The Sad, Discordant Ballad of Husham al-Hashimi

The man who pulled the trigger on Husham al-Hashimi—by first misfiring an assault rifle and then pulling out his pistol to shoot the victim at point-blank range—was a first lieutenant in Iraq’s Ministry of Interior. He had only graduated as an officer in July 2019 after serving as a policeman for fourteen years.

The assailant, Ahmed al-Kinani, was known to be a quiet man. His colleagues and superiors were shocked after it was revealed that he had confessed to murdering al-Hashimi. Al-Kinani was respectful to his officers, was meticulous in his attendance and had not demonstrated the bravado of someone who dabbled in extrajudicial killings on the side. In fact, they did not peg him as the violent type at all: for most of his career as a policeman he had been assigned as a security guard at the home of a top police officer. He was the guy at the front gate whom the officer’s wife would ask to pick up groceries. After becoming an officer himself, al-Kinani had been relegated to administrative duties at the Directorate of Engineering Works at the ministry. Again, a ho-hum posting.

Al-Kinani was tracked down electronically and placed at the scene of the crime by investigators. He was then arrested on July 9. He confessed willingly and fully. He even struck the interrogators as sincere in demonstrating remorse; they did not have to go down the route of torture to get him to talk. Al-Kinani told them that he was one of seven in the assassination squad—the rest are still at large. He also confessed that he is a member of the Kata’ib Hezbollah militia. He claimed that al-Hashimi was targeted for being an American agent, or so he was told by the two men who gave him the order. It is unclear how far up the militia’s chain of command the decision was taken. Many political and diplomatic actors have a vested interest in minimizing its leadership’s exposure. The Iraqi government for its part, when releasing news of the confession, edited out any direct references to Kata’ib Hezbollah. I beat out the government in announcing his arrest, his rank and a few other biographical details on Twitter by a few hours—I did not, however, leave out his political affiliation. I got word back that functionaries within the prime minister’s office were distressed by what I had revealed. Oh well.

So far, all this fits the narrative that has come to be associated with al-Hashimi’s murder. But there’s more, much more, and I take al-Hashimi’s story to reflect much of what remains beyond the reaches of how Iraq is discussed. His story is instructive; he was a man of his times, and what times! I can think of few other trajectories that so encapsulate the contradictions, the sorrows, and the shocking, unsettling decisions individuals have had to make to survive in a landscape as tempestuous as that of Iraq’s after 2003.

For when I heard the news of his murder, at first I considered the prospect that he had been killed off on American orders. You see, al-Hashimi had been working for Iran’s intelligence service, the Etalaat, as I shall be alleging in this essay, and had seemingly revealed to them details of the Central Intelligence Agency’s sources and methods in Iraq during the time he worked for the latter. In fact, it seems that al-Hashimi still had access to CIA-generated intelligence that had been shared with Iraqi counterparts even after leaving its service. It gets more intriguing: the CIA officer that had initially championed al-Hashimi as a source, back in 2006, had been promoted during the Trump administration to the role of the Agency’s point man on starting fires within Iran. So a former protégé of his having gone over to the other side would have been too much of an embarrassment. There was motive. There were means. But with al-Kinani’s confession it turned out that it wasn’t the Americans who were responsible for al-Hashimi’s blood after all.

How did it come to all this?

I wrote these words in January 2016. Read them closely for they will matter:

I had set the location of Gezi Park as the rendezvous spot with an Iraqi friend who was staying at a hotel near it. This friend carried in his personal experience all the contradictions of revolution and the status quo. He was from a Shi’ite family, but had converted to Sunnism. His brand of Sunnism was its most extreme: Salafist jihadism, which landed him in one of Saddam’s prisons for most of the 1990s. He was an early enabler of Zarqawi’s, when the latter had arrived in Baghdad from Afghanistan, even before the war. My revolutionary friend arranged for his band of Salafists to gather arms and ordinance, and rob banks, just as American tanks were rolling in. He plotted for revolution by coordinating with Salafist revolutionaries across the Middle East. He was hosted at times by Saudi princes, and traveled to Libya to raise funds for the revolution from Qaddafi. He only turned on Zarqawi because the latter had sought to dominate the Salafist revolution. Zarqawi ordered the killing of my friend’s father and two brothers in reprisal. When Zarqawi’s heirs attempted to establish a de facto caliphate in Iraq, my friend’s Salafist mentors in Saudi Arabia instructed him to wage war on the Zarqawists. He was given free rein to work with the Americans and the Iraqi state in achieving victory.

It was difficult for me to accept his friendship. I suspect his brand of revolution may have been responsible in some manner for the deaths of many friends of mine. But there was something about him that was endearing. He seemed to have developed remorse about his past. He may have self-servingly turned against the Zarqawi revolution to save his own Salafist revolution, but in the process he began to see things differently. He tells me that all he does now is atone for those prior sins. I was interested in his own quest for redemption as a human. He still carries many contradictions: to him, the House of Saud is still the best possible ally against a resurgent Shi’ism. Even Erdogan, close as he is to the Muslim Brotherhood—whom the Salafists detest—is a good soldier-sultan for Sunnism as far as he is concerned. My friend had ceased to be a revolutionary, and was now in the service of the regional status quo.

So it was a privilege to see Gezi Park not only through my own eyes, but through his too. Oddly, he kept repeating a mantra: “this is not right. Turks (the protesters) shouldn’t be doing this (against Erdogan).” I could sense that he was genuinely taken back by all the diversity there, the kind of diversity that is anathema to Salafism. I could sense too that he was surprised at himself for discovering that an intense array of diversity wasn’t so bad after all. As the crowds began swelling for a confrontation with the police, he clambered atop a burnt car to get a better look. I took a picture of him in that instant: the one-time Salafist revolutionary standing above a revolution very different from his own.

These days, this friend of mine posts pictures of himself at the Baghdad protests. He has become a vocal proponent of madaniyya. How did the change come about? I’m not sure. But I am glad that it did. Could his transformation have happened had he not witnessed the protests in Gezi Park? Would I have been able to see the transformation come to light had it not been for the occasion of the Baghdad protests?

I saw his pictures on the same Facebook timeline along with pictures of another friend, a Shiite cleric in full clerical regalia standing among the protesters. This other friend was once a Sadrist firebrand, and a rising leader of the movement. He was arrested by the Americans and imprisoned in Camp Bucca for three years. Camp Bucca was the same prison in which the current caliph of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was allegedly radicalized. However, my friend emerged from there as a liberal democrat. He kept his turban, but adopted a very different tone. When the protests came, he too adopted the term madaniyya as his rallying cry. Even his one-time leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, has recently hosted the leaders of the protests, including the Communist one.

I wish it were all a hopeful story. But it isn’t. The liberal Shi’ite cleric felt threatened by Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias, and recently opted to become a political refugee in London to be just another statistic in the rolls of the Middle Eastern exodus to Europe.

These two gentlemen may represent outlier cases. But since they were no ordinary foot soldiers for their respective causes, their transformation is rendered extraordinary, and instructive. Instructive not just to Western audiences as a feel-good story, but rather instructive to thousands and thousands of young men and women who may be vulnerable to the call of extremism, as these two had been in their youth. I am sure that Kratsev, in his capacity as a political scientist, can see the utility of such individuals becoming leaders of the madaniyya movement. Madaniyya may be merely a brand at this point rather than a fully formed ideology. But it is a more merciful brand, and maybe a potent brand, against the available brands of jihadism. And if there is utility in that, wouldn’t supporting it be a realistic endeavor, even if wasn’t a Realist one?

Whether the once-Salafist revolutionary and the once-Sadrist one ever get to see madaniyya succeeding in Iraq is an open question. Whether Baghdad’s Tahrir Square shall witness a firefight between the revolutionaries of the caliphate and the revolutionaries now led by Iranian general Qassim Suleimani is a possibility, a dark one. The believers in madaniyya may end up on rafts heading to Europe because their ‘Big Idea’ was no match for the forces of disorder. It is a heartbreaking prospect, as we saw in Paris, that the forces of disorder may chase them all the way there too.

The person I met at Gezi Park on June 15, 2013 was Husham al-Hashimi. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were witnessing the protest there during its last hours. We left right before the riot police moved in force, and were having dinner in nearby Beyoglu when the park was being violently cleared, blissfully unaware of the commotion.

The other person referred to, the former Sadrist, is Ghaith al-Tamimi. A few hours after al-Hashimi was assassinated in Baghdad on the evening of July 6, 2020, al-Tamimi published a few screen shots of a WhatsApp conversation between him and al-Hashimi revealing that the latter had been threatened by the Kata’ib Hezbollah militia; al-Hashimi wanted advice from al-Tamimi as to how to ameliorate tensions with them. Al-Tamimi’s subsequent media appearances to discuss the messages helped create a public impression that Kata’ib Hezbollah had made good on their threats against al-Hashimi. Suspicions in the media centered on a Kata’ib Hezbollah leader who allegedly went by the non-de-guerre ‘Abu Ali al-Askari’, and who al-Hashimi had publicly identified earlier (in March 2020) as Hussein Mu’enes Faraj al-‘Aboodi (the latter issued a communique denying the accusations of his involvement in al-Hashimi’s murder). Left unmentioned in al-Tamimi’s disclosures was that his messages with al-Hashimi were exchanged in mid-February, almost five months before the assassination. However, the allegation was eventually attested to with the killer’s recent arrest.

I first met al-Hashimi in the winter of 2010, in Baghdad. We were introduced by a friend who told me that al-Hashimi was eager to meet me. Al-Hashimi was an unknown person at the time. He immediately expressed admiration for a paper I had written about the jihadists and the caliphate which I had translated into Arabic and disseminated on jihadist discussion forums for the purpose of riling them up. I began to tell him about a new monograph that I had published about how jihadists perceived a transition of their fight to Syria. He was enthralled by the prediction and began recalling anecdotal evidence to support my hypothesis.

I found that al-Hashimi was very knowledgeable about jihadist topics such as ideology, strategy and hierarchy. So I began probing using material I had gleaned from another source I had met only a week before. That person was a significant ‘ex’-jihadist too. The man introduced himself as Abu Falah, from Tikrit. He began telling me a tantalizing tale about the rise of Iraqi Salafism and its central role in the insurgency. We spoke for hours. It was eye-opening. I thought the mutual acquaintance at whose home we had met would arrange for a second, more in-depth meeting during which I could take copious notes. I never got the opportunity to sit with him again though. He disappeared and apparently pressed my acquaintance never to revisit our talk. I later found out that the pseudonym ‘Abu Falah’ was useless in trying to track him down.

What I missed out on with Abu Falah I got to compensate, modestly, with al-Hashimi. It was difficult to piece his stories together for he was, it quickly became clear, a master at disinformation. However what I got from him was a run of the raw story of Iraqi Salafism and jihadism, and his role in it, before he had the opportunity to modify and edit some aspects of it as he became a prominent media personality and researcher. I still have those notes. We had two long sit-downs at my home in Baghdad (one of them in the presence of the person who first introduced us) and then we spent a whole day together in Istanbul on January 18, 2011. That was our first time there. We went sightseeing. We went to a traditional bathhouse. We took a meeting with a Turkish businessman. We had a couple of meals. We sat for several rounds of coffee and tea. We talked. A lot. And throughout it all I had al-Hashimi answering many questions. It was the final phase of a ‘debriefing’. I confronted him with several contradictions in his story, and while off-balance, he would reveal a tiny bit more. He knew what I was doing, and it was part of a game we played many, many times later over the years, often in Baghdad, a couple more times in Istanbul: sifting out his disinformation from the facts that mattered. I once told him that I think forty percent of what he tells me is disinformation—he chuckled at that.

And it was on that brisk day, as we were sitting in the popular Firuzaga teahouse in Cihangir as dusk was upon us, warming our hands by clasping a sage leaf tea concoction, when al-Hashimi shared a tidbit that would haunt me in the months preceding his murder. He revealed the nickname that the Americans had given him. At the time, all it warranted from me was a shrug. But it was one of those things that stick in one’s memory. Eight years later I would be forced to revisit it. 

His past up to the winter of 2010-2011 was not what haunted me. I do not know why he chose to confide in me. When I had met him he was no longer dangerous as a jihadist. And even if he were snooping for the Saudis or the Turks, as I sometimes suspected, I didn’t feel as if that was particularly threatening to my safety. Yet it is a very different game when the Iranians play it. I think al-Hashimi thought he could temporarily turn to the Iranians and play them as he had played many others before them. He would have assumed that his services to them would get swirled into the general chaos of Iraq, and that he would get away with perfunctory favors rendered in return for temporary protection from their minions. Even so, how would anyone ever know?—he must have thought. But that is not how the Etalaat works. Once you enter through their doors you are theirs—for life. It is a particularly nasty and effective organization. I felt sorry for al-Hashimi, that he had gotten himself so tragically entrapped. I was hoping that he would be wise enough to understand that he had no recourse but to escape Iraq and the Middle East, and to start anew somewhere far away. It seems he did not see it that way. But before we delve into this part of the story some aspects of his past must be recounted for they may provide an explanation as to why he walked into the Etalaat’s den to begin with.

Some parts of his jihadist past are now known. Al-Hashimi was born into a Shia family that had moved to Baghdad in the 1980s from al-Fajr District, which is situated between al-Rifa’i and al-Hayy in southern Iraq. His full name was Husham Jallab Ira’ayyid Abdullah Muhammad al-Rikabi; ‘al-Hashimi’ was an affectation. (There are several versions of his full name—this is the one he gave me.) He gravitated towards a Sunni mosque near his home in Karrada as a youth. He became a Salafist. He was arrested by the Saddam Hussein regime several times throughout the 1990s. He spent some time in the Salafist bastions of Iraqi Kurdistan. He was arrested by the Americans after 2003. He was one of the founders and chief operators of Jaish al-Mujaheddin.

The Jaish al-Mujaheddin was a nasty, murderous organization. Its members were responsible for numerous assassinations, bombings and military confrontations. They targeted Iraqi civilians, Iraqi army and police, and U.S. soldiers and contractors. Its victims number in the thousands. Al-Hashimi was one of that organization’s chief ideologues and financiers. He was involved in intricate issues such as mandating specific assassinations and bombings as legal and justified under Islamic law. When I wrote above that “I suspect his brand of revolution may have been responsible in some manner for the deaths of many friends of mine” I was referencing a specific event that al-Hashimi, although he did not take outright responsibility for it he did try to justify the operation anyway and in doing so revealed that he knew a lot about its specifics. This indicated to me that he and the Jaish al-Mujaheddin could have been involved in the murder of Sheikh Haitham al-Ansari, a dear friend of mine and onetime comrade-in-arms, on December 30, 2004.

Al-Hashimi was very keen on inflating his role in the insurgency, at least when talking to me. I didn’t quite understand why he would do so. He claimed that he rented an apartment for Abu Musa’ab al-Zarqawi in Baghdad, and found a Pepsi stand for Abu Hamza al-Muhajir to manage, also in Baghdad, before the 2003 war even started. He would also claim to have been one of the chief conduits of Gulf money to the insurgents, placing himself at such noteworthy events such as the time when the moniker ‘Islamic Army’ was coined at the home of a Saudi prince (the ruler of Jeddah, to be specific), and when bags of cash were being disbursed by Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. He even implied that it was he who provided Zarqawi with a reading list to shape his anti-Shia rhetoric. I did chase down some of the names and events he referenced. It was difficult to do so given the closed nature of jihadist circles but where I was successful I concluded that he had made up some of the details.

Al-Hashimi claimed to have a PhD in manuscript preservation. I spoke to a man who said that that would not have been possible; this topic is only taught as a multi-week course in Iraq, and it was this man who taught it. He does not remember al-Hashimi as one of his students. Up to that point I would habitually call al-Hashimi by the honorific ‘Dr.’ as many did, but I stopped when I realized it was a fib.

Another claim that al-Hashimi made was that he was a major disinformation strategist for the jihadists. This claim holds more water. He claimed one of his chief targets for disinformation was CNN’s Michael Ware because “Ware would always share his intel with the CIA, so this way we got our disinformation into the CIA bloodstream” as he told me. One particular success he cited was a campaign to inflate the numbers of jihadists, the ultimate goal of which was to get this information to the Badr Corps and to deter them from encroaching on Sunni neighborhoods and areas lest they invite ever fiercer retaliation from the jihadists. At the time, al-Hashimi’s cover was that of a minor bureaucrat for the Iraqi Red Crescent Society in Baghdad. It was there that he got close to the Karbouli brothers, and their subsequent rise in the world of politics would benefit him too. He would prove to be an effective networker.

I was never able to pin down the ‘when and why’ of his break with the jihadists, and with Zarqawi in particular. Al-Hashimi left Iraq at some point. Was it after he was arrested by the Americans? I don’t know. His criminal file record was ‘16646 Karkh’—it’s been scrubbed clean though and the file itself no longer exists according to an Iraqi security source. But rather than stay in Syria as he claimed in recent years, he told me that he went to Saudi Arabia and actually lived in the house of prominent Saudi Salafist leader Safar al-Hawali (now under arrest). In my notes it says he stayed there from 2005 until July 2006. As with many things al-Hashimi has said, the subsequent events turn murky. While enjoying al-Hawali’s patronage, he claims that a Saudi Salafist by the name of Walid bin Uthman al-Rashoudi was exposed in al-Hawali’s circle as a spy for Saudi intelligence in 2005, and was consequently expelled. Al-Hashimi then spun a yarn in which he turned al-Rashoudi into the Salafist equivalent of Qassem Soleimani, the former head of Iran’s Qods Force.

Al-Hashimi placed al-Rashoudi in Iraqi Kurdistan in late 1999, directing Salafists to begin targeting Ba’athists. Al-Rashoudi was also allegedly present at that meeting at the prince’s house in Jeddah. Al-Rashoudi was effectively managing the jihadist insurgency, or at least many of the Salafist components that populated its ranks other than Zarqawi’s outfit. He was a member of a Saudi ‘crises cell’ that included former Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, Prince Midhat bin Abdul-Aziz (this guy does not seem to exist), and Abdullah Muhammad al-Mutlak, according to what al-Hashimi said. Al-Mutlak does not strike me as a high ranking intelligence official. He is a leading cleric in the kingdom; he’s a member of the Senior Clerics Commission and an advisor to the royal palace. Al-Rashoudi too has a public profile. He is basically a televangelist for Salafism, quite a prominent one. A few years ago I cold-called his cellphone and had a somewhat lengthy conversation with him. He was taken aback when I described what al-Hashimi had accused him of. I of course made no mention of al-Hashimi or gave any details that would have identified him as my source. I felt that al-Rashoudi was genuinely bewildered. He denied fully all the things that al-Hashimi had said he’d done. Then he began ruminating about who could have slandered him in this way. He didn’t mention someone fitting al-Hashimi’s description. If I had to guess I’d say that al-Hashimi had reversed the details: al-Rashoudi may have outed him as a spy for Saudi intelligence in al-Hawali’s circle, and gotten him expelled. Al-Hashimi would go on to bear a grudge against al-Rashoudi, and would try to get him into trouble by claiming that he controlled a significant swath of the insurgency. This became my hypothesis. I later told al-Hashimi that I had spoken to al-Rashoudi. He was visibly shaken by that. He asked what did he say? I told him he denied everything. Al-Hashimi then asked if I had mentioned or intimated that I got my information from him. I said no and changed the subject.

Al-Hashimi claimed that he turned on al-Zarqawi per al-Hawali’s orders. Al-Hawali had figured out that al-Zarqawi intended to proclaim a caliphate which would “kill the goal by the means” as al-Hashimi quoted him saying. Al-Hashimi was allegedly tasked with turning the various Salafist groups such as the Islamic Army, Jaish al-Mujaheddin and Ansar al-Sunna against Zarqawi. Al-Hashimi told me that al-Zarqawi retaliated by having his father and two brothers killed. I really don’t know whether any of that is true. There could be a more mundane answer: money. The stories of jihadists turning against each other is rife with quarrels over money: al-Hashimi claimed that Muharib al-Juburi stole 40,000 U.S. dollars from Jaish al-Mujaheddin in 2005 before defecting to Zarqawi. Mulla Nadhum al-Juburi, another jihadist who turned into an enforcer for the Iraqi government, stole 10,000 U.S. dollars from Jaish al-Mujaheddin in 2004, precipitating his break, later on, from the insurgency. I have reason to believe that something similar may have happened between al-Hashimi and the Zarqawists, especially as the latter made a push to control all the finances of the insurgency.

Al-Hashimi spoke about money a lot, almost manically so. I used to assume that he was doing so to throw me off the scent, to show that he was indeed very materialistic and that he harbored no more impulses to further the Salafist revolution. I think I liked it more when I thought he was in it for a cause. But he would persistently detail every sum he got; “…the United Nations team gave me this much…Masroor Barzani assigned this much of a monthly stipend to me…I told Ammar al-Hakim’s people that they were asking too much work for what they were paying,” and so on. I once asked him, I believe it was in 2013, how much savings had he accumulated, and he answered “800,000 dollars.” I then followed-up by asking, “then why don’t you leave Iraq?” He claimed he was trying to find a way. He said he would get serious about it after finalizing a new deal he was working on: the Americans had picked him as a middleman for the purchase of dozens of pick-up trucks that they intended to donate to anti-ISIS tribesmen in Anbar. It was supposed to be a reward for his new work aiding American intel teams.

It is unclear when he began working for the Americans. Was it 2006? They also paid him then. He told me roughly how much, and he also told me about a bonus, and a car. I assumed both came in April 2010, when the dual leadership of ISI was taken out. Abu Ali al-Basri, the head of the Falcons Unit, an intelligence outfit created by then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to circumvent other agencies and to be loyal to him, told me that al-Hashimi began working for him in 2007, at a time when, according to a newly published hagiography about al-Basri and his team authored by former Wall Street Journal and New York Times journalist Margaret Coker, the ‘Spymaster of Baghdad’ had only three adjuncts working under him. Al-Basri said that when al-Hashimi worked for him it was an exclusive arrangement and that he certainly did not work for the Americans. He added, in fact, that the Americans that al-Hashimi worked for before he came under al-Basri had a very negative opinion of al-Hashimi, as they told al-Basri subsequently. He did not elaborate as to why.

Al-Basri seemed to have dabbled in intelligence work while being an underground operative in Baghdad and then later, after leaving Iraq, as an aide to al-Maliki while the latter was the Da’awa Party’s representative in Damascus during the opposition days. He left party work in the early 1990s and began a new, sedentary life in Sweden. He only returned to political and security work after Maliki became prime minister in 2006. That is a significant break. And as it were, his former intel work did not rise to the level of high tradecraft or result in important breakthroughs or operations. So was al-Hashimi moonlighting for the Americans right under his nose without him knowing so? It is possible. Al-Hashimi led me to believe that he was still working closely with the Americans up to the strike that took out Abu Umar al-Baghdadi and al-Muhajir near Tharthar Lake. That was the event that I assumed resulted in him getting a bonus and a car from the Americans, at a time when al-Basri believes that al-Hashimi was working exclusively for him. I could be wrong about the timeline here though.

So I can’t say with any certainty when al-Hashimi began working with the Americans. He alternated between FBI and CIA teams, or so he claimed. However, one American stood out for him. He was older, and much senior to the others showing up at Baghdad station. In al-Hashimi’s telling this gray-hair spoke some pleasantries in Arabic and seemed knowledgeable about Islam, at least compared to the CIA officers he had previously met. He gave his name as ‘Roger Sminth’. I asked al-Hashimi, “are you sure it wasn’t ‘Smith’?” but he kept pronouncing the name as “Sminth.” Al-Basri told me that al-Hashimi had mentioned this name to him too yet without going into details of his physical description and mannerisms. This man debriefed al-Hashimi several times, and he seems to have signed off on al-Hashimi’s credibility and usefulness. During those years in the mid-2000s, the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center was headed by Michael D’Andrea, a convert (by marriage) to Islam who also went by the alias ‘Roger’. More recently, D’Andrea was made chief of Iran Mission Center under President Donald Trump. Was he the same person who had debriefed al-Hashimi and vouched for him? I strongly suspect so.

Al-Hashimi would go on to work for many outfits in the realms of security and politics. As mentioned above, he worked for al-Basri, but afterwards his most influential benefactor in the Iraqi state was former National Security Advisor and currently chief of the PMUs Falih al-Fayyadh. At one point, al-Hashimi tried to get close to Ahmed Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister’s influential son. During the 2014 election, al-Hashimi worked for Fadhel al-Dabbas, the infamous importer of the useless bomb detectors once ubiquitous at Iraqi checkpoints—al-Dabbas gifted him a car, among other financial perks. He was also advising and networking, at one time or another, for the Karbouli brothers, and for Khamis al-Khanjar. Among his one-time employers were French intelligence, an assortment of European governments, Swedish intelligence, Turkish intelligence, Masroor Barzani’s Parastin, the UN Mission in Iraq, the Hikma Party, and several others.

One can spot many contradictory loyalties in this partial list. But that was al-Hashimi, a deeply conflicted man. Early on in our relationship he tried to get me to take a website that he was involved with seriously. He brandished it an intellectual endeavor, and claimed in texted correspondence that he was one of three founders and was a regular author (under various pseudonyms). But the website, alrased.net, was a virulently radical Salafist and anti-Shi’a web journal, one that remained in circulation and was regularly updated until December 2017. It was always a wonder to me that al-Hashimi can work for so many Shi’a parties and Shi’a dominated entities yet still spew off offensively sectarian rhetoric. We would laugh off our mutual jabs at one another, and I think I may even have been fond of this radicalism of his because it was a genuine part of himself. Needless to say, few of his acquaintances knew of this ‘intellectual’ output.

Al-Hashimi did, however, do genuine damage to the jihadists, especially the Zarqawist branch. He was the original source for plenty of reporting that embarrassed and humiliated their ranks. Many of the ‘stars’ of the publications that covered jihadists, such as Muhammad Abu Rumman and Mishari al-Dhayedi, owe significant gratitude to al-Hashimi. He could come off as shady and cagey sometimes, for example, he once told me that he pushed the Falcons Unit to kill off a Saudi militant in a strike rather than try to capture him alive since “he would reveal a lot about the Saudis if he talked.” He said this to me without hesitating in revealing an agenda, even one that served the Saudis in this particular respect. Later, during the ISIS comeback, he ‘managed’ his former leader Muhammad Hardan Hashim al-Issawi, the commander of the Jaish al-Mujaheddin, in a public relations campaign which included the release of a book that did significant damage to the pseudo-caliphate. Al-Issawi got released from prison in return for his cooperation, a deal secured by al-Hashimi.

His personal sense that he had done much to maul the Zarqawists probably explains why al-Hashimi felt stung when the leader of a newly-arrived CIA team accused him of still working for the other side. This happened sometime in mid-2014 (I think it could have been in late August). The CIA man told him, “They would have killed you by now if you were truly working against them.” I saw a flash of anger in al-Hashimi’s eyes when he recounted what had happened to him; he stopped by my house around noon right after coming back from that meeting. It was true that he did get a message from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi shortly after Mosul’s fall inviting him to join the caliphate. The message said something along the lines that the ‘caliph’ still saw “the residue of decency within him” and invited him to repent and start afresh. I felt that al-Hashimi was beaming out a little ray of pride when he was telling me of the message, but it wasn’t a yearning for the ‘cause’, not at all, it felt more like a sense that he was gratified to know that he was still being taken seriously by the enemy.

Later, it seemed as if he had an impulse of sabotage that I couldn’t really place. For example, he relayed to me in detail the inception of a media effort involving Iraqi social media influencers to coordinate their platforms against ISIS. It was organized under the auspices of War and Peace Reporting, a British NGO. Each influencer (there were about twenty of them in the beginning) received a monthly salary commensurate with their digital standing. I think al-Hashimi told me he was getting 2,500 USD per month. He broke down how much the others were getting. But he also insinuated some weird things: he kept talking about this “British Jew” who was pulling the strings, and how he thought the Israelis may be involved. I pressed him on a name and he promised to get back to me, but never did. A technician from Facebook was brought in to boost internet traffic to the influencers’ profiles. Later it seemed that al-Hashimi was advising Facebook and Twitter directly on fighting online extremism, but this is something I heard anecdotally about him rather than from him.

I began to spot other things that I just couldn’t place within his usual agendas, things he would say on television or write. When he would drop by my house in Baghdad he would ask the other guests questions in a manner that I detected as deliberate and systemic intelligence probing. I didn’t really mind at the time, but I was watching him closely, trying to figure out what he was up to. Yet whoever he was working for—or at least the list of entities I could conceive he may be working for—didn’t worry me much.

But that changed on November 17, 2019. On that day, The Intercept and the New York Times published excerpts from “roughly 700 pages of leaked reports [that] were sent anonymously to The Intercept, which translated them from Persian to English and shared them with the Times. The Intercept and the Times verified the authenticity of the documents but do not know who leaked them. The Intercept communicated over encrypted channels with the source, who declined to meet with a reporter.” These were internal reports leaked from the Etalaat. I was particularly struck by what they published about “Source 134992.”

A source that gets a number from the Etalaat means that Iran’s spies would have considered him a recruit, an asset, someone who was theirs. This was no passing exchange. The Etalaat plays for keeps. The report seems to have been generated at the time when the relationship with this source began, which occurred sometime during November 2014.

The Intercept and the Times were keen on not revealing too much from the files lest they put anyone in danger of being exposed as an Etalaat asset. However, it was easy to figure out the other numbered source that they mentioned, who had worked as an advisor to the Speaker of Parliament. That identity was shared widely on Iraqi social media by several writers. Source 134992, however, remained a mystery for many others—though not for me.

Source 134992 told his Etalaat handler that he had worked for the CIA, and that he would share “everything he knew about American intelligence gathering in Iraq” including “the locations of CIA safe houses; the names of hotels where CIA operatives met with agents; details of his weapons and surveillance training; the names of other Iraqis working as spies for the Americans.” Moreover:

Source 134992 told the Iranian operatives that he had worked for the agency for 18 months starting in 2008, on a program targeting Al Qaeda. He said he had been paid well for his work — $3,000 per month, plus a one-time bonus of $20,000 and a car.

But swearing on the Quran, he promised that his days of spying for the United States were over, and agreed to write a full report for the Iranians on everything he knew from his time with the CIA.

“I will turn over to you all the documents and videos that I have from my training course,” the Iraqi man told his Iranian handler, according to a 2014 Iranian intelligence report. “And pictures and identifying features of my fellow trainees and my subordinates.”

Source 134992 then told the Etalaat that the CIA had a nickname for him: ‘Donnie Brasco.’ The moment I read these two words I knew it was al-Hashimi. See, he had told me that ‘Donnie Brasco’ was his handle. He said this to me at that café in Istanbul in early 2011. He pronounced ‘Donnie’ as ‘Doonie’ at first, a bit embarrassed by that, because doonee (دوني) is a word used for a lowlife in Iraqi colloquial Arabic. I corrected it for him, then I remember sneering and saying something like, “these CIA guys are idiots. Do you know it’s from a movie?” “A movie?” “Yes, a movie about the real story of an FBI undercover agent.” I told him something of the plot, but did not delve too deep into his relationship with the Americans. I had learned long ago not to take too much of an interest in U.S. clandestine operations so as not to raise any flags as to why I was asking such questions and to what purpose. As al-Hashimi was sharing such tidbits with me, I was worried that his whole act was a CIA sting operation: years doing intel work during opposition times turns one into a bit of a paranoiac.

I felt personally betrayed when I realized that al-Hashimi was working for the Etalaat. Suddenly his odd behavior in recent years began to make sense. I felt endangered and exposed. Why wouldn’t he share details of our conversations with the Iranians? Some interesting things get said during the gatherings at my house, things that may be of use to the Etalaat. I felt that I was compromised, and that I had compromised my guests.

I sent a message on the Signal app to al-Hashimi that same day the report came out: “Tell me again, what was the name the Americans called you by?” He must have already realized what had been published. He read my message but never responded. This was our last communication.

But was I sure? Could there have been two Iraqis who worked on jihadist issues and who had worked for the CIA for 18 months beginning in 2008 and who got a salary of 3000 dollars a month and who were nicknamed ‘Donnie Brasco’ by their American handlers? Such a coincidence would be unlikely I thought.

Did I mishear al-Hashimi at that café? If I did, then why did I recount the plot of the movie to him?

I wanted to keep things under wraps until I could make sure. I quickly reached out to Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who was then still the head of Iraqi intelligence (now he’s the current prime minister). I had introduced al-Hashimi to al-Kadhimi many years back. But if al-Hashimi was an Etalaat spy then al-Kadhimi’s agency would be effectively compromised since one of its chief directors was relying heavily on al-Hashimi. This Director of Operations, Qassim Atta, the onetime spokesman for the Commander-in-Chief, was giving al-Hashimi everything that America’s spies were sharing with their Iraqi counterparts about the jihadists, things like names, photos, chains of command, communications, locations, etc. Atta would run this stuff by al-Hashimi before relaying his comments back to the Americans. It was al-Hashimi who told me about this sloppy, unsecured process, and how he had amassed a wealth of data from it. I didn’t care much at the time, but with the ‘Donnie Brasco’ revelation it meant that the Etalaat were getting an up-to-date peek on critical portions of the CIA’s intel product. This was bad enough for al-Kadhimi in of and by itself, but I hoped to get him motivated partly because he wanted a reason to oust Atta, a rival of his who regularly undermined him even within the service.  

Al-Kadhimi had a simple enough task: “Ask your American counterparts whether they know who their officers had nicknamed ‘Donnie Brasco’ among their Iraqi assets?” I didn’t get an answer the first time, so I raised it with al-Kadhimi again a few weeks later. He needed a reminder of the details, which I provided again. On the third time he claimed that his American liaison was traveling and unreachable. On the fourth try he said that he may be coming to Washington DC and would raise it discreetly with the CIA Director in person. The fifth time I reminded him was right after he was designated as prime minister: “I hope you don’t get busy and forget to ask about Donnie Brasco…”

I never got an answer. But he knew what I knew. I chalked it to forgetfulness, maybe even incompetence, but I doubt he was deliberately giving me the runaround.

I also heard that al-Hashimi might be getting himself attached to the office of the presidency as an advisor, another sweet listening post for the Etalaat to spy on what the CIA was up to, so I sent word to President Barham Salih through a trusted intermediary describing the situation. It didn’t seem to make a difference in al-Hashimi’s standing with him.

I wanted al-Hashimi to know that I remembered the name, and that I would not let this go. I had hoped he would do the smart thing and leave the country, the game having played itself out for him. There would be no escaping the Etalaat’s embrace. There would be no escaping the CIA’s retribution either, which in the gentlemen’s rules of the spy world would be considered a fair and square ending for turncoats that endanger and expose other agents.

I tried to reach out to one of the reporters who worked on the Etalaat documents. I was told that there was more biographical information in that document concerning Source 134992. This journalist’s response was professional and reasonable: they won’t share the document with me. But we arrived at a solution: they would take an unpublished biographical detail from the file and ask me a question about it. If I got it right then they would tell me that I did. In this way I would have one more way of knowing whether it was al-Hashimi. But COVID made such understandings more difficult to pull off. I reached out to another reporter at the publication to see if he would be able to match the deal, but that too went nowhere.

As it stands, if other biographical information in that report does not fit al-Hashimi’s story then I am prepared to eat crow and to publicly apologize and retract. But I am certain he told me that his name was ‘Donnie Brasco’, and there it is, in black and white, on the pages of leading publications.

I agonized over whether I should write-up any of this. I decided to wait until the first year anniversary of al-Hashimi’s murder had passed. It also helped that it coincided with the arrest of his killer. Would revealing this information do any good? Wouldn’t it be best to leave al-Hashimi’s remembrance, even myth, intact? Isn’t it more useful to keep the focus on the Iranian-backed militias, without complicating the picture?

But who was Husham al-Hashimi?

I think the information above helps us understand him better, and through him the country he was living and working in. Isn’t that what a historian should attempt? If al-Hashimi was ultimately a victim of his circumstances, then should we not develop a deeper understanding of those circumstances, hoping that through such an understanding one could figure out a way to change things for the better, so much so that there would be fewer victims down the road?

Moreover, al-Hashimi was associated in the public mind with the October 2019 protests, which had taken a decidedly anti-Iranian tone. Wouldn’t the Iranians have forced him to say nice things about them if he was truly working for them? Not the Etalaat. That is not what they were up to. The Etalaat would not use him for blatant on-the-nose propagandizing. The Etalaat was and is playing a higher-minded game. For example, one of their chief goals in Iraq was to undermine Soleimani and his acolytes. There was fierce competition between the Etalaat and the Revolutionary Guard as to whom would control the Iraq file, a competition that the Etalaat had effectively ceded to Soleimani since 2004. But the Etalaat wanted to make a comeback. They had been arguing for years that it was Soleimani’s policies that had unleashed ISIS and nearly wiped off friendly regimes in both Baghdad and Damascus. This much became clear in the leaked Etalaat files too. And with Soleimani’s demise, the Etalaat made a big push to regain the upper hand in Iraq.

So I imagine the Etalaat had al-Hashimi doing things that would irritate Soleimani’s camp, such as shining a bright light on the role played by Abu Fedek before the latter had been prepared by Qods for the limelight. The Etalaat also had an interest in getting al-Kadhimi picked as prime minister, and if one re-interprets al-Hashimi’s media appearances in light of the ‘Donnie Brasco’ revelation than one would spot a pattern here too. Then it quickly became useful for the Etalaat to embarrass al-Kadhimi, so somehow a story showed up in The Guardian on May 9, 2020 that had al-Kadhimi meeting Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut to obtain his blessing in selecting al-Kadhimi as the next Iraqi prime minister. I believe the story was bullshit. It came out under Martin Chulov’s byline. A couple years back, al-Hashimi had told me that he had Chulov wound tightly around his finger. He gave me several examples of Chulov’s stories where he had been the author’s singular source.

Sometimes the Etalaat used al-Hashimi to dampen the fervor of the protests, such as the time on January 12, 2020 when al-Hashimi published a Twitter thread where he alleged that there were “deep conversations” over previous weeks and days involving the U.S., Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia for the purpose of “activating federalism” in Iraq, implicitly meaning federalism for the Sunnis. Al-Hashimi described how the negotiations arrived at setting up six separate federal zones. For many Iraqis such talks would be interpreted as a conspiracy to divide up the country. For militant Shi’as, it was evidence that while protesters were weakening the Shia-led government, the Sunnis were working discreetly to get back to power.

Al-Hashimi had concocted this thread out of nothing. What had happened, apparently, was that a group of Sunni leaders had met for dinner at the home of a prominent Iraqi media baron in Abu Dhabi a few days before al-Hashimi began tweeting. Not much of consequence was said at this dinner beyond the usual spiel. But al-Hashimi spun it into a much bigger thing, at a time of very high tensions not ten days after Soleimani was targeted. It was in these ways that al-Hashimi could have been useful for the Etalaat.

One must consider whether al-Hashimi had been sent to infiltrate the Etalaat. But that would force us to answer the question of “sent by whom?” which is not an easy one to answer in this case. The simpler explanation is that after his encounter with that new CIA team, the one which accused him of still working clandestinely with the jihadists, al-Hashimi felt that he had no one protecting him, so he may have turned to the Etalaat.

Another question to ask is whether the turf war between Qods Force and the Etalaat was a motive for his murder. I doubt that too. Things do get messy between the two camps, but at the end of the day both have to answer to Khamen’i, and if the Etalaat could find an excuse to go to him and say that Qods was killing off their best agents then that would put their competitors in bad standing with the Supreme Leader. It would be too much of a headache to justify.

There is also the possibility that the documents were a false flag operation in that they were forged by someone to look like Etalaat internal records. They would have inserted narratives within the files that pushed the agendas they were interested in pushing. The Intercept journalists never met the source, so there is some room for speculation. But who would go so far out of their way to ‘burn’ al-Hashimi, and in this subtle ‘Donnie Brasco’ way? How many people could al-Hashimi have told about his nickname? Al-Basri, his onetime employer, hadn’t heard of it. And whoever orchestrated the leak would have seemed too clever by half in going to such extraordinary lengths. The Intercept apparently received these documents sometime in late 2016. Its journalists sat on these records for three years before publishing them. They even leveraged the resources of the Times to get them authenticated. One would have to assume that after such careful consideration they got some of the provenance correct, enough so to actually determine that the leaks were genuine. And of all the excerpts they chose to share, they put out the ‘Donnie Brasco’ one—too many coincidences here for this be a deliberate burn.

I even entertained the idea that The Intercept had gotten the translation or context of the report from the Farsi original wrong, and that Source 134992 was talking about someone else, not him, that the Americans had nicknamed ‘Donnie Brasco’. But that too is doubtful.

The ‘Donnie Brasco’ revelation demonstrates how one detail can upend a narrative. Seldom do these details make it to the historical record. Even rarer is their accumulation with one or two country watchers. Al-Hashimi was eulogized by Mike Pompeo, Tom Friedman, the United Nations, and several governments around the world after his murder. What happened to him was brandished by commentators, experts, activists and officials to burnish all sorts of talking points. But it goes to show what is missing when a country like Iraq is discussed, in Baghdad, in Washington, and elsewhere. And as America nowadays fades away from its Iraqi sojourn, we are left with a sense that neither party had really understood what was going on throughout this journey.

Al-Hashimi adored his wife and deeply loved his children. There was no double-life in anything to do with them. He worshipped his late mother. He was very smart and talented. Those who knew him attest to his easy charm and comforting presence. He was generous and charitable. Given how multifaceted his agendas were, a cynic may say that his acts of charity were self-serving, but I did witness his involvement in cases that he had nothing to gain from but helped anyway. Al-Hashimi did have me convinced that he was trying to redeem himself from the sins of his past. I believed and continue to believe that that desire of his was genuine. It was supreme fun playing games of wit and wordplay with him. We would regularly go to Mutannabi Street together; we competed over old books, which always rankled me because I had introduced him to my go-to booksellers, and then, spotting a big spender, they began reserving the good stuff for him. Media stardom came naturally to him after an initial clumsy and stiff debut. I had a hand in making introductions for him to that world. He learned quickly, and went on to outshine, deservedly, many competitors.

What could Husham al-Hashimi have amounted to in different circumstances? Who could he have become had he never crossed paths with that assassin? Al-Hashimi made some poor decisions beginning with the Saddam years, and then on through the convulsions beyond the 2003 war. We can’t say that he was forced to make all of them, but we can attribute some to the folly of youth. But where can we place a decision like going over to the Etalaat? Hubris? Spite? Survival? I can’t excuse that one. There are a few others too that I would never forgive in a man, any man. He knew that but he wanted to maintain the myth of a soul being saved. And I think he believed my role to be that of a witness to it happening.

I shall remember al-Hashimi. He was a memorable guy. But there will be plenty of melancholy to go along with it, for he cannot be separated from the circumstances he found himself in, and those of Iraq’s were and continue to be heartbreaking, his murder being just another fracture in the shell of that country’s core vessel. I shall remember him as one who tried to arrive at, but fell short of, deliverance—much like the ‘New Iraq’. 

Hard as I tried I could not find that picture that I had snapped of al-Hashimi at Gezi Park—the one with him atop the mangled car, looking out over the crowd, his profile and slender frame set against the orange-red-purple hues of a looming twilight. It is seared in my memory. I wanted it to be part of this essay, but it has vanished from the devices I may have used on that trip. It was just one more detail lost to time.

UPDATE (July 27, 2021): The Kata’ib Hezbollah leadership apparently believed at the time of Husham al-Hashimi’s assassination that he may have been involved in the strike on Qassim Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis seven months earlier. Their circumstantial evidence was based on phone records and the testimony of a witness who accompanied al-Muhandis for most of that evening but did not get in to the two cars that were struck. According to a source who heard this from one of their leaders, al-Hashimi called al-Muhandis three times that evening. Al-Muhandis told al-Hashimi on the first call that he can’t see him that evening because he has guests. Al-Hashimi called him again and al-Muhandis told him that he is heading to the airport to receive his guests. Al-Hashimi commented that “they must be important guests if you are going to meet them there” and they both laughed at the implication. Al-Hashimi then called a third time but al-Muhandis did not respond. The latter told those around him at the time that he finds al-Hashimi’s insistence bizarre and said something along the lines of “I wonder what he so urgently wants to have called so many times?” This is the version of events that Kata’ib Hezbollah uses to justify their murder of al-Hashimi. I highly doubt that al-Hashimi was involved in the strike. He may have really had something urgent to share with al-Muhandis, or was driven by curiosity (or asked to do so by interested parties, though not necessarily by the Americans) to figure out whether Soleimani was coming to Baghdad or not. This narrative tells me that at the time of al-Hashimi’s murder Kata’ib Hezbollah and the Iranians did not have solid leads as to how the operation likely went down.

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The ‘Winning’ Narrative, and the Promise of the Trumpian Way

(75k words; approximate reading time 4hrs 45 mins)

Why hello there! I see you looking perplexed, that you’re searching for something. Can I help you? What’s that? The election? What about the election? The results? Oh, you still can’t comprehend why so many voted the way they did?

You’ve come to the right place, friendo! You may be wondering who those multitudes are—out there, lurking, shifting, blurring into the background, that voted for that terrible, terrible man. The FedEx guy? That couple at the playground who said ‘God bless you?’ Those Vietnamese neighbors with an American flag foisted onto their front door year-round? Jose? Not Jose! But what if, Jose…?

Come take a stroll with a Trumpian. I will explain it all. Come along now. I promise not to bury you in the woods—not on our first outing. Never on the first outing.

Come again? The guy with the Norse hieroglyph tattoos and the horns-and-fur headdress, the one cosplaying a Viking or a Celt or something? No, we won’t be running into him. At least I don’t think so. Besides, we only dress up like that on Tuesdays…

Keep in mind though, Chief, that what I am about to tell you is neither analogy nor analysis. It is projection, fanciful, optimistic projection. But it will prove right, for I have the gift of foresight.

And bear with me, I will be using weasel buzzwords like ‘narrative’, probably even overusing it as some McKinsey flunky would. But I can’t help it, for it is all about the narrative for the devotees of Trumpism; the stories they tell themselves and each other, and the legends they recount. A sovereign, autonomous folk narrative that writes itself, one with its own turns of phrase and allegory, and one that shall take on a fuller, honed form and consequently become more potent—I’d even say invincible—over the next two years.

Donald Trump may have forfeited a presidential term, but he has bequeathed to us a generational movement. I don’t like calling it a populist movement—the term is too broad. I don’t think anti-establishment captures it either; he did, after all, bring in Goldman Sachs to run the economy. No, the labels on hand are too saggy, too slovenly. This movement, our movement, is new, unprecedented, and it is emerging during a transformative time. Dwelling on its precise classification, while it is still unformed, is going to waste my time and yours. Trump made that clear in that final televised message of his: “While this represents the end of the greatest first term in presidential history, it’s only the beginning of our fight to Make America Great Again!” We are just getting revved up. Although I will say this: with this loss the Trumpian movement transformed from whatever it currently is into a revolutionary one. It turned less compromising, less receptive to half-measures: we expect to witness a genuine, fundamental transformation in how the country is run. We have far less tolerance for the excuses of the Republican Party establishment, and the ruling establishment at large, as to why that is unfeasible.

The Trump coalition will hold. It has been tested through adversity. There is a solid 44 percent of the 2020 voting public that is not going anywhere unless Trump gives the signal. There is also another 11 percent that is reluctantly on the other side. They will come over. It is fated. The 44+11=55 percent coalition will dominate for a generation. Why is this happening? Why did this coalition coalesce in the first place? Was it because of the public’s disillusionment with the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts? The scars of 2008 subprime banking collapse? The overpromise of Obama’s ‘Hope’? The desolation of the culture wars? Demographic angst? All this malaise could have remained present and pervasive, fermenting into grayer shades of toxicity for a long time without resolution. No, none of that scratches the itch in providing an explanation. The only way to understand Trump is through Trump. Had there not been a Trump, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Trump showed us that we can win: 2016 was a proof-of-concept run for what is to come. He also exposed the lengths to which the other side would go to to win. We have learned a lot.

Trump is truly an American original. He has proven difficult to pigeon-hole by political theorists. In style rather than in philosophy, he resembles the answer that Louisiana political muckraker Huey P. Long gave in the early 1930s when cajoled into describing his own guiding tenets: “Oh, hell, say that I’m sui generis and let it go at that.” Long was a proto-Trumpian in his mannerisms if ever there was one, with the two sharing almost exactly the same negative representations hurled at them by their hoity-toity critics. His trajectory was halted by an assassin’s bullet just as he was preparing a run for the presidency. Comparisons are tempting, after all that is the bread and butter of historians like me, but just to get a sense of how exceptional Trump is, consider that Long trudged up the hardscrabble path of a traveling salesman, a state railway official, then Governor, and then U.S. Senator before setting his eyes on the highest office. Whereas Trump entered the game at the very top. Sometimes a historian just has to call it: historical allegory gives us little guide on a genuinely new phenomenon.

Trump had been articulating—let’s say ball parking—his opinions on trade, immigration, foreign policy, and law and order for decades. The Trump platform, such as it is, did not suddenly flesh out in 2015. This was dismissed by observers at the time as more brand than bandwidth. But in politics, are the two really that separate? The Trump brand is unmistakably vigorous. That, more than a balance sheet, is his claim to wealth. His ability to turn his brand into political, presidential-caliber capital is a feat that is not easily replicated—just ask Michael Bloomberg. It should reveal that there is more going on here than dumb luck. And it wasn’t just plain old demagoguery—there’s certainly no shortage of those character types around, yet none made it far. The stars did not suddenly align for Trump; it was his sense of timing, a carefully cultivated image, as well as an understanding of the new mediums of propagation that allowed him to create his own moment, and so boldly go in for the kill. Furthermore, Trump is always tweaking his brand, as any student of his rallies—a new art and performance genre in itself —can attest. It is this inventiveness that should make us hold off on describing where his ‘cause’ will land. This adaptiveness also gives him an edge when marshalling his multitudes and sending them off to conquer unfamiliar rhetorical and ideological ground.

The anti-Trump coalition, by contrast, is undisciplined and looks about to fray. Its best tools—the media, for example—are already blunted, and useless. The Democrats are unable to reform and recalibrate even if they wanted to. The media has several unpaid bills coming due very soon (Joe Biden’s frailty, the ‘laptop from Hell’ and the treasonous—yeah, I said it—way the Steele Dossier was used) and that realization will be critical in pushing the 11 percenters to the Trumpian way—they will inevitably feel they were lied to. The media’s irrelevance going forward will be showcased by the Trumpians not arguing back, but simply seceding from the media’s cultivated and controlled narrative.

The two narratives, Trump’s and the anti-Trumps’, have been engaged in battle for years. As we look into the future, we must assess whom is the victor for the longer term. Trump lost a bout—that much is true. But how will his people remember this loss? Equally, how will the anti-Trumps regale their rank with tales of their 2020 win after their 2016 defeat? In every heroic saga there comes a setback. A fluctuation in the fortunes of Manichean powers, a concave reversal in a grand oeuvre of historical progression. But are we living in Trump’s heroic timeline, or that of his enemies who too profess heroism?

The Trumpians will follow their leaders into the hills as they regroup. They shall march back to power with the coherence of a common-sense, tolerant, ‘Big Banquet’ coalition. They shall sing the psalms of ‘winning’ along their way. ‘Big Dem’ and its new establishment allies, conversely, will surrender one fortress after another. Too stunted, too stilted, too divided to rally. Theirs will be a bilious, discordant threnody. They are an angry lot, a losing lot. They look it, and sound it.

Aren’t Trump’s supporters angry now too, you may wonder? I’d say that they feel they were wronged, which is different from the tumult of anger. There is a difference in how they manage expectations. Some of them must be angry. But I sense that the larger body of Trumpians already has moved on and reverted to an old-new battle stance: rather than flailing in ‘resistance’, hysterically throwing punches hither and thither as the Anti-Trumps have conducted themselves, theirs is a go-to posture of defiance. Theirs is a steely resolve to bite a lower lip, keep mum, and set their sights on what comes next, while occasionally turning to each other muttering “This ain’t over” under their breath as both mantra and pick-me up. In many ways, including through Trump’s agency, they have been prepared for this moment. They are not shocked in the way that Hillary’s voters were in 2016. The Trumpians were told that the fix is in for 2020. They believed it and now think that they are seeing abundant evidence for it. But they are not going to hurl bricks through windows—well, most of them won’t. So what are they planning to do?

Ha! Good one! No, their plan is not QAnon’s “trust the plan.” I’m willing to give you a sneak peak, but the premium content, well, that’s for the initiates who make it all the way through. If you want, I can put in a good word, but maybe that’s too soon. We’ll see. 

Trump is the crag against which the establishment is thrashing itself. It has done more damage to itself than to him in the manner it has fought him. One theory about this election was that it was a referendum on Trump the man, less his policies and results. A referendum on his chaotic manner, which a ‘wave’ yearning for political normalcy would put an end to. By this measure the 2016 election should be considered a referendum on the efficacy of the establishment. Hence, the more recent results demonstrate that the establishment has not won back those skeptical of its oomph; Trump kept his voters and gained some. The high priests of the establishment cannot govern by reasonable consensus without the ability to instill awe in their power or to shape the dominant narrative. They will keep bleeding out legitimacy. Once kooky terms like ‘swamp’ and ‘Deep State’ have become apt and widely circulated shorthand to describe an alignment of interests among the powerful. Trump’s may not be a classic anti-establishmentarian movement but it will get a lot of kick in going for the scalp, that allegorical fuzzy trophy marking the humiliation of an elite class. There is a name to the enemy. There is clarity. Again, the narrative writes itself, and it is supreme.

In some ways, this loss is far more dangerous to the ruling class than a consecutive second term for Trump. In 2016, a big portion of the Trump-voting public wanted to rebuke the powerful, to put them on notice. The point was not to replace the powerful with a new caste. The Trumpians merely wanted to drag the establishment by the ear to get it to bend an ear. The powerful, though, turned dismissive and disdainful of the voters’ protestations. They continued to insult and damn them as deplorable and irredeemable. They also came off as crazy and deranged in the manner by which they resisted Trump and his movement. Over the years, the Trump voter turned from dissent to contempt; a dangerous development for the ruling class. It meant that there was little latitude left for it to win back this type of voter. An establishment that fails to accommodate half of the population it claims to govern, or to create the illusion of hearing them out, well, that indicates that something is off with it—in the very least it may show that it lacks the attributes of wisdom and forbearance that distinguishes capable leadership. It may also indicate that the rot goes down even further. The problem is deepening and widening and, by my reckoning, irreversible, thus necessitating a measure of replacement. Let’s just hope this doesn’t end with a necklace of ears, for either side. I doubt that it would, namely because, and this may conflict with what you’re heard from the media, Trumpism is highly disciplined in its disorderliness. I’ll explain this one later.

Trump himself came in trying to be accommodating. He set up Ivanka-Jared as his goodwill ambassadors to Washington, reprising their previous roles with the posh set in Manhattan. They were rudely received at the salons of Georgetown, Kalorama and Capitol Hill. Had he won again this time, he would have tried to reach out again since that instinct for accommodation comes naturally to him. And, now exhausted, the crème would likely have been more welcoming in return. As happened many times throughout history, the elite would profess no hurt feelings while cheering on the conquering barbarians, motivated as it were by their own instinctual impulse to survive the storm and find a place in the new order. Trump mused about such a scenario during his more recent rallies. “They’ll just give up,” he’d say. I don’t think ‘Nice’ Trump is coming back, though. The shake-up at the Pentagon just a week ago is evidence that he has made up his mind as to how he interacts with the Washingtonians going forward. We really like this epiphany of his.

The other side, the establishment that the Trumpians take be the ‘enemy’ is in a bind: they can only call Trump himself an enemy. But Trumpism consists of Trump and his people, and it would be difficult to target him and not them. There is no discernible, archetypal upper caste ensconcing the levers of Trumpian power that can become the focus of resentment and frothed-up agitation by the anti-Trumpers. The Republican elite does not fit the bill—they are just as resented by Trump’s people. Therefore, extending that ‘enemy’ classification beyond him turns his whole horde, all seventy-odd million of them into foes. Maybe that is a bridge too far, and maybe not. Who’s to say what the anti-Trumpers will try to do in anger? After all, they hardly attempted to win over any Trump voters during the past four years when reason warranted it. Their approach has been irrational and self-defeating. Why should it change now? They cannot help themselves: they shall seek revenge, for the election result did not humiliate Trump or his supporters nearly enough. Something more has to be done. After all, how can you let Nazis, racists, child-parent separators, and grandma-killers off the hook so easily? There’ll be no unity hug-fests on their agenda. Again, advantage Trump, and us.

Once the Trumpians breach the District of Colombia for a second time, we shall see just how revolutionary their creed had become indeed. The real work of draining the swamp and uprooting the rotten undergrowth will be front and center of their furies, and by my reckoning their deepest cuts will excise and exorcise the Deep State—the brain hive of the ‘Resistance’—from its lairs and layers of administrative sluff. Now, ain’t that swell?!!

Gird yourself, and let me run you through the fine print.

Who are the current and future Trumpians?

All you need to know about the Trumpians is that they exist. Two presidential elections cycles should tell you that much. Estimating their number at a solid 44 percent of the voting public is not a stretch—another 3 percent voted for him but we’ll set them aside as a probable margin of vacillation.

The 44 percenters are the hardest core of personal allegiance to Trump; they are what remained after every solvent of rhetorical erosion and persuasion had been washed over them for several years in order to break their connection to this one man, and yet they persisted in their support, even hardening it. That experience, coupled with the election result, one which told them that there are tens of millions of Americans like them out there, has given them a feeling of invincibility. It has also fastened them together in the bonds of camaraderie. Seeing a Trump flag whoosh by on a pickup truck, a cuddy, or an Amish buggy sets their hearts aflutter. The person flying that flag becomes an instant comrade. These are powerful emotions for any political movement. The anti-Trumpers derogatively call this phenomenon a cult. It certainly has sectarian attributes, and one may impartially observe that ‘Trumpian’ has become a stand-alone identity for many within this solid bloc. But hold on to your horses, we will get to what that means later. A more pressing matter for us concerns the 11 percent number that I threw out there.

Are you ready for some math? Try thinking of a society as a composition of thirds, well three of them at most. There is a left-leaning third, and a right-leaning third. And lastly there is a middle third. Then imagine that these thirds are composed of thirds themselves. Each third ends up coming up to a little over 11 percent. The left-leaning third or the right leaning third are not simply rigid ideological automatons. There is plenty of contrast within, likely to do with disposition and temperament. For example, some individuals may be ideologically leftist or rightist but are innately skeptical of authority and group conviction, while others may find comfort in authority and a shared fate. It seems that humanity needed both types to survive and evolve. For our purposes, it means that the whole spectrum of thirds may recombine and refashion itself when having to respond to fundamentally new phenomenon; in times of great upheaval there is a fundamental reordering of loyalties.

If Trump was merely at 33 percent of support, I’d tell you to write him off. But he has already secured a third of the middle despite a pandemic, despite an economic downturn, and despite every manner of attack. All he has to do is win the ‘middle-middle’ third—whatever composition that may turn out to be—in a few Mid-Western and a couple of Western battleground states. Some of them already have a proclivity towards giving him a try as evidenced by the 2016 election results, even from the very left of the spectrum. This is eminently doable.

And it can be done, to my way of thinking, by convincing that middle-middle third that the Republican Party is under new (and exciting) management, while making them regret a vote for Joe Biden in 2020 as a scoopful of fetid sludge that had been plopped back into the swamp. Easy-peasy. Thus our challenge now is to figure out what segment of the voting public is likely to respond to the Trumpian narrative and be swayed by it.

Many commentators have been making the point that the pre-Trump Republican Party is no longer. A shorthand of GOPe, with the ‘e’ standing in for ‘establishment’ seems to be the new way of describing the supplanted former hierarchy or at least the portion (a small one) of it that has yet to swear fealty to Trump. Practically, what we have today is a Grand Old-New Party. Let’s call it the GOnP. It is a hybridization of the ‘Cocaine Mitch’ ethos of the old party (though not its let’s-only-give-them-600-bucks component) and the Trumpian movement. The latter has subsumed the former, and there is no turning back. It seems to be a good fit.

Thus the Trumpian movement does not need to break away. It is just going to squat inside the GOP organizational superstructure and make itself comfortable. And the GOPe does have a few redeemable and useful qualities. For example, there is talent to poach. Talent like Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina who had forced his own way up the old order without any help from the Trumpians. He is a formidable force, and it comes primarily from his unforceful demeanor. He signals awkwardness, not ‘politician’. He’s black, but there’s something about him that immediately asserts itself beyond skin-color: a vulnerability, a discomfort with being in the public eye, a hesitation that makes his whole pitch, often geeky and technical, quite endearing. This is a rare and difficult-to-fake attribute in politics. He was given a peak timeslot at the Republican National Convention—a pitch-perfect celebration of Trumpism and ‘American Greatness’—and he showed that he has what it takes to capture the attention of an audience. Now imagine a future ticket pairing him with Ivanka Trump. Just sayin’.

The GOnP in the era of Trump already looks strikingly different, making it competitive against the Democrats’ own meticulously adorned ‘Vitrine of Diversity’. The incoming GOnP congressional contingent includes Nancy Mace (from outside of Charleston, South Carolina), the first woman to graduate from the Citadel; Nicole Malliotakis (Staten Island) a daughter of Greek and Cuban immigrants; Tony Gonzalez, an Iraq War veteran clearing the Rio Grande Valley in Texas; African-American former NFL player Burgess Owens coming in from Salt Lake City; Byron Donalds, a young black man now representing the almost 90 percent white district of Naples, Florida; the first Cherokee woman ever elected to the U.S. Congress Yvette Harrell of New Mexico; Victoria Spartz, from the north side of Indianapolis, now the first immigrant born and raised in the Soviet Union ever elected to serve as a congressional representative; the first Iranian-American ever elected to the U.S. Congress Stephanie Bice from Oklahoma City; Young Kim and Michelle Park Steel of Southern California, the pair being the first Korean-American women heading to Congress. Mike Garcia a first generation Mexican-American Navy aviator in southern California won a primary against a candidate backed by the GOPe, and he may well be on his way to Congress again.

Exit-polls are probably as much garbage as pre-election presidential polling. But the takeaway message from those and other indicators is that Trump expanded and in some cases doubled his share of the Black male vote, the ‘Hispanic’ vote, the ‘Muslim’ vote, the gay vote, the Arab Christian vote, the Jewish vote, various sorts of women categories, and so on. In fact, the only demographic he seems to have slipped in is the white male category. This was supremely important to the remaining run-of-the-mill white (male and female) Trump voter. In the back of his or her head he or she may have been thinking “What if maybe I am a racist and I didn’t know it” for liking, even loving Trump? Everyone, everyone, everyone with the loudest megaphones had been telling him and her so for five years. But these statistics told the white Trump voter otherwise, and convincingly so. The debate, the self-doubt, is over for this voter. He or she feels relief and is ready to move on even if the megaphones keep blaring ‘racist, homophobe, xenophobe, microbe!’

But just who are these new non-white-male Trump voters who have given such succor and cover to their white brothers and sisters in Trump? Just who are these race traitors in the parlance of Joy Reid and Charles Blow? I do not think there is a clear cut answer to this one. This is one of those unformed aspects of Trumpism. I have a strong suspicion that within this new category Trumpism may discover potential ‘gets’ that may be winnable as 11 percenters—they may actually be the ones putting Trumpism over the top. They began moving into the Trump column in 2020 but hadn’t done so in the 2016. It is still unclear as to why they are doing so. A part of the answer, however, may be discerned in Tom Wolfe’s 2012 novel, Back to Blood, which is set in Miami.

One of the Trump’s most hair raising feats was shaving off a 23 point advantage for the Democrats in Miami-Dade between the 2016 and 2020 elections. There are various explanations given, mostly deriving from a bespoke anti-socialist message that resonated with Colombians, Venezuelans, Nicaraguans and as usual, Cubans. But there is also the alluring possibility that another part of the Trumpian message had clicked within the unique cultural ecosystem that is Miami’s. What could it be? Miami is a city of an American future. It would be a stretch to showcase it as the city, but it is certainly a paradigm for parts of urban life across America, for Miami represents the intensification of future American realities and trend lines, especially when it comes to immigration.

Miami is the City of the ‘Recent American Immigrant’. It is the Petri dish of the Immigration and Nationality Act (more technically the Hart-Celler Amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act) of 1965. The numbers of these immigrants achieved critical mass across the country at the tail end of the Cold War and right at the inception of the culture war of the early 1990s as heralded and so labelled by Pat Buchanan at the 1992 Republican Convention in Houston (even though Buchanan never mentioned the word ‘immigrant’ in his thirty-five-minute rouser). Pretty soon those immigrants found a resentful half of the country, blaming them for all sorts of cultural and economic infractions. By the end of the decade that sentiment would pervade into popular culture, as in an episode of Friends where Ross tries to convince his British girlfriend to stay on in America by making the case that “I’m always hearing about uh, them foreigners coming in here and stealing American jobs; that could be you!”

Especially resentful were those at the bottom of the economic rungs, such as blacks, as well as whites who fretted over population replacement tacking browner. More than 18 million legal immigrants entered the United States in the three decades following the passage of the Act, more than three times the number admitted over the preceding thirty years. It was a glut, an undigested glut, some of it coming up like vomitus across the landscape. The Immigration Act of 1990 expanded the numbers, and created the lottery to bring in even more unfamiliar cultures to this land. More immigrants were admitted to the U.S. throughout the nineties, following the updated act, than any decade prior, clocking in at 10-11 million documented—documented—entries. The undocumented entries, together with their families, are estimated to number anywhere between 11 to 22 million souls. With such numbers, any society has the right to ask the question of “How much change is too much change”?

I am one of those new additions to this society, arriving as a college student in 1994, and I too ask myself that question. There are no satisfying, unoffending answers. So what is a society to do if no answers offer themselves up? Wallow in recrimination and self-injury, or move on? A big part of the Trumpian moment hinges on this follow-up question. 

The 1965 Act was supposed to reflect its Civil Rights era, one in which a changing country was uncomfortable with prior policies giving seventy percent of immigration slots to British, Germans and Irish would-be newcomers, many of which went unused. There were a few thousands slots available for Italians, while hundreds of thousands of them waited in line for years on end to join family members in America. Lots of Greeks, Poles, Portuguese and assorted Eastern Europeans waited too; there was a feeling in Congress that they had waited long enough and that it was time to bring them in. The crafters of the act played down its potential impact, and seem to have genuinely undercounted how many would likely come in as beneficiaries of this new legislation. And come they did. What began as a trickle of immigrants getting their foot in the door, quickly pulled in multitudes of their kin. Several millions of Mexicans, some 1.4 million Filipinos, and upwards to a million-strong contingent each of Koreans, Dominicans, Indians, Cubans, and Vietnamese poured in. The act actually tried curbing Mexican immigration but that only resulted in more illegals—err, undocumenteds—striding over the border.

By the time Buchanan took the stage, the country was feeling the chill of fewer opportunities, dying communities, and the loss of a sense of destiny. There was a feeling of malaise, the bitter aftertaste of the Vietnam War still not washed out by the more recent victories over the Soviets and upstarts such as Saddam Hussein. A large swath of the landscape was populated by a dwindling ‘remnant class’. Their grandfathers and fathers had been called, at the twilight of the nineteenth century, to mine coal and oil and to forge steel along stretches of territory extending into the Midwest, upstate New York, western Pennsylvania and down into West Virginia, an expanse that must have had a name before being reduced to a ‘Rust Belt’. They came from around the world, especially from Central and Eastern Europe, and from deep in the American south. They grew up in towns and cities that absorbed this influx of action and production. They made things durably, cheaply and at scale. They were the first link in a chain that would give world markets the products of the American brand, a brand both stylish and cool because the American market had adopted it before the rest of the world did. It was the American worker and the American consumer who together midwifed tens of iconic American brands. Soon this would be forgotten by the corporations profiting off those brands.

There was exuberance and vitality in that American brand. America exuded invincibility in all it did and made. A stitch of American jeans gave you confidence. A whiff of Virginia-blended tobacco products made you feel like a movie star. American wheels could take you places, both literally and figuratively. And what’s more, it was relatively affordable. Forgotten in this whole saga is how American cigarettes and excess war materiel proliferated in Europe, in Russia, in Africa, in Southeast Asia at the tail-end of World War II, after America had tipped the scales of conflict. Much of the world first experienced the American brand as a byproduct of American victory. Such first-impressions are beyond the wildest dreams of Madison Avenue advertisers.

Then the vanquished started making things too, with a little seed money from Americans mind you. The Japanese came in with their electronics, the Germans returning to their strong-suits of vehicles and heavy machinery. Their stuff was cheap also, and well-branded. The American brand had to adapt to ward off those who may poach its ‘global’ customers, and the emigration of production began to flock to wherever cheaper labor resided. Supply chains of raw materials and transportation routes followed the relocating conveyor belts. The coal miners and steel workers were told there was less for them to do. The industrial machine they and their fathers built was about to spit them out. They stood there idling by the factory gates, waiting, waiting, waiting. The little generational wealth that had accumulated as savings and property was fading and losing value. They began moving, or wilting. This was much of the America that the new immigrants passed on their way to their swearing-in ceremonies for naturalization.

When the tech boom came, American branding was still going strong. It was the environment of America (and the Department of Defense) that gave a leg up to such innovation, and again it was an American consumer who gave it its first bona fides of cool. The product went to the global market quickly after it was focus-grouped by Americans: there were billions and billions of customers out there. These gadgets, apps and ensuing tech support had to be set-up quickly, and cheaply. A few stretches of highways, college towns and urban centers in states like California, Massachusetts, Washington, Colorado and Texas prospered, while a few streets in Manhattan made a killing counting and loaning out the winnings. And that was globalism for you. A new economic order of exuberant wealth that had no real impact on either the remnant class or the vast majority of immigrants, many of whom ended having to serve as ‘help’ for the nouveau globale riches of the big cities.

But it wasn’t just a recession and phantom opportunities that made the new immigrants feel unwelcome and out of place. The America they came to lacked a lofty, ambitious to-do list. All the heavy lifting had already been done. That the heirs of those who had done the heavy lifting were out of jobs just contributed to the sense of emptiness and drift. Half of the oath of naturalization, as it took its final form in 1952, speaks of an obligation taken freely by the newly minted citizen to bear arms on behalf of the United States; to perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces; and to perform work of national importance under civilian direction. With the draft tossed out of the door in 1973, incoming waves of citizens were never put to the loyalty test. Peace is a fine thing, an all-volunteer force too, but it did leave the oath sounding archaic, unrealistic.

Every prior immigration wave that came to this country was voluntarily or involuntarily huddled into their era’s particular cause. They were immediately assigned, dragooned, and drafted by official decree or by market realities to the current ‘Grand American Project’ of its time, whatever it may have been. Whether they liked being coerced into a job or a duty was beside the point, at the end of their labors they felt ownership for the outcome, and if their labor contributed to a great American story, then their lives became intertwined, and immortalized, within that story. They weren’t just cogs in some thrashing wheel. They were cogs that lifted up the Brooklyn Bridge, that dug out the Eerie Canal, and that laid asphalt across the deserts. Think of those Irish immigrants being carted away from the docks to the ranks of Civil War. Think of taming the wilderness, settling the west, laying the railways, industrialization, fighting the World Wars, space exploration, Civil Rights, then sprawling out into suburbia and realizing the dreams of home ownership with a yard and a grill. The immigrant’s personal cause, providing for a family and finding economic and political security, seemed to mesh with those Grand American Projects.

Every wave of prior immigration also came with an opting out clause. If they missed the old country, if they couldn’t get that sweetheart out of their minds, they could just go back after making some money. Back then it was harder to bring the village to Pittsburg. Congested ethnic enclaves did take shape, but they were waystations until a leg up the social ladder materialized, or the conditions to make it back home came about. For a period of time, a fifth of Greater Syria worked and toiled in the New World. Same, even larger proportions of the populations of southern Italians and others made it westwards. But almost 50 percent of Italians repatriated. Kurds from the deepest reaches of Anatolia came in, earned a little and went back. For those who stayed, it was also easier to sever ties with the old country simply because they, like others around them, made a conscious decision to become American.

By the time the 1965 wave came in, suddenly one could live fully as a hyper-hyphenated American, with more emphasis on the modifier. Grocery stores imported all the knick knacks and fare of the old country. The internet allowed for daily updates on the goings on in the village. Within a few decades, media infrastructure expanded on the ethnic paper of the past to provide radio, TV and eventually satellite entertainment. And to be honest, a larger proportion came from “shithole” countries—crude economies with malevolent, rapacious government—that had little prospect of allowing a returning emigrant to lead a dignified, middle class life. So a lot more stayed, with fewer opportunities to participate in new projects of American renewal, and revolution. 9/11 allowed for a brief effervescence of American determination, but was soon sullied and maligned as too patriotic, too ambitious (thank you Deep State and media, but we will get to them later). Thus, the pull factors of assimilation soured while the push factors slackened.

It is into this urban landscape of undigested immigrant identities and unfulfilling and fragmentary ‘American’ makeovers that Wolfe navigates his readers. Wolfe spent five years researching his novel, one that he was determined would tackle the topic of immigration, or so he told a film crew documenting his travels during that time. He gets his character Dionisio Cruz, Miami’s Cuban mayor to spell it out:

 “I want to tell you a couple of things about this city. There are things you probably already know, but sometimes it helps to hear them out loud. I know it helps me …Miami is the only city in the world, as far as I can tell—in the world—whose population is more than fifty percent recent immigrants …recent immigrants, immigrants from over the past fifty years …and that’s a hell of a thing, when you think about it. So what does that give you? It gives you—I was talking to a woman about this the other day, a Haitian lady, and she says to me, ‘Dio, if you really want to understand Miami, you got to realize one thing first of all. In Miami, everybody hates everybody.”

Cruz is dressing down the city’s African American Chief of Police, a man picked for the job to placate ‘Our African-American Community’. The mayor wants the Chief to fire the novel’s protagonist, Nestor Camacho, a muscly Cuban rookie cop who doesn’t really speak Spanish but who nonetheless is a walking-talking “one-man race riot” by the mayor’s book. The novel presages many of the issues roiling the larger country a little under a decade after its publication: anti-black police brutality and humiliation, black-Hispanic tensions, black and anglo resentment at unbridled, illegal immigration, the gulf in logos and worldview between the college-educated and those who are not, even a note of Russian disinformation (of the artistic provenance variety). Wolfe adds what seems to be a personal tone lamenting the diminishment of WASP power, mystique and prestige. His is a WASPy bemusement and bewilderment at the scale of changes, a sloppy attempt at ordering the mélange of identities according to facile archetypes. The Haitian-wannabe-Frenchman-Creole-despising-Art-Deco-loving professor, and the Russians—two oligarchs and a drunken artist—are particularly poorly fleshed out. But it doesn’t come from a place of darkness, the novel does feel and read like a chronicle of WASP-grade innocence abroad, but this time at ‘home’. Miami, even if Wolfe does not come out and say, is an example of too much change.

Cruz’s prescription is to minimize friction between the antagonistic identities of his city by compartmentalizing them into ‘safe spaces’, to anticipate and manage outrage by pre-emptively excising troublemakers like Camacho: “We can’t melt ’em down …but we can weld ’em down …weld ’em down …What do I mean by that? I mean we can’t mix them together, but we can forge a secure place for each nationality, each ethnic group, each race, and make sure they’re all on the same level plane.”

This sounds a lot like the PC-for-POC, social-justice-y worldview, equality-of-outcome end state of the modern Democrat Party. Separate, with some self-identifying ‘victims’ more equal than others. This is the new world they envision, one that Georgetown University professor Joshua Mitchell calls—in his new book American Awakening (2020)—a “quasi-religious world of identity politics [where] innocent victims alone are hallowed; they alone receive what could be called debt-point recognition, by which I mean credits in the invisible economy of transgression and innocence.” Mitchell explains that for the rest of us “our penance as transgressors is to listen to the innocents, and our lay responsibility in the identity politics liturgy is to assent to the right of the innocents to tear down the civilizational temple” which was only built in the first place by their sweat, labor and tears, or so we are told. “Whatever the innocents wish to accomplish in politics,” he continues, “is legitimate because the real basis of political legitimacy now is innocence. The past belongs to the transgressors, who today are an archaic holdover and an embarrassment. The future—politically, economically, and socially—belongs to the innocents.” Wolfe’s novel seems to concede these points: this is to be Miami’s fate under the reign of identity politics. His role as a white heterosexual male is to listen, reflect, and seek forgiveness for being.  

But Wolfe, the innocent (in the WASP sense) and eternal American optimist that he is, tosses before us some unlikely pairings. Some turn out horribly, but some, such as the prospect of Camacho’s enduring partnership with the Yale-educated anglo reporter John Smith, as well as his romance-in-the-making with Ghislaine, the Haitian professor’s daughter, suggest that a city like Miami may eventually triumph over the tribalism of bloodlines, that if enough of these sweeter pairings can come together—and they can only come together in a shared space such as Miami’s (and by extension, America’s)—then our shared lot may turn out slightly less cynical, slightly less miserable than what that mayor, and the Democrats, are prescribing.

Half of the foreign-born immigrants from Latin America now living legally in the U.S. are not from Mexico; they are Central Americans, Colombians, Caribbeans, and all sorts of others. Their issues are different. DACA, for example, is not their thing. Even within their respective countries there are differing issues according to regionalism, class differentiation, language (not all Mayans want to speak Spanish, for example) and race. Tailoring a platform for each identity is not going to work. A Republican message of anti-socialism is likewise weak sauce. So is the prospect of the Democrats asking them to hold the line as they achieve the ‘browning’ of America, whatever that is supposed to mean in terms of substantive improvements to their lives.

