanian desert, across the Iraqi border, and into the Sunni Triangle. I could not easily make the same journey today, but for a brief period in the spring of 2003 we were ‘the strong horse’ and even a dainty little media gelding such as myself was accorded a measure of respect by the natives. The frontier is a line in the sand drawn by a British colonial civil servant and on either side it’s empty country. From the Trebil border post, you have to drive through ninety miles of nothing to get to Iraq’s westernmost town, Rutba – in saner times an old refueling stop for Imperial Airways flights from Britain to India. Fewer of Her Majesty’s subjects swing by these days. I had a bite to eat at a café whose patron had a trilby pushed back on his head Sinatra-style and was very pleased to see me. (Rutba was the first stop on a motoring tour that took me through Ramadi and Fallujah and up to Tikrit and various other towns.)
In those days, the Iraqi side of the Trebil border was manned by US troops. So an ‘immigration official’ from the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment glanced at my Canadian passport, and said, ‘Welcome to Free Iraq.” We exchanged a few pleasantries, and he waved me through. A lot less cumbersome than landing at JFK. I remember there was a banner with a big oval hole in it, where I assumed Saddam’s face had once been. And as I drove away I remember wondering what that hole would be filled with.
Well, now we know. That same border post today is manned by head-hacking jihadists from the ‘Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’.
It was a shameful moment – one that mocked the sacrifice of thousands of American lives as shock and awe dwindled down to desultory semi-colonial policing:
If you had asked me, in that café in Rutba eleven years ago, as I was enjoying what passed for the ‘mixed grill’ with mein host, what utter defeat would look like in a single image, it would be hard to beat the scene that now greets you in the western desert: An Iraqi border post staffed by hardcore jihadists from an al-Qaeda spin-off. The details are choice – the black flag of al-Qaeda flies from buildings built by American taxpayers, they drive vehicles paid for by American taxpayers, they shoot aircraft out of the sky with Stinger missiles donated by American taxpayers – and thousands of their footsoldiers are nominally Britons, Frenchmen, Aussies, Canucks, Americans and other western citizens for whom the open road in Iraq, decapitating as they go, is the greatest adventure of their lives. Until they return ‘home’.
But, as I said, these are details. The central image – the al-Qaeda man at the border post – is in itself an image of complete and utter defeat.
That was June 2014.
This weekend, half a decade after that shameful image, US special forces arrived at the door of the wannabe caliph. After dragging three kids and two missuses down into a dead-end tunnel, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi blew himself and his family to Virgin Central. He left his head, more or less intact, which I wouldn’t be averse to Trump putting on a spike across the street from The Washington Post. The Post‘s obituaries department, to general derision from the Internet, marked the Caliph’s unexpected self-detonation with the headline “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, austere religious scholar at helm of Islamic State, dies at 48“.
Which, aside from anything else, must have baffled those readers who had been assured by media bien pensants for years that what the BBC insists on referring to as “the so-called Islamic State” has nothing to do with Islam. And now we find out it’s “helmed” (as they say in Variety) by an austere Islamic scholar…
In the months after seizing the Trebil border post, the new Caliphate pushed on further, to the Turkish border in the north, the Iranian in the east, the Saudi in the south, and touching the Mediterranean in at least a couple of spots in the west. The Washington think-tanks estimated that at its greatest extent the Islamic State controlled 42,000 square miles; ISIS itself claimed over 100,000 square miles – which in terms of where they operated with more or less impunity is not implausible. They erased the Anglo-French borders of 1922, looted every town they took in eastern Syria and western Iraq, sold the oil they seized, and took a healthy commission from the refugee racket ferrying boats across the Med from both Syria and Libya to Greece and Italy.
To President Obama, Isis was a “junior varsity team”, which is itself a junior varsity analogy. If you were foolish enough to take him at his word, and thought Syria was just a somewhat more lively outpost of the “Arab Spring”, you went wandering Raqqa-wards to lend “humanitarian assistance” and wound up starring in your own snuff video and wondering why your decapitator appeared to have a northern English or Australian accent. Thus 26-year-old Arizona “aid worker” Kayla Mueller:
If “idealism” is defined as taking the side of the Palestinians against the Israelis, Kayla Mueller was super-idealistic. That’s her right, of course – the right to choose which side she was on. And then she took her “idealism” and “optimism” off to Syria. And, even though she was on their side and believed as they do that “resistance flows from the minaret five times a day”, to ISIS she was just another high-value infidel. So they kidnapped her and killed her.
Kayla Mueller didn’t deserve to die, anymore than her fellow victims in the vast mound of corpses piled up by the Islamic State deserved to die. But an “idealist” is just a rosy-hued evasion for a dupe.