Five percent of Wisconsinites are foreign-born immigrants. Another five percent are native born with at least one immigrant parent. About a third of them are Mexican, 8 percent from India, and 5 percent from China. Seven percent of Pennsylvanians are foreign born too. 10 percent of them are from India; 9 percent from the Dominican Republic. The number of foreign-born stands at 7 percent in Michigan too: 13 percent of those are Mexican, another 11 percent are Indian, and 10 percent Iraqi. Minnesota clocks in at 9 percent foreign born. Another 7 percent are natives with at least one foreign-born immigrant parent. Of the foreign born there, 12 percent are Mexican, 8 percent Somali, and 6 percent Indian. New Jersey is one of the bigger ones: twenty-three percent of its population is foreign born; 13 percent came from India, 10 percent from the Dominican Republic and another 5 percent from Mexico. Why is it so far-fetched that the GOnP can actually make a play for the Garden State in a future presidential election by trying to win over a quarter of its voters? Remember, Florida has a population that is 21 percent foreign born, with 23 percent of those Cubans, 8 percent Haitians and 6 percent Colombians. (These number are from the American Immigration Council)

These Mexican and non-Mexican legal immigrants are part of a 60 million foreign-born contingent of Americans, or about twenty percent of the overall population. This is a historic high, when considered in sheer numbers. Nigerians, Cubans, Soviet Jews, Bolivians, Ethiopians, Guatemalans, Hmong, Eastern Turkestanis, Algerians, Taiwanese, Iranians—is there no wider message to be crafted for them? Could ‘Make America Great Again’ be the Grand American Project that they will take ownership of despite the ‘Again’? Or is the ‘Again’ what sells them on it? Wasn’t it that America they thought they were immigrating to?

There was poignant moment during the second night of the most recent Republican National Convention: Trump attending the naturalization ceremony for five new Americans that was hosted at the White House. There was the Bolivian construction business owner, a father of two; the Lebanese mother of three who was a psychologist and a daycare teacher; the Indian software developer, also mother of two; the lady from Sudan with three children and a PhD in Animal Nutrition; the Ghanaian medical interpreter who speaks five languages. Trump welcomed them as “absolutely incredible new members into our great American family.” His banter, forecasting that the construction business would go from five employees to hundreds, and hoping that the psychologist would finally figure him out, was sweet and touching. Trump saluted them for playing by the rules, and thanked them for bringing merit, verve and skill to this country. No hostility, no bristling at the ‘browning’ effect, no playing ethnic favorites. Just a vibe of fairness and appreciation. And it felt authentic. This sort of pageantry can go a long way.

The Trumpian narrative has the potential to offer them something exciting, new, and flexible. I think this pool of recent immigrants is the biggest prize for the GOnP going forward, and the results from Miami-Dade may have told us something profound that we have not deciphered as of yet. While we can’t yet answer why they may be tempted by Trumpism (we will try further into this essay), let us answer why the Democrats cannot keep them. After all, it was the Democrats who lost those voters in Miami. Could this be a harbinger of the Democrats’ greatest fear: that there is nothing destined about demographic destiny, that the actual browning of America could be that the Democrats are toast?

And the reason for that is that in this most recent election, one of the most important political contests in America’s history, one that drew out unprecedented numbers of votes (real and fraudulent), the Democrats billed themselves, assuredly, as the party of the past. Their ‘Again’ compass reading for greatness points back to five years ago, a couple of minutes before Donald and Melania Trump descended the escalator at Trump Tower. The Democrats promised their voters a restoration of normalcy, but what exactly is the DC variety of normalcy?

Funny you should ask. Joe Biden is as DC as it gets. He is to be America’s 46th President with 47 years of political mileage, with all that pertains in terms of engine trouble and corroded values. Does he really excite the run-of-the-mill Recent Immigrant? Does he really inspire a new American purpose for them? I am not sure the Democrats have thought this through.

The Old Way of Doing Things

The Biden-Harris ticket comes to the White House hobbled by a unique set of vulnerabilities. Their ticket billed itself the one of decency and character. It drew more contrast with Trump the man than their opponent’s platform. The Democrat party bosses assured us that the last time around Hillary Clinton was personally disliked but now they found someone approachable, genial. Naturally, Joe Biden the man had to loom large, and shall continue to do so. Yet there is an unescapable reality: Joe Biden looks and sounds frail. This optic will run through every mind every time he appears in public.

Since persona has been made especially critical in this election, the public’s opinion may bifurcate on this ‘new’ man, their promised anti-Trump. Those who think of Biden as a politician half-a-century in the limelight may perceive him as a scripted, disingenuous, platitudinal mouthrunner; a faded throwback to the glad-handing, ‘Listen here, folks’-sputtering, kitchen-table-imagery-setting snollygoster, one with a closetful of skeletal inappropriateness and strikingly un-PC stances and phrases in his distant and not so distant past that he hopes no one will bring up (he’s looking your way, media). There is also the whiff of corruption, one that is assumed by a skeptical public as something that just comes with the territory. But what amount of corruption is to be expected from this type, and how much is too much corruption?—this is sort of the ‘how much is too much change’ question. Well, we are about to find out.

Taking the other road are those who want to think kindly of Biden, as the poor stuttering, widowed ‘Good-Catholic-Scranton-Boy’ who—bless his heart—is just trying his best. However, they may end up perceiving him, given his obvious and increasing frailty, as one who is prone to manipulation. The more they hear of corruption, the more they will think his coterie has led him astray.

So what is he, a corruptor or a patsy? This is not a question that anyone wants to ask at the start of a presidency, but it will force itself into the public discourse. The reason this will happen is the Hunter Biden laptop.

The laptop is real. Its contents are real, really embarrassing and really incriminating. Some of it is, err, too depraved and disgusting, and that’s putting it mildly. Its provenance, from Hunter’s possession to that of Rudy Giuliani’s while running through a half-blind Albino computer repairman in Wilmington, is gonzo but authentic. The ludicrous smokescreen that it is somehow associated with Russian disinformation, peddled as that was by anti-Trump national security luminaries, will have to be answered for. Big Tech’s attempt to censor the story will be recalled for the bizarre and creepy intrusion that it was. It will not be forgotten. It will not get lost in the din. Da ya think that that’s possible with a walking-talking indefatigable media dynamo like Trump, who will not fade away, who will not go silently into the night, out there bringing it up over and over again day after day?

Remember when Trump tried to make Hunter’s business dealings an issue at the first debate? He tried, but Chris Wallace, another beneficiary of a powerful father, shut it down as irrelevant. Wallace pompously said, “I think the American people would rather hear about more substantial subjects. Well, as the moderator, sir, I’m going to make a judgement call here.” He did. He ended the discussion. Or so it seemed. News of the laptop broke ahead of the second debate, and it again fell to Trump to raise the topic directly with Biden since hardly anyone else did. Biden weakly deflected by citing Romney who served on “that committee” (meaning Ron Johnson’s Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs) and who “said it wasn’t worth taxpayer’s money. That report was written for political reasons.” The Senate report too came out before the laptop revelations. When pressed directly by Trump on the new information emanating from the laptop, Biden categorically answered “None of that is true.” How long will his answer hold?

Those who are prone to read corruption into Biden’s actions will recall Tony Bobulinski’s credible account as an example of ‘Big Guy’/’chairman’/Joe Biden’s direct familiarity and involvement, and cut thereof from the business ventures of his son(s) (we’re not supposed to speak, for respecting-the-dead thanatological reasons, about how Beau Biden, RIP, was involved too) and brother James. This too will be remembered.

The “laptop from hell” as Trump masterfully tagged it has yielded many revelations, but one in particular stands out. In any other telling, it may sound esoteric and difficult to follow. However, it is the backstory against which Trump was impeached so there is some metanarrative groundwork already in place for a wider audience. The revelation will lay bare to many (or just enough) that Trump the disruptor was unfairly impeached, while Biden the establishmentarian got off scot-free. That’s right, we are back to Burisma.

The whole deal with the Burisma story is whether there was a personal or familial agenda at play when Biden leaned on the Ukrainian government to fire its prosecutor. Biden famously withheld 1 billion dollars in aid until it would do so. This is known as a quid pro quo, a bad thing when gobs of taxpayers’ money and personal agenda are involved, which is the charge that House Democrats pinned on Trump as grounds for impeachment. Remember this, the worst Trump is accused of doing was asking the Ukrainians to look into whether something smelled funny in the Biden family’s Burisma dealings.

We were assured that Biden had no personal gain here. Not by the Ukrainians mind you: it was the American press and an assortment of officious ‘Deep State’ bigwigs offering up those assurances. They placed their credentials as guarantees for the veracity of these assurances. Their argument hinged on their assertion that the prosecutor was not investigating Burisma at the time of Biden’s threat to the Ukrainians. Yet this is where Hunter’s laptop shreds their sureties to confetti. The laptop contains a record of a smoking gun email that told us that in fact Burisma execs felt that they were being harassed by investigations during those months. The timing is key here. Now you really need to pay attention.

The e-mail was sent by Vadym Pozharskyi from his Burisma address on November 2, 2015. It is addressed to the email addresses of Hunter Biden, Devon Archer, and Eric D. Schwerin at Blue Star Strategies Group. The email lays out the expectations that Burisma has for re-hiring them. Pozharskyi, in a communication sent seven months prior to this email, had thanked Hunter for introducing him to his father the then Vice President. Hunter had done that as part of his sweet gig on Burisma’s board. But the Nov. 2 negotiation was about something new. It had a new urgency. And Pozharskyi was asking for a new set of services from Hunter and his partners.

Pozharskyi’s new ‘deliverables’ literally meant delivering U.S. officials, current and former ones, to Ukraine. He wanted Hunter and his partners to get officials such as the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and others stateside to express a supportive, positive opinion of “Nikolay/Burisma” both publicly and through private channels. “Nikolay” is Mykola Zlochevskiy, Burisma’s founder. Pozharskyi wanted these messages of support to be delivered to “the highest level of decision makers here in Ukraine” such as his country’s president, the president’s chief of staff and the “Prosecutor General, etc.” He spells it out further: “The scope of work should also include organization of a visit of a number of widely recognized and influential current and/or former US policy-makers to Ukraine in November [my emphasis] aiming to conduct meetings with and bring positive signal/message and support on Nikolay’s issue to the Ukrainian top officials above…”

And why is that necessary to do in that particular month of November? Well, Pozharskyi tells them that “the ultimate purpose to close down for any cases/pursuits against Nikolay in Ukraine.”

There it is, in plain, somewhat Eastern European-accented English. Burisma was worried that its top guy was under imminent threat of “cases/pursuits.” Meaning investigations into corruption and what have you. The urgency strongly suggests these were to be new and impending.

Hunter began delivering. Blue Star met with the U.S. Ambassador in December 2015, per Pozharskyi’s demand. This was an important ‘get’ for Burisma. George Pyatt, a career diplomat who had gotten his first ambassadorial-rank appointment to Ukraine in 2013 under Obama, had been somewhat undiplomatically vocal on the subject of corruption, and “Nikolay” Zlochevskiy’s corruption in particular. On September 24, 2015, five weeks before the e-mail above, he publicly laid into the Prosecutor General’s office for slow-walking an investigation into Zlochevskiy and his millions of dollars in illicit assets held in Britain. He was even hinting of deliberate sabotage, which was the general impression among watchers of the case those days. Zlochevskiy had been minister of environment and natural resources from 2010 to 2012, during a transformative time for Ukraine’s lucrative natural gas and oil fields. He coincidentally became very rich. One of his ventures was the Cyprus-incorporated Burisma Holdings Limited. Hunter was brought onto the Burisma board in April 2014 during the same month that Zlochevskiy’s assets were frozen in London. Zlochevskiy had been under a variety of Ukrainian and international investigations for two years before Pyatt renewed the call.

Pyatt specifically called for an investigation of a few shady officials within the Prosecutor-General’s office. It was unclear whether Pyatt was specifically going after the Prosecutor-General himself, Viktor Shokin, or just members on his staff. Shokin, a veteran prosecutor, had been on the job for less than a year. Two days before the ambassador’s remarks, Shokin had set up a special anticorruption department within the Prosecutor-General’s Office. Those leading this department, chosen as they were by Shokin, seemed to be in the good graces of the U.S. Embassy. There was a sense of renewed direction and vigor, and Pyatt was providing covering fire as the new team went after its quarry, which judging from the ambassador’s specific mentioning of him seems to have been Zlochevskiy, but we haven’t been able to know for sure. We still do not know why Pyatt took the meeting with Blue Star knowing who they were working for. Furthermore, we do not know if he raised the inappropriateness of their reaching out to him in any cables back to the State Department or privately with other Obama administration officials. Or whether he took a reading of where the wind was blowing and simply bit his own tongue.

A more jaundiced viewpoint would add that Hunter delivered his father too—the administration’s key person on Ukraine. Joe Biden visited Ukraine from December 7-8, suddenly elevated the firing of Shokin as a key demand of the United States while on the plane over there. The new talking point was that everyone–the State Department, the Europeans–were on board with firing Shokin because he was shirking his duties in not moving zealously enough against the corruptors. Thus Biden was acting gallantly and in contravention of his son’s interests, or so his defenders argued. It was Biden himself who boasted the details of this trip during a later talk at the Council on Foreign Relations (January 23, 2018) that was released on video and in transcript. Biden was not simply running his mouth as he is wont to do; he spoke of those details to ‘fix’ the record in a manner that strategically worked for him ahead of his run for the presidency since he anticipated there could be some trouble with this story. That is why his memory of it functioned better than it usually does–he came prepared. The press had first reported on Hunter’s association with Burisma just as Biden was landing during that December 2015 trip; there was a Vice story reported out of Kiev by Simon Ostrovsky laying out the details, as well as the inappropriateness of it all. So Biden and the Ukrainians both knew how things appeared. But Biden pressed on, even threatening to withhold 1 billion dollars in aid. The incredulous Ukrainians told him, “you have no authority.” They must have known how it would have looked for Biden if this got out given that Hunter’s associations were already out in the press. But Biden bluffed them into calling Obama and finding out whether the guy facing them down has the authority or not. We know that because Biden told us so at his talk. The way Biden retold the tale at CFR was that he gave the Ukrainians an ultimatum to fire the prosecutor, and “Well, son of a bitch. (Laughter.) He got fired. And they put in place someone who was solid at the time.” But Shokin wasn’t fired until four months later, in March 2016; we also don’t hear of any active investigations of Zlochevskiy during those few intervening months between Biden’s intervention and Shokin’s actual date of dismissal.

That December standoff in the Ukrainian capital had an eye-of-the-beholder aspect to it, one could play it down or play it up depending on perception, and purpose. When Airforce Two went wheels up from Kiev the New York Times ran a follow-up to Vice’s story under Jim Risen’s byline. It didn’t add anything new, but it did widen the public’s knowledge of the incident. That it came from Risen, a conduit for Deep State leakers (we’ll be discussing a book he co-authored later), was also interesting. The author assured us there was nothing there even if it did smell iffy. This was not the line that a story running in the same paper on the same topic took a few years later in May 2019: this time around it seemed designed to implicate Biden, probably to hobble his primary. He won the primary so the story had to be reburied, or re-spun before Trump got a hold of it. They—the New York Times, Chris Wallace, the Deep Staters, the Bidens—almost got away with it. Almost.

It was clumsily resurrected by Adam Schiff because he couldn’t find anything else to impeach Trump on. A dinky NSC busy-body, ‘That’s Colonel to you’ Alexander Vindman, had been creating a ruckus behind the scenes over Trump’s phone call with an incoming Ukrainian president after Vindman had heard, second-hand, that POTUS had brought up the issue of Biden, the prosecutor, and Burisma. Time was running out for the Democrats. They were to face Trump in an election set against the backdrop of an astounding economic success, and COVID-19 had yet to offer itself as Biden’s running mate. So Schiff ran with Vindman’s persnickety grievances. But of course Trump had a transcript to back up his counter-claim of “a perfect phone call” and whatever Schiff dug up didn’t really seal the deal on the quid-ing and pro-ing and quo-ing after six months of roiling the political class, so impeachment broke along partisan lines, failed to remove Trump from office and DC moved on. The Bidens again breathed a sigh of relief: the candidate could still claim that everything was above board, at least there was no direct evidence otherwise. The record still showed that Biden went after the prosecutor when there were no active investigations into Burisma. And that’s where everyone left it.

But here is where the Biden defense falls apart: The November 2 e-mail from Pozharskyi revealed imminent urgency. Things had to happen that same month to forestall fresh investigations. They wanted the U.S. ambassador to be spoken to. They wanted U.S. officials to come to Kiev and say nice things about Zlochevskiy to Ukrainian officials including Shokin, the Prosecutor General, now.

So what? “You got us, but Biden is now president. Too late! Too bad!” I really do get it. I’m a grown-up, I’ve been around DC and politics for two decades now, and I know how things are. No one is going to jail for what this one e-mail uncovered, but the fact that this was hereto an unknown aspect of the story, unknown to the media and to the Congress, and that when it was revealed it was censored by the media and by Big Tech, well, this is going to leave a bad taste in the mouths of a portion of Biden’s voters. How big of a portion? We don’t know, but we do know that they will keep wondering: is he corrupt or was he manipulated by Hunter?

The Burisma scandal is the gateway drug to all sorts of cognitive trips in a voter’s mind, for the bad taste is part of a pattern. This was no isolated blip in the narrative. It fits elegantly against the backdrop of how the Hunter laptop was delegitimized. Fifty former intelligence officials signed a letter casting doubt on the laptop. They claimed the whole tale had the whiff of a Russian information operation. They marshalled their expertise to demonstrate that they knew what they are talking about, that such knowledge led them to believe that the Russian government played a significant role in this one. The fifty names even boasted high-ranking signatories whose terms overlapped with that of Trump’s, lending a pseudo-claim of bipartisanship. Here we had the Deep State in all trappings and regalia, telling us to clasp our ears and to look away, lest the siren song from Yasenevo lead us astray. All the usual suspects were there: John Brennan, Leon Panetta, Michael Hayden, John McLaughlin, Michael Morell, Thomas Finger, Mike Vickers, Doug Wise, Nick Rasmussen, Nada Bakos, Steven L. Hall, Russ Travers, Marc Polymeropoulos, Cynthia Strand, Emile Nakhleh, John Sipher, and so on. A number of them had publicly endorsed Biden, but that was neither here nor there. They were putting out this letter to safeguard the republic, you see. The letter was not above certain flourishes, “in addition, nine additional former IC officers who cannot be named publicly also support the arguments in this letter.” These former officers were such hot stuff that they couldn’t even sign their names, in retirement. They were risking their covers to tell us to take heed! How could we ever repay them? Where do we even send the gift baskets to?

Now they do tell us that they have no evidence of Russian involvement, nor do they know whether the emails and other data were genuine. But the whole thing was “consistent with Russian objectives.” And that’s that. They were putting their credentials on the line, credentials that the American people had paid for. After all, those positions of authority that they occupied were subsidized by American taxpayers. And leveraging those credentials to deflect blame from a presidential candidate in the final stretch of a campaign is nothing out of the ordinary. That’s what they tell us. Who are we to argue?

Of course, it’s all hogwash. They are claiming Russian disinformation where there is none. But this claim of theirs locks into yet another pattern that is foundational to the Trumpian narrative: it was the likes of Brennan and Hayden in 2016 who, from their official perches atop the U.S. national security establishment, enabled Russian disinformation to get into the intelligence bloodstream in the final stretch of a campaign because it could have damaged a presidential candidate, and could have derailed a president-elect, and could have ousted a president. I’m talking, of course, about the Steele Dossier.

The Steele Dossier is bunk. Much has been written about it. There are strong suspicions that parts of it were concocted by Russian intelligence, a genuine Russian disinformation operation. The Russians may have done so to screw with an American election, or the genesis of their work could have had the humble objective of discrediting Christopher Steele alone. Again, getting into the nitty gritty—who paid for it, who used it, who leaked it, who grifted off of it—is beyond our scope. But there is one element to the story, recently revealed, that focuses on a dimension that not only borders on treason in my mind, but rather leap frogs well into treasonous territory.

Less than a month before the election, on October 6, 2020, we learned about the declassified notes made by former CIA Director John Brennan concerning a briefing he gave Obama in July 2016. In those notes, Brennan indicates to the former president that the Russians knew that Hillary Clinton had commissioned an investigation into Trump’s Russian entanglements. This is important in the intelligence world. If a spy agency knows that some outsider is fishing for a particular type of fact, said spy agency would be hard pressed not to feed tainted stories to such an investigation just to see where it all goes. Such subterfuge had been going on since the beginning of spy work. It is elemental, and some like the Russians are very capable at it. Or at least, given how gullible they think American spies are, they usually go for it in a big way, with a much-relished goal of humiliating their American adversaries. This is the analysis that any espionage flunky can make. And here we have the head of the CIA telling a U.S. president that the Russians know. Which means that the Russians will feed it garbage. Which means that the intelligence product likely to come out if will be tainted and toxic. Which if it enters the intelligence data bloodstream, running between the dozen or so intelligence agencies of the U.S. government, this taint, this toxicity will spread, and at one point, at some inevitable point, it will leak to someone in Congress, someone in the press, or some other foreign intelligence agency trying to get at what is really going on in Washington.

Brennan knew all that. Obama would have known all that too. They knew that whatever Hillary’s campaign was fishing for was compromised. Yet they allowed Operation Crossfire Hurricane to be unleashed on the Trump campaign three days earlier. They were hoping the leaks would occur before the election. At no point did they pull the brakes. Then they hoped the leaks would materialize during the transition. And then they awaited the leaks to break out during the early run of Trump’s presidency. So it wasn’t incompetence that allowed the Steele Dossier to fester and spread within the intelligence bureaucracies. It was clear and apparent malice, oozing down from the very top, with the clear and apparent intent to overturn the result of a presidential election. This is shameful. This is treason. And this will go unpunished too. Because a system that could not prevent the beginnings of this so damning of a taint cannot fix–and consequently untaint–itself.

But it will be remembered. And it will fall into place with the question over whether Biden knew of this taint, or whether a Deep State, one that could participate unaccountably in such seditious deception, would easily manipulate him going forward.

Another twist on this narrative is that every time it is raised, every time it is whispered, every time it is wondered, some eyes would naturally have to turn to Kamala Harris. Is some of the kindling for these perceptions, that Biden is too frail and too easily manipulated, or that Biden is too corrupt, coming out of her team? These sorts of suspicions are a running theme in all vice-presidencies, but there is something about Harris that would seem to amplify it: she comes off as clumsily devious. Returning to the trope of decency and character, and this time focusing on her person, one can immediately tell that she is not ready. She isn’t even Senator-grade ready. Mike Pence filleted here expertly during their debate. She was grating and unauthentic during the primaries. Her initial campaign was one misstep after another; seemingly the more the Democrat constituency got to know her, the more off-putting she got.

There was something nervous about her, as if she was about to get caught in a massive sham. Some of this is her own doing. For example, she clearly figured that being childless may hurt her as a paragon of would-be breaker-of-glass-ceilings womanhood, so she clumsily crafted fake-tender stories about her step-children that one has to do several steps of research to pin down as bizarre and creepy. She told us that she baked cookies for them the first time she met them. She told us that they took to calling her ‘mamala’. She left the audience with a mental image of this kindly lady winning over the affection of two children. It is a heartening image. It softens her. But what she (and the media) didn’t tell us is that when she married her husband five years ago in 2015, his eldest son was already a twenty-year old junior in college, while his daughter was a 15 year-old teenager. Harris had met her husband less than a year before they got hitched. So the timeline does not make sense. Who bakes cookies for a frat boy and a teenager? Which teenager do you know off starts calling a step-mom ‘mamala’ without an eye roll and gobs of high-pitched irony? How would their actual mama, the one who lived through the first projectile vomit, the first successful potty transition, the first the-boy-I-like-pulled-my-hair heartbreak, feel about this? Harris’ family life is her business, but she did leverage it as a political asset. And upon closer scrutiny, well, ewww.

And as sure as hell there will be more of this. Kamala gives off that vibe. And ultimately the Biden team will begin feeling that some of the blowback to their guy is being fanned by hers.

So the decency and character ticket has some destabilizing flaws. This is where the narrative of election fraud fits in seamlessly too. Trump had been laying the foundations for this rhetoric for months before the election. He said he would win, but there was a serious prospect of the other side cheating, especially with unsolicited mail-in ballots. It no longer matters whether it is true. His people will believe it. They will have enough ‘evidence’ to go by. It is easy for them to believe that the Democrats, the establishment and the Deep Staters are corrupt and would go to any length to regain power. And they won’t believe the credentialed authorities or the media when it attempts to debunk this evidence. After all, four years of relentless anti-Trump rhetoric never dented their resolve to stand by their guy. They do not stand there sheepishly, embarrassed by his antics, hoping that he would concede and move on. They are cheering him on. They want him to do what he does best: fight. Fight till the end. Get at them Mr. President! Maul and brawl. Maul and brawl. They know this claim of being robbed and wronged shall become yet another subplot in their narrative arc. A narrative that leads him to run again in 2024, to take back what was rightfully his, in their eyes at least. (The current efforts underway to legally deny Trump the chance to do that only reinforces the notion among his supporters that the establishment types have done something untoward that they are trying to hide, and that they are terrified of the prospect of his return to look deeper into what transpired during the election.)

But is all this enough to win over the 11 percenters? A case can be made that the voting public has no patience or attention span to hear foreign words like Burisma or to follow the machinations of a Brennan. They would just shrug and move on to some celebrity gossip. The powers that be certainly have a low view of the public. But they were wrong about them in 2016, and were wrong again in 2020. Can they risk being wrong again? Can they be certain there isn’t an 11 percent out there that may give this narrative a hearing? That at the end of hearing it out they won’t feel lied to, or ‘red pilled’ in today’s jargon? Can they be certain that a talented pugilist like Trump is too set in his ways to retool and revamp his messaging to include this whole tapestry? He already has a whole vocabulary of scandal and retribution cocked and ready: laptop from hell, fake news, lock them up, end endless wars, suppression polls, drain the swamp, stop the steal, and MAGA, and MAGA,A. These things may sound silly to the elite, but in capable hands, they are politically lethal.

Or maybe the powerful are unimpressed by all this huffing and puffing. To them, Trump is king of the rubes, master of America’s Dalits. He can have all of them and still come up short. His ‘remnant classes’ in the Midwest are tapped out, and would be cancelled out anyway by the urban black vote in any electoral challenge. He has no new ground to claim. Unless of course he breaks into the ‘Recent Immigrant’ game, one the Democrats believe they have all locked up. What they don’t get is that Trump has always been the Ilkhan of a great Mongol horde who leads the enemy into thinking they are winning right before clamping them with a bone-crushing defeat.

Maybe I am giving the Recent Immigrants too much credit. Maybe what happened in Miami is really solely about anti-socialism. Maybe immigrants, or at least the 1965 Act portion of them, don’t have a unique attachment to fairness, to holding this new land of theirs to a higher moral plane. Will they actually listen and be swayed by tales of corruption, abuses of power, and voting fraud? Isn’t that what they detested about the places they left; how the powerful played by different rules and got away with it? When the Statue of Liberty was unveiled in 1886 none of the speech givers mentioned the word ‘immigrant’. The French craftsmen who made the statue and the citizens who paid for it, as well as the Americans who donated towards building the pedestal thought they were erecting a dual monument: one that celebrated the Declaration of Independence, as well as the abolition of slavery. The story of immigration played no part in its symbolism. It was the immigrants passing Liberty Enlightening the World on their way to Ellis Island for arrival processing who assigned her a role as their august greeter and welcomer, a meaning and looming presence within their own stories and myths of coming to America, so much so that the plaque with the sonnet now indelibly identified with the statue, seeming to be in Lady Liberty’s own voice—Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free—was added almost two decades later, in 1903.

Many have described the naturalization ceremony as a rebirth of sorts. That is what I experienced too. With that comes a measure of child-like innocence, of expectation, even after having lived in the United States for a while, even after witnessing the defects here and there. That expectation lifts one up, reminding the new citizens of why they came here. As Wolfe puts, “For everyone in the world, America is Plan B. If it doesn’t work out here, we’ll try to go there.” It is the immigrants’ task to spot defects, to do repairs and to keep it going. That is why I don’t think such citizens would shrug off the Trumpian narrative of fairness and renewal that indifferently.

They, and others, will ask themselves whether it is worth being lied to so as to save us from Trump’s crudity? Whether a return to the old way of doing things, corrupt and static as they are, was really a soothing improvement over Trump’s chaotic management, a win for themselves and their families rather than one for the establishment? How many of Biden’s 2020 voters would come to answer ‘No’? What do we know about the reactions of those who feel they were lied to and implicated in the preservation of a fraudulent, suffocating status quo, one that took and took from them and their families and left them exposed and in ruinous debt?

I would say there is a fair chance of events playing out to Trump’s advantage.

And if all else fails, then the decency-character ticket can get an unseemly smear of the laptop’s jam of venereal spirochetes. There is stuff in there, and also out there if one takes the time to look, that turns the Biden family into Jerry Springer Show sweepstakes material. This is not ‘Tara Reid says’ stuff. This is audiovisual. And it cannot be unseen. Crack made Hunter do really, really horrifying stuff. It is ironic that his father was the one who in his 1986 legislation turned the possession of a tiny amount of crack into a far greater sentencing offence than carrying a similar amount of powdered cocaine, even extending the disparity upwards to a hundred times for the same amount in cocaine. This tweak decimated an African-American generation just then experiencing the blight of crack. Sniffling yuppies got away with it. So did Hunter three decades later when he literally got a slap on the wrist, receiving an ‘administrative separation’ from the U.S. Navy reserve—not even a dishonorable discharge—after testing positive for drugs in 2014. But now we know that the crack was the least of it. How long will it remain unacknowledged? A brawler like Giuliani gets to traffic in this sort of smut after being accused for half a day by the Twitterverse of propositioning a 15 year-old on Borat’s new movie. That turned out to be false yet he will get memed with it for the rest of his days. But it gives him the moral clearance to bring up unseemly stuff like what looks (and sounds) a lot like incestuous pedophilia, with ‘Pop’ knowing about it, and seemingly not doing much to punish or turn in Hunter. These sorts of family tragedies are just what they are, tragic. But it will be difficult to pretend that the story is not there. And let’s not pretend that human nature will not warrant this human wasteland a glancing, curious look. And let’s not pretend that it has no bearing on ‘character’. Laptop from hell indeed.

Trump Cancels the Media

One could see why the elite couldn’t understand Trump or his people, given the economic, cultural and physical gulfs between the two camps, but why would the media, left leaning and supposedly driven to document the plight of the little man, be so out of tune with that man’s pathos?

Maybe the muckraker myth was just that, a myth. Maybe these were isolated cases of the jaded, dogged, righteous reporter archetype, but the majority had always been somebody’s nephew, or had married into power, or were there for the cocktails. Rogue publications meant to challenge legacy media, ones that would tell it like it is, often mellowed, sold-out, or floundered.

Hating on the media had turned archetypical too. Yelling at the television, or fuming over an Editorial, or sending in a letter had morphed by the embittering 2000s of the Bush era into blogging snarky takes. The more talented bloggers were co-opted into the business, and into power. And so on. By the midpoint of the Obama presidency, the media landscape had consolidated: legacy flagships such as network news and news shows, the NYTimes, WaPo and CNN had survived financial ruin by accepting rescue from the billionaires who held on to them for status, rather than balance-sheet success. Institutions lower down the scales simply fell into the void or starved at the periphery. But the cultural supremacy of those surviving flagships was unassailable. And they all looked, and sounded, and opined the same. There was Fox News to entertain and channel the dissenters, but even that would change in the post-Ailes era. There was a sense that things had stabilized on the media landscape after the internet’s disruption, and that the media was back as a powerful influence on how America thinks and talks.

Then Trump came along and amplified the talkback, so much so that he disrupted the news cycle over and over again. He harried, and tweeted, feigned, and tweeted, and struck, and tweeted, and then repeated. His tactics were Mongol, his technical edge is what I called ‘celebrity technology’. He gave journalists compelling, thrilling copy and made it so that his name was uttered with each of their breaths. Then he wouldn’t let the media catch its breath as he unleashed a new round of invective. Trump went on to invite those same journalists into the ring with him. Journalists accordingly took the bait and inserted themselves into the news cycle. They told themselves it must be done. Being idealistic and telling it like it is, and fighting the man, and fighting for the little guy somehow necessitated that reporters become protagonists in the stories they covered. Trump came back at them with “enemy of the people” and they vowed that democracy would not die in darkness, not on their watch. Their watch has lasted the entire length of the five year-old Trump phenomenon, without let up. It is coming to an end, but not because the phenomenon is ending. It is coming to an end because the media is fated to irrelevance, which to them is a fate worse than death.

Irrelevance will come when Trump’s people stop reacting to the legacy media. They will stop engaging. What the media says or does will not get a rise out of them. In 2016, half the country wanted to be acknowledged. They were sending a message. They felt betrayed. The polls couldn’t even spot them, or want to see them. They adopted Trump’s moniker for themselves, “the forgotten men and women”–even Hillary’s “deplorables” became a mark of their distinction and pride. Instead of attention and sympathy, the media kept belittling them and maligning their movement, so they made the calculation that any rational person would make in this case: the media is useless in terms of getting their protest voice across. So they will simply secede from the media’s domain; they will leave the designated public square as assigned by the powerful. But they will gather elsewhere.

It will get silent with less talk back. It shall inevitably feel ‘normal’ when half the country vacates the country’s meeting place, the customary town square. But it will be a delusion. The Trumpians will go off the narrative grid. They will hike up to their mountain redoubts. They will hold revivals in the woods. Their movement will become leaner, tougher, fiercer. Once in a while they will send down bands of trolls to hit and run, planting memetic IEDs in comments sections. Every time ‘Where’s Hunter?’ gets typed up, they will eat into the fabric of the establishment’s credibility. The media will delude itself further when interpreting these ‘signs of life’. They will deem the Trumpian movement a weird, dwindling sectarian cult, diminishing into silence, isolation and frustration. Trump will still hold rallies, but the media would color his crowds as the non-musical deadheads of a very-aged rocker; throngs of adoring fans, still swaying to his greatest hits that no station would keep playing. The media would lord over the vanquished, bemused by them as some specimen of a bedraggled Japanese soldier still thinking the war was on.

The only problem is that these Trumpians constitute a big part of the middle class. Maybe a huge part of the lower middle class. They are a significant consumer pool. The Democrats like to tell themselves that blue states make up around seventy percent of the country’s wealth, but they forget to factor in that these blue states have big swathes of red, swathes that do much of the wealth creation. The journalists may not spot that, but their accountants will. The media will no longer be the arbiters of style, taste and decorum for these consumers. They will no longer get to offer a set of acceptable norms to this crowd, a guide as to what is to be buzzed about, and how things are supposed to be said. The inability to endorse and validate, let alone authenticate, shall have serious bottom-line consequences. However, does that even matter when there are tech billionaires willing to cover the difference? Probably not. Which just means the media’s blind-spot deteriorates into a more severe form of blindness.

Trump has always said that the media would be out of business if he should lose. They need him, they need the ratings he brings. The media (and entertainment) model for the last few years has focused on the anti-Trump classes who needed something to hold them over during these four long years. A prodigious amount of content was piped out. A whole industry was mobilized. Showtime even turned James Comey’s book into a fawning movie. In their minds, they were sure that not only were they ministering to the anti-Trumpers, but they were re-educating and converting large segments of those who had been misled by him. They only discovered that the latter objective had been futile when viewing the election result when so many stuck with Trump. Hey, at least they have the attention of the other half of the country, right? But what happens when their spiel turns bland, when there are too few outlets for their rehearsed outrage takes on Trump? What happens to the Don Lemons, the Jake Tappers, the Anderson Coopers, as well as the late night comedians? It will gnaw at their wits as to why they couldn’t reach half of America’s audience. It will eventually gnaw at their pride, and at their compensation. It will get worse when they bore the other half away to other channels too.

Whither the David Frum, Jennifer Rubin, Bill Kristol, Max Boot cohort? What is to become of them? They billed themselves as the contra-Trump. Back in 2016 they were incensed that their conservative flock, imagined as it was, had not heeded their fatwa forbidding the layperson from imbibing the Trumpian nectar. How dare Trump and his rabble scorn the intellectual hierarchy of the party? How dare they show up the high priests as nothing but poseurs with little actual clout, credibility and power? They had barely made it back to DC’s invite lists after the banishment of the Bush years and the Iraq War, and now this? So they flung themselves unto the front lines of resistance. Consequently they became consumed, and defined, by Trump. But what are they now sine-Trump? Their life’s work is even less relevant. Take for example the grifters of the Lincoln Project. They produced some biting, well-made propaganda. But it didn’t move the needle, not even by a quiver. It seems that a larger proportion of Republicans–some 95 percent, in total–voted for Trump even after all that vitriol than had done so in 2016. The Projecters will try to sell their overstock of bilious juices by the roadside for a decade to come, with few takers. Their story will turn ‘sad’—uttered Trumpically.  

Only Trump could have taken this abuse. And only Trump could have survived it. And only Trump could conquer his media adversaries. How does he do it? Well, it’s simple and counter-intuitive: he does it with love. He won over his crowds with love.

Trump is unique. He is amusingly human, not tragically so. He is a misfit, a rascal, and a funny one too, not psychotic as the media diagnoses him. This is the biggest gulf between his supporters in the rally crowd and his detractors in the media. They seem to be watching two very different performances. I think that is so because the media does not realize that its presence at the rally is integral to his shtick, while the crowd understands that they themselves are also there as part of the show, as part of the interactive carnival. Jim Acosta comes off like an Asperger’s sufferer having to explain the tango when reporting on the rallies. He has no awareness that he is a prop, that when Trump points to the red lights on the cameras and the crowd shouts ‘CNN sucks’ that that is the point of CNN being there. And we love Trump for letting us share the national stage with him.

Ours is a deep and abiding affection for our guy. It is far from the reverence that was held for and cultivated by Obama. We know Trump to be vulgar, obnoxious and even chaotic. We’ve known that for as long as he’s been the butt of many gilded palace nouveau riche jokes since the 1980s. We’ve known these things about him ever since The Apprentice, Celebrity Apprentice, and every instance of his cameos throughout the annals of entertainment and gossip columns. We understood that he could be a brash, loud celebrity, but we could also see that he is a builder of things. How can you miss that with that grand ‘TRUMP’ lettering on skyscrapers throughout America and the world’s greatest cities? We heard him say “grab them by the pussy.” We didn’t like it, but we forgave him. Because the ‘locker room talk’ excuse made sense. Because the women among us understood that their brothers and sons could act as jerks. The press pushed ‘liar’ to brand him. We actually found him refreshingly honest in his fudging and evasion. We found it cute, especially when he let us in on the ruse during his tongue-in-cheek off-the-teleprompter asides. We laughed. He made us laugh. We were not blind to his faults and flaws. In 2016 we knew him to be a clown. To us he never pretended otherwise. It took a leap of faith to vote for him, knowing all that we knew, and to send him to Washington to show up those other clowns. And through it all we fell for him, and fell hard, despite everything. Because he was our champion, our brawler-in-chief, and what a great champion he turned out to be! The media tried to peg him as punch-drunk unbalanced. Did you get a look at the other guy?

How did he do it? He did it because he is the consummate performer. His rallies have achieved pitch-perfection, for he was constantly tweaking and refining his message, reading the crowd, and capturing their attention. The Trump rally will be studied as an art form, a spectacle so engaging and so endearing. And somehow it doesn’t get boring. The crowds, both physical and digital, keep coming. And as Trump likes to brag, “he does it without a guitar.” Russell Brand, the British comedian/rocker, uploaded a YouTube video in June analyzing how Trump retold his version of what happened during a commencement ceremony at West Point. The media had run with a story about signs of Trump’s physical deterioration, a favorite go-to attack pattern of theirs that they hoped would induce his 25th Amendment discharge from office. It had to do with how Trump drank a cup of water, and how he went down a ramp. Brand went through a blow-by-blow comedic analysis of how Trump turned the media’s story against them. It was a masterful achievement, a work of art; Brand was complimenting a fellow artist and warning the left that they cannot defeat Trump on this terrain. Obama was a scripted performer, levitated by an act of mass projection, and protected by kid-glove-wearing reviewers. Trump is a natural, a force of nature in fact, one that dwarfs his predecessor’s overwrought soliloquies. With Trump it really feels like one of the greatest one-man acts of recorded history.

This is why Trumpism will always need, nay crave Trump. He willed it into existence, and only he can wield it.

How will the media keep up the fight after it was demonstrated they could do nothing to dent his support? How will they keep going at him for ratings when their own existing constituency is supposed to be craving and expecting normalcy? And how will the media attempt to explain their shielding of Biden when the dust settles?

It was Trump who was reporting critical information about Biden to the public at his rallies regarding dangerous and compromising corruption at the highest levels, not the reporters at the WaPo. If anything, he deserves next year’s Pulitzer, not they. It was those few last weeks of the campaign that really did something to the media’s standing, something of permanence, a brokenness that cannot be bonded. We have yet to understand what happened, and how it will be remembered. The media went to the finish line lugging a lot of bullshit. The “fine people on both sides” lob was bullshit. “Failed once again to condemn white nationalism” was bullshit. “Suckers and losers” was runny, not-even-trying bullshit. The Trumpians can easily prove it. They have all the rhetorical tools and evidence needed to prove that the media was not acting in good faith. It got really bad towards the end, when the media blatantly hid the Hunter laptop story: Trump, at a rally in Ohio on October 24 was speaking honestly when he looked towards the media gaggle and said “Even I didn’t realize you are so corrupt.” The WaPo could even shamelessly publish these words: “We must treat the Hunter Biden leaks as if they were a foreign intelligence operation—even if they probably aren’t”—and not expect to be called out on it by their peers. And remember that time when the NYT had us believing that ‘Anonymous’ was Kelly Ann Conway or even Ivanka-Jared and then it turned out to be a ‘Jonah from Veep’-like nobody with even less clearance, both in terms of security and height?

Far from being “an obese turtle on his back, flailing in the hot sun, realizing his time is over, and he just hasn’t accepted it,” Trump and his horde are energized and are on the prowl. The media may not pay a legal penalty for their malfeasance, but one can be certain that Trump will deliver unto them a karmic penance, as only he can.

Perhaps the lowest point of the media was how it covered the COVID-19 briefings. Trump thought he should be out and center to calm Americans and perhaps even to distract them. He also knew that he was a vortex of attention, and wherever he stood, the world would watch. And they needed to know that things were happening. The media were telling them that soon there won’t be any ICU beds or ventilators left to handle to the deluge, as had happened in Europe. Trump was there trying to tell them that he and his team are on it, while Acosta and his colleagues were there to scratch and tear at the president. Trump reflexively fought back. His supporters would watch that and give him credit. But that is not what audiences of legacy media saw as those hours of daily briefings were edited into soundbites and clips. Lost in the melee was that Trump actually delivered. Lost in the acrimony was the fact that government worked well without overstepping state rights or private sector autonomies. The media knew what it was doing. It had an end state of tying hundreds of thousands of deaths around Trump’s neck as he went into an election. It was a moment for a Grand American Project, but the media hijacked the ‘cause’ for its existential war against Trump.

COVID-19 will recede like a bad dream. It will be recalled as that missing year, a phantom limb. Human nature does not dwell on acts of god. It needs to move on, and move back to normalcy. But economic ruin will linger. The ‘Dark Winter’ will linger. Trump’s briefings and warnings about media-fanned panic will be remembered differently. People will remember how news of a successful vaccine soon coming to everyone was conveniently announced six days after the election, just like Trump said it would. We will remember all that, and then we will forget about the media. Sure, we will mention them from time to time, but we won’t be watching: we will have our own reporters editing soundbites and clips from whatever the media is saying just to prove to ourselves how ridiculous and irrelevant they are.

What Trump achieved by love will endure because it will keep contrasting with the media’s uncontrollable hatred of him and his people. CNN’s Brian Stelter can theatrically mute Trump’s post-election tweets on his phone while on the air, but he will be back to hate on Trump. The Trump hatred, or Trump Derangement Syndrome as Trumpians call it, was intoxicating. Those in the media who think they have kicked the habit will get their DTs soon (is it a coincidence that those are Donald Trump’s initials too?). They will keep hearing him yapping about this or that just around the corner and they can’t keep themselves away. Just the thought of those four years of their ‘heroic’ struggle will trigger nostalgic tumescence, something they’ll need to revisit, and revisit, and revisit. Especially since the alternative is impotence and irrelevance.  

Remember when many in the media tried to discredit the Walter Reed medical staff after Trump was diagnosed with COVID19? “When Trump walked through the doors, Walter Reed had a stellar reputation. As he walks out 72 hours later,” Maureen Dowd, the NYTimes columnist tweeted on October 5, “its reputation is in tatters. There’s nothing Trump can’t ruin.” Her tweet garnered two hundred thousand likes. Do you think Dowd, a seasoned trafficker in mordancy, can kick such a habit? She’s long moved on from mocking ‘Dubya’ to harder stuff—who else but Trump can give her the hit she craves?

In contrast, Trumpism has weeded out most of its grifters and haters—well, Lin Wood showed up in overtime like a bad penny, but hopefully we’ll shake him off too. Anthony Scaramucci works for the other side now; apparently providing debate moderating advice for C-SPAN’s now discredited Steve Scully. Ann Coulter stands there jilted, with daggers in her eye. Richard Spencer, the neo-Nazi the media took to be the (punching) face of their imagined alt-right subculture, even endorsed Biden (the latter’s campaign renounced Spencer).

Love has a champion, and hate has an address. This is how Trumpians see it. And there’s nothing the media can do now to change that. They have lost their power; they no longer get to be the gatekeepers of America’s political culture, or any other form of culture. The Trumpians, out there on the frontier, are tinkering with one of their own. 

Trump Cancels (Out) Cancel Culture

Is Trump an intensifier of cultural crises, or a byproduct of cultural antagonism? Or could he be a resolver, a peace-maker?

Was Trump using the culture wars to aggressively mobilize an electoral base, or was he forcing a long overdue resolution on a number of issues, or at least a needed intermission?

Again with the eye-of-the-beholder stuff. Suffice to say that the ‘culture wars’ preceded Trump, and could even be an integral, enduring motif within the American story. For America lends itself to fantasy, and folly. There have always been, and will always be, those who envisage that destiny—hers and theirs—compels the imagination to expect more. America was (mostly) tabula rasa, bequeathed by a higher calling for a higher standing. A new society, a natural order, a divine vision would be willed into place. That the few original inhabitants were of the noble savage variety, as those who first arrived from elsewhere perceived them, offered up the opportunity to invite and win them over to a better human attempt at civilization, one that is shepherded by the grace of God. Naturally, not everyone agreed what the end state should look like. Not everyone agreed on what manner to get there either; a contested issue in America’s toddlerhood, for example, was whether to allow mail delivery on Sunday since the postal office was critical in coping with this country’s vastness and its sprightly growth spurts, but there were those who believed that the Sabbath should be strictly observed. And then there was the practical, messy and often ruthless business of surviving the wild, however immaculate and transcendental its beauty and promise. Oh, and the original inhabitants sometimes weren’t as appreciative of the version of civilization they were introduced to, confounding their proselytizers (and displacers). 

Slavery was one such practical solution. It was not invented in or for America, but it was needed there, or so many agricultural entrepreneurs argued. Yet it was a solution that overstayed its welcome during a changing, rapidly industrializing nineteenth century. The Abolitionists wanted it over. A culture war ensued. Here as elsewhere a culture war was a function of long-standing arrangements and traditions grating against the march of time, coupled with the zeal that revolutionaries exhibit in appropriating the mantle of righteousness and change. Once in a while, a culture war finds practical excuses to combust into an all-out conflict, as happened during the Civil War. Further down the line a culture war flared up over prohibition, seemingly a reaction to too much merriment and drinking by recently arrived Irishmen, Czechs and Germans. Then there was Bible study in schools, and then, in the 1960s, working wives and premarital sex, and so on.

The ideal clashed with a lived reality over and over, and though with hindsight it can seem as if the ethics were clear, it was more likely the case that those we take to have been in the wrong held strongly to their justifications, and wholly believed them to be right. Often times, after those clashes subsided, the winning side attempted to extend empathy and a “we’re all in this together” sense to the losers. For example, the former Confederates were allowed to celebrate the valor of their generals and soldiers by erecting monuments to their memory. Maybe that was a necessary salve to be applied at that time. Maybe it reflected wisdom. I took some time to reflect on those monuments and the purposes they serve. I could not help but understand the issue in a way that was personal to me: whether Saddam’s Ba’athist monuments should be torn down or left for the ages. I have always maintained that they must come down—none of that era should be normalized, anyone associated with it should be shamed and forever ashamed. The German model of eradicating any valorization of National Socialism made much more sense to me; even finding memorials exclusive to the German soldiers who fell in WWII is rare there—they probably number fewer than a dozen across all of Germany. That seems wise too, seeing how memorials to the dead of the First World War were often erected during the Weimar years to fan revanchist flames and to remind the populace how their soldiers were betrayed, setting the stage for remilitarization and Nazism.

Yet it’s been four generations since the American Civil War, what use is there for more shame? What danger is there of encouraging secession? Of a return to slavery or even segregation? Or even of legitimating a ‘tradition’ of racism? I can let the monuments for the soldiers slide, but a muscled-up Stonewall Jackson at Bull Run? No, that just ain’t right. Whatever his story, however gripping his exploits, and notwithstanding the complicated impulses that drove the two sides, history and much of the populace—then and now—remembers the Civil War as one fought over slavery, and no one standing for and over it should ever be celebrated. Those who needed their defeated selves reassured of their place within America are long dead, so are a couple of generations of their progeny. They have no use for this statue. Living blacks and unborn ones should not have to look up to such monuments; they are unnecessarily hurtful.

But was I, in advocating for the removal of Jackson’s statue, in effect practicing ‘Cancel Culture’, the latest, zaniest phase of the culture wars? Was I retroactively undoing what wiser minds had deemed a necessary truce, a begrudged resolution in the culture wars of generations past, and that what the monument now represents is less a tribute to the general but more a reminder of that wisdom underwriting the hard work of peacemaking?

Buchanan’s list of flashpoints in 1992 revolved around abortion, gay marriage, school prayer, women in combat, pornography, and a reverence for America and her symbols. America had lost its footing by the time he took the stage. There were too many loose threads, too many bits and pieces of the country humming on very different wavelengths. Billy Graham’s circa-1950s gambit to wed a mainline Protestant revival to a sense of patriotic mobilization against Communism—one that was sponsored by powerful politicians and media barons whom Falwell had strategically cultivated and who cultivated him in return—had just lost its Soviet foil. Graham’s unifying revivals—racially integrated, rising above anti-Semitism, and eventually even conciliatory towards Catholicism—that had been fully certain of the eventuality of America’s spiritual and material victory had been overtaken by the Jerry Falwell-types of a dour evangelism, one that fretted over a more nefarious internal enemy sabotaging the morals of the majority rather than an external internationalist cabal, an enemy that must be excised from America’s midst or else all would be lost. Yet even this strain was on the wane by the end of the 1980s after the sunshine of Reaganism made things seems not so bad for religious conservatism after all.

America’s black minority was going through something else altogether. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s had successfully bent the letter of the law to its own arc of history, opening realms of opportunity that herein had remained closed under segregation. But it also opened up the black economy that hereto had remained a vibrant world unto its own to macro forces. When the larger economy went south, the black economy no longer had the controls and barriers to protect itself that it had instituted to pick up the pieces after the Great Depression, and that helped it survive numerous recessions since. The black middle class was destroyed, with drug epidemics hastening its decline. Left standing was the black church that Reverend Martin Luther King had turned into the nerve center of Civil Rights.

In contrast to both, the Catholic Church grew by leaps and bounds during this time, catering to expanding numbers of recent immigrants as well as lapsed white Catholics who found its structure reassuring during times of economic upheaval.

There was little form or function to all these disparate pieces. No one was proposing a way of bringing it all back together, under a new, reinvented American rubric. Clinton’s centrist teleological message of mercantilism whereby blue collar workers would learn new skills for a changing world economy did not do enough to bring people together. Clinton’s personal foibles touched off a storm of ethical censuring and upbraiding, but even that seemed too meager of a trial by hellfire for the nation’s soul. Little was resolved, no certainty reached. It seemed as if the multitudes of America, each under a tribal banner, were wandering through a grey desert for decades, an expanse where every horizon was a blur, every gesture an affront, every tepid tonic unequal to the thirst.

Some three decades later, inflationary issues-hood expanded Buchanan’s list to include climate change, gun control, legalizing drugs, systemic racism, defunding the police, further LGBTI+ rights, socialized medicine, border security, student loans, war on Christmas, toxic masculinity and ‘science’. It was as if every week witnessed a new set of commandments delivered, every fortnight brought a new golden, suckling barnyard babe to be worshiped. Jihadism came in to briefly substitute for Communism as a Western imperative to defeat; Franklin Falwell reinvented his father’s mission as an anti-Islamic crusade, this time the enemy taking the form of migrant Muslims, but even that never really caught on. A culture war now conjures up images of forest fires (or forest management), Confederate statues (or those of Christopher Columbus), paper straws (or sea turtles with a plastic one up its nose), and masks (again with those fucking masks!). This current imagery would have been unfathomable to Buchanan and his audience.

I would never consider the removal of a Columbus statue—that’s just dumb—but did I set that eventuality in motion by being unable to abide one of Jackson’s? There must be a path other than the all-or-nothing options set before me. What would wiser minds counsel when faced with these multiple fronts of cultural friction?

Interestingly there has been resolution on matters like gay marriage, women in combat and pornography. These issues simply fizzled out over time. I was one of those who would argue in the mid-2000s along the lines of “but you really don’t need to antagonize the other side by calling it ‘marriage’.” A few seasons into Modern Family (a sitcom that began airing in 2009 featuring Mitch Pritchett and Cam Tucker as a gay couple who adopt a child, who bicker, and who eventually marry) had me and others just stop arguing. And then we genuinely offered our congratulations to any gay newlyweds. Now it doesn’t even cross my mind that ‘same-sex’ and ‘marriage’ wouldn’t go together. This happened even though my reaction to the first episode of the series was one of pique: I felt that gay marriage was being shoved down our throats by powerful entertainment executives. But the jokes were funny, and Mitch and Cam were believable in their ups and downs. They were humanized, and so was the patriarch Jay Pritchett, Mitch’s father, whose discomfort over his son’s choices was believable too. If the show made the Jays of the world a little less agitated over the issue, and the Cams and Mitches a little happier about their place in the world, then what’s the big deal?

I don’t think I have ever cared about women in combat: I know that women in my own Middle Eastern family were trained as partisans for street combat, and I’ve seen footage of just how effective (and vicious) women fighters were on multiple sides of the Lebanese Civil War. With time, few seemed to mind that much either and Buchanan’s words and the applause they received on this topic seem puzzling to us this far out on the timeline. Furthermore, YouPorn came along, inundating pubescents the world over with every manner of smut where just a generation ago even the littlest trickle would consume the boys of a neighborhood for weeks on end, and civilization still held.

Yet it’s not as if progressives have won every battle so far, seemingly making their stances a cultural inevitability as Stephen Prothero of Boston University claims in his 2016 book Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections). Prothero was finishing up his book at a time when Trump was still a quixotic and much-ridiculed curiosity among a crowded Republican Party primary field, trying to hawk his red hats. Yet even before what was about to transpire, Prothero likened the Republican ethos to “a wooden bench in front of town hall where crotchety white men gather to wax nostalgic about the good old days and complain about their increasing irrelevance at work, at home, and in church,” and that their politics were driven by those “who are determined to return to what they remember (rightly or wrongly) as a better place, where straight, white, Protestant men ruled the roost and no one dared cluck at their authority”—descriptions which would become standard fare among the elite in explaining the rise of Trump as a form of demographic dread and societal anxiety.

Prothero tells us that his research revealed to him that conservatives, motivated as they were by the notion that “a form of culture is passing away and it is worth fighting to revive it,” instigate culture wars but the other side ends up winning, always, and almost by default. That cultural conservatism is “centripetal” and that it “posits a shared center in American culture and carefully enforces its boundaries,” which becomes harder and harder to do as the country itself changes, while cultural liberalism is centrifugal: “forever spinning off new forms of culture and including them in the mix” to accommodate change.

The book lays out the troubling history of how the “Protestant consensus” lashed out against Catholics and Mormons through incessant rioting around the mid-eighteenth century, battles that it mercifully lost. After generations of laying the groundwork, the religious types managed to get Prohibition enshrined in the constitution for little over a decade, then they lost that front almost in a flash. But just as Prothero explores how religious zeal seems to undergird conservatism, he conveniently coasts over the fact that the forces of American piety had instigated abolitionism, women’s suffrage, and workers’ rights, and they won those battles handedly. White Protestant fundamentalists fought Andrew Jackson over Indian Removal, though they lost that battle. The black church incubated Civil Rights and mercifully won. Nowadays, opposition to abortion seems to be hardening as more socially-conservative blacks and Hispanics join the fray. Gun sales keep increasing. Legalizing weed did not turn out to be a panacea for the opioid crisis. ‘Merry Christmas’ made a comeback, so did ‘America—hell ya!’ All these do not fit neatly into Prothero’s thesis.

At one instant in the book, Prothero seems to cite the abundance of casual nudity on HBO’s Girls (2012-2017) as some sort of ‘win’. But is it really? The show itself does a good job of suggesting that it is a vacuous and soul-deadening victory. The squad portraying the four main protagonist in Girls were the spiritual nieces of the four-member squad comprising another HBO production, Sex and the City which ran from 1998 until 2004. Even the respective settings, a gentrifying Brooklyn and a post-Seinfeld Manhattan, echoed that connectedness too. Carrie Bradshaw and her crew lived an enchanted, glamorous life reconnoitering the Upper East Side for their due of fun and fulfillment, all the while celebrating femininity liberated, and libertine. The Girls’s Hannah Horvath embarks on a journey of self-exploration, gets lost without a Maps App, gets knocked up, and escapes the city altogether at the end. Beyond being a gratuitous titty-fest, would Prothero referee Hannah’s story arc as a victory for conservatism or liberalism, or neither?

None of the characters on either show would ever vote for Trump. All eight would be a natural constituency for the talking points pegging him and his followers as clingers to “guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” But would a third cast, spiritual grand-nieces to the original, contemplate voting for Trumpism? It is not so far-fetched, should you chose to understand Trumpism beyond the binaries of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative.’

In season two of Sex and the City, Bradshaw narrates a scene in which her friend Samantha is having a drink at the bar while waiting for her latest beau to finish up some business. We can spot him at a back table talking things over with you-know-who: “Samantha, a cosmopolitan, and Donald Trump. You just don’t get more New York than that,” she muses.

It reminded me of a line uttered by Woody Allen’s character in Annie Hall: “Don’t you see the rest of the country looks upon New York like we’re left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers? I think of us that way sometimes and I live here.” This is probably where Ted Cruz was going when he cited Trump’s “New York values” in one of the primary debates when trying to take him down. “Not a lot of conservatives come out of Manhattan,” Cruz said. “I’m just saying.” And it was saying a lot.

Prothero explained that the delineation of sides is a challenge sometimes, since “liberals and conservatives have traditionally defined themselves in contrast to each other, so when liberals shift on a particular policy (or principle), conservatives often adjust in turn.” But Trump was quite the shift for the Republican Party base, which naturally skews conservative. They had lots of shades of conservatism to pick from during the primary contests, so why go for a garish New Yorker who is not only that but is notoriously an icon of New Yorker-ism? And why would this guy be their pick at a time that feels like a peak, the tallest one in recent memory, of a culture war cycle?

These examples of past and present culture wars above, from Sunday postal service to paper straws, demonstrate that resolution and stalemate over extended periods of time are the usual sequence and result of such disputes. Culture wars attrite and exhaust both sides, and the warriors of each need to be prepare for that. But if one were to take measure of the fervor driving the current fray over those issues remaining unresolved, one would think the country is on the precipice of another civil war. There are those who still tell their flock to charge up the trenches and put in one last stand. That a resolute victory is but an election away. Yet this call to action dangerously instills a sense in some listeners that a real shooting war offers just as much resolution as a vote drive. Then there are leaders who tell their own: “Or maybe not. Whatever, dude.” Obama is an exemplar of one faction, Trump is of another. America’s current moment can be pared down to a showdown of their two visions and the vibe—one harried, the other less hurried—that they project.

Certainly, one could perceive the culture wars as just one of those endless wars that we keep hearing about, ones that drone on and on somewhere in the background of the day to day. Or one could also point out that inflationary outrage is outpacing a society’s, any society’s, ability to manage and resolve social cleavage, to offer wise truces, or to salve wounds. Back in 1992, it was a “war for the soul of America” for Buchanan and his supporters. In 2020 Biden was speaking about the need to “restore the soul of America.” One side thinks that restoration means preventing the realization of Gilead, the fictional misogynistic dictatorship of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. Another side takes restoration to mean the prevention of the transgenderization of eight year olds with hormone replacement therapy, and the advent of 73 categories of restrooms. The argument no longer ebbs and flows on the genteel and polished pages of the New Republic and the National Review, as it did for most of the 1990s. The conversation (the shouting) has moved on (and down) to the comments sections. Even this era’s crop of intellectuals tend to subtweet rather than debate. It is loud, it is constant, and it is fruitless. And with cancel culture, it turned unforgiving, savaging, and nullifying.

And along comes a booming, relentless half-savage Trump, obliging us to place him within the context of contemporary culture. But rather than an escalation, I take Trump to be a national time-out. I know, I know, this is what the kids these days call a counterfactual. Trump is fueled by these wars, and fuels them, or so all the highbrowed essayists of The Atlantic, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker magazines tell us. “So why do you, you fresh-off-the-boat unibrowed blogger-man, think otherwise?” Well, it’s not what Trump says, which granted is often inflammatory. It is what he does. And what coalesces around his actions. I maintain that even if he does not bring peace to the culture wars, then he will at least provide a long truce. That truce shall come by way of disruption, a prioritization of issues, and the birth of a new societal coalition. Trump has delivered and is in the process of delivering on all these ingredients. Rather than fascism, Trump actually exudes a “don’t harsh my mellow” vibe to his followers, for missing from the picture—one that Trump, himself a cultural artifact, has perceptively figured out yet the smarty-pants set hasn’t—is the realization that although most Americans may be sympathetic to this side or the other, they are just not that committed to the warring. Most Americans have an opinion on this or that issue, but not much of their time is going to be spent coining barbed, venomous zingers on Twitter. A lot of them, like Hannah, may even take the victories that have already come their way as underwhelming, and unsatisfying. The zealots make for interesting media features, but they are utterly marginal. The in-betweens just want a measure of normalcy, a one-crises-at-a-time pace to the news cycle, and at times, distraction. Trumpism, whether or not you realize it, does just that. I know, I know—this is more counter than factual for you. So let’s dive into this a little deeper.

For what is culture but the narrative at play? A narrative that can be at once inherited, adaptive, fluid, solid, and changing. The powerful seek to control it. But once in a while at times of disruption, a new author steps into the breach, whereby the narrative must turn to factor in the disruptor, to explain the breach, and herein a new coalition emerges to spread the good word.

A culture can brood. A culture can sing. A new ‘us’ against a new ‘them’ is the turn of coin in culture. And a culture can anthropomorphize into colossal showmen such as Trump, as it did in 2016, and then take on their personalities as its own aspect. It is precisely because the Trumpian narrative is so liberated, so agile, so lithe, so cannibalistic at times, that is can transform to embody the culture, or the yearning for one, of this very moment. Yet it isn’t that simple, for Trump is no mere mirror, reflecting the times. Trump is both the embodiment and the autonomous creator of a new American culture, and we have yet to grasp the transformation. For disruptors come in two varieties: destroyers and creators. Historically significant disruptors can be both. Trump is one of them. Just as he smashes the old order, he is creating a new one, and this I believe is what most observers are missing about what is going on in America right now. Consequently, where Trump goes so does the Trumpian narrative and so does this new culture that is but an extension or rather redefinition of the narrative. The other side is no match: the Democrats are stuck because their narrative is unyielding. Theirs is victory or nothing, while Trump’s is “how you doin’?” in a Joey from Friends voice—a confidence boosting pick-me-up that the soul of America needs right now.  

The Democrats take Trump to be an interregnum on their path towards an enlightened society. The march of inevitable progress was rudely interrupted by this oafish charlatan. But now things can pick up where Obama left it. And it is all about Obama at the end, or so he seems to think, as his latest biography A Promised Land demonstrates. Obama has been setting himself up as the Democrat Party’s sage emeritus. It is a role that suits his reticent temperament that is mismatched with his tetchy inability to let things go. It allows him to be peer down from high above, maintaining his exalted stature, but keeps him close enough to mollify his meddlesome impulse. He has to, since his work for the nation is not yet done, for he was not appreciated enough when he was in command. Much of his efforts in office were dissipated because there was that one thing that remained knotty and inhibiting. It then metastasized into the horror of Trumpism. And as far as Obama is concerned, Trump is but the manifestation of one aspect of the culture wars, but it is an aspect that is the cipher by which the country’s initiated and enlightened ones such as himself understand the sum total of all of America’s culture wars, past and present: racism.

Defeat racism, and you defeat its manifestations such as Trump or whatever emerges from the darkest recesses of the country, Obama counsels us. Excise the malignancy of racists and everything else will flow smoothly. Only then can America proceed to the promised land of whatever the opposite of racism is supposed to feel and sound like. But if one looks a little closer, one can spot the fatal flaw at the heart of Obama’s world view. Nothing, nothing but stunted souls can grow in the acidic soils of identity politics—the algorithm by which the Democrats think racism can be dismantled. Their promised land is but another stretch of arid wastes. But they won’t see it, their mind is elsewhere. They have been consumed with coming up with a snazzy name for their destination: the first universal nation. Everything begins with a name, “and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.” Would you care for a brochure?

I don’t take Fareed Zakaria seriously. He doesn’t bring anything authentic or original to the conversation, and when it looks as if he may have, I just assume it’s been plagiarized. He is a fixture though of the elite’s top shelf socials in Manhattan and DC, and I always imagine that he picks up the mood there and assigns himself the role of clarion. On October 23, 2020 he published an Op-Ed in the WaPo that I found to be revealing, again, not about him but more so about the people he speaks to. Three years prior he had narrated a reasonably good CNN introspective about ‘Why Trump Won?’ Maybe he had forgotten those reasons, or maybe the transcript was somebody else’s work, for in his recent opinion he goes back to his instinctual explanation that the Americans voting ‘Trump’ do so out of demographic angst, which is dredged up by “Trump’s brand of naked racism.” Zakaria loves playing the victim here, recalling his starry-eyed wonder at America when arriving from Bombay in the early 1980s to attend Yale, joining one of its super-elite secret societies while there. But now those who would reject him have been emboldened by Trump, and something had to be done.

Zakaria came from privilege: the son of a wealthy, conservative father who at various times worked as a journalist, a politician and a diplomat, and who claimed descent from Arab merchant-settlers on India’s western coast (he was chairman of the Indo-Arab Society). Zakaria’s father had gone on to earn a PhD from London’s SOAS and to serve as deputy head of the Indian Congress Party in parliament and as India’s permanent representative to the United Nations. Zakaria’s mother is a prominent educator, journalist and editor in India. His older full-brother studied at Harvard and became a successful New York City investment banker. Zakaria also earned a PhD at Harvard and became managing editor of Foreign Affairs, the establishment’s flagship sounding-board on all things foreign policy, at the age of 28. But his shtick has consistently been “woe is me, yay is me, for I am brown and Muslim” and it has played well throughout his career as a plugged-in elitist.

In his latest column, Zakaria tells us that the 2016 election result was a setback on America’s path to its hoped-for goal of becoming the world’s “first universal nation”—a concept, he told us on occasion of the 2012 election, that he was borrowing from the Democrat-operative-turned-neoconservative-thinker Ben Wattenberg’s 1991 book of the same title. This is how Zakaria framed it two elections ago:

Growing up in India in the 1960s and 1970s, I always thought of America as the future. It was the place where the newest technology, the best gadgets and the latest fads seemed to originate. Seemingly exotic political causes — women’s liberation, gay rights, the fight against ageism — always seemed to get their start on the streets or in the legislatures and courts of the United States. Indians couldn’t imagine embracing all American trends — in fact, some were rejected outright — because they were too edgy for a country like India. But we had a sneaking suspicion that today’s weird California fad would become tomorrow’s conventional practice.

For me, Tuesday’s election brought back that sense of America as the land of the future. The presidential race is being discussed as one that was “about nothing,” with no message or mandate. But that’s simply not true. 

Zakaria hesitates to build a grand narrative out of that moment, but he does so anyway: “[the] trend seems to be toward individual freedom, self-expression and dignity for all. This embrace of diversity — in every sense — is America’s great gift to the world, one at which, since the days of J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur and Alexis de Tocqueville, foreigners have marveled.”

And it was happening because America had just picked Obama for president, again. Everything was moving along swimmingly. Any moment now, we would all turn into universal nationalists, the first humans to achieve such blessed enlightenment.

But soon afterwards America chose Trump. What? What? What the hell?! The first answer that Zakaria and his circles came up with and that stuck with them was that Trump’s advent was the Empire Strikes Back portion of their heroic saga. This was the molted, mottled past reconstituting itself within the deepest muck of the nation’s darkness, the South-Will-Rise-Again having risen, awakening the inner racists of the Rust Belt while at it. Obama took four years to craft an explanation. Naturally, much of what is happening in this country is about him. But he does cycle back to Zakaria’s point: Trump was a rejection of the first universal nation, and let’s hope it is nothing more than a temporary setback.

Obama began writing his presidential memoir shortly after departing the presidency, when “someone diametrically opposed to everything we stood for had been chosen as my successor.” He was aiming to explain “how my career in politics really started with a search for a place to fit in, a way to explain the different strands of my mixed-up heritage, and how it was only by hitching my wagon to something larger than myself that I was ultimately able to locate a community and purpose for my life.”

Throughout the 768 pages of Volume 1 (Volume 1!) he kept asking about what the outcome of the “contest of two opposing visions of what America is” would look like and whether “we care to match the reality of America to its ideals?” Loftily, and luckily for all of us, he is not ready to abandon the ennobling possibilities of America—phew! That was close!—and he does so not just for the sake of future generations of Americans but for all of humankind. For as he tells us, “I’m convinced that the pandemic we’re currently living through is both a manifestation of and a mere interruption in the relentless march toward an interconnected world”; a world that is headed for collision, but, but, but if we learn “to live together, cooperate with one another, and recognize the dignity of others” then America “can do what no other nation has ever done. To see if we can actually live up to the meaning of our creed.” The world is watching. The clock is ticking. The first universal nation is within reach. But “[T]he jury’s still out”, or so it seemed in August 2020 when he was putting the finishing touches to the memoir, seemingly awaiting the 2020 election result to provide us with an answer. I think he put off writing Volume 2 until he knew whether Trump was to be defeated or not, for that result is the prism by which he can gauge his own time in office, and through that the meaning of his life.

He means for both volumes to be an invitation to America’s youth to “remake the world, and to bring about, through hard work, determination, and a big dose of imagination, an America that finally aligns with all that is best in us.”

But what the first tranche really gives us is a nauseating seesaw of trite logorrhea, hollow in grandiosity, shallow in its performative disquiet, too self-absorbed to reflect on the difference between pique readily taken and actual injury delivered, followed by a plunge into a deeper well of resentment, resentment, resentment, and then some more resentment. And then it repeats. If one borrows Isaac Deutscher’s title formulation for his trilogy on Trotsky, then Obama’s should be called The Prophet Scorned, The Prophet Enraged, The Prophet Deferred.

I do not hold the megalomania against him. History needs these driven types to propel its story forward. Nor am I detracting from the historical aspect of his presidency. And I’m not knocking the man, his contradictions, his angst or how he chose to resolve it: He seemed to have had a happy childhood, or as much as can be managed by doting grandparents, a fully absent father, and a fleeting, flaky mother, and he was lucky, as he clearly acknowledges, to have a good family life with Michelle. Here is where he sounds most authentic, in his gratitude for what his family has provided him. Yet it wasn’t enough for “I was from everywhere and nowhere at one,” a “platypus” of “ill-fitting parts.” By the time he made it to Columbia in the early 1980s, his newfound political and social awareness nudged him towards yearning for “an America that could explain me” thus framing his presidency as a quest for self-discovery, for self-realization. We’re still good with his motivations, even though it would be nice to point out to him that there are others who need America for other things after he’s done bogarting it as his own personal vanity desk.

Obama moved to Chicago and basked in the afterglow of the election of Harold Washington, the city’s first African-American mayor. “Above all, Harold gave people hope. The way Black Chicagoans talked about him in those years was reminiscent of how a certain generation of white progressives talked about Bobby Kennedy—it wasn’t so much what he did as how he made you feel. Like anything was possible. Like the world was yours to remake,” and this is where it starts getting iffy. This is where Obama begins to interpret his life story and the signals the world is sending him as a divine instruction to remake America in his own image. Again, history needs such types to get things going, but history need not judge them too kindly when they turn embittered, and begin to lash out and scapegoat whoever they take to be responsible for things not panning out as ‘destined’. By Obama’s reckoning, America would be great by now, had not half of those Americans inhabiting it gotten in the way. And the reason he deduced as to why they were misled away from his awesomeness had to do with a saucy, minxy political bandit that had sprung out like a crazed lynx from America’s toolshed.

Obama is right to perceive Sarah Palin as a game changer, as he tells us (and obsesses over) in his book. But clearly he has yet to understand why. The world was transfixed by her for two weeks after John McCain plucked her out of relative obscurity to run alongside him; she was briefly a bit glossier, sexier in the public eye than the shining Obama. Even the intellectual class was intrigued: it was as if Dr. Joel Fleischman’s infatuation with Maggie O’Connell in the 90s comedy-drama Northern Exposure, set as it was against the human and topographic landscape of Cicely, Alaska, had been projected by a nation and its media unto Palin, another Alaskan woman they took to be in the ditzy tomboy mold. But then she sat down with Katie Couric and mangled out “I can see Russia from my house” (or rather that’s how it is remembered–she didn’t actually say that) which is funny because in her own inelegant and barely coherent way she was trying to sound the alarm on Putin. (But back in 2008 the experts snickered at such wet-blanket-ry; Obama followed their cue and derided Romney with his rehearsed “the 1980s called” line when the 2012 challenger was trying to bring back Putin into the conversation. But that is neither here or there.) Yet Palin was damaged goods after that interview, deemed an unserious contender, and a drag on the ticket by those-in-the-know as they kept telling us throughout the news cycle.

Palin, then 44 and three years younger than Obama, was a “potent disruptor” because she was one of the little people. As Obama reminds us:

She’d been a small-town basketball player and pageant queen who’d bounced among five colleges before graduating with a journalism degree. She’d worked for a while as a sportscaster before getting elected mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, and then taking on the state’s entrenched Republican establishment and beating the incumbent governor in 2006. She’d married her high school sweetheart, had five kids (including a teenage son about to be deployed to Iraq and a baby with Down syndrome), professed a conservative Christian faith, and enjoyed hunting moose and elk during her spare time.

He adds, “Hers was a biography tailor-made for working-class white voters who hated Washington and harbored the not entirely unjustified suspicious that big-city elites—whether in business, politics, or the media—looked down on their way of life.” She was a proud “real American.” But Obama professes that she hadn’t had him worried, because “she had absolutely no idea what the hell she was talking about,” and her lack of qualification for the top job was magnified by McCain’s infirmity and history with cancer. In the meantime, she could do some minor damage he presumed, as a charlatan performer (a good one, admittedly) conducting a mass national séance, dredging up the GOP’s “dark spirits…[of] xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, paranoid conspiracy theories, an antipathy toward Black and brown folks.” It is convenient (and lazy) for Obama to reduce everything to race. It doesn’t change the reality that he is misleading himself, and his readers.

Here, in the Obama-Palin match-up we had a clash of biographies, not skin color: his was lyrical, self-reverential, and strategic: he wrote his first memoir as he launched his bid for the Illinois State Senate; his second framed his Senate and then presidential runs. Hers was authentic, gritty, difficult, relatable—and believable. He was a vehicle for high-minded thoughts, a narrative conjured up, mechanized and optimized; she was a hockey mom driving us rowdy lot to practice in a rust-speckled minivan with a perennially-lit ‘Check Engine’ indicator.

What Obama never understood was that many humans are inherently mistrustful of what Palin called the “hopey, changey stuff”, not because they reject it or may be disadvantaged by it, but because they can see through the magic trick. They can spot the wire, they had glimpsed the switcheroo, they had figured out the illusion. And they took Obama to be such a sham, a chimera, one that was being hoisted unto America by powerful entities such as the media, big business and the entertainment world, and Americans were being told that it wasn’t enough that you had to be quiet about your skepticism, you had to buy into it completely because, you know, slavery-racism. Some of it was racism, one cannot deny that. But one also can’t deny that it is too convenient and self-serving of an explanation. Much of it simply wasn’t. The racism, both blatant and latent worked both ways: it was likely that a lot more white people voted for Obama because he’s black, to exorcise their guilt over slavery, than there are people who voted against him for the same reason. That is not exactly a healthy episode in race relations. Didn’t the Civil War and Civil Rights make everything even-steven? Wasn’t that what the generations who lived through them were told? Also, most whites in America had nothing to do with slavery. Most whites arrived after the Civil War, what demons are they supposed to confront? “No, but they benefited from a racist system, you see.” Really? White privilege wasn’t a thing for the throngs of the Irish, the Germans, Italians, Russians, Eastern Europeans—not even for the Nordics. It still isn’t for many blighted communities across the country. These considerations contributed to a feeling that they were being tricked as this candidate was being pushed on them. What if they were looking at other priorities that impacted their lives and livelihoods other than skin color? What if Obama’s journey of self-realization was not their own? They were told to renounce such personal indulgences such as values and policy preferences, for if they were not to vote for Obama then they would be holding the country back. Take this man and his plans as one package, for this is the only way.

And when they were told that not voting for Obama made one a bad person, they were no longer suspicious that the elite disdained them for who they are—they were now certain. This was the game changer: the guilt trip was taking too long, the feel-good pill was too big to swallow.

I loved Palin. Even though I had volunteered for McCain’s primary campaign in 2000 and had re-enlisted in 2008, Palin amplified everything that had intrigued me about him in the first place. She was rogue, unfazed, and a fighter. I eventually would buy all her books (I wouldn’t read them) to support her. I wore a ‘Drill Baby Drill’ t-shirt around the snazzy gym I went to during those times and relished the grimaces I got from other patrons. When I watched her post-election 2010 show on TLC Sarah Palin’s Alaska, I would mutter Obama’s words back to myself in awe about how these Palins were “real Americans”; these were the sort of people that the term “rugged American individualism” applied to.

It is true, Obama’s very presence in the White House was a disruption if measured by skin tone alone. But there was a domesticated, tame aspect to him, suggesting that the revolution was too carefully choreographed. He may couch his unthreatening, even disarming demeanor in terms of a deliberate strategy not to freak out the old order, not to antagonize the establishment and make it seem as if his rise was at their expense. He may add that he would need to work with them to push through his visions. In fact, it does seem that Obama saw Biden as a warm blanket to sooth long in the tooth racists, because Biden was deemed one. Obama justifiably bristled at Biden’s categorizations of him during the 2008 primaries as “bright”, “articulate” and “clean”—“that’s a storybook, man”—anyone would recoil from that, because anyone would know that Biden was effectively whispering, under his breath, “…while black” after each word. Yet Obama willed himself into tolerating Biden if the latter’s presence on his ticket allayed those he needed to work with.

Yet his biography tells us that Obama was never really deemed a threat, that he was in fact a product of that old order. He seems to have droopily sauntered up to the gates of power, and they seem to have opened up magically for him. He tells us so in his book: “The only person who questioned this smooth path of ascent seemed to be me. It had come too quickly. The big salaries being dangled, the attention—it felt like a trap.” Obama was never a feral creature in the Palin form, he was always a cossetted, exotic object of adoration for the moneyed and monocled set.

Obama, in true fashion, pats his own shoulder for being “the only person” skeptical of such a welcome and such abiding patronage. He would be mistaken, again. It was always hanging in the air. Hillary Clinton spotted it. Palin in her own acerbic way began dropping hints about it. But it was Trump who weaponized it. Obama may dismiss Trump’s birtherism as “an elixir for [some Americans’] racial anxiety” but there was a deeper play here. Trump knew this taunt got attention, and used it to frame his central thesis as he enunciated it at the Conservative Action Conference in DC in 2011: “our current president came out of nowhere” he would say, precipitating that cloud of hesitant skepticism into torrents of queries. How much do we know about this guy? What’s his deal? We don’t even know where he was born. Is he some sort of Muslim or something? What’s up with this dude? The subtext to these words were that Obama did not earn his place in the spotlight. The nation had not witnessed a long tortured story arc for him, one that zigged and zagged, as the American hero prototype is supposed to endure before ending his run in majestic triumph atop the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, which is what the election of the first black president should feel like. He had nothing like Rocky Balboa’s training montage with America cast in the role of the elderly and jaded Mickey, Rockey’s trainer, nodding along and clocking-in his progress. Obama’s trajectory was unfair, his path was too easy, too neat—it was un-American. Trump wasn’t speaking to the racists out there, he was speaking to the “suckers” who still believed in comic book superheroes, ones who just didn’t dig Obama’s origin story.

It wasn’t only Obama that mistook Trump’s gambit for carney-styled racism. Mitt Romney huffed and puffed that Trump’s creed was one of:

…racism, misogyny, bigotry, xenophobia, vulgarity and, most recently, threats and violence…Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University. He’s playing members of the American public for suckers: he gets a free rise to the White House, and all we get is a lousy hat?

Romney here is echoing Obama in abhorring Trump’s messiness and coarseness, but not as kindred members of minority groups that feel menaced by majoritarian mobs and the agitators that lead them. Rather they were sharing an elite outlook on the world, one that was trained into Obama and inherited by Romney, and it really shows. And what was Romney’s origin story? The son of the governor of Michigan travels to France to do two years of Mormon missionary work; learns French. Oh, the humanity!

Obama pretends not to have taken Trump’s taunts to heart: “…but maybe because I didn’t watch much television, I found it hard to take him too seriously. The New York developers and business leaders I knew uniformly described him as all hype, someone who’d left a trail of bankruptcy filings, breached contracts, stiffed employees, and sketchy financing arrangements in his wake, and whose business now in large part consisted of licensing his name to properties he neither owned nor managed.” Those lines tell us that he harbors a seething anger still at Trump. It also tells us something basic about how Obama sees the world: rather than understanding failures and flubs as evidence of doing, he takes the doer to be engaged in a con game. If so, then Obama understands very little about how early wealth in America took shape. And how it continues to take shape. Likewise, Romney never started anything: his corporate experience was dismantling once thriving but now failing behemoths for parts. Neither understood that very few beginnings follow a McKinsey power-point. Granted, Trump’s path was especially colorful, but no one can say that he didn’t put in the work and dedication to build up his brand and business. Obama’s sense of doing was farcically displayed when he was pre-emptively awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, with much of the world going “for what?” Didn’t he sense that that this too was a trap?

Obama cannot be held responsible for the excesses of his supporters. That would also be unfair. But those excesses do tell us something about the atmosphere in which they arose. Such an excess was on display in a YouTube video titled ‘Sing for Change Obama’ that was uploaded by Kathy Sawada on August 19, 2008. She’s a pianist and music teacher at the exclusive Colburn Community School of Performing Arts in downtown Los Angeles. She was educated and trained at Oberlin, Yale, and the Manhattan School of Music. But what Sawada did was gather up an ensemble of her neighborhood’s prepubescent kids to sing a song of hers. Some two dozen of them got together in a neighbor’s house in Venice, California for their breakout performance where they were joined by their parents and a filming crew. Everyone had the mark of affluence on their faces, and in their demeanor. There was also a studied and nodded-to measure of ‘diversity’. The words went: “We are going to spread happiness, we’re gonna spread freedom. Obama is gonna change it, Obama is gonna lead ‘em. We’re gonna change it and rearrange it…we’re gonna change the world”. The video even had an aged hippie-looking guy playing the flute. The kids go on to sing about “nations all joined as one”. The parents look on approvingly, proud and as if conceding that these youngsters are their betters. The song ends with a hypnotic, ecstatic “Yes we can” chant, repeated rapidly. I wonder where these kids are today? I wonder what they think of what Sawada had them do? And I wonder what their take is on Obama’s legacy, twelve years on? This may have been too extreme an example of excess, but as someone who lived through that period, I do not take it to be marginal. The expectation of some grand redemptive moment had intoxicated America’s elite.

Obama is not responsible for Sawada getting ahead of herself. He is not culpable for what aspirations were projected onto him, whether by elitists or laypersons. The politician needed that fervor (and pocket change) to propel his rise. Which is fine. What isn’t though is that the man needed it to steady his gait—he drew courage, and yes audacity, from those misplaced, inflated hopes. He spent what was not his to spend: not on the movement, but as a personal psychic indulgence. That is, he is guilty of getting high on his own supply as Tony Montana of Scarface was warned not to do at the pinnacle of his power. And then Obama couldn’t stop himself from doing it, can’t do so now. He could have turned it down. But he wouldn’t. He couldn’t. Because there is tenuous and tentative scaffolding within his character that would cave unto itself if he did. That is why he has to wait for an election to pen a second volume, for history to give its verdict. And that is what a large portion of Americans saw when Trump kept pointing it out to them: weakness.

One can admire confidence men, one can even fall for them, but that whiff of weakness—that the act is just as much for them as it is for you; well, that invites resentment and stirs a deep impulse to expose them. “They shall know them by their fruits” the Bible says of false messiahs, and here we have a prim, unconvincing, embittered fraud, who snarls out at the powerless while coddled within the bosom of power. One can forgive the messianism, one can forgive the projection of historical agency, but that, that fragility, that is unforgivable in those seeking immortality. When a false prophet stands exposed, and still tries to maintain the act, surely an audience can be excused its scorn. That Trump did the exposing, knowing what he is, a jesting charlatan so transparent as to be virtuous, only accentuated the drama of the scene.

It’s tragic stuff. But the audience moves on: Hold the hopey-changey, give us a double shot of Berlusconi. After Obama, they needed to ground the presidency in something other than self-enlightenment for the office holder, and through him for the rest of us. They wanted something genuine, something real. A guttersnipe is as grounded as it gets, and then some. That was the meaning behind Trump’s ascent if measured by Obama’s eclipse, in its plainest, most plaintive sense.

Yet the Kathy Sawadas of the world never understood the audience’s comeuppance. For her, the Trump interregnum interrupted the natural progression towards a changed world, a process begun by Obama. She cannot believe or behave otherwise. And like her leader the internal scaffolding will fall apart without this expectation that salvation and redemption are but a few presidencies, and a few congressional and SCOTUS majorities away. Obama’s explanation of racism resurgent held her over through the dark years, but now that Biden is in charge, then the work of changing the world can resume apace. Posthaste too, for her causes will have to make up for lost time. How much more tragic will the scene turn when betrayal shall come from her own?

The advent of socialism was always an expedient bogeyman for the right; a cynical mobilizer of youth, minorities and ageing hippies on the left. But the problem is that some of the further Left believed their own propaganda in advocating for Biden. Biden is nothing more than the restoration of the status quo ante, but they are mistaken if they think it is a restoration of Obama’s trajectory. Obama’s left eye must have started ticking when the old geezer rebranded Obamacare as Bidencare during the second debate with Trump. Biden’s (and the establishment’s) forthcoming four-year-long ‘transition’ away from both Trump’s real disruption and Obama’s choreographed ‘revolution’ will prove unsatisfying to the nickels-and-dimes Left of Bernie Sanders’ as well as the post-modernist influencer-chic leftism of the AOC+3 Squad. It will drive Obama up the wall, and one can bet that he will show it.

There shall be no dramatic victories on the fronts of the culture wars. America will not get a revamp of environmentalism to forestall the end of the world along a twelve year timetable; Greta Thunberg will become a quaint ‘I wonder what she looks like now?’ Google search away. America will not legislate for 73 genders. America is not paying out reparations for slavery. America is not getting a packed Supreme Court. The Biden folks will blame a reluctant Congress, as he did to explain the shortcomings of the Obama administration (even though the Democrats had a congressional supermajority for the first two years of Obama). The two Leftist camps will clamor for ruling by decree as Obama did. But Biden won’t do it.

There will be a few cosmetic wins: reversing tax cuts, rejoining the Paris Accord, maybe even revamping the Iran Deal. Something new like Bidencare may get a few policy wonks excited. But how can that ever be enough? The 2020 Electoral College tally was delivered by the urban black vote in a few key battleground states. Biden owes them his presidency. Before that he owed them the primaries: he was dead in the water until South Carolina, where the Democrat Party is sixty percent black. Nowadays trillion-dollar aid packages have become less of a fiscal heresy for centrist Democrats and Republicans. If there was ever a time to pay out reparations over slavery, then this is it. Which centrist from either party would dare oppose it at the height of the Black Lives Matter moment? If every man, woman and child descended from slaves got 70 thousand dollars, then the total onetime reparation payment would come in just under 3 trillion dollars. There is tolerance for such numbers post-COVID19, and isn’t this price tag worth it if it means putting the issue to bed? And the whole deal can be turned into an economy-growing gambit, with vouchers for property acquisition and American-made vehicle purchases, as well as education funds. If not now, if not after the ‘nightmare’ of Trump and his shaking of the establishment’s certainties, and after the rescue provided by black votes that ended the nightmare, then when?

It is not going to happen. Because the establishment won’t let it happen. It doesn’t suit them. The powerful are done with elevated expectations and voter insurgencies, whether they be contrived or real. They saw how the ‘change’ and audacity promised by Obama had emboldened voters to throw the dice with Trump. The powerful seek to manage uncertainty and to put things back in place. Biden also owes them: had they not gotten Elizabeth Warren to stay in the primary race through Super Tuesday to split the progressive vote, and had they not gotten Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar to drop out before then, Biden’s black votes wouldn’t have carried the day on their own. The politicos will excuse inaction on reparations, for example, as a necessary evil so as not to antagonize non-blacks who won’t be getting any, and who would eventually have to pay for it. Which is basically the same excuse they have been giving for generations–more platitudes, less ‘Platinum’.

One of today’s great political ironies is that what Anarchist-leaning leftists (in the strict definition of these words from a century ago, which even if he doesn’t realize it, is a better fit for Obama than ‘liberal’) don’t realize is that Trump is their long-awaited deliverer of disruption, the only force in a lifetime that can compel a realignment of power. It is very odd then that America’s revolutionaries are now giving their all for the side of ‘resisting’ restorationalists. They did not understand that the Trump phenomenon is in essence revolutionary. That those 2016 votes for Trump were Molotov cocktails, or at least a decisive number of them. How did the left miss out on this would-be constituency, all the while mistaking Trumpism for regression? Trump’s instincts run towards trillion dollar infrastructure spending and a total reappraisal of trade policy. This is not what the pre-Trump GOPe wanted to hear precisely because it is too revolutionary, precisely because it would create conditions for shaking up the hierarchy of wealth. But he’s normalized those concepts and smashed any institutional and wider opposition to them on the right and amazingly did so from the right, while the Left was left twiddling its thumbs and recycling its excuses. Obama, had he unequivocally believed in his vision more than in himself, and had he truly possessed autonomous and transformative historical agency, should have sized up Trump as an unexpected ally. But he didn’t.

What Trump did to the GOPe cannot be replicated among Dems. The establishment still has control over the latter, that’s how Bernie’s momentum was snuffed (twice). They will never allow the Left to take over. The pursuit of that objective is a delusion. It is a delusion because the Democrat Party today is the party of the old order, of wealth, access and privilege, while still paradoxically commanding a massive share of the urban minority vote. The freelancing, left-leaning journalist Michael Tracy tweeted out on November 9, after having studied the early election returns, that “[a]mong the 10 wealthiest counties in the US by median household income, there was an average of an approximately 8-9 point shift to Biden compared to 2016. Every one of these counties is trending substantially Dem. That’s where the power and leverage in the Party resides now.” His observation meant that the richest and the poorest voters in America celebrated Biden’s win. This was their coalition going into 2020, a year during which the ultra-wealthy grew vastly richer while some blacks took advantage of the rioting bedlam to loot sneakers in Chicago and New York City. But a coalition cannot hold if one faction is out to rob the other. And one can bet that one faction will out-leverage the other.

Consequently, if the Left cannot have real progressive breakthroughs, they will dwell on the superficiality of their righteousness: that’s right, they will double down on identity politics. It will be all identity, all the time; Obama’s navel gazing journey of self-discovery, his making sense of his platypus self-image, writ large. One can spot early manifestations of that: a top ten list of the D.C. Public Library’s most popular borrowed non-fiction E-books (in a pandemic year) include White Fragility, Me and White Supremacy, Educated, Michelle Obama’s Becoming, How to Be an Antiracist, and Between the World and Me—all concerned with identity; this is what library patrons in the nation’s capital are leafing through. Of course, the natural end-point and let down when salvation goes undelivered, when celebrating ‘diversity’ turns hollow, is to launch an inquisition to weed out the dissemblers among them who they hold responsible for their overall defeat. The unsatisfying, dreary progress of the culture wars will lead them down a path where cancel culture provides their only dose of action, of what passes for the feel of iconoclasm and ‘revolution’, just as Mao had launched a Cultural Revolution as an ancillary channel by which to vent the hysterics of disappointment and rage after the price China had to pay for his victory in its civil war and then his abject bungling of the Great Leap Forward. The Left’s shrillness will clash with the establishment’s plate-setting for an era of normalcy and norms under Biden. The establishment seems to have figured that out though, and that is why activism such as BLM, critical race theory, #MeToo are corporate-sponsored now to the tune of billions of dollars—the powerful have nothing to fear here.

The establishment further tried to pre-empt this clash by finding itself another Obama. They offered up a female upgrade too, inviting us to rev ourselves up into a tizzy over Kamala Harris. Yet something is not working here as it should be.

Mindy Kaling, the comedian, tweeted on November 7, that she was “crying and holding my daughter, [telling her] “look baby, she looks like us.””—as if it was an Obama-esque moment of arrival for Indian Americans. Really? It took Kamala Harris to make Kaling feel welcome in this country? Not Bobby Jindal in they-eat-alligators-down-there Louisiana? Not Nikki Haley in how-much-more-Confederate-can-you-get South Carolina? M. Night Shyamalan, Mira Nair, Aziz Ansari, Kal Penn, and Miss America 2014 all making it didn’t do it for her? Or the dean of the Harvard Business School, and the current CEOs of MasterCard, Bose, IBM, Microsoft, Nokia, Google, Adobe and Alfred A. Knopf? Neither did Norah Jones or Zubin Mehta? Nor Zain Verjee, Ali Velshi, and Sanjay Gupta? The ABCDs (American-born Confused Desis) I hung out with at Brandeis in the mid-1990s took to boasting to me that Indians (and other assorted ‘SubContis’) were “the New Jews” who would dominate professions such as law and medicine. This sentiment was reflected in later popular culture depictions of Indians. Kelly Kapoor, Kaling’s character in The Office, cynically abuses minority empowerment at Sabre to get ahead, making us laugh at her hierarchy-climbing ruse; the only other Indian we meet during the series though is her dashing pediatrician paramour whom she leaves Scranton with (then ditches in the show’s last episode to run away with Ryan). When Kaling created her own show, she cast herself as a NYC obstetrician in The Mindy Project. That is what her mother does for a living in Cambridge, Mass. Kaling’s father is an architect. Her parents met while working on a hospital in Nigeria, her father designing it, her mother doing the staffing, before immigrating to the United States. America was good to her parents, as it evidently was for massive numbers of India’s professional class. So why would it take Kamala Harris, a daughter of a UC Berkley endocrinologist PhD originally from a Brahmin caste in Madras, who likewise found opportunity and success in America, to get elected Vice-President for Kaling to experience the feeling of arrival?

Or was it that combination of womanhood, brownness and the highest offices that Kaling was waiting to share with her daughter, a moment Kaling and her own mother never felt addressed by Indira Gandhi nor Benazir Bhutto?

And I wonder how much of a moment of arrival Harris represents for her other, black half. Is she really the ‘female Obama’ in their eyes, another notch on America’s height chart in rising above the odium of slavery and racism? I think many of blacks would distinguish between the legacy of slavery and the immediateness of lingering racism. There is resentment there at the interlopers on their misery. Harris’ father, who met her mother at Berkley, is from Jamaica. His family’s story is not America’s story. His arrival in the U.S., to better himself, and then to move on to an academic career at Stanford University before divorcing and returning home (he later became a U.S. citizen in 2015), was voluntary. Should reparations for slavery ever come to pass, Kamala and her father get nothing, nor should they. Barack Obama wouldn’t either—his father too came here to study. Neither would Ben Ali, of DC’s iconic ‘black’ establishment Ben’s Chilli Bowl, for he is an Indian (from India) by way of Trinidad who came to the U.S. to study at the University of Nebraska, then transferred to Howard where he met his black wife (she does qualify though). The list of black Americans whose family history is fully or partially made up of voluntary immigration to America includes: Susan Rice’s mother, Colin Powell, Joy Reid, Don Lemon, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Harry Belafonte, Eric Holder, Sidney Poitier, David Paterson’s father, and Malcolm X’s mother. This is not to say that they have never endured the humiliation or impediment of racism. It is that their stories cannot possibly match how slavery breaks the spirit of a blood line. I can fully appreciate the resentment and anguish a descendant of slaves, such as Condoleeza Rice, Michelle Obama, or Tim Scott would carry at the thought of what their ancestors had to live and die through to have their bones interred in America. But that that mantle can be readily donned by whoever looks the part is absurd, even insulting.

It is absurd because it encourages the kind of blinkered self-absorption of Kaling’s tweet, despite the enormous evidence of Indian success in America. It is absurd because everything can become ‘racism’ and everyone can claim it. Imagine had there been slightly more diversity on Seinfeld, another cultural artifact of the 1990s, and then setting that series in Kaling’s world of perceived bias rather than the Upper West Side. A dispute over a parking space—racism. A disagreement over what amounts to proper mechanic care—prejudice. A misunderstanding over a puffy shirt—bigotry. And when this outlook is applied to the presidency, then Trump stands guilty of robbing an ‘identity’ of its turn, in his particular 2016 case, he stole it from a ‘woman’. Then the expectation for the next president would be giving a turn for a gay guy, then a ‘Latinx’ woman, followed by a paraplegic, etc. Everyone gets a turn before we cycle back to pudgy Orange-Americans, got it? Them’s the rules.

In a universal nation, we are supposed to sit around and marvel at how diverse we are according to categories of race, creed, gender, sexual ‘preference’ (watch it, Amy!), and so on, while still paradoxically taking measure of our individuality. This is a pretty picture, and Zakaria’s affirmations of ‘Brown! Muslim!’ would get plenty of welcoming hugs and attention in a republic of identities. But our individualism may trigger inflationary identitarianism. That’s how we get to 73 genders, and even to 730 genders. You can maximize your ‘uniqueness’ through amplifying intersectionality, unlocking infinite identity categories. My daughter is going to be a superstar in this new world: having a West African-born Muslim refugee/political dissident father with bits of Arab, Kurd, Armenian, Turk and Persian in the mix; a half-Jewish, Soviet born mother with splotches of Russian, Ukrainian, Greek and maybe Gypsy blood; lots of German, Norwegian, Iraqi, and Israeli cousins; a lower middle class secular upbringing—she is going to rule! “YAAA-SSS-SSS kwEEn!” But you can’t stop there, for if you really, really mean it, and you really, really wanna show it, then you’ve got to legislate and allocate for all these identities, yes, even if that mandates 73 categories of restrooms, or more. This is where it falls apart as it grinds against common sense, and strains against the confines of the common purse. Which of course will lead to even more frustration and recrimination, necessitating the establishment of a new establishment whereby a social and economic hierarchy shall be allocated according to genealogy and descent, because the old one simply could not deliver a universal nation. These things never stop there though, for a shrill parochialism heaving along the lines of “You’re not brown enough” acrimonies will inevitably further atomize the ranks. So rather than celebrate diversity as in Zakaria’s first universal nation, identity becomes a cudgel in a decidedly-boorish power struggle.

Short of a universal nation, I think most Americans will settle for a lot less of the above, and a little more common sense. Common sense does have a constituency, and it is up for grabs. The Democrats’ endpoint of an Identity-stan with a citizenry wrought through permanent struggle sessions does not hold much promise for such constituents. Trumpism does.

Jacob Siegel, writing in The Tablet a day after the election, personified this coalition with “the powerful podcaster and political harbinger” Joe Rogan, the host of The Joe Rogan Experience, whom he calls the Aleph, borrowing a literary allegory from Jorge Louis Borges. Siegel clues us in that:

The tenets of the Rogan worldview include rugged individualism, swings between techno enthusiasm and techno skepticism, the value of hard work and thrift, patriotic social obligation to the needy and disenfranchised, and cultural traditionalism nagging at a libertarian faith in sovereign individual rights. He preaches personal growth through risk, pain, and confrontation, supports both police reform initiatives and the imperative of maintaining law and order, evinces a “live and let live” attitude combined with a disdain for the maximalist social positions ascendant on the Left. In short, he has opinions that resonate with many different kinds of Americans yet are systematically underrepresented in organized politics.

But there is something that Siegel seems determined to miss: it is Trump’s disruption that created space (and demanded attention) for this constituency. It is also Trump’s prerogative to lead it should he chose to, for he has cleared out space on the GOnP for it, it being “a political arrangement combining a moderate redistributionist welfare state with moderate social conservatism.” Trumpism is no mere example of “occasional anti-establishment coups and insurgencies” but is in fact that “broad new political consensus, triggered by the kind of fundamental technological and economic transformation we are currently living through.” It is understandably difficult for an intellectual to place so much promise in so loutish a torchbearer as Trump. Siegel does not want to credit Trump because that may sully the new, soft constituency at its infancy, but it is Trump’s coarseness that breathes spirit into it. Trump’s imperfections allows us to forgive ourselves for being imperfect. Trump’s bluster absolves those who “fake it till you make it” types so typical of an American frontiersman’s heritage. Trump’s fibs and yarns make the journey less somber, less destiny-fevered. He may not get us to a promised land, but we’ll land somewhere that isn’t so bad.

Trumpism is redemptive, forgiving, the very opposite of cancel culture, which is a mindset that constantly whittles down the ranks of the chosen. Trumpism welcomes all, both saints and misfits, to a Big Banquet of little judgement and much conviviality, a come-as-you-are hospitality—but since it isn’t a free supper (nothing is with a stingy Trump), do bring something to pot-luck with. Judging by demographic trends, America’s future is going to have a lot more Hasidim and Amish. At what table can they possibly be seated? What communal meal could they possibly be served? Is it an accident that they have skewed very Trump? Reactionaries they are, but they see their survival within Trumpism. Is it because they understand him to be likewise reactionary? But Hispanics are also joining them at Trump’s table. And gays too. So what is going on here?

Many have attempted to provide explanations for Trump. These explanations run from the unserious to the thoughtful. One of the more thoughtful explanations is that Trump was seen as a rejection of the Bush and Clinton dynasties. The Bushes came from a super-WASP background; Bill Clinton from the white southern working class. To explain the dissonance in origins and circumstances but the similarity of political end-product, it was assumed that both dynasties were stand-ins for globalist establishments and the rising political stars that such establishments could co-opt from time to time to survive and regenerate. Thus they were rejected by primary and national elections voters as such. That could have been part of the answer to explain a vote for Trump, but it is still unsatisfying. Such voters could have just stayed home instead of voting against the Bushes and Clintons. And as it is, this pertains to the 2016 election but does not explain why these same voters stuck with Trump. Obstinacy? Still more of the protest vote? Or was it that voting for Biden-Harris was too much of a vindication of Obama’s legacy for them to stomach? Again, none of this even comes close to explaining things. Because choosing Trump, even in 2016, was something else altogether.

There were those who volunteered self-serving explanations, inserting themselves and their agendas into the record. It was a mistake listening to the Steve Bannons, the Stephen Millers and the Michael Antons. They did not conjure Trumpism. They rode in on its coattails, and in the confusing first days and months, with the shock still fresh, with media attention searching for ‘But why?’, they stood up and claimed eminence. They had no right to do so. Only Trump created Trump. Why privilege coattails and those who ride them over the gilded epaulettes on Trump’s shoulders and his alone? It was Trump who moved in at precisely the right moment of national dissatisfaction after the over-promise of Obama.

At heart, and as mentioned earlier in this essay, his improbable initial rise was about no grander a narrative than sending a clown to show up the clowns, but it was also tinged with the bet that this particular clown may actually pull off a better job, and should he do so then that would validate their whole world view. It was anti-messianic denouement. Stop saving us, stop ministering to our better angels, and get back to governing us more sensibly, which is your actual job. Obama promised a redemption he was never going to be able to deliver on. Trump promised jobs, a wall, a common sense approach to all things and having a little fun while delivering—promises made, and in their eyes, promises kept and then some. And then, love happened. The crowds never chanted “We love you” during the 2016 rallies. They didn’t do so either during the mid-presidency ones. But by the lead-up to the 2020 elections, they let it all gush out. Something had happened.

It must have been, and continues to be gratifying for Obama to play Jeremiah, a prophet whose warnings of doom were unheeded by the sinning Jerusalemites. Obama reprised the admonishing performance while double billing it with the role of messiah, which really doesn’t work especially since Obama was never that convincing as either. Trump by contrast, ever with an eye for real estate, told Americans that “Sure, the Promised Land is right over there, you can see it from atop this mountain, and it’s just a few more days of marching, but check out this Mt. Nebo location, isn’t it fantastic? Take your shoes off, find some twigs, start a fire, heat up some water and have a soak. What’s the hurry? Let’s hang out here where Moses had led his people to, and where he died before ever continuing the journey. The soil is a little rocky but I bet you could plant some vines and turn out a reasonably good vintage. See those wild olive and fig trees over there, that’s lunch! I’m sure we can do something with this potent wild thyme growing in abundance, I think I saw some hares hoping down towards the valley, and hey anything will do; I don’t know about you but I am sick of the taste of manna. And of course, nothing beats the view.”

The authors of those earlier Biblical narratives were probably communicating something wise and profound when they had Moses glimpsing the Promised Land from atop Nebo but not taking a step further. Another chronicler gives us an account (or a parable) of how Jeremiah rescued the Ark of the Covenant from the Holy of Holies as the Babylonians were closing in, and returned it to Nebo for safekeeping and burial not far from where the recipient of the commandments is supposed to have rested for eternity. There seems to be some sort of secret message in that too. Whatever it is, it makes for a great story. And Trumpism, by telling us that there is nothing wrong with dilly-dallying at this vantage point that we have reached as a nation, nothing sinister about looking wistfully towards the sun setting over the Promised Land, that it is no deep moral flaw of ours, but just an understandable condition of a tired, bedraggled humanity after forty years of wandering, and that you are no less saved or chosen or redeemed or exceptional for doing so–this is how Trump will force a truce in the culture wars, in a way that only Trump can.

So there you have it, the secret sauce of Trumpism: an imperfect Trump is deeply loved by an imperfect people, who want to be taken as they are, and who deeply love an imperfect country as it is. They’ll promise, with a somber Augustinian comportment and half-rue, fingers crossed and hope to die, to contrive a route to that wondrous yonder aflow in milk and honey, just not today. Or as Biden puts it, Inshallah.

Trumpism is crafty and expedient. In the ways that it is inelegant, even indecent, there is nothing new there as some pearl-clutching commentators would have you think. It offers little for the intellectual, it adds almost nothing to the life of the mind, but it is thoroughly new though in how it revitalizes the American spirit—that is where its—and his—true (‘very stable’) genius lies.

Locating the good parts of Trumpism within historical precedent is folly. Locating the bad parts of Trump the man and president within historical comparison is useful, at least in dispelling the myth that he was uniquely bad, or polarizing. Trumpism is not Jefferson versus Hamilton, it’s not Tocqueville versus the cosmopolitan idea. There’s no intellectual heft to it. The trick to understanding Trumpism is that it is basic, but not all that base. It’s nothing new in its crassness: according to Jon Meacham’s American Lion (2008) the political camp of the sixth president (son of the second president) accused the seventh president-to-be of marrying his wife while she was still married to another man; of being a son of a whore who had borne a half-black child that was later sold into slavery; with John Quincy Adams (no. 6, son of no. 2) actually on the record accusing Andrew Jackson (no. 7) of being a barbarian who “hardly could spell his own name.” The Jackson camp countered by accusing Adams of serving as a pimp to the Russian tsar during his tenure as ambassador to the latter’s court at St. Petersburg; Russia always seems to make a cameo in these things! And as Victor Davis Hansen demonstrated in his 2019 book The Case for Trump, the 45th president was not nearly as ethically lapsed as JFK, or Lyndon Johnson, or even Bill Clinton.

Hansen goes on to tell us that Trump was not uniquely polarizing either: he has governed no less boldly and just as effectively as another much reviled president (at his time), Harry S. Truman. Official DC loathed Truman, and the feeling was mutual. He dropped two nuclear bombs to hasten Japan’s breaking point, he recognized Israel, he triggered the Korean War, he made an enemy out of Stalin—all things that the experts of the time strenuously cautioned against. He established the CIA thus angering the Left and the isolationists, fired an iconic war god (Douglas MacArthur), and regularly and bitingly mocked a crop of generals and admirals who had just won the world’s greatest military conflagration. Truman was vulgar and occasionally threatened critics with physical harm including one who had penned a disapproving review of his daughter’s piano recital. Truman was also dogged with accusations of corruption harking back to his days wading through the Kansas City swamp, from which he came, and calls for his resignation and impeachment were weekly stuff in the press. Sounds familiar?

Trumpism is not high-minded philosophy. It can’t be. It really is as straight forward as an entertaining, charismatic figure administering common sense fixes, which is all it needs to be. The Trumpian crowds swoon as Trump regales them with stories of his penny-pinching trusteeship of the common piggy bank. He reveals that he does that because he’s “essentially cheap” and that he wouldn’t hesitate to stiff someone if they do a bad job, whatever their sob story is. They love his story about the new (yet-to-be delivered) AirForce One, one that a clueless Biden will take out for its first ride, and probably fart up its new jet smell, not realizing the back and forth between Trump and Boeing on getting costs down. They listen transfixed for the hundredth time to his story about fixing up the Embassy in Jerusalem, bringing down the cost from a billion something dollars to half a mil.

Yet there is indeed something unique about Trump: energy. Partly his own profuse flow of it, but also how he unlocks it in his devotees. He doesn’t reason them into a joyous whirl, he moves them. It is less of a mindful aspect, and more of a mindset. This is where there is difficulty in situating a historical precedent. Sure, there was the distasteful spectacle-end of things: name calling and the incessant bombast. There was also the frugality, and the silent exertion of managing prudishly. The COVID19 briefing turned into shout fests with the media, the journos competing with Trump for the limelight and he flinging them off stage. Turbulent as it seemed, it did show there was someone at the wheel during a time of run-for-the-hills-and-grab-toilet-paper panic, however erratic the driving. What went unreported is that under his stewardship states had enough ICU beds and enough ventilators, many that went unused. Trump didn’t go maximalist and overstep state rights as a ‘literally Hitler’ would have done. He didn’t take-over the private sector despite the clamoring in the media and Congress for doing so. In terms of mobilization and achieving objectives, as well as federal-state and government-private sector partnership, and in a country as big and as unwieldy as America is, his handling of logistics and supply chains and delegation of duties was a model operation in management and deal making. His supporters don’t think that all this is random. The juxtaposition of the juvenile with the agile makes perfect sense to them as if it is the most natural thing ever, because in their eyes Trump is the patron saint of “Winning, winning, winning”. Their guy must win the logistics game, and beat the crap out of Acosta at the same time. Because that’s what he does. That is the energy he brings. And he is exactly what America needs.

Therefore, Trumpism is not nationalism, not sovereignty, it is just dolled-up and sensationalized common sense, at least as it is beheld by us Trumpians. It is a new set of ground rules for a country that cannot climb up any higher, for now, up to Obama’s ideals or those of an absolutist conservative conviction. Trumpism is obstinate when challenged, and fine with making do with what it has already. Obama, the media and the entertainment industry can admonish us to their hearts content, but Trump allows us to say “you know what? This is what we have going for us for now, so sit your ass down you sanctimonious scolds.”  

Trump inoculates Americans too against the modern moral inquisitor’s gravest charge of heresy—racism. One broadcaster began a January 2018 show with: “This is CNN. I’m Don Lemon. The president of the United States is racist.” Gasp! How bold! How daring! A shot across the bow if ever there was one. And Trump just goes, meh. And thereby Trump wins, all the while teaching us how to survive such a scary charge if ever gratuitously levelled against us.

Trump doesn’t pander on race, which is a revolutionary act these days. When pushed on the issue during the second debate by the moderator Kristen Welker, whose mother is black, he comes out with “I’m the least racist person in this room,” then he mimes putting his hand up to shield his eyes from the stage lights, and looks out into the dark recesses of the auditorium just to check that he is indeed the least racist one there. He does the opposite of pander on race—he leaves you perplexed, for he is not reading off the authorized “No, really, I’m not a racist” script that every white man or would-be ‘Karen’ in the public eye is supposed to recite by rote. He speaks a different language on race and identity when the path of least resistance is to do what everyone else is supposed to do. He didn’t introduce us to Corn Pop and wet leg hairs while lifeguarding at swimming pools in black neighborhoods as Biden did; he did not retrieve the hot sauce from Hillary’s bag that’s been there ever since she referenced it during a hip hop radio show broadcast in the 2016 election.

To my knowledge Trump has never mentioned that he dated, from the likes of it seriously, a black girlfriend, Kara Young, for two years in the late 1990s before breaking it off after getting serious about Melania. That is even better than claiming that some of his best friends are black (it seems that some of them are, but that too he doesn’t bring up) especially when the likes of Lemon lay into him. Trump had also been seeing another black woman at the time, Maureen Gallagher, a knockout model and actress, but that affair seemed to be one of the many frivolous frolics he’s had over the years. But with Young it was different: he allegedly proposed to her several times, but she had a toddler from a previous marriage, and life as a Trump (and looking down the road, as a Trumpian) was too much for her. The media, in the few times they had brought her up, labels her biracial; her mother is black, her father white. Yet Obama is plain black in the media’s telling, never a biracial, even though his mom was white, so go figure! Young has said that “I never heard [Trump] say a disparaging comment towards any race of people,” adding that “I would never go out with anybody that was a racist — of course not — that’s crazy.” The furthest she went was that he had stereotypes about people, such as not realizing that blacks were enthusiastic about tennis because of the Williams sisters. That isn’t that bad by any measure. He is, though, a bit of a misanthrope Young acknowledged, and can be an equal opportunity offender to people from all walks, all colors. Yep, that’s a better fit for Trump than most labels.

This raises the question of just who are Trump’s people, what’s his identity? I think the identity he most closely associates with is that of a performer. If he walks into the room and finds a gaggle of fellow performers in some corner then that is likely where he would gravitate towards. This is his comfort zone. He worships within this gauche, garish, larger-than-life denomination of entertainers, where the Rat Pack crew would be revered and taken to be divine. This is where he belongs. Don King is his people; Liberace too. Trump’s mother was a fan of the latter, but he saw him as a colleague. The two could pal around, enjoy each other’s company, get their pictures taken and secure brand maximization and harmonization while at it. Trump sold Liberace an apartment, got him to name drop his new address at live shows, and then the pair went shopping for fur coats. That is why he shrugs at Caitlyn Jenner’s preference of restrooms, and his audience follows suit. This is why Rick Grenell is a super star in the world of Trumpism without an eye batted over his homosexuality.

Little did the establishment realize it, but Trump’s was the first post-identity presidency in America’s history. By Trump’s words and measure, success heals racism, and slavery too. “Success brings people together”—there, he fixed it. It may not be artful. It may not be particularly empathetic. It may not even be workable in the long term. But it isn’t racism, and it is different. One is not a racist just because one doesn’t follow the orthodoxy on how to speak and think about race. Trump thinks there’s a path out of this. Abraham Lincoln believed that the drawn-out Civil War he was trying to make sense of was divine retribution for the preceding two hundred and fifty years of slavery. When the north won at enormous cost, then the bill owed to God for the transgression by some of his children against another group of children was mostly paid, or so he thought. A few weeks after his second inaugural, after Lincoln was martyred, a nation likened him to a savior dying for that remaining balance of sin, thus absolving the survivors. But as we know, it never stopped there, and could not have either. Moralizing auditors have gone through the books for all of the hundred and fifty years since Lincoln’s ascent to the pantheon of righteousness, tracking down a scar of racism here, a heap of broken spirits there. But when does it end? Does it end with Black Lives Matter placards in front of tony upper middle class houses? Does it end with reparations? If it does, then go for it. But if even that is unsatisfying, then what?

Black people, as sensible people anywhere, do not want to see repenting whites getting on their knees and asking forgiveness. They are likely to be seriously creeped out if the CEO of Chik-fil-A again tries to foist an impromptu shoeshine on them. I remember walking around our lower middle class black neighborhood at the height of BLM and all the blacks seemed a little more eager than usual to be friendly to the random white person, not because of some national moment we were sharing, but rather their general demeanor was one of “please, please, don’t be weird.”

The Democrats have yet to demonstrate that their path would actually lead to a moment of historical deux es machina on race. If anything, their formula is for never-ending racial obsessions. That’s the trap that Obama is not seeing. Trump is at least saying, follow me, I got a way out of this. For many Americans, and it seems a larger proportion of black men, his crazy escape scheme is good enough. For now.

Trumpism is loosely about family, faith, federalism—all moderate conservative lodestars—and mostly about the fight. The fight is absolutely important. Actually, the family, faith and federalism stuff is more of an add-on, a perk. But it is the fight that Americans needed, and still need. Trumpians relish the fight, for it is both spectacle and affirmation. And it is one only Trump can fight for now; or as he puts it, anyone else would suck his thumb and go crying for mama. In bringing the fight, Trump infuses Trumpism with energy; his confidence, his tenacity, is superhuman, indestructible. And the country took its cue. Trump offered confidence as an antidote to Obama’s contriteness. Trump is loud and messy. The establishment told us that his performance in the first debate was grating, but he argued like many immigrants, recent or otherwise, would, and that is what they saw. He argued like any man would if the fellow across the stage calls him a clown (twice), a liar, a racist, and the worst president ever. He was manning up, he wasn’t taking it, wasn’t going to abide by all those classy customs and rituals of a prettied-up, rigged class system, and it’s about time. That is why the loudest, sharpest, most-heartfelt chant during his first post-election rally in Georgia a few weeks ago was, “Fight for Trump!” He taught Trumpians how to fight, now they’ll fight for him.

American confidence, especially male confidence, had been sagging under the reprobating and rebarbative stare of the Obama years. And if that confidence was borne out of fighting, well that’s no good, for fighting was deemed a symptom of ‘toxic masculinity’. It was Neanderthal, sexist, and by empowering the patriarchy, it enables all of society’s evils, you know, the usual list: racism, homophobia, etc. But fighting is elemental. It comes from a place deeper than the reach of reason. Even so, men were being told that a Freudian sublimation of this innateness was not enough of a repentance, not enough of a commitment to a just new society. That rather than accepting the good enough outcome of taming their inner dragon, they must exorcise their demonic self. But humans get glitchy when you screw around with their basic wiring. Men especially needed to hear something else. A cacophony of marginal speakers came out to fill this manly-men vacuum such as Jordan Peterson, Mike Cernovitch and Scott Adams. But again, had Trump not shown up, had they not wired their signal to his three-mile-high antennae, would we even know their names? No. He created space, and attention, for them. Without him they would have simply registered in our collective awareness as the fading echo of Charlie Sheen’s ‘tiger blood’ warlock-ing meltdown.

This Trumpian confidence is something that recent immigrants can assimilate into. Not for any traditionally-specific infatuation with caudillo-hood, as some cultural interpreters would explain it. Asking recent immigrants to adopt America’s heritage—pilgrims, founding fathers, greatest generation, but also slavery, robber barons, unequal generational wealth—was always going to be a stretch. Asking them to sign on to Obama’s vision of a first universal nation was too exhausting of a trek after they had already trudged so hard, and not why they came here. Had that been their ultimate destination they could have stayed home and had the first universal nation come to them. But they can assimilate into a mindset, and this is what Trumpism offers, a mindset of winning. Trump, the grandson of an immigrant, with an immigrant mother, choosing a first wife and a third one from among immigrants, projects a swagger, a verve, an anti-victim creed. He acts as if he owns the place (well, he does at his usual hang-outs like Mar-a-Lago). An immigrant can get behind something like this. An immigrant can make use of such energy. An immigrant can carry himself confidently in this new land by channeling Trumpian energy. “I couldn’t fix systemic racism today but I did buy a week’s supply of groceries for my family—winning.” “I couldn’t stop the seas from rising this morning but I did pay off a loan last week—winning.” “I failed to use the barista’s preferred pronoun and got a look for it, but I did get through traffic to make it for my daughter’s ballet recital—mega winning.” “I didn’t even remember to say ‘Happy Eid’ to my neighbors but my three-year-old son said something in flawless Portuguese during his weekly Skype call with his grandparents, impressing the wits out of them—jackpot!”

This is a mindset that a Rogan coalition, such as it is, can get behind too. What’s that? Are you saying this all sounds a bit too sexist? Screw you. We’ve got Sarah Palin in our pantheon. Make that leap and then come tell us about sexism. Our feminism is not abortion-on-demand. Our feminism is about demanding common sense paid maternity leave and common sense childcare support, anything along the lines as what is afforded to women in other advanced economies in the West. Did you ask yourself as to why the other side hasn’t fought as hard for these sorts of women’s rights?

Trump’s extremism compensated for Obama’s. But granted it is extreme. It is not sustainable for the long term. Partly because Trump is not going to be around forever, and partly because there must be a period of respite after such bouts. The future GOnP will land in between, skewing towards confidence. But before that happens, Trumpism will amp up America, and may even do fundamental historical good in cobbling together this Big Banquet coalition of gays, Hispanics, black men, recent immigrants, and the Amish. It may not get everybody to join, but it will get enough to get the party going. And Trumpism wouldn’t just offer blacks and immigrants a transient and feel-good alternative to identity politics. It may actually rewire the inherited disorders that permit the survival of soft racism. Here again, this is something that only Trump can potentially do.

Trump can drag the hold-outs to the center, to the mainstream. Just like he did with prison reform: it took Trump convening a wide coalition that found the conciliatory space to get a deal done, a historical one that had alluded others for forty years, including Obama and Biden.

Wisdom can come from unlikely places, and on this particular potentiality it comes from Don King, the eccentric boxing promoter, and an early supporter of the BLM movement. King affirms in a 2017 interview with Politico that “Trump has the opportunity to be a Founding Father. You know why? Because…Jeff Sessions comes from Alabama, where the constitution is staunchly racist…So it’s not whether [Sessions] is racist…but [where he comes from]. Trump can bring him in the mix…and they open up a chance to do what…If [Trump can help] change what [Sessions] has been taught all [his] life, [he] can do more for the uplifting of the downtrodden than anyone else.” King’s vision draws inspiration from the Fusion Party of 1894, a coalition of white and black politicians from different parties in the late 19th century that “shocked the world of politics.” Trumpism can make residual racism uncool, and that’s that. “Lay off it dude, we’re one American family at this table.” Done. (That same interview reveals that King built a tennis court on his property in the hope of hosting the Williams sisters, but they never visited—too bad he didn’t educate his friend Don on such things before making a fool out of himself with Kara!)

Trump hasn’t achieved that yet, but he may still.

In a hyper-hyphenated America, Trumpism allows the Trumpian to self-identify as a Winner-American. And that is awesome. Trumpism is a narrative for winning, and at this particular juncture in the American story, as the scribes squat to jot it all down on Mt. Nebo, it shall prove a winning narrative. And that is enough. For now.

National Security: The Heart of the Swamp’s Darkness

Not that you’d know that if you were following the news, but there was relatively little overall chaos and turnover in Trump’s cabinet. Secretaries Chao, DeVos, Mnuchin, Ross, Perdue, Carson, and Lighthizer have served the entire length of the president’s first term. Others were brought into deputy positions by Trump early on before moving them up once vacancies arose. The same is true for a host of agencies and other government bodies. Generally, the occupants of the top posts there seemed to have had a good working relationship with the president. Several former Secretaries such as Perry and Acosta have remained on good, supportive terms with the president.

But that has not been the case with the national security constellation: National Intelligence, the CIA, the FBI, Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, the Department of State, the National Security Council, etc. Trump’s relationship with these bodies was marked by turmoil and acrimony, much of it leaked strategically and concurrently to the press. The heads of the intelligence community and the foreign policy establishment adopted the moniker given to them by the media of being the ‘the adults in the room’, a tag ostensibly connoting a group of grey hairs—at times including Mattis, McMaster, Haley, Kelly, Nielson, Pompeo, Haspel, Coats, Esper—that blocked a “Toddler-in-Chief” with his grubby fingers on the nuclear button from excessive mischief. They also had to watch him closely because, you know, he was an agent of Putin’s. The ‘resistance’ to Trump, before and after his assumption of the presidency, was led from this constellation too. How did that discrepancy in attitude towards the president between the national security side of the government’s business, and everything else that more or less ran smoothly, arise? This question is as important as any that can be asked about the history of the United States over the last half century, whether these questions pertain to the realms of culture, economics and politics. And it is just as critical to answer it fully and truthfully as anything else the country’s thinkers and strategists must consider in order to prepare America for the next fifty years.

A few years ago I was invited as a guest to one of America’s most exclusive and private conclaves of national security heavies. It was a four day affair held annually and at the same place, in one of the western idylls of this country, with each year’s get-together highlighting the most pressing issues facing the United States. I was invited to participate on the discussions of that year, which focused on the Middle East, and to share what I had learned from my many years of studying the jihadists. But there was a social aspect to these gatherings, with shared meals, outings, and cocktails. There are usually four dozen or so regulars, comprising former and current-at-the-time top officials, politicians, journalists, academics and thinkers as well as several billionaires, interested in this realm of foreign affairs, among their crew. And they would invite around twenty additional one-time guests to share their expertise on the given topic being discussed. There was an easy camaraderie among the members, who came from both sides of the partisan divide, and they tried their best to make the outsiders feel welcome.

At one such dinner, held at the palatial lodge of a high ranking elected official, a microphone was wired up and an impromptu sing along broke out, with a bustle of ungainly, galumphing line dancing in tow (there was a ‘Western’ theme to the party). I sat mesmerized though when, at some point, a former Secretary of State, a former National Security Adviser, a former head of the Central Intelligence Agency, a former chairman of a congressional committee, joined by a few more officials then serving, along with the former prime minister of a European country (she was called up because of her euphonious singing voice), all huddled around that sole microphone and belted out ‘God Bless America’—I think it was that song, I can’t be sure, for I was more taken by the scene than by the performance. I wasn’t a citizen at that point but the thought going through my head was that these patriotic carolers assembled before me sure are proud of their country, and that they feel ownership for its successes since, in their minds, they had engineered some of them. These were the custodians of America’s security, the inheritors of a tradition that wrested independence, defeated the Barbary pirates, expanded the republic, kept it, applied the Monroe Doctrine, made Japan take in America’s goods, beat back the specter of secession, dug out a canal that linked two oceans, took over the Philippines, pulled through a decade’s worth of a Great Depression, tipped the scales of two world wars, then won the Cold War, and in the decades since delivered their country to the status of solitary superpower and retained a hold of that exalted standing—these giddy folks singing their heads off before me had the hands-on experience of accomplishing these things. There were a few other foreigners there, mostly of the same stature—a former Australian prime minister, the former head of MI6, a compatriot of his who had been the UK’s Foreign Secretary, and so on—lending a ‘globalist’ tinge to the crowd, but it was unmistakable that the Americans carried themselves as the leaders of that gathering, and of the globe.

Here, before me, was the most potent core of the Deep State. There, in denim, boots, and bolo ties, stood the highest priests of Westernizing globalism.

I did not begrudge them their stature and pride. In a way I was touched by it. I was enthused by their elation. I recognized that deserved feeling they had of wearing rows upon rows of invisible medals commemorating exploits past that they knew were there but did not have to brandish to the plebs, and that others of their standing would readily distinguish. At that moment I was also oblivious to their many flubs and disasters. That changed quickly.

While I was in my “just jazzed to be here” trance, the fellow sitting next to me, who had just been introduced by the person hosting me at this gathering with the urgency of “you two must get talking”, leaned over and said: “they are oblivious to the suffering they have created in the world, aren’t they?” He was of a mixed background, some of which was Middle Eastern, and it was the sort of thing that a taxi driver in Beirut would blurt out, which is definitely not his station in society. I gave him a weary smile, and tried to look back at the singers, but his companion interjected with a “they would soooo freak out if we go up there and shout Allahu Akbar!” This was meant to be a joke. I did that head-nod-eye-widening thing meaning ‘ha! I get it!’ while thinking to myself ‘finish this BBQ chicken wing and move away from these people.’ Yet the quip indicated something disturbing. My reverie was broken.

That fellow was a professor at one of the country’s most prestigious universities. Just earlier that day he was being feted by the same people he was badmouthing as the authority on all things Islamic and Middle Eastern. I had read one of his books. It was good and groundbreaking, although it only covered a somewhat obscure topic, in a peripheral country, during a period where far more formative things were happening elsewhere in the region. His was not an expertise that lent itself to the big picture. He certainly was no Bernard Lewis, a scholar and interpreter of the region that I had had the occasion to see, and speak to, at close quarters and who could, whether one agrees with him or not, lavishly elucidate on overarching trends. He was no five percent of Bernard Lewis. He was no twenty percent of Fouad Ajami, another scholar whom I had known and who was of the caliber to be feted (and probably had been) by such a crowd. But to have him say something like what he did, at the moment that he did, to someone he had just met, and that the custodians of America’s security had let him into their midst, to celebrate him and to further validate his standing, well something was not right with this picture.

The following day, when I realized that he had a special ringtone for a high ranking Saudi prince, one whom he had met in college, one whose calls he did not mute, one for whom a customized ringtone declaiming a verse from the Quran was assigned, a ringtone that summoned him to leave the meeting in a scurry to go out in the hallway to answer and I assume to fill-in the prince on the discussions underhand, well, I grasped then that a lot was wrong with this picture. Here was a fellow who had suckered and gamed the Deep State, leveraging its adulation into access to gainful consultancies, while relishing in his derision of the men and women who constitute its leading lights.

But it was something I had known all along. The Deep State was in a bad way. And it was in a uniquely bad way, not one of the cyclic periods of decline and haplessness from which it rallied back to eminence in the past; this time it was less a phase and more of an end-stage condition. I also knew that so much of the rise of Trumpism had to do with foreign affairs, and specifically with the efficacy of this very same Deep State. The exact timing of the inevitability of his Republican candidacy and eventual presidential victory can be traced back to a terrorist event, one that the Deep Staters were supposedly on the watch for:

Trump broke away from his primary rivals in the immediate aftermath of the San Bernardino shootings. Trump’s incendiary remarks struck a chord with a part of the electorate. Especially since it was in such stark contrast to Obama’s detached stance on the event. It was that segment of the voting market that turned him into an anti-establishmentarian candidate who could potentially make it all the way. What was a relatively minor terrorist event inspired by events in the Middle East, ended upturning many ‘givens’ in a structured and stable society as that of America’s. Sure, the system must have broken down along the way to allow it to be vulnerable to such outside triggers. But however way it came about, jihadism became one of the litmus tests for the credibility of the elite, whose foreign policy ‘deep state’ bureaucracy is policed by the ‘Praetorian Guards’ of Realism.

I am always struck by how few people realize that the Trump presidency became realizable only after San Bernardino, when he was willing to speak in terms too stark for his Republican primary competitors to match.  There were no Russian hackers then. No Wikileaks dumps. Trump broke away ahead of the pack because a Muslim couple had been inspired by the visions of a native of Samarra, compelling them to shoot at their co-workers. One of the key duties the establishment was delegated to do, to keep America safe, had been fumbled. Then downplayed. Enter the master pugilist, Donald Trump, with his incendiary catch phrases and tweets. The Realist establishment had misjudged whether the wayward sparks of the faraway fires of the Middle East would pose an existential threat to their own ‘credibility’. Trump was the vehicle of a reckoning.

The breakdown of rational predictability undergirds the demise of trust in institutions. Getting the Middle East that wrong took its toll. Elites may think that the ‘deplorables’ in Hicksville don’t follow world events that closely, but they do so when a loved one is deployed in Baquba. And a soldier that served there will keep following events, wondering whether his service, whether his country’s costly power projection, had left a mark on the trajectory of history. The Middle East is not an abstract set of dueling IR game theories for them. The Middle East is a measure by which they discern whether the elite knows what it is doing. Guess what happens when the news cycles keeps running with bombings in Baquba?

A solemn responsibility is afforded by the American people to the ruling class (and its adjunct bureaucracies) in managing America’s standing and interests around the world. But there is little effective oversight. The whole set-up is premised on trust—that the powerful know what they are doing. Yet for the preceding two decades the American people have developed the sense that something was particularly off with Washington as evidenced by its failure to protect the homeland on 9/11 and then by its subsequent handling of the fallout. This was no kneejerk, ingrained impulse for isolationism and a mistrust of secretive government bodies—an American political tradition. This was different. And it began with Iraq. And I know something about how it began. And much of that story intersects at the Central Intelligence Agency.

But to explain that story, to lay out what Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer meant when he told Rachel Maddow on her MSNBC show airing December 9, 2016, after being asked by her about what he thought of Trump’s repeated taunts against the CIA not a month after the election, that if “you take on the intelligence community they have six ways from Sunday of getting at you; even for a practical, supposedly hardnosed businessman he’s being really dumb to do this…” Then Maddow pushes him further, “What do you think the intelligence community would do if they had [a mind to]…” and Schumer replies: “I don’t know but from what I was told they are very upset with how he had treated them and talked about them”—before one explains what Schumer was going on about one has to tell the story of John Brennan, and to explain his story one has to tell the story of his former boss George Tenet who instituted a culture of deflection, strategic leaking and a cultivation of attention-grabbing congressmen and senators, including Schumer and another one named Joe Biden. And to tell Tenet’s story one has to tell the story of my former boss Ahmad Chalabi, and to tell Chalabi’s story one has to reach back to the earliest days of the Deep State’s birth in the late 1940s and then to one of its longest periods of decline during the 1990s, leading up to 9/11. Chalabi? Oh, by the official narrative he was another outsider who had suckered America’s elite, but not to get himself invited (+ one) to some soirees, rather he did so to bring America’s military might to bear in settling a familial vendetta of his—or so it is said. By telling that story, one will understand why Brennan turned treasonous in undermining Trump, for when Schumer was speaking to Maddow, Brenner was still the Director of the CIA. And once this tale is told, hopefully you’ll understand why there is no recourse for a resurgent and triumphant return of Trumpism to power but to deracinate the Deep State, beginning with the undergrowth at Langley.

Like beating up on the press, beating up on the CIA is yet another American popular pastime. Isn’t it unfair, and a little too easy, to single out the spies? What about all the other agencies: the NSA, the NSC, the DIA, the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the whole slew of the “entrenched bureaucracy,” or the immensely wealthy private contracting security corporations that altogether comprise the Deep State? A friend once flippantly told me “America does have a Deep State, and they are called colonels”—meaning the class of middling ranks that run the Pentagon; so why not focus on the “military industrial complex” instead, that intersection of the big weapons makers and defense contractors, as well as the congressmen they lobby? They constitute the juggernaut of overlapping interests that Dwight ‘Ike’ Eisenhower, while heading off to his post-presidency life, had warned Americans about, and whose nefarious intrusions into policy to prolong a state of endless war is a matter that Trump also laments from time to time. Aren’t they more representative of the darker depths of the Deep State than the CIA? Better still, why not the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation with its uniquely malevolent collection of Yateses and Comeys and McCabes and Strzoks and Pages who were the tip of the administrative spear in harpooning Trump’s presidency?

Well, I need to focus on the CIA because it is there, in its midst, that one can spot the wellspring of the public’s mistrust in government institutions that culminated with the shock of 9/11, followed by the mishandling of the Iraq War. And it was the CIA that tried to deflect blame by setting the journalists it had cultivated on a path that eventually wounded a sitting U.S. president in the mid-2000s—the same officeholder that the CIA is institutionally designed to serve above all else within the structure of the U.S. government—and by doing so dissipated a national consensus to fight jihadism. And it is that same dual, contradictory mindset—of serving a president and a willingness to undermine a presidency—that had always manifested within the CIA but had festered to a considerable degree under Tenet and his underlings, drifting as it were aboard a larger cultural shift within the country, a mindset that eventually allowed Brennan to satisfy Obama’s departing desire to hobble Trump’s prospects, partly by allowing the FBI to get ahead of itself in believing the ‘Russia-Russia-Russia’ nonsense, with the Justice Department running point. And while the public face of the Deep State’s ‘resistance’ to Trump over the last few years featured other high office holders such as General Michael Hayden (of the NSA, DIA, and CIA, before CNN) and James Clapper (of the DIA, NGA, and DNI, also before CNN) as well as many others, it was Brennan who performed the role of ad hoc coordinator of the counter-Trump narrative, again with subtle direction from Obama. Okay, maybe I don’t have evidence for Obama’s role here. Still, I am certain of it because this is how these things go, or so experience tells me. And I am certain it will out one sunny, crisp day. Maybe Obama will tell us all about it in Volume II of his memoirs—after all, he can’t pass up an opportunity to gloat.

Wait, am I doing one of these underhanded things that experts do by drawing the topic, any topic, towards my own field of knowledge? That I’m only focusing on the CIA because I have a few juicy tittle-tattles to share, not to mention scores to settle? You bet your sweet ass that I am. But bear with me, this story has juggling clowns, double-crosses, Chinese honey-traps, and the world’s largest butternut squash. Okay, so I may be overpromising here, but I do swear to pare down the story to a bare minimum before sending you on your way. Although, to be honest, we’ve been in the woods for a long time, and already I’m not sure I know how to get back. But we’ll worry about that later. First things first.

The Deep State is not a conspiratorial cabal, lurking in dark, smoke-filled rooms, speaking in a hushed and raspy patter of their own device. It is a looser affiliation, a corporatist identity. There are no nobility tables and titles to this fellowship, no dress codes or lapel pins. Even so, there is a tribal cohesion to it forged out of a shared sense of mission and destiny. Theirs is a keenly providential Americanism—that America was destined for greatness and goodness—and a ruthless determination to pursue and enact that purpose, one that afforded them license, and rank, with due affluence too. They, like the singing folks above, are patriots. They have not sold out to some globalist agenda as Bannon would have it. In their own minds, they are America’s truest patriots, enshrining her global supremacy bar none. To them, Bannon is a parvenu, a demagogue, a fraud, a coward, a Johnny-come-lately to the task of putting ‘America first’, though they would never be crass enough to spell out their duties so. Why offend their international allies by saying something gauche but universally acceded to out loud that need not be said?  

Yet the Deep State, especially its CIA component, did undergo some changes just as the country changed too, after all, what organization’s culture hasn’t changed in that time span? What is peculiar about the culture of the CIA today is just how dramatically different it is from that at the organization’s conception in the late 1940s. Some of that change is good. Some of it is bad. The problem is that the bad part disproportionately impacts the efficacy of the agency’s work. A deeper analysis of this lop-sidedness is relevant in our understanding of why the Deep State behaved as it did when confronting a changing country that chose Trump. Such a comparison also allows us to explore whether parts of the Deep State, such as the CIA, are salvageable, or whether its gangrenous administrative decay must be dealt with far more radically. Consequently, it is worthwhile mediating on how the CIA’s ‘golden era’ bogged down into recrimination and disillusionment as early as the early 1960s, reaching its crescendo by the mid-70s, and whether what we are witnessing nowadays is similarly cyclic, or whether it is unprecedented and unique. (I think it’s the latter.)

Those golden years prior were years of ‘winning’. Americans carried themselves as winners. Many white American men could bank such a claim: they had fought, and fought hard, to beat back European and Far Eastern fascism. Many white American women could also claim to have played a corollary role in achieving victory by picking up the slack at the Homefront. The country was enthused, confident, and prospering. One theory holds that the prosperity of those years had much to do with the destruction of the industries of Europe and the Far East, which gave American manufacturing its brief moment of global dominance. I think that that was but a small factor, retroactively applied by penny-pinchers and pessimists who claim that those times cannot be replicated. Far more important was the country’s swagger, and the way by which that confidence applied itself to everything. The country was determined. There was clarity, especially as a new enemy had emerged, one that challenged the U.S. over the same battlefields of Europe and East Asia, one that had the gall to dock around America’s own Caribbean and Central American neighborhood, and one that even entertained the idea of breaking into fortress America. The CIA was the shiny new instrument for winning this new confrontation. Its leadership was to be the Pattons and MacArthurs of the times. This is probably the era of American greatness, or rather a mindset of achieved and achievable greatness that Trump’s MAGA-ness invokes.

A not-so-frivolous question to ask is whether that mindset was a function of whiteness, specifically a particular pedigree of whiteness? After all, Trump’s evocation of past-tense American greatness, and the need to resurrect it, is taken to be a racial dog whistle by his opponents. Did something happen to that pedigree that explains the periods of ensuing deterioration? And is a return to that pedigree indeed what America needs to reinvigorate its institutions and get them back to winning, including those of the Deep State?

These questions are made further relevant by an observation that Stephen P. White shared on The Catholic Thing blog last week: “For the first time in American history, no branch of the our federal government will be led by a Protestant. The president will be Catholic. The Speaker of the House is Catholic. The Senate Majority Leader will be Jewish. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is Catholic (and the Court as a whole is majority Catholic).” He contemplates whether that is emblematic of an important shift and not merely a coincidence, because if it is then that could have indeterminate yet serious consequences. “Mainline Protestantism once acted as the primary ballast in American public life—helping to steady us amidst the choppy waters that attend life in a democratic republic,” White wrote, adding: “That ballast is gone, and the long-term effects on American life can be felt all around.”

Was the CIA’s story a forerunner for those changes?

I imagine the early Deep Staters to be white Yalies, men, in 50s vintage sartorial fittings and preppy haircuts. Many of them had witnessed the worldwide conflagration, some in extremely hazardous ways. The ones with a grey hair or two could tell tales of ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan, their commander during the Office of Strategic Services days, who had sent them out on derring-do missions less than a decade prior. They wore hats. They attended mainline churches. They were enamored with the bearing and exploits of their aristocratic British ‘cousins’, so much so that many of them made it a point to drive imported British-made cars such as Jaguars—never mind the ignition problems that Mad Men’s Don Draper, as good a glamorized prototype for ‘1950s Man America’ as possible, was supposed to paper over. They read T.E. Lawrence’s (‘of Arabia’ fame) Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926) as if it belonged on the classics shelf, turning the task of remaking the Middle East into a persistent obsession of theirs, as it was for him. According to CIA historian Hugh Wilford over at California State University, Long Beach, one of those early Agency officers, Kermit ‘Kim’ Roosevelt Jr. (a grandson of Teddy’s), had a personal connection to the famed guerilla fighter while growing up, which tells you what sort of world formed their early lives: his father Kermit Sr. had gotten a special dispensation to join the British campaign in Mesopotamia in World War I with the rank of captain, prompting another family friend, Rudyard Kipling (—hence the name ‘Kim’) to send him a congratulatory note. He met Lawrence in Cairo on his way back to Europe from that theater, and maintained a correspondence with him in the years to come. Kim would later chalk up one of the CIA’s first major successes as his own doing, that of the 1953 coup in Iran.

Those Deep Staters were deadly serious about what they did; they had the Soviet Empire to contain and rollback. Some of their Yale classmates stuck with hoarding riches on Wall Street during those good times, occasionally reminiscing over wartime exploits, eventually griping about hippies, and arranging a luxuriant nest out of their laurels. But the ones returning to service to their country within the ranks of its newly constituted clandestine agencies had no time for such indulgences: their task was to safeguard the good life for their former classmates and brothers-in-arms, and, I guess, might as well, for the rest of their countrymen and countrywomen too.

I could go on painting this picture or you could alternatively watch The Good Shepherd (2006). The screenwriter of that movie was influenced by Norman Mailer’s magisterial Harlot’s Ghost, which had been published in 1991. Mailer uses the novel genre to redolently describe the beginnings of the CIA, which in his rendering offers up a striking portrayal of the WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) ethos that infused that institution at the time. The movie, for its part, has a scene set in Miami wherein Joe Pesci’s character, a mobster, asks Matt Damon, who is playing the protagonist, a CIA agent, about what makes him and his ilk tick:

[PALMI]: We Italians, we have the Church and the family; the Irish, they have their homeland; the Jews, tradition. Hell, even niggers have their music…What do you people have?

[WILSON]: We have the United States of America, the rest of you people are just visiting.

I often think back to this dialogue when thinking of those early Deep Staters. Within it one can barely make out part of the elusive answer as to why things veered off, and why the Deep State is what it is today. But how big a part of the answer? That is harder to discern, though it is also useful here to recall what Wolfe, in his own Back to Blood novel tried to tell us: the WASPs—for whom Damon’s character is a stand-in—have abandoned their vespiaries—they be gone, old chum. So, did their departure eventually doom their institutions?

David Brooks over at the NYTimes began writing a series of columns in 2010 (stretching to as recently as 2018) lamenting the eclipse of that elite, and suggesting that what came after the period of the WASP ascendancy was a long slog of mediocrity and self-absorption, and the country is the worse off for it. If one sets aside the litany of bad ‘–isms’ they exhibited, such as racism and sexism, then one can recognize that they did a good job of running institutions, Brooks tells us, and that the corollary to having a generational ruling class, one which had secured its wealth and status, is that its inheritors would take a longer view of history, one longer than an individual lifespan, thus fitting them out with the mindset that put the nation’s interest first. Then, in the following era of meritocracy that brought about the hierarchal displacement of the WASPs, new socially mobile individuals took the helm, but they were so focused on their ascent to the top that they had no recourse nor inclination to take in the view, to think big thoughts about duty and sacrifice, and to bask in the accomplishments of those who came before them. In other words, the ‘me’ generation dissipated America’s power with its greed and shortsightedness. But was Brooks correct when it comes to the Deep State, which requires a particular kind of mindset? Was his formula for clocking in the beginning of the end relevant to an institution like the CIA? Brooks may have been over-romanticizing and over-estimating the WASP contribution to America’s sheen. For example, American power had been engorged via many tributaries, such as all the immigrants who launched scientific and engineering endeavors (think atomic bombs and jukeboxes), or the skills of warfighting (lots of Catholics involved), or the perfection of American branding through entertainment (cue Adam Sandler to count all dem showbiz Jews) and music (gimme some of dat bop-dee-bebop Harlem jazz). These too were giving America its greatest moments in the 1950s.

But none of these sorts of people were invited to join the early CIA. Robert De Niro directed the movie, but he also plays Bill Sullivan, a military man in a wheelchair loosely based on Donovan (who wasn’t handicapped). De Niro introduces us to Sullivan just as he begins to put together the first recruits for post-war U.S. foreign intelligence. He quips at the protagonist with a smile: “I’ll be looking for patriotic, honorable, bright young men from the right backgrounds to manage the various departments. In other words, no Jews or Negroes, and very few Catholics, and that’s only because I’m a Catholic.”

The CIA was a WASPian special project in a way that the FBI, its thickheaded, thick-necked older sibling within the security family, could never be. The FBI was J. Edgar Hoover’s thing, the scowling provincials working for him were cast in his image. But the CIA was to be the WASPs’ gilded gift for the ages. So what happens when their ways and customs are forgotten? It so stands than one way to gauge WASP competence, and to test Brooks’ hypothesis, is to study the history of the CIA, their post-Yale clubhouse.

I was always fascinated by these WASPs and their subsects. At one of Tom Toles’ Halloween parties—the place to be seen for Washington’s media set, thrown by the WaPo’s lead cartoonist—I went as an eccentric New England Brahmin. I thought I was being very clever, with an over-the-top get-up (World War One medals, a monocle, short-shorts, riding boots, an effetely-long cigarette holder and an Anatolian walking stick) and my best attempt at an authentic accent to match, the existence of which I first learned of when, very early on in my American experience, I was told all about the Brahmins by one of their own (through a maternal line, but still). She was a professor who I had struck up a friendship with, and she received me at her Beacon Hill home (on the south slope, mind you), a home that had American chestnut (or was it something else?) paneling and an antique ground-to-ceiling brass birdcage for the household’s parrots, or at least that is how I remember it. Her neighborhood was Jerusalem to the Boston Social Register set, their fortress WASPasia, a world now half-forgotten. As a measure of how far they had receded, no one at the Halloween party got my outfit, they didn’t even understand the term ‘Boston Brahmin’ and yet this was supposed to be the densest huddle of what passes for the capital’s intellectual class today. One reporter in our party-going group, a producer for a top network news show, who was gay himself, thought I was playing at a homosexual from the 1920s. Sigh.

Yet Brooks has it wrong, at least when it comes to the Deep State. The rot there is not a symptom of the failure of meritocracy. Rather it is an indication that an institution, any institution, can wither, and that it gets collectively dumber with time and with every hardened bureaucratic burl disfiguring its trunk. Things can turn around with some periodic pruning of red tape and sheering off inflexible logjams, especially with a steady, charismatic leadership at the helm. Things can get even better if they have presidencies that support rather than scapegoat them. Those ingredients for regeneration do not often come together though, as we shall see soon enough. Things can get so bad in the absence of good leadership (and other contributing factors) that the only way to stem the damage is to uproot it all—that too we will get to. And we must also consider that an institution consecrated and launched by WASPs may not have been anything special to begin with, that it had no mystical incantation or potent talisman tied around it branches to shield it from various vicissitudes. For the WASPs could have been, just like any nobility across time, a bunch of poseurs, and in a fake-it-till-you-make-it realm of self-reinvention like that of America’s they were a particularly ‘based’—to borrow a hip new term—aristocracy. Their pretenses still had Brooks duped decades on.

Those early WASPs may have pulled off a couple of successful coups in Tehran and Guatemala City but they also conjured up flaps (Albania, 1949) and displayed severe analytical flaws (missing Mao’s victories in China; being surprised by the lead up to the Korean War). One can chalk it up to the fumbles of institutional infancy. But the balance of success to failure leaned towards failure throughout the latter phases of the CIA’s life. Then the adventurous years of a covertly activist agency gave way to the caution and hesitation that comes from one too many burns. That period, one of exuberance devolving into chastisement, was bookmarked by the tenure and leadership of the CIA’s longest serving director, Allen Dulles, who was at its helm from 1953-1961(–pay attention now, for he is our yardstick by which to evaluate one of his successors who is most pertinent to our tale, George Tenet).

Dulles was all about adventure and imagination, and he had the auspicious backing of a presidency (Eisenhower’s, where Dulles’ older brother served as Secretary of State) that gave him full rein. Like many of his class, he had an early fascination with the Middle East, having served as the head of the Division of Near Eastern Affairs at the Department of State, where he had worked for ten years, before leaving government to prospect on Wall Street and then returning to cloak and dagger jobs in Washington. While Director, Dulles played the media. Those he did not pay directly he established a form of collegiality with as fellow traffickers in the information trade wherein he doled out scoops in return for discretion and favors when needed. Dulles also cultivated congressmen and senators, one of whom was a young Democratic star called Jack Kennedy. But whereas Dulles was social and friendly with JFK and the latter had announced that he would keep him on as director right upon winning the election, Kennedy eventually soured on him because of the Bay of Pigs debacle in Cuba (what Damon’s character was meeting with Pesci’s in Miami over) and some other hot potatoes that Dulles had flung into his lap. Allegedly, Kennedy even soured on the CIA as an institution, vowing that he would crush it. How did things go so wrong? Dulles was uniquely qualified to lead this institution just as it was getting going, and yet within eight years he had brought his institution to the cusp of elimination for the sake of political expediency. Wasn’t Dulles the exemplar of WASP managerial alchemy that Brooks is so enamored of? The endings of things suggest not.

Dulles was one of those rare institutional leaders whose tenure marks an era, and whose character permeates into the bureaucracy he was managing. Kennedy described him as “legendary.” There was something of his ancestor in him: Joseph Douglas, a Scottish settler in Northern Ireland, made his way, and a ‘starter’ fortune, in what is today Indonesia but was then the Dutch East Indies where his last name was bastardized by unfamiliar tongues into ‘Dulles’—he kept it that way. He arrived in South Carolina during the Revolutionary War, continuing his lucky streak to riches, probably by trading in slaves. And, of course, money ennobled him and his progeny by passing themselves off and marrying into WASPhood. If one tracks down the genealogies of many of that first CIA generation who we take to be WASPs, one will find that claiming a social station among WASPs was quite the untidy and loose fitting affair. All that posing, all that daring, does not make for a genuine claim to fine-bred, endemic aristocracy, but it does make for a good spy with a dash of prized eccentricity and panache. And it was exactly the sort of adaptability and improvisation that was needed in an “age of change” as Dulles put it during a speech he gave in 1960 “when nations are being born almost before we know their names or their geography.” There was also urgency afoot: He took Nikita Khrushchev at his word when the Soviet leader declaimed “We will bury you” by having Communism take over the world, while Dulles thought Khrushchev’s parallel talk of coexistence to be merely an apparatchik’s habit of speaking out of both sides of one’s mouth. Dulles still had something of Joseph’s unblinking wiliness to recognize it too in a man who had survived being at an elbow’s-length away from Stalin for a decade.

That pretense at being high born despite scrappy beginnings can mark individuals, as well as institutions. Dulles was ancestrally disposed to a flinty swagger, stiff-necked and ever so confident. The CIA under him was bold and aggressive too. It was also sloppy, and Dulles would admit that he had to pull some things together in haste. Journalists picked up chatter out of the hangouts of Cuban exiles in Miami that an ‘invasion’ to liberate their homeland was imminent. This talk was published in the U.S. media weeks and days ahead of the event. Too much media attention as the plan unfolded, and then too much public attention when the plan folded upon itself made Kennedy lose his nerve and call the whole thing off. Kennedy even skated very close to Trump’s ‘enemy of the people’ charge against the press seven days after the invasion when addressing the American Newspaper Publishers Association: there he called for “self-discipline” among his audience’s ranks since “this nation’s foes have openly boasted of acquiring through our newspapers information they would otherwise hire agents to acquire through theft, bribery or espionage.”

Kennedy wanted it all toned down, and tamed, so he ousted Dulles and some of his men from the top echelons of the Agency not a year into his presidency and brought in an outsider engineer-cum-businessman, a fellow who had made his name in industry and massive construction projects, amassing riches during the war years, before becoming chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. Kennedy had purposely picked a man with no military or espionage background, and he did so because he understood that the American public, one that was beginning to get wary of all this secrecy business, wanted it this way.

The Bay of Pigs invasion implanted a seedling of doubt in the public’s mind concerning the establishment’s aptitude. That egg left dripping off Dulles’ patrician face was too powerful an image for them to overlook. It also whet the appetite of a new crop of aggressive journalists—ones who were too young for the action of the great war yet still longed for a warrior ethos—to make a name for themselves by scalping men with such faces. Dulles spent the rest of his days (he died in 1969) defending himself and the CIA, though the furthest he would go in deflecting blame was “the president knew….” Yet it mattered little. The cultural ground was shifting from under him. What scholars call ‘the Cold War consensus’—the Grand American Project of the post-WWII era and the raison d’être for the WASPian CIA—was beginning to crack, and according to historian Simon Wilmetts of Leiden University it began on the Cuban shoreline, by the CIA’s own blundering actions, rather than in a paddy in Vietnam.