That “Co-Exist” sticker? If it weren’t for the Islamic crescent in the “C” you wouldn’t need a sticker at all… But Miss Mueller was way beyond “Co-Exist”. “Resistance flows from the minaret,” she enthused. And a fat lot of good it did. In the end, she was no less an infidel than Rumsfeld or Cheney. And she is dead because her “idealism” prevented her from understanding that.
Four months after Kayla Mueller’s execution, Donald Trump came down that escalator. He is not to everyone’s taste stylistically but he is a more serious man than his predecessor, and than many of his GOP rivals, who simply assumed that a Republican restoration would mean a return to Bush-style “war on terror”. Trump grasped a simple truth but one apparently beyond Bill Kristol & Co – that there are no takers for ineffectual warmongering. If “shock and awe” had actually shocked and awed, things might be different. But it didn’t. As I wrote in The Spectator a little over sixteen years ago, or about six months after my mixed grill in post-Saddam Rutba – October 11th 2003:
In a nutshell, Iraq is the last war. That’s to say, the last war in which the Bush Administration will spend the months beforehand amassing a quarter of a million troops on an enemy’s borders. Doing it that way gives the enemy too long to enlist his own forces — the Western media, the UN and the moth-eaten French pantomime mule of Messrs Chirac and de Villepin. All these parties are dedicated to ensuring that even when the Americans win, they lose. The speed with which they’ve managed to taint victory in Iraq is impressive, though it bears no relation to anything so tiresome as reality. So from hereon in engagements in the war of terror will be swift, sudden and as low-key as can be managed. The US will depend not on multilateralism but bilateralism — the many agreements the Americans have signed for base rights and training missions and other below-the-radar stuff from the Middle East through old Soviet Central Asia to the Pacific. There will be, faute de mieux, a reliance on light and mobile configurations and special forces.
If you’re an old-school imperialist such as myself, one might wish it were different. But America has not an imperialist bone in its body and, without it, long-term occupation, ever more confined to Iraq’s “Green Zone” or Afghanistan’s “crusader forts” (as an Aussie PM described the allied bases to me), is a fool’s errand. So we have to figure out how to win with “light and mobile configurations”.
Thus Trump these last two-and-a-half years: When he took the oath of office, the Islamic State was a nascent Saudi Arabia, bloodsoaked and oil-rich and merely awaiting diplomatic recognition. Month by month, he shrunk it, and reduced it from a caliphate back to a terrorist group – but without committing vast numbers of American infantrymen: low-key shock and awe. That culminated this weekend with a brilliantly executed raid on the holed-up Caliph – and with his head as a highly apt trophy of war.
With their usual unerring timing, NBC’s “Saturday Night Live”, winner of thirty-seven Emmies for Best Toothless Committee-Written Satire, opened this weekend with a sketch in which Trump’s Syria pullout, widely derided by all sides in Washington, is credited with “bringing jobs back” …for Isis. I wonder how many comic geniuses it took to come up with that rib-cracker.
Nevertheless, thanks to Trump (the real one, not Alec Baldwin), the leaden jest came true – at least in the sense that Isis now has an opening for Caliph, no previous experience required. For good measure, even as the President was giving that remarkable and masterful one-hour Sunday press conference, news came that the Islamic State’s Number Two guy is unlikely to be promoted:
Likely Successor to Dead ISIS Leader Also Reported Killed
Oh, my. Looks like the austere-religious-scholar obituary department at The Washington Post will also be needing extra staff.
~We had a busy weekend at SteynOnline, starting with Mark’s guest-hosting stint on “Tucker Carlson Tonight”, covering a slew of subjects from the investigation into the Russia investigation to the shrinking ozone hole via Hunter Biden’s Romanian windfall and Elizabeth Warren’s gun grab. You can watch the full show here. Saturday’s movie date reviewed The Road to Wellville, the story of Kellogg’s before they got on the road to Wokeville, and Sunday’s song selection tore up the seats to “Rock Around the Clock“. If you were too busy this weekend trying to self-detonate in a dead-end tunnel, I hope you’ll want to check out one or three of the foregoing as a new week commences.
Because of the austere Islamic scholar’s unfortunate demise, our marquee presentation, the latest audio adventure in Tales for Our Time, was postponed for a day. The first episode of a spooky tale for this week of Halloween will air on Monday evening.
Tales for Our Time is made with the support of members of The Mark Steyn Club, for which we are extremely grateful. For more information on the Steyn Club, see here – and, for more on this month’s exclusive members-only events, see here.
Mark will catch you Monday on the telly with Tucker – and right here with Tales for Our Time just before that.