What followed the Bay of Pigs were fifteen years of the public’s souring on the ruling class. There was too much being reported not to compel them to think that something is ‘off’ with Washington, and that too many secrets were being kept away from them. The 1968 Tet offensive took the American public by surprise; “Weren’t we winning?” most people thought; it turns out they were not. And then it got worse. Luckily for Dulles he was not around to see the worst of it. There were the Pentagon Papers of 1971. Then Watergate. Then the ignoble evacuation of Saigon. Trust was eroding, paranoia was setting in. The Kennedy assassination was retroactively fitted out with all sorts of conspiracy theories and martyrdom mythologies that had the Cult of the Grassy Knoll expanding its ranks of believers by leaps and bounds. The keepers of the Camelot legacy also found it useful to have the CIA playing the role of Kennedy’s foil, pegging the excesses and flops of his presidency on a bunch of faceless spies. The 1973 oil crisis was borne out of wars in the Middle East, but it also made the easy riches of that commodity a focus of the public’s imagination, and not far away from that was the CIA and its disproportionate meddling in the region. Consequently, the public was well-primed before it went to the movie theaters in 1975 to watch Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor play a quirky, bookish CIA analyst who suddenly finds himself the target of an evil conjoined bureaucratic twin that he never knew the Agency had. But the plotline also implicates the whole system that allowed this twin to survive. And of course, it’s all about Middle Eastern oil somehow. But no worries, the NYTimes will expose it all, for Redford’s character has bravely double-crossed the double-crossers. Or maybe the Grey Lady is in bed with the schemers, and it won’t send his story to print? The last scene leaves this question hanging.

This was an unfortunate turn of events, for just as the CIA was coming under this dark cloud a new generation was coming up in its ranks, a generation reared in professional-grade tradecraft, a generation of proper spies, a generation of non-WASPs.

Milt Bearden was one of them. In his 2003 book The Main Enemy (coauthored with Jim Risen of the NYTimes then) he tells us that his incoming generation was distinguished by the fact that they were “the first to be tempered by long, hard, operational experience, much of it behind the Iron Curtain.” The OSS types had it easy, all they had to do was blow up German trains during World War II. Bearden’s colleagues, on the other hand, were “bringing back an up-close-and-personal feel for the KGB and its Eastern European proxies, a streetwise know-how that had been lacking in the early CIA.” They were also different in another way from their elitist seniors in the Agency “whose notions of secret keeping or secret stealing had been shaped by Yale and Skull and Bones”; those WASPs were to be substituted out by a crop of Middle American graduates of state universities and the military, “most born just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Many of their fathers had gone to college on the GI Bill after the war, some the first members of their families to climb that once tightly restricted ladder.” Sure there were still plenty of Ivy League graduates coming in too but “most of its members came from dots on the map spread farther afield”—Bearden, born in 1940, himself came into the CIA in 1962 from Texas via the Air Force and Yale.

Soon they would rise to the middle management of a defanged, decaying organization where their hard-earned talents found little outlet:

The CIA in 1975 was anything but the self-assured organization with an unchallenged mission I had joined. The DDP had been renamed, this time in plain vanilla, as the Directorate of Operations. It was awash with men and women who’d been run out of Southeast Asia by the North Vietnamese Army and were walking the halls looking for jobs. President Carter’s new DCI, Admiral Stansfield Turner, brought the President’s moralistic sensibilities to Langley with him, and soon field case officers were tasked with transforming the often ugly business of espionage into a “morally uplifting experience” for both case officers and their foreign agents. The President thought that America had an “inordinate fear of Communism,” and his DCI agreed. Within a few years, Turner had dismantled many of the capabilities the CIA had built up over the decades, dismissing them as Cold War relics.

There is nothing unique about the CIA’s lackluster balance sheet of hits and misses. Intelligence work is plodding, never neat, never follows the script, and always falls short of the expectations set by the spy novel (and film) genre. Much of it relies on dumb luck. It needs poets like the quarter-Mexican James Angleton, another legendary early figure who ran counterintelligence, because spy work needs a lot of imagination. But the ruthlessness and tediousness, the incessant exposure to human frailties and malice, and the high stakes of it all, along with the ritualized scapegoating that politicians and the public periodically demand, does take its toll as exemplified by what happened to the disheveled, half-crazed Angleton in his last years. Angleton’s end (also in the pivotal year of 1975) was orchestrated by a new director, Bill Colby, one of those rare Catholics that came in at the beginnings of the Agency whose father was cut in the frontiersman tradition, trading spices with Native Americans in Minnesota, and bucking his WASPy roots by converting to Catholicism. Colby personally detested Angleton and wanted to sanitize the agency with some controlled sunlight after it had gone too dark, too obscurantist, and too weird. He selectively leaked damaging stuff to a number of journalists, including Seymour Hersh at the NYTimes (but more often throughout his career at The New Yorker), a wacky journalist that I would have occasion to work with years later in the 2000s on a couple of things, again to make things difficult for the CIA (and by extension the Saudis). Colby later denied leaking to Hersh, claiming that he only talked to him to correct his account.

Hersh’s exposes touched off a political storm beyond Colby’s control, and it drew a big red target on the Agency’s back. The nation settled on the CIA as its object of flagellation, a cathartic ablution by which the establishment could atone for those fifteen years of acridness. The rest of the establishment didn’t object much—they couldn’t believe their luck. So began the year of theatrical hearings at the House and the Senate (1975 again, just making sure you’re paying attention) that empaneled Director Colby a whopping and exhausting thirty two times. But the CIA was left dejected and trigger-shy, chastened and emasculated.

Despite the clamor and a forests’-worth of reports, with a smattering of legislative reforms and newly instituted congressional oversight, there were few impediments for the CIA to get back to its old ways once its time in the public’s doghouse had passed. And throughout it all, it should be noted that the Agency was primarily being called out on its nefariousness rather than the shoddiness of its product or the cumbersomeness of its action. In a sense, the Agency still held on to some of its mystique. Colby was replaced by George H.W. Bush, oilman, former congressman, former U.N. ambassador and son of a former senator, an appointment which duly situated that family’s story unto America’s national rostrum. Decades later, Jim Baker (the focus of a new 2020 biography grandly entitled The Man Who Ran Washington by the WaPo’s Peter Baker), a paragon of the life-long Deep Stater and an enforcer for the Bush family, would effectively place 9/11 at Colby’s feet, accusing him of dismantling the CIA’s clandestine effectiveness rather than that being Stansfield’s doing. But that is nonsense, and it was just one of the many ways Washington tried to escape reckoning for the terrorist attacks—more on that in just a bit.

And even though Bush was director for only eleven months, his tenure is remembered as one of mending and convalescence for the Agency, so much so that the HQ in Langley would be named after him several historiographic cycles later. The country was looking for healing after those fifteen years. The country was looking for revival, something to lift up its spirits on its bicentennial in 1976. Bush took his cue from Gerald Ford, the president who had appointed him, to cast himself as a healer (…sort of like the unity and coming-together spin that Biden is pushing now). Bush, a former congressman, went out of his way to butter up his former colleagues on Capitol Hill, happily appearing fifty times or so to testify over the short period of his directorship.  

The story of the CIA then oscillates between the appointments of ‘turn-down-the-volume’ directors followed by ‘the-OSS-rides-again’ types. The Agency rallied under Bill Casey, one of those old OSS hands, by doing its part to defeat the Soviets after Ronald Reagan came in and tasked the agency with bloodying the Evil Empire’s nose. Notably Reagan empowered Casey to expand on a program that Carter had started to equip and support Afghan mujahidin in countering the Soviet Union’s invasion of their country. Casey creatively subcontracted some of the fighting and the funding to the Pakistanis and the Saudis, but as the program gained traction and racked up successes, he had his CIA taking a more hands-on approach, giving his point-man, Bearden, who he had remembered fondly as his host for a few days in Nigeria years earlier, a mandate to win, at whatever the cost, whatever the twist. And here’s a billion dollars to smooth things over. And Stinger missiles too.

Casey was thinking in terms of an endgame. No longer would America be content with a “steady-as-she-goes” bleeding out of the Soviets. Reagan was willing to entertain visions of collapsing the Soviet system entirely, visions that had been whispered into his ears by a set of hawks who he had been chummy with even before becoming president, and he expected Casey to deliver. Casey would go all out: “There were rumors about his discreet meetings in the Vatican with the Polish pope, his deals with the Saudis to keep oil prices down so that the Soviets couldn’t reap windfall profits from their oil sales, and his efforts to block a proposed Soviet oil pipeline to Western Europe. And to be certain, Casey had discovered the Soviet Union’s Achilles’ heel in Afghanistan” as Bearden reminisced in his book.

In the Middle East, the Agency found itself being haunted by one of its first real successes when the 1978-79 Islamic Revolution in Iran was partly fueled by memories (and myths) of the 1953 coup. As if the Agency needed more of a headache in the doom and gloom of the post-Colby years: even its once cherished exploits had percolated into a massive defeat. But Afghanistan was giving the Agency its groove back, and instead of staying clear of embarrassment, the Agency went after the new Iranian regime with gusto. Iran then had its acolytes in Beirut murder a CIA division chief who was visiting there, followed by Hezbollah managing to abduct the station chief in Lebanon, in retribution. So began the slippery, non-linear slope towards the Iran-Contra affair, which revolved, in part, on attempts to release other hostages held by the Iranians, and which, when it eventually blew up in everyone’s faces—both Iranians and Americans—could have buried the Agency too had the Reaganites have chosen to conveniently scapegoat it. But Casey managed to render one more service for his guys—this time by dying. On a hospital bed in May 1987, incapacitated by cancer, Casey allegedly nodded in affirmation as Bob Woodward asked him whether he knew about all what was happening by way of illicit dealings. Casey thus died for the CIA’s new slate of sins, giving the institution enough room to duck the brunt of ‘shame’.

By the time one of its own—Bush Sr., well, sort-of one of its own—was elected president, the party was over: there was no more Soviet Union. After fatally wounding the Soviets in Afghanistan, Bearden was promoted to Chief of the Soviet/East European Division. He and the rest of the Agency sat speechless as the mighty enemy broke down into bits of concrete and tattered red fabric—an event that they had worked for all their lives but still embarrassingly failed to predict. Their long sought victory laurels wilted when politicians nippily gave them the cold shoulder once the Cold Warrior-ing was done. Bush lost an election to Bill Clinton who famously had little interest in intelligence, mistaking one of his picks for director, Jim Woolsey (we will meet him again a little later), for an admiral at the announcement ceremony (he wasn’t), and then never taking a one-on-one meeting with him. De Niro would later hire Bearden in retirement to consult with him on The Good Shepherd.

There was another irritant for the Agency: what little glory accrued in defeating the Soviets had to be shared with the emerging clan of neoconservatives, who were then populating defense and other security roosts. In fact, the ‘neocons’ were initially brought in by Reagan to second-guess the analysts at Langley. This umbrage was never forgotten, and shall color much of what follows.

Should we feel terribly sorry for the frustrations that beset the Deep Staters at this point of the story, thus excusing their lashing out since? No, this happens to all spy agencies that set themselves the task of history-bending, world-changing action: it doesn’t pan out. Even when things looked like they did, the aftertaste is bitter and disappointing. Some spy outfits spin their failures better than others: the Mossad, for example, can still get the British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen—who cameos these days as an apostle of truth-telling and a castigator of disinformation on social media—to produce and star in the Netflix series The Spy that offers its viewers hours of bad history as well as never-happened history about how Israel allegedly infiltrated Syria’s top political and military echelons in the early 1960s. Hoorah for the Mossad, but its rank-and-file would still know that the frothy hype was just that, or at least one would hope they had the sense to know. (Skip The Spy and watch the eight episodes of the 2020 Israeli espionage thriller Tehran on AppleTV instead; whoever wrote that script knows the rhythm and messiness of intel work well.)

So it wasn’t the eclipse of the WASPs that did the CIA in, it just happened. It wasn’t a matter of pedigree, it was a case of bureaucratic ennui. The long-drawn out anticlimax went concurrently though with a new officer class coming in after that of Bearden’s white Middle America generation: their ranks transitioned into urban, Mediterranean, Slavic, with lots more Mormons. That is probably why some associate institutional decline with a changing of the demographic guard. Some of the internal culture changed, and some of it didn’t: for example, even though Donovan and Dulles never were Jew-haters–quite the contrary when compared to others in their class and times–the Agency kept its weirdly anti-Semitic ethos all throughout, maybe due to its early perception, then common, of a long-standing association of Jews with Communism, followed by a later irritation at having to share the victors’ stage with the neocons—who were disproportionally Jewish.

However, I maintain that the ‘bad’ changes that did occur had less to do with demography and more to do with biography. And you had to endure all this meandering story-telling to get us to one particular biography, that of George Tenet’s, the second longest serving director after Dulles, and who like Dulles stamped the agency with his character—for better or worse. Actually there is going to be much more ‘worse’ than ‘better’ in what follows.

Tenet, who first came in as deputy director, witnessed an age of change, change around the world, change in America, and change within the intelligence community, on a scale similar to that of Dulles’s times. The ‘Main Enemy’ had birthed a dozen or so new nations right at its demise, some at each other’s throats. A security breach that had festered for almost nine years had been discovered just a year before Tenet walked through the doors. The turn-coat had given up almost every agent that the CIA had in the Soviet Union. With no discernable enemy and with fresh embarrassments piled on, the budgets were drastically cut by Congress. Worse still, the Clinton administration indicated early on, in Mogadishu, that it certainly won’t bite at the bit when things get dicey, so why risk anything? Then things began to speed up: a new team had been cobbled together at the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center to keep track of a certain Osama bin Laden, but their implorations and plans to kill him here, nab him there, were ignored or cancelled by the Agency’s leadership, chiefly by Tenet himself. Then 9/11 happened. The Agency was initially spared its due of tarring and shaming, principally by the new president George W. Bush. And then Iraq happened, wherein Tenet found no compunction in conveniently tying that albatross around his savior’s neck. Tenet’s tenure ends just as the CIA is demoted from its primo rank among America’s sixteen security arms, when new structural reforms placed it under a National Director of Intelligence—that WASP-established ‘company’ was reduced to being one of many taking orders from on top. Was this uniquely Tenet’s failing? Was Iraq a catalyst in an already percolating process of corrosion? The answer is somewhere in between. And within that answer we may discover the origins of Trumpism, and the most virulent strains of Never-Trumpism too.

The CIA and Iraq, the unlikely pairing that birthed Trumpism

Tenet’s story was intricately tied up with Iraq—he tells us in his memoir, At the Center of the Storm (2007), that terrorism and Iraq had defined his term—and it was he who gave a dull, not-going-anywhere John Brennan a leg up at the Agency, positioning him for a leadership role. Tenet also contacted Clinton’s former National Security Adviser Tony Lake on Brennan’s behalf to get the latter into Barack Obama’s innermost circle. And it was Brennan who, in my opinion, was orchestrating or at least enabling the Deep State’s illegal bid to take out Trump. And the story is likely to drag on, since an alleged acolyte of Brennan’s for whom he has given abundant praise, Avril Haines, has just been nominated as Biden’s Director of National Intelligence.

Therein lies Tenet’s most troubling legacy: the Tenetians he left behind. The Tenetians subscribed to a culture of self-preservation, going even so far as undermining a presidency. And they will keep at it. Dulles wanted to protect his beloved CIA, but he would never go so far as wounding his president, even though the public imagination (and that of Oliver Stone’s) had his guys offing Kennedy in retaliation for the Bay of Pigs (“some people say” that Ted Cruz’s father was somehow involved too–ha!). In contrast to his predecessor’s, the mindset that Tenet instituted may not have physically assassinated a president, but it was willing to conceptually assassinate a presidency. This is why this time around, the CIA’s time of troubles is not business as usual. It isn’t merely a ‘rogue elephant’ a-rampaging, as it was described at the congressional hearings of the 1970s, one that can eventually be tamed and retrained. This time around it must be put down. The sickness is no longer one of the head or the body. It is not a symptom of displaced pedigrees or changing demographics. The sickness is inside the soul.

How did it comes to this? I’m about to tell you. I had front-row seats.

Unlike Dulles’s clandestine background in the OSS, Tenet came into the CIA from the ranks of the Senate staff. Tenet was the loud, brash son of a Greek Albanian immigrant who had married a Greek lady in Queens and, somewhat stereotypically, ran a diner together. Tenet’s first job was with a Greek-American advocacy outfit. So, not a WASP. He did not take his language skills and wheeler dealer personality and apply to the CIA though, rather he latched on to a moderate Republican senator from Pennsylvania who was an heir to the Heinz fortune. Tenet would do a lot of latching-on on his way to the top. Tenet served in many roles as a congressional staffer, including as staff director for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the same body that was established as a result of the excruciation of the Agency during congressional hearings in the mid-1970s, before transitioning over to the Clinton administration where his job became more hands-on in security matters than oversight.

Within a few years, he found himself appointed to the role of Deputy Director of the CIA. But Tenet was effectively doing the director’s work, since his boss John Deutsch, a scientist who had been brought over from MIT and the Pentagon, was more interested in big-picture stuff. Deutsch had been serving less than two months as director, coming in as Woolsey’s replacement, when Tenet joined him–and just by way of a reminder, this was all happening in an administration that cared little for the Agency. And fourteen months later when Deutsch implicitly criticized America’s handling of Saddam Hussein before a congressional hearing, thus embarrassing his administration, Tenet moved one notch closer to officially holding the title of the top job. Deutsch was being excoriated in Congress over a failed coup plot in Iraq that the CIA had been midwifing, followed by Saddam Hussein’s overrunning of Iraqi opposition bases in the Kurdish city of Erbil, sending tens of thousands on the run, some of whom had been on the CIA payroll or on that of U.S. aid groups, which necessitated that the U.S. take them in—airlifting six thousand of them to Guam and ultimately settling them in America. It was not something that could be hushed and forgotten: Ahmad Chalabi, who was in the thick of all that, was too loud, too well connected, too uncontrollable for that to happen. It also went down less than a week before the 1996 presidential vote, almost having the hallmark of a very late October surprise. Clinton fired Deutsch a month after he won re-election.

Tenet eventually got the presidential nod after the aforementioned Lake’s nomination for the position of director was rejected by the Senate, again primarily over what had been happening in Iraq. However, Tenet’s career was not only bookmarked by Iraq, it was destined to be entangled with that of Chalabi’s.

Tenet’s first challenge as director was to counteract Chalabi. Thwarted in his years-long desire to lead an insurgency in Iraq, Chalabi was now leading an insurgency in Washington, and he was essentially leading it against Tenet and the CIA. Dismissing what warnings he may have heard about what the Deep State can do to those who challenge it along the lines of what Schumer had expressed to Maddow, here we had an outsider, an Arab, a Muslim, a Shia Muslim to boot—one of the ‘stepchildren’ of the Arab World—starting fires along the Potomac. By then he had no money, was a former CIA asset (his categorization was never that of an ‘agent’ as he kept insisting) with a burn notice, was supposedly discredited by a history of bank fraud, and was derisively dismissed as a man with more supporters in Washington than he had in Iraq, and yet he was drawing blood. The Deep State had never seen anything like this (or since). Thus the CIA added ‘traitor’ to his list of perfidies. He turned it back on them. Chalabi saw his insurgency both as reprisal and reprise: he would get back at those who betrayed him, and he would again cast the CIA as America’s bête noire as had happened often in its history, turning Congress against it, a process that Tenet was intimately familiar with. Even with all the tools and talents at Tenet’s disposal, Chalabi was uniquely capable and successful in outmaneuvering him and setting all sorts of meddlesome and noisy representatives and senators against the Agency.

His successes in Congress were only part of his thrust: just as the CIA had recruited supporters from under him and turned them against him, Chalabi went about recruiting ex-CIA stalwarts and malcontents for his insurgency. He brought in Linda Flohr and Warren Marik, as well as the legendary (and notorious) Dewey Clarridge to advocate for his plans. He even got one of Tenet’s predecessors, the hapless Jim Woolsey to serve as the his organization’s pro-bono lawyer on a couple of issues, such as when the FBI imprisoned six of the Iraqis evacuated from Iraqi-Kurdistan to Guam after sloppily accusing them of being double-agents for the Saddam regime.

In the same month that Tenet was confirmed by the Senate (July 1997), which also marked the fiftieth year anniversary of the CIA’s founding, Chalabi unleashed a media barrage against Langley to striking effect. First there was Peter Jennings airing a 45 minute documentary on ABC with the title ‘Unfinished Business: The CIA and Saddam Hussein’. It was followed by a left upper cut from Jim Hoagland, then the WaPo’s chief foreign policy voice and a friend of Chalabi’s for three decades, with a story three pages of newsprint long. The gist of the media onslaught was summed up by Hoagland who pronounced that “Along with the Bay of Pigs in 1961, Iraq stands as the agency’s most expensive and embarrassing flop since it was founded on July 26, 1947”—and here was Chalabi starring in the lead of narrating this story. Chalabi was not accusing the CIA of being predatory, he was accusing it of being dangerously incompetent, which is sort of worse. The sensationalist (Senator Frank) Church and (Representative Otis) Pike hearings of the 1970s, together with the spate of whistleblower exposes in print, painted a picture of a CIA overstepping its constitutional mandate and engaging in soul corroding activities such as political murder and blackmail, things that the ‘good guys’ shouldn’t be doing. They would also callously leave the people who worked with them behind. There was some review of the CIA’s fumbles, but the focus was on how it was all so sinister, and un-American. Now Chalabi was alleging that the CIA was staffed and led by a sloppy, slovenly bunch who got people killed by making a hot mess of things and who still cold-heartedly left their allies out to dry. He had Tenet on the run across the Potomac.

One of the first things that Tenet did to in response to this insurgency was to blame Chalabi for the unravelling of the Agency’s 1996 coup attempt against Saddam, suggesting that either Chalabi had directly alerted the Saddam regime to what was being cooked up, or that Chalabi had his own surroundings compromised whereby Saddam’s spies were listening in on his conversations and constant misgivings about the coup. Tenet, like Dulles, was a master at spinning the Congress and the press, never as capable as Chalabi, but still not bad. This will not be the first time that Tenet employs a ‘blame Chalabi’ public relations strategy to deflect responsibility away from himself. The backstory in this particular case was that the CIA always preferred a military coup as a means to get rid of Saddam. In May 1991 Bush had signed a presidential finding instructing the CIA to create the conditions for the removal of the Iraqi leader. The CIA funded Chalabi as a public relations gambit, while placing its hopes in “the colonel with a brigade patrolling his palace that’s going to get [Saddam]” as Brent Scowcroft, who had been National Security Advisor when Bush’s order was given, told Jennings in his inimitable everyone-thinks-I’m-smart-so-I-must-be way. Chalabi had other plans, specifically a plan for insurgency. “Saddam is coup-proof” he would say, and that the Iraqi tyrant was far better at hatching conspiracies than any one left around him. The only way to have a fighting chance was to unite the Iraqi opposition (check), gain a footing on Iraqi soil (check), raise a fighting force (check), get regional backing (half-a-check), and gain America’s blessing and air support (pending). Clinton’s National Security Advisor Sandy Berger (who came in after Lake) ridiculed Chalabi’s plan as another ‘Bay of Pigs’. The commander of U.S. Central Command, General Anthony Zinni thought he was being clever when going further and calling Chalabi’s plan a ‘Bay of Goats’ by way of a zinger to furnish articles and papers written by Deep State stenographers in the media and the think tank world against Chalabi’s plan. Never mind that Chalabi had recruited a legend of U.S. Special Ops, General Wayne Downing to vouch for his plan and to act as a foil for the overrated Zinni. (At a time when Zinni’s badmouthing reached fever pitch, I wrote an article claiming that he was doing so partly in preparation for a lucrative retirement gig working for Persian Gulf potentates, who too loathed Chalabi. The State Department’s representative to the Iraqi opposition, Frank Ricciardone, went ballistic on me in an e-mail. But that was exactly what Zinni did subsequently. Zinni’s name was later floated as a possible running mate for Obama in 2008.)    

Chalabi did in fact know about the CIA’s secret plot, and he travelled to Langley in March of 1996 to warn Director Deutsch, who met him along with his deputy Tenet, that their plot had been infiltrated and that the regime knew everything they were doing. One of Chalabi’s sources within the regime had tipped him off, cautioning him to stay away from it because it would end in disaster. The CIA had consolidated all its Iraqi projects into this plot, giving it the moniker DBAchilles. It was aptly named, for they were blinded to its fatal vulnerability. Tenet explained away Chalabi’s warning as envy. Chalabi was mucking things up because he was being shut out. Chalabi had been on the outs ever since a year earlier he tried to touch-off a military confrontation between Iraqi opposition forces and the Iraqi regime, hoping to demonstrate that its dispirited forces would melt away in confusion and disarray, and that his plan for insurgency was viable. In his telling, he was partly vindicated, but the Americans had sabotaged his plan, part of which was to get his fellow Iraqis to believe that his actions had the blessings of both the Americans and the Iranians. Lake, the National Security Advisor, had sent a cable moments before the operations were set to begin to tell Chalabi’s allies that they were “on your own.” Fearing being left exposed without American cover, many stood down. Chalabi defiantly went ahead, with mixed results. But he was increasingly seen at the CIA as a liability, a loose cannon.

The CIA’s alternative operation to topple Saddam from within hinged on Muhammad Abdullah Shahwani, a native of Mosul with Afghan heritage. He was a former pilot with the Iraqi Army who had very little background in intelligence work, and not much by way of intellect either. Shahwani had left the Iraqi military in 1984 and left Iraq altogether in 1990. This was the man whom the CIA picked to orchestrate one of its most ambitious regime change operations in its history. It was a terrible mistake. For his part, he picked an Egyptian national of questionable mental stability to act as a courier to his fellow conspirators in Baghdad, three of whom were sons of Shahwani’s then serving in various military and security outfits. Once tasked, the Egyptian immediately went off and volunteered his services to Saddam’s spies, who had previously employed him for sundry tasks. What follows was laid out in documents detailing the events for Saddam’s eyes that his secret police put together, copies of which I had a hand in locating after the war. This record of Shahwani’s and the CIA’s machinations reads like amateur hour.

The communication equipment the CIA had sent to Baghdad was always under the control of Saddam’s guys from the get-go. The CIA also rolled in various unconnected networks into this one plot, thus widening the damage, including that of another of its agents, the former Ba’athist politician Ayad Allawi, who they would later champion as the ‘Anti-Chalabi’ and place as Iraq’s first prime minister after the regime’s fall. Saddam’s people strung along the CIA for almost two years before closing in on the conspirators in June 1996, three months after Chalabi’s warning. Hundreds were arrested. Dozens were executed in the initial batches, with the tallies increasing over time as the regime deemed more of the conspirators’ relatives and colleagues potential traitors. Saddam’s spies used the encrypted satellite phone to call the CIA station in the Jordanian capital, from where this coup was being managed, to say: “Give it up. We have your guys.”

The 1996 coup fiasco has gone down in history as the Agency’s biggest fuck-up. Not that anyone would know it. Contemporary standard histories of the CIA hardly make reference to it, if at all. In terms of casualties (those executed, tortured, and imprisoned) it eventually outnumbered, by my estimate, the original Bay of Pigs, whose count among the CIA’s allies was around 120 killed during the landing, 360 wounded, a dozen executed later, and 1,202 captured (they were later ransomed by the U.S.). Somehow Tenet escaped responsibility for what happened. Oddly, he kept a bereaving Shahwani, whose three sons were among the executed, around. Tenet then tasked him with burning Chalabi. Shahwani set about finding defectors from the Iraqi National Congress, Chalabi’s outfit, to come forward and badmouth their former comrades. He commissioned and published a ghost-authored book-length expose under the name of a disgruntled employee who had been dismissed over accusations of sexually harassing an Iraqi Christian girl in Chicago after her relatives had reached out to the INC and complained. The ‘author’ later told Chalabi that Shahwani made him do it, and paid him handsomely for the book. But Shahwani was so bad at all he did that he never managed to get the book to circulate widely. Only a few copies survive.

Nonetheless, Tenet also found a place for Shahwani in the run-up to the war. One of the weirdest episodes involved Shahwani sitting by the side of Muqtada al-Sadr in the latter’s house in Najaf as a mob dragged another CIA agent to the cleric’s door. The Sadrist mob had overpowered Majid al-Khoei, the son of the world’s formerly foremost Ayatollah, after a gunfight at the holy city’s holiest shrine. They dragged al-Khoei in the streets and stabbed at him repeatedly and maniacally. Sadr refused to have the bleeding man admitted to his home where he could have protected him, potentially saving his life. Sadr’s father and al-Khoei’s father had bickered back when they were both alive; there is no other explanation for Muqtada’s behavior, then that and he believed al-Khoei was a CIA spy—but what about the man sitting next to you, dummy? By most accounts, Shahwani never said a thing during the whole episode. Al-Khoei’s attendants took flight and called their CIA handlers, who had no contingency plan to evacuate them. They told them to find refuge with Chalabi who had just flown into the southern city of Nassiriya 130 miles to the south (again, against American wishes) and was encamped there in an abandoned airbase. They showed up and told him everything. Chalabi was increasingly becoming a go-to confessor of the CIA’s perfidies—and this was quite the windfall for someone who had a habit of airing them. Yet Tenet found no one more qualified to appoint as nominal figurehead of the new post-Saddam Iraqi Intelligence Service (that the CIA was tasked with standing-up) than Shahwani. He was predictably bad at his job, to disastrous consequence for a country reeling from hostile covert action undertaken by its neighbors, and the proliferation of foreign terrorists within it.

Shahwani was not the sum of the CIA’s screw-ups in Iraq in the lead up to the war, or afterwards. The CIA also relied on an unstable drunk to liaise with a religious Sufi family that the agency believed was plugged up with sources and adherents deep inside the Iraqi regime. The CIA trusted heavily in this network, which we were told by our sources in Iraqi Kurdistan, ahead of the war, was nothing but a front for the regime. Later, Chalabi found documentary evidence that it was being played by Saddam’s spies. This network told the CIA where Saddam was to be found, right on the eve of the war, supposedly spending the night in a bunker within his daughter’s riverside orchard on the outskirts of Baghdad. His sons Uday and Qusay, who each controlled a slew of security outfits, were alleged to be right there with him. Tenet went with this hotcake to Bush, who ordered that the first strike of the war, optimistically called a ‘decapitation strike’, would hone in on this specific target. Around fifty Cruise and bunker-busting missiles were sent on their way. Except, there was no bunker. Saddam and his sons were not there. It was another ruse that Tenet had fallen for, hoping as usual that if the top leadership was gone then some group of generals would step-up to fill the void, and the Americans would be able to live with that outcome. There wouldn’t even need to be a war, or a march to Baghdad. Chalabi again sounded the alarm in the media, with Colin Powell snipping back on live television with something to the effect of “Chalabi does not know what he’s talking about.” Except that he knew too much. The CIA continued to use this Sufi network after this debacle, and it would become a fixture of Baghdad’s multi-billion dollar corruption industry. One of its ‘Rockstars’ resurfaced in the Trump era, racking up hefty bills at Trump Hotel DC, hoping to hobnob and ingratiate himself with the new administration.

Not all of the CIA’s human assets were infiltrators though, some were mere losers and scammers. They recruited an INC fixer in Damascus whose job was to smooth things over with Syrian intelligence for Chalabi. They sent him to Baghdad to become its first post-Saddam ‘mayor’. He tried to steal a quarter of a billion dollars in cash from a bank branch, and may have been encouraged to do so by some ‘Americans’ as he later told us, but the branch’s director implored Chalabi to intervene. Chalabi sent him men, along with a U.S. colonel, to transport the monies from that branch to safer vaults at the Iraqi Central Bank. I later went with two others to summon this ‘mayor’ and have him report to the INC’s HQ. Seeing me, he would assume that the INC was sending its friendlier, more gullible face. We arrived together at the Hunting Club but he was swiftly and expertly separated from the dozens of machinegun wielding ruffians that comprised his security detail. He then walked across its sprawling lawns to where Chalabi was waiting to receive him. Halfway through, Chalabi’s longtime driver ran up and slapped him across the face, screaming traitor. The slap quickly disabused him of any pretenses to a higher standing, whatever the CIA had promised him. The ‘traitor’ then confessed to Chalabi all that he had been up to with the CIA, including having his men put up posters around Baghdad denouncing Chalabi as a wanted bank thief in Jordan!

Another agent was detained by U.S. authorities on January 3, 2003 for furtively bringing in approximately $70,000.00 (USD) in cash through Washington’s Dulles Airport, in violation of federal law. He failed to mention this in his customs declaration, but the money was found during a routine customs screening. When told that he would be taken into custody, this man broke down in tears and claimed that this money belonged to the CIA. He provided the phone number of his handler who promptly arrived at the airport from Langley to sort out the matter with the chief U.S. Customs agent on duty and the FBI’s representative at Dulles at the time. After five hours of questioning in the presence of both U.S. Customs and the FBI, it transpired that this Iraqi politician had lied to his CIA handler about the amount of money he had disbursed during an Iraqi opposition conference in London a few days earlier. The initial amount handed over to him for disbursement was allegedly $100,000.00 (USD). He had told his handler that he had had doled out over $90,000 at the conference, and thus would not be “red flagging” himself with the remaining sum if searched by customs. He was mistaken.

I know this story because I myself was detained at Dulles the following day by the same customs and FBI officers. My offense concerned hair-raising documents that a thorough and smart customs official had found within hidden compartments in my bags. He was determined to find something after I stupidly got fresh with him when he inquired about a sophisticated spyglass that I would use to spot surveillance at one of my safe houses in Amman—I told him I used it to peer at hot girls. He didn’t like my tone. Minutes later he was rummaging through a file, found what is known as a ‘key page’ that matched symbols to the actual names of items, and then looked up to say, “Why do you have pricing charts for T-72 diesel engines?” Before I could blurt out “I can explain” I was dragged into an interrogation. Excitable officers with knowledge of Arabic would periodically barge in demanding answers as to why did I have blueprints labelled ‘conical reactors’—whatever that was supposed to mean. I really didn’t know. I was ferrying documents that another INC team had pilfered out of Amman from a company that fronted for the regime and that worked towards getting arms and spare parts for it, such as Soviet-era tank engines. What I was concerned about what slipping these documents past the Jordanians, who I had a good relationship with. I didn’t think twice about getting into trouble with U.S. Customs. At the time, the INC was working with the Defense Intelligence Agency, so I simply told the interrogators that we are a congressionally funded outfit that works in partnership with the U.S. government—all true. Except that the DIA didn’t know who I was, and didn’t know that I was dabbling in this sort of work, which was done to compartmentalize the INC’s product. Several hours later it was all cleared up, and I even had the gall to demand ‘my’ documents be returned before leaving the airport (they were returned via the DIA the next day). Once the interrogators realized which side I was on, they wiled away the hours by telling me things like what they witnessed the previous day. It seems they had to learn lots more about these troublesome Iraqis. They never gave the name or any other descriptive feature of the man, like his age or ethnicity or the such. But once I was back in the office I put out word to our guys to sniff around as to who this may be. Word came back from one of my colleagues: he knew a guy working in custodial services at Dulles who had casually told him that he saw so-and-so weeping like a baby and was taken in for questioning by authorities on the same day I was asking about. This fellow had pickpocketed the Agency yet that did not stop his handlers from placing him, like Allawi, right at the top of the Iraqi ruling class hierarchy. Better this sort than Chalabi—“that wily thief!”—they reasoned.

Truth be told, the CIA were kind to the ones who had faithfully served the Agency’s efforts to thwart Chalabi in the run-up to the war, even though they had effectively failed at their tasks; the current president and prime minister of Iraq both fall into this category. They later reconciled with Chalabi, and he supported their rise.

Yet the oddest of Tenet’s machinations had to do with a defector nicknamed ‘Curveball’. Curveball was run by the Germans but he still turned out to be the Agency’s mess, especially on the analytical side of things. His testimony was used extensively by Tenet’s crew to lend credibility to the administration’s claims about Saddam’s arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. The administration’s approach was that it could not risk an alignment of interests between an enemy such as Saddam, who potentially had access to biological and chemical agents, as well as the knowhow to put together ‘dirty’ nuclear materials, and other enemies of America’s such as Al-Qaeda who intended to inflict mass casualty attacks on U.S. civilians. The CIA had missed the warning signals that the 9/11 attacks were in the works. They had missed a whole lot of other things too. They were skating on thin ice and their credibility was shot. What else were they missing? Can they be certain that someone like Saddam, who had constantly surprised and one-upped them in the past, would not work with the terrorists? Can they say for certain that he no longer possessed WMD even though he was one of its most flagrant users in the post WWII era (…the CIA would cover up for those crimes of his against the Kurds, the Marsh Arabs, and Iranian forces)? And how well did the CIA read the intentions of a man like Bin Laden and those around him; was he really above working with a ‘secularist’ like Saddam? The CIA had to play catch up. Bush had given Tenet and the Agency a reprieve against head-rolling. Bush was surrounded by several aides who long held a jaundiced view of the Agency’s efficacy, men like Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. They had tangled with the spies over assessments of Soviet strengths and weaknesses and they felt vindicated by the outcomes of those turf wars of years past. Tenet could not afford to fall behind the bandwagon that was surely bumping along to war. Thus, he seized on Curveball’s assessments to show that the CIA can still deliver the goods and be a team player. But after the war, it turned out that defectors like Curveball were wrong. In fact, it turned out that Curveball was nothing like what he claimed he was. He was faking everything—his past, his education, his jobs—just to get German residency. This was going to get really bad for Tenet.

But if the spooks could somehow pin Curveball on Chalabi then all those gullible, Bush-hating journos out there would follow the mistaken scent. And they did just that. The pack went off yelping like mad and typing furiously, and another neocon-bashing myth was born with Mark Hosenball and Michael Isikoff of Newsweek, Jonathan Landay of Knight Ridder, and Bob Drogin of the Los Angeles Times in the ‘lede’, so to speakis it really a surprise then that all of them continue to be conduits for strategic leaks by the Deep State, most recently against Trump? It was not enough that CIA sources had told them that Curveball was somehow related to a top person in Chalabi’s crew. They had a longer yarn to spin. Tenet’s guys fed Drogin many specifics, which ended up in his book Curveball: Spies, Lies, and the Con Man Who Caused a War (2007). Drogin relates how the CIA claimed to have tracked down Curveball’s mother in Baghdad after the war. A CIA team sat down at her home for some tea, pastries and pleasantries, but they were in for a surprise when she told them that her other son worked for Chalabi. The team then met with this brother at Chalabi’s headquarters and he told them how he tried to recruit his younger brother for the INC. Drogin even wrote that the “CIA obtained phone records or an eavesdropping report that proved the telephone call had occurred.” The implication was that Curveball was yet one more way Chalabi had cooked the intelligence, this time by baiting the Germans. But Chalabi and his team read this stuff in print and kept scratching their heads. Who could this older brother be? They had no clue even though the CIA and its stenographers in the press seemed so certain. It was only with the release of the full name of the Iraqi defector known as Curveball by CBS News’s 60 Minutes during a broadcast in November 2007, a month after Drogin’s book went to press, that Chalabi’s team had definitive evidence that there is no link between this person and the Iraqi National Congress. Chalabi put out a statement: “The INC can state categorically that there has never been any person at any level of the INC who is related to anyone named Rafid Ahmed Alwan.” Drogin and the others have never had to explain the discrepancy; it was only that “lying” Chalabi’s side of the story, they must have told themselves, and their CIA sources would never, ever lie to them. Righhhhht.

These days the far-left journalist Glenn Greenwald is busy tweeting and lamenting how many of his fellow colleagues have turned into shills for the CIA and FBI. Gone were the Hersh days. Nowadays even the leftist component of the media is locked into a partnership with the Deep State in what Greenwald called “a perverse corruption of journalism,” all for the ostensibly higher calling of taking down Trump. But why act all outraged and surprised? The genesis of this Ponzi scheme of devil’s wages began in 2003, on Iraq, when Tenet mounted a rearguard PR campaign against the Bush administration, and he did so alongside a leftist media class that had been half-crazed by Florida-chads. Greenwald was there. He was in deep. Together they made sure that the Global-War-on-Terror consensus withered within a year among America’s elite and the public at large. Contrast that to the fifteen year run of the ‘Cold War consensus’ that lasted from 1946-1961. The damage that the Tenetians did in conjunction with the media was long-in-the-making, and immense. And it will persist.

Tenet’s chief enduring legacy was to scapegoat the neoconservatives for the Iraq War. In fact, he does so on the first page of his memoir, when relating the briefest of interactions with Richard Perle, allegedly right outside the doors of the White House, the morning after 9/11. Tenet claims that right then and there Perle had buttonholed him with the notion that “Iraq has to pay a price for what happened yesterday. They bear responsibility.” Tenet was flabbergasted. This was the genesis of the Iraq War, in his telling, and what the media would spin into ‘Original Sin’ as the standard, orthodox narrative for the Iraq War that still stands. Sadly, as the tale is still told, it happened because Perle got the ear of the president first, right before the CIA had a chance to have its say.

Perle was much hated by the CIA, a hatred spanning decades. Sure, the analysts there detested the wonkish acolytes who hung about Albert Wohlstetter, the University of Chicago academic who took the Agency to task over its assessments of Soviet might, and who came up with the Team B recommendations in the later 1970s that seemingly piled on with the other criticisms they received in that era. It all started when the Ford administration (…remember that whole thing about healing the nation and the world) went ahead with the Helsinki Accords (in 1975—what a pesky year) which Wohlstetter’s crew took to be too lenient on the Soviets. But among this crew, Perle was unique. He was a Wohlstetter disciple by way of dating his daughter in high school. He would stop seeing her but he was still taken under the academic’s wing. Perle was groomed into becoming an administrative and legislative genius in addition to the high-grade intellectualism that he effortlessly exuded; he took the high-talk and turned it into actionable policy while at the Senate, and later within the corridors of the Reagan administration. Years on, it was Perle’s alliance with Chalabi that allowed for the INC to make its plan viable, outmaneuvering the Deep State at every turn. In the fevered imagination of the neocon bashers, Wohlstetter had introduced a young Chalabi to a young Perle as far back as when Chalabi was doing his PhD in mathematics at Chicago, but that is fiction.

The only problem with Tenet’s dramatized encounter is that it didn’t happen. Perle was outside the country at the time. He did cross paths with Tenet a few days later but the two did not exchange words per Perle, and Perle is not the sort who would back away from something that he had said. Anyone who knew the two men would know that Tenet was lying.

Yet what Tenet was doing with reporters and later in memoirs was more insidious and damaging than simply deflecting blame and protecting a legacy, his and the Agency’s. By blaming Chalabi, Tenet was also blaming the neoconservatives who “were writing Chalabi’s name over and over again in their notes, like schoolgirls with their first crush” as he put it. But he was essentially blaming his president, George W. Bush, the same man who had saved his hide. Tenet contributed to a narrative that tells a story of how a simple-minded Bush was enthralled, surrounded and manipulated by the neocons, sort of a reprise how the Iran-Contra conspirators had hoodwinked ‘the Gipper’ (—some characters do overlap between that earlier effort and the slate of neocons who supported Chalabi). Therefore Tenet was undermining Bush to save his own hide and to escape the public’s and history’s judgement. Herein began the normalization of a mindset that found it appropriate to subvert a presidency, a mindset exhibited later by Tenetians such as Brennan.

Tenet’s legacy still rides. His narrative was most recently restated in Robert Draper’s tedious book To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America Into Iraq (2020). One oddity is that today’s professed anti-Deep Staters, especially within Trumpism, continue to cite the Deep State’s version of what happened in the lead-up and aftermath of the Iraq War. Which is ironic since, in favorably reviewing this book for the New York Review of Books, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace scholar Frederick Wehrey ascribes America’s deepening division, including the rise of Trumpism, to America’s experiences in Iraq. Wehrey even managed to link George Floyd’s tragic death to the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, asserting that “[t]he abuses we’ve seen in US policing have deep, homegrown roots, but I am convinced that they are partly a result of the militarization of law enforcement born of the Iraq War and America’s other overseas interventions.” He went on to say that the “Iraq disaster has rippled across virtually every facet of American life, deepening the inequalities that divide us, stirring a popular contempt for ‘expertise’ that has opened the door to demagoguery, and contributing to the hollowing-out of our infrastructure and institutions in ways that have left the country dangerously exposed to future shocks.” This is a new clownish spin-off of the establishment’s doing: after tethering that particular millstone–the diminishing of America’s global standing–to hang from the neocons’ necks, now it wants to use ‘Iraq’ to deflect from its overall failure of governance.

However, one should not accept a standard historical narrative just yet. Shortly before his death in 2015, Chalabi added one more intriguing detail to the public record about the CIA’s history with Iraq. Chalabi was responding to an Iraqi interviewer, one who was somewhat sympathetic to the Ba’athists that Chalabi had sought to overthrow, and who was taking Chalabi to task over working with the American ‘enemy’ to do just that, an act which the interviewer took to be a form of treason whatever the evils of the Saddam regime may have been. The interview was not aired at the time, and was only uploaded online years after Chalabi had passed. Chalabi asserted in his retort that it was the Ba’athists who worked with the CIA early on in their bid to seize power in the 1960s. Chalabi gave several examples. The most striking of which was when he yet again reprised his role as confessor of the CIA’s doings: he related what Jim Critchfield, who ran Middle East operations for the Agency during those critical years, had told him in confidence. Critchfield had only said a few things on the record about what the CIA did in Iraq then. The CIA was “better informed on the 1963 coup in Baghdad than on any other major event or change of government that took place in the whole region in those years” Critchfield told an interviewer of his own, explaining that “we watched the Ba’ath’s long, slow preparation to take control” and “we knew perhaps six months beforehand that it was going to happen.” Critchfield died in 2003, a few months after the Ba’ath Party was toppled. Chalabi says that Critchfield told him that he had traveled to Cairo in 1962 after the CIA’s relationship with Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser had thawed a bit. Critchfield had a laundry list of things to do there, one of which was to establish contact with the Iraqi Ba’athist exiles that Nasser had given refuge to. He asked the latter to make introductions. At a later meeting Nasser delivered a twenty-five year-old Ba’athist named Saddam Hussein, who just three years earlier had participated in an assassination attempt against Iraqi strongman, and Nasser rival, Abdul Karim Qasim. The Americans were wary of Qasim’s propensity to lean towards the Soviets, hence their interest in striking up a relationship with his enemies.

If Critchfield was telling Chalabi the truth then this Cairene encounter changes our understanding of Iraqi history since. Not that the CIA’s relationship with Saddam was determinative of his rise, but rather it gave a virtual nobody the sort of confidence that enabled him to project power and standing within Ba’athist ranks and to give him the confirmation that he was destined for greatness. The history books tell a story of how Saddam partly rose up by virtue of grit but mostly because he was related by blood to a general who would eventually take the Ba’athist helm. Critchfield’s story tells us that Saddam put two and two together: if he, an impoverished orphan without even a diploma at the time could be so worthy of Nasser’s recommendation to the nefarious power players of the CIA, then he should go for the biggest prizes in the hierarchy of power. And he did. He would even steamroll his high-ranking relative without a second thought when the time came.  

The Americans did more than just fluff a would-be tyrant’s ego, they sent plane loads of small arms for the Ba’athists as well as lists of leading leftists. I managed to locate a document that looks like the regime’s copy of that list. It had my father listed on it. My mother too. My paternal aunt. And two maternal uncles. Almost all of the names on the list were picked up by the Ba’athist putschists in 1963. Most of them were tortured then killed. Thank you, Langley! On another occasion, I unearthed my mother’s interrogation record from that time while rummaging through Saddam’s archives. She never ceded to her interrogators accusations. She even, in her telling, threatened them with tribal retribution should they do anything untoward. The threat worked since they knew of her clan’s reach. Other female prisoners could not pull a similar bluff, and she would hear their shrieks and agonies down the prison’s hall for months. I did not find my father’s file but he had told me that he didn’t need to confess anything: his interrogators knew everything. So they swiftly dispatched him to the firing squads. As he was waiting his turn, a Ba’athist student of his (he used to teach at Baghdad University’s College of Medicine) found him in the antechamber of the blood- and bullet-riddled execution hall and asked, “Professor, what are you doing here?” He then whisked him out and threw him in with another batch of detainees, ones not destined to be shot. And so he was saved.

Chalabi revered history. I have no doubt that he was a scrupulous guardian of Critchfield’s account. He would have accurately relayed what he was told. But of course, not many would take his word at its worth as I do. Critchfield is no longer around to verify, and the few researchers who tried to get the Agency to reveal its role under the Freedom of Information Act got nowhere. There is a 94-year-old living in an apartment building in Alexandria, Va., though, who can fill in the gaps. He was a CIA officer under deep cover, it was said, and he seems to have been the liaison between the Ba’athists and his bosses before and during the 1963 putsch, according to published reports and memoirs. He was publicly outed by none other than King Hussein of Jordan, another CIA agent, in September of that year, but alas I do not have Chalabi’s knack for getting people to confess to him the innermost secrets of the CIA; the old spy refuses to speak to me despite all my efforts. Oddly, no reporters or historians have tracked down this witness to one of history’s closely-held secrets in all those years. So much of America’s story with Iraq still exists in a haze. It is a dull, yellowing, and sickening haze that managed to obscure Biden’s chief liabilities during the election, but we’ll get to how he lucked out a bit later.

My parents never confessed their membership in the Iraqi Communist Party to me. Such was their disciplined secrecy that to this day I’ve never been sure whether they had been full members (they claimed to be active in other, leftist associations, but not the party itself). I knew of their affiliation, and their underground codenames, through the files. I once showed up at my aunt’s house in Baghdad after the war and casually called her by her party name during the course of a conversation; she looked at me cuttingly and yelled, “You son of a bitch!” But my father never affirmed, and my mother outright denies. They claim the files were ‘fake news’ so to speak. Oddly, my father’s path towards leftist radicalization began in America during its golden era for men such as Dulles. A new American generation was being born during his time there when, as a young PhD student in upstate New York, he remembered tagging along with a black friend who was trying to rent an apartment in Manhattan during a summer break and witnessing one landlord’s rejection after another. My father decided to return to Iraq, even turning down a prestigious job at Kodak in Rochester that had been offered to him upon completion of his studies; he did not get to see how America, or at least urban America, began to change fundamentally towards the end of that decade as it welcomed its most recent crop of baby boomer newborns. This generation, which included Tenet and Brennan, would come to age and join the Agency in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They would later come into their own as men and women with a measure of middle management authority within it during the 1990s, just as Tenet took the helm. The management maxim that says that ‘A’-type managers hire similarly able ‘A’-types, while ‘B’-types hire less capable Bs and Cs became all too evident in this institution’s drawn-out decay then.

This generational shift happened in tandem with Tenet’s tenure, and could possibly explain why the Agency drifted into mediocrity. That is, the damage could not have been Tenet’s doing all alone. Yet this generation still yielded some interesting and effective spies, even though we start seeing the duds rise up the ranks too. This paradigm was reflected in both pillars of the Agency’s work, its analytical and operational sides. Bearden’s classmates were retiring in the 1990s, or where being pushed out after the budget cuts took their toll and the decimation of the ranks after the Ames revelation broke many careers. Yet one could concurrently see signs of institutional life, such as a young Michael Scheuer getting the nod to put together his team tracking down Bin Laden, which he allegedly named ‘Alec’ Station after his son, within the Counterterrorism Center. Scheuer was an intensely paranoid eccentric who signed up for spy work in 1982. In more recent years he would advocate for the murder of his former Deep State colleagues, and peddle in some QAnon stuff. He is, in the parlance, batshit crazy now. But three decades ago the Agency needed his proto-craziness to see patterns that others could not, such as the webs of jihadists coalescing around Al-Qaeda. His weirdness was skillfully portrayed by Peter Sarsgaard (under the fictional character ‘Martin Schmidt’) in the 2018 Hulu miniseries The Looming Tower. That weirdness was matched by Wrenn Schmidt’s portrayal of the character ‘Diane Marsh’, an analyst appended to Alec Station whose oddities and mannerisms were modeled on Alfreda Frances Bikowsky, the woman that Michael Scheuer would eventually divorce his wife for and marry, and whose smoldering sexual tension while working together amplified the general atmosphere of the bizarreness around them. Bikowsky’s rise also tells the story of how women would come to play an increasingly vital and substantial role in the analytical and reporting side of the institution. One of them would become Director under Trump.

That the Agency could still recognize and recruit such weirdos was a testimony to its residual agility. Another character, this time on the operations side, was Bob Baer. Staying with the theme of pop culture portrayals, he was played by George Clooney in the movie Syriana (2005), a role for which the Hollywood star won an Oscar. Baer was raised by a wandering mother who came from wealth, and who would take her son out to see the world, whereupon he incidentally witnessed, first-hand, massive countercultural events of the 1960s such the Paris Commune and the Prague Spring. She even took him to Moscow a couple of times, but Baer had not processed all those travels as a training regimen for a future role as James Bond. All he wanted to do was to ski. But the rituals and benchmarks of adulthood for a boy of his class intervened, so he had to go to college, specifically Georgetown, where another would-be alum, Tenet, would watch him from afar as Baer pulled stunts such as riding his motorcycle through the cafeteria with his girlfriend holding on for dear life. Clearly, all that hobnobbing within his mom’s leftist countercultural clique had instilled some rebellion in the young man, but the Agency saw value in that spirit and brought him aboard. Baer went on to become one of his generation’s most storied covert case officers, cutting his teeth on the mean streets of the Middle East.

But Baer’s career ended in rancor. Towards the end, just as the Agency was taking its lumps in the mid-1990s, he was accused by his higher-ups of having been effectively recruited (or ‘duped’ in their words) by Chalabi. Baer had gone native, gone rogue, under Chalabi’s charms, who seemingly used him in a double ruse to ensnare both the Americans and the Iranians as part of his 1995 offensive against Saddam’s front lines. Baer completely denies that any of this happened in his 2003 memoir See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism. Elsewhere in it, he makes an interesting point about generational change at the agency when recalling his reaction as Ames was getting arrested on footage supplied to CNN:

…as Ames stood handcuffed by the side of his new Jaguar XJ6, my first reaction was that no one at the CIA owns a Jaguar. The officers who once could have afforded one – the investment bankers and lawyers who fought with the OSS in World War II, and the few who’d stayed on to establish the CIA in 1947 – were all gone. Ames’s Jaguar must have been the only one in the CIA parking lot. How could security have missed it?

Baer had lots of harsh words for his former employer and his colleagues there. America had just been at war with Iraq in the early 1990s, and it was armed with a presidential finding to get rid of Saddam. It didn’t have too many other pressing things to do, not with the end of Communism. Yet Baer tells us that:

Iraqi Operations was a Potemkin village. Of the thirty-five officers assigned to the headquarters component, at least 10 percent were documented alcoholics. Another 10 percent had been designated as low performers. Two in five were retirees who had come back to work on contract, and the rest didn’t really care whether the CIA had a human source in Iraq or not. Congress dumped millions and millions of dollars on the CIA for Iraq, yet virtually none of it made it into Iraqi hands.

This is how the Agency ended up with its 1996 coup disaster, followed by Chalabi’s insurgency against it. None of this forced the Agency to reflect on what was going wrong. Baer, dispirited and disillusioned, fell so far down into the doldrums of bitterness immediately after leaving the Agency that he ended up surreptitiously working for a front organization for the Iraqi secret intelligence service (the mukhaberat), one that was trying to lobby Congress to normalize again with Saddam. That was before his memoir made him famous. I found him answering this organization’s incoming phone calls. I said, “-Hi Bob”, “-Yes”, “-You are Bob Baer, aren’t you?” “-Who the hell is this?” He hung up when I told him I’m with the INC. However, tucked within his memoir’s narrative was a lone sentence that would presage even worse days for the CIA: “The only qualification of the new chief in Riyadh was that he had been George Tenet’s briefer when Tenet was at the NSC.” Although Baer did not name this person, he was in fact talking about John Brennan, a type ‘C’ if ever there was one.

Brennan came to the CIA in 1980. Again to the organization’s credit, it was not fazed when he blurted out, during a lie detector test, that he had voted for the Communist Party presidential candidate as a protest against both parties. Maybe the young man had an adventurist spark it could make use of? Brennan was the son of an Irish immigrant, a farmer turned blacksmith. On his mother’s side he had a pair of grandparents who had also immigrated to America from Ireland. Brennan would speak of a maternal grand uncle who was so hardcore that he became an Irish bootlegging mobster of some notoriety during Prohibition until his career was cut short by assassins in Hoboken, New Jersey. So, another not-a-WASP, but very little of that moxie seems to have carried through the bloodline in this case. Brennan got into Georgetown University, where he could have conceivably overlapped with Baer and Tenet, but he couldn’t afford the tuition, so he opted for a less prestigious school closer to home. He studied Arabic for he was fascinated by the Muslim world, courtesy of a few weeks visiting a relative who had been posted as an aide worker to Muslim-dominated Indonesia while Brennan was in his freshman year—his first experience with foreign travel.

While an undergrad, Brennan began a year abroad at the American University of Cairo during 1976 but only completed a semester. This experience allowed him to travel the region, during which he figured out that his favorite city in the world was Jerusalem. And in his recently published memoir Undaunted: My Fight Against America’s Enemies, At Home and Abroad, which came out a couple of months ago, he tells us that during that sojourn he spent a freezing night at a youth hostel in Amman. All in all, not as exciting an itinerary as that of Baer’s youth. Despite his voting record, Brennan was not much of a rebel, even though he liked to cosplay one: in later years, he would ride a motorcycle to get back to his suburban home in Virginia from his CIA desk job, but only after cuffing in a diamond earring for the duration of the ride—again, not too brash if reckoned against riding a motorcycle through a college cafeteria. 

Brennan married a lady of Czech extraction before heading out to Texas for graduate school. He planned to write a PhD thesis on human rights in Egypt while there, but he never finished it, deciding instead to apply for a job at the CIA to feed his growing family. He was accepted. He tried his luck at operations but both he and his trainers felt he should stick to analytics. Four years in, he was posted along with his wife and kids to Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia, under diplomatic cover. Back then, the U.S. Embassy was still located there rather than in the capital Riyadh (it would move in 1984). Those were heady times: the CIA was working closely with the Saudis to fund the insurgency in Afghanistan against the Soviets, while the Saudis were maximizing their benefit by offloading their extremists to join the Arab fighting battalions there, keeping them away from challenging the royal house back at home. Moreover, the Saudis preferred that these extremists would do their fighting under the leadership of a rising star in the jihadist world, their own Osama Bin Laden, who they believed could be reasoned with by their own spies. It is unclear whether Brennan was involved in any of that. It seemed that he was more suited to the task of hand-holding the Agency’s Arab and Muslim agents, being nice and courteous to them, adhering to protocols, and generally trying not to offend anyone.

Brennan was made director of the Counterterrorism Center within the CIA in 1990. The CTC was a problem child, since it was bastardized into existence four year earlier by Dewey Clarridge, the same guy that Chalabi would later recruit, who had stamped its nature with his cowboy-ish ways. Brennan was probably brought in as boss to dull down the place. Brennan’s big career break happened a few years later when he was picked to deliver the Presidential Daily Briefing to a bored-to-tears Clinton. He worked at the White House as presenter for ten months, during which he interfaced plenty with Tenet, who had yet to make the move to Langley. When Tenet was made deputy director he picked Brennan as his office’s point person. But I’d wager that Tenet had something more in mind than making use of Brennan’s office managerial skills when he brought him in close (Tenet, famously, was a ‘personal space invader’ who would get uncomfortably close to the face of whoever he talked to). Tenet, a consummate networker, had figured out that Brennan knew Louis Freeh, the FBI Director, back from the old neighborhood. The FBI was messing about the Agency’s internal wiring when Tenet showed up. It was still cleaning house and looking over the spies’ shoulders because of the Ames affair. Brennan was six years younger than Freeh, and had gone to St. Joseph’s of the Palisades High School too. Freeh’s father, a real estate agent, had sold the Brennan family their first home, which was located on Freeh’s street. Brennan would watch Freeh walking to school, to college, or to work, for decades. Here was a personal connection that Tenet wanted to put to good use, maybe it would get Freeh to have his G-men ease up a bit on Tenet’s crew. Tenet would stroke Brennan’s ego by saying things like he was grooming him to take over as director one day, even though Brennan wouldn’t have even dreamed of making it to deputy division chief on his own merits. Because of this Levantine-style flattery, Brennan may have felt compelled to let Freeh know that this Tenet guy was alright. The trick seems to have worked.

A grateful Tenet pulled some strings for Brennan. He got him promoted three full bureaucratic grades from G-15 to SIS-3. Brennan made a show of objecting, since it smacked of favoritism, but he gladly took the title, the pay raise, and the new job that came with it: station chief, or rather ‘senior intelligence liaison officer’, again in Saudi Arabia. This post was usually reserved for operations officers, so this too ruffled some feathers as evidenced by what Baer wrote. Brennan arrived in Riyadh with his family in mid-Nov 1996 and stayed on for three years. Yet again, those were interesting times in Saudi Arabia. There had been the Khobar bombing a few months before Brennan’s arrival where nineteen U.S. Airforce personnel were killed. But there was also the first stirrings of Bin Laden’s declaration of war against the West, and it seemed that Saudi spies were losing their control over him. Brennan seems to have spent most of his time tussling with Scheuer, who had just begun his Bin Laden-watching vigil:

Michael Scheuer, was strongly derisive of the Saudis and refused to release any relevant information until they became more cooperative. Scheuer’s obstinacy led me to lose my cool, and I profanely, and unprofessionally, denounced his position in my correspondence with headquarters, arguing that the CIA was the world’s premier intelligence agency and needed to lead by example. I found the views expressed by Scheuer before and after his retirement, when he regularly and publicly spewed anti-Israel and anti-Arab vitriol, a discredit to the Agency.

Brennan should be applauded for standing up against Scheuer’s latent Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, but the record will still show that Scheuer was right about Bin Laden, as well as calling out the ways that Saudi obfuscation had actually enabled the terrorists who would eventually strike on 9/11. Brennan was really, really bad at his job.

That did not stop Tenet from appointing Brennan chief of staff for the director (now Tenet himself) upon returning from Riyadh. Then he appointed him as deputy to another Tenetian, Buzzy Krongard, who took on the role of executive director of CIA. Brennan kept getting promoted despite his dismal record, especially when it comes to jihadists. After 9/11, he was tasked to stand-up the brand-new National Counterterrorism Center, which was part of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that had bumped the CIA from its topmost perch. Brennan retired in November 2005, a little over a year after Tenet left the CIA. In the final stretch of his spying career, Brennan again failed to understand the gravity of the emerging jihadist thread then rearing its head in Iraq, this time being led by someone calling himself Abu Musa’ab al-Zarqawi who, together with his band of terrorists, managed to turn Iraq’s story into a nightmare for its people, and a quagmire for a superpower.

Brennan left the Agency because he could not stomach the new regime imposed by Porter Goss, a spy-cum-congressman-cum-CIA director who was brought in by Bush to clean up and reform the CIA after its many failures. Goss would also fail at his task, but that is neither here nor there. In 2008, Tenet would put in a call that would lead Brennan to become Obama’s guy. Obama contemplated nominating Brennan as CIA Director immediately upon winning but held back, fearing a messy hearing. That is how Brennan came to serve as Obama’s Homeland Security Advisor when another massive Middle Eastern event happened, the Arab Spring. America’s spies were caught off guard, but so was everyone else. Yet there is no excuse for why America was caught flatfooted by the aftermath. Just a reminder: the region is supposed to be Brennan’s specialty. This was his field of expertise. And his performance was really, really bad.

But some good news came in a few months later when Bin Laden was killed in a CIA-led raid. Sure, it took a decade to do so after its special operators and spies had lost his scent in Afghanistan’s Tora Bora, where they thought they had him cornered, but who’s counting? Crowds of millennials aggregated outside the White House chanting “CIA! CIA!” and all was good again. Obama would deliver on his promise of making Brennan CIA Director two years later, in 2013. And then ISIS overran Syria and Iraq a year into his directorship.  

In his last year as Director, Brennan allowed the contaminated Steele Dossier to work itself into America’s intelligence bloodstream for no other reason but to hobble a presidential candidate, then leveraging it to overturn a presidential election. What a run!

You may ask whether this was just a case of one bad apple, or a few. That if we manage to deracinate the Tenetians then we can still keep the CIA; after all, it wasn’t that odious under Trump’s picks for directors, Mike Pompeo and Gina Haspell, right?

Were you even listening? This can’t be fixed with a few inspired personnel picks. It’s in the soul! The sickness! It’s in the soul! Institutions, decaying already as they were, can be resurrected, with difficulty and some luck, if a unique leader such as Casey is placed at the helm, at the right time, with the right mission and under the right president, but fraying institutions cannot survive the stewardship of men like Tenet and Brennan. How many were hired under them? How many imbued the ethos that radiated at them from the top? How many are about to come in to their own as the new leaders of the Deep State?

Consider the example of Nada Bakos, one of those signatories to the letter telling us that Hunter Biden’s laptop was ‘Russia, Russia, Russia’, and a former CIA analyst turned Trump-bashing, Deep State-ing ‘famous for DC’ celebrity. Her alarmist catchphrase, repeated often on Don Lemon’s show as well as on Twitter, was that “the republic is burning”; America’s democratic institutions are too weak and unprepared to confront and withstand Trump’s authoritarianism, she warned. She cited her expertise as a CIA analyst to say that if this were happening in another country, she would flag it: “This is what we would call an early warning analysis,” she said. “We would talk about the fact that, here are the signposts along the way and the signals that measure authoritarian values that crop up…. you’re eroding democratic norms.”

I know, I know, it may be unfair to take Bakos as being typical of her generation, one that came into the Agency smack in the middle of Tenet’s tenure. But her story is indicative of what was happening to the CIA as an institution, and that should be deeply troubling: we got to know of her story, but what about all the others who are still in there, gnawing at what’s left of its sprained sinews?

Bakos was also plugging her forthcoming book during those CNN appearances—a book that remained ‘forthcoming’ for quite some time, ostensibly because it was caught up in the CIA’s review process, suggesting that it was so damning that the Agency was at pains to censor much of it. I was anticipating her book to shed light on a topic that I had long researched: the early origins of al-Zarqawi. She should know plenty, I reasoned, for she was the CIA’s lead targeter—an analyst whose job it is to hunt down a particular enemy of the U.S.—for most of her spy career. And such was the title of her book (coauthored with Davin Coburn), The Targeter: My Life in the CIA, Hunting Terrorists and Challenging the White House (2019). Jeff Stein reviewed her book for the NYTimes, though he clearly didn’t read it thoroughly. Stein wrote, “When she tracks [Zarqawi] down to a safe house north of Baghdad in June 2006, she “looked forward to granting him … the honor” of martyrdom…” but that was the whole point: she did not track him down to that safe house. She was not even on the Zarqawi targeting detail by then, and Zarqawi was found and eliminated by a Pentagon team, not by her former outfit at the Agency. Stein goes on to write: “Now, in the era of the #MeToo movement, this remarkable memoir arrives as another astonishing story of wartime valor.” Huh? Bakos never writes of sexual harassment—the whole point, as I take it, of the #MeToo movement—nor does she relate experiencing gender discrimination at work; the worst she went through seems to have been some awkward dieting advice that she took to be fat shaming by her soon-to-be-husband. It is a memoir thin on actual accomplishments, but it is a celebration of Bakos accomplishing her goal of getting somewhere in life. It is ‘me too’ in the sense that she feels entitled to our adoration for making it professionally—that’s it. As such it is a puerile book covering a most solemn topic: she failed at tracking down a man responsible for hundreds of thousands of victims beheaded, murdered, maimed, raped and displaced, in Iraq, around the Middle East, and around the world. But the good news is that she kept getting promoted. A better title for the memoir would have been A Selfie Among the Jihadists.

I found very little of value in the book for my research purposes. Almost all the things she related had been published earlier by others. The one thing that stood out was evidence of how middling the hunt for Zarqawi was. For example, Bakos related how a book by a Jordanian journalist on Zarqawi “would shed further light on Zarqawi’s backstory for our team.” Elsewhere I had concluded and argued that parts of this book were cooked up by the Jordanian intelligence service, while other parts were cooked up by Iran’s spymasters, with the remainder seasoned by the author himself, an embellisher and huckster. A multi-million spy effort would come to rely on “this most pedestrian of ways”—Bakos’s words—for insight on the most hunted terrorist then. In another instance she mentions a key logistical leader for Zarqawi’s network, a Syrian who had been educated as a dentist. However, she mistakenly identifies him as “Zarqawi’s paternal uncle” when there is absolutely no familial relationship between the two. She qualifies Zarqawi’s home town by writing that “It is sometimes described as ‘the Chicago of the Middle East’ because of its poverty and crime”—I’ve never heard that sobriquet applied to az-Zarqa. Where was she getting this stuff? How many more errors like this were made during her career?

Bakos joined the CIA in summer of 2000, at the age of 31. I thought her last name revealed a Lebanese or Iraqi ancestry, thus giving her a cultural and linguistic advantage when understanding Zarqawi’s world. There are families with such a name in both countries. There’s also a neighborhood called Bakos in Alexandria, Egypt, which has the distinction of being Nasser’s birthplace. And Nada is used as a girl’s name across the Arabic-speaking Middle East, meaning ‘morning dew’. But it seems that she grew up in Denton, Montana, to a family that baked Czech pastries and that picked Nada as a Czech name—there wasn’t any inkling of the Middle East about her. She was raised on wheat farms, riding horses and combines, and mending ploughs. The Bakos surname came from her second husband’s ‘Bakoš’—probably of Hungarian descent by way of upstate New York. Bacchus was also the name of her dog at the time they both met, as she tells us, so there’s that.

Bakos attended Montana State University, then transferred to the University of Utah in her senior year. A professor there arranged for her to enroll in graduate study in New Delhi, India. But enrollment issues, as well as issues with her first husband, cut that plan short, so they took their funds and knapsacked around Europe for a summer as American kids do, before returning to Montana. She found a job as a bank teller, followed by seven years of working human resources issues at a mining company. Divorce triggered her instinct to flee what she knew, so she packed up everything and headed to DC without a plan. She kind of knew she wanted to do some international work, maybe through a non-profit, or over at State, or anything to scratch her wanderlust itch. Eventually Bakos managed to escape from the dreariness of her life into a CIA job ad, one that she had spotted in a newspaper. The Agency needed someone to do restructuring work related to HR, so there she was, a clerk among spies.

After 9/11 Bakos applied to work in analysis. She was in a pumped-up mood: there isn’t a job she can’t do. She was sent to the sixteen week training course that prepares analysts for the job, graduating in November 2002. Mind you, this is the first round of intelligence training that she was undergoing, ever. But somehow that was sufficient to post her on the counterterrorism detail, looking at jihadist extremism in Iraq. She took a few cursory classes on the general Middle East region, and I assume on the Muslim faith, and was then released to hunt Zarqawi. No language skills, had never been to the region up to this point, doubtful whether she had even read a book about extremism by then, but there she was, the pointy tip of America’s spear. So is it a wonder that Zarqawi wasn’t caught for four years? Powell had turned him into the James Bond of jihadists when presenting his administration’s case for war at the United Nations General Assembly in February 2003. That was probably the point when most jihadists the world over had first heard the name, and they would have gone “Who?” followed closely with “What’s with that?” Zarqawi was not on anyone’s bingo card for leadership of worldwide jihad, but Powell had turned him into a household name, mentioning it twenty one times. And Bakos was back at a cubicle in Langley tasked with finding him. Splendid.

Bakos spent a total of four months in Iraq ‘hunting’ Zarqawi. She spend most of her time, it seems, fruitlessly questioning detainees. However, shortly after she returned stateside in August 2003, Zarqawi unleashed his most spectacular attacks to date, one against the U.N. mission, while another took out a very important Shia political figure at the entrance of Iraq’s holiest shrine, forever changing the trajectory of the war. Within a year, Bakos was promoted to lead targeter on Zarqawi, yet she found her job frustrating and dispiriting. There’s a lot of whining in the book in this regard. She left her watch tower in April 2006, taking a job within the Agency that posted her out west in Alaska for a while. It was there, two months into her new role, that she got word, from a CNN chyron, that a Pentagon team had zeroed in on Zarqawi and killed him with a half a ton’s worth of laser-guided ordinance. She would retire from the Agency altogether in a few years. That’s it—that’s the sum total of her spy career, one that was supposed to fill out a memoir.

Before finding her sea legs as an anti-Trump Twitter and media personality, Bakos was hired by Bob Baer to star alongside him as an on-camera expert and investigator in the History Channel’s 25-part series Hunting Hitler which spanned three seasons from 2015-2018. Spoiler alert: despite their best efforts, they did not find Hitler. Still, I think Bakos deserves a participation trophy. Isn’t that all that we give out now? But yes, do tell us how your expertise qualifies a projection of a republic (or Reich) aflame.

Again, Bakos should not be taken as a yardstick by which to measure a Deep State generation, and who knows, maybe her novice’s approach to the region, as well as her Central European Montanan roots could have brought a fresh way of looking at a problem set. This would be a sympathetic and charitable assessment of why her bosses chose her for the assignments and promotions that they did. But as someone who was personally on the receiving end of jihadist hounding, and who had lost a number of friends and associates to it, I can’t help but wonder that maybe—maybe—they could have been a tad less creative and experimental, less learn-on-the-job inclined, in picking the person who was targeting the person who was hunting me.

Moreover, the vetting system for fresh recruits into places like the CIA had turned timid and cautious. More and more new officers were as bland and as ‘safe’ as Bakos. The security clearance system is now a determinant of Deep State membership, as well as the quality of its recruits. It was put in place early on to weed out the usual vices—alcoholism, adultery, kinkiness, gambling, etc.—or any other avenues by which an officer could be shamed, manipulated, or turned. But the trip-ups grew more and more elaborate, denying entry over a host of new ‘concerns’. Consequently, an institution such as the CIA that had welcomed in adventurers as recently as the early 1990s became leery of them. A great uncle’s stint as an Irish mobster was an interesting anecdote then, maybe even a plus for a young recruit such as Brennan. Some sort of second cousin once removed who had been in the Irish Republican Army became, in the late 1990s, a cause for withholding clearance—a particular case I knew of. Or maybe it preferred to pick them up young, before they got themselves into the kinds of entanglements that made it more difficult to investigate every contact and experience they had jotted down in their personal history statements. The thinking was (and continues to be) that you would identify talent, quantify enthusiasm, train them with courses and seminars, then send them out to the field or read them in to an area of interest, and that that was good enough. But once you do that, and especially at an age so young, they’ll always know that they are part of a security infrastructure, one that could come and rescue their asses (or at least try to) when things go south. They may lose or never develop a sense of vulnerability that a true adventurer, the ‘head-west-and-see-where-the-road-may-take-you’ types, can never shake. Others who came up harder paths will spot this sort of complacent softness; they will be able to tell that there is something off with the spy posing as whoever he or she may have to be for the mission. This security blanket also discourages lateral and diagonal thinking, privileging zig-zagging or linear approaches to problem solving because the spy knows that there is a team out there providing logistical support that is supposed to furnish shortcuts. Thus the system will embrace and reward a particular type of mindset while overlooking the need for the sorts of eccentrics that bringing a touch of genius to spy work, even though they may bring along a whole lot of unwanted baggage too. For example, those who have been hiding things all their lives make for good spies; that is why the British ended up with a large number of closeted homosexuals in their spy ranks back in the 60s and 70s—back when they were any good, that is to say.

The Deep State in its Twilight

There are presently five million holders of security clearances. Their population is larger than what twenty-five American states can individually boast. If the Deep Staters had a state of their own, they would be able to elect two Senators and around seven congressmen (or women) to speak for them (…they have lots more currently in pocket as it is). The District of Columbia has the highest median income in the country, higher than even the San Francisco metro area with all its tech sector well-to-dos. Of the twenty-five richest counties in America, five are in Virginia, and another five are in Maryland—all ringing Washington. That includes the top three richest counties in the country. The biggest tributary into these pockets has been the military and national security industries, and the influence networks that lobby for them. These places, and the wealth associated with them, skewed heavily—and I mean heavily—towards Biden. They are a class, an association, unto their own. And evidently, they do have the characteristics of group think, and group action, even though there is neither visible nor invisible coordination.

Thus, in the sense of purpose and self-preservation, the Deep State is covenantal, not conspiratorial. In the least of it, they perceive themselves as an intermediary class, one that sorts out the expectations a nation has of its politics, and the realities of what can be achieved by government. And sometimes during their more passionate exults of amour-propre they take themselves to be the guardians of America, the ones—the only ones—who can and must do something when the republic is in danger of burning, and it is these sets of special skills and generational know-how that they must preserve and bequeath within their guild for precisely such exigencies. It also pays relatively well. And once you leave, you can take your governmentally accredited expertise and do really well in the private sector. The Deep State’s leadership gets enthusiastically welcomed onto the boards of government vendors, or into think tanks that are subsidized by these same vendors, or, as usually is the case, by foreign potentates too. This is how Marine Corps four-star General Jim Mattis gets to fold up his military uniform and then sit comfortably on the board of a fraudulent company like Theranos after former Secretary of State George Shultz had vouched for its now indicted founder, and Mattis gets a prestigious posting at the Hoover Institution, and he gets to consult on the side for the Emiratis allegedly while they were planning their amphibious landing in Yemen. This is also how Tenet in retirement can afford a Mercedes-Benz Maybach that averages around two hundred thousand dollars, if we are willing to take Kanye West at his rhapsodized word.

And there’s plenty to do for those at Bakos’ level too. In fact, many of the usual Deep State jobs have been delegated to contractor firms in Northern Virginia that suck deep and long on the governmental teat, and they are staffed by persons who had just been trained-on-the-job, as it where, within government. One lands on the sweetest spot of all when combining a government pension with a private sector gig that reprises the work one had just left, and this happens quite often. This splendid syndicate is perfectly legal and within the world of DC utterly ethical. After all, wouldn’t you want to take good care of the republic’s guardians? Why are you even making an issue of it, are you some sort of Russian troll undermining our democracy? Huh? Speak up, traitor!

The members of this class initially scoffed at the term ‘Deep State’ when Trump gave it increased visibility. They said that such terms, and such a way of thinking, were undemocratic, incorrect and dangerous. But Trump has a habit of forcing a measure of clarity in whatever arena he enters. Thus on the occasion when the foreign relations bureaucracy took front-and-center in the effort to impeach him a few years into his presidency, Michelle Cottle of the NYTimes editorial board owned up to the existence of a Deep State, though she wouldn’t deign to use this “dark” Trumpian term. Cottle argued that ‘they’ are critical for the survival of these United States, for they are “a collection of patriotic public servants — career diplomats, scientists, intelligence officers and others — who, from within the bowels of this corrupt and corrupting administration, have somehow remembered that their duty is to protect the interests, not of a particular leader, but of the American people…Their aim was not to bring down Mr. Trump out of personal or political animus but to rescue the Republic from his excesses.” Who would have known that we owe these swell folks so much?

Josh Rogin over at the WaPo, picks up where Cottle signs off to tell us that Trump’s greatest crime was not his freelancing on Ukraine, but rather it was his decision to render the Deep State irrelevant by not taking its advice on how to run foreign policy. Much like the scented and bejeweled-scepter-wielding priest of a dying faith, Rogin thumped out his ominous auguring from on high, atop the temple steps, warning that the ‘mob’ that brought Trump to power shall rue the day they stopped listening to their Deep State betters.

Trump came in about fifteen years after 9/11. In that decade and a half preceding his 2016 electoral victory, the American public began sensing, again, just as they did in the 1960s and 1970s, that the folks in charge were not all that they were cracked up to be. There might be some deep algorithmic significance in how this fifteen year timeline is similar to the fifteen years of the golden era after WWII which ended with the Bay of Pigs, which was followed by another fifteen year cycle that brought in Jimmy Carter, but that may be too much math for us on this outing. What’s that? No such thing as too much on this outing…? Funny.

This most recent cycle of mistrust began with the terrorist attacks, which on their own was a shock to most Americans: Where were the guardians? The public went along with Bush’s decision not to punish anyone, and then they bought the line that everything was royally screwed up by the neoconservatives who had hijacked his brain and launched a massively disruptive event, the Iraq War. Alright, then what? Now that the neocons were exposed and excised, surely the experts in Washington will turn things around, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Wrong. The failures dragged on, and suddenly the “neocons did it” excuse was insufficient to buy the Deep Staters any more time. Obama, for his part, had reassured Americans that under his steady hand and expert gaze he will put the pieces in the Middle East back into some sort of order, but then came upheaval upon upheaval, ones that landed hundreds of thousands of refugees on European shores, and set places like Paris, Nice, San Bernadino and Orlando on fire. The public could see that things were still all screwy.

The Deep State’s mindset transitioned too. Sensing that nothing they said held much water in the public’s esteem, they found comfort in their own world of Washington. Maybe, they told themselves, we can’t understand why the public no longer believes that we know what’s best, or that they may be too dull and uninitiated to understand why nothing better can be achieved with such intractable problems, but we do know how DC works, and as long as the levers of power are safe, so are we. Which is to say, as long as the Deep Staters carried water for the ruling class then they got to stay part of it. They didn’t need the public’s trust, much less its admiration and gratitude, to keep things going as they were. But then Trump shows up, almost out of nowhere, exposing elite complacency and vulnerability. Little did they know it, but America, the one out there, was still revolutionary at heart. “This, this buffoon gets to decide our fate?” they gasped in disbelief; they just could not believe it. On a shuttlebus taking us from that sing-along gathering back to our hotel, I overheard a voice among a huddled group of dignitaries in the back proclaiming that someone, anyone, maybe even Jeb Bush, should just point at Trump in an upcoming debate and say, “Can you imagine this man as Commander-in-Chief?” It seems many of his compatriots did.

I collected an extensive amount of screen shots of Tweets made by such Deep State luminaries and their circles before and after the 2016 election. I did so with a mind that I would return to it from time to time, finding merriment and cheer in their meltdowns. It was also an exercise in historical record keeping, especially of ambiance and mood—two difficult-to-qualify aspects when looking back—otherwise it would be too easy to forget how events felt at the time. I remember reading a tweet by Strobe Talbott, a nice, thoughtful man who at the time was president of the Brookings Institution, and going to myself “What fresh hell is this?” Talbott had written, on October 31, 2016 that the “Trump story may soon involve the Russian word компрома́т: compromising materials about a politician or other public figure useful to regime.” My heart skipped a beat. Talbott was as establishment as it gets: he was a former Time correspondent, who had served as a diplomat under Clinton, whom he had met when both were young Rhodes Scholars at Oxford, where Talbott focused on studying the Soviet Union and translating the memoirs of its leadership. Years later Clinton would task him with handling the fall-out following the Soviet break-up—quite the tall order. Talbott left the State Department and went back to Yale, where he had done his undergraduate studies, to become its first Director for the Center for the Study of Globalization, just as globalization was becoming a thing. Why would someone of his caliber been talking about kompromat? Was Talbott privy to something dramatically damaging to Trump?

On that same day, I had noticed that Julia Ioffe, a gadfly freelancer who had been born in the Soviet Union and then migrated with her family to the U.S. at age seven, was also going on about something to do with a big, sordid secret. She tweeted, “I heard a version of this, too. Are we all talking to one person?” in response to Sarah Kendzior, an expert on Soviet and post-Soviet Uzbekistan turned freelancing journalist too, who had tweeted: “OK, I guess since it’s out there now, I’ve heard this multiple times as well…with some very nasty details. No confirmation though.” Kendzior, as this chain went, was herself commenting on something that fellow journalist Andrea Chalupa, a daughter of refugees from Ukraine who were brought over to America in childhood, put up on her timeline, where she asserted that “In intel circles, the story goes FSB filmed Trump in an orgy while in Russia. Yes, this all ends in a Trump sex tape.” The occasion for Chalupa’s revelation, the first time I would spot what Talbott was probably referring to, was this line in David Corn’s piece in Mother Jones when, referring to the still-unnamed Steele Dossier, he made reference to its claim “that Russian intelligence had “compromised” Trump during his visits to Moscow and could “blackmail him.”” (Corn had co-authored a book with Isikoff, that serial Curveball-er—lots of recurring characters in the Iraq and anti-Trump sagas…)

The following day, on November 1, just a week prior to the election, Anders Aslund, a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and a Swedish expert on the Soviet economy tweeted: “Extraordinary that Republicans ready to vote for a likely Russian agent for president. That is normally called treason.” Something was up. But my Spidey sense told me, even back then, that this reeks of B.S. I was right: the Steele Dossier was just that, and the exchanges that I had spotted on Twitter and screen-shotted that day was evidence how this tainted info was percolating around DC. It would later emerge that Talbott was one of its main disseminators, and that an analyst working under him at Brookings, Igor Danchenko, a Soviet-born Russian citizen who became a naturalized U.S. citizen since moving here in the late 1990s, one with a drinking problem and a wild imagination, as well as himself being suspected of manipulation by Russian intelligence, was one of Steele’s principal sources. Danchenko was a protégé of Fiona Hill’s, who was an old friend of Steele’s, and who later testified against Trump during the impeachment hearings.

Ioffe went on to get some very illustrious gigs at publications such as The Atlantic—which was turned into a powerhouse of anti-Trump rhetoric—until she went a little overboard by suggesting, on Twitter again, that Trump was sleeping with Ivanka. Kendzior and Chalupa parlayed those early ‘Russia, Russia, Russia’ tweets into media stardom and book deals as official Washington went a-titter looking for a pee-pee tape for a few years.

Strolling through my screenshot collection, I see that Sohrab Ahmari, then at the Wall Street Journal, was describing Trump as “a carnival barker” and a “vulgar sexist boor” a week out before the election. Around the same time, Tony Schwartz, the fellow who had ghostwritten The Art of the Deal and who had re-invented himself as a headline act in the Trump-bashing show tweeted, “If Trump were to win—and I don’t believe he will—the end of civilization as we know it would be near.” But everyone, and I mean everyone, just knew that that won’t happen. James Fallows, the national correspondent for The Atlantic, tweeted “Watching Trump’s last rally. Even he knows he’s lost.” At 6:43PM on Election Day, the Republican pollster Frank Luntz tweeted “In case I wasn’t clear enough from my previous tweets: Hillary Clinton will be the next President of the United States.” But suddenly, the winds changed, and the unthinkable began to be contemplated. Marc Lynch, director of the Middle East Studies Program at George Washington University, held on to hope, nervously tweeting at 10:20PM that the “Worst of the worst on the brink of seizing power. Every Marvel movie tells us now’s the time for dramatic reversal. C’mon.” But two hours later, Chris Evans, the actor who most recently had portrayed Captain America, wrote “This is an embarrassing night for America. We’ve let a hatemonger lead our great nation. We’ve let a bully set our course. I’m devastated.”

My favorite screenshots capture Susan Hennessey’s spiral of despair. She was a second generation Deep Stater: her mom was a federal prosecutor who had spent three years in Kabul with the State Department. She had been busy during the election canvassing for Hillary, which Susan assisted her with. Hennessey (born Klein) herself had worked as a lawyer for the National Security Agency, and then left government work for a stint at Brookings. She then became a regular contributor to the Lawfare blog, which was managed by Jim Comey’s friend and confidante, Benjamin Wittes.  All in all, Hennessey was well on her way to becoming a member of the DC elite in good standing. But Trump’s win had her tweeting out things two days later such as “I don’t care if I lose my seat at the table. I don’t care if it means I never work in this town again. I am not fucking normalizing this.” Two days later she would write “He has shown more interest in and thought about Mein Kampf than our nation’s—and the world’s greatest—founding document.” There were lots more tweets in the same vein.

But don’t worry, Hennessey did not have to become a luggage handler at Reagan National Airport to earn a wage. In fact, she did fine for herself: she soon landed a writing gig of her own with The Atlantic, and was hired as a CNN National Security and Legal Analyst, appearing frequently, mostly to discuss Trump. Naturally, she went back and deleted many of her tweets. Such is the quality of the Deep State at this present time. And this is how one makes it up its ranks. 

Tell me, how broken was Washington DC on the eve of Trump’s victory that many of its leading lights were willing to believe in a fictitious pee-pee tape yet did not see his upset coming? Remember, many of these peoples’ jobs, whether they be spies or journalists, involve analyzing data and reaching conclusions. How well-guarded do you feel now?

A friend, revealing his political inclinations prior to the 2016 vote, explained to me why he was supporting Trump then. He told me how he had walked by a half-shorn building in downtown DC that was in the midst of demolition. Carpeting, wires and miscellaneous paperwork draped off where the building was being cut down. He drew upon that image to convey what he wanted Trump to do to, figuratively, to the rest of official Washington. To his nihilistic mind, the place needed a complete remake.

Alas, he did not get his wish in the first Trump term, but may still do so in a future Trumpian administration. Too much, you say? But it is necessary my friend. Consider who the Deep State decided to bandy around: a candidate whose signature issue was Iraq, yet that problem country was hardly mentioned during this most recent election even though it had factored importantly throughout four prior election cycles. In 2008, Iraq was the topic that jump-started the presidential campaigns of those left standing in the post-primary season: Obama and McCain. Obama’s judgment on the beginning of the war, and McCain’s support for the surge, are supposedly what set them apart from their respective contenders. In 2020–crickets, even though Biden was right in there in the ’08 primary mix.

Consider too how the Deep State fought Trump so sloppily, so inelegantly, and yes, so inanely. Then I need you to consider whether it is this matrix of guardians that you want manning the parapets and loading the cannons as America confronts China, a country that I think is going to ‘go for it’—whatever that ‘it’ may be—within the window of the next four years, when they believe they have a weakling—a ‘compromised’ one at that—in the Oval.

People forget that when Biden was preparing for his 2008 presidential run his big grandstanding debut was all about Iraq. As Chairman or Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee since 1997, he offered himself to the American people as someone who was uniquely adept at extracting the U.S. from the Iraqi ‘quagmire’. He had a plan, a ‘Biden Plan’, that promised to sort everything out. Ah not this guy again, I thought at the time: I remembered him from back in the day when he was slyly undercutting Chalabi in the late 1990s all along the corridors of the Senate, and in my opinion then I thought him to be one of the many being manipulated by Tenet.

I was in the audience when Biden first presented his plan. His choice of venue was, to put it mildly, douche-y. The setting was Philadelphia, the first of May 2006, at the 90th birthday celebration of Bernard Lewis, the abovementioned scholar of Islam and the Middle East. It was held under the auspices of the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia, an organization run by Lewis’s long-term girlfriend who, to give it a scholarly tinge, titled the event ‘Islam and the World’ in honor of Lewis’s many contributions to the field. The roster of speakers included Henry Kissinger (I caught him not washing his hands after whizzing), Judy Woodruff, Frankis Fukuyuma, Fouad Ajami, and several others. Biden was to speak after the first speaker, Vice President Dick Cheney. Cheney’s presence was an indication of how revered Lewis was at the White House. It had been reported that Lewis had provided the civilizational case for waging the Iraq war but that too, like much of the narrative, was incorrect. Lewis was, however, sufficiently impressed by Chalabi and by the many Iraqis he had interacted with or had taught over the years to believe that democracy was possible there, even though his impressions of the country itself, formed when he had served as a wartime British intelligence officer, were decidedly unflattering, especially when compared to other locales of the Middle East which had so charmed the young man. A staple of his acerbic witticisms was his memorable description of 1940s Basra, then Iraq’s most vibrant and evocative city, which sits a bit downriver from the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates, itself a perceived Biblical locale for the Garden of Eden, and one of the many places he was posted to, as “the anus of Mesopotamia.” 

Rather than go along with the birthday party’s mirth and its customary rendition of adulations for the man of the hour, Biden picked this event and this crowd to lob his plan to fix Iraq, which implicitly meant a plan to fix the neocons’ mess, the same neocons gathered before him. And to speak in this manner right as Cheney had to sit there and take it, well, the press was just going to love it. An argument for the plan was concurrently published on the Op-Ed pages of the NYTimes, with Leslie Gelb, then President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, lending prestige to its byline along with Biden’s name. The plan was a rehash of Gelb’s original proscription for Iraq that he had advanced in 2003 ahead of the war. Gelb advocated for dividing up the country along three ethnic and religious groups: Shias, Sunnis and Kurds, drawing inspiration from how the aftermath of Yugoslavia’s civil war was handled. Consequently, Biden’s plan was put forward as a “third way” beyond Bush’s insistence on staying the course or the clamor on the Left for withdrawing. It would maintain a unified Iraq by way of decentralizing it. Biden would later claim that his plan did not call for partition, yet when speaking of “giving communities breathing space to cool off” at the Lewis celebration it did seem as if he was arguing for de-facto partition to begin with, then stitching the country back together. That is why observers took his plan to be different. If it were just a prescription for federalism then Biden would not have been proposing anything new—that’s already in Iraq’s constitution, as stated in the Op-Ed. This confusion as to what Biden was actually proposing is the reason why Senator John McCain later offered this as a rejoinder: “If you did the three different countries, basically what the Biden-Gelb proposal (is) as I understand it, one, you’d be drawing dividing lines in bedrooms in Baghdad because Sunni and Shia are married,” McCain said. “The second thing is, the Turks have announced that they will not allow an independent Kurdish state.”

Shortly afterwards, Biden stood vocally against the troop surge that Bush proposed and implemented in 2007—a “fantasy” is how Biden described it. Biden said that “[t]he surge isn’t going to work either tactically or strategically,” and that it was doomed. He was wrong, although I disagree with the reasons as to why Iraq turned a corner then: it had less to do with the surge itself and more to do with the surge occurring concurrently with internal and ideological strife breaking out among the jihadists. Zarqawi was killed a month after Biden’s remarks in Philadelphia, triggering a cascade of events that turned jihadist against jihadist, but that’s not what we are discussing here.

Then after his ticket defeated McCain, Biden assumed the role of point man on Iraq. His task was to see the execution of the withdrawal plan that Bush had put in place in his last year in office, after the surge had done its ‘winning’. Biden became his administration’s chief interlocutor with Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister that Bush had been speaking with almost weekly during the last couple of years of his presidency. In contrast, Obama did not want much to do with Iraq. Biden then became Maliki’s chief backer in Washington, with his staff working overtime as apologists for Iraq’s strongman in the making. This was a profoundly stupid thing to do: one can draw a line straight from this policy decision to the resurgence of jihadism under Zarqawi’s heirs, who had rebranded their proto-caliphate into a full blown caliphate in 2014. This all happened with Biden ultimately in charge. And this all happened while Antony Blinken—Biden’s current pick for Secretary of State—was by his side.

Blinken was staff director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 2002 until 2008. It was during that time that he resurrected Gelb’s idea as Biden’s stepping stone towards the presidency, one on which he faltered. When Obama brought Biden in, Blinken tagged along, serving as National Security Advisor to the Vice President from 2009 until 2013, the years of fluffing Maliki. Then he served as Deputy National Security Advisor, during which ISIS made its comeback, and then finally was appointed Deputy Secretary of State where his principal role was to sell the Iran deal, an arrangement that turned a blind eye to Iran’s malevolent role in Iraq (and Syria as well, another major disaster) and that tacitly, over time, would have ceded Baghdad to an invigorated Tehran.

If ever there was a caricature for a ‘cosmopolitan globalist’ then Blinken would be it. He is walking-talking bait for anyone who takes ‘globalist’ to be pejorative, a sumptuous occasion for derision, yet unfortunately it may come with a side dish of anti-Semitism. Blinken cannot be held responsible for his upbringing, but honestly one cannot look away—I mean c’mon already. According to the Sunday Times, his father was an extremely rich banker and arts patron who counted Mark Rothko among his friends, and his mother was an acclaimed art expert and dance troop manager who would casually hang out with John Lennon, reading poetry with him for hours on end. They divorced when Blinken was eight years old, and she shacked up with a French lawyer, a Polish-born Holocaust survivor who had become a fixture of elite Parisian society, serving as a confidante to French presidents and as a lawyer to movie stars and high-profile artists, counting Catherine Deneuve, Jane Fonda, Richard Burton and Christo among his clients and house guests. Blinken grew up “in a palatial Parisian apartment on Avenue Foch, where their neighbours were pianist Arthur Rubinstein and Prince Rainer and Princess Grace of Monaco.” Are you fucking kidding me? I’m supposed to just go “that’s nice” and move on from this? Blinken’s youth was consumed with playing in a jazz band, and debating the statesmen and celebrities he found lingering at his stepdad’s salon. From then on, it was Harvard, where he edited the student paper, and where he spent late nights strumming his guitar and rocking a beatnik look. His road took a predictable course for a precocious young man born to privilege and access, soon finding himself selected as Clinton’s chief foreign policy speechwriter. Clinton had appointed his father, a man who had become a generous Democrat benefactor, as ambassador to Hungary, where their family had its roots in its once large and opulent Jewish community. His uncle was appointed ambassador to Belgium around the same time. And for such easy living, there are always offbeat side projects, such as the time in 1995 when “he helped to produce The Addiction, a vampire film set in New York and starring Christopher Walken.” He married within the power set, and settled in during the Bush years as Biden’s man in the Senate.

This is the man who is tasked with accomplishing the incoming administration’s stated goal of rolling back Trump’s ‘America First’ foreign policies. That’s nice—you’re killing me here! Now how will that sassy headline go…? ‘Parisian Remits American Industry to Paris Accord’…

Five years ago I sat across from Blinken as he pitched what was to become the Iran deal to a small group of people. Honestly, I wasn’t paying much attention to what he was saying. I was trying to figure out what was wrong with how he was saying it. I could not place my finger on it then. He spoke with the late-night earnestness of zonked college freshmen about the meaning of it all. He also was not calibrating his words to the audience; he spoke at them as if they were meant to listen to him. The half-thought I formed then was that he was taking his cue from Obama, who speaks unto others as if by oracle. It was only when I read up on Blinken’s biography that I understood what I could not place. Blinken was a grandee, a peer in the corridors and salons of power. He projects a sense that he is meant for this role whether those across from him recognize it or not. Which is fine, confidence makes up for lots of flaws. But he will have no instinctual understanding of what it took for Xi Jinping or Vladimir Putin to claw their ways up. And that may prove to be a problem.

Blinken is not the only face who had mismanaged Iraq that is coming back to the Biden administration. There are lots of them marked for promotion. The same crew that could not turn things around in the most painful of the endless wars, is now back to give it the old college try—again. What is even more astounding is the word ‘Iraq’ was hardly ever brought up in the conversations predating the election. Sure, the second debate, the one that was supposed to focus on foreign policy, was cancelled because of Trump’s COVID19 infection, so that explains part of it, but the only time the word ‘Iraq’ was uttered was when Trump brought it up, during the first debate, when referring to the one billion dollar housing contract that Biden’s younger brother had allegedly clinched for a South Korean conglomerate in Baghdad in the summer of 2011, when Biden was in charge of the Iraq file. That’s it.

The Deep State had the gall to bring forth one of its own who had one of the worst records on Iraq, the very topic that had clued in the masses that the elite doesn’t know what it is doing, a realization that had contributed significantly to Trump’s rise. To top it all off official Washington pretended that none of that record was worth mentioning in the lead-up to an election. One may take that as a sign of the Deep State’s power, a show of strength that demonstrated that they can still control the narrative. But one has to wonder at the recklessness of it all. Why not pick a foil for Trump that did not offend so readily? Or was this recklessness a symptom of a deeper problem?

Part of this impudence came out of a need to quickly demonstrate viability, to show themselves, and those who would dare question it, that they still got ‘it’. This was their first go-to instinct in fighting Trump, right after he won. In a fit of pique, clouded by fury, the Deep Staters saw that their only recourse to prove themselves was to destroy Trump’s presidency. Their tantrum was a measure of virility, every blow delivered stirring a spurt of tumescence down into their pants. Their first target was to be General Michael Flynn. At least there was some practicality in choosing him to be a target.

Flynn was one of their own, sort of. Catholic, Irish, one of nine siblings, and a bit of ragamuffin as a child. His academics were poor, so he cut a path to the military. He found his vocation there in intelligence. It turned out that he had a talent for it, and he made his mark as an intense, forward-leaning skeptic who would push back on info that he found weak or corrupted. He would reach the pinnacle of his career as Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Now, the DIA is to the CIA what dentistry is to medicine; they can call themselves ‘spies’ but they are not really ‘doctors’. ‘Anacostia-Bolling’, where the DIA is headquartered (the fact that few know this is telling in itself) always had a sense of being inferior to Langley. So a DIA Director questioning ‘real’ spies was a discomfiting proposition for all involved, accordingly uneasiness followed Flynn into every briefing room, where it would hang in the air. For example, Flynn was adamant that the jihadists were about to make a comeback in Syria and Iraq, but this was poo-pooed by the Agency. He was later vindicated, but not before getting fired. So Flynn came back into the White House alongside Trump fully prepped on how badly the Deep State was ‘off’. He was determined to gut it, and then rebuild.

Therefore, Flynn had to be taken out as a defensive measure. His removal would have the added benefit of denying the Trump team access to the kind of expertise that would spot the means by which the Deep State was conspiring against them. Flynn was a target, but more importantly he was in the way of a larger target: the president.

The issues the Deep State chose to brandish against Flynn were bullshit. They were reaching for anything. They told themselves they were justified in doing that because they believed that Flynn had been turned. A well-compensated longtime-Deep State bullshitter named Stefan Halper had told them that the Russians had gotten to Flynn by entrapping him in a sordid affair with a Russian-born British academic called Svetlana Lokhovna. Flynn would be susceptible to recruitment they said because he, per their psychobabble-ish assessment, resented the Deep State that never took him seriously and that had pushed Obama to fire him unceremoniously. It was a lie: there was no affair, and she was no SVR spy. Flynn was a man of honor and deep patriotism. But the story was convenient for marshalling resources to put Flynn in the crosshairs. Never mind that Lokhovna’s life and career would be ruined as a result. And in reaching for anything, the best the FBI could do was to question Flynn over a series of static-ridden calls he had with the Russian ambassador while on vacation after the election, consequently tripping him up on so-called process crimes.

Another ‘anything’ they pulled had to do with a friend of mine. Ekim Alptekin was a young Turkish-Dutch businessman who needed access in Washington to push for an Israeli-led pipeline project. He needed to demonstrate reach for several audiences: Israeli partners, Turkish officials, and as is the case with circular reaffirmations of clout, with the Americans he was bringing on. Alptekin knew an Iranian-American banker called Bijan Kian, they both served on some cultural organization. I happened to work for a company that this fellow was briefly associated with. He was a nice man as far as I could tell by the couple of elevator rides we shared, who went on to try his luck in DC’s influence industry. But Alptekin was a close friend, and I knew his mettle. That is why I was surprised by how he was characterized in the media when the outrage over Flynn’s associations were fanned by Deep State leakers. Suddenly Alptekin was an ‘Erdoganist’—a flunky for the power circles tightly surrounding Turkish president Recep Tayyib Erdogan. I knew that Alptekin wanted to get on their good side, for that much was true; after all he was trying to do business in a country that was veering toward a thinly-veiled statist oligarchy. But an Erdoganist? No. Alptekin is liberal, pro-EU, had interned at the U.S. Congress, and was definitely not an anti-Semite. His approach to hot-button Turkish issues such as Kurdish and Alevi rights, Armenian grievances, and a woman’s Islamic headscarf was as one would expect from a moderate democrat and liberal, even though in many other ways he was staunchly secularist and a Kemalist. Thus, not a natural fit among the Erdoganists. His mannerisms were more Dutch than Turkish, even though he considered himself a proud and patriotic Turk.

Alptekin came from nothing; his family had been part of the Turkish migration to Europe in the 1970s 1980s that provided cheap labor for work that Europeans would no longer do. But he was fixated on making it. He was going to work his ass off to succeed, and he judged that he could best do that back in Turkey in the mid-2000s, a country that at the time boasted one of the fastest growing economies in the world, one that had been ranked as seventeenth by size. Alptekin would find his niche in bridging European and Turkish ventures. At his wedding I got to talking with a Greek-Dutch ‘mobster’ or what counts for mobster on the Dutch scale of toughness. I was told what he did for a living earlier by the bride to be, in a whisper, but he flippantly told me that he was a dentist during our chat. I dished out an equivalent measure of some evasive glibness—I don’t remember what cover I claimed to have, but he knew immediately I was pulling his leg and laughed it off. He told a story about Alptekin, then a child, walking past him in a mean Amsterdam Utrecht neighborhood, dressed all funny. He asked him what he was up to. Alptekin responded that he was returning from ballet practice. The mobster incredulously asked him to show him a few moves, and as he watched Alptekin twirl and do ballet things he told himself that he needs to protect this little guy or this place would eat him alive. So he did. Karmic repayment came decades later when the mobster got the honor-of-a-lifetime, for him at least, in meeting the Greek Orthodox ‘Pope’ who attended the wedding to act as witness signatory to Alptekin’s nuptials. The other witness was supposed to be Erdogan but he couldn’t attend because he had another wedding scheduled, that of an AKP party stalwart. He wasn’t coming because of Alptekin. Erdogan had given his tentative commitment to attend because Alptekin was marrying one of Turkey’s most prominent journalists (she was also a good friend of mine; I knew the pair separately before they met), and she would have wanted the prime minister there as a witness because at the time the Turkish intelligentsia (and many foreign observers too) believed that Erdogan and his party members were some sort of liberalizing, ‘Anatolian Calvinist’ variety of friendly Islamists who would shore up the country’s democracy—I always thought they were wrong but that was the general sentiment. The third signatory, if I remember correctly, was Chalabi, who was also there because he was a mentor figure to Alptekin’s betrothed.

So there you have it, an eclectic circle, European proclivities, and an Orthodox Patriarch: this was definitely no Erdoganist apparatchik. Flynn would be held to account for his association with Alptekin in that he did not register as a foreign agent lobbying on behalf of the Turkish government, even though the money Alptekin was paying him with was not coming from the Erdoganists. Alptekin hadn’t told me about what he was up to with Flynn, and hasn’t spoken about it since due to legal caution. But I could piece what happened from press reports and what I know of his character. The Erdoganists would not trust Alptekin to carry water for them, but he would have attempted to put on a show for them, to give them the impression that he knew DC in ways they didn’t.

Flynn was close to Trump when Alptekin hired the Flynn Intel Group—a poor man’s advocacy and vetting firm—to work for him, but no one believed that Flynn was heading back into government because no one believed that Trump had a chance. Furthermore, it was during the summer of 2016 that Turkey was roiled by an attempted coup against Erdogan, which the Turkish president believed was orchestrated by Fethullah Gulen, an Islamist cleric that had been living in America since 1999. Gulen’s past lends itself to intrigue or imaginations of such: he seems to have been a U.S. intelligence asset or collaborator in the 1980s. The CIA at the time believed that ‘soft’ fundamentalists could be a bulwark against leftist encroachment which had been a serious problem in Turkey, a NATO member, in the 1970s. Years later, Gulen’s supporters would infiltrate several of Turkey’s security services, nesting right at the doorstep of Turkey’s staunchly secular and militaristic derin devlet—wherein the term ‘Deep State’ was actually invented. Pretty soon, in alliance with Erdogan, Gulen would get strong enough to challenge the military class, succeeding in defanging them by the mid-2000s. The Gulen network also did horrible things to people who were not vying with them for power such as liberal journalists and intellectuals (an example would be my friend who was to become Alptekin’s ex-wife later), and they went out of their way to ruin their reputations and careers, not to mention hauling many of them off to prison. But the top proved too crowded for both Erdogan and Gulen, so they conspired to topple each other. I for one am still not convinced that Gulen originated and led the 2016 coup. And Erdogan’s assertion that his nemesis did so in collusion with a retired CIA officer, Graham Fuller, who had been the author of the opening up to Muslim clerics plan in the 1980s, was bullshit—chiefly because Fuller was too much of an intellectual mystic, on the zanier side of that even, for such risky stunts.

There was one meeting though where it seemed that the lines got too blurred, and the Deep State seized on it. Flynn, Kian and Alptekin sat across from Erdogan’s powerful son-in-law and Turkey’s foreign minister in a New York City suite in September 2016, trying to impress the pair. One can imagine the scene because it would have followed the script of how these things go down: name-dropping, grand-standing, shooting the breeze. Woolsey, the former CIA director was called up to join. He arrived late and heard what seemed like the tail end of a harebrained idea to abduct Gulen and send him packing to Ankara. I think it must have been said as a joke, but it was convenient for Woolsey to tell reporters and, I assume, investigators that it sounded serious, because Woolsey would come to have an axe to grind with Flynn. Again, I can only imagine how it went down: Flynn had coauthored a book recently with someone whose family was close friends with Woolsey’s wife. At the time, Woolsey had abandoned his wife and shacked up with a hot young Ukrainian floozy, or so they thought of her. Woolsey at the time was also trying to get a foot in the door of the Trump campaign. Flynn, being an upright family man, would have formed a negative opinion of Woolsey over the whole issue of the mistress; he may even have thought that the former director, who had been acting increasingly erratic over the years, had been compromised, and Flynn may have acted in a way to cut short Woolsey’s rise within the Trump machine. Furthermore, Woolsey was vying for the same Turkish contract that Alptekin was paying for, and he wanted to bump off Flynn from that too. Woolsey later told reporters that he had informed the U.S. government of that suspicious conversation in New York by notifying then Vice President Joe Biden through a mutual friend—an often missed indication that Biden was directly involved early on in the effort to take down Trump.

And since the coup had just happened, with Gulen sitting pretty in Pennsylvania, Alptekin did ask the Flynn Intel Group to study the issue of extraditing Gulen, and to put together some media materials to influence U.S. public opinion as to the nature of Gulen’s network and actions. The coup was a major event in Turkey. Hundreds had died. There was footage of F-16s strafing unarmed protestors on an Istanbul bridge. Any Turk would have felt it their patriotic duty to do something about Gulen who was widely believed to be behind it, so Alptekin turned to his existing contact with Flynn to explore options. There was nothing new here in how these sorts of transactions unfolded. This was the bread and butter of a significant portion of official Washington. But in the retelling, and in a bid to besmirch Flynn, the Deep State made it seem as if Flynn, a highly decorated officer, was nothing more than a mercenary, a law-breaking mercenary at that. Thus, everything Flynn did or said was in due course tainted. Colin Kahl, Biden’s National Security Advisor during the Obama years, and now slated to become Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, took to Twitter to insinuate that the reason that Flynn was counseling Trump to rethink Obama’s plan for Raqqa in Syria, a plan that Kahl had a hand in shepherding, was because Flynn was paid to do so by the Turks. Sober, reasonable people can disagree or agree with the plan (I thought it was terrible) without being in the thrall of the Erdoganists. Maybe Flynn was being cautious, protecting the incoming president from a policy course that may fail (it eventually did). But such reasoning does not matter when the mind is consumed with bloodlust, as when Kahl—who came to the world of policy and politics from academia, and who had never served his country before that in any capacity—and others had the ropes ready for a lynching, which is exactly what they did to Flynn’s reputation and legal standing. Flynn would eventually write a report for Alptekin recommending against Gulen’s extradition, but again, none of that mattered. (Biden would later pipe in with a suggestion that Flynn had violated the Logan Act during a White House meeting in early January 2017, a couple of weeks before Trump’s inauguration—either coming up with it on his own, or was manipulated into doing so by some Deep Staters. It remains unclear. It would later become clear that Kahl had been one of the most egregious ‘Russia, Russia, Russia’ disseminators, both during and after his stint at the White House.)

Flynn’s fate, as well as that of Lokhovna’s and Alptekin’s—all three of them now broke, humiliated and discredited, with Alptekin still facing prison time in the U.S.—bespeaks to a mean-spirited mania that permeated the Deep State’s reaction to Trump. Did they have to go this far? Couldn’t they have achieved some of their stated goals with a more calibrated, gradual, and wiser approach? Their fevered spite propelled them, in haste, towards flimsy, fleeting ‘victories’. What effect on the larger questions of national security did that have? And going forward, what should we expect from a feral Deep State that hisses and claws in this way?

We have an answer to those questions in John Bolton’s memoir, The Room Where It Happened (2020) in which he reprised his experience as Trump’s third National Security Advisor, the job that Flynn should have kept. Bolton’s brand, cultivated over many years, was that he was a rogue operator, a pro, hitting-and-running at the Deep State from the margins of the Swamp. But his memoir reveals that in the final tally Bolton could not unswamp himself. And in his example one discerns the reason why dramatic action must be undertaken in Trumpism’s future rematch with the Deep State. For Bolton, in print, unwittingly turned proper traitor (in my book, at least, as well as the president’s) by exposing to the world, but specifically to the Chinese, how the counter-China strategy was being run at the White House. He ‘divulged the will of heaven’ as the Mandarin chengyu would phrase it.  

Bolton was an interesting swamp specimen, and I confess that I believed that parts of the Deep State could be co-opted by Trumpism through his example. At the onset of his pick as NSA, I thought that he would ably serve the president, believing that both agreed on many issues, as Trump would often say to him. This is what I wrote then:

Bolton is a bureaucratic swordsman from the outer, grey-zone fringes of foreign policy circles. It would have been difficult to situate his way of thinking in the previous constellations, simply because they were not in vogue or wide currency. That is probably why they had been serially mislabeled. But a close examination would reveal remarkable consistency: America should avoid the legal constraints of multilateralism; it should be forward leaning when challenged by geostrategic upstarts; no ground on the international stage should be ceded without a show of might and tenacity; America is not obliged to spread democracy around the world or bankroll “nation-building”; its national security bureaucracy cannot be allowed to exercise a foreign policy independent of the president’s vision and must be trimmed down; and America can live with autocrats so as long as they pose no threat to American security. Sound familiar? It should, since it hews to all that Trump has been saying about foreign affairs since the early 1980s. But such ideas did not have a temple or institution to house them in the corridors of power until, that is, the Oval Office was turned into one with Trump’s advent.

But I never liked Bolton, even though he used to greet Chalabi at the entrance to his fiefdom in the Bush State Department (where he served as Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs) with the words, “Welcome to the Liberated United States of America.” I went on to publicly voice my dislike when Bolton shepherded the Muammar Gadhafi regime in from the cold in the mid-2000s, after the Libyan dictator was willing to forgo his arsenal of WMDs. But what I was actually doing was ‘subtweeting’ neocons such as Bernard Lewis who went out to accommodate Gadhafi, an issue whereupon I broke ranks with them. But to understand Bolton on the Middle East, where he exhibited his most serious friction with Trump, is to understand one particular thinker who was in Lewis’s orbit:  

On this, and on many Middle Eastern matters, Bolton would have been influenced by Dave Wurmser, his confidante from back in the late 1990s when both were working as scholars at the American Enterprise Institute. Wurmser has also been pigeonholed as a “neoconservative” but that is not actually correct, and he himself had chafed at such mislabeling. Wurmser explained his approach in a National Review article that he wrote on the passing of Ahmad Chalabi in 2015. Although he would have liked to see democracy prosper in the region, he was hesitant as to its viability and inevitability, which would have placed him at loggerheads with actual neoconservatives. However, he signed on to the cause of removing Saddam Hussein because Chalabi represented a once-in-a-generation opportunity, by Wurmser’s reading, of being an agent of change in Iraq and in the wider region. And with Chalabi’s demise, Wurmser declared the moment over.

Wurmser coached Bolton on understanding America’s role in the Middle East to be less about democratic flowering and instituting reforms, and more fixated with punishing the regime in Tehran. The plan became one of ‘collapsing’ it short of military intervention, and somehow that would remove the largest impediment to the prospects of progress in the region. It was a strangely unintellectual and inelegant approach, especially for a genuinely thoughtful strategist such as Wurmser.

Thus, Bolton sometimes reverberated with the thunder of neo-conservatism, yet never shone with its intellectual lightning. And it turned out that he brought to the White House plans of his own that he wanted accomplished, in contravention of presidential inclinations. Bolton tried to manipulate Trump, but Trump broke him. Trump laid waste to him much in the way my friend wanted the incoming president to tear into Washington DC. One could imagine a disheveled, shell-shocked Bolton, with an eye-ball dangling out of its socket, and what was left of his caramelized soul sparking intermittently in the other, typing like mad his ‘I should’ve said’ retaliations every evening for what would be his memoir. For all their conservative distaste towards the nanny state, men like Bolton still believe America needed a nanny Deep State. And by becoming Trump’s NSA he was poised, at long last, to crown himself King of the Deep Staters. It was a shortcut to power within the imperial capital, with a know-nothing Trump distracted by his tweeting to do any of the real work, or so Bolton imagined. But Trump had him figured out from the get-go, and it was he who wanted to use Bolton as a prop, not the other way round. Here one could spot the difference between ‘power’ amassed, with Trump preferring the currency of wealth and fame, and a credit line of powers extended by the state. Trump spotted Bolton’s weakness in that Bolton needed to have his inguinal heft extrapolated into U.S. force projection.

What emerged from Bolton’s memoir, to me, was his exasperation with Trump’s savviness: it’s not that Trump was not learning, he just was not succumbing. Rather than direct it at the swamp, Bolton brought his tool set to bear against the president, and it all went to shit. All of a sudden Bolton found himself flummoxed and unsure of what he was doing. And to think that this was to be his moment under history’s glare as Trump astutely deduced, and as told by him to French President Emmanuel Macron: “You know, John’s been preparing all his life for this job. He was a genius on Fox TV, you know, and now he’s got to make hard decisions, which he didn’t have to do on TV, but he’s doing a great job.”

Bolton came in thinking that it would be easy to manage Trump upwards, and that in theory, all one has to do to shape the top executive’s decisions is to massage the options placed before him. This had been a tactic that mandarins, apparatchiks and ministers had devised early on in organized states, probably beginning with the Sumerians, and as wittily showcased on the Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister British TV series of the 1980s. Whereas Trump’s approach was one of instinct and the personal touch, including showmanship, Bolton would counter and overpower with “[a]nalysis, planning, intellectual discipline and rigor, evaluation of results, course corrections, and the like [which] are the blocking and tackling of presidential decision-making, the unglamorous side of the job.” It turned out that Bolton was not very good at the job he had worked his entire life towards. The book is, consequently, an ode to his sense of self-importance. Faced with the enigma of Trump’s novelty and his own inadequacy, Bolton the outcast, when tested, could not live outside the confines of the swamp; it was what—all—he knew.

Bolton saw himself as a natural for Secretary of State at the onset of Trump’s election. Anything less would be beneath him, and wouldn’t give him the room to lead. But he didn’t get the nod from Trump: “Much was made of his purported dislike of my moustache. For what it’s worth, he told me it was never a factor, noting that his father also had one.” He thought former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates was lobbying for Rex Tillerson, Trump’s eventual pick for State, but it was Condi Rice and Stephen Hadley who clinched it for Tillerson with Trump. For someone who claims to be plugged in this was a strange thing for Bolton to miss. Trump always had a soft spot for Rice, and on several occasions wanted her back as NSA, though she always expressed a reluctance to do so, including right prior to his pick of Bolton for the same role.

Trump wanted out of Syria, but Bolton thought staying there was necessary for collapsing Iran. Trump wanted out of Iraq too, and Bolton cited the same reason for staying. Trump didn’t need any convincing on the need to shred the Iran deal; he had campaigned on doing that. But for Bolton it was not nearly enough: “A lot remained to be done to bring Iran to its knees, or to overthrow the regime, Trump’s stated policy to the contrary notwithstanding…,” which would have been exactly what Wurmser, now brought in to advise the White House on Iran, would have told him. Bolton wanted to retaliate against Iran for each of its provocations in Iraq, but Trump demurred. Bolton thought that Trump was much like Obama in this respect. Trump for his part wanted to pressure the Iranians to come back and negotiate on better terms. He was never committed to the demise of the regime.

Most of all, Trump wanted out of Afghanistan—the memoir is rife with Trump railing about it, “[t]he first day I took office, I should have ended it”—but on this Bolton stuck with his Deep State colleagues in thwarting the president, believing that the old hands knew better: “I knew what I wanted to achieve in Afghanistan…The hard part was getting Trump to agree and then stick with his decision.” An exasperated Trump would harangue them constantly after their latest set of excuses for staying had floundered, saying that “[m]illions of people killed, trillions of dollars, and we just can’t do it. Another six months, that’s what they said before, and we’re still getting our asses kicked.” The Deep State was gleeful in how it managed to work around the president to mislead him about troop withdrawals. In his usual this-is-what-goes-for-wit-in-DC manner, Bolton gave one chapter the title: TRUMP HEADS FOR THE DOOR IN SYRIA AND AFGHANISTAN, AND CAN’T FIND IT. Jim Jeffrey, America’s top envoy to the multinational military coalition to defeat ISIS, even told a reporter upon his retirement last month that “We were always playing shell games to not make clear to our leadership how many troops we had there,” adding with what one would imagine to be his signature creepy chuckle, “What Syria withdrawal? There was never a Syria withdrawal.” When Trump went rogue and tried to work out a deal with Erdogan to have the Turks fill in for America in northern Syria in December 2018, Bolton confides that it became “a personal crisis” for him. Mattis would eventually resign in a huff over it.

Trump and Bolton clashed on a number of other issues. Trump would tell him, “John, you have a lot of hostility” on North Korea, where Trump wanted to get Kim Jong-un to chill out a little. Trump went along though with Bolton’s drive to ignite a rebellion in Venezuela, right up to the point when the president got to size-up Bolton’s candidate to lead it. Trump was again very perceptive in believing that Juan Guaido was nothing more than the “Beto O’Rourke of Venezuela” and that he would crash and burn. Bolton had overpromised and misread the situation disastrously, but Trump was willing to forgive him. And on occasion, Trump would even apologize when overstepping: “I shouldn’t have yelled at you. I’m sorry, I have too much respect for you”—a side of Trump as manager that we do not get to see reflected often in the reporting.

It was Trump’s pulling back from punishing Iran over its downing of the Global Hawk that drove Bolton to resign a few months later in September 2019 after only sixteen months at the job of his lifetime. He was so sure that he was going to finally get his fireworks show over Iranian skies that when the president gave the order for the bombers to turn back it was too much for Bolton’s shaken sense of importance. If he couldn’t get Trump to do this, then what was it all for? Trump reassured him, “Don’t worry, we can always attack later, and if we do it’ll be much tougher,” which Bolton dismissed as “a promise worth exactly what I paid for it.”

Trump would tell him, “When you write your book, get it right” instinctively knowing that a man like Bolton would not contain himself from telling his side of the story, quickly. Bolton had a manuscript for his memoir ready within three months of resigning. He was cocked and loaded to show the world what Trump’s promises are really worth. Yet, within a month, Trump would give the order to kill the commander of Iran’s Qods Force, and the likely heir to the regime’s leadership, Qasim Soleimani on the ring road leading to Baghdad International Airport. Trump believed that Soleimani was responsible for the murder of an American—an Iraqi-American contractor working for the military—a few days earlier in a rocket attack on an Iraqi base in Kirkuk. So he simply went ahead and offed Soleimani, which was an incredibly bold decision given geopolitical considerations, an act that Bolton would never have the balls to do. With one move Trump had created openings and opportunities heretofore unimagined in countering Iran, but Bolton wasn’t there to press the advantage, and the Deep Staters who had serially mismanaged the opportunities created by Trump in the past few years fumbled this one too. Interestingly, even though Bolton added more pages to his manuscript right before it went to print, covering last minute issues such as the administration’s response to COVID19 (Bolton here negated the media’s talking point that Trump had gutted the government bodies responsible for keeping track of pandemics), which occurred after Soleimani was killed, he makes no mention of Trump’s decision to take out the Iranian general. Bolton could not bring himself to acknowledge it.   

Bolton justified his unseemly haste in publishing his memoirs while Trump was still president by comparing his book’s release to that of Gates’s memoirs on his time serving in the first term of the Obama administration, which were published as Obama assumed a second one. Bolton wrote, “All histories pose a threat to executive privilege, and insiders have been leaking internal administration battles since Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson propagandized against each other through partisan newspapers.” Bolton goes on to explain that the public needed to know certain things before giving a president a second term, faulting Gates for not rushing with publication even before the 2012 elections where he should have revealed to voters that Obama didn’t care about Afghanistan and executing the war there diligently. In contrast, Bolton wanted his book to bear relevance on the 2020 vote.

However, if that was truly his justification for the tell-all, then how does he rationalize the inclusion of Chapter 10 of his book? There he exposed for all to see the intricacies of Trump’s war of wills with the Chinese. Bolton was giving away the game by identifying the “panda huggers”, the “confirmed free-traders” and the “China hawks” and the machinations they unleashed on each other. What need has the voter for such details? Bolton was never really a factor in those debates, so where was the historical sine qua non to reveal them as part of his memoir? “Beijing had to know how deeply divided Trump’s China advisors were, because they could read about it routinely in the media,” Bolton explained, but it is one thing to have it referenced by anonymous sources that would have kept the Chinese guessing at the veracity of the reporting, and quite another to have the person who was privy to those divisions put them on the record only a few months while out of office, at a time when the U.S. was still engaged in a trade showdown with China, and while a new complication, that of COVID19 had arisen to take the U.S.-China relationship into unchartered waters. In the final analysis, it seems that Bolton put all this in to demonstrate his low opinion of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin by way of settling scores with the latter who seems to have given him pushback on authorizing some Iran sanctions. The price that America would have to pay to scratch Bolton’s vindictive itch and to bolster his many conceits shall prove to be incalculable as the showdown with China deepens. Bolton, in writing so blithely about the room where he was momentarily important, had weakened America’s hand. His act forebodes a Deep State, one just as vainglorious and petty as he is, unprepared for what is to come.

China, China, China

The Deep State has lulled itself into believing that it has a lot of time to confront China. The Deep Staters believe that it is a country coming at its moment of greatness with centuries of memory in the back of its hive mind. That China is playing a long game, a courtly game, a point-scoring game, and most importantly a non-zero-sum game. They reassure themselves that this is a game that both China and America can simultaneously perceive themselves to be winning as it unfolds ad infinitum. In such a game, there is no build-up to ‘checkmate’—rather we are engaged in a round of Go with the Chinese, playing over a grid made up of thousands of lines across and down, and proceeding until neither player desires to make another move.

The venerability of China’s aged and wise approach to strategy is, of course, bullshit. The “centuries-old” mystique is a fabrication, a cheap one, one that Deep Staters had bought into ever since the elder Bush was posted as America’s envoy to Beijing during the tail end of the Cultural Revolution. Bush parlayed his experiences there—fourteen months living in an isolated concrete edifice within the diplomatic quarter, with occasional bicycle rides through the city along with his wife Barbara, and both developing a taste for Peking Duck—into executive insight into its affairs as CIA director, vice-president, and then president. His interpretations of China’s thinking, worthiness as a ‘friend’, and improbability as an adversary have taken hold of Washington’s policies for decades, during which he frequented a place in Baily’s Crossing, Va to continue getting his fix of roasted duck. China would join the World Trade Organization during his son’s first year as president, something that Trump never misses an opportunity to pick a bone with. “If you look at the history of China, it was only since they went into the WTO that they became a rocket ship with their economy. They were flatlined for years and years,” Trump would recurrently say. Adding, “Frankly, for many, many decades. And it was only when they came into the WTO that they became a rocket ship because they took advantage of all — I’m not even blaming them. I’m saying how stupid were the people that stood here and allowed it to happen”—meaning the Bushes, and those presidents in between, and who followed after, but not him.

On foreign policy, the Deep Staters assure us that the Chinese are obsessively concerned with their internal security, haunted as they were with centuries of Western interference in their affairs. Theirs is not an empire in the making but simply a drive to shore-up sovereignty, for the Chinese are forever extending, in their minds, their Great Wall, as smug Western analysts have a habit of putting it, yet again deploying that fucking overused metaphor. Never mind that new research maintains that ancient states build walls primarily to keep cheap labor from escaping beyond its reach rather than keeping invaders out, an instinct that the current Chinese state also seems to flex from time to time. No, no, no, Xi is not out to humiliate America, they tell us, how could he? He spent two weeks bunking with wholesome heartland families in Iowa in the mid-1980s. He sent his only daughter to Harvard for undergraduate studies. The guy basically adores America.

Yet China is only as old as I am. The China that we know today is in its mid-forties. There was too much disruption and discontinuity in the last two and half centuries of the Chinese experience, chronicles of which record unimaginable human misery and historic upheaval, with every few pages telling the tale of how yet another onset of fighting and famines would compel its people into cannibalism. And it got worse: every other year was in effect ‘Year Zero’ throughout the decade preceding Chairman Mao Zedong’s demise in 1976. It was only after he died that a new China came out blinking into the sunlight. So is China really a society with roots that go hundreds if not thousands years deep? I don’t think so. There is probably no historical corollary for how few of China’s elite bloodlines survived the last 500 years; maybe the Aztecs and Incas can lay a similar claim, and a few other indigenous African and South East Asian principalities can boast more dislocation, but they are no longer around to tell the tale, and that’s the point. So much aggregated memory, wisdom, and strategic patience was lost in such disruptions, which is exactly the case with China.

However, no nation can survive without memory, even though very little memory survives undistorted. But some historiographies can be too distorted. This, I believe, is also the case with China. Sure, they do have surviving texts, sagas and chronicles from which they have reconstructed and reimagined their histories. That is true for almost all societies, but most societies have input from legacy-holders among the elite whose contributions to a national conversation usually mediate and temper historical imagination. China’s elites were not around to perform that role for a long time, and their current one has not had the time or aggregated enough wisdom to do so either—even the party’s current crop of leading ‘Crown Princes’, whose fathers and mothers were early comrades of Mao’s before getting purged, don’t exhibit such pensiveness, or even cohesion as a group. This is an important vulnerability of theirs. Pity that the Deep State is not doing its job by working such an angle.

No, they are too busy being afflicted with ‘Deep State Envy’. America’s Deep State secretly admires the Chinese system of power, for they believe it fetishizes ‘experience’. It took Xi forty years to climb up. There was lots of scrambling on the slopes where outcomes were touch and go for him. First there was the national service examination which whittled down the ranks to a thread-bare rate of admittance. Then Xi joined the Communist Party and had to climb ten levels of administrative levels. There was rigorous vetting at each step. His first ‘job’ was to become the highest official in a county. Then a city official, then a mayor. Then Xi became a governor of a minor province, moving on to the governorship of a major province. He joined the Political Bureau, and became a Deputy to the National People’s Congress. Then he worked his way into the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party Central Committee. And then he made a final scramble to the very top of the heap to become president in 2013. Bureaucrats would be mesmerized by such a process upon which selection by peers would ensure that only the ablest would rise, and where someone as “emotionally stable” as Xi can assume full control. America’s Deep Staters would begrudge this form of Chinese ‘democracy’, contrasting it with their system which gave them the instability of Trump. Missing from their assessment is an explanation for why Xi made sure to burn all the ladders below him once he got to the top. And just how emotionally stable is a leader who feels he needs to break the spirit of the Uighur nation once and for all? (I have a feeling that many of our Deep Staters and their valets in the media and in academia would love nothing less than to administer a similar re-education campaign for all us ‘insurgent’ Trumpians.)

Xi was confused by Trump. He was confronted by an incoming president who had tweeted things like “Why is Barack Obama delaying the sale of F-16s aircraft to Taiwan? Wrong message to send to China. #TimeToGetTough” as far back as 2011. Xi’s spies had fixated on penetrating America’s Deep State and its ruling class, but what use was their feedback when they too could make no sense of Trump or his rise? What was Trump really saying when commending the Chinese leadership for making fools out of America’s own for so long on trade and many other matters? Why was Trump going out of his way to refer to Xi as “a good friend of mine” while instantaneously smacking on tariffs? Consequently, Xi had to crouch around the crazed American for a number of years. But things are about to change. Whatever benchmarks for greatness the 67 year-old Xi wants to be known for in the new chronicles of Chinese history will have to be achieved, and achieved quickly, within the next window: the Biden presidency. Xi is not playing a long game. Just ask the Uighurs. And Xi doesn’t strike one as the sentimental type that truly longs for those jovial evenings in Iowa—you can ask the comrades he purged just how much of a softie he really is. Scrap that, you simply can’t, because they can’t be reached at the moment for a host of reasons—hint, hint. Xi is in pounce mode, preparing for a sprint, and he knows all that he needs to know about Biden—this old fool does not worry him. Xi may have woken up one day to learn that Trump had signed a formal finding, under Article II of the Genocide Convention of 1948, of genocide in Xinjiang, as Michal Sobolik, a fellow at the American Foreign Policy Center, had recommended last week that the president do before leaving office. Biden would never do that.

Xi has already witnessed Biden revealing a serious lack of judgement and a squishy measure of pride. Sure, he was no longer vice president when Hunter came to him with a new business prospect that had come his way with some deep-pocketed and seemingly influential Chinese ‘partners’ in early 2017, but he was still the ‘former Vice President of the United States of America’, and that should have meant something. But what does it really stand for if a former VP greenlights a no-interest ten million dollar loan to the Biden family from ‘businessmen’ fronting for Chinese intelligence? The Chinese were ostensibly paying for introductions. There is value in that for businessmen to be sure. But there is massive value in the sorts of networks and associations that these introductions would reveal to trained spies. Bobulinsky, the man Hunter hired to manage the initial phase of the relationship with the Chinese, came to conclude that the former VP was “compromised”. Maybe that is too extreme of a word, but what word would be suitable for a man who was willing to be in business with an entity that an intelligence briefing, such as the ones afforded to former Vice Presidents, would have easily pegged as a spying endeavor? Or maybe the episode points to the failure of a larger system of oversight and controls, the same system that would inexplicably allow Eric Swallwell to sit on the House Intelligence Committee? Were there any red flags raised when the ‘loan’ made it to one of Hunter’s accounts via a channel other than Bobulinsky’s? The references made in Hunter’s correspondence to the ‘big guy’ and the ten percent cut he would get would be instinctively and instantly recognized by those conversant in the ‘corruptese’ vernacular as meaning ‘Joe Biden’. Why did the system miss that, and if it didn’t then why did it not warn Biden, and if it did then what steps did it take to mitigate the damage done to America’s secrets much less to its standing? We have not been given any answers to that. Xi, on the other hand, has plenty.

Would Xi, now that he knows that some of his midlevel spies had actually managed to rent Biden’s rolodex at one point, need to crouch around anymore? Of course not. And he also knows that he is unlikely to get as auspicious of an opportunity to get all that he wants to get done as this one. Contrast Biden’s recent past with the Chinese to how Trump’s Republican National Convention had given a primetime slot to Chen Guangcheng, the attorney and civil rights activist, to rail against the “tyranny” of the Chinese Communist Party, dubbing it an “enemy of humanity.” What was Xi supposed to do with that?

It is a shame, since there is plenty America can do to outmaneuver Xi’s visions, if it only had a capable and focused Deep State. But it doesn’t. What we have now is not a capable generation waiting to be unleashed by a Casey-type from the bounds of a moribund CIA, as Bearden’s was. What we have is a situation where Trump plainly saying “it’s China’s fault” and that “China should pay” when it comes to COVID19’s devastation is denounced as xenophobia, with the Deep State tsk-tsking its tongue off at him. Again, a shame: America’s elite has not factored-in how angry much of the world is towards China now. This sentiment has legs. And it damaged the fledgling China brand in big ways and small. We go out of our way to search for items not ‘Made in China’ to buy for our household—despite Amazon’s best efforts to hide this information, which only shows that many others are doing the same. This is a retributive, angry force that is going unacknowledged, which makes people even angrier. There was someone uniquely positioned to ride this beast on the world stage: Donald Trump. Alas, he won’t get to, for now.

Trump would have been uniquely suited to counter China’s challenge in other ways too. It is often said by experts that the Chinese are set to dominate the world because of their mercantile outlook and mindset. They are working methodically and carefully to expand their portfolios and markets, and with that comes dividends of hard and soft power, much of it allegedly at America’s expense. It is contradictory then when experts decry Trump for his transactional approach to foreign relations, while simultaneously admiring that very same approach on China’s part and taking it to be its chief advantage. But Trump would spot that mercantilism isn’t going to get the Chinese to where they want to go precisely because they are not that good at it. Consider how their Belt and Road Initiative is dragging down into a serious and expensive miscalculation, one that exchanged trade-deficit cash earned against U.S. and European markets for pointless assets dotting Third World transit points, assets destined to become concrete landmarks for a new world never lived and a trade never made. It took centuries of economic and banking activity to launch the mercantile traditions of Europe five hundred years ago, traditions which then intertwined with an imperial impetus that discovered then dominated then settled the New and Old Worlds. Where is Chinese mercantilism coming from? Theirs still seems to me to be a peddler and artisan culture, though modernized and enlarged. Again, it is only forty years in the making with little societal or institutional memory underwriting it. Thus, it is too soon to assume that mercantilism comes naturally to the Chinese, with all its power projection appendages in tow. 

The experts dismiss such misgivings by suggesting that the Chinese have other tricks up their sleeves that compensate for their lack of institutional memory, principally a willingness to leverage corruption both as a tool for prying open economic opportunities as well as gaining intelligence. But that too is a vulnerability, one that could easily be taken advantage of were our spies swifter than the buzzards hovering around the alleged Chinese espionage dens of Porter Street NW, looking for their marks. Corruption corrupts both ways. A regime such as Xi’s will not be comfortable with frontiersmen who’ve imbibed from the intoxicating nectar of lawlessness and easy riches. His inclination would be to purge and replace, and that simply stirs in more dislocation. Plus, their interlocutors in First and Third World countries will be expecting the quick riches that corruption promises, and those expectations shall increase the competition among them to be on the receiving end, leading to many forms of strife, spite and misgivings. 

Once one recognizes that Chinese mercantilism is failing, then the Deep State’s qualification of China’s end-state as materialistic would have to be reassessed. I never took that to be the case, but even if that had been the goal initially, now it must be substituted with something else, for human nature is bound to get in the way of whatever clinical five-year-plans are set and then abandoned, leaving pride wounded on the floor. Once great nations, or ones that believe that greatness is their deserved destiny, will always be distracted by achieving the benchmarks of greatness—participation prizes just won’t do. The Chinese will increasingly get touchy over small things, for example their latest spat with the Czechs over Taiwan. If I were corralling the Deep State into a twenty-first century mission, I’d have teams study Chinese historical dramas, mining them for what they tell the Chinese public about “What went wrong?” as in what is the official version of how greatness was lost. I would then tailor a propaganda campaign to mess with these insecurities. I’d get Hollywood—which like the American sports industry has been more than accommodating towards Beijing’s whims—to patriotically redeem itself by producing big production numbers from the Chinese past that celebrate outsized, outlaw characters such as the ‘Pirate Queen’ Ching Shih. Totalitarian regimes in the making, ones busy leveraging facial recognition software and artificial intelligence to spot a citizen’s anti-authoritarian scowl at its inception, just loathe that sort of thing.

Trump was also doing something extraordinary with military might: he was hyping it in ways only he could. There’s the “I have built a weapon system that nobody’s ever had in this country before” line, as well as the “We have stuff that Putin and Xi have never heard about before” including what he called a “super-duper missile.” The experts may scoff at such antics and limited vocabulary counts but they are effective at keeping adversaries guessing, and allies from stressing. The myth of overpowering and presently unknowable military capability and capacity is what makes Japan, Korea and smaller Asian powers ringing China feel that they can stare down the Chinese, for now.

Furthermore, someone like Trump could have taken Putin aside and told him that Russia should extend its special relationship with its former Central Asian domains into its farthest east, to those arenas called Irkutsk, Yakutsk and Kamchatka on the Risk game board, all the way to the ocean; send those migrating Tajiks—Russia’s Mexicans—to repopulate Vladivostok, dear Volodya. The Russians should also be coaxed into thinking of Xinjiang as an extension of their own historic sphere of influence—I mean, why not? Whatever imperial juice is still left in Moscow’s tank should be exploited to rekindle that tense Sino-Soviet split of yesteryear.

The Chinese should also be drawn into the Middle East, especially the parts that the U.S. seems to be vacating. Believe me, rather than China earning global prestige as America’s replacement as some experts would caution, this is a recipe for disaster where the Chinese are concerned. The cultural disconnect shall make for an uneasy experience for both sides. I’d even get it into their heads to make a big bet on Iraq. Actually, this was about to happen: the previous Iraqi cabinet tried to strike a long-term oil-for-infrastructure agreement with China. The Chinese already get 10 percent of their oil from Iraq (with another 16 percent from Saudi Arabia). They were poised to dramatically increase that. Instead of discouraging it as it did, the U.S. should have smiled approvingly.

Trump’s instincts to go full-on protectionist on technology, as evidenced by how far he was willing to go towards subverting Huawei’s global market penetration, would come in handy now too as the U.S. takes the lead on 3D printing and manufacturing. If anything poses a serious threat to China’s ascent, then it is this. I was hoping that such a Grand National Project would become a central focus of the first Trump administration but I guess neither the technology nor the national conviction was in place that would have eventually extended a Rust Belt across China and South East Asia while standing-up America’s own ‘Mittelstand’ spanning Pennsylvania, Appalachia and the Mid-West, thus ensuring wealth creation for a couple of American generations.

To do such things the Deep State needs a fundamental reworking of its mindset. If the Chinese steal America’s innovations and intellectual property, a counter plan of ‘Stealing Time’ should be deployed against them. Their command economy should be pitched against our ‘Command Disorder’. The genius of the American system is its adaptability to disruption. Xi is building a system and adopting a Legalist cultural and bureaucratic tradition that is its antithesis. Too many in Washington believe that we need to spend time and effort shoring up existing alliances to gain scale and coalesce allies who buy-in to a rules-based world order. Phooey! At this particular moment, when the rules are being re-written, it is to America’s advantage to go rogue against the old international system. America can create a new system at a time when China is trying to catch up to the old rules and still not strong enough to create its own. Again, Trump’s instincts for rethinking alliances and his rhetoric about ‘common sense’ reconfigurations of power projection fit the moment far better than any of the prescriptions coming for the foreign policy priestly caste. 

True to form, Fareed Zakaria jumped in a year ago to parrot the thinking of that caste in an article that was published in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of Foreign Affairs, titled ‘The New China Scare’. Zakaria wrote it to counter the argument that U.S. policy toward China has failed, and that there needs to be tougher strategy to contain it. Those making the case are simply being alarmist, and should we follow their counsel then the “United States risks squandering the hard-won gains from four decades of engagement with China, encouraging Beijing to adopt confrontational policies of its own, and leading the world’s two largest economies into a treacherous conflict of unknown scale and scope that will inevitably cause decades of instability and insecurity.” He added that a “cold war with China is likely to be much longer and more costly than the one with the Soviet Union, with an uncertain outcome.” Stand down, America. Don’t anger Xi, because you’re not going to like him when he’s angry! Again, this is not to question Zakaria’s patriotism with the now easy-to-reach-for trope that the globalists have simply sold-out long ago to China. I’ll be consistent in thinking him obtuse, as he generally is. And on this particular issue, he is just as obtuse as George H.W. Bush had been. I mean, come on, Zakaria commended China in his essay for spending large sums to bolster the international system, marveling at how it is now the second-largest funder of the United Nations and the UN peacekeeping program. A month after his article came out we began to hear about how China’s bankrolling of the World Health Organization had dangerously undermined international controls for a pandemic that would soon roil the planet.

Zakaria heaped even more servings from the buffet of genericisms and boiler-plate geostrategic sounding-smart-talkery unto his flimsy paper plate. Don’t mess with China, he wrote, because it is “not the Soviet Union, an unnatural empire that was built on brutal expansion and military domination. In China, the United States would be confronting a civilization, and a nation, with a strong sense of national unity and pride that has risen to take its place among the great powers of the world.” China is no longer nipping at America’s feet: it is destined to overtake it. That combination of civilizational heft and economic might necessitates that outcome. Still, no worries, since Zakaria reassured us that China’s alleged menace would seem to taper off just as the worries that the alarmists had tried to peddle about a rising Japan in the 1980s and 1990s did. Why, don’t you know about Xi’s time in Iowa? And on and on it goes. The Deep Staters will not let go of this narrative. It gives them too much solace and succor; replacing it with anything else would implicitly mean that they had failed to spot this problem looming over the horizon for decades now. They will never admit to that.

This sort of drivel is the reason why the best way to confront China is to completely retool the Deep State itself, probably by wholescale deracination, ‘terracing’ (consolidating and re-ranking the seventeen intelligence outfits) and then replanting existing talent where appropriate. If it’s going to be our current Deep State vs. their Deep State, then the Chinese version will win, especially given the amount of time and resources they had already expended on infesting our grounds. But if it’s something new, something volatile, something messy, and something unexpected, then the Chinese security mindset, insecure and rigid as it is, will get befuddled and worn down. Trump belatedly understood that this is the only way to deal with the Deep State, to defang its threat to our democracy while returning it to some measure of effectiveness against our foreign adversaries. One could see this new approach in how Trump fired Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and replaced him and his crew with a band of loyal scofflaws, more of a symbolic gesture of dressing down the Deep State than a dynamic one for now, but a useful model nonetheless in the future. This is how we win, and this why Trumpism must win so that Trump returns to finish this business.

Parting Thoughts

Joseph Nye is a doyen of the foreign policy establishment. He had served as an Assistant Secretary of Defense and as Chairman of the National Intelligence Council under Clinton. He went on to become Dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Had John Kerry won an election, Nye would have probably served under him as National Security Advisor, or as Secretary of State or Defense. What he is most known for, though, is a term that he coined in the early 1990s: soft power. Nye began making the case for ‘soft power’ in a series of publications then. Like many others, he was trying to make sense of America’s place in the world after the Cold War. He explained that there are many ways to influence the behavior of others, and that the best method relies little on coercion (‘hard’ power) but tends to exercise its softer side, such as the control of a seductive narrative.

This same Nye tweeted on Jan. 7—a day after Trump supporters had marched on the Capitol during a joined session for tallying up the electoral votes of the 2020 election—that “Trumpism is a danger, but the center held and institutions worked. Local officials held an honest election despite pandemic and unprecedented turnout that unseated a demagogue. It was sustained in courts and Congress. Does the Jan 6 shock suggest Trumpism may have peaked?”

The optics certainly looked bad for Trumpism that afternoon. And the ruling establishment took the opportunity to wield its narrative tools mercilessly, to finally deliver a fatal blow to Trump and his movement. Soft power, on that day, demonstrated a lot of kick. Trumpism was battered badly. The establishment had been on a roll, its narrative was having its greatest run: even though the ruling class failed to deter Trumpians from voting for Trump, they still managed to mobilize an unprecedented number of new or infrequent voters—if we are to believe their rationale for why the results looked the way they did—to cast a ballot against him. By golly they still got it! Trump lost. Trumpism was defeated. The ‘Winner’ mentality of MAGAness had to contend with its new station of embarrassing loser-dom.

But Nye’s question goes further than a perfunctory gloat: he is, in fact, asking what did Trumpians see that day? Did the establishment’s narrative finally break through to them?

It was Stephen Prothero’s treatment (in his book discussed above) of what he calls the ‘First Culture Wars’—those being the contentious elections of 1796 and 1800—pitting the Federalists (Adams and Hamilton) against the Democratic Republicans (Jefferson’s team), that helped me contextualize the stunning moment at the end of Trump’s first term, when a few dozens of his supporters broke into (in yet another telling, they were waved into) the Capitol. Forget the nitty-gritty of where the Federalists and the Democratic Republicans stood on a national bank or whether they preferred agriculture over industry and commerce—remember, Trumpism isn’t deeply intellectual. The clash at its heart was one between an “ordered culture of deference” that is to be extended to “the well-born, well-bred, well read, and well-wed” on the Federalist side, and what Jefferson took to be a necessary and intermittent dose of disorder that a complacent, timid elite needed once in a while, just to rattle things up. “The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive,” Jefferson wrote to Abigail Adams from his diplomatic posting in the then red-hot revolutionary Paris of 1787, adding “It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the Atmosphere.” He was commenting on a riot that had broken out, one that the Adamses deemed seditious and requiring of decisive punishment. Jefferson thought a more charitable course, one of pardoning the malcontents, would prove to be the wiser one. President Adams would later sign the Alien and Sedition Acts that was sent up to him by a Federalist-dominated Congress into law.

This correspondence and frank exchange of ideas was happening before Adams and Jefferson had to contend as rivals for the presidency though. The deterioration in their friendliness to one another, and in the respect afforded by one man’s camp to the other, was swift and stark. These two Founders and their retinue come off as foul-mouthed ruffians in the print media of their time: Adams was cast as “hermaphroditical”, an effete poseur with delusions of grandeur, while he in turn described Hamilton, during a dispute between the two, as “the bastard brat of a Scottish pedlar!” Jefferson was denounced as secret Jew or Muslim, or some sort of Illuminati conspirator who kept a “Congo Harem.” Adams wanted to ape the British, the Jefferson camp yelled, to crown himself king and induct a dynasty, while they themselves were charged with ‘French’ collusion with all that that charge carried by way of Jacobinism and godlessness. Adams won in 1796, but then refused to attend Jefferson’s inauguration upon defeat in 1800.  Any of this sounding familiar?

The Anti-Trumps sound eerily similar to those Federalists. They warn us of mob rule while extolling the virtues of a caste of high priests tending to the hallowed Republic. The MAGA crowd howls that the money changers and dove peddlers have already besmirched and hollowed out the Temple, and they plan to create quite the stir about it—my house shall be called the house of the people; but ye have made it a den of (ballot) thieves! The walls themselves are not sullied, it is the whispers that echo through them that be profane! Here the Trumpians are cast as the anti-clerical Jeffersonians, but again, this is more about style than substance in its historical precedent. Trump’s rise is a badge of their impudence, a charging yell, not a meticulous ratification of their values, conservative or what have you.

A healthy political order would make use of both camps and styles. When things are good, or good enough, the elite can carry us through with their unique skills and customary rituals. The same, it should be noted, is necessary when things are perilously unstable. But when things turn amiss, dragging out into an extended epoch of plodding decay, and things keep getting worse, all while the elite refusing to answer for it, or even pretending to do something about it, well, “I like a little rebellion now and then.”

In the final tally, how many trouble-makers got inside the Capitol last week? A 100, 150 tops? If it really were an “assault on democracy” how come the 435 Representatives and 100 Senators, not to mention their legions of staff did not hold their ground and brawl it out? Furthermore, to call a few dozen hotheads and horned-heads, breaking and entering and then staying within demarcated walkways lined by red-rope-and-brass stanchions, an “insurrection” is a bit much. But the enemies of Trumpism were pressing their narrative advantage, and the images coming out were a godsend. Naturally, one would expect them to act in bad faith in taking those intruders as representative of MAGA: the ‘Camp Auschwitz’ sweatshirt and the Confederate flag slumped over a shoulder was all the evidence they needed to show how deplorable this set was—even the slain young lady had a picture of herself in a QAnon shirt, so no hagiographic entries in the annals of martyrology for her, unless, of course, you’re some conspiracy loon. Others in that ‘horde’ tampered with stationery. Someone tore off Pelosi’s office plaque. One immensely exultant Floridian dude walked out with the Speaker’s lectern (…it always has something to do with Florida). Us Trumpians were supposed to recoil in horror, forever hiding our faces, with no measure of denunciation capable of dissociating us from that lot.

No, actually, we will own up to it. We do have these crazies in our coalition; there is no ideological card check when entering a MAGA rally. But they, with their offending sweatshirts and flags, are marching to resurrect the political prospects of a New York City Yank with an Orthodox Jewish daughter. Who knows, maybe they will shed some of their dumb notions. Otherwise, the joke’s on them. These are flawed people. As we have seen, the Founders themselves were flawed, foul-mouthed people. But through their example we witnessed how flawed men can perform and bequeath great things. I’m not holding my breath for what the guy with the horns may contribute to our nation, but I’m also not going to allow a piece of fabric (or lack thereof) determine whether a fellow citizen is teachable, and reachable. Who knows, people may surprise you.

Some details about the other intruders will be left out of the counter-Trump narrative: among the people arraigned for charging the people’s house was Nazeer Qaim, 29, an Afghan-American who, judging by the distribution of his facial hair, is an observant Muslim. Pending his hearing, he is banned from Capitol grounds and any streets containing congressional buildings, but since he is a DC resident, he was helpfully given a map by the authorities of the banned areas he is meant to avoid, but he is allowed to take the underground metro through them provided he does not get out. Also charged was the other fellow pictured in caveman furs, but in his case there were no visible horns; it turns out he is Aaron Mostofsky, 34, the son of Shlomo Mostofsky, an Orthodox Jew who serves as a judge on the Brooklyn Supreme Court. Similarly, Kristina Malimon, 28, and her mother Yevgemya Malimon, 54, both of Oregon, were banned from DC; they are ethnic Romanians of the Orthodox rite, immigrants to the U.S. from the city of Balti, Moldova. But since they also speak Russian maybe the media will make mention of them since I am sure there are a dozen spies and a dozen reporters working to unearth just how exactly they are tied to Putin. Ashli Babbitt, 35, of San Diego, the woman and AirForce veteran fatally shot in the throat, was married to a black man. Her blood ended up on Thomas Baranyi, 28, of New Jersey, who served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Albania as recently as last year. This much diversity confuses the establishment’s narrative that demands coherence on how anti-migrant nativism and other white populist traditions—Holocaust denialism, The-South-Will-Rise-Again fulminations, recitals of the ‘Snake’ poem, and what have you—are the binding agents of Trumpism. But our fringe is our fringe, though in the larger picture it signifies bupkis, and that is why we don’t feel it necessary to dramatically gesticulate in self-condemnation. Maybe, just maybe, these are not the culture war droids you are looking for. But have you taken a measure of the other side: their core sure is freaky fringe. Maybe, just maybe, there was a need for a dollop of impudence to even out the scales of state, just a little, after all.

What transgressions the Trumpians saw on Capitol Hill fell short of the hysterics levelled against them. Bobby Chesney, a lawyer who is also a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, and who serves as the James Baker Chair and Associate Dean the University of Texas School of Law, as well as the Director of Strauss Center and co-founder of Lawfare Blog, tweeted: “January 6th, 2021, a date which will live in infamy. I weep for what our nation has lost.” Martha Raddatz over at ABC News chimed in with “It is so horrible to know, we are in America where this is happening, on Capitol Hill. I’m not in Baghdad. I’m not in Kabul. I’m not in a dangerous situation overseas. We are in America.” Coming in strong was former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bilt, imploringly tweeting: “On this dark, dark day for the United States my thoughts are with all friends over there who are witnessing their democracy being attacked, looted and disrupted. And my sincere hope is that the evil man who bears the responsibility ultimately will suffer the consequences.” Folks who less than a decade ago were encamped in Occupy Wall Street protests enthusiastically retweeted the Bank of America’s denunciation of the “appalling events in our nation’s capital.” Then Big Soda let it be known that it would like a word; Coca Cola put out a statement urging the “peaceful transfer of power.” Simon & Schuster cancelled Senator Josh Hawley’s book contract, because publishers get to make judgements on what constitutes sedition—this is how we do things now. Mark Zuckerberg told us that he had to de-platform Trump because he was undermining “the peaceful and lawful transition of power to his elected successor Joe Biden.” Apple was considering banning the Parler App from its devices. Google Apps went ahead without warning.

Rick Klein, also over at ABC, helpfully clarified that “The fact is that getting rid of Trump is the easy part. Cleansing the movement he commands is going to be something else.” CNN’s Anderson Cooper, an heir to one of America’s most storied family fortunes, could barely hide his contempt for those demonstrators when he quipped that after the hullabaloo “they are going to go back to the Olive Garden and to the Holiday Inn that they’re staying at,” before the curfew blanketing DC and Northern Virginia took hold.

Adam Kinzinger, a Republican representative from near Chicago and a former AirForce fuel tanker pilot who has pretensions to Deep Statehood and is a crass kiss-up to billionaires, recorded a video—“with a heavy heart”—to tell us that “for the sake of Democracy” he is calling “that the 25th Amendment be invoked.” Lady Gaga, a singer and constitutional scholar (I’m guessing), stressed that impeachment is the safer course in dealing with a president who “incited domestic terror” explaining that “Congress has the constitutional authority to possibly disqualify him from future election—the 25th Amendment doesn’t disqualify him.” Romney, never missing an occasion to display his moralizing fluff, described the event as an “insurrection incited by the president of the United States.” Pat Buchanan mused that the event was such a disgrace and debacle that “[a]fter Trump leaves the presidency, he will not be coming back. The opposition to him inside the GOP would prevent his nomination or would defect to prevent his reelection were he nominated again.”

“The president was trying to stage a coup,” Fiona Hill asserted, and that Trump must have been plotting to get the U.S. military involved in the election dispute but thankfully he was thwarted—remember her? She was the Russia expert and impeachment witness who had mentored Steele’s primary source. So, clearly not the excitable type. Ahem. Alex Miceli, the founder of Morning Read, a daily news website about golfing, implored the Professional Golfers’ Association of America to move its 2022 PGA Championship from Trump National Bedminster in New Jersey to another location. And this was an actual headline in the WaPo: ‘In unusual move, top Trump official rescinds cheery exit letter and resubmits a protest resignation.’ Michelle Obama graciously (or is it spelled gratuitously?—sorry my English no good) shared her deep, deep thoughts with us: What if the rioters had been black? Melania Trump’s chief of staff Stephanie Grisham resigned in disgust, and a nation gasped—Rome has indeed fallen.

Get outta here already with this stupid shit.

Democracy is not a fragile thing that must be bounded and tortuously trained like a bonsai redwood. A vigorous system can handle disorder. In fact, disorder may give political life vibrancy. But no, at 6:21PM on January 8, 2021, Twitter announced that it was permanently suspending Trump’s account. What would he do if he can’t reach his 88 million followers? Is that it, is it really over for him now? Trumpism looks at all this and says to itself: what a bunch of pussies. All it means is that the forces arrayed against Trumpism are signaling that they are terrified of 2024.

Or, maybe Nye is right: soft-serve shit is what the majority craves.

I don’t have doubts about Trumpism, but I do worry. The task before us is to incur a massive sense of buyer’s remorse in the establishment’s victory over Trump. But what if the Trumpist narrative, awesome as it may get, breaks through to the 11 percenters and they still would rather pick the comfort of trusting the elite over our healthy dose of disorder? Maybe theirs’s is a sense that if one conforms to elitism, one can deem themselves elite too? And that’s grand. Who wouldn’t want to feel special?

Who knows, maybe the lower-shelf retail identity politics that Kamala Harris is peddling, as showcased by her Kwanza greetings video and clumsy ‘Fweedom’ appropriation, is just the sort of thing that the consumer needs right now, reassured as it were by the return of patently-obsequious politicians trying to butter him or her up? A return to normalcy indeed.

Why hold the Center for Disease Control liable for how they wasted seven precious weeks in the manner by which they fumbled early testing for COVID19, and then instinctively tried to cover up errors rather than fix them as bureaucrats are wont to do? Don’t you believe in science? Aren’t you in awe of experts? How many hazmat suits do you own, huh?! Here’s a video of (DR.!!!) Jill and ‘Regular Joe’ Biden singing Happy Birthday to (DR.!!!) Anthony Fauci to set you right. Isn’t that much more uplifting that holding the CDC to account, or China for that matter?

What’s that, you kinda remember Fauci discounting the usefulness of mask-wearing in those first few weeks? Why would you bring that up? “What difference, at this point, does it make?” What’s next? Confessing that masks are uncomfortable? You are supposed to enjoy them. You must embrace the way of the mask. Chop-chop, change your profile pic to one with a mask, all the cool kids are doing it. Pick out a cutesy print and let the world know that you are a dutiful team member. Trump sinned against all that is holy and decent all last year when displaying a hint of agnosticism, that even though no one likes wearing them we sorta-kinda have to suck it up for a while and wear one, because maybe-shmaybe we will get this over with sooner if we do. Trump was speaking to the half of the population—the rebellious “now and then” half—that responds to such crotchety grumblings when authority imparts advice. But we can’t have that. You know how it is, we can’t have two ways of getting the folks out there to do what we want them to do. It is too confusing for them, and it suggests that the way (DR.!!!) experts have suggested as standard procedure may not be absolutely perfect. Conformity saves lives, don’t you know?

It is such a relief that we are getting the GOPe back, isn’t it? Did you see how Elaine Chow submitted her resignation after Trump signaled disappointment in her husband, the soon-to-be Senate minority leader? Closing of ranks among sweethearts and the powerful is an endearing sight. Remember Paul Ryan? Gee he was some swell guy. Sure, he failed on healthcare and seems to be collapsing Fox News’s ratings, but wouldn’t it be great to get him back in the mix now somehow?

No thanks.

If it is to be a slapstick clown show and nothing but, then I and many millions like me would prefer to watch our own. And he’s really, really good at it, as you may have heard. And a lot more honest about it—ironic, no?

Yes, yes, it is never a good thing when a mass of people disengage and leave the public square. Things can get weird and sectarian out there in the wilderness. Plus, getting back to the square may get harder: the belief that access is rigged may incur a permanent self-quarantine, while the square itself may devolve into a holding pen for conformist totalitarianism, where an individual, at once celebrated and isolated, would shrink under the glare of Big Media, Big Dem, Big Tech, Big Banks, Big Deep State, and now it seems Big Soda too. But do we have a choice when cancel culture is already the law of the land? Lord Jack Patrick of Dorsey had already decreed it.

But I do worry too about Trump. He’s it. He’s the movement, for now. I just don’t think that Ron DeSantis or Howley can—and would ever be able to, amply credentialed as they are—recreate the magic. No one can. Kristi Noem is making all the right moves to get us interested, and as I said earlier Tim Scott is promising, but still. Moses has to do his thing before Joshua takes over, and that thing, deliverance, is not yet fully done. Soon we won’t even have a good enough Aaron to speak for Moses, not with Rush Limbaugh sadly ebbing away. I don’t worry about Trump royally messing things up with a cluster-fuck gesture or a miscalculation; I’d take his intuition over anyone else’s. What I worry about is that he would wander off and apply himself, as is his busybody way, to something else. If one re-reads the chapter in Conrad Black’s book A President Like No Other (2018) about Trump’s business rise and then, more importantly, his improbable comeback from under crushing disaster upon disaster, one would detect something disquieting. Black (who was pardoned by Trump; you’ve got Wikipedia to fill you in on that) did a masterful job breaking down Trump’s business genius—yes, I did it again, I used that word, read that chapter and decide for yourself—probably because Black was uniquely positioned to explain such complex financial transactions, seeing how he is both a journalist and a banker, and how he had the added benefit of negotiating a land deal in Chicago while sitting across from Trump. He saw the magic in real time, and he realized that Trump has an ingenious instinct for confidently walking in with a winning offer at exactly the right moment. Trump also has the equally ingenious instinct to walk away when he sees that the deal just ain’t happening. And he would be ruthless and unsentimental about it. Would he do so to MAGA too?

I hope not. I hope he sees what I see: a comeback for the ages.

Oh look, that sign up ahead says we are only a 0.2 mile hike away from Mt. Nebo’s summit. Wanna come? It’s a great view…

Download a PDF copy of this essay here.

This is the best time for America to quit Iraq

(7400 words; approximate reading time 57 mins)

The Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against the Iranian regime has bifurcated into two contradictory objectives: ‘regime collapse’ on the one hand and “Let’s make Iran great again” on the other—the latter closer to President Donald Trump’s heart, one to be achieved through negotiation, and a tagline actually uttered by him. The Iraqi negotiators due to sit across from their State Department counterparts next month, as part of a hastily scheduled round of ‘strategic dialogue,’ won’t know which of these two streams they are to wade through. But they certainly won’t be engaging in a conversation about why Iraq matters to the United States, simply because it doesn’t. In the eyes of this administration Iraq matters solely in the context of pushback against Iran.

The challenge to make Iraq autonomously relevant to America’s strategic calculations thus lies before Iraq’s leaders. Yet that journey begins with America washing its’ hands of Iraq. And it just happens to be the best time to do so.

Obama Abadi snub

But how many countries are really ‘autonomously relevant’? Isn’t that a too high standard by which to hold Iraq? There are degrees of relevance here. Right now Iraq is on dangerous ground. If Trump reaches a new deal with the Iranians then there is a high likelihood that he would toss up Iraq as part of the bargain. Baghdad should work on itself becoming a more valuable prize in America’s eyes but that is going to take time and some tough decisions. And that won’t happen if the U.S. keeps coddling Iraq away from Iran’s covetous hands, a situation that encourages Iraqi leaders to tread the path of least resistance while waiting for outsiders to sort out their country’s problems.

Then what about the Kurds? What about the Islamic State’s jihadists? Wouldn’t leaving signal defeat and weakness? Wouldn’t such a move embolden Iran to further expand into Iraq and throughout the Middle East? Iraq is not autonomous but neither are its problems, many of which are transregional in origin and substance. Leaving Iraq means surrendering a big portion of the field, one that cannot be neatly contained within the borders of one particular country. And more importantly, why the hurry? Why not let the status prevail for a few months more, or a few years, until better conditions arise, may be with another U.S. administration?

These are valid and compelling concerns, and it just happens that the best possible outcome for all them involves America quitting Iraq—now.

‘Strategic Dialogue’

The dwindling ranks of Iraq-watchers in Washington are excitedly anticipating the talks. They were heartened by the ‘120 day waiver’ on sanctioning Iraqi purchases of Iranian electricity that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued as an early reward for the commencement of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s tenure. To have a once ‘(strictly protect)’ informant for the Americans taking center stage suggests that the trajectory of Washington’s influence on Baghdad is on the upswing again.

The current goal post by which to demonstrate influence is to maintain U.S. military presence in the country, with the watchers reassuring themselves that wherever America has troops America remains engaged. Ergo they hope to stay or reverse this administration’s instinct for a general retrenchment away from the hotspots of the Middle East.

Leaving American soldiers as place holders in the sand, as in Syria, is a poor substitute for containing or countering Iran. This is pantomime, a Kabuki-like pretense at strategy, resulting in a ridiculous mannequinization of U.S. power. It is not enough to impress the Iranians, and should Tehran choose to challenge it then it won’t be enough to impress the Iraqis or anyone else keeping tabs on regional supremacy.

The American public wants out. Trump partially ran on this sentiment. Of all of America’s foreign entanglements Iraq is particularly embittering; the voting public has moved on from ‘Iraq fatigue’ to Iraq revulsion. Trump’s recurring grievances against allies taking Americans for suckers rings doubly true for Baghdad in his constituency’s ears: Iraqis are ungrateful and they cannot get their act together. When their leaders are not stoking bloodshed (against Americans and against each other) they are robbing their own coffers.

This Trump constituency (which spills over into the Bernie Sanders-supporting demographic too) deeply mistrusts the arguments made by the expert class in Washington—whether they come at the issue as international engagement enthusiasts or as Iran hawks—on why it is important to stay. Scare scenarios (Iran taking over; Kurds left to go it alone; jihadist comeback) will not ‘take’ with the majority of the public anymore. The public increasingly hears about the conflation of livelihoods with engagement among the ‘globalists’, Davos-men, DC lobbyists and Gulf-funded think tankers—the new bogeymen of the right and the left—which further casts a shadow on the proponents for staying. The audience also listens to opposing arguments from others in this elite to the effect that Iraq is hopeless and unfixable. There is almost no public diplomacy to speak of undertaken by Baghdad’s envoys.

Consequently, Iraq is going to be very tough sell with Trump. And if there is one thing everyone should have figured out by now it is that any policy lacking presidential engagement is doomed to death by tweet. Trump was only impressed by Ain al-Asad Airbase and the money that has been spent there. That is the full extent of Iraq that he has seen, and even that at dark. Iran’s rocket launch against the base in retaliation for General Qassim Soleimani’s killing may seem like a feeble slap in a larger strategic sense, but it showed Trump that even this little patch of Iraq—the only one that he has any sort of personal attachment to—can be messed with.

A toe-hold in Iraq risks an occasional and painful stomp. Otherwise it may facilitate an Iranian counter policy of “catch a tiger by the toe.” It presents a poorly defended target to a determined enemy while simultaneously restricting the maneuverability of a superpower. The re-entry price for serious American contention of Iraqi turf is too steep, certainly one that Trump, and the public behind him, would baulk at. To give a sense of what Iraqi expectations of what a revitalized American role would look like, consider the periodic rumors of Central Intelligence Agency coups in the making and U.S. Marines fanning out across the Green Zone arresting Iraqi political leaders.

A friend forwarded a WhatsApp voice message to me a couple of weeks ago. The speaker, unidentified but speaking with an Iraqi accent, forcefully asserts that the Middle East is about to be changed dramatically as a result of al-Kadhimi’s tenure. Britain has willed it so, and is actively planning all this. The British have secretly sent a team to demarcate the Iraq-Kuwait border anew and that to Iraq’s advantage, thus affording al-Kadhimi a quick and easy win. Kuwait is also going to give up its demands on what remains of wartime indemnities owed to it. Iraq will return as a strong regional country as part of British-American-Gulf backing, and Baghdad will be tasked with confronting Tehran and Ankara whose regimes have outlived their usefulness to the British. Secular governing will reign triumphant, and Iran must pull out all of its acolytes from Iraq quickly or a war will erupt on June 29th. So claims the speaker. This message was widely distributed among the Iraqi elite. My friend, a successful businessman with extensive Western and regional contacts and who should know better, was excitedly asking “Is this for real?” This is where expectations are; these are what foolproof judgements about geopolitics sound like for a large swath of Middle Easterners.

That is just not going to happen. What America could do though is to execute a martial-arts-like policy of stepping back while pulling Iran down under its own weight, Kuzuchi-style.

Defining Quitting

It is a drastically different situation across the Middle East after Trump’s fire bolt zapped Soleimani’s chariot on the inner ring road of Baghdad International Airport. Soleimani was the Qods Force personified, its ambitions and reach a reflection of him. It can’t stand without him. But that is the least of the void he left behind. Soleimani’s mandate was to evict America from ‘West Asia.’ He was also integral to Khamenei’s succession plans. Thus he was not only taken off the battlefield in Iraq, he was taken out of Iran’s future.

Soleimani’s killing widened the scope of geopolitical opportunity in the region for actors willing to challenge Tehran in its moment of bewilderment at his loss. Immediately before the strike on January 3rd, America’s policies were experiencing strategic collapse along the entire northern tier of the Middle East (Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan), much of that being of Soleimani’s doing in tandem with Washington’s missteps. A new horizon opened on January 4th, but it may prove fleeting.

Now is time for the Iraqis to step into that void as far as their country is concerned. With the pro-Iran camp momentarily incapacitated, Iraqis must brawl for their sovereignty. Staring down the Iranians is a matter of survival for the current leadership of the country. The political coalition that may do so is the strongest it will ever be. The presidency, the speakership and the premiership are headed by individuals with a proven record of fidelity to America. They are bolstered by the majority of the heads of military and security outfits in the country many of whom have demonstrated fealty in the past. Then there are Muqtada al-Sadr and the demonstrators adding heft to the anti-Iran sentiment. But most importantly there is Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. He serves as the lodestar guiding this coalition. He is also the reason, given his advanced age, why they must act quickly before they lose him. He too is irreplaceable and likely to leave a decade-long void in his wake.

The status quo cannot stand for much longer. Matters, especially of the financial variety, are coming to the fore. The public payroll salaries are the glue that holds the state from collapse, coopting and ameliorating a significant part of the population. Millions of government employees and pensioners subdue their wrath against the general state of mismanagement along month-long deferments as they await a paycheck. This system is under stress and in serious threat of unraveling as the state’s revenues dwindle. The ruling class needs a stunt of nationalist defiance, even if mere bravado, to distract from a poor record at governing. Whilst in the past such bravado was directed by a variety of actors against the American ‘occupation’ now is the opportune time to turn it Iran-wards.

Standing up this coalition at its strongest and at a time when Iranian influence, sans Soleimani, is at its lowest may just be enough of a distraction.

If Iraqi politicos attempt and fail, or if they dither and cede ground to the Iranians, then it shall be their defeat, not America’s. Iran may claim the prize of Iraq but a ‘failed state’ would become an anchor around its neck. How’s that for ‘maximum pressure’?

Leaving is the only way to discourage Iraq’s leaders from exercising the only skill at statecraft that they have mastered: maintaining tactical relevance within a taut stand-off between the U.S. and Iran. Stand-offs keep the middlemen in business—they prosper at times of strategic muddling. Yet a balance between Iran and America has no logic given the disparity in strength. Such irresolute situations benefit the weaker party and diminish the stronger. This particular stand-off lets Iraq’s leader off easy: there is nothing compelling to make a stand, to take a risk. It is time to take off their training wheels.

Gravitating between greater powers can also induce dangerous pretensions and delusions. For example, many in this class believe that the October demonstrations were choreographed by America in retaliation for Iraq’s long-term oil and financing deal with China.

Al-Kadhimi drew his relevance in the former cabinets of Haidar al-Abadi and Adel Abdul Mahdi by serving as a shadow Foreign Minister. He is likely to reprise that role by managing foreign relations centrally from his office while leaving other duties such as finances and economic planning for others in his own cabinet. There is understandable alacrity in Washington for doing what it can to firm up his standing. Yet U.S. policy cannot be tailored to play to his strengths as a transregional broker.

There was a similar eagerness to help Abdul Mahdi succeed early on. He too had many Western boosters. A superpower though should never make too large of a bet on an individual. America has seen many Middle Eastern disappointments in this regard. Superpowers have serially placed large bets on individuals. But now is no time for business as usual in light of the opportunity presented by leaving.

Rather than spending their time flitting around as intermediaries, Iraq’s leaders must mount the steep learning curve of adequate governance through ‘common sense’ politicking and coalition building. Their first order of business is to bring political life back online to bind together the anti-Iran coalition. Then they need to look for allies—both temporary and long-term—around their neighborhood.

Consequently, the magnitude of America’s quitting should not only look like a troop withdrawal, but should further downgrade Iraq to the strategic and economic usefulness of Burkina Faso as far as America is concerned. The measures should demonstrate a significant reduction in diplomatic presence, financial aid and media outreach. Only then will the Iranians and the Iraqi political class realize that the U.S. is serious about leaving them to their own devices.

Such a dramatic break will induce regional powers to increase their engagement with Baghdad and increase their support. For many years now, countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey presumed that the U.S. knows what it is doing while ‘managing’ Iraq. They took their grievances with Baghdad to Washington. When the Saudis sent their then Foreign Minister to Baghdad in February 2017 for the first time since Saddam Hussein was overthrown, they insisted that Adel al-Jubair travel into and around the country within the U.S. Embassy’s security envelope. The U.S. pulled all the stops so that it could gingerly bring the Saudis and Iraqis closer together even though such an embrace was in the best interests of both parties.

This formula should change if America washes its hands of Iraq. Iraq’s new ‘co-prime minister’ for economics Ali Allawi was in Riyadh a couple of days ago, hat in hand, hoping to secure Saudi largesse. He joins representatives from many other regional countries seeking the same from a Saudi Arabia that has its own financial woes to worry about. But in the new alignment, the Saudis must prioritize on their own without American guidance: this is their opportunity to take a regional lead in a post-America Iraq in a way that Iran cannot hope to match. There are initial news that the Saudis promised three billion dollars to help Iraq. The Saudis, however, have a track record of promising and then disappearing.

Missed opportunities

America has had a long history with Iraq. Some argue that the relationship began during the early days of the Ba’ath with the CIA in 1962; a relationship unproven as of yet, but still not disproven. Certainly since the 1980s the Americans have been deeply embroiled in the country. Those describing the 2003 war as the “worst single mistake ever made in the history of our country” as Trump put it recently should consider a longer timeline in assessing America’s relationship with Baghdad. No other country in the world has so vexed the policy crafters of Washington; every possible fix has been applied to Iraq, every tool of superpower influence leveraged once and sometimes twice. Yet all of it has failed. This was the tally up to 2016:

By sheer coincidence (or is it?) the modern-day state of Iraq posed one of the biggest challenges to the post WWII order of the status quo. The CIA and the State Department have had to apply all sorts of remedies to make their Realist argument work. Iraq entered into one of the bloodiest and longest wars of the post-world war era, against Iran. The Realists found this to be auspicious—Iraq would take care of their Iran problem where Carter couldn’t. Barely two years after the cessation of that war, Iraq lunged at the status quo of the Persian Gulf. The Realists had hoped that Saddam’s regime would liberalize. They were taken back when it ventured into Kuwait and began making noises against Saudi Arabia. The Realists assembled the first international coalition of armies in the post-Cold War era to force Saddam to color within the lines. Then they imposed the most far-reaching system of sanctions to tether Saddam’s ambitions, calling its policy of restraining him together with Iran that of ‘Dual Containment’. They enforced No-Fly Zones so that he wouldn’t massacre Iraq’s Kurds, again. Once in a while, President Clinton would have to authorize bombing runs to keep Saddam at bay. The Realists tried to assuage the detrimental effect of sanctions through the UN’s Oil-for-Food program, only to watch helplessly as Saddam subverted it to his own aims, in some cases by bribing UN officials and their kin from its proceeds. He kept killing people, but the Realists never took that as a casus belli, justifiably so from their distant perspectives. Even after September 11, the Realists deeply hoped that Saddam would ‘liberalize’ and avoid war by cooperating with UN chemical and biological weapons inspectors. Saddam, being Saddam, wouldn’t.

Iraq had been the petri-dish of Realist quick-fixes for two decades. None of them worked.

Since 2003, Iraq has endured one of the ugliest waves of disorder known to the modern era, but Iraq has surprisingly endured. Iraq has witnessed a bungled occupation, an insurgency, corruption unprecedented in its magnitude, sectarian and ethnic strife, the most barbaric and wide-ranging forms of terrorism, and an attempted return to autocracy (that of Maliki’s—with the Obama administration turning a blind eye to it). After the Americans had left, Maliki beat up on Sunnis by invoking his brand of Shi’ite chauvinism, but the Sunnis turned to protest rather than arms. When he denied them the right to protest, Sunni jihadists came back in full force and managed, for the first time in a decade, to retake a major city like Fallouja.

Over the course of multiple national and local elections, the Iraqi people elected an underperforming, sometimes venal, political class that was no match for these manifold challenges. In the last two years alone, Iraq has further endured the loss of a third of its territory to the ‘caliphate’, the proliferation of Iran-backed Shiite militias, and what looks like the de facto secession of the Kurds. The country faces an imminent financial meltdown due to mismanagement of fiscal policy and the drop of oil prices. By any measure, Iraq is supposed to be dead, or near dead. Yet contrary to expectation, there is still a state there: children go to school, bureaucrats show up to work, shopkeepers sell their wares, oil is being sold on the international markets, and in fits and starts, the caliph’s newly-won dominions are being reclaimed. The Kurds now face a reality in which their breakaway entity would have a difficult time staying fiscally afloat without their mandated share of Basra’s oil. For all its venality and mediocrity, the political class managed to deny Maliki a third term, even though he had won a plurality of the vote.

Even more surprising is that the latest spasm of global protests are occurring in Baghdad, and have been for months. Why would anyone protest against a dead corpse? Doesn’t protest entail the slightest of hope that the political class may reform itself? Where is this hope coming from?

There is a parallel history that can be written about all the opportunities missed in Iraq, both by the Americans and by its own politicos. Such an exercise can be undertaken in studying many places around the world and over a variety of eras. But it is difficult to find as consistent record of misjudgment and a failure to rectify mistakes as that of America’s policy crafters for Iraq.

The latest missed opportunity involved the most recent iteration of the protest movement, for which Pompeo was vocally enthusiastic but still failed to make use of in a clever manner. Not that there were too few ideas as how to do that. One of those ideas came in a memorandum delivered to the Trump administration by retired Iraqi politician Mithal al-Alusi on November 6, 2019. Alusi argued that the United States can craft a popular and winning policy for Iraq on the cheap by clobbering the political class over its endemic corruption. Effectively, it would take Trump’s anti-elite message global. He wrote:

President Trump wants to unburden America from being responsible for the Middle East. He wants local actors to bear more responsibilities. What we see in Iraq and in Lebanon is that the people have risen up demanding to be heard, and to be involved. They are angry at bad governance, and specifically at corruption, and their anger is compounded when the political elite does not respond, or performs cosmetic reforms, or hits back with bloody repression. The people in the Middle East, especially in Iraq, know that corruption and repression opened the door for the terrorists of ISIS, and the excuse of ISIS terrorism allowed Iranian-sponsored terrorists to embed within the Iraqi state. The people are demanding that the problem be dealt with at its root—corruption—so that foreign powers such as America will not have to intervene every few years to put out a fire here, a fire there, or as President Trump calls it “endless wars”.

President Trump wants to leave, but he should give us a parting gift. One that can be his foreign policy legacy; a ‘Trump Doctrine.’ When people rise up demanding good governance, then America shall commit to helping them to ‘Drain the Swamp.’ We are asking that President Trump helps us to drain the swamps of Baghdad and Beirut, to hold the corrupt ruling classes accountable for their incompetence and mendacity. President Trump will stand with people around the world against the corruptors, and the proof-of-concept case can begin in Iraq, a country where the size of misappropriated and stolen funds amounts in the hundreds of billions of dollars—probably the largest in the modern history when measured by a global scale.

The added attraction to President Trump is that this policy/doctrine will be all his own: the elite of the National Security and Foreign Policy have long dismissed secular, post-sectarian, civic forces in the Middle East as no match for the hard power of oligarchs, autocrats, and sectarian militias and warlords, especially if sponsored by the Iranians. That notion is being rendered obsolete in Iraq and Lebanon. The young men and women there have surprised the ruling class, the world, even themselves. This is a beautiful moment that should not be wasted, as former President Barack Obama did when he wasted the potential of the first few weeks of the Arab Spring. We only have a three or four week window to give it that push towards success. A big component of that success will be accomplished if those young men and women feel that they have been heard by the leader of the greatest power on earth, and if they hear a pledge from him that America will help in combatting corruption.

Alusi followed up with specific recommendations for what to do. Those measures need not have been enacted; the mere discussion of such topics in Washington would have been a deafening message to Iraqis. Needless to say, none of that, neither action nor message, was considered. A parallel effort in the U.S. Congress to showcase anti-corruption as policy was whittled down to a useless knob by Rep. Tom Malinowski. But hey, Pompeo did tweet a few encouraging words from time to time. Whoop-de-do.

Pompeo’s Pharsalus vs. the Trump method

Pompeo is desperate and hurried. He is running out of time. He had been extending ‘maximum pressure’ along six-month-long increments, every time convincing Trump that the Iranians are just about to cry uncle. There is a real danger that during this present increment the Iranians may counter in such a way as to complicate the American election cycle for Trump. Trump’s detractors will be ready with the refrain: “Well, what did you think was going to happen after taking out Soleimani?” The New York Times came out on May 20 with a ridiculous assertion that the Iranians don’t want to goad Trump into a confrontation in Iraq since that may help him out in the elections and hence they have opted for “incipient detente.” That is a fundamental misunderstanding of U.S. public sentiment on the part of the paper and those pushing this spin. It may also be a serious and consequential misreading of why Iran is acting docile at this time.

Pompeo’s desperation and hurry may prove too costly for the president. He hasn’t played smart.  Pompeo had his building issue a press release on January 11 addressing calls in Baghdad to expel U.S. troops which spoke obliquely about not discussing troop withdrawal but rather “our right, appropriate force posture in the Middle East.” The State Department signaled an intent to “recommit to our strategic partnership” one that extends beyond security to a financial, economic and diplomatic partnership. “We want to be a friend and partner to a sovereign, prosperous and stable Iraq.” The chaser was a story leaked the same day to the Wall Street Journal that an ancillary verbal message was delivered by the State Department to the prime minister’s office to the effect that “the U.S. will block [Iraq’s] account at the Federal Reserve Bank in New York.” So much for sovereignty. In announcing the upcoming talks on April 7, Pompeo self-described the United States as “a force for good in the nation and as Iraq’s closest friend.” Ahem.

Such stunts do not signal strength. Rather, by signaling that the U.S. really, really wants to stay in Iraq, they expose a vulnerability to the Iranians because it turns troop presence into the gold standard of ‘staying.’ It thus gives the Iranians a target and allows them to control the timeline. America, however, wins by forfeiting.

Pompeo does not have good answers for how long maximum pressure is supposed to last absent regime collapse (what he desires), or next steps should the Iranians never assent to negotiate with Trump. Where would that leave Iraq as an appendage of an open-ended and unfruitful policy?

Contrast Pompeo’s manic, sweaty insistence on an underperforming plan to Trump’s approach. Trump took out Soleimani because he doesn’t care about Iraq. He must have been amply briefed on the possible ramifications of Iran’s reaction, most of which would have been projected to happen inside Iraq. Trump may even have priced-in the likelihood for a direct military confrontation with Iran. To his mind it would be a two week affair, full of fireworks over major Iranian cities. Then the Iranians would sue for talks.

Trump took out Soleimani because he was negotiating. Much like his embassy move to Jerusalem two years ago, Trump abruptly took the sweetener off the table, a classic brass-knuckle negotiating tactic. In a future negotiation the Iranians would have to agonize over what to do with Soleimani, so that eventually they would reluctantly give him up to show goodwill. That would earn them time and pageantry. It would be a step, one of the final few that would show the world that they could be reasonable and ‘normal.’ Trump simply skipped ahead, at once solving a problem for the other side but also denying them an opportunity to do him a favor.

The timing of the strike is telling too. Six months earlier, Trump stood down from a direct confrontation with Iran. He followed up with the sweetest sweet-talk he could muster: Iranians are “very smart. They’re very ambitious,” he would say about his Iranian friends in New York City. “They have tremendous—they’re high-quality people.” Trump self-described himself as “neither warmonger nor dove”. His is a “common sense” approach, he asserted, and all he wants is “no nuclear weapons.”

“So we’ll start all over. We could have a deal with them very quickly, if they want to do it…it’s up to them,” he added, “When they agree to that they are going to have a wealthy country, they’re going to be so happy, and I’m going to be their best friend.” He even catch-phrased it: “Let’s make Iran great again.”

But six months later—remember these were Pompeo’s artificial timelines on which he sold the president—and there was still no bite on the bait Trump had lobbed out. Corollary: bye, bye Hajji Qasim.

The irony is that Soleimani thought that he was also negotiating—directly with Trump at that. Four months before his demise the Emiratis were fanning out in Baghdad and Beirut to find someone who could make a credible introduction to the Iranian general. Their pitch was that they could act as a direct channel to Trump. I don’t know if they made contact with Soleimani or whether their efforts went anywhere. But Soleimani would have been aware of those efforts and in his world view he would have thought that the Emiratis were acting on instructions coming from the Oval Office. He must have understood the absence of a response to the astounding attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq refinery in September as a signal that Trump would rather talk, and he might as well talk to the Qods Force chief directly.

Soleimani was waiting to seize on a big event to get the Americans out of both Iraq and Syria. This was to be his moment of victory. Less so one over the Americans but more so to exact clarity in those places as to who is in charge—himself. The demonstration at the U.S. Embassy on December 31 wasn’t it. There, while the embassy’s outer gate was smoldering, he thought he was adequately communicating to those inside and their bosses in Washington that “even though we didn’t do Kirkuk (the rocket attack on December 27) and you unfairly retaliated against our guys (in Qaim, on December 29), this exploit is the furthest we are going to go.” When Trump tweeted “The Anti-Benghazi” to describe America’s handling of the event, Soleimani took it that Trump got his message. By associating the optics of the embassy attack to what happened in Libya almost seven years ago and contrasting it to Hillary Clinton’s handling of it then, Trump was revealing that he wasn’t putting a premium on Iraq and was more interested, in this particular moment, to play to his local constituency, one, it should be remembered, wanted out from Iraq as it is.

It is still feels a bit surreal that Trump went ahead with the strike against Soleimani. Surely the briefings were exhaustive, but I doubt that the full implications were well understood in the government’s analytical bodies. It has turned out to be an immensely lucky and auspicious bet—so far. But it is after strategic windfalls like these when the gambler should consider leaving with the winnings.

In death, Soleimani’s stature was revealed to be greater than what was known about him among Iran-watchers. It is now mainstream to talk about his likely role as the caretaker and arbiter of the post-Khamenei transition—one ‘interrupted’ by Trump.

The outpouring of grief on Iran’s streets for the slain general looked genuine. So who were those who showed up to bid him farewell? I maintain those were the regime’s truest believers, the ones who still wanted the ‘Islamic Revolution’ to mean something. Like Soleimani, many had sacrificed greatly for that ideal, and in Soleimani they saw the last lion, a redeemer, of the revolution. He was destined to cleanse out the High Temple, chasing out the corrupt elite who draped themselves in revolutionary attire and spoke fiery words, but who had lost their way. And Soleimani is irreplaceable in this sense. It took forty years to prepare and build him up for this role. There is no other. Those mourners wept for the man, and for the dream.

Khamenei has no Plan B for succession. No Iran-watcher has convincingly discerned one. He is running out of time, and out of resources. Losing Soleimani seems to have deflated him. There is no fire and fight there. Elite factions, many sensing their doom with Soleimani’s elevation, breathed out with relief at his demise. They are now busily managing a distraught and disarmed Khamenei upwards. They chose to de-escalate with the U.S., further enraging ‘Soleimani’s folk’ who already despise them. The latter are left with legitimate questions: “what’s all the revolutionary posturing for if now is not the moment to fight? Why pay the price of being a pariah if Soleimani is not avenged?” If ever there was a force deserving of the description ‘maximum pressure’ it is they—Soleimani’s sullen constituency—that may have turned their backs on a regime that counts them as its bedrock.

Trump’s gamble may yet keep giving.

Winning Streak?

Khamenei tweeted out once again on May 17 a message saying “The American’s won’t stay in Iraq and Syria; they’ll be expelled.” Sure, it could just be talk. He has said this sort of stuff before. But it is a mistake to allow him to set the stakes. For now, all the Iranians can muster are some wayward projectiles loosely aimed at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad while putting up billboards of Khomeini, Khamenei, and Soleimani to mark Quds Day celebrations around major Iraqi cities. This is weak sauce, and it would be a bit over-the-top to misjudge such theatrics as dominance, or even defiance. However, if America lingers in Iraq, and Khamenei rouses himself from the doldrums to cajole his many underlings there into creating the optics of a humiliation, then all the winnings earned from the Soleimani strike so far would be lost.

Meanwhile, Pompeo tweeted out that “[it] is critical that [al-Kadhimi] begin implementing the reforms demanded by the Iraqi people, who deserve a government free of corruption, accountable to their needs, and committed to overcoming the economic crisis the country faces,”  after speaking with the new Iraqi prime minister on May 22. Pompeo is setting high expectations for ‘his’ guy, who was formerly his intelligence chief counterpart when Pompeo headed the CIA. What it sounds like to Iraqis is that the Americans are going to prop up al-Kadhimi when facing these challenges.

Al-Kadhimi has had a good run with steady and significant American support. John Brennan, another former CIA Director, even got President Barack Obama to telephone Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a few years back to put in a good word for al-Kadhimi early in the latter’s tenure. The Americans also recommended that Saudi Crown Prince (Deputy CP at the time) Muhammad Bin Salman liaise with al-Kadhimi to improve Saudi relations with Baghdad and Najaf.

But the Americans didn’t have much to do with his latest promotion.

Al-Kadhimi didn’t arrive by a political process. He arrived through ‘spy games,’ namely Iranian-on-Iranian action. Those machinations had also thrust his predecessor Adnan al-Zurfi into the limelight, albeit briefly. Bizarre intrigues unfolded over those turbulent and confused weeks, which witnessed elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps purportedly undermining the Qods Force, an offshoot of theirs that seems to have grown too big for its britches. Iran’s Etela’at spies backstabbed their way with relish along the corridors of power in Baghdad and Tehran, bludgeoning Soleimani’s successor General Ismail Qa’ani. He arrived to hold down the fort in Baghdad but had to retreat in defeat: he saved face by sinking al-Zurfi’s investiture, mitigating a complete route of the Qods Force, but was not strong enough to hobble al-Kadhimi’s rise.

Rather than congratulating itself on al-Kadhimi’s success, Washington should worry about whether the Iranians would regroup after their internal melee is over. It should worry about the Etela’at strongly supporting al-Kadhimi’s candidacy then turning around and leaking damaging stories to The Guardian about his alleged meeting, in late February, with Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah by way of auditioning for the premiership. It is still far from clear what their game is. One day soon a new hierarchy will emerge to re-assert Iranian influence and turn Iraq back into an Iranian chip while negotiating with Trump. If the U.S. is seen as being heavily invested in al-Kadhimi then that turns him and his staff into targets too, ones vulnerable to all sorts of poisoned darts.

Trump never bothered to memorize the names of Abadi and Abdul Mahdi. I’d imagine he is inclined to the same with al-Kadhimi, unless Pompeo keeps badgering him. Trump’s instinct on this may well turn out useful.

There is opportunity in turning this case of presidential indifference into strategic indifference. If the U.S. simply doesn’t show up, by pulling back both its troops and its expectations from Iraq, then it denies the Iranians a fight. And a bout denied to a better prepared opponent is victory denied. In effect, it would be another sweetener taken off the table. Khamenei may tweet out ‘Mission Accomplished’ but most of the world would see (and remember) that Trump just wasn’t that into Iraq.

Is it sensible to tailor a policy to Trump’s instincts? Well, that is how the system is supposed to work both constitutionally and by acknowledged precedent. The ‘pressure maximalists’ are not the only ones pushing back, however. Given the national security bureaucracy’s antipathy towards this president, their impulse is to thwart his plans across the Middle East. “Trump wants the troops out? Then we must keep them there at all costs!” Cue a tweet from Brett McGurk. They do not think he has the capacity to understand the region. But it may be helpful for them to reread the biographies of those who are remembered today as some of history’s most masterful statesmen and strategists ever present on the world stage. Even those guys could get it really, really wrong.

Once upon a time, in the mid-1930s, modern Iraq’s foremost statesman Nuri al-Sa’id got it into his head to turn Ibn Saud into the region’s foremost sovereign. Sa’id was spiting King Ghazi of Iraq and the royal retinue that had displaced him. He dropped it soon enough when his fortunes realigned with those of the Hashemites. Yet the idea lingered and Chaim Weizmann picked it up after being seduced as to its strategic merits for the Zionist cause by St. John Philby, the former British officer turned Saudi fixer. Weizmann raised it with Winston Churchill at a time (World War II) when the latter was in search of new, big ideas to completely refit Britain’s outlook for the Middle East. Churchill seized upon the notion of turning Ibn Saud—“the greatest living Arab”—into “the boss of bosses.” Churchill even endorsed the idea of abolishing the Hashemite monarchies of Iraq and Transjordan to pave the way for it. He asked Weizmann to raise it with President Franklin D. Roosevelt while in America for “[t]here is nothing he and I cannot do if we set our minds to it.”

Ibn Saud, uncharacteristically, didn’t seize upon the plan and didn’t even let it play out to see where it may go. He expressed pique at a component of the deal that would have seemed among his retainers and the wider Arab public like a Zionist bribe lining his pocket. Roosevelt for his part was incensed upon learning that his name was invoked with Ibn Saud as a backer of the deal even before the Americans had been briefed on it. The whole affair downgraded Ibn Saud’s admiration for the British, and upgraded Roosevelt’s respect for Ibn Saud at the expense of the Zionists (Roosevelt had hitherto thought the Arabs a merely transactional race). It could retroactively be studied as the first stirring of the U.S.-Saudi partnership, one that would mold America’s expanding presence in the Middle East to this day. (For more on the affair, read Yehoshua Porath’s excellent book In Search of Arab Unity 1930-45; published in 1986)

Bureaucracies in London and Washington were smarter back then, or at least they boasted better talent. They managed to harpoon this idea for the sake of maintaining the status quo. But of course, they were not smart enough to realize that the region was indeed desperate for new, big, and drastic ideas. Their own narrow-mindedness would do away with much of the interwar order they had cultivated; the regimes in Syria, Egypt and Iraq—the Arabic-speaking countries that counted—would all buckle under within a decade.

So Trump should be cut some slack, especially when a historical review demonstrates that everything has been attempted with Iraq save extreme disengagement. Let’s try it his way since the alternative, keeping things in place with the hope that Joe Biden and his team may show up, is utter folly; who can forget that that bunch was deeply implicated in why matters are so flubbed today?

Consequences

Jim Mattis resigned over the prospect of Trump withdrawing from Syria. John Bolton resigned as a consequence of Trump not going all in on Iran after it shot down the RQ-4A Global Hawk, as well as the president’s desire to quit Afghanistan. Pompeo may yet join them in resigning in a huff, although that would be a marked departure from his carefully credentialed path to the presidency that he’s plotted out for himself since his youth. But even if he does then the president can withstand that embarrassment and even turn it into a win with his base.

The U.S. must make the break clean and final. This entails no troop retrenchment to Iraqi Kurdistan. Doing so defeats the purpose and spirit of the exit. Leaving all of Iraq will create a moment of truth for the Kurdish leadership, one that puts an end to their current suspended aspect. They can either fight it out with Baghdad in a bid for full independence or accede to what can be. The same goes for Iraq’s Sunnis; all factions must be compelled to negotiate an end-state, one of which may turn out to be the preservation and consolidation of the Iraqi state. American arbitrage only encourages intransigence and high drama from those who believe that Washington is on their side—that week. In October 2017, Masood Barzani thought he had American protection. The whole debacle over the referendum for independence, and custody over Kirkuk, ended up embarrassing America and directing a fatal blow to political life in Iraq after Soleimani proved Barzani wrong. The U.S. should not allow itself to be used as a prop in the petty feuds of second and third-rate players.

As for the threat of jihadist resurgence, the Iraqis have enough training and supplies, and one would think their own existentialist motivations for vigilance, to finish off what remains of the Islamic State or at least keep its menace at bay out in the deserts. There’s no saving them if they can’t even do that. Furthermore, Soleimani insisted that victory was owed to his PMUs, let us see if his heirs can reprise that feat without American air cover.

All throughout my working life I have advocated and worked for an U.S.-Iraqi alliance as a cornerstone for a new and transformative strategic paradigm in the Middle East. I believed that the U.S. can and shall turn Iraq into a regional paladin, zealously preaching for and enacting the return of democratic political life in the Middle East. It was not easy to make my peace with the idea that this partnership is a toxic one, one that can only be remedied by separation. However, these ideas do not come from a place of exhaustion nor cynicism. This is the ‘common sense’ plan going forward.

One would hope that a secure and sovereign Iraq will eventually find its way to the U.S. orbit as the region convulses, and other pretend-superpowers or regional powers fail at maintaining order. After all, what choice does Iraq have?

 

 

Response to Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi re: Kitab al-Majmu’

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A friend alerted me that I was mentioned in a recent blog posting having to do with the ‘Alawites. I took a look and found what seems to be a gratuitous swipe at a footnote in my monograph Syria Through Jihadist Eyes (Stanford, 2010). The gist of it was that I had misattributed a prayer used by the Nusayri-‘Alawites to one of their ‘books’ (K. al-Majmu’), and that I had gone further and mischaracterized that same book under a different name (al-Dustour).

My offending footnote reads:

“It is interesting that of all the names of the accursed mentioned in a Nusayri-‘Alawite collection of psalms (Kitab al-majmu’), al-Maghribi is the only person referred to beyond the thirteenth century as one of the enemies of the Nusayri-‘Alawites. See Heinz Halm, Al-ghinossiyah fil Islam (Cologne, Germany: 2003, translated from German), p. 240. Kitab al-Majmu’ is known as the al-Dustoor in Nusayri-‘Alawite sources, and it is attributed to al-Maymoun al-Tabarani, an eleventh-century figure credited with propagating the Nusayri-‘Alawite tenets in the Syrian coast. See Abu Musa and Sheikh Musa [al-Tartousi], Rasa’il al-hikmeh al-‘alawiyyeh, Vol. 1, Diyar Aql (2006), p. 8, n. 1. It seems that names such as Ibrahim al-Dasouqi (thirteenth century) and al-Maghribi (nineteenth century) were added by later scribes.”(Kazimi, Syria, p. 88, n. 12)

My goal was to highlight the importance of Sheikh Muhammad al-Maghribi (1764-1826) in Nusayri-‘Alawite collective memory; the provenance of K. al-Majmu’ was something I cited from others.

However, I found retracing my steps to be a fun and fruitful exercise, so I must thank Mr. al-Tamimi for that. That said, al-Tamimi is mistaken and inattentive on both of these counts: (1) “Like Nibras Kazimi (see the endnotes for more), Othman has misattributed mention of Sheikh al-Maghribi to the Kitab al-Majmu’. On this count, therefore, he is mistaken.” (2) “It is notable however that Kazimi has confused the contents of the Kitab al-Majmu’ with another reputed Alawite work.”

To begin with, the body of 16 suras (verses) that al-Tamimi calls K. al-Majmu’ is in fact al-Dustour, and al-Dustour is—as far as we can discern—a part of a larger compilation called al-Majmu’. Consequently, al-Tamimi is in error when translating the title to the 16 verses as the ‘Book of Totality,’ since it isn’t. It is neither a ‘book’ nor the totality of the Nusayri-‘Alawite faith, no matter what R. Dussaud claims, but more on him later.

The K. al-Majmu’ is likely a wholly different creature. We have to say likely since there are no extant copies of it in public view as of yet. However, reasonable hypotheses can be made about its composition and hence what the meaning of the word majmu’ is supposed to convey and how best to translate it. A century and a half ago, E. Salisbury translated K. al-Majmu’ as ‘Book of Summary.’ A worthy effort given how little was known about the Nusayri-‘Alawites at the time. Furthermore he provided a perfectly adequate and full translation of the 16 verses into English (and much more of al-Adhani’s Bakura, published in the Journal of the American Oriental Society back in 1866; al-Tamimi needlessly reprises part of that effort and provides his own translation of the 16 verses with notes) where Salisbury pointed out that those verses are referred to as al-Dustour within al-Adhani’s commentary.

Bella Tendler provided a more nuanced translation for the title of K. al-Majmu’ in her 2012 PhD dissertation (Concealment and Revelation: a study of secrecy and initiation among the Nusayri-Alawis of Syria, Princeton University—one of her supervisors was the great Patricia Crone!): she translates it as “’the canon’ or ‘the compilation’”—these are much closer to the spirit and function of K. al-Majmu’ per her analyses of its hypothesized provenance (p. 118-19), which is by far the best we have for it yet.

Here is what we know:

-Suleiman al-Adhani (1834-1871?) never called the 16 verses by the name of K. al-Majmu’. In his explanations of some of the verses he makes it clear that they belong to al-Dustour. He does mention K. al-Majmu’ in the context of the initiate being made to swear on it, and that an exegesis of verse 2 can be found in K. al-Majmu’. This is a significant hint that K. al-Majmu’ is a hypotext or a paratext that contains the 16 verses as well as other psalms and maybe even other instructions for the faithful. Al-Adhani also clearly distinguishes it from al-Tabarani’s Majmu’ al-a’yad and anyway there is no resemblance (see Rudolf Strothmann’s publication of it in 1943-44). [NB: maybe al-Tamimi can track down C. Brockelmann’s mysterious reference to Al-Adhani’s Bakura being first published in Aleppo in 1859 while most scholars know of its 1863 Beirut edition—this author believes this is key to the book’s origins]

-It is to Rene Dussaud (1868-1958) that the honor of mischaracterizing the 16 verses as the full extent of K. al-Majmu’ is owed, which al-Tamimi repeated. I cannot read Dussaud’s Histoire et religion des Nosairis (1900) in the French original nor do I have access to the recent Arabic translation (by ‘Abboud Kasooha, 2016). Therefore I cannot say for certain where he got the text from, but it does seem that his sole source was al-Adhani’s publication, down to the ‘intehet’ in verses 1 & 2 that had vexed al-Tamimi’s analytical skills, and which are clearly part of al-Adhani’s pausing to explain the preceding text before he employs another stylistic element for later verses and explanations.

-Hashem Othman categorically denies that a book by the name al-Majmu’ exists among his community. He may be accurate in two senses: K. al-Majmu’ may have been specific to Shamali (Haydari) sect. Another way of looking at it is that Othman is seizing on the misidentification of the al-Dustour as al-Majmu’ and denying that it exists as a book. This sly rhetorical trick hides the likelihood that the 16 verses (al-Dustour) were never meant to be written down (except for one line, see Yaron Friedman, The Nusayri-‘Alawis, 2010, p. 216) and that it was supposed to be transmitted orally, hence it is indeed not a ‘book.’

-Maymun ibn al-Qasim al-Tabarani (d. 1034) hints that he authored the al-Dustour, or at least expanded upon earlier material. Joseph Qezzi (the writer and publisher writing under the pseudonyms ‘Abu Musa’ and ‘Sheikh Musa al-Tartousi’) asserts that al-Tabarani based it on Al-risala al-mafdheliyya but does not demonstrate how he reached that conclusion (Abu Musa and Sheikh Musa [al-Tartousi], Silselet al-turath al-‘alawi, Vol. 6, Diyar Aql (2006), p. 9)

-Qezzi then comes up with the claim that the Shamalis call al-Dustour by the name K. al-Majmu’ (Silselet al-turath al-‘alawi, Vol. 9, Diyar Aql (2008), p. 12) while the Kalazis (Qiblis) stick to the original name al-Dustour. I think this is just retroactive finessing because he had previously used the term K. al-Majmu’ to refer to the 16 verses since the publication of his 1988 book on the Nusayri-‘Alawites (p. 243-259). There is still no evidence anywhere for calling the 16 verses al-Majmu’ outside of Dussaud’s initial error.

-Tendler introduces us to MS Taymur 564 in her dissertation. This manuscript (transcribed in 1889) is titled/labeled Al-Majmu’ fi ‘aqa’id al-nusayriyyeh where it is stored. It contains the 16 verses and much more, including a portion that may or may not be fabricated. According to Tendler there is also a sizable overlap with al-Adhani’s Bakura. Her analysis (see citation above) demonstrates that there may have been a book (‘a compilation’) called K. al-Majmu’ that both Bakura and MS Taymur 564 borrowed from. Several years later she is still sticking to her analysis, see her contribution (now as Bella Tendler Krieger) ‘New Evidence for the Survival of Sexually Libertine Rites among some Nusayri-‘Alawis of the Nineteenth Century,’ to Sadeghi, Ahmed, Silverstein, Hoyland (eds.), Islamic Cultures, Islamic Contexts, Brill, 2015, p. 567, n. 8.

-A cursory look suggests that the verses, rites and palms that al-Adhani reveals are similar in tone, outlay and referencing to Kitab al-Mashyakha (published in Silselet al-turath al-‘alawi, Vol. 9, Diyar Aql (2008), p. 141-230). It may be useful to think of K. al-Majmu’ as an updated version of this manual, or even as a substitute for it among communities that had lost access to a copy of K. al-Mashyakha. This is indeed something for scholars to look into.

-Consequently, the ‘Prayer of Dissociation (al-Bara’a)’ (Tendler’s rendering) or the ‘Formula of Disburdening’ (Salisbury) or the less artful ‘Verse of Curses’ which seems closer to al-Adhani’s understanding of it, and which contains the reference to al-Maghribi, could very well be part of a compendium called al-Majmu’. Tendler gives us further analysis about the verse/psalm in her dissertation (pp. 170-77). She writes that this prayer is very important for the initiate into the faith—being the first prayer the student learns—“for with it he articulates his severance from his past life and from all of the false beliefs to which life was subject.” She does err in thinking that ‘Muhammad al-Maghribi’ refers to Ibn al-‘Arabi though (p. 171, n. 454). If later scribes added al-Dosouki then it stands to reason that they would add the nineteenth century al-Maghribi who was a bane to their community’s existence and deserving of damnation from their perspective. He certainly would loom large in their minds, and if they did mean Ibn al-‘Arabi then later scribes would have amended the name to that since that is how he is universally known, making it easier for the student to learn by rote.

Now clearly I did not dwell on all these points above when writing the footnote ten years ago. My interest at that instance was al-Maghribi, and I went by what I thought at the time, that all that al-Adhani revealed in his Bakura was from a book called al-Majmu’, which a footnote on page 8 in volume 1 of Qezzi’s book (which I cited in my monograph, and which al-Tamimi translated) told me was also known as al-Dustour (“Kitab al-Majmu’, which al-Adhani published, is called al-Dustour. And it was composed by Abu Sa’id al-Maymun bin al-Qasim al-Tabarani…”)

But as the exploration above shows I was still correct in referencing the curse against al-Maghribi to K. al-Majmu’. None of this of course changes my initial assertion: that the curse against al-Maghribi is one that matters to the Nusayri-‘Alawites, which in turn helps us to understand some of their history better.

UPDATE (May 24, 2020): al-Tamimi responds to my response at the bottom of his original post. Also, grammatical and spelling mistakes were cleaned up in the post above.

 

Stations Along the Rim

(105k words; approximate reading time 6hrs 15min)

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[N. Kazimi, Civil War 5, 2015, 30” x 60”]

Lately, I have taken to asking fellow Middle East watchers: “How long ago was Ali Abdullah Saleh killed?” Apart from a handful of dedicated Yemen watchers, most would say something along the lines “ummm, I guess a year ago…? Sometime early last year?” It is not a trick question, but it serves to demonstrate a point about the amount of noise and dissonance emanating from the region that we study. Saleh was killed during the first week of December 2017. He had been a fixture of Middle Eastern politics since the late 1970s; in fact he was the last survivor of an atavistic regional order that spanned the 1980s and 1990s. His killing was lost in the fog of feverish news cycles and data inundation, thus giving the impression that he had died further back in time. What is also interesting about the responses one gets is that the question rarely elicits a sense of what a sensational event it was. At best it gets a shrug.

In a series of essays authored over the last two years, I have been asking whether revolutionary ideas in the Middle East, held as they were by determined minority factions, are actually losing out to majorities seeking stabilization—these being the two general directions facing the region’s varied populations. Some who are living within regional pockets of stability, such as the Israelis, do not concern themselves with this question. As they plot out the series of events since the turbulent seventies, they may place Saleh’s violent and unexpected death on a baseline of instability, one that is more or less straight, and flat, and manageable. Revolutionaries come and go, the annals of history are worn out with such delusions. “It will all come out with the wash, ebbing into abeyance and then draining along an even keel,” the cynics may say, indifferently. I fear they are underestimating the potency and scale of instability breaking out around them. Holding that there is nothing new that they had not faced down before is, to my mind, a perilous illusion. Others, who find the rate and fluctuation of high drama emanating out of the region somewhat worrying, may plot out an ascending gradient. But there is always the hope that stabilizing forces would counteract it, thus flattening out the line and maybe have it descend into a bell curve, bringing down the region’s temperature with it too. This second group expends much time and effort identifying these forces, whether they be individuals or actuarial indicators, which may precipitate such an encouraging turnaround. And who wouldn’t want to be reassured that it will all work out in the end? I maintain that both groups, the “nothing-to-see-here” crowd together with the “on the one hand, yet on the other hand” shillyshalliers, are lacking in imagination. Rather than a flat or ascending line, I see the confluence of events plotting out an ominous circle, or rather, actualizing the circular rim of a black hole. Fanciful, I know, but those are the stakes as I see them.

The essays began on an optimistic note, but then progressively turned gloomier. At the root of the gloom was the inability to debate the Middle East, whether in Washington or in other locales that should be concerned by how things are moving, without coagulating into parochially-minded posses re-litigating the policy disputes of years past, still agita with immediate urgency and heated frenzy. The vapidity of the conversation shows itself in how an important opportunity for re-engagement was wasted by policy-makers in the run-up and subsequent let-down of President Donald Trump’s visit to Riyadh last year. Even though U.S. power and prestige took significant hits in the intervening period since that visit, the conversation about the Middle East within policy circles did not turn serious. It remains, mediocre, generic and middling, and has found a knack for carrying on confidently through embarrassment. That is why I deem the latest salvo of swagger, notably annulling the Iran deal, more of the unserious same, for there is little acknowledgment or inventory taken of just how bad the last year has been.

Black holes are preceded by norm-disrupting singularities; in my previous essay (‘Arriving at Singularity’) I described the Islamic State’s caliphate as such a singularity. Even though the jihadist venture borrowed heavily from the trappings of an imagined past, it was a fundamentally new phenomenon. The many attempts at describing the roots of the Islamic State obscured what was most incredible about it: the caliphate had cannibalized and dramatically expanded upon the trend lines leading up to it. It unexpectedly turned itself into a force of immense mass, with a gravitational field all its own, one that is greater than the aggregate of forces that brought it to be. It began bending the region’s destinies towards its core and orbit. Singularity here is the distinction that the levels of unpredictability had expanded to the point whereby unpredictability is the norm rather than the outlier. The trajectories that molded a younger Abu Musa’ab al-Zarqawi and the Iraq he first encountered in the immediate aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s toppling would not have forewarned the emergence of a twenty-first century caliphate. However, al-Zarqawi possessed the gift of imagination. He projected his vision unto the early stirrings of conflating sets of unpredictability—a post totalitarian landscape, the crescendo of sectarianism, a bumbling military occupation, new broadcast technologies by which to concoct and disseminate new narratives, and easy money and munitions, among many other factors. Al-Zarqawi then created a singularity, almost by sheer individual agency: what was borne out of unpredictability became unpredictability’s amplifier.

“How so?” one would ask, “Didn’t al-Zarqawi’s caliphal singularity collapse at Mosul?” That is one way to look at it. And I concede that it would be a good example to cite by those who argue that the Middle East is beginning to stabilize. But the victory at Mosul does not sit well with me. Nine thousand civilians died and were buried under the rubble of the Old City during the last few weeks of fighting as thousands of Iraqi troops engaged three hundred jihadists. That is almost three times the number of immediate deaths at Halabja. A year on, the headlines out of Mosul are almost wholly consumed with the hundreds of bodies that are still being exhumed every couple of weeks, never mind any talk of extensive rebuilding.  Mosul’s urban essence and corporate identity—its sense of itself and its unique narrative arc, a significant one by regional standards—lie in broken heaps of concrete and stone. It was urban Mosul that preserved a dialect of Arabic that had been spoken a millennium ago across ‘Abbasid Iraq, one that only survived elsewhere among Baghdadi Jews and within some smaller riverine towns. Mosul and its environs exhibited a kind of stubborn continuity relative to the rest of Mesopotamia. That is one reason why its hinterland remained so diverse and heterodox. However, after three years of jihadist rule, Mosul does not resemble its past self, and it is unlikely to come back to it. The same can be said about a number of places in Syria where the jihadist storm landed. Such is the power of a singularity. Its shocking ability to upturn the present and mutilate the past did not go unnoticed by the likes of Masood Barzani. Being a seasoned hand at high-stakes geostrategic gambling, he understood how awesomely new this whole phase was, and in that newness he perceived opportunity. Consequently, Masood made a lunge at Kurdish independence. Consensus had it that he miscalculated and lost. In his loss, many discerned the hand of stabilization, with the central state in Baghdad reasserting its confidence and control. But that narrative does not sit right with me either. What happened in Kirkuk—both Barzani’s decision and then Baghdad’s following response—was the first major stress test of singularity; it was a direct result of the jihadist gambit that left a major Middle Eastern city like Mosul in ruins, an antiphon to singularity’s deafening siren call. As such, I understand what happened differently: the event and its supposed resolution are not distance markers on the path towards stabilization. What we witnessed last October was the foundation of a ‘station’, one in a series of many others to come, of various magnitudes, which may plot out and shape the black hole’s rim.

It is tempting to neatly process an event such as Kirkuk’s along a timeline of a few weeks, running from genesis to climax and then petering out towards resolution. Another way to look at it is to consider how the city of Kirkuk came to be, from a starting point of millennia past, and what that story tells us about the present and what is to come. But that overly indulges the longue durée view—there is little appetite or even aptitude for such archaic approaches at a time of torrential events. Notwithstanding the preceding argument that much of what we are seeing today is ‘new’ in such a way that the past is not useful as a predictor, history affords us a sense of magnitude. It is because Kirkuk was historically important and relevant that we need to give the events more than a cursory glance before moving on to the next gush of headlines. Moreover, a deeper sense of history helps us discern between what can be explained as a manifestation of historical progression versus what is actually innovative and new even though it still swaddles itself in historical garb. Informed by the general sweep of Kurdish and Iraqi history, I came to view ‘Kirkuk’ as a debilitating, probably mortal blow to Iraq’s body politic. This, however, is a minority view, a tiny one at that.

A high-level and well-meaning Iraqi security official dismissed my take as hyperbolic. A day before Baghdad declared that it would be reopening Arbil airport, a deal that this official had worked out with his Kurdish counterpart, he confidently told me, “It is nowhere near this dire as you’re describing it. It’s over. Water under the bridge. Masood invited Abadi to hang out with him at his farm in the village when they last spoke over the phone. He mentioned something about fishing.” I don’t buy it. History explains how massive of a trauma it was, to Kurds and to Masood himself. Barzani, ever the revolutionary, ever the gambler, went for broke at the roulette table. But he is not broken. I cannot imagine that he would so easily rise above the humiliation, or that such proud men would just give up. Any measure of conviviality being expressed now should worry Abadi and my interlocutor when it comes from such a man. Masood’s story arc led him to this moment, and it is this arc that informs the actions of the gambler during times of high unpredictability: more leaps into the unknown, self-destruction be damned.

Many gamblers are taking their places at the table right at this singular moment. They too took notice of the expanded realms of hitherto-unseen possibility. Some of them are high rollers such as Iran’s Qasim Soleimani, Saudi Arabia’s Muhammad bin Salman, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Vladimir Putin may plop in to play a round or two. Some others are small timers just like Masood; Israel’s Bibi Netanyahu and the phantom leadership of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) would rank among them. America, until recently the manager and arbiter of this Middle Eastern gambling den, has gone home. It is my contention that every time the stakes are raised by one of these gamblers, then win-or-lose a station will take shape along the rim, and stations will continue taking shape until it comes full circle. Afterward, one more phase awaits us: the ‘event horizon’. That shall be the point of no return for the Middle East as it sinks into the darkest of uncertainties. The gravitational pull of the black hole cannot be broken or disrupted through policy fixes or attempts at changing course after that point. What would constitute an event horizon? Given the unprecedented levels of unpredictability, it could take any number of forms if one lets one’s imagination conceive of what is possible. But I have a premonition that the ground will likely give way first in Saudi Arabia, and that Bin Salman has the mark of destiny, and tragedy, about him. The irony of ironies is that the stabilization crowd, especially in Washington, perceive him as the great redeemer. His destiny, they would argue, is far cheerier and stands on firmer analytical and predictive ground than some elastic astrophysical allegories belabored by this author. Put in another way, rather than bring about the event horizon, Bin Salman is their hoped-for anti-Singularity. He is the great force that would disrupt the evolution of any scarier trends.

For many, myself included, figuring out such trends is critical to maintaining America’s influence in the region, or what is left of it. Inherently stabilizing forces can expect American attention and support, since the costs associated with propping them up are manageable in the eyes of the current administration, which follows its predecessor in a stubborn unwillingness to overextend itself. However, if the trend lines are heading in the opposite direction then that will likely serve to speed up the process by which the United States vacates its outposts of power projection in the ‘northern tier’ of the Middle East, an expanse spanning Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran and even Afghanistan. Washington’s foreign policy and national security doyens of the Realist stripe will draw a new defensive line, arguing that the security of the Suez Canal, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the maritime routes of the Persian Gulf and the Arabian and Red Seas should have always been the linchpin of post-Cold War interests in the Middle East. Those interests look secure as far as the Realists are concerned, counting as they do on the likes of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Bin Salman, Netanyahu, and a host of Arab monarchs, sheikhs, sultans and emirs, seconded by the U.S. Navy. They will consequently argue that whatever happens to the north of this axis, however much the oodles of unpredictability expand there yonder, need not be concerning at all. “Besides, did you not know that things are turning around?” they will reassure us. “The conniption to the north is short-lived, transitory, fleeting, nothing we have not seen in bygone decades. Don’t worry, the Saudis and those rascally Little Spartans are on it! Did you not see that badass video of King Abdullah of Jordan teaching his young’un to shoot around corners?” Except, if they are wrong about the ascendancy of stability, even falling short of the modest gains of the ‘good enough’ variety, such blinkered thinking only increases their margin of error in how well they have gauged the robustness of their new cordon. Saudi Arabia is this line’s cornerstone, and there is a lot riding on the question of whether it is wobblier than usual.

This breaking of ranks among Cassandras and Pollyannas is a maxim of Middle East policy and analytical disputes, especially at times when big decisions are to be made. But I believe this time is different. There is a willful neglect of the ‘facts’ when either side presents its case. Naturally, being in the alarmist camp, I tend to indict the other side on this account. Last December I ran into a high ranking Coalition officer in Baghdad who I had known in the past and who was now tasked with ‘annihilating’ the Islamic State. He only had a few minutes to hurriedly run through a list of achievements that, from the onset, I recognized as delusional ‘happy talk’. He was on his sixth or seventh point when he grinned and boldly stated that “Soleimani hasn’t been showing his face around here for several weeks now,” implying that this officer was doing such a stand-up job that he had managed to intimidate a leading foil such as the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force (IRGC-Q). I couldn’t help myself, I interjected by saying “actually, Soleimani is here in Baghdad, or at least he was here last night at around 10 PM. I happen to know that because I was at a gathering yesterday when two men, both of whom are prominent Iraqi figures, got up and excused themselves since they had an appointment with him.” It was their first time meeting him, so it wasn’t as if Soleimani was only furtively conferring with confidantes. At least one of the two has a deep relationship with the Americans, and can be expected to keep his patrons abreast of his rounds. Yet here was a top commander who had not been briefed by the intelligence crowd on this critical piece of information, at a time when the whereabouts of Soleimani should have mattered to his mission as much as those of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s. He grimaced at this interjection but continued checking off the awesomeness of his achievements. I did not have the heart to add that Soleimani had been busy over the last few weeks because his father had died, then he recaptured Albu Kamal, and then he was stricken with the flu and was convalescing in Tehran. That latter tidbit was something I also overheard the night before.

This preceding anecdote is indicative of that larger problem whereby the two sides of the debate look past each other’s facts, for the whereabouts of Soleimani tell a story that is either overstated, or dismissed out of hand. He was front and center at Kirkuk, and at several other critical junctures since. Soleimani was personally involved in the aborted attempt to have Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Abadi run on an electoral slate in combination with the former’s top devotees in the May election. Those overstating the issue seem to be settling scores, ones that relate back to the policy debate over the Iran deal. They would like to demonstrate how the Obama administration empowered the Iranians, and specifically Soleimani, to carry out his agenda. Their opposing number dismiss the individual agency of particular actors to point out that, in aggregate, matters are heading in the right direction.  They may say that Kirkuk, though an unpleasant affair, accrued significant returns towards Abadi, America’s best hope for thwarting Soleimani. Most recently, they have been positively giddy pointing out Abadi’s compliance with financial restrictions against Iran, followed by his countermanding of al-Muhandis’ orders on PMU redeployments. They may also point to other events around the region as evidence that the tide is turning against Soleimani: active and continuing Israeli airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria, the reinvigoration of US sanctions and Treasury designations, internal demonstrations and discontent within Iran, talk of the “imminent fall” (…for months now!) of Yemen’s port of Hodeida that may compel the Houthis to negotiate, all this in addition to an expanded and activist involvement by the Saudis, Turks and Emiratis to counter Iran. Soleimani’s brand of mischief is passé; the people of the Middle East have moved beyond the visions propagated by adventurists. They learned their lessons well after the agonies of the Arab Spring. Have a look at Jordan’s disciplined demonstrations recently, they would say. It is no longer a matter of “the people want to bring down the regime”. The people want to overturn a tax hike, and then go home. Ideally, Saudi Arabia and a host of other Gulf countries would step in to give the Jordanian monarch a helping hand by covering the budget deficit. Similarly, the central government in Baghdad would cover the backlog in public sector salaries for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), and then lay Kurds will forget all about the trauma and humiliation of Kirkuk.

There is certainly a case to be made for taking a deep breath and worrying less by pointing out the state of the Middle East four decades ago. The late 1970s and early 1980s were severely turbulent. These were the times that introduced us to Yemen’s Saleh. Those living through those years may have concluded, as I am doing now, that the region was on the precipice of an unknowable abyss. Following the collapse of the Kurdish rebellion, a young Saddam Hussein, who had risen to the top through a combination of grit and nepotism, unexpectedly outmaneuvered the grey haired officers who had given him a leg up and was quickly consolidating his absolutist rule on one of the region’s most dynamic and promising countries. Another wing of the Ba’ath Party had taken hold of Damascus, but it was effectively a cover for the historically analogous rule of a despised religious minority. However, its leading light, who had pulled off this unexpected change in fortune, was facing a ferocious Islamist rebellion, tinged with sectarian resentments. Lebanon, where cosmopolitanism seemed always a step ahead of tribalism, had broken down into wars to resolve century-old hurts, the picture being further complicated as ‘tribes’ acted as proxies of regional powers. Palestinian militants set up camp in Lebanon’s south from which to mount a war of attrition against Israel. Dozens of terrorist groups were busy bombing, hijacking and assassinating their way across Europe in what they thought would advance their myriad causes. Israel’s ruling establishment was upended with the surprising electoral victory of a hawkish and religiously-conservative coalition, presided over by the fire-spitting, populist Menachem Begin, fueling expectations of further Arab-Israeli conflict. The sigh of relief over Begin’s style of local governing and managing regional challenges during the early years of his tenure would later give way to renewed trepidation regarding Israel’s daring attack on an Iraqi nuclear reactor, and then its bungling invasion of Lebanon. Pakistan’s magnetic prime minister ‘Zulfi’ Bhutto was overthrown, later executed. A millenarian uprising had taken over Islam’s holiest of holies in Mecca. Many began to wonder what else was brewing in Saudi Arabia’s opaque stew. How long before an unheard-of rebel brings that royal line down too? Egypt under Sadat did the unthinkable by breaking ranks with Arab solidarity, of which it was the leader, and seeking peace with Begin’s Israel. An Islamist revolt was breaking out in spurts there, eventually felling its leader. Istanbul’s celebrated Istiklal Street was an arena of knife fights between leftist and rightist brawlers. Soon enough, the Turkish Army conducted its most reactionary of coups. The Soviet Union sent thousands of tanks into Afghanistan. Yemen was as dysfunctional as ever, Oman had narrowly escaped a civil war, while the Arab Gulf countries were still feeling out their way after the British had left them to their devices (more or less). In the midst of all this, the Carter administration was bumbling and overwhelmed. But perhaps the greatest plunge witnessed then was the departure of the Shah and the advent of a charismatic and obstinate Ayatollah to take hold of Iran’s destiny, and to face down ethnic separatists, counterrevolutionaries, attempted counter coups and recalcitrant fellow travelers. One surveying this scene then would probably have felt the crush of debilitating unpredictability as to what the headlines may scream next. Such a precedent, however, makes the present look more manageable. The overall security structure of the region, whereby the West’s interests are safeguarded, remained in place. The world did not end. Except for the victims who got caught up in the upheaval—their worlds did end. But in the cold calculus of strategy, that part of the lament rarely factors.

Still, that level of unpredictability in the late seventies seems to have produced a mini-singularity back then. Saddam Hussein looked out unto the same scene and saw opportunity. If no one was going to take the lead of the region, then he may as well do so, he thought. And to prove a point, he will embark on a limited military adventure against a distraught and distracted Iran, a campaign that he believed would last somewhere between ten days to three weeks, and may even afford him some vital real estate while doing so. Per that calculus, there was a good chance that Saddam would be able to break off a vassal state dominated by ethnic Arabs that would effectively gain most of Iran’s oil wealth. Well, we know how that went. Saddam could not predict that Parliamentary Speaker Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani would turn out to be a gambler too, whispering fantastic possibilities into Ruhollah Khomeini’s ears should the Iranians hold out and keep the war going. They may eventually take Baghdad, and Najaf and Karbala too, he hissed. Again, we know how that transpired.

Going a little further back in time, we can ask ourselves whether the lessons learned by Soviets in the Iraq’s 1974 war against the Kurds directly influenced their decision to intervene militarily in Afghanistan four years on? The Soviets may have concluded that helicopter gunships were the new technological variable that that war demonstrated (in Pentagon wonk parlance, a RMA—‘revolution in military affairs’). Helicopter gunships could neutralize tribal insurgencies operating from inaccessible mountain redoubts, even if they were propped up by foreign and regional powers. The Soviets deployed gunships, at times even piloted by Russian and Indian crews, on Saddam’s side when he decided to stamp out the Barzanis’ latest insurgency, to terrible and unprecedented effect. The insurgency’s backers—America, Iran, and Israel—could not provide a technological antidote. The Kurdish insurgency had been effectively smashed by the time of the 1975 Algiers Accord when the Shah of Iran unilaterally decided to pull the plug on the Barzanis and strike a deal with Saddam without informing the Americans. One reason that the Shah retroactively cited to justify his behavior was that the insurgency was effectively dead in the water already. When the war began, the Peshmerga were at their historical peak in terms of materiel, territory, manpower, and international media attention and backing. But they had never faced such new, game-changing Soviet armaments, paid for by Baghdad’s newly expansive war chest. Within a year, the demoralized Peshmerga were reduced to holding out in a sliver along the border, with Iranian artillery holding back the further advance of Iraqi forces. The Soviets may have looked at all this and told themselves that it can be replicated against a tribal insurgency in the Hindu Kush that was being backed by the U.S. and Pakistan. Hence it is tantalizing to think that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was another gamble inspired by the free-fall and dizzying changes of Middle Eastern balances during the 1970s. The Americans eventually figured out a technological antidote though, one that was later deployed to the mujahidin, who in turn brought down over 250 helicopters with these new weapons. Scholars still debate whether that extra five percent in Soviet military expenditure to pay for the war, on top of the heretofore bloated military budget, was what did in the Soviet Empire, and if there is merit to that argument then we can categorize the consequences of that decision to invade as another station forming in the wake of the region’s mini-singularity, leading up to a proper Eurasian, East German and Eastern European event horizon as the Soviets disintegrated.

Upon reflecting on those tumultuous years, one may sense that present times are not so bad indeed. Maybe there is a point to the blasé and cynical calculations of the Israelis and the Realists? Maybe these levels of unpredictability are nothing new, and they can be coped with? To argue otherwise, one would need to make a case that there is something different and new about the current set of principal players, as well as the circumstances that empower and compel them. Such an argument must, by necessity, draw upon history. And it must make the historical case as to why the Islamic State was, and continues to be, ahistorical, and why the stations forming in its wake are so too. Lastly, given the magnitude of the assertion, one must provide an explanation as to why the process cannot be reversed or even arrested at this time as we anticipate an event horizon, that is, why it cannot be walked back towards a semblance of order as was done in the mid-eighties. An answer, somewhat nebulous and difficult to quantify, and probably unsatisfying to most, may be discerned by the pace at which narratives of self and identity are breaking down across the region, compounded by the inability of the forces of order to replace them convincingly and soberly. That too is a stark difference from what was available by way of a policy tool-kit some four decades ago. To begin with, I would wonder whether that preceding era had a transregional fire-starter of the caliber and virtuosity and range to equal Soleimani. Carlos the Jackal? Ali Hassan Salameh? No names come close that I can recall.

 

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Given that unpredictability whets the appetites of gambling men, I find myself deeply concerned with trying to figure out what’s running through Soleimani’s head. Why did he choose to be in the thick of things, and visibly so, in Kirkuk? What lessons did he draw from that experience? Why was he personally meeting with Abadi to iron out the deal on running the two slates together? These are unusual deviations from the norm. What is Soleimani seeing that we are not? Seven years ago, I deemed him a dangerous fool for standing in the way of historical progression. Surely no amount of the brutal repression enacted in Syria would preserve the Asad regime in the face of increasing protests and consequent insurgency. But he clearly saw something I did not, and I would rather not make the same mistake this time around, when the wind is at his back, and when he is feeling vindicated and victorious. As important is trying to figure out his projected timeline. His career is winding down—he’s in his early sixties. Soleimani has a legacy, his own and that of the revolution’s, to secure.

The protests across Iran that began in January may further compel him to hurry up. He must be incensed by the slogans and acts of disobedience evolving out of this particular wave of dissent. But I imagine one chant in particular rankled more than others, and of all places it happened in the symbolic city of Khorramshahr. That city was the first and largest that was lost to Saddam’s armies in the first weeks of the war, even though it held out heroically for as long as it could, a tale retold in film, song and subsidized tours to that hallowed ground. One of the most memorable and poignant Farsi songs to come out from the war, one that I imagine Soleimani may find himself humming from time to time, was Mammad Naboodi Bebini, on the occasion of the city’s recapture by the Iranians a little less than two years after losing it, with the refrain going “Mammad, you weren’t here to see that our city is liberated.” The song commemorates a young Pasdaran commander, Muhammad Jahanara, who had led the initial resistance but later died in a plane accident, missing Khorramshahr’s liberation, an event of immense importance to Soleimani’s generation since it marked a turning point in the war and suggested that the Islamic Revolution was drawing back its breath and may endure beyond its first setbacks. It is just the sort of song that would leave a man like Soleimani pensive and forlorn, remembering his comrades lost to the war. But the protesters of Khorramshahr nowadays seem more preoccupied with the salinity of their drinking water—the same issue afflicting the Iraqi city of Basra a few miles upriver—rather than the blood spilt to win back their city some four decades ago. To add insult to injury, the Arabic-speaking youth of Khorramshahr adopted one of the more provocative slogans of the Basran protestors, which goes “in the name of religion we have been robbed by the thieves [ruling us]”; as direct an affront to the current crop running the Islamic Revolution as it can get, as well as rebuke to the preservers of its legacy like Soleimani. He must be fuming.

My go-to sources on Soleimani, who I have cultivated and tested over years, tell me that I am misreading the situation. Soleimani is not a rogue actor. He is part of a system that filters national security decisions through multiple layers and committees. At this point in time, they tell me, Iran’s national security ‘brain’ will want to tamp down the region’s jitters. They may want to explore Trump’s willingness to hold talks, extended via Twitter. Soleimani does not get to decide on escalation all by himself, consequently my efforts at analyzing his persona and placing too much emphasis on individual agency—the league of gamblers, for example—is unhelpful in discerning Iran’s next set of moves. Soleimani will follow orders if those orders spell out stabilization and restrained continuity. But like so many other things, my gut tells me that this does not add up, or more accurately, no longer adds up.

At many critical junctures that presented themselves over the last six years, it did come down to Soleimani being the sole voice counseling a particular course of action, carrying the day by pleading with the Supreme Leader to let him have one more chance to pull this through, despite the prevarications, and at points outright hostility, of many other establishment advisers. It was an act of desperation that took Soleimani to the Kremlin, supplicating for Russian intervention as the Asad regime was teetering. I can’t imagine any other Iranian national security leader would have taken such a leap, with all its potential for rejection, misunderstandings, and abject failure. His timing was right though, for the Iranians had demonstrated to the Russians by July 2015 that the Obama administration was willing to stomach a lot in order to get its coveted deal with Iran, thus Russia’s association with Tehran in Syria may not incur too livid of a reaction from Washington as one would have expected. The following months witnessed a spike in Iranian casualties on the Syrian battlefield as Soleimani upped his commitment to match Putin’s. Few would have assumed such a risk. Soleimani was even starved for funds, and save for such cash customarily earmarked for Hezbollah, was told by President Hassan Rouhani’s government to figure out his own financing of his expenses in Iraq and Syria that ran up a monthly bill of around one hundred and seventy million dollars during some stretches of the war raging there. After all this, why would one expect Soleimani to climb down and play the obedient enforcer? In his mind, if it were not for him, and him alone, then the ‘caliphate’ would have Damascus and Baghdad by now. This is in many ways how he sees himself: the Islamic Revolution’s last lion. His behavior in Kirkuk indicates he has a vision of his own. I maintain that even without Trump rescinding the Iran deal, Soleimani was preparing to realize this vision over the last eight months irrespective of the changed circumstances. Unfortunately, there is only so much we can glean of his plans at this point, but we need to plot out what little we know as it is. We certainly shouldn’t be relegating him to a secondary role as many observers seem content to do. What cards does Soleimani hold, and why is he choosing to raise the ante?

I had recently undertaken a review of the Iraq-Iran War, that long miscalculation of Saddam’s and Rafsanjani’s. Much has been made of how that war was the formative experience of men like Soleimani. Haunted by the specters of fallen comrades, any number of which would have risen to the heights of post-war power, but whose remains have not been found despite scouring the mutilated landscape of the border regions, Soleimani and his fellow survivors who lead Iran today must feel an enormous burden to assign meaning to that sacrifice. Yet I was intrigued by a little studied aspect: Soleimani, and several others, became generals while in their twenties. These were the fluid and anything-goes days of the formation of the Revolutionary Guard. Any local boy who could rally a few dozen other boys from his village or neighborhood to make their way to the shifting front lines would suddenly find himself a newly minted officer of the Corps. It was so random and chaotic that an early commander of the Corps turned Salafist in subsequent years and found himself a leader of Afghan mujahidin. The first two years of the war witnessed Iran’s resilience in the face of the Iraqi onslaught, later turning the tide and reclaiming most of the territories it had lost in the early days and weeks of the fighting. Soleimani had comported himself well in that first phase, and more importantly, he was still alive while so many others were not. He was given a high rank and told to prepare for the next phase: defeating Saddam and ‘liberating’ Iraq. It did not go that way. What followed was a drawn out and frustrating career. Not only did the war end without recognizable victories, his post war tasks of chasing down drug smuggling networks were decidedly unglamorous. Even after being made commander of the Qods Force, he was not doing a general’s work; at best he was a nuisance in the great game of geostrategic balances. Some mischief in Bosnia, a few stunts in Africa, and a bombing in Bueno Aires. The greatest glory accrued from Hezbollah’s confrontations with Israel, but even there, victory was measured by holding one’s own and not by dramatic turnarounds on the map. Was Marj ‘Ayoun the equal of an exalted Jerusalem? Certainly not. Even those few highlights were dwarfed when the United States finally settled Iran’s unresolved scores with the Ba’ath regime in Baghdad and the Taliban in Kabul. Where was the satisfaction in that for ‘generals’ like Soleimani?

However, it was during the recent war for the survival of the Asad regime, and the war against the caliphate when Soleimani and some fellow veterans of the Iraq-Iran war felt truly deserving of their ranks and trappings. In this fight, one that set them against the worst possible enemy of Shi’ism they could imagine, they could finally huddle around and point to markers on a map where the front lines would swing around in dramatic turns. Not only that, but whereas many of his former comrades had chosen the sedentary life and turned to mercantile concerns, Soleimani was still unapologetically a man of war and revolution. He did not go soft, he did not mellow. We can spot how important, and redeeming this fight was to so many of Soleimani’s ilk. The IRGC commanders who were killed at or near the front lines were no small potatoes. Any number of them could have been living it up in gleaming opulence at one of the Shah’s former properties back in the Corps various headquarters. That they chose to be so close to danger, and to be consumed by it, tells us that there is a lingering and unresolved tension within them, an aspiration to give meaning to their trajectories. Soleimani not only earned his britches, but he distinguished himself. He is no longer just another ‘elder’ among the three dozen leading lights of Iran’s national security matrix. He has broken away from this constellation and created a galaxy of his own. How will this sense of fulfillment and newfound confidence express itself? Another aspect that this review of the 1980s taught me concerned the recessive ultra-radical gene still lurking within the Islamic Revolution’s organism. It expressed itself back then in the Mehdi Hashemi movement that, among other things, sabotaged the Iran-Contra negotiations. It was anti-clerical, anti-rapprochement with the West or with half-hearted fellow travelers, and fully committed towards exporting the revolution. Hashemi was hanged in 1987 while his extremist acolytes were hunted down and discredited. Yet there is tantalizing hints that his ethos survived. I have no evidence linking Soleimani to Hashemi’s network, but the now-victorious ‘General’ has been exhibiting some of those traits through word and deed. If so, what would Soleimani’s endgame look like? I find it surprising that the conversation about the Middle East does not seem willing to imagine such scenarios. Dominated as it is by the Realist camp, Soleimani’s revolutionary drive is either too weird for serious deliberation or disparagingly dismissed as a show. It is easier to divide up the quantifiable components of the news cycle into neat piles of nuts and bolts, laying out World Bank statistics in pie charts and vectors, rather than trying to get inside Soleimani’s head. Because to do so, one would have to think like a revolutionary, and in the staid ways of career men and women, such dangerous thinking is just that, dangerous, and frowned upon.

As the fighting was winding down in Albu Kamal, Soleimani gathered around some of the Farsi-speaking fighters for a stint of sermonizing. His pep talk, heavily chopped up and edited, then subtitled in Arabic, with all faces but his own blurred out, was released online late November. Soleimani asks:

“Why does Allah render the people of Iran victorious? Why does Allah grant victory to the Islamic Republic? And I believe these victories are increasing day by day. Neither America nor Saudi Arabia can harm this nation. There is a divine will to uphold this nation and they cannot do anything about it. Because this nation is ready for martyrdom. And that is why it is deserving of victory. Divine aid needs to be deserved. And today, in the Islamic Republic, we have that capacity in our nation and in our Leader [Khamenei]…Today, you are the standard bearers of this great movement. You have been chosen by Allah for this great task.”

My sense is that Soleimani is actually talking about himself. He feels victorious and deserving of victory, and he feels divinely chosen. Sure, a cynic could point out that such is the hackneyed narrative of old-timey revolutionaries, and that those lofty words sound hollow from overuse and accumulating disappointments. Still, we must entertain the possibility that Soleimani actually believes it, and expects that through “calculated sacrifice” guided by faith to defeat America’s soldiery, that shows up to battles with diapers, expecting to soil themselves in fear, according to his words. Soleimani is not a very sophisticated man. He could have been a house painter in a provincial town to Iran’s east had he not be called to revolution and war. And he has been extremely lucky (or divinely aided), both with the hand he has been dealt, and with the even less sophisticated foils he has faced down, over the last seven years. He has accrued many wins, so much so that he can afford to be a little less lucky now. Will he cash out and go home to an idyllic retirement, where he will recount war stories to his grandchildren? I highly doubt that. I think that he believes he has much to do, and that it is finally within reach and doable. Consequently, we need to rethink and to reevaluate the recent events in which he has chosen to loom large.

And on the topic of hackneyed narratives, Khamenei tweeted out on April 30 that “U.S.’s feet must be cut off from West Asia; U.S. must exit this region.” Again, it sounds more of the same, but what if this time it was actually an order unleashing Soleimani to do what he can to attain this outcome—pushing America out of the Middle East?

Middle East watchers cannot have it both ways. They cannot extol the individual historical agency of an Abadi or a Bin Salman, and downplay that of Soleimani’s. I acknowledge that the opposite is also true. Alternatively, we can better understand the magnitude of events through an evaluation of the skills, formative experiences, lieutenants and supporting cast, as well as the means and opportunities available to each one of these personalities in this contest. However, we must be mindful that it is these unique circumstances in the region, this unprecedented level of uncertainly, this stretch of time and space between singularity and the event horizon that is compelling these individuals towards reaping the trophies of possibility. A man like Qasim Soleimani, a man with a clear vision, may sense that it is now or never. There are others like him of varying stature and capacity. They too can be expected to act, and to leap forward. The aggregate of such willful and tenacious risk taking is likely to take us to the point of no return. Furthermore, we can disagree as to how close or how far we are from that point. It is my sense that we are very, very close, and I see much more of what is driving us there than what is impeding this course. Kirkuk, and Soleimani’s role in what happened on October 15 of last year, spooked me immensely. And it showed me just how brittle our tools for countering instability truly are. The lessons Soleimani drew from that experience may shape his next set of moves, especially in light of the recent election’s results in Iraq. If we are to witness a deliberate quickening in the debasement and demise of legitimate political life in Baghdad, then I maintain that we can trace the genesis of this new era back to Kirkuk.

 

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Many moving parts had to align for Kirkuk to happen as it did, to Soleimani’s favor. Principally, it was the interplay of characters, old and new, in lead and supportive roles, Iraqis, Iranians and Americans, that determined the outcome and pace of events.

On October 6, the day that former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s body was transported back from Germany to Suleimaniya for burial, and among the throng of Iraq’s who’s-who paying their respects to the iconic Kurdish leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis took Bafel, Talabani’s eldest son, aside to sound him out on the idea of returning the administration of Kirkuk Province back to the central government. Later press reports, citing a Kurdish member of parliament, had it that it was Hadi al-Ameri, the head of the Badr Organization, who had broached the topic with Bafel. But it was al-Muhandis who had been tasked with this mission, and that makes much more sense, for the tensions and oscillations in the al-Muhandis-al-Ameri duality are a good way to spot what Soleimani is plotting. Al-Ameri is an enforcer, not an ideas man, whereas al-Muhandis has creative panache. And while both are deeply connected to Soleimani, in what seems to be a mystical, devotional Sufi-like bond governing the relationships between masters and disciples, it would seem that al-Muhandis was the truer disciple of the two. Al-Ameri had turned out to be a disappointment by Soleimani’s reckoning, seeing that, like so many of his former comrades and brothers-in-arms, al-Ameri had become a ‘merchant’, too caught up with the vagaries of brokering deals and taking side cuts within the matrix of Iraqi corruption, especially during his ministerial sinecures. Al-Ameri redeemed himself somewhat in his master’s eyes during the fighting against the Islamic State. It felt like the good old days of their youths, when they put their lives on the line in an existential fight for what they believed in, against a loathed enemy. Days and weeks spent in the dusty and scorched battlefields did much to reestablish trust. But still, if a situation required a delicate touch, one with a need for fluid improvisation, then Soleimani would send in al-Muhandis, his ablest fixer. So even at this early stage, it was evident how much Soleimani took the Kirkuk venture seriously. Those tasked with monitoring the Iranian general should have been paying closer attention.

The Saddam-era mukhaberat’s report (undated, but likely 2001 or 2002) on Badr is thorough and well-researched, and it is interesting how it judged the differences in character between al-Muhandis, its commander then, and al-Ameri, his deputy and successor. There is grudging respect for al-Muhandis as a worthy adversary, whereas al-Ameri is dismissed as a “coward” who had fled the battlefield leaving his men to fend for themselves against the Republican Guard during the 1991 uprising in the Diyala sector. The report does get some of al-Muhandis’ genealogy wrong though: he is not of Iranian origin and he isn’t married to an Iranian woman. He is a Shia Arab from the Bani Tamim tribe in Basra, a third generation immigrant from Bahrain, and both his mother and his wife are of Bahraini origin. It is a significant mistake in the report, one that lends itself towards misreading the man’s motivations. Such roots predisposed the man to think of himself as part of a Shia ‘Internationale’. He does not serve Soleimani because he believes Soleimani is advancing Iran’s national security goals, rather he sees Soleimani as the redeemer of transnational Shi’ism. Al-Muhandis rationalizes his work as a battle to protect Shias across the Middle East. This is his life’s work, and this is why he is more in line with Soleimani. Al-Ameri, an Arab whose ancestors had tended the orchards to Baghdad’s north for centuries, would parrot the party line but he is not motivated by the same urgency. Al-Ameri is parochially ‘Iraqi’ in Soleimani’s eyes. And Soleimani is not too fond of Iraqis. At one impromptu gathering over a year ago, I even got one of al-Ameri’s top aides to divulge the many ways Soleimani had offended him and his colleagues with his disdain for Iraqis, particularly on cleanliness, something the fastidious general places much emphasis on.

Bafel Talabani, on the other hand, aspires to be a character out of a Guy Ritchie movie. Gruff, with a cockney accent and mannerism, he had not been groomed by his father as a successor. For most of his life, he was (allegedly) a drug-addled embarrassment, one that his suave, earnest younger brother would compensate for. However, Bafel came back to usurp the family business during his father’s prolonged absence. The caliphate came calling, political challengers took heart, suaveness and earnestness just did not cut it. The Talabani family needed a brawler. Bafel, with his face sunburnt from spending long stretches at the front, where he earned the admiration of both young and grizzled Peshmerga that had fought under his father for decades, was cut out for for these times. This was his rise to the limelight, a la Henry IV, eclipsing his ‘statesman-in-the-making’ brother. His father had been a master of the political deal, and he could make the most audacious of flips work to his favor. Bafel was untested in this respect, and he would be handily bested by an operator of al-Muhandis’s caliber. However, at the time it was thought that his mother Hero Ahmed, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party’s enforcer and secret treasurer, as well daughter and wife to the two founders, was in charge as she had always been. On October 8, a well-placed insider told me about the tentative deal reached at the funeral two days earlier. I did not believe it. I could see Bafel being panicked by his father’s death and the family’s rapidly changing circumstances, especially with the financial meltdown being experienced by the KRG. He was wet behind the ears and would have been an easy mark for al-Muhandis to push this audacious deal on. But I figured that Hero would never let it stand. It was too risky, too uncertain, and too at odds with the passions and history of the Kurdish movement. This would be a stain harder to scrub off even if measured against her husband’s former embrace of Saddam Hussein during the 1980s (…the embrace goes back even further: Saddam threw a wedding party for Jalal and Hero in the early seventies at the Hunting Club in Baghdad). Kirkuk did indeed matter that much. Only later did it emerge, in hushed and furtive natter, that Hero was not herself. She lacked focus and fire, and would look on, adrift, while sitting beside her sister and political copilot, Shahnaz, as the pair watched Bafel and his coterie of wannabe gangster paternal cousins take over the show. It is said that even Soleimani was stunned and saddened to see such a remarkable lady wither away in silence. For many years she had been his secret weapon within Kurdish politics. He had watched the deterioration closely. He spotted Bafel’s rise probably ahead of anyone else. So it was no accident that al-Muhandis went to Bafel first.

Bafel traveled to Baghdad two days later and had a sit down with Abadi on the evening of October 8. There, the deal, brokered by al-Muhandis on Soleimani’s behalf, was formalized. This roundabout through Soleimani’s mediation did not have to be: Abadi and Bafel already had an existing channel. It was established exactly four months earlier, right after the decision to head towards a referendum on independence was taken at a meeting of the Kurdish leadership in Salahuddin on June 7. The decision was unexpected. Previously, such a proposition had been on the agenda of several preceding meetings, but it hadn’t gone anywhere. There was a sense that the Barzanis were unserious about it, and that it was only being employed to buy them time and to deflect popular attention away from the financial crisis.

Such were the atmospherics in the period prior to the Salahuddin meeting: In December 2016, I was asked to chair the opening session of a conference on Kurdish independence at the American University of Dohuk. The university was the brainchild of Masroor Barzani, Masood’s son and Arbil’s security chief. Masroor would later emerge as an enthusiastic enabler of his father’s push for the referendum seven months later, but at the time of the conference, there was a suspended aspect to the place. The financial crisis had caught up with this ambitious venture, like so many others, and left it hanging. A grand central administration building, in a faux-American architectural style, stood grandly and alone, surrounded by the open spaces of what would be. If one looked closely, the sloppy finish of the structure would prove too distracting. The conference itself, a first for the university, had a slapdash bearing to it also. Microphone issues, seating confusion, and all the tiny little details that tend to go wrong, did go wrong. An assistant professor at the university had recommended me as a somewhat objective voice: I was a skeptic on Kurdish independence, and such was the tone of the opening remarks and questions that I had posed to the panelists. One panelist, Hoshyar Zebari, most recently Iraq’s Finance Minister and a leading member of the Barzani oligarchy, who was to become a leading advocate of independence later along with Masroor, was still, at the time, a skeptic too. It wasn’t too difficult to draw it out of him. I would survey the faces in the front rows. Much of Arbil’s Kurdish leadership was sitting there. Masroor listened attentively, and so did his cousin the Prime Minister of the KRG, Nechirvan Barzani, whose body language and latter remarks belied a subtle discomfort with, and opposition to, the proceedings. Save for a handful of Westerners who were enthusiastic about Kurdish independence, my sense was that these folks are not ready for primetime—albeit, admittedly, it could have been a case of confirmation bias. At that moment, I too deduced that they were unserious about independence, and I breathed a sigh of relief. But Masood was not in attendance. I did not get the chance to read him. He was the one who mattered.

Masood indeed surprised his fellow congregants at the June 7 meeting by forcing a decision to go to a referendum and setting a date: September 25. The next day after the meeting, Bafel was in Baghdad to confer with Abadi, ostensibly to signal that the Talabani family was not on board with Masood’s escalation. There is a possibility that both Abadi and Bafel assumed that Masood would back down when faced with a cocktail of local, regional and international inducements and threats. A cordial phone call between Abadi and Masood followed a few days later, with Masood publicly stating later that he will do all that he can to support Abadi’s premiership. Maybe that is why Abadi’s face-to-face with Bafel did not harden into a firmer alliance.

Masood, however, did not back down. The referendum was held on its prescribed date. Abadi panicked, yet he did not call Bafel. Two or three days after the referendum, Abadi somberly invited al-Ameri and al-Muhandis, separately, to his office. He asked them a question, but they were not its intended recipients. Abadi knew that both were Soleimani’s top standbys in Iraq, but he was unsure as to who was the senior to the other. He asked: “if I were to move against Kirkuk, will you support me?” Both men did not answer. They relayed the message to Soleimani, who began to think it over. Soleimani had sent multiple messages to Barzani ahead of the referendum trying to get him to drop it. Soleimani told him that if he went through with it “then war was coming.” Considering that Iran has a separatist Kurdish movement of its own, which may be inspired by the example of Iraqi Kurds, then that outcome would naturally worry the leadership back in Tehran. Many hold that that is why Soleimani got involved. However I sense that Soleimani’s principal motivation was not a fear of Kurdish separatism within Iran. He had his eye on another prize, and he wanted to deny the Americans the optics of an easy win. In the calculus of the region, an independent Kurdistan led by Masood would be interpreted as a victory for Washington and Jerusalem. Soleimani is sophisticated enough to realize that that is not necessarily the case. But he was loathe to allow Middle Eastern public opinion to think so. Masood had his reasons to think that Soleimani’s threats were hollow; he could not conceive of a unilateral Iranian move against him within the region’s complicated landscape. More worrisome to him was his new obstinacy in the face of American pleas to back down too. This was out of character for him. But he believed that there was a vague opening in a new Washington, with a new administration in place. Three weeks prior to the June meeting, Masroor returned from Washington to report to his father that their friends there, as well as the Israelis, were telling them that the Trump administration didn’t know what it wants, and that they should go for independence, letting the chips fall as they may. Trump would later be inclined to acknowledge and support their fait accompli. The traditional establishment was still hostile to such gambits, but they mattered less and less. This time around, they were superseded by the Israeli and Emirati ambassadors to Washington, and a few others. The new powerbrokers, who have an ‘in’ with the Oval Office, would be able to sell Kurdish independence when a snap decision needed to take place. Masood would have listened to his son telling this outlandish new tale, and he would have watched Trump traveling to the Riyadh summit as his first international sojourn. Why wouldn’t he believe that a new era of possibility and opportunity was in the offing?

Fate is a fickle mistress, they say, and opportunity, rather than glancing Masood’s way, called upon Soleimani instead. It presented itself when Jalal Talabani, a man with a stature as iconic in the Kurdish struggle as that of the Barzanis, died after a long debilitating illness. Jalal’s long absences from the scene, ever since his stroke while in office in late 2012, had already contributed massively to the breakdown of politics in both Baghdad and Arbil. Fate would have it that his final departure would also ripple out across Iraqi and Kurdish destiny. After al-Muhandis had the talking-to with Bafel, the ball began rolling quickly. On October 13, on a Friday, Abadi gave the Kurds forty eight hours to undo the results of the referendum. I believe that this timeline was Soleimani’s. On the next morning, Soleimani went to Suleimaniya to meet Hero and Aras Sheikh Genki Talabani, Jalal’s nephew and the most senior cousin within the new crop of Talabanis both age wise and in terms of apprenticeship with his uncle. Soleimani explained the broad outline of what was required of them. If Iraqi troops move against Kirkuk, then the PUK forces under their command would stand down and withdraw. It all sounded fantastical at that moment; no one really believed that the forty eight hour ultimatum would be acted upon. Certainly no one believed that Baghdad would risk a shooting war with the Peshmerga. After all, how would Tehran, Washington, or even Ankara (the latter had come to view Masood as its vassal) allow it? The following day, October 15, on a Sunday afternoon, the Kurdish leadership met in the PUK headquarters overlooking Dokan Lake. Masood was there, and so was Hero. She informed the congregants that the PUK did not have a unilateral agreement with Baghdad or anyone else, and that she would be absolutely supportive of any resolution that would be agreed upon. So confident was she that her agreement with Soleimani did not really count for anything, that Bafel’s father-in-law and leading PUK party leader Mulla Bakhtiyar was not informed of the deal. At a news conference following the meeting, Mulla Bakhtiyar stood alongside Nechirvan, the most dovish pair among the Kurdish leaders present, confidently predicting that Baghdad would find that the Kurdish position had softened significantly when both men would travel there the next day for a restart to negotiations.

Nechirvan and Mulla Bakhtiyar were beaming because they had gotten Masood to accept a plan that was being tabled by the Americans to tamper down tensions around Kirkuk. The American plan, proposed a week prior by Brett McGurk, the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL who had been appointed to that role by the Obama administration, would be minimalist in approach, but would provide some face saving cover for McGurk’s current pet project, Abadi’s continued tenure as Prime Minister. The Kurds had been under some pressure from Baghdad and a few regional powers: air space over Iraqi Kurdistan was closed, and Iranian border crossings had shuttered. The Americans felt that Baghdad had made its point regarding which party still held sovereignty and international legitimacy, and that all that was required going forward would be a few cosmetic measures to help Abadi sell a narrative of unflinching ‘leadership’ to a local constituency in Arab Iraq. McGurk’s plan required a redeployment of Peshmerga out of some key installations in Kirkuk, two oil fields to be precise. The Iraqi Army, whose 12th Division had fled in its entirety as the jihadists approached in August 2014, would again be garrisoned at the K1 Airbase near Kirkuk alongside Peshmerga forces, jointly managing the installation. A high ranking American officer would be stationed there too, to mediate conflicts that may arise between them. McGurk had been shuttling back and forth pushing for his plan. He must have been aware of Soleimani’s competing scheme, because the British were likely aware of it. Bafel had briefed them almost immediately about al-Muhandis’ offer, and they seem to have asked him to pursue it. Abadi too would have informed them about it. British participation in blessing this off-the-books undertaking was highlighted after the event when Iraq’s oil minister clumsily announced a pre-2014 plan to bring British Petroleum (BP) back to managing the same oil fields around Kirkuk that the Kurds had promised the Russians. (It seems that Britain’s spies had voluntarily moonlighted as brokers for the BP deal in the run-up to Kirkuk even though there is no evidence that the higher rungs of BP management in Europe had desired this outcome.)

After the Dokan meeting, McGurk asked Abadi for a twenty four hour extension. Abadi was noncommittal. The next time McGurk called, Abadi had switched off his phones and was unreachable. In the intervening hours between the two calls, around 8PM on the night of October 15, representatives of Soleimani’s—in one telling a high ranking IRGC general—informed front line Peshmerga commanders that the central government’s troops, especially its Counter-Terrorism Units and the Federal Police’s Emergency Response Division, the latter’s hierarchy being thoroughly compromised by Soleimani, as well as certain Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) forces, would advance and take over their positions. They were told that any resistance would be crushed. This was the first time Hero may have realized that Bafel’s deal with Soleimani entailed more substance and consequence than she had thought. In the following melee, the Vice President of the KRG and a rival to the Talabani family’s hold on the PUK leadership, Kosrat Rasool, was injured and almost left for dead along with dozens of his men when those troops advanced.

The Talabani family signaled instructions to their loyalists to withdraw. It happened very quickly. Suddenly, the limits of the operation were not confined to a couple of oil fields and an airbase; rather the Iraqi forces advanced on a territorial arc extending several hundred kilometers from Sinjar Mountain to Khaniqin. Kirkuk city was taken, and then Soleimani began probing further on multiple sectors. The KDP’s Peshmerga collapsed in a manner often seen throughout Kurdish history. McGurk had initially failed to inform his higher-ups in Washington of the severity of what was transpiring; he certainly did not give them a heads-up about its possible scale. The Trump administration was surprised and had to scamper about quickly putting up a brave face on the situation, as if it hadn’t dropped the ball. Instead of a warm embrace, all Barzani got out of Trump was “We don’t like the fact that they’re clashing. We’re not taking sides, but we don’t like the fact that they’re clashing…”—probably a soundbite drilled into him by the haplessly inept then National Security Adviser, H.R. McMaster. Are we really to believe that Abadi, in a huff, would not give McGurk the requested extension? McGurk went into damage control mode, to salvage his career more so than the situation on the ground. The talking point du jour was that it was Abadi calling the shots, and everyone should be impressed by his gumption. It wasn’t Abadi’s fault that the Kurds folded with such surprising ease. He was moving forward to fill a vacuum much like the Kurds moved into those territories initially to prevent the jihadists from seizing them.  Suddenly, there was an effort from Washington to counsel Abadi not to “overreach”—and by not overreaching Abadi would be displaying wisdom and restraint. “Soleimani? Where?” cried out the incredulous orchestrators of Abadi’s public relations contortions, even when Al-Muhandis and al-Ameri drove home the point by being overly visible during the operation. One could almost expect the Abadi boosters to exclaim that “Never mind that! Soleimani is just photobombing Abadi’s glamor shots!”

Soleimani’s actions seemed calibrated towards embarrassing the Americans. The Kurdish governor of Kirkuk, Najmiddin Karim, was an enthusiastic supporter of the referendum. He knew that including Kirkuk’s population in the referendum, with Kirkuk being a disputed territory whose status had not been resolved by the central government and the KRG, would be viewed as extremely provocative. Karim visibly and noisily broke with the rest of the PUK leadership and pushed for balloting Kirkuk’s say on independence. Tensions had been building up between him and the party, with the latter accusing him of corruption and consolidating a personal power base independently of the Talabani family. When matters went south, Karim became a hunted man, with an arrest warrant on his head from Baghdad. There was one important detail: Karim is an American citizen. To leave an American to the mercies of his enemies, ones led by an Iranian general, sends a potent message to the Kurds. That is exactly the sobering reality that Soleimani wanted all to see. Karim was exfiltrated from his place of hiding within the city of Kirkuk not by American efforts but by Masroor’s special operations team. He was then told by American authorities to lay low and not return to the United States for a few months.

Pointing out such details as Karim’s travails, ones that have the power to mold perceptions of Middle Eastern public opinion, are swatted away by those self-same Abadi boosters. “You’re giving Soleimani too much credit by overstating his role” came to suggest that rather than sounding the alarm, such dissenting voices were unwittingly and effectively boosting Soleimani! Abadi as the ‘leader’ calling the shots was a reassuring narrative. Iraq-watchers looked upon Kirkuk as a local issue. Accusing naysayers of overstating Soleimani’s role was an analytical hedge that protected careers. But the fellow who sets zero hour is no accidental or interloping actor, n’est pas? And Soleimani and his guys could not have signaled their role in zero hour any more clearly. They must have sat back with puzzled amusement at Washington’s desire to look away.

Right after Kirkuk, there was a standoff at Altun Kupri. Soleimani wanted to further push the envelope to determine the limits of Kurdish collapse, as well as to ascertain how much more embarrassment Washington was willing to stomach. Here again, some pro-Abadi analysts and functionaries began warning of overreach even though the situation had overreached many times over already. Soleimani wanted to go all the way to Arbil airport as further demonstration of the wide sway of Iraqi ‘sovereignty’, or whichever way he defined it to work to his ends. Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, a former Deputy Foreign Minister of Iran and current Assistant to the Parliamentary Speaker, acerbically tweeted out on October 18 that “Baghdad could take back Arbil within a few hours if it so wanted.” Altun Kupri was occurring at a time when all sides had previously agreed to dial things back. The casus belli cited by those itching for a fight was an act of vandalism at the town’s local Turkman party headquarters by ethnic Kurds. So are we to believe that Soleimani consciously risked the incendiary optics of ‘going to Arbil’ as an answer to some charred desks and twisted ceiling fans? The stakes had been taken to new heights, with some even suggesting that the Barzanis were now allied with the jihadists of the Islamic State, the latter now arrayed against the Iraqi Army at Altun Kupri. Ranj Talabani, deputy to the head of PUK’s intelligence outfit, had tweeted on October 16 that the “KDP had armed 2,500 ISIS detainees, dressed in Peshmerga clothes, who have just launched multi pronged attack on ISF in Dibz,” that is, in the immediate vicinity of Altun Kupri. Heavy gunfire and mortar barrages were exchanged. Peshmerga resolve was not firmed up by jihadists fighting alongside them, however, but rather by desperate fighters from Iranian Kurdish guerilla groups such as Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (KDP-I) who knew what bloody fates awaited them should Soleimani roll up further territories. They may remember a time back in July 1996 when the Badr Corps attacked their bases within Iraqi Kurdistan near the town of Rawanduz per Iran’s instructions. Kosrat’s men had also fallen back to this position, determined to avenge their fallen comrades. Pushing through could have cost both sides thousands of casualties. Soleimani then decided that he had made his point and did not need to press further. As a closing act, he set his sights on Arbil’s lucrative border crossing to Turkey. Getting that would be a future bargaining chip with the Turks. (In the end, he chose to forego that prize too, probably because the Turks signaled some sort of deal having to do with Syria.)

One would think that the foremost question presented to Middle East watchers in Washington and elsewhere by this dramatic turn of events would be “Why did Soleimani do it?” Instead, there was an inexplicable eagerness by many to look away from the role and intent of the Iranian general. Whilst the minority that highlighted it and were worried by it pedantically stuck within the confines of believing that Soleimani was targeting the Kurds in doing so, and concomitantly showing up the Americans. They too misread what had happened. There was more to it, much more. I maintain that his prize was not denial of Kurdish independence, the Kurdish referendum was not a local fire for him to put out, rather it was kindling for a larger inferno that Soleimani sought to harness while burning through Iraq’s political possibilities.  Soleimani, having a deeper sense of how Iraq works than most, understood the opportunity presented to him by Abadi’s panic, and he had the skills and means to wield this moment in the service of his grander goals. Iraq’s political process was the hidden jewel that those worried by Soleimani’s rise have consistently neglected, or willfully misinterpreted as useless and ultimately empowering the Iranians, whereas it was a consistent obstacle to Soleimani’s agenda. He seeks to set it aflame. This consecrated fire would later chase out the pestilence that had overtaken the revolutionary spirit in Tehran, or at least that is as much of his endgame as I can make out at this time.

My conjecture is that it is less about Arbil and Suleimaniya and more about settling scores in Baghdad and Najaf, and then eventually Tehran and Qum. It had been a rough seven years for Soleimani. He fought against the majority consensus view reached among Tehran’s strategic mandarins. It was existential, on multiple levels, for Soleimani. At every downturn— and there were many—he could sense that the knives were out for him, and that his epic career, that he thought he was divinely chosen for, would come to a derisible end. The hard fighting, the terrors of those touch-and-go days, are now behind him. 2017 was a good year for him, a year of vindication and triumph. That ‘sermon in the dust’ he gave at Albu Kamal was a moment he had been yearning for. That is why I would take his syrupy pap seriously. If anything, he is a serious man. In the very least, he may seek to make the lives of those who questioned him as miserable as they had made his. I think he will go further than that. Men on a divine mission rarely stop at ‘good enough’. Iraq is an important platform for his vision. Najaf is packed with the kind of turbaned quibblers and second-guessing idlers that shrug at the awesome responsibility of preserving and propagating ‘Islamic Revolution’ as well as rescuing transnational Shi’ism. They scoffed at and questioned Vilayet el-Faqih, deeming it a dangerously misguided innovation that was out of bounds with traditional Shi’ism. They hardly lifted a finger for Syria, or Bahrain. They were the parasitic clerical types that the Mehdi Hashemi cult disdained. And ever since Najaf blossomed in the post-Saddam era, its competitor twin city Qum has felt emboldened too in questioning Iran’s revolutionary zeal and transnational range, this time from within. For Soleimani, such sedition must be stamped out.

Hard men like Soleimani did not spend their lives fighting for a revolution so that some soft-palmed thirty-something seminarian from a clerically aristocratic pedigree would pontificate about how Iran would benefit economically by backing away from its maximalist rhetoric and mischief. The establishment’s way of doing things, of talking things out respectfully, subtly, collegially, over tea and biscuits has failed to put such debutantes in their place. They are in fact heartened, especially with the growing provincial protests. Harsher, radical measures must be tried, even at the risk of upsetting the delicate balances of the ruling elite. The wrath engendered by that footage from Khorramshahr, with that incendiary chant on the protesters lips, would flash across Soleimani’s eyes, justifying these measures. I think he intends to make an example of Baghdad and Najaf to give his enemies, and the enemies of the revolution—the same thing in his eyes—a preview of what is coming their way. Political life in Iraq had frustrated Soleimani all too often. It also protected Najaf and empowered it. Politics came very close to thwarting Soleimani and Maliki in the summer of 2012 when a parliamentary no confidence motion was imminent. Those were dark times for Soleimani. His travails in Syria had just started, and he could not afford to lose the maneuverability and logistics offered by Maliki’s acquiescence, even outright support, to his Shia chauvinistic agenda. Luckily for Soleimani, the measure was foiled jointly by Iranian and American intervention—McGurk had also been Maliki’s patron and booster before switching over to Abadi. Weakening political life, or doing away with it all together, is far smoother sailing for Soleimani’s timeline and endgame when shortcuts around politics become the norm in Baghdad, as happened with Kirkuk.

 

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The trauma of Kirkuk was about resorting to a show of force as an alternative to resolving reconcilable political disputes. The return of political life had been Iraq’s greatest asset, and its potential salvation. By the evening of October 15, it was largely eroded. With Kirkuk, Iraq transitioned from the post-2003 ethos, or rather the promise, of political settlement to the pre-2003 holding pattern of ceasefires. Nothing could have captured the regression more poignantly than sending tanks into that particularly symbolic city. There was plenty of history, streams of tears, leading up to it because the Kurdish issue is the quintessential transnational issue of the Middle East, impacting as it does four of the region’s countries, and it was always a measure of the health of Iraq’s polity. By failing to break with the past, including an Ottoman one, on how to deal with the Kurds, Iraq would always be a failing state. By failing to resolve Kurdish aspirations, Iraq would not serve as a model for its neighbors, one to emulate as they work out their own problems with their Kurds. Stability is fungible across borders on such transnational issues as the Kurdish one: the wider the region’s adoption of a functioning model, the more secure Iraq can be. The serial infractions against the constitution, or Sadrist antics, or the proliferation of militias, or the jihadist insurgency and its comeback in 2014, or the congealed clot of corruption clogging up the insides of the state, all these travails over the last fifteen years did not have as much impact as this one incident. This was a transgression against a foundational idea of a ‘New Iraq’—one that I now believe is irredeemably lost. The blame game at this point is futile; a line has been crossed. A post-singularity marker, or station, had been realized. Not seeing Iraq’s ensuing story through this lens, including its post-election convulsions, means you are not paying attention as to how Soleimani sees the play at hand. He drew important lessons from that experience. Many others have not. Which puts him ahead, already.

I understand what Masood did. If it were simply about authority and money then there are paths of least resistance short of galloping towards independence that would have given him what he wanted. But he’s a revolutionary, a true believer. Independence is his life’s work. He was actually born into an independent Kurdistan: his birth certificate, if there had been one, would have been stamped by the Republic of Mahabad during its brief ten month existence. One of Masood’s most cherished keepsakes is a small flag—only nine by twelve inches—that is allegedly the first version of the Kurdish flag ever sewed. He keeps it in a frame hanging on his private office’s wall. It was made, like him, in Mahabad. The fingers that stitched it were those of a fourteen year old Jewess from the town of Zakho, a convert to her husband’s Muslim faith. She had followed him east as he hitched their destiny to Mulla Mustafa Barzani’s star, Masood’s father, and who I would count as one of the five most important personas of Iraq in the twentieth century. Mulla Mustafa then took the completed flag from her and offered it to Qazi Muhammad, the republic’s chosen president. After the Shah’s troops put an end to the Mahabad Republic, Mulla Mustafa and his men fled in a heroic journey to the Soviet border. As their venture was collapsing around them, Qazi Muhammad returned the miniature flag to Mulla Mustafa, who took it as a gesture to mean that the cause of the Kurds had been entrusted to him. The infant Masood was sent to Iraq and at first raised by his maternal uncles, the Zebari chiefs, who hated his family with a century-old burning passion. Masood was then taken to Baghdad for schooling, enrolling at an elementary school in the Adhamiya district, a bastion of Arab Nationalist sentiment. All throughout his life he felt like a hostage, one who was expected to be as brave as his father and to break free from the clutches of his kidnappers. He would only get to meet his father again at the age of twelve, after the legendary Kurd had returned to a hero’s welcome and was embraced by Iraq’s new ‘revolutionary’ junta. One of the first images that I recall when thinking about Masood is that of a twelve year-old boy in a bulky ill-fitting suit, sitting beside Iraq’s then president, General Abdul Karim Qasim. That picture should give one a foretaste of how to size up the stature of a Masood versus someone like Abadi. Mulla Mustafa’s rapport with Qasim only lasted a few years. Masood, at sixteen, joined his father as a guerilla fighter. He saw firsthand how easily and quickly an alliance with Baghdad could fracture. Many years later, Mulla Mustafa would offer the Mahabad flag to Masood. It remains his totem, and he probably imagines a day when Kurdistan would achieve independence again, and he can bring out this relic to legitimize and consecrate the event. Only then would he feel that he can give it up, so that it can be housed in a museum for Kurdish history that is to be built in the shadow of Arbil’s ancient citadel. These are but a few of the formative experiences that went into the forced decision taken on June 7 to hold a referendum on independence.

It was reported that once the referendum polls had closed, Masood retired to the village of Barzan. He went off, alone, to sit by his father’s grave. He sat contemplating and savoring that moment for hours. I don’t think this was an act for show, as it may seem to some. It had the ring of authenticity to anyone who had studied the man. That very location of his father’s grave reflects a painful but ultimately triumphant passage. Mulla Mustafa passed away, defeated, at a hospital in Washington in early March 1979. Khomeini’s month-old regime in Tehran offered to receive his corpse and for it to be buried somewhere in the territory of Iranian Kurdistan. By doing so, the Iranians were showing up the Shah and the Americans, who had ‘betrayed’ Mulla Mustafa, and they were needling the soon-to-be self-appointed President of Iraq, Saddam Hussein too. They also wanted to gesture to their own ethnic Kurds that the Islamic Republic intends a wholly different approach to the Kurdish issue. Mulla Mustafa’s death was also an occasion for Saddam to offer welcoming the body and burying it within Iraqi territory, perhaps the display of magnanimity for the history books would persuade Saddam to have even allowed the family to bury him in Barzan itself, though the village had been a heap of ruins for some time. Mulla Mustafa’s family opted to take up Khomeini on his offer instead. (At times when he was exasperated with the Barzanis, Ahmad Chalabi would sometimes insinuate to me that it was him who arranged Iran’s offer but I could never get clear confirmation.) Mulla Mustafa was interred at a point west of Oshnavieh. During the early phase of the Iraq-Iran war, the area around the tomb fell under the control of KDP-I, the same group that put up the fight at Altun Kupri. There was plenty of bad blood between KDP-I and the Barzanis going back to the last days of the Mahabad republic, and under their watch, Mulla Mustafa’s body was disinterred and desecrated. Somehow the Barzani family retrieved the remains, which were then reburied in a safer location. The village of Barzan was freed in the wake of the Gulf War, as Saddam’s troops receded after having faced a Kurdish uprising, and in 1993 Masood brought his father’s body home. In an odd twist of events, the United States Airforce performed a salutary flyover during the proceedings. Masood held back his tears. And I would think he kept his sense of closure in check too for he knew that the show counted for nothing. That moment may yet prove to be fleeting, like so many before it. Much more needed to happen before he could feel that his father’s rest would be final. To think that he had mistakenly thought that the evening of September 25 was that moment of finality should move even the more cynical among us.

Masood may have miscalculated. He is an obstinate, driven man. But he was being true to himself. He never believed Baghdad had changed. Centralizing chauvinism, not racial, was how it traditionally dealt with the Kurds. It was a vestige of nineteenth century Ottoman and Qajar policies, one that was inherited by Iraq. Barzani sought confirmation bias in that this ethos was still there. He interpreted the furor over the attempt to redesign the Iraqi flag during his tenure as the rotating President of the Governing Council in April 2004 as an early indicator that the centralizing chauvinism of the capital had not fully disowned the legacy of the Iraqi state in its dealings with its Kurdish minority. What he saw then was an alacrity to preserve a forty-year old Arab Nationalist flag, one that Saddam had personally left his mark on, rather than address the hurts of a Kurdish nation that witnessed planes bearing those colors as they dropped chemical weapons on their villages and towns. That the furor was tinged with an accusation that the proposed flag carried some cryptic Zionist symbolism, and that a Kurdish head of state was doing so to serve his long-standing alliance with Israel, was further evidence in Barzani’s eyes that not much had changed. Iraq’s politicos could not even agree on a new national anthem, their default standby, still in use, is a hand-me-down Palestinian one. It was a wholly unlucky experience, marred as it was with the first battles of Fallujah and Najaf, further stressing Masood’s preconceptions that this notion of an Iraqi comity just around the corner was untenable.

The challenge on Baghdad was to prove him wrong last September. It required leadership, courage and vision. And a deep sense of history, as well as a deep understanding of the flawed, legendary revolutionary they were dealing with. But Abadi was shown to be lacking. The trauma of Kirkuk revealed that Abadi is a two bit player; the sum of his political calculus was to stay a step ahead of Maliki. He was thinking small. He was frazzled by what Iraq’s version of troll factories (‘electronic armies’) were putting out on Facebook and WhatsApp groups which Abadi spends the bulk of his down time perusing. It wasn’t coincidental: I think he was deliberately manipulated by Soleimani’s war drums. Abadi was worried that Maliki would seize upon the issue of Masood’s obstinacy and recalcitrance to mobilize a chauvinistic constituency ahead of the May elections, an electoral wave that may even bring Maliki—the party boss and comrade that Abadi had betrayed—back to power. What was lost in the night sweats of Abadi’s panicked state of mind, as it weighed the option of a return to force, was the gentlemen’s agreement underwriting an era of new politics in Baghdad: violence would not be employed between the pillars of the political establishment, especially the cast of characters that hark back to the opposition days, among whom Masood would be respectfully offered to sit at the head of the table. That such actors would never again settle disputes with tanks was supposed to be especially true of the Kurdish issue that had been haunting Iraq since its inception. These considerations were purportedly sorted out at the landmark events of the Vienna and Salahuddin opposition conferences that created the Iraqi National Congress (INC) in 1992, the latter hosted by Masood on the territory of a ‘free’ Iraq, even with Saddam licking his wounds not a couple of hours drive away. Federalism was adopted by the attendees as a historic resolution of Iraq’s Kurdish problem. The acknowledged leaders of the Kurdish movement, Masood and Jalal, both acceded to this solution. However, Abadi’s Da’awa Party never really bought into this new ethos. With Da’awa at the helm of power since the Ja’afari cabinet, this was bound to make Masood think twice about how committed a post-Saddam ‘New’ Iraq really was to the idea of federalism. These details were not given sufficient consideration by the Iraqis and Americans who were managing the Kirkuk crises. Soleimani, on the other hand, was very aware of these dynamics. Breaking the norms and the gentleman’s agreement undergirding political life was precisely the prize he was seeking.

Just how badly and heavy-handedly Kirkuk was managed, without a deep respect for history, was evidenced, to my mind, by one of its aftershocks. The aforementioned Kosrat Rasool, who had just cheated death and was nursing his physical and spiritual wounds, put out a statement in the immediate aftermath calling Baghdad’s takeover of Kirkuk and other territories an “occupation.” Baghdad responded with an arrest warrant on the KRG’s vice president. But Kosrat was far more than a title. He belongs to a different time. Before September 2014, if Abadi would have walked up to him to shake his hand, that is before being picked as prime minister, Kosrat would have looked upon him, indifferently and deservedly, as a tertiary actor. Kosrat was an old lion who cut his teeth doing the exceedingly dangerous work of managing urban guerrilla cells against the Ba’ath Party, including in cities such as Kirkuk. He even looked the part, no one would mistake him for a meek lamb. I have a poignant memory of why that kind of past and reputation still matters in Iraq. It was Nawruz 2004. I was accompanying Ahmad Chalabi during a trip to Iraqi Kurdistan. There had been a series of meetings in Salahuddin, followed by a number of others in Suleimaniya. Chalabi was due to meet Jalal at his redoubt in Qala Cholan. Kosrat told Chalabi that he would take him there himself, even though he was still convalescing from a stroke. He was considered a political has-been, masterfully marginalized by the dastardly Jalal, his party leader and rival. Kosrat was idling the years away in Suleimaniya after the PUK had lost his traditional power base around Arbil in 1996. He was also hurting for money by which to maintain patronage networks and his battalions of fighters. At that time he was still uncorrupted if measured by the rest of the PUK leadership. That has changed more recently, with his being the silent partner in the Taqtaq oilfield development, but back then he could not even afford to rehabilitate and furnish one of his grandest prizes: Ali Hassan al-Majid’s (the notorious enemy of the Kurds, aka ‘Chemical Ali’) vacation villa overlooking Dokan Lake. (He indirectly asked Chalabi for that sum by offering the villa for him to stay at during the lead-up to the war. Chalabi obliged this roundabout way to allay the man’s pride, and turned it out elegantly.)

Kosrat had limited mobility in his arms, yet nonetheless he insisted on driving himself. Chalabi sat in the front passenger seat while I was sat by myself in the back. He was steering with his right arm, while his left was slung out the window. Their security details followed behind in a number of vehicles. Being the Kurdish New Year, it seemed as if the whole city had gone off to picnic out in the green expanses. The winding road going up to Qala Cholan took us through scenic stretches coveted by picnickers. This was their first Nawruz without Saddam. Something a friend’s father had told him kept ringing in my ear: “as long as Saddam was around, no Kurd owns anything,” meaning whatever gains the Kurds had accrued could evaporate once again if the tyrant caught his breath. The tyrant, though, had been overthrown. The picnickers seemed relieved, liberated, at long last. The roadside was packed with family groups huddled around portable grills, while some of the men sat apart, huddled around cans of beer. The green hillsides were dotted with thousands of white colored vehicles. These were government cars imported by Saddam during the months preceding the war. The latest model SUVs, salons, pick-up trucks, courtesy of the United Nation’s Oil-for-Food program, and a sure sign that matters had been turning to Saddam’s advantage. The previous regime had long shown its favor by awarding a government car, or a gift car, to a party member, military or security officers, tribal chiefs or an obsequious foreign supporter. For many years in the nineties Baghdad could no longer afford handing out such perks to loyalists, but in the two years ahead of his downfall, Saddam’s financial drought had broken. When war came in 2003, such newly arrived inventory was parked at government warehouses throughout the country. It was quickly appropriated or stolen. Much of it was resold, very cheaply, to all manner of folks in Iraqi Kurdistan, whose local authorities fudged the papers and made ownership look legitimate. Now the beaming owners of these spoils of war were out in strength, while Saddam was tucked away in a prison.

It also meant that there was plenty of traffic, so we advanced at a slow pace up the mountains. This led to an odd, heart-warming interaction—endearing to me at least. The windows were down, and the men by the roadside were standing or squatting only a few meters away. Thus, I could make out what they were saying as we were passing. The vast majority had a similar reaction: they would make out the occupants of the car, then they would softly and knowingly say “Kak Kosrat and Dr. Chalabi!” to the person nearest to them. Most looked caught off guard as they witnessed this pair slowly driving up the road; it took them a couple of moments to process what they were seeing. Chalabi hadn’t been visible on the outer roads of Iraqi Kurdistan since the mid-nineties, when he was remembered for walking onto battlefields carrying an INC flag amidst the Kurdish factions to get them to stop shooting at each other. Kosrat was sending a political message: “I am still around. I still matter, and that is why someone like Chalabi would be riding along with me.” The menfolk would wave politely, and Kosrat would slowly, achingly raise his left arm, extended as it was out of the car, in returning the salutation. They drove in silence for what seemed like a good hour and a half. The two men looked out on the scene, and they felt ownership of that moment. It was their many years of work, at times ducking mortars together—such as their attempt in 1995 to pick a military confrontation with Saddam’s troops—that cumulatively contributed to this feeling of ease and relief by the picnickers. Both men admired each other’s courage. They had tested one another, and been tested by tribulations. It was my sense that many onlookers, especially the older types, also understood the meaning of that fleeting connection, and they showed a form of gratitude and acknowledgment that they owed this moment with their families out in the Kurdish countryside, enjoying this shade of a long yearned-for freedom, partly to these two men. It was the oddest victory parade I’d ever witnessed, but it did indeed feel like victory. It was probably the only one Kosrat and Chalabi would ever have.

In a post-political world, the title makes the man. But no titles can legitimately confer upon one such a moment of ownership, acknowledged concomitantly by the two men and those serenely saluting them. In the complicated considerations of the old and new hierarchies of power and stature in the Middle East, elections do not tell the whole story. Voters did not care much for either Kosrat or Chalabi, but wherever they went, they were acknowledged, by laymen as well as by the elite, not for their titles, but for their larger-than-life story arcs. Note that not I am not calling ‘acknowledgment’ here a form of admiration or veneration. It is a neutral reserve of stature, all its own. These things are not passé in a place like Iraq. Stature—whereby strangers immediately recognize your visage and recall your name and exploits—earned the hard way, still matters, or at least it did on that day and on that road. Soleimani and his team understand these subtleties well. That is why, despite the government’s arrest warrant, and after his orders had nearly killed Kosrat and indeed killed many of his men, Soleimani arranged for a private plane to take off from Arbil’s shuttered airport to transport the wounded Kosrat to Germany for medical care. The Americans, in contrast, did not want anything to do with Kosrat lest they offend Abadi; the former’s calls for their help went unanswered. Soleimani’s clever gesture, and America’s insouciance, did not go unnoticed.

Another incident also serves to highlight how pathetic America’s after-the-fact remedies to what happened in Kirkuk were: On January 24 McGurk tweeted out, “In Iraq, intensive meetings with PM Abadi in Baghdad and then KRG PM Nechirvan Barzani, DPM Qubad Talabani in Erbil. Welcomed their important meeting two days later in Baghdad. U.S. encouraging swift resolution of outstanding issues”. McGurk was implicitly taking credit for arranging this sit down between Nechirvan and Abadi. But those in the know tell a different tale. In their telling, it was Soleimani who finally got Abadi to relent and to receive the Kurdish delegation. The proof was in the pudding when immediately afterwards, the KRG heads travelled to Tehran to offer gratitude and fealty. McGurk’s desperation did not go unnoticed in Baghdad, Arbil and Tehran. But nobody seemed too bothered by that in Washington. Such incongruences are usually consequential in the perceptions of power.

When Soleimani was about to be stymied in 2012 as a no confidence vote against Maliki loomed large, Arbil was one of the nodes of Iraqi political power orchestrating pushback alongside the Shia marji’iyya in Najaf and the political oddity of the Muqtada al-Sadr phenomenon. Such multiple, diffuse loci of power had ameliorated the centralizing and autocratic tendencies in Baghdad. They were effective brakes slowing down the whims of adventurists. Soleimani knocked out one of those centers of power when he orchestrated the events in Kirkuk. The fewer the number of peripheral power nodes, the stronger the center becomes, the easier it is to wield power by whoever wields the center. The process is accelerated as political life withers; the narrower the political terrain, the narrower the margins of political possibility in which the remaining peripherals can maneuver. Furthermore, as politics recede, the stature enjoyed by men such as Kosrat holds less and less value, as the narratives that retell the tales of their exploits fade away too for they can only reprise themselves within a political milieu, one where not everything is about titles and officialdom’s prerogatives. The fewer the numbers of troublemakers like Kosrat, who may stand-up to would-be autocrats, the easier it shall be for the center to rule by decree. It may be difficult at this point to guess what Soleimani intends to do with that unencumbered power in Baghdad once he finishes off the power nodes one by one, but it should be clearer by now that that is where he is heading.

The achievement of men like Kosrat and Chalabi was to return political life to Baghdad in 2003. After watching the tribulations of Iraq’s twentieth century, they understood that flexible, gentlemanly politics was the only reliable pathway that may allow picnickers to enjoy a blithe and relatively prosperous Nawruz for years to come.  Men like these two, from radically different backgrounds and causes, tend, or at least are more likely to find each other within the realm of politics, building on foundations of trust and respect to pursue limited mutual objectives. The merry-go-round nature of electoral judgment keeps them in play for such a day when the voter decides to try something different. Kosrat and Chalabi, among many, had finally worked out a way to normalize the Kurdish experience within Iraq. They had agreed on the basic federal framework. But as with any structure or habitat, it needs to be lived in to ensure modifications, repairs and renovation. Political life ensures that all parties must find a way of tolerating others, and working with others, to live under that roof. The structure was there. But political life was always fledgling; it needed constant nurture and attention. Few outside and inside Iraq understood its existential value. Masood, being an adventurer, is uncomfortable with the restraints of politics and would gladly do away with them as Soleimani is wont to do—in fact, he had, by appallingly freezing out the Kurdistan Parliament for a while during a political crisis, and barring its Speaker from entering Arbil. But even Masood could be persuaded to play along within a gentlemanly game, had his peers been gentlemen, or gentlewomen. As much as he hated Jalal with a vengeance, he could stomach working alongside him within the realm of Kurdish politics, if he really had to. Whatever fault he can find with Jalal and Hero, Masood would acknowledge that they too, like him, had paid their dues. Just as Masood, in 1991, held off the Iraqi Army’s advance at a strategic pass by (allegedly) firing RPGs himself, with only a hundred Peshmerga remaining by his side, after thousands of others had deserted and fled, Jalal and Hero were also making a stand at another chokepoint tens of miles to the south with less than two dozen fighters. As such, Jalal would be a peer he could work with, so was Kosrat, as was onetime PUK leader and later Goran Movement founder Nawshirwan Mustafa. The young Speaker, although elected on Mustafa’s slate, could boast no such feats, or present receipts for dues paid—he was thirteen years old when the Ba’athist darkness receded from much of Kurdistan. He was just an impudent loudmouth as far as Masood was concerned, and he would take no finger wagging from him; barring him from the KRG’s capital, where the Barzanis hold sway, comes more naturally to the grizzled revolutionary—to hell with political decorum.

Many Iraq watchers, and Iraq policy practitioners, began watching after 2003, therefore elements of Iraq’s past do not loom as they should in their deeper sense of the place. The urgency of the Arab Sunni insurgency warped their cognition. That is one reason why Americans tasked with managing Iraq would always lean on Masood to relent and to allow critical benchmarks, such as activating Article 140 of the constitution that is supposed to resolve the issue of Kirkuk, among others, or having parliament pass an oil and gas bill for that matter, to lapse and fester on the backburner for fifteen years. Masood was already primed to be skeptical of the political game. He then watched as politics broke down and eventually the issue that was supposed to get top billing in Iraq’s list of priorities—that of Sunni anger and resentment—broke out in the re-emergence of the caliphate. He resumed talking about a referendum in public, as he had in early 2005, right after ISIS tried to make a dash for Arbil as part of its countrywide blitzkrieg in 2014. Masood must feel vindicated after Kirkuk too. He was right: Baghdad would easily drop the fig-leaf of political consensus, and its Abrams tanks and freshly delivered F-16s would be used to fire upon political dissenters who until recently were allies. In his mind, this was a replay of the early 1960s. There would be no resolution, only a clean break would do. But here, Masood too lost history’s plot and the roles it had assigned to the Kurds within the larger Middle East.

 

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It was an accumulation of geostrategic relevance that got the Kurds to the point where they could opt for independence and confidently demand international recognition of their national rights. The irony is that independence would have diminished their relevance, leaving them vulnerable, again. There is a clear case for a self-determination argument underwriting the Kurdish cause. On principle, a people’s choice for nationhood must be acknowledged, respected and facilitated. But newly-minted Western and Israeli boosters of an independent Kurdistan were making a geostrategic argument for that upshot rather than a principled one, and in doing so they missed an essential truth: throughout history, the Kurds mattered most because of the roles they played within the stories of Persia, Anatolia, Mesopotamia, the Caucasus, and the Levant. Alternately, they were the disruptors or enablers of stability across the Middle East, but never the headlining act. “That is ancient history,” the boosters may contend, “many other nations achieved statehood despite historical illogic.” The clearest Middle Eastern example would be Zionism’s triumph despite improbable odds. So why not so for the Kurds?

By geostrategic calculations, the world has indeed changed over the last one hundred years, especially in Kurdistan and across the region: engineering allows for new travel and trade routes; what is under the ground (oil, for example) became as important, if not more so, as what is above it; demography and displacement—think of the Armenians, Syriacs and Assyrians now missing from much of the picture, while the Jews have made a miraculous comeback—had redrawn the positioning of identities on maps; imported ideologies of nationalism recast imagined history as a mythologized sense of national distinction and sequestration; and changing ecological vectors, such as acute water shortages, will probably bring even more change over the next one hundred years. So, is the one-thousand-year-view, or even the five- hundred-year-view, relevant to the conversation? I would say it is, namely because we have yet to arrive at a stabilizing formula: neither peace has been arrived at nor an independent Kurdistan. Maybe there is an overlooked nugget of wisdom in the historical expanse that has yet to be mined, one that may prove helpful to future generations of Kurds and Middle Easterners in finding their way out of the morass. For over how many tries, and for how many generations, should Kurds await independence? Why are they under the impression that they are destined for it? The part of their ancestral story that precedes the twentieth century, the one where they ‘belong’ within a larger story, has not been adequately or creatively articulated to them, neither by their nationalist leaders and intellectuals, nor by the nationalist, centralizing governments hell-bent on suffocating their ‘otherness.’ That is unfortunate, for their unique otherness was their anti-alienation, it is how they have always belonged to the land, and to the story.

An independent Kurdistan would not have become an anchor of stability, as some argued in Washington and Jerusalem during the run-up to the referendum. In the best case scenario, it would be comparable to Jordan, but without the immediate security usefulness for Israel. A better analogy would be Azerbaijan; similar oil output, with several Aliyev-like dynasties possibly emerging. Even if there were to be a future federal structure that incorporates Rojava in Syria, with a Nakhichevan-like enclave in Afrin, the Kurds would have played themselves out of usefulness to great-power politics as partners and decisive arbiters within Iraqi and Syrian politics—the very substance of their geostrategic worth.

Azerbaijan treads carefully when factoring in Russian and Iranian concerns regarding its usefulness for America. The same would be true for an independent Kurdistan with regards to Turkey and Iran. Maybe even more so. The boosters argue that Kurdistan’s alleged trump card would be its facility to agitate for an expanded state that would incorporate Turkish and Iranian Kurds. But can an existing model of Kurdish independence really be leveraged to destabilize, even dismember Iran, for example, or to slip the rug from under an increasingly obnoxious Erdogan? It seems to me like a hollow threat. To think that this new country would be able to influence an internal Iranian dynamic is likely mistaken; it may turn out to be comparable to Azerbaijan’s clout with Azeri Iranians, which isn’t much in terms of a coordinated alignment. More likely, the opposite of what is intended may happen: it would revert to the models of ancient history when Kurdish princes would serve as bondsmen to Persian or Anatolian autocrats. Furthermore, Kurdistan would not be able to offer Turkey’s Kurds a better option than the vibrancy of an Istanbul, now considered to hold within its city limits the largest concentration of ethnic Kurds anywhere, many of whom are rapidly assimilating. Hereafter, Kirkuk’s resources cannot sustain over thirty million people—it barely suffices to pay the public sector salaries of the KRG. Kurdish divisions, as well as the presence of Arab and Turkmen minorities, serving as Nagorno-Karabakh-like fissures, will remain levers that outside regional powers can use to undermine Kurdistan.

An independent Kurdistan would have ho-hum geopolitical value: U.S. airbases, Israeli diplomatic representation, may be the extent of it. So what? Will it stanch the bleeding of American leadership and stature in the region? No. Is Baku, analogously, that much of an alpha player on the regional scene? Certainly not. Damascus and Aleppo, Baghdad and Najaf, these are the pivotal nodes of the region’s destiny; how it plays out there will reverberate to Riyadh, Tehran, Ankara and elsewhere. The Iranians are cashing in their recent geostrategic triumphs with the public perception that Baghdad, Basra, Damascus, Aleppo, and Beirut, even tenuously-held Sana’a, are ‘theirs’—whatever that is supposed to mean in applied power. It looks and feels like ‘winning’, making it enough of a trophy. Arbil is not much of a consolation prize for the opposite ‘American’ camp. Arbil, Suleimaniya, and Al-Hasakah do not set the tone of the region, holding them aloft does not relay the same intensity of a winner’s affectation.

Those miscalculating groupies in Washington cheering on Masood played a significant part in the timing of his decision. The ones in Jerusalem were relevant to him only in so far as they can influence wider circles in Washington, and not for any particular affinity to Jews or Zionism, a sentiment he shares with his father who in his day welcomed Israeli assistance because, a provincial man as he was, he thought the Jews controlled America. There was an accidental aspect to how the Kurds got to September 25, 2017, the day on which the referendum was held. Much of it is related to their calculation of where they stood in relation to Washington. Their thinking followed the broad framework that American support, or even acquiescence, would allow them to attain their goal. It will turn out that they had misread Washington. Something they may be excused for now given the obscurity of Trump’s foreign policy inclinations to anyone, even to his staffers. But it goes deeper, since the Barzanis were habitually misreading their standing in America, as well as Kurdish leverage with its influence peddlers, for decades.

Some of those relationships, such as the ones that went back to the sixties, when the likes of Jim Hoagland and Bill Safire would occasionally pen pro-Kurdish Op-Eds in America’s flagship publications, had atrophied in the period preceding the 2003 war. That generation had allayed their remorse over ‘Kissinger’s betrayal’ in 1975 (as well as for George H.W. Bush’s later failure to support the 1991 uprising) by agitating for the No-Fly Zone, which came to be under the guard of the U.S. Airforce. But the attention spans of great powers are limited, leaving the Kurds feeling perpetually vulnerable and uncertain of America’s continuing solidarity. For however sympathetic many individual worker-bees and managers may be to the Kurdish cause, Washington’s influence industry runs on lucre, and the Kurds had very little of it. It takes magic to become part of Washington’s contrived sense of urgency otherwise. The Kurds may have had that in the person of Mulla Mustafa. He had ‘it’: he exuded the alchemy of folksy charisma, enveloped within a haloed miasma of blood-and-tears, and wedded to a persuasive narrative that may be newly fashioned to align with changed policy objectives. His story, bearing and vision would have made up for their lack of lobbying largesse. But when he decided upon—or rather was badgered into—going silently into the night after his defeat in 1975 and not taking his case to the American public directly, the Kurds were bereft of that once-in-a-generation resource. Kurdish infighting throughout the 1990s under the protective umbrella of the No-Fly Zone didn’t help either.

The relationship with the Israelis had soured in Mulla Mustafa’s final years too, as both sides failed to live up to expectations of support. At its heart was a bifurcation in how either side envisioned the future. The Kurds understood that the nations around them will be forever their neighbors, ones that would ideally turn friendly and cooperative after the fighting had subsided. The Israelis, on the other hand, thought that the Kurds were kindred, embattled outsiders, a thorn in the side of larger, aggressive regional powers, who would survive in this tough environment by forever bleeding out their enemies. A battle at the foot of Mount Henderin in 1966 showcases these two different approaches. Israeli Mossad officers had designed an ambush to which they lured the Iraqi Army. The ruse was pulled off expertly. The Israelis continue to claim that the Peshmerga had killed 2,000 Iraqi soldiers in that battle. Upon hearing of this exploit, Mulla Mustafa blew his stack: he would have settled for twenty casualties, a manageable number for the opposite side, nudging them towards a face-saving settlement. The actual number of soldiers who died that day was two hundred; several hundred others were taken prisoner, treated fairly by the Kurds, and then released—but it was still excessively brutal in the eyes of the Kurdish leadership. Israeli historians would peg Henderin as a victory, brandishing it as such in the faces of their enemies, while the Kurds would apologetically reckon it an unfortunate misunderstanding. Other disappointments followed: Mulla Mustafa’s fighters were not much use for Israel when Iraq deployed two brigades to the Golan in 1973 that had been freed up from fighting the Kurds, while the Israelis could not even pick up the tab for his hospital stays in America. Later generations of Barzanis would nod politely towards the enthusiasm for their cause emanating from Jerusalem, but would keep the Israelis at arm’s length given their knotty past and a tendency to embellish their influence and prowess, such as the death toll at Henderin, or how far they could push Washington. Netanyahu may have been one of the most vocal international advocates for the recent plebiscite, but his endorsement does not reflect a continuum to the relationship that existed half a century ago. All that mattered to Arbil was, always, who would deliver America.

By 1998, Kurdish standing in Washington had deteriorated considerably. Masood was deemed a sell-out to Saddam, while Jalal was written off as an Iranian asset—it was Iranian artillery backing up the latter that drove the former to Saddam’s embrace in August 1996, as a result of which the U.S. reluctantly had to airlift and resettle 6,600 refugees. But a new variable entered the picture: Chalabi—he had the kind of magic that could sway policy without ample resources, without much of anything to go for him at that time actually. Chalabi had worked closely in the past with Mulla Mustafa. He learned an important lesson from that experience: when ‘betrayed’ by the Central Intelligence Agency (as he chose to interpret the events of 1996) then one should do the opposite of what Mulla Mustafa did and become embarrassingly noisy, to get the American media and Congress to pay attention. And they did, to the consternation of many.

The Kurds became relevant in Washington again as a direct result of the Clinton administration’s spite towards Chalabi, and as part of its efforts to stymie his advance along the Potomac. The administration scrambled to broker a peace accord between the warring Kurds in September 1998, to show Congress that they were trying to do something when it comes to Iraq. They also needed the pliable Kurds back in the picture to show-up and undercut Chalabi, to prove to congressional committees that the Iraqi opposition simply will not unite for any palpable purpose, and they certainly would not do so under Chalabi. The Clinton administration did not want to be bothered by Iraq, after all as far as they were concerned everything was running smoothly with both Iraq and Iran constrained under ‘dual containment.’ But here was a “discredited” Chalabi, with what amounts to an Agency “burn notice” on his head, creating a ruckus, and he was within striking distance of doing something that had never been pulled off before in Washington’s annals: by legislating the Iraqi Liberation Act (ILA) in October 1998, Congress had made regime change in Baghdad America’s policy. Which would only serve to agitate Saddam, prompting an American response, Clinton officials would warn. The Kurds, difficult to band together as they were, would be the centerpiece of the dysfunction and mendacity of the Iraqi opposition, demonstrating that substituting these clowns for Saddam would be ill-advised and dangerous, no matter what a loose gaggle of wet-behind-the-ears congressional staffers smitten by Chalabi “the charlatan, the snake oil salesman” had to say about it.

If only they could designate PUK, KDP and Kurdish Islamists as part of the ILA, as the Clinton Administration eventually did, then they were confident that Chalabi wouldn’t be able to herd these cats together. Plus, Chalabi’s pique at Masood’s betrayal of a thirty-year-old close friendship linking him to the Barzanis could not be overcome, given what they thought about Chalabi’s personality. Jalal had also poisoned his relationship with Chalabi back in 1997; he had expelled the latter’s crew from Suleimaniya after sensing that they were about to pull off a momentous strike against the leadership in Baghdad. Furthermore, to ensure that the ILA would not go anywhere, the State Department assigned one of its ablest Arabists with the task of conjuring up byzantine plots and conspiracies setting the Iraqi factions against one another. His task with the Kurds was an easy one—they certainly were not ready for primetime back then. The Kurds would arrive in Washington looking like provincial bumpkins. The only one who could pass as spiffily-dressed and somewhat sophisticated was Nechirvan; his sartorial arsenal replenished by a running tab at James in Tysons II mall in Northern Virginia. Qubad’s first jaunt as his father’s heir was to New York City to participate in the INC delegation to the United Nations in September 1999. Other party cadres were reduced to writing status reports for Langley, which kept ordering them to maintain the status quo. Najmiddin Karim, later Kirkuk’s governor, was heading the U.S.-based Kurdish National Congress at the time, which was only relevant because it was perceived as a front for the PKK. They were truly small timers. Just trotting them out, as State and the CIA often did, would put the lie to the idea that there is a ready and credible alternative for managing a country as thorny as post-Saddam Iraq. After all, here are the Kurds who, although ethnically homogenous and had been fighting for the same goal for decades, cannot govern themselves, are mired in corruption and are drenched in each other’s blood, all while serving as proxies for their age-old oppressors, such as Saddam and the Iranians, to boot. Besides, “look here, they are signaling to us not to trust Chalabi,” and that they don’t actually want to overturn the applecart according to his ‘harebrained’ plan, America’s diplomats and spies would tell Congress and the media.

Even up to 2002, Kurdish wealth was generated primarily from oil smuggling proceeds on behalf of Saddam. Hence, the Kurds were as economically relevant as the smuggling barons of Basra. They were set on a course towards renegotiating their status with Baghdad, one that, despite the No-Fly Zone, would have to be initiated by kisses and embraces in Baghdad, as in 1991 with Barzani and Talabani practically kneeling before Saddam. The formation of the INC in 1992 delayed that renegotiation for a few years, until the Kurds began fighting. Saddam was drawing up his strength towards the end of the nineties under the Oil-for-Food program, and more and more people were advocating for normalizing relations with him (…even the late Kofi Anan’s son was allegedly on the take!) One could sense that the Kurds were slowly making their peace with an inevitable rapprochement—what form it would take would be left to negotiations, punctuated by some fighting as usual. Chalabi’s feat in creating the ILA out of thin air was a reprieve from that fate. Chalabi also did not fall into the various traps laid for him by those who did not want the opposition to succeed. What followed was political mastery at the highest level, and, yes, a touch of magic. There were many instances where he could have allowed pique to derail the larger effort, and to consequently validate what the detractors were saying. He held it together, both his pride and the clowder of feral cats that passes for the Iraqi opposition, and carried matters through until such a point as there was no going back for the Bush administration. Chalabi returned for the first time to Iraqi Kurdistan after the 1996 betrayal in December 2002 January 2003 through the snow driven pass of Haj Omran. Awaiting him was a third tier KDP official. It was a striking contrast to the Honor Guard that the Iranians had assembled for him and his delegation as he departed their territory. Then, as if to drive the humiliation further, the INC contingent was taken to the Barzani lair in Salahuddin and deposited at a two-star hotel that had been the INC’s headquarters before it was ransacked by the Republican Guard in 1996. Several aides turned to Chalabi at that moment and beseeched him that he should not allow this slight to stand, that they should go out and rent taxis and head over to Jalal’s territory, where they could expect a warmer, respectful welcome. He sat there waiting, unfazed by their tantrums. An hour later Masood sent his chief of protocol and brought the delegation over to stay at the ‘presidential’ guest houses. Chalabi and Masood had some time to themselves, and seemingly sorted out their personal hurts. Something bigger than them and their egos was stirring. Bringing down Saddam, and enshrining federalism as the ethos of a ‘New Iraq’, thought to be impossible not long ago, was about to be.

The New Iraq brought many dividends for the Kurds. Though what one sees today in Iraqi Kurdistan, gleaming and somewhat polished as it were if compared to the rest of Iraq, was not an ‘eventuality’ of Kurdish statesmanship and strategic wisdom. By my measure, it was accidental as we have seen. It was almost derailed by their narrowmindedness and their propensity to be swayed by some State Department desk officer or a CIA station chief. The Kurds reaped those dividends because, post 2003, they found their niche as arbiters of Iraqi politics, often doing so to complement American wishes. The Kurds believed they were building up political capital with Washington, one that they could spend to create their own stand-alone relevance for U.S. policies. Masood may have thought that, one day, that capital could be swapped for independence underwritten by America.

By early 2005, Masood, reliably misjudging the balances around him as ever, was already making noises indicating his inclinations towards independence, but many incorrectly interpreted those gestures as grandstanding to get better concessions for the Kurds during the constitution drafting period. Getting him, and his opposite number, Jalal, on board was supposed to be the historical codification of reconciliation between the Kurds and the Iraqi state. It came to be, albeit superficially, by popular consensus. Yet it was a tortuous run-up, unnecessarily so. Masood was not entering the pact in good faith. His objection, followed by expressed hesitation, and ultimately dissembling, would prove disastrous to himself, to the Kurds, and to political life and the possibility of democracy in Baghdad. This is how I put it thirteen years ago:

Barzani and Talabani are a lot like Arafat, and I’m not only talking about the corruption, lack of freedoms, nepotism, and cronyism that are the hallmarks of the Palestinian Authority, as well as the governments of Arbil and Suleimaniya. They share the same sort of weird political legitimacy of representing a battered cause, even though Talabani used to do Saddam’s bidding in the past and should have on his conscience the massacre of Iraqi opposition forces in Pesht-Aashan in 1983, and Barzani brought in Saddam in 1996 to wipe out his archrival Talabani, in return for the regime’s destruction of Iraqi opposition bases in ‘free’ Kurdistan. Both leaders have also handed over Iranian, Turkish, and Syrian Kurds to the regional oppressors of Kurds. But, no one can speak with authority on behalf of the Kurds, and shape Kurdish aspirations, like these two gentlemen.

And here’s the rub: the rest of Iraq’s polity understands the Kurdish demands for Kirkuk and the Peshmerga as veiled maneuvers in the direction of outright Kurdish independence. If that’s the case, then Barzani (who on election day said that he hopes to see an independent Kurdistan in his lifetime) and Talabani need to come out and speak clearly on the issue of independence. The language for the right of Kurdish self-determination, and a timetable for disentanglement within five years, should be working into the upcoming constitution-writing process (to be concluded by next August) that spells out the nature of the Iraqi state. Iraq cannot afford to raise two generations on the notion that Iraq’s unity is inviolable, only to be confronted by a “surprise” Kurdish secession down the road, thus enabling demagogues in Baghdad to whip up national sentiments to send young Iraqi men to do battle with young Kurdish men. This has been tried in the past, and now is the time to start negotiating an amicable and mutually agreed separation.

If the Kurds and their leaders are still toying with the idea of remaining within the Iraqi union, then they should also make it clear to Iraq’s other component ethnic and sectarian groups, the Arab Sunnis and Shias as well as the Turkomans, what they need to compromise on in order to keep the Kurds happy and Iraq unified. Kirkuk does not need to be administratively controlled by the Kurds in order for them to get their share of its oil wealth; rather the wells could be privatized and the Kurds represented, along with Kirkuk’s mixed Arab and Turkoman populace and the Iraqi central government, on its executive board. A cordial three-way sharing of the proceeds could be worked out. If Talabani and Barzani want to remain part of Iraq, they should turn around and tell all those Kurdish youngsters who have grown up without knowing a word of Arabic and devoid of any sense of belonging to a larger Iraq that an independent state of Kurdistan is never going to happen and that they should get used to existing as Iraqi Kurds. They should also deliver this message clearly to other Kurds in Turkey, Syria, and Iran that harbor hopes for national independence.

As it is, Kurdish reluctance to spell out what they want is setting up the stage for further strife. Talabani and Barzani need to decide, now, whether to call for a Kurdish referendum on independence by March 2010 or seal a binding union with the Iraqi state. Keeping matters in flux against the backdrop of terrorist turmoil in Iraq is a massive shortcoming of the Kurdish leaders and an uncharacteristic mark of cowardice. The delays in forming a government this past March have left a bitter taste in the mouths of most Iraqis who are eager to move on from the travails of the last few years. The right thing for the Kurds to do now is to inform the rest of Iraq, as well as the Americans who have invested so much in creating a new Iraq, whether they are staying or leaving.

On October 15, 2005, the constitution passed a national referendum, with overwhelming support in Kurdish areas because their leaders had sold them on it. It was one of the greatest triumphs of Iraq’s nascent democracy; Iraq was thought to have turned a corner on that the unhappy and brutal legacy. Two weeks later, the Americans rewarded Masood with an Oval Office meeting with President George W. Bush. Masood took that photo-op and mentally deposited it to his political capital that he was still hoping to exchange for full sovereignty one day. Was he simply being deceitful? As always, there are other elements to consider: two days after the referendum, the hillsides of Barzan witnessed a somber ceremony as the remains of five hundred and twelve Barzanis that had been found in a mass grave in the southern deserts of Iraq were delivered and reburied. They had been initially identified by the distinctive red headdress many were wearing at the moment of their killing. These corpses accounted for one sixteenth of those of the Barzani ‘nation’ (not a tribe, more on that later) who were made to ‘disappear’ by the Saddam regime in 1983.  A couple of days after that, Saddam stood in court for the first time to answer for the execution of 140 Shias from the town of Dujail, where he was targeted for assassination in 1982. Even though there was some symbolism and satisfaction in seeing that the presiding judge was Kurdish, someone like Masood would have questioned why the Dujail affair—close to the heart of Shia Islamists—was given precedence to the victims he had just reburied. Masood wanted to find reasons to be disappointed with the New Iraq. He actively sought out evidence of its dysfunction and lack of ‘newness’. He did not have to look far, but it still did not amount to a damning case.

 

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Try as Masood did to find a reason to condemn post-2003 Iraq, its track record with the Kurds was still, on balance, defensible—until, that is, the evening of October 15, 2017. For thirteen years, to the exact day, the Iraqi state stood on the moral high ground of constitutional legitimacy conferred to it by the 2005 referendum. That it sent tanks into Kirkuk to uphold the constitutional document is the irony of ironies: those who took that decision, and those who endorsed it, had forgotten the deep memory that animates the letter of the law. This particular issue, the Kurdish issue, is not one that is handled through artillery or belligerence. That unadorned and straightforward covenant was breached, and the ghastly legacy of the pre-2003 Iraq came roaring back. Nonetheless there was one person who emerged triumphant from the debacle in Kirkuk: Masood. Now he had his moment of j’accuse.

That particular date in mid-October also happened to coincide with the ninetieth anniversary of the 1927 Baba Gurgur oil spurt, which heralded a new age. Suddenly, Kirkuk switched over from being a historical obstruction on the path of Kurdish statehood to its lifeline. Baba Gurgur was a field where an ‘eternal’ fire had rolled through its gaseous emissions long before it came to be recognized as a ‘Super Giant’ in oil exploration lingo. The name roughly translated to ‘The Flaring Saint.’ There seems to have been an actual eponymous saint who died in the early fifteenth century who was associated with that fire—a Kurd according to one of the records we have—and he lies buried within the folds of Old Baghdad. The saint’s wooden sarcophagus abuts a Bektashi Sufi lodge, which was built to honor and remember him. It stayed with the Bektashi order until an Ottoman sultan decided to eviscerate the janissaries—certain units of which were affiliated with the order—in 1826, as part of one of the first stirrings of reform and centralization. At the time of the sultanic decree, Baghdad was not under direct Ottoman control, but five years later it would be, and those allied with the janissaries were promptly booted out. The Bektashis returned to this lodge after some restrictions were lifted in later decades, under subsequent sultans. Midhat Pasha, the famed Ottoman reformer of the late nineteenth century, even sought out one of their dervishes at this location to interpret a dream he had during his tenure as vali of Baghdad, at the peak of the empire’s centralizing drive of which he was one of the principal architects, a time when the administrative borders of Iraq ran all the way to Arabia’s Empty Quarter, encompassing much of what is today eastern Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. The dervish listened to a recounting of the dream, which involved a deer hunt in a forest north of Istanbul, telling the vali that he would marry, so he took a wife from one of the Circassian slave girls who had been serving a Baghdadi family he was acquainted with. By 1881, the chief religious magistrate of Baghdad (of Kurdish origins) decreed that Baba Gurgur’s tomb and its adjacent lodge would no longer be administered by the Bektashis, and he transformed it into a religious seminary, swiftly appointing a fellow Kurd from Suleimaniya, whose father had been the top religious authority in Kurdistan in his day, as caretaker of the new school and its principal instructor. One can still find this teacher’s headstone, along with that of his two sons, under the shredded sponges and trimmings of today’s workshop; the British had refused to keep paying for the upkeep of this institution during their brief occupation, and with time, the neglected space was taken over by the upholstery guild that runs that particular nook of Baghdad’s ancient markets. Meanwhile, the roof over Baba Gurgur has caved in, and his tiny tomb chamber lies in disrepair, surrounded by collapsing walls. The respective governmental bureaucracies in charge of Sunni and Shia endowments cannot agree as to which sect the half-forgotten holy man, he of a spirit aflame, belongs. The Shias lay claim because of the Bektashi association, and the Sunnis do so because of the 1881 decree. The tomb will remain a heap of ruins, if it remains at all, until such time as a resolution can be reached.

The preceding paragraph may seem permissively chockful with obscure minutiae, unnecessarily so as far as the general reader is concerned. Yet so much of the phantom code that still asserts itself, startlingly, within the region’s narrative can be found in the preceding sentences if one knows what to look for. It is that faint hint of etched-out, older tales that one can barely make out, in the right light, lying underneath the bolder text of a reprocessed palimpsest. The events of the Middle East are overwhelming as they are, now try factoring in the multiplicity of stories, such as that of Baba Gurgur, Midhat Pasha and the British colonial bureaucrat who nullified the seminary’s budgetary expenditure, as part of the necessary math needed to better understand what is going on in totality. Why are some stories forgotten? Why are some other stories forgotten then suddenly remembered? Is there rhyme or reason to the process? Is the choice contrived, beholden to individual agency, or is it as arbitrary as a fluke tempest, or a manuscript rediscovered? I have been unable to conclusively discern the pattern, although my inclination is to privilege the drive of the individual, the storyteller, whether prophet, scribe or polemist. And then, once you have mastered both the apparent and concealed versions of the past, you must sift through what is actually old from what is ‘fake old’, that is, what is new in the guise of the old, an original manifestation which is usually brought into being by an inspired narrator.

Such an exercise, when applied to the story of the Kurds, and when purposed towards understanding the three-week span between the referendum and Baghdad’s recapture of Kirkuk, has taught me that while Mulla Mustafa and Masood were true to their family’s revolutionary legacy, the story of the Barzanis is, as a whole, a historical anomaly within the larger Kurdish story. By way of contrast, Jalal was an anomaly to his family’s story, which itself was a clear archetype of how Kurds traditionally, and preponderantly, made their peace with powerful centralizing forces. That story is hardly ever told. There is a balance to be struck between anomalies, which capriciously leave their mark on historical progression and may even divert it, and the leaden forces of how things ploddingly are. That would be the ideal application of statecraft. Politics would serve as the medium of resourceful mediation and grudging consent. But maybe it is too much to hope for that the current crop of policy makers and decision takers in Baghdad, Washington, Tehran, Arbil and other regional capitals would be proficiently mindful of such dialectics. Their hash choices, taken on the fly, while dismissing laborious ‘extravagances’ such as considerations of historical granularity and a nation’s cherished narratives, will yet bear toxic fruit, producing even more human misery. There is probably very little that can be done about that now. However, it may be useful at this juncture to rethink the problems inherent within the region. Just as Kirkuk is the first stress test of the Singularity, it can be its first lesson too. What we glean from it may prove instructive for the era following the region’s emergence from its inchoate black hole. Here, the exercise in rethink would begin by asking not ‘who’ the Kurds are but ‘what’ are the Kurds? Kurds always have right of way to define who they are, individually or as a group. But there is slightly more room for a reasonably dispassionate consideration of what their past was all about.

Maliki’s declared genealogy has him descending from an eleventh century Kurdish chieftain, while Masood claims the princes of Amadiyya—who descend from an Arab ‘Abbasid bloodline—as his ancestors. Maliki thinks of himself as an Arab, while the Barzanis are indisputably Kurdish. There are several theories attempting to append the Talabani name to an Arab tribe or bloodline too. How does that happen? Geography had located the Kurds at the margins of centralizing (read by some as ‘civilizing’) forces in Anatolia, Persia and Mesopotamia. It also placed them in between all three, so that the populations that would one day become Kurds would always find themselves part of those central sagas, unfolding faraway, as these imperial nodes went to war or traded. The Kurds existed at the frontiers of empire, but their land was itself the borderland among empires. They could not be ignored behind a wall or string of forts, as the unruly brood of the Central Asian or Mongolian steppes were. They had to be subjugated or turned into reliable vassals lest the empire on the other side of the Kurdish buffer finds a way through. Being at the confluence of imperial ambitions and anxieties meant that the Kurds were not left to their devices. That is the principal reason to my mind as to why they came to be an integral part of the Middle Eastern story.

Topography had given the Kurds an altitudinal identity; they were sheep and goat-grazing pastoralists who seasonally settled along slopes and highlands, cultivating small plots along thin plateaus, meadows and upper valley crags. They were socially organized into clans and tribal confederations. Their roaming grounds were demarcated from those of the tribeless souls who lived further down the valleys and across the wider plains beyond. The inhabitants of the valleys and plains were often dragooned by centralizing forces into tilling the flatlands and paying out taxes. The states found that chasing down and taxing the pastoralists was too costly of a logistical exertion. Acquiescence to central authority was what set these two populations, the peasants and the pastoralists, apart. Whether national attributes such as languages, dialects, costumes, cuisine, faiths and hierarchies follow or precede such differentiation in acquiescence would be difficult to answer in the case of peoples such as the Kurds who did not leave behind a written or monumental record, even though there is a tantalizing assertion by the tenth century alchemist Ibn Wahshiyya that he had spotted multiple volumes in a Baghdad library written in a long forgotten ancient Kurdish script. Twentieth century Kurdish nationalists, following the musings of a Russian orientalist, appropriated Median civilization as the forerunner to their identity, but count me skeptical. I tend to give credence to the variance in conformity to central rule as the likeliest arbiter in this case. What records we have demonstrate that the highlanders played cameo roles in imperial sagas rather than dictating the script of historical progression across the region, and that this paradigm regulated the relationship between Kurds and their neighbors for millennia. It is one that Kurdish nationalists advocating for a narrative of separation and separateness ignore, or emotively cast within the condition of unremitting persecution and victimhood.

The central authorities would sometimes raid the semi-sedentary highlanders, carrying off manpower and womenfolk to augment their own populations, especially the slave classes, and to set an example against aspiring runaways from its suffocating hold. States would sometimes transfer populations in a wholesale fashion, setting the hardy Kurds against other would-be nuisances. Such is the reason that the Krak de Chevaliers near Syria’s Homs, far removed from the Kurdish mountains, was known as Husn al-Akrad (Castle of the Kurds) before the crusading Knights Hospitallers expanded it. Four centuries ago, the Safavid regime, keen on consolidating its rule in Persia, felt the perennial threat of Uzbeks and Turkmen raiding its domains, so it uprooted several Kurdish tribal confederations from the northwest and settled them across the frontiers from the troublemakers. Today there are still hundreds of villages in Iran’s northeasterly Khorasan Province where Kurdish is spoken. Some of these populations were repurposed and moved yet again in the mid-eighteenth century, this time to protect Persia from Russian incursions. It should be noted here that Iranian historian (and contrarian) Ahmad Kasravi has argued that the Safavids themselves were ethnic Kurds from Sinjar. Other Kurds proved critical to the Ottomans, helping to stave off Safavid expansion heading their way. Even earlier, a caste of Kurdish soldiers managed to attain the highest glories of power and expanded across the map under the Ayyubid dynasties of Saladin fame. With roots in what is today a Yezidi village near the Armenian capital of Yerevan, and with Tikrit as his birthplace, Saladin grew up in Mosul and in several of the interior Syrian towns, and was eventually buried right outside the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. He is considered history’s greatest Kurd, even though his storyline only makes him a nominal one. Saddam débuted the new province of which Tikrit is its capital by his name—however, what this revised version of history leaves out is that the newborn Saladin only spent a night after his birth in Tikrit and then his family was forced to flee to other lands due to a blood feud. Saladin’s cousins, lieutenants and soldiers, left Kurdish bloodlines across the Middle East as far away as Yemen and the Sudan. Similarly, a good number of the established Sunni ‘Arab’ families of the Levantine coast, in places like Beirut and Tripoli, are of Kurdish extraction. Ironically, the Ayyubids, stopped relying on their kin within a generation, and turned to even hardier Turkish slaves, the traditional store of hardy soldiery, to replenish their martial ranks. The Kurdish interregnum in lordship over the region was followed by a resumption of centuries of Turkic ascendancy.

Sometimes the Kurds were invited to relieve embattled minorities. According to one version of Nusayri-Alawite lore, the folk-worshippers of the Mediterranean highlands invited in a Sinjari chieftain and thousands of his troops to protect them at the peak of (Turkic) Mameluke persecution. Historians are still debating which Sinjar is being alluded to (there is a village by that name near Hamah) and whether the Sinjar in today’s Iraq was populated by Kurds at the time, and even whether the Yezidis were established there by that date. The Sinjari chieftain is still one of the most important personages of Nusayri-Alawite history, and most consider him a Kurd—he has purported resting places ranging from high up in the mountains to the suburbs of Damascus, to an obscure shrine near Talafar. The Wuld ‘Ali ‘tribal’ federation, one of the four principal kinship corporations among Nusayri-Alawites, consider themselves Kurds. And in at least one version attributed to a leading Asad family member, told to Jalal in the eighties, the Asads claim themselves to originally be Kakai Kurds from Khaniqin on the Iraq-Iran border. The Kurdish Junbulat strongmen of the area that now straddles the borders of Turkey and Syria north of Aleppo provided the Ottomans with generations of officerly talent. The family’s most famous general participated in the Ottoman conquest of the island of Cyprus four and a half centuries ago and lies buried within the walls of the fort of Famagusta. One of his descendants aimed to expand the family’s mainland statelet, even conspiring with the Venetians while doing so, but was smacked down by the Ottomans. His kin dispersed across the Middle East, one of them making himself useful to the Druze minority in the Lebanese highlands; his three grandsons would rise to assume the titular temporal leadership of the Druze when opportunity came knocking. That particular story line gave Lebanon the larger-than-life political agitator and confessional disruptor Kamal Junbulat and his son Waleed—the latter holding exclusive rights to journalism’s moniker of ‘mercurial’ for many decades long before Muqtada al-Sadr usurped it. History often comes full circle and one instance in which it did so was reflected in the composition of Waleed’s fearsome militia during the Lebanese Civil War: not primarily Druze clansmen, but rather stateless Kurds (nominally Sunni), some of whom had come to Beirut at the turn of the last century, or following the suppression of Sheikh Said Piran’s rebellion in Anatolia that sought to restore a caliphate that the Turkish National Assembly had abolished.

Kurds dispersed to points near and far from their mountains and hillsides. Whether as subjugated individuals, or as a fighting corps, or as mere economic migrants—the larger Middle East too was their abode. Some of their bloodlines did not end abruptly or fade out into obscurity; many leaders and modern-era celebrities across the region can be traced to a Kurdish ancestor. Ataturk’s lieutenant and successor had Kurdish grandparents. A couple of Syria’s presidents, who preceded Asad, did so too. The Damascus-born founder of the Syrian Communist Party was a Kurd, with his family electing to bury him in the capital’s ‘Kurdish’ cemetery in the nineties. If the Lurs are to be counted as Kurds, then Shi’ism’s first modern ‘grand’ ayatollah, Iran’s Hossein Borujerdi, was also a Kurd. There is a case to be made that Muhammad Ali Pasha, the creator of modern Egypt, long thought to be an Albanian or a Macedonian, may actually have Kurdish roots. Kurdish progeny enriched Egyptian letters (Qasim Amin, the Middle East’s pioneering advocate for women’s rights), law (Muhammad ‘Abduh, the region’s pioneering modernizing Islamist), poetry (Ahmad Shawqi, ‘Prince of the Poets’), and cinema (Suad Husni, adoringly nicknamed the ‘Little Cinderella’). These opportunities to make it, although falling short of statehood and sovereignty, are not nothing either. They are symptoms that Kurdish talent often found it convenient to go along with a neighboring, centralizing civilization. Or just a state that appreciated such talent: the first commander of Saudi Arabia’s royal guard was a Kurd from Kirkuk. A Kurd from the village of Barzan made it to and made it in Baghdad a few centuries ago. His progeny, going by the surname al-Barzanli, counted among the city’s wealthiest merchants throughout the nineteenth century. They didn’t huddle away in one of the Kurdish enclaves there, but rather took their place among the town’s notables in the affluent, mixed Ras Al-Greyyah neighborhood, and were known to be proud of their Kurdish roots. They had the rare distinction of having their own family cemetery within the grounds of a mosque they had built in the very center of the ‘center’.

 

However, most Kurds stayed put, and neighboring centralizing civilizations let them be for centuries, largely following a pattern of mutually adhered-to distancing. At other times the pastoralists would sense a weakening in the far off capital city, and would bear down on those peasants in the lowlands, extracting stores and tribute. A caravan making its way from one market to another during turbulent times would be too good of an opportunity to pass up. But most years passed with the three sets of populations—the pastoralists, the peasantry, and the urbanized elite—trading and generally trying not to step on each other’s toes lest they invite mischief or punishment.

For most of their story as their identities evolved and expanded, the Kurds of the Middle East were unable to forge an empire. The two elements of geography and topography that afforded them a lifestyle—and from that lifestyle an identity—also conspired to thwart a unitary cohesion. If we were to look solely at the region of what now encompasses Iraqi Kurdistan, we can identify four main agricultural plains: Shahrazur, Arbil, Nineveh and Diyala. The launch of imperial ambitions requires maintaining and outfitting a soldiery for a crescendo of campaigns. Such expensive endeavors require a scale of wealth generation that only large, well-watered and firmly controlled plains can afford. Other than these four major plains, there are numerous intermontane valleys of agricultural value in the core of geographical Kurdistan, but they do not scale up to the output of a large plain, even in aggregate. A would-be empire builder would need to control two or three of the aforementioned plains. From the get-go, the Nineveh plain was a bridge too far, since it radiates from the city of Mosul, which is part of a trading matrix that encompasses the apex of the Fertile Crescent extending to Aleppo through Mardin, Diyarbakir, Urfa and Antep. There were too many powerful vested interests that sought to keep the hinterland of Mosul profitable and under control, and would not relinquish it so easily to a Kurdish upstart. It is interesting to note that as enterprising Kurdish sheikhs built up their own fiefdoms in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the areas southeast of Dohuk, and sought to cement their standing by enforcing religious and customary orthodoxies, the Yezidis were gradually pushed out of the hills and mountains and forced to retreat to the lowlands of the Nineveh plain, working as impoverished sharecroppers for absentee landowners. In effect, they escaped their ethnic kin not a couple of escarpments away and found relative refuge within urban Mosul’s orbit. This seems to have been an older dynamic, since all the important Yezidi shrines are easily accessible from the lowlands; their locations do not seem to have been chosen as protection from bullying Islamic orthodoxy emanating from Mosul, as one would expect it to, and sporadically did so under a couple of overly-zealous Ottoman valis, or when there was a lag in paying taxes—the latter being the real motivator for harassing them in most cases. But clearly it was not too heavy of an iron first as to disperse them away from the Nineveh plain. Even Sinjar Mountain is not much of a ‘mountain’, and it can be easily scaled by centralizing powers seeking to protect the caravan routes that closely bypass it on the way to or from the next eastern stop over, Tel Afar. In fact, several notable genealogies in Mosul can be traced back to families who had once held noble standing among Yezidi communities in Sinjar and elsewhere. One of the many aberrations of the Islamic State in the twenty first century was that it turned this historical formula on its head, with existential danger visited upon the Yezidis from the direction of Mosul.

Once Baghdad was picked as the principal site of a new Abbasid state, the central coffers invested heavily in a maze of massive irrigation works in Diyala to feed the capital. A major trading roadway into Persia and markets further east ran through the plain alongside lush orchards and fields of grain. Diyala also was too prohibitive of a prize for ambitious Kurdish statesmen-to-be. A road broke off from this thoroughfare and ran north, through Kirkuk and then to Arbil, linking Baghdad to Mosul. Successive powers went to great lengths to protect it. Beginning with the Seljuks, ethnic Turkmen tribes were settled along the route, occasionally replenished by more Turkic stock who were awarded lands to hold on to against any aspirant challengers descending from the Kurdish hills further east. This strategic highway rendered the Arbil plain a vital interest too, even though it was more vulnerable than the preceding two—the population of Arbil’s citadel was majority Turkmen for centuries. Small-time Kurdish emirates in this region emerged here and there, such as the ruling family that controlled the valley running along the so-called Brussels Line from Zakho to Shanidar Cave, building out a ‘capital’ in Amadiyya, and from which the Barzanis claim descent. But these were limited ventures, usually a mere extension of Mosul’s economic matrix, providing its markets with gallnuts and sheepskins. Only the easterly-most Shahrazur plain, running from Suleimaniya to Halabja could sustain an ambitious polity, one that had a fighting chance to serve as a base for a would-be empire. It was sufficiently buffeted by natural obstacles to make it the easiest of the four for a homegrown chieftain to wrest away from remoter powers. The last dynasty, the Babans, established the city of Suleimaniya a little over two centuries ago as that plain’s local capital. If only a Kurdish prince could gather an army and put Arbil too into play. Alas, that army would have to wait until the twentieth century, when engineering tamed topography in order to cut a road from Shahrazur up the Jafavi valley, cross the lower Zab and then scale either the Heibeti Sultan ridge or find a road through or over Safeen Mountain—such as the case with the current Arbil-Rawanduz road, eponymously named the Hamilton Road after the New Zealander engineer who supervised its construction in the early 1930s. The harder the topography, the easier for predatory tribes to cut logistical lines running through it, and a Kurdish prince would have to contend with the havoc wreaked by such mischievous fellow Kurds stymying efforts towards a wider polity, for that was the principal reason why central states did not bother extending their rule that far to begin with. The only reasonable way to do it, for millennia, was to pass through the Bazian cleft towards Kirkuk and then take the main road to Arbil. Thus, whoever held Kirkuk wielded authority over Kurdish aspirations, and that was a basic geostrategic truth that stood unyielding for many, many eons, long before Kirkuk’s oil wealth would nullify and compensate for the need to wield a suite of richly productive agricultural plains.

The Ottoman vali of Baghdad put an end to the last of the Babans sometime around the middle of the nineteenth century. This was part of a larger effort on the part of the Ottomans and the Qajars to roll up autonomous Kurdish enclaves. The larger world was changing; European powers were encroaching on some of the best lands that those two Islamic empires held. Consequently, they had to squeeze out taxes from other locales to make do. And the very nature of the state was changing. One way to emulate the successful European states, as reformers such as Midhat Pasha and his opposite numbers in Tehran wished for, was to think in terms of borders, neat lines on a map delineating sovereignty and the right to indigenous riches. No longer would the concept of ‘the Kurds are the frontier’ be tolerated. Previously, it was enough for the Ottomans to count the Babans as their own, while the rulers of Persia would rely on the Ardalans, for example, to match the other side. Whatever forts changed hands between the Babans and Ardalans, well, that was sort of the border—more of a ceasefire line than an expression of identity or sovereignty. It ran, and it still does, through a sub-identity within Kurdishness, that of the peoples of the Hawraman range. Some scholars argue that their Gurani dialect is actually a wholly different language than Kurdish, and certainly their belief systems, esoteric and dazzlingly heterodox until being homogenized in the last couple of centuries, would place them into a separate category. It would have been far more reasonable for the current border to move a hundred kilometers to the east or to the west, accordingly keeping Hawrami identity intact by maintaining territorial integrity, but those were not the considerations at play. Historically as we have seen, centralizing forces had drawn out individuals Kurds or ‘manageable’ groupings of Kurds out of Kurdistan proper in the preceding centuries. What was changing a century and a half ago was that centralizing states wanted to incorporate Kurds who existed deeper within the disobedient folds of Kurdistan, even within the plains of Shahrazur or the valley of the Brussels Line, for example, into its direct and absolute governance. We are still living with the aftereffects of those policies. Within the Iraqi context, it held more prospects of success than other places. But it also unexpectedly unleashed radical disrupters into the mix, namely the Barzani family.

From early on in the story of modern Iraq, the central state’s relationship with the Barzanis had been one of the essential definitions of said state. The fact that this relationship was serially mismanaged, and continues to be so, is explained by some—such as Masood—as a hardware incompatibility issue within Iraq, rather than as a software glitch running through the political character of Baghdad. Every Iraqi regime has had a ‘Barzani problem’. The earliest warning signals began even before Iraq’s formation: Masood’s eldest uncle was hanged by the vali of Mosul in the run-up to World War I. The vali was himself an ethnic Kurd, one of the many drawn out to the service of a centralizing power, whereas the uncle was ostensibly being punished for religious deviance; that too is an early signal of the ‘otherness’ of the Barzanis. Hanging Barzani leaders did not work, nor did later episodes of wholesale massacre. And so begins a complicated story, one that I feel is best explained by revisiting four books, all published in Baghdad before the seventies, before ‘final solutions’ to the Barzani problem were applied. I cannot for the life of me understand how someone familiar with the story told by these books, and the tragedies that followed, would allow a monumental and regressive misstep such as what happened in Kirkuk last October to occur. Most non-Iraqi watchers may be excused for their lack of familiarity with the historical lead-up, but it says much about the Iraqi political class that such basic insights were missed or forgotten. A lingering question is whether Soleimani realized all this, or was simply winging it. I think he understands it all too well, and that already, as we have seen in several other respects, puts him ahead of the game.

I was struck by the title and the date of publication of The Tragedy of Barzan, the Wronged (1954). It was a very rare book, but the Mutannabi Street bookseller who pushed it on me had amassed dozens of copies. His family was Kurdish. They had moved to Baghdad over a century ago, during Ottoman times, settling in one of the capital’s handful of Kurdish enclaves. He came to age during the early Saddam era, at a time when he would always be made aware that the powers that be had not overlooked his ethnic roots and would always suspect him of mixed sympathies in its war against Kurdish troublemakers. Accordingly, the subject of the book was one that was close to his interests, and he wanted a new generation of scholars to be aware of its contents because it was indeed an eye-opener on one of the foundational aspects of Iraq. The book consists of an aggregation of articles written by an author who was sympathetic to the Barzanis.  Seemingly there was enough of a margin of tolerance during that final stretch of the monarchy’s reign allowing for the expression of such sympathies on a sensitive subject, a sensitivity engorged after almost a quarter of century of friction between the state and the sheikhs of Barzan. That alone was a surprise to me. More surprises were to follow.

For in 1954 the Barzanis had been broken and dispersed to southern Iraq, while a number of them were living in exile in the Soviet Union. The author, Ma’arouf Jiyawook, was making the case that it was time for the state to display clemency by letting them return to their lands and villages. A decade had passed since the last major confrontation, when one of the component ‘tribes’ of the ‘nation’ of Barzan, the Pirozis, had emigrated en masse to join the nascent Kurdish republic across the Iraqi-Iranian border in Mahabad. After that republic crumbled, many of the womenfolk and children returned to Iraq but several hundred men decided to follow their leader, Mulla Mustafa, on a 250 mile trek along the borderlands, on foot, while under Iraqi, Turkish and Iranian fire, and that for weeks at a time, to ultimately ask for asylum under the rule of Joseph Stalin after having crossed the Aras River delineating Iran from Soviet Armenia.

The word ‘nation’ is as close as one can get towards conveying how the Barzanis themselves were using the term ‘milleh’ to describe their community at Barzan. The term ‘Barzani’ here is no mere indication of association with the village of Barzan, one whose name is of likely Aramaic provenance. The village’s earliest inhabitants comprised Christians and Jews of questionable ethnic stock (Judaism had been a proselytizing creed in those lands, incorporating converts into the remnants of the ‘Assyrian exile’).  They were the self-same farmers who at times were taxpaying subjects of a distant urban authority, or the tribute-paying prey of emboldened mountaineers descending upon them during times of political and economic upheaval. The term, as used by the Barzanis, neither indicates a shared bloodline or ancestral descent, or even a shared religion: the Barzani nation is composed of several tribes, minor clans, tribeless Kurds and ethnic flotsam, peasant converts, and wayward strangers, drawn to the Barzani cause—a cause that more or less tolerated Jews and Christians sticking to their faiths but still counting them as part of the community, holding (more or less) equal ‘rights’.

Christians and Jews experienced a far harsher reality under Kurdish aegis not thirty miles away. The Jews in particular had a turbulent experience in those parts, partly a legacy of their attempt to seize the principal town Amadiyya in the twelfth century when a native son declared a messianic Jewish revolt. Something that a friend of mine had told me, while driving to that town, stuck in my head. He said, “The Christians have the best lands. The lowest in the valley, the most fertile, and the closest to water streams.” It was just an observation that had percolated down to him through preceding generations that had envied the Christians for such good fortune. But I tend to think it speaks to an older truth. An even older truth is that there had been, until 1948, a few wholly Jewish villages and hamlets that eked out a livelihood through farming. Most of the farming Jews however, lived as minorities within other villages, usually dominated by Christians. It may suggest that many of those villages were Jewish before converting in full or in part to Christianity. While the “best lands” observation suggests that they were there first, having their pick. Kurdish highlanders, arriving either as dispossessed households or individuals, dislocated by some ecological, economic or tribal event, would have joined those earlier farmers as a weaker social element, one consigned to the lands that are harder to farm. The dominating force would remain the central state, or in its absence, the Kurdish tribal formations that could diversify their pastoralism-based income with raids and levies.

There were several compounding factors that dismantled the highlander-lowlander model over time, reaching its nadir in the early part of the twentieth century. Increased centralization in the nineteenth century brought with it state-driven sedentism of pastoralists, often through coercion. Increased populations and restrictive land allocation may have had the effect of already limiting the latter’s ability to roam and access their traditional grazing grounds, usually earned through tribal warfare. However if the state coveted those same lands then the tribes were usually not much of a match. As such, seasonal settlements or villages would become permanent, and the problems of its poorer, meager lands, with low yields at those higher altitudes, would be further compounded by expanding, tethered-down populations. Consequently, more and more Kurds would have found it difficult to make it by their ancestral methods, and would turn to farming down-valley too, competing for lands with more-established minorities and tribeless peasants, but in contrast to the latter maintaining a semblance of clannish cohesion, even if just by name and a nominal acknowledgment of a titular tribal head. It was not a complete process though, with a significant proportion remaining pastoralist and semi-nomadic, their obstinate observation of the old ways would bring with it its own set of complications later in the century when, for example, one needed to determine the prevalent ethnic composition of a certain locale.

The ascent of the Barzanis to prominence coincided with a time of great dislocation. The dislocation enabled their rise, but the decisions they took on that path were at variance with similar cases. The easiest course of action towards temporal dominance would have been to agitate against the Christians, for example. Yet the Barzanis not only chose not to, but rather behaved in contravention of popular sentiment. The cause they espoused was singularly egalitarian, and profoundly at odds with the patterns prevalent in other Kurdish lands. Those patterns would begin with the arrival of a holy man, a mendicant mystic or an emissary of a Sufi order that was prospering and flourishing nearby, around whom the peasants would rally, and that rally would organically create a new power center to rival the authority of an overbearing Kurdish chieftain, lurking on higher ground. As power and wealth accrues to the challenger and his progeny, a resolution of the rivalry between the religious and tribal authorities would be arrived at, usually through intermarriage. What follows is a joint venture in squeezing out the peasantry.

The story of the Barzanis follows this pattern in its early stages, but then deviates significantly. An emissary of a new Sufi order, the Nakshabandiya-Khalidia, arrived in Barzan after having been ordained by the Sheikhs of Nehri, a village now on the Turkish side of the border, where an old line claiming descent from the (‘Arab’) Muhammad had taken residence and had switched over to this new order from the previously prevailing Qadiri one, whose twelfth-century lodestar and founder is buried in Baghdad. The Nakshabandiya-Khalidia had been founded a few decades before its call had reached Barzan, by a Kurd from the environs of Suleimaniya, and had spread like wildfire across the Middle East. The founder, Sheikh Khalid, had gone to India, where he picked up the tenets of a new militant Sufi order that was becoming virulently anti-Shia. His new teachings found traction in a Middle East that felt under siege, partly against Shiite proselytization in some of the Kurdish borderlands, but principally, and this is where it accrued its biggest successes, as a vehicle for anti-Christian sentiment, especially as Christian minorities were being emboldened by Ottoman reforms and Western patronage. His tomb, standing above Damascus, is no accidental location: inland Syria was seething with anti-Christian and anti-Western wrath even before the reform rescripts were ever uttered. The West was exercising hegemony, Christian minorities were militant and uppity (Greece was in full blown revolt by the time of Khalid’s death), and in the parlance of the time, it meant Christendom was making a comeback. Khalid’s acolytes, such as the Sheikhs of Nehri, were in turn agitating against the Syriacs and Armenians of what is now northern Iraq and Southern Syria, as well as against Shias further east. One of their number, Sheikh ‘Ubaidullah, would in later years invade Iran in the early 1880s, massacring Shia towns, while harassing and persecuting Christians nearer to home—some Kurdish historians consider his outburst  to be the first stirring of Kurdish nationhood. But before all that, these were the atmospherics that had molded the young emissary arriving in Barzan. The peasants flocked to him, and very quickly he became a nuisance and a threat to the principal tribal authority there, the Aghas of Zebar. But rather than following the usual story, the Barzanis never turned feudal, choosing instead to distribute the land fairly among their congregation; hardly accommodated the tribal authorities or even the other Sufi dynasties arising nearby; and instead of persecuting minorities and the peasantry, elevated Christians and Jews to what would have counted as first class citizenship, back then, within the Barzani nation.

A few years ago I got it into my mind, when exploring the Tur Abidin region near Turkey’s Mardin, to go looking for my friend’s ancestral village. His grandfather, a Syriac, had ended up an orphaned toddler in Jerusalem following the anti-Christian massacres and forced deportations that convulsed Anatolia throughout World War I, carrying with him the name of the village as a surname—the only legacy of his family’s that he would get to keep. Place names in modern southeastern Turkey are a sensitive matter. Place names can communicate some uncomfortable truths about past and current demographics. So one had to figure out what name the Kurds who had displaced my friend’s grandfather had given to his village. And if it was too Kurdish-sounding of a name, then Ataturkist authorities would have probably changed it again to fit in line with the state’s policy of refusing to recognize Kurdish distinction. An acquaintance had arranged for his nephew to drive me around the usual sites in those parts. The young man, an ethnic Arab, was used to this routine, shuttling visitors in his brand-new van, bought on a loan from his uncle, to this or that heap of ruins or tourist attraction. He hung back with some puzzlement, though, as I questioned a priest at a surviving Syriac church on possible contenders for that almost-forgotten village, and the driver’s eyes betrayed a look of unease and worry as he beheld my elation when I was given its updated appellation. We got back into the vehicle and I promptly restated the directions I had been given. He reluctantly proceeded that way, in silence at first. However, at one point, he put out a few probing questions concerning my interest in this unusual destination. I thought to myself that maybe this young man is moonlighting as some security informant—there were adjoining vicinities still aprowl with PKK types, especially in the evenings—and he would have to file this detour in his daily report. I casually told him the truth. It did not sit well with him. He somberly turned the van around, telling me that we would find ourselves in imminent danger if we were to go there, and that “they will break our bones.” They meaning the Kurds who now live there, who were likely to pelt his gleaming windshield with stones as they would infer that a foreign-looking stranger would only make it out there if looking up some long since defiled land deed that used to belong to a Christian. In contrast, the Barzanis, allegedly, were taking in and helping Christian escapees from that upheaval that left my friend’s grandfather adrift and alone, with strangers living in his home.

Such a deviation from the norm would subject the founding mystic of Barzan and his descendants to all sorts of accusations. At various times they have been ‘slandered’ as crypto-Jews, Christians or Yezidis, whose intent was to undermine Islamic orthodoxy. The Yezidi appellation particularly stuck since the Barzani sheikhs at one point decided on a sartorial distinction: a red colored headdress, in contrast to the predominate black favored around them. It was likely adopted as a revolutionary red (red was a revolutionary color long before the socialists adopted it) rather than a copying of, or a nod to, the Yezidis, the only community that would wear that color for hundreds of miles around—and who probably did so at first motivated by a revolutionary spirit too. The devotion the nation held to its designated leader was seen as heretical and messianic; at one point the Barzanis revealed that they were calling such leaders, such as Mulla Mustafa’s older brother, Ahmed, the ‘Khudan’, implying divinity. Their tribal and Sufi rivals would often complain of such deviancy to the central authorities, who, as guardians of orthodoxy, would show varying levels of interest, at times hanging the Barzani chief, and at other times, such as the early days of the Iraqi monarchy, sending in an investigative committee to ascertain whether the Barzanis had indeed departed from the confines of hazy Islamic gradations to clear-cut, out-of-bounds unbelief. One recent author (Farhad Asserd, Al-‘Aqaid al-Barzaniya (‘The Barzani Tenets’), Suleimaniya, 2008) even posited a theory that the Barzanis are remnants of a centuries-long dormant Ismaili Shia rebellion, reminiscent of the Assassins or the Qarmatians, the latter of ‘ransacking Mecca’-fame. He did so by enumerating the many tantalizing areas of overlap in beliefs and behavior between the two strains, although falling short of demonstrating a clear line connecting the Barzanis to Ismailism. Whatever the case of its origins may be, this revolutionary deviation colors where the Barzanis stood vis-à-vis the long-established Kurdish acquiescence to central authority, revealing also an inherent drive to create a new society, taking on the form of Kurdish independence in later generations. Now, if the Barzanis could not stick to the anti-Christian tenets of the Sheikhs of Nehri, who had ordained their forefather, and would not tone down their otherness with the lure of feudal status and accrued wealth by making their peace with how things are traditionally done, then how would one expect to tether them down with other doctrines or inducements? They were just too weird and unyielding, but rather than stamp them out, the author of the Tragedy of Barzan was arguing that this rare and wild mountain floret was deserving of sympathy and fascination.

The background and character of the author are interesting too, and they tell a story at variance with that of the Barzanis: the story of Kurds who gravitated towards central authorities. Jiyawook was born in one of the alleyways of Baghdad in 1885 to a family with roots in a village that is not far off from Barzan. Jiyawook’s grandfather, Hajj Mawlood Sa’adi (nicknamed Badi’ulzaman, ‘The Luminous of [His] Age’) was a famous cleric who had supported the Ottomans against the Russians on two separate ‘raids’. His father, Ali Asghar Effendi, was also a renowned cleric and worked as a religious guide for the army in Baghdad. He also represented the military institution in the courts. The father managed to get his son, the author, admitted to a school in Istanbul, to eventually train another generation for the Ottoman civil service as was the custom at the time. However, during his studies, the young law student was exposed to the flurry of ideas swirling around the capital city, all desperately proposing to reform the Islamic state ahead of the malfeasance of the ‘West’—or that’s how most saw it. His Kurdish roots may have prevented him from joining the right-leaning sentiment of Pan-Turkishness that was coming to the fore at the time, leaving him with the option of championing the concepts of Islamic liberalism as propagated by Shahzadeh ‘Prince’ Sabahettin. Such activism prompted Jiyawook to return to Baghdad, fearing arrest at the hands of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) junta.  But his self-righteous, almost extremist, character drove him to more trouble, electing to join the jihad against British forces in Basra during World War I (he had been appointed as a schoolteacher in the southern city), which was followed by arrest and internment in a POW camp in far-away Burma. He returned from exile to a new state called ‘Iraq’, and soon enough found his footing in its fledgling civil service, as many Ottoman-era officials did.

Jiyawook’s outlook on the convulsions of his times was colored by a familial adherence to a central authority whether in Istanbul or Baghdad, as well as an awareness of his Kurdishness. He was further imbued with anti-colonialism, being especially hostile to the British, and a rabid hatred of Christian minorities, holding them culpable for enabling Western powers to undermine the forces of Islam, a sentiment shared by many of the Ottoman elite and populace. Thus he understood the source of friction between the Barzanis and the nascent Iraqi state differently: it was land rights rather than independence that sparked the first volleys of Barzani resistance. Jiyawook reveals to his readers a British plan to settle Nestorian Assyrians along the Brussels Line that follows the shape of an upside down crescent running from Zakho to Rawanduz parallel to the Iraqi-Turkish border and through the villages of Barzan and Sarishmeh, the latter being the author’s ancestral home. The vast majority of the Assyrians were refugees who had fled the anti-Christian measures during the period of the Armenian Genocide, many subsequently signed up as an auxiliary fighting force for the British in Iraq. According to Jiyawook, “Britain had secretly pledged to the Assyrians to form a state for them in Iraqi Kurdistan that is similar to the Israeli state in Palestine.”

Hence, this book is a forerunner in the genre of how the West had betrayed the Kurds. Its historical value lies in that it was one of the first of many narratives concocted by Kurdish intellectuals to describe the story of their people, and as is the case with such formative phases, the storytelling was fluid and elastic, and could have gone in any one of many directions. The Kurds, according to this narrative, were wizening up to the reality that the League of Nation’s pledge to award them the “highest-form of administration”, which they took to mean self-rule as an outcome of any negotiation towards Iraqi independence, was not going to be honored. It says more about Jiyawook than it does about the Barzanis that the author decided to attach the rebels’ passions to the issue of resettling Assyrians, riding on the coattails of popular hostility towards the latter, seen as lackeys of the British. Such a talking point would fit naturally within Jiyawook’s comfort zone as a ‘centralized’ Kurd: had it not been for the ‘foreigner’ sowing dissent and sedition, then most issues could be resolved amicably and there would be no reason to take up arms. Tempers were flaring during the negotiations with the British in the late 1920s that would eventually lead to an independent Iraq (in 1931), and it was something that Jiyawook said during the raucous parliamentary debates (he was an MP for Arbil Province at the time) that led then prime minister Abdul-Muhsin al-Sa’adoun to commit suicide a few hours later. Jiyawook, already miffed that the British had reneged on the pledges made to Kurds, accused the prime minister of stalling the talks for full independence and implicitly suggesting treason, for al-Sa’adoun was known for the view that Iraqis should not rush headlong into independence if they are not ready to take on the burdens of statehood. Jiyawook’s zeal and anger colored his opinion of al-Sa’adoun as a British lackey, when he actually should have seen him as an ally and a true friend of the Kurds.

I wonder if Jiyawook had forgotten al-Sa’adoun’s honorable stance on the Kurdish issue back in 1924, when European powers were still debating whether to attach the Mosul Vilayet, with its Kurdish populace, to Iraq or whether to keep it within the new Turkish republic. During the first parliamentary debates in Iraq, held under the auspices of the country’s Constituent Assembly, al-Sa’adoun said these incredible words:

“It is not lost on my colleagues, the members of [this] Higher Council, that the primary reason that led to the fall of the Ottoman government was its scorn for the benefits of nations and the rights of sects that were under the Ottoman flag, and if we followed the Turkish manner that scorned the rights of nations then we would be mistaken as they were mistaken. Therefore I see that it is necessary and imperative that we be free men and give freedom to all components, and we should not be stingy or overly cautious in giving this right to its people, and it is no secret that there is in Iraq a great component and that is the Kurdish component. If we do not give the Kurdish component its right and let its schools teach in the Kurdish language then the result will not be pleasant. Yes the Arabic tongue is magnificent and beloved and I do not think there is an Iraqi who does not endeavor or exert effort to learn it but original content in a clear meaning will benefit us politically and satisfy all our non-Arab and non-Muslim brothers so I do hope that this council will not begrudge giving this right so that the hearts can be unified and in agreement and supportive of Arab unity, for if we do not give them these rights then we cannot gain the Arab unity we desire…”

Al-Sa’adoun realized that the Kurds needed to be invited into Iraq, rather than forcibly appended. His thinking was revolutionary, a product of a decades-old liberal tradition within his social class that had been incubating throughout the late Ottoman period, which then flowered as the short-lived ‘age of enlightenment’ in the Arabic-speaking capitals of the twenties. Consider that these two men, one an honorable and hasty man and the other an honorable and cautious man, could not recognize each other as allies, working in tandem for the same political vision. What can we then expect from the current political crop managing Iraq’s crises? If luminaries such as al-Sa’adoun and Jiyawook could not accommodate each other at the birth of the Iraqi state when matters were still malleable, even though they were ideally positioned to do so by virtue of their shared Ottoman past and their libertarian outlooks, what can we expect now? Several historians suggest that when the obtuse yet seasoned Faisal I died an untimely death, and was replaced on the throne by his creepily bizarre heir apparent Ghazi, Iraq experienced its first of many tragic turns of ill fortune. Historians remember al-Sa’adoun as a high-strung and toadying servant of British interests. They usually skip over him to consider Nouri al-Said to be the consummate politician of that era. But al-Sa’adoun, being from a Sunni family deriving its stature from leading the largest ‘Shia’ tribal confederation for generations, as well as his deep sense of what might actually make Iraq (the ‘New Iraq’ back then) succeed as an idea, was in my opinion the statesman best suited to lay the foundation for an independent, well-governed Iraq, one with a healthy political life. His suicide in a moment of pique over Jiyawook’s comment, put an end to that propitious talent in the winter of 1929. World markets were crashing, extremist ideologies began edging out liberalism among the young, exasperating their restless pining for quick, maximalist solutions, the political realm was turning ungentlemanly as evidenced by that barb that came his way within the august chamber of parliament — al-Sa’adoun’s romantic sense of honor could not bear it all. That, not Faisal’s early death, was the first unlucky turn for the country, the first episode worthy of a ‘what could have been’ lament.

Jiyawook died in the beginning of 1958, so he did not get to witness the end of the monarchy by way of a military coup. He did not witness the return of a triumphant Mulla Mustafa from his Soviet exile, recast as an ally of Iraq’s new strongman, Abdul Karim Qasim. Two years later, discord set in, again, and cordite would waft, yet again, from the clutches of oak and cypress trees in the environs of Barzan. And a generation after this book was published, the ‘Tragedy of Barzan’ came to mean a whole new paradigm after the Iraqi government, in 1983, set out to exterminate all male bloodlines associated with that name, killing some six thousands of them, and even uprooting all the trees. I let out a macabre chuckle when I came across the edict read out on Iraqi radio on August 8, 1945: “Towards the purpose of restoring order and regulation and to prevent the reoccurrence of crime, it had been decided to occupy the Barzan area militarily and to arrest the criminals and bring them to justice.” It sounded a lot like the order to arrest Kosrat. Seventy-two years had passed and Iraq was still pacing in place.

A second book, consisting of two volumes, and published a little over a decade before the preceding one, tells us more about the auspicious prospect that antiquity as well as geopolitics had created for Iraqi Kurds and the Iraqi state. The first volume of A History of Iraqi Provincial Celebrities was published in 1946, focusing on the province of Suleimaniya. It begins with a short biography of its previous governor, the above mentioned Jiyawook. The second volume, focusing on Kirkuk, ends with more biographical background on him. It seems that Jiyawook had helped the non-Kurdish author, Abdul Majid Fahmi, during his travels in Suleimaniya and had instructed the official bodies to assist him in every way. The author repaid the kindness with an extensive backgrounder on his benefactor. When the first volume was published, the monarchical authorities in Baghdad had not appointed a successor to Jiyawook, but by the second volume, published months later, we learn that the successor was Hassan Talabani, another Kurd, who would later become a minister in Qasim’s first republican cabinet.

What I found arresting in these two volumes is that the Jiyawook phenomenon, that is, the Kurd who aligns with the central government, whether it be in Istanbul or Baghdad, was not limited or superficial in nature. By studying the brief biographies of officials as presented in these two provinces we find that Baghdad had a reservoir of administrative talent, trained under the Ottomans, who were either ethnically Kurdish or could speak the Kurdish language. It was to them that Baghdad could assign the administration of Kurdish-majority areas as envisioned by the “excellent administration” (self-rule) that the League of Nations had determined for the Kurds within an independent Iraqi union.

For example, Jiyawook is related to the Baban family through his mother. This is the same family mentioned above that managed to tear off the Shahrazur plain from Ottomans and to rule it as a semi-independent princedom. After smashing the Kurdish principalities, Ottoman policy sought to coopt the Babans within the Ottoman elite, and by the late Ottoman era members of this family had served as ministers and governors across the empire, such as Mustafa Zein Pasha, the governor of Hejaz or Isma’il Haqqi Pasha, the minister of education, or Khalid Beg, the private tutor of Sultan Mehmet Reshad, and many more others. This trait continued after Baghdad had turned into the object of centralized fixation, and we find the two brothers Jamal and Jalal Baban serving as ministers in various cabinets, while Salah Baban was an enduring member of parliament. Fadhil Baban served as the deputy head of police. Ahmed Mukhtar Baban was the chief of the royal court for long stretches and holds distinction as the last serving prime minister under the monarchy.

This phenomenon was not restricted to the Baban surname. The two volumes are chockful of tens of officials, merchants and tribal leaders, and especially military officers with similar backgrounds. Kirkuk in particular was supplying the Iraqi state with capable men who could speak Kurdish, Arabic and Turkmen, given that city’s stature as a meeting point of all those identities because Kirkuk, as we have seen, was a point of control on one of the main trade and administrative routes between Baghdad and Mosul and points beyond. Turkmen surnames such as Qirdar or Nafatchi (the latter had been awarded exclusive rights to oil extraction by an Ottoman sultan in the seventeenth century) or others mask intercommunal relationships with Kurdish bloodlines through intermarriage and partnerships between the ruling elite of that city, whose overall identity was one of Sunni Islam and allegiance to the Ottoman throne. The situation persisted after allegiance shifted towards a Hashemite throne in Baghdad.

Kurdish origin, whether arriving paternally or maternally, sometimes clear-cut and boasted of, or ambiguous and gossiped about, manifested itself among the leading men of the monarchical era, such as the aforementioned al-Said (the ‘Grand Gentleman’ of Iraqi political life under the monarchy who grew up in the ‘Kurdish Hill’ neighborhood of Old Baghdad where an ancestor had settled four centuries earlier. Al-Said claimed to be a Qaraghol, which was more of a militia guild than a bloodline), Ja’afar al-‘Askari (al-Said’s brother-in-law who established the Iraqi Army; claimed Arabness but his roots go back to the village of ‘Askar), the brothers Taha and Yaseen al-Hashimi (also claimed Arabness, however Kaka’i Kurds in Kifri remember the pair’s father and grandfather as kinsmen), Bakr Sidqi (a high-ranking Army officer who notoriously pulled off the region’s first military coup; one in which al-‘Askari, a distant cousin of his, was killed), and others. Kurdish roots ran among the leading intellectuals such as Ma’arouf ar-Rusafi and Jamil Sidqi al-Zahawi, and extended into the Qasimite era with reports of Abdel Karim Qasim’s mother being of Kurdish stock (in reality her clan, the Sawakin, is of indeterminate ethnicity, and was pushed out by other Kurdish tribes that had expanded down the water flow of the Khabur River, with the defeated clan electing to resettle in and around Baghdad in the early nineteenth century). Such nebulous genealogies are an indication of the large numbers of Kurds who were absorbed within the administrative layers of the state over hundreds of years as a result of a myriad of circumstances.

One of the incongruences in the first volume is that it was dedicated to “his preeminence the free leader Sheikh Mahmoud Sheikh Said (al-Hafid)” who is described later as “the preeminent leader of the Barzanji Seyyids, as well as being the supreme leader of the tribes of Suleimaniya Province, and singularly influential among them.” The incongruence lies in that al-Hafid was in a state of near constant rebellion between 1919 to 1931 against the British and then in defiance of the Iraqi state, and he was exiled externally and internally many times over. He remained irksome until the thirties, after which the authorities confined him to southern Iraq, but subsequently was allowed to return to his village of Darkeli to live out his autumn years. A History of Iraqi Provincial Celebrities had been licensed by the governmental Directorate of Public Advertisement yet it is quite jarring to see that, at the same time, this directory is celebrating a man who until recently was considered a brigand and a traitor to the Iraqi state. The author recounts the sheikh’s past by showing how al-Hafid travelled to Shu’auyba near Basra with eighteen hundred horsemen and three hundred soldiers during World War I to “protect Islam” and spent eight months fighting the British there. He also beheld twenty battles against the Russians who were advancing on the environs of Rawanduz. Even when he rebelled in the early 1920s and declared himself ‘King of Kurdistan’, he was being a ‘nationalist’ since he was fighting the British—according to the author—and a “crushing war broke between them that lasted forty five days at the Tasloogeh [Bazian] gorge where he faced down fifty thousand warriors but they couldn’t overpower him until he was betrayed by one of his closest acolytes…” He was then exiled to Bombay then Pune, and so on. As for his latest acquiescence to central authority “in the end he surrendered to the Iraqi government so as not to spill the blood of Muslims” meaning that he gave up on the independence of his people not because he was convinced of Iraq’s unity but to spare lives. Such state-sanctioned hagiography of a would-be secessionist seems uncharacteristically magnanimous for the state censor to allow, but it could reflect one of the many moments during its modern history when Baghdad thought it had turned a corner in pacifying the Kurds.

The Barzanji lineage began when two brothers, claiming descent from Muhammad, left the city of Hamadan (in present day Iran) and took up residence in the mountains east of present day Suleimaniya, probably in the early 1400s. It is thought that at their beginning, they were influenced by the Nurbakhshia Sufi order, which would explain some of the heterodoxy tolerated and then adopted by their progeny. The main line, though, eventually adopted the Qadiri order, and became loyal advocates for the House of Baban, up until its demise. They then transferred their allegiance to the House of Osman in Istanbul who saw fit to give the Barzanjis a promotion, as part of a policy that the sultans followed in the wake of the demise of the Kurdish principalities by devolving temporal as well as religious authority onto rising Sufi orders, allowing them to effectively govern in the Sultan’s name, and to grow immensely rich while doing so. Substituting the Sufi dynasties for the old noble houses, or rather turning the mystics into feudal lords, was the model encouraged by the state across Kurdish territories. The Barzanjis had such a strong grip on their locale that even a local boy who had made it big across the Middle East, the aforementioned Sheikh Khalid, could not plant his order anywhere in the vicinity of his birthplace because the Barzanjis would brook no competition. However, given that recessive gene of heterodoxy, harking back to a time when one of their ancestors was called ‘The Red Sulphur’ (note the revolutionary red here again), a couple of Barzanjis went off and lorded over communities that strayed far from the orthodoxy. Sultan Zahak was one such ‘revolutionary’. He became the rejuvenator of ancient belief systems that today encompass the Ahli-Haqq (alternately called Yarsans) of Iran and the Kaka’is around Kirkuk and Khaniqin (who one of the Asads claimed descent from as noted above). Sultan Zahak’s shrine lies on the Iranian side of the border and his progeny are still today serving as the leaders of these communities. Another Barzanji line took to proselytizing a string of villages to the north west of Suleimaniya, ones in which some older belief systems lingered, including the village of Asker that gave Iraq its first defense minister and the man who murdered him, Iraq’s first coup enactor. Those stubborn impulses towards heterodoxy exhibited themselves when the community first turned to the new fad of the Nakshabandiya-Khalidia, but then swung around wildly marrying a form of Salafism to a radical antinomian socialism (Sheikh Abdul-Karim Shadhala’s Haqqa movement) akin to what the Barzanis were practicing. One offshoot of the offshoot, this one led by Hama Soor (‘Muhammad the Red’ — one speculative but alas untrue rumor at the time had it that he was a wayward Scot or Irishman, a la “The Man Who Would Be King”), established a Shaker-like pacifist community that enforced absolute celibacy and implemented full communal ownership.

Indeed, one sometimes finds a minority seeming to lean towards the margins of heterodoxy and refusing the heavy hand of centralization throughout the last couple of centuries in this case as with others, eventually consigning themselves to modern-day marginality, however, the majority and mainline of the Barzanjis continued observing both orthodoxy and a keen allegiance to Istanbul. In turn they were accorded the highest honors the empire could bestow on its loyal enforcers, one branch even taking on religious leadership in Medina in the Arabian Peninsula (they are prominent Saudi citizens today). One of the grandfathers of Sheikh Mahmud was a habitual guest at Sultan Abdul Hamid II’s court, where he was always welcomed effusively and warmly. In fact, this sultan at times treated the environs of Suleimaniya, and the various feuds pitting the Barzanjis against the Talabanis, or the Barzanjis against some other tribes, as if it were a suburb of the capital. But then again, Suleimaniya abutted his private estates around Kirkuk, where he was itching to get oil exploration going, and he did not want any nearby hullabaloo to delay the arrival of European engineers and prospectors. Even though the Lausanne Peace Conference (1923) prioritized the status of those estates, deeming them state lands rather than private, before even addressing the final heteronomy of Mosul and its environs, including that of Kirkuk’s, relatives of Abdul Hamid’s continue to lay legal claim to those lands. His two great-nephews were still circulating memoranda around Britain as late as 1987 to influential persons explaining the injustice done to them, denied as they were the riches accrued from oil sales while some of them were living in penury and on the doll.

Returning to the book at hand, it seems clear that the author and the censors felt that Sheikh Mahmud’s rebellion against Iraq and his attempt to create a Kurdish kingdom was ancient history. But it wasn’t. This narrative reflects the impression that was prevalent in 1946—a year after the massive conflagration of World War II, Europe’s black hole—that a whole bunch of pages had been turned on something as secondary as the Kurdish issue. So much so that the state could act confidently and magnanimously in allowing such a sympathetic profile of one of its bitterest former foes to be published. But January 1946 also witnessed the birth of the Mahabad Republic, which would last just shy of a year until its demise in December, as well as the formation of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) headed by Mulla Mustafa (formed in August, although there is some dispute over the timeline, with a suggestion of an earlier date). Maybe the author wanted to contrast al-Hafid’s acquiescence and happy retirement to the turmoil playing out in Mahabad that had managed to draw to it several defecting officers from the Iraqi Army—Iraqi Kurds still yearning for independence. Seemingly asking why they would seek that, when even the mighty icon of the struggle was now resigned to peacefully tending his rose beds in his home village? To highlight the importance of this moment, note how the author of the directory introduces us to the youngest son of Sheikh Mahmoud’s, Abdul Latif al-Hafid, to say that he is “following his father’s path in getting closer to God” and has “consumed himself with agricultural concerns.” What the author missed was that the younger al-Hafid had helped Mulla Mustafa escape from incarceration in Suleimaniya in 1943, and had been secretly elected at the time as Barzani’s deputy in the newly formed KDP during its first formative meetings held in Baghdad. The revolutionary embers had not gone out, it seems.

The two volumes contain many important tidbits that can be interpreted, after the passing of seventy years since its publication, to indicate alarm. For example, the author tells us that forty percent of the populations of Suleimaniya and Kirkuk provinces are migratory seasonal pastoralists, and that it is consequently difficult to count them within a census or to determine their fixed abodes. This demographic fluidity will cast an ominous shadow on the future of these two provinces when counting which ethnicity constitutes a majority or which sect counts as a minority, and by how much. Another intriguing sign is that most of the advertisements are for merchants and craftsmen in Baghdad and Basra, meaning that Suleimaniya and Kirkuk were secondary markets within Iraq, and had not produced a capitalist class similar to that of other cities. It also means that they were in the orbit of Baghdad rather than of Mosul, as was the case with Arbil and Dohuk.

In introducing the second volume, the Baghdadi author Muhammad Abbas al-Salih casually writes that “Kirkuk is the bride of Kurdistan” without the sense of provocation that the term “Kirkuk is the Jerusalem of Kurdistan”, as Kurdish leaders are wont to declare, would now evoke. Another provocative topic is also mentioned unironically: the effective ‘Arabization’ policies that royalist administrations had undertaken through the sedentarization of the ‘Ubaid tribes as well as others as part of the Hawija irrigation project. The ‘Ubaid had moved into Iraq four centuries ago from Najd and found a realm for themselves in the Jazira area north of Sinjar Mountain. But the subsequent migrations of the Shammar tribes from Ha’il pushed the ‘Ubaid in the southeast direction, moving them to the Hawija plain where they in turn pushed out the ‘Azzeh and Bayat tribes, which resulted in an identity crisis among the defeated, scattering them among Kurdish, Arab and Turkman allegiances. Even by the publication of the second volume, the ‘Ubaid had not been officially registered within the population of the Hawija sub district. All these elements will later become demographic landmines, ones that are still exploding in the environs of Kirkuk and Diyala. The overland route from Baghdad to Mosul, running through Kirkuk, had inspired centuries-old ethnic displacement and re-configuration projects; that is how the Turkmen ended up here as we have seen. Oil was the central state’s newest muse in creative demographic reengineering. Oil sector jobs attracted all sorts of Iraqis, namely a large Christian component, while the central state made sure the oil fields were buffered against Kurdish claims by newly settled Arab tribesmen, playing a role identical to that of the Turkmen for the Seljuks and later Turkic dynasties. As such, the second volume is describing a city and a province in the midst of a transformation: twentieth century Kirkuk did not beckon one and all to join the centralizing project. It purposely excluded and ejected Kurds (and later, Turkmen too).

Sheikh Abdul-Rahman Talabani chose well when picking Kirkuk as the nerve center of his ambitions. With roots in the Iranian Kurdish town of Bokan, where the sheikh’s forbearers were known by the surname Kaka-Soor (‘Red Older Brother’), an ancestor of his had come to serve as the local religious functionary in the villages around Suleimaniya. Some of his grandsons spread out further to villages near Kirkuk, one of which, Talaban, would give the family a new surname. Abdul-Rahman decided on building a shrine around his father’s grave on the outskirts of Kirkuk in the mid-nineteenth century. He already had a reputation as a particularly powerful mystic. It was a fortuitous time for him and his disciples, since a very wealthy and eccentric benefactress in Istanbul, the wife of the preceding Sultan and the mother of the sultan to be, whom the eunuchs and other harem ladies considered a creepy, necromancy-practicing witch, was busily sending funds and prized religious manuscripts and relics (a crowd favorite being hairs from Muhammad’s beard) to any promising holy man on the up and up around the empire. In a nod to Istanbul’s largesse, the new institution, the Talabani tekya (Sufi lodge) came to be called the Buyuk (‘Great’) Mecidiye Mosque, in honor of the witch’s brother-in-law ‘stepson’ Sultan Abdulmecid, ruler of the realms at the time of its completion. Abdul Rahman’s venture proved exceptionally successful, and he was able to establish satellite lodges and to franchise the Talabani variant of Qadirism out to Baghdad, Istanbul, the Anatolian towns of Sivas and Tokat, as well as to several towns in Iranian Kurdistan, even out to Samarkand in Central Asia and, allegedly, to the Nile Delta. His descendants, as was the norm, accrued wealth and became feudal lords over dozens of villages in pockets across Iraqi Kurdistan. One wayward son made it further afield to Ramadi, where the Talabanis can count seventy households of long-lost relatives who pass for sheep-rearing Arab tribesmen. Abdul-Rahman’s descendants or the descendants of his nephews would eventually serve as ministers, parliamentarians, governors, professors, high level bureaucrats and diplomats within the Iraqi state. Some of them fought against the same state in its various iterations, either as ideological revolutionaries or as nationalist ones.

Another Talabani, Jalal, would go on to assign funds to rebuild the lodge when he became president of a New Iraq. Sitting in the refurbished reception hall, I would be amazed at how the conferees would begin a sentence in Kurdish, meander into Turkmen and then end their point with Arabic. Many of the order’s disciples yearned to be buried near Abdul-Rahman and his successors, and the cemetery behind the lodge features their diverse backgrounds, with Kurdish tribal names interspersed with a few Tikritis, many Turkmen and a number of Arab tribal names from the Diyala basin. It wasn’t ‘coexistence’ in the modern liberal sense or of the saccharine bumper-sticker variety, but rather the various identities had synchronized with one another over common denominators, sometimes awkwardly so. They were aware of their differences and there was some tension hanging over them, but it seems that they had accepted that on this hallowed ground, in the vicinity of this holy man, and as they recited multilingual mystical poetry to a rhythmic drumbeat and a dancing hop—with some intense head banging at times—they could at least agree that the bonds of Sufi brotherhood could supersede their differences for a few hours. And those few hours were enough to drain the poison of a biting barb or a derogatory slur yelled out in a moment of resentment over some dispute or another during the preceding week. A complex matrix of such compromises and contrived associations kept the city at peace, a state of suspension that is better described through literary form, for example Fadhil al-Azzawi’s novel City of Angels (1992), than through any attempt at cold-blooded analysis or anthropological reasoning. Kirkuk’s unique positioning, and its role in checking the possibility of uniting the plains of Shahrazur, Diyala and Arbil into one Kurdish polity, and the services it provides to the central authority, compelled its residents to arrive at a formula that held slighted passions and grandiose ambitions at bay. It also welcomed any Kurds that opted to be part of the centralizing control system and afforded them every opportunity to shine, as Abdul Rahman did. His progeny would then marry into the highest of Turkman society producing peculiar combinations a few generations later, such as the case of an Istanbul-born Turkish journalist, who worked as an Arabic-speaking foreign correspondent in the Beirut of the mid-sixties, then reinvented himself as a liberal parliamentarian in the late sixties before turning into a ‘soft’ Turkish nationalist and then a ‘soft’ Islamist in later decades. Here was a ‘Turk’ who was descended from Abdul-Rahman Talabani through three separate pedigrees! Al-Azzawi tells that story well, that of the tensions between old Kirkuk, which created such an odd combination as that of the journalist’s, and what followed, the intense political and ethnic polarization, some of it provoked by the state, some by Kurdish nationalists, all of which led to the near breakdown of communal accord. The cataclysmic dystopia the novel ends with almost matches the horrors perpetrated and homogeneity contrived by the Islamic State.

Kirkuk witnessed another peculiar and unintended combination in the 1930s. Continuing in its role as the fulcrum of centralization, the city’s high school was the sole educational institution serving Iraqi Kurdistan at that level. Kurds from all over were attending it as a consequence. Yet they could not find their futures as Kurds within the Iraqi union when leafing through their schoolbooks laden, as the curriculum was, with the stringent code of Arab nationalism seeking a unification of all Arab lands and peoples. Tension also hung over the town after its Turkmen had all too eagerly celebrated the visit by a Turkish Foreign Minister who had passed through Kirkuk as part of his advocacy for the Saadabad Pact. So those high-schoolers formed a secret society, which they called the ‘woodcutters’, thus finding a regionally analogous guild to that of the Italian ‘Carbonari’ that had managed to unite Italy’s principalities into one kingdom under Garibaldi. Missing from their reasoning and their adopted model was that history had actually witnessed the unification of those Roman lands before, which then served as a springboard for empire—something that ‘Kurdistan’ never had. That secret society then developed into the Hiwa (‘Hope’) Party, choosing the high school’s former headmaster as its party leader. This was to be the first organized political party of Iraq’s Kurds. It underwent one final incarnation as the KDP, from then and until now headed by the Barzanis. So instead of continuing to serve as the accommodator and assimilator of ethnic Kurds, the city of Kirkuk in this modern instance launched the vehicle of their separation.

The backstory to what is acknowledged as the Kurdish national anthem neatly envelops these contradictions. Ay Raqib has a mesmerizing hold on many Kurds. The words were borrowed and reworked from a poem written by a young lawyer, allegedly while he was spending time in an Iranian jail. The poem is addressed to the jail’s warden, allegorically representing all the countries repressing the Kurdish nation, to tell him of lofty things, namely that the Kurds will not fade away or will not forget who they are. The author, Younis Mullah Raouf, went by the penname ‘Dildar’. He is from the Khadim al-Sajjadeh family of Koy Sanjak (the same town Jalal hails from), and his family name literally translates to ‘Servant of the Rug’. The rug in question purportedly belonged to Muhammad. Family lore has it that it was passed down to them from their ancestor, the third caliph, ‘Uthman—a Qurayshite Arab, not a Kurd—who had received it as a gift from the prophet of Islam. To honor them and their prized rug, Abdul Hamid II had ordered that a mosque be built, right at the foot of Kirkuk’s citadel, to house the blessed fold of khaki-colored textile. This Ottoman association is probably the reason as to why the city’s Turkmen claim the family as their ethnic kin. The family would go on to provide several parliamentarians and administrators in the service of the Iraqi state. ‘Dildar’ was born in the year of Ottoman defeat. He finished his early schooling in the family’s original hometown, then, like many, went to Kirkuk for secondary school. He would later study law in Baghdad, but while still at college, Dildar signed up for the Hiwa Party (he had been one of the original ‘woodcutters’). Note how loyalty shifted in this case, within a generation, from Islamic to nationalistic, so much so that one of the lines of the poem goes “Kurdistan is our religion”, a line that still irks Islamist parliamentarians in the KRG, some of whom refused to stand when the anthem was played during their swearing-in ceremony in 2013. The words also state that the Kurds are “the descendants of the red banner of revolution” as well as those of the “Medes and Kai Khosrow”—the latter being a sixth century Sassanian king, who most would have assumed was an ethnic Persian. There was no longer any glory to the act of proclaiming descent from a caliph, at least not for the author. Missing too was an acknowledgment of all the Arabic loanwords that had made it into the Sorani-dialect of the original poem. The words were put to music twice (there is some confusion about that), and the version that came down to us was composed by a member of the aforementioned Barzanji family in the early forties. This version was allegedly sung during the first time the Kurdish flag was hoisted over a two-way intersection at the town of Mahabad, at the declaration of its independence. Lore has it that Dildar was there to witness the event, but as is the case with many gratifying tales, it just isn’t true. Dildar would die young at the age of thirty not a few years later, of a heart ailment, in 1948. However, several years before his death, he signed on as a member of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), ostensibly because their creed enshrined a “nation’s right to self-determination.” By the end of 1946, Dildar had the option of signing on with the KDP, but he didn’t. We can only speculate as to whether he saw a future for the Kurds within an Iraq that was managed more fairly, rather than as part of an independent Kurdistan.

If the Kurds had this reservoir of competent administrative talent that had been accumulating in the half century preceding the modern Iraqi state, which would have facilitated their integration within a new administrative structure centered around Baghdad—far advanced as to the situation of Iraqi Shias, by comparison—and if the atmospherics of the mid 1940s suggested the extinguishing of Kurdish aspirations for independence, then how did the Iraqi state miss the opportunity? How did Dildar’s newly and fantastically concocted narrative supersede older, sobering ones? This all happened before the advent of ‘cordon sanitaire’ zones where thousands of villages were eradicated, before the Anfal, before Halabja and before the passing of twenty six years of de facto independence since 1991. That opportunity eluded Iraq before the tragedy of the Yezidis at the hands of the Islamic State, and before the violent recapture of Kirkuk and other disputed areas. The wounds of 1947 were relatively minor as shown by these two volumes, and that ‘Ottoman generation’ of Kurds could have been the sinew and tissue binding Kurds to the Iraqi organism. Was it destined to come to this, as Masood always believed?

In a span of six months in 1961, the relationship between Abdul Karim Qasim and Mulla Mustafa swung from that of a strong alliance against the hostile forces arrayed against the newborn republic, to one where Qasim mobilized the army to resolve a political dispute with the Kurds. The third book we shall consider, Who Operates Barzani? Secrets Published for the First Time by the journalist and scholar Hashim al-Bana’, was published in 1962. The book is heavy on the terms “traitor” “agent” “thief” “bandit” in describing Mulla Mustafa, Qasim’s erstwhile ally, while Barzani’s followers are alternately described as “monkeys”, “the cat’s paws” and “the paws of imperialism.” During the recent crisis, Iraqi social media was jam-packed with these exact terms in describing Masood and those who supported the referendum, much of its vigorously generated and directed, seemingly, by ‘electronic armies’, keyboard mercenaries at the pay of political and intelligence actors. This book shows that there is little originality in the center’s vocabulary when describing the cause of Kurdish secession.

Al-Bana’ adds that Mulla Mustafa stands against “the holy national procession [that is] based on national unity” and wonders “do they want to distract the heroic Iraqi Army in the north to strengthen the English Octopus nestled on the Arabian Gulf in the south?” Al-Bana’ stresses that these attempts will end in failure, “for upon the rock of the people’s faith and devotion to their leader Abdul Karim Qasim, treason shall crash and its remains shall disperse whichever way.” The imperialist plans will be uncovered and documented and “soon these documents will emerge in a military or civil court that shall look into this oppressive imperialist insurgency…” Clarifying that this “treasonous insurgency was not a response to military movements but that these movements came about as a result of the declaration of the insurgency and it was necessary to protect security and stability from the malice of corruptors.”

The break-up between Qasim and Mulla Mustafa had a complicated background, and many aspects are still vague. But the question to ask was whether what happened was inevitable, or whether the ascending rhetorical acrimony between the two sides had them blundering towards war? The coup conspirators of July 14, 1958 were keen on winning over the Kurds as did the monarchy, and they sought to do so by incorporating Kurds into the new governing class. One of the three-member ruling council was a Kurd: a retired officer from the village of Bamirni, who had served as a governor of Arbil province prior to the coup. They also chose the second son of Sheikh Mahmoud al-Hafid, Baba Ali Sheikh Mahmoud, as minister of transportation (he had previously served as a minister in one of al-Sa’id’s cabinets).

There was political life in Baghdad under the monarchy, and it can be argued that it was expanding and prospering in its final decade despite myriad challenges, not the least of which was the rousing example of Gemal Abdul-Nasser’s coup against the Egyptian royal house; the disruption of the country’s private sector middle class and its loss of managerial resources with the departure of the Jews; the rise of Soviet-inspired leftism; and the first stirrings of Arab Sunni resentment at what seemed like the royal family’s intent on accommodating and empowering Shias. However, at the same time, oil revenues (almost all from Kirkuk’s fields in those days) engorged successive budgets allowing for transformative mega-infrastructure projects, while perennial headaches such as Kurdish secession or tribal infractions seemed like problems of the past. The monarchy was becoming far more inclusive, the early investment in higher education and scholarships abroad was returning a crop of talented administrators and disciplined bureaucrats, and the enormous wealth pouring into the state coffers promised to soften and reduce the massive income discrepancies that juxtaposed gleaming new neighborhoods such as Al-Mansour with slummy shanty-towns like its neighboring Al-Washash. Qasim’s copy-cat coup put an end to all that. No longer did the chief executive need to balance his actions against a multitude of intermediary power centers. The top conspiring officer was now the ‘fatherly’ strongman. There would be no side-deliberations and distracting disputes with that interest group or the other while hurtling through time and space upon the Leader’s great leap forward. His whims were effectively policy; the less room for politics, the greater room for the strongman to maneuver and coerce—the most vivid manifestation of individual human agency there is. This new chapter in Baghdad’s relationship with the Barzanis began with Qasim’s intent on salvaging it; He then changed his mind.

The new regime had welcomed Barzani’s return from exile in Moscow. By happenstance, Mulla Mustafa was in Czechoslovakia during the coup, and promptly returned to Iraq by sea to arrive in Basra on October 5, 1958 where tens of thousands of rapturous Kurds and Arabs waited to see him. On his way back, he had lingered in Cairo where he met Nasser whom the Kurds counted as a sympathizer. Mulla Mustafa’s return not only endeared the Qasim regime to its Kurdish constituents, but also proved a bulwark against the regime’s enemies. In March 1959, a military countercoup was launched in Mosul; the Kurdish role in stamping it out proved consequential as they managed to subdue the countercoup’s Arab tribal supporters, so much so that the head of the Shammar tribe was ambushed and killed by Kurdish militants. Qasim now saw another value in Mulla Mustafa, which also colored his view of the Communists; that of an auxiliary militia that could come in handy if other Arab nationalist army elements decided to conspire against him. So he allowed the return of the rest of the exiled Barzanis from Soviet Russia, even allowing them to keep arms. Furthermore, Qasim ordered the Development Council to rebuild the ruined village of Barzan. A month after the failed countercoup, a ship left the Soviet port of Odessa carrying “459 Iraqi citizens, in addition to 394 women and children, and an additional one hundred disabled or elderly persons” according to the TASS agency. But the Egyptian press decided to cover it differently, reporting that 850 armed soldiers from the Kurdish minority of the Soviet Union (there are pockets of Kurds in Armenia and Azerbaijan) were aboard three weapons-laden ships that had passed through the Suez Canal and that they were the vanguard of “an army that will impose Soviet occupation on Iraq”. The Nasser regime had come to view Qasim as an enemy, and they were using his alliance with the Kurds against him. The TASS agency responded to these Egyptian claims to show that they were baseless and noted that, one ship named in the press reports had unloaded agricultural equipment in Egyptian ports, another carried cement to Burma, while the third was laden with sugar destined for Yemen.

The Qasim-Barzani alliance was tested once again during the events of Kirkuk that coincided with the celebrations of the coup’s first anniversary. The spark of unrest jumped off the strained communal relations between Kurds and Turkmen that had been building up over decades. Dozens of Turkmen were left dead in the streets. Qasim placed the blame on the Communists for exasperating tensions and inciting the bloodbath, and was resolved to do away with this cumbersome confederate, one which had its own designs on absolute power in Baghdad. However it was the Ba’athists that tried to assassinate Qasim the following October, an incident in which a young Saddam Hussein makes his first cameo on the historical stage before escaping to a Cairene exile. Qasim consequently held off on a clean break with the Communists on grounds of punishing them for Kirkuk. Yet the bad blood and mistrust congealed, and it indirectly gummed up his relationship with Mulla Mustafa. Qasim had granted a license to publish the KDP’s official organ, Khabat (‘The Struggle’) and then allowed for the licensing of the party itself in February 1960. But the KDP and its newspaper were politically aligned with the Communists, a matter that was increasingly rankling Qasim. Its founding charter states that “the party seeks to represent the interests of the farmers and workers and artisans and intellectuals of Iraqi Kurdistan” and that it draws inspiration for its social aims from the ‘scientific’ theories of Marxist-Leninism. With the increasing tensions between the Qasim regime and the Communists, Mulla Mustafa found that he must marginalize the leftist wing of his party to appease Baghdad, and so undertook several steps to do so such as pushing out the leftist editorial board of Khabat that had taken Qasim to task for what it perceived to be his coddling of feudalists, especially after he reprieved the old Sufi rival of the Barzanis, Sheikh Rashid Lolan, who had joined with Kurdish tribal aghas against the land reforms that were being enacted by the republic.

But Khabat continued its campaign of at times not so subtle criticism, highlighting Qasim’s tardiness in delivering on his promises to the Kurds, and at times calling for rescinding martial law. It demanded ending the transitional period by enacting a permanent constitution while setting a date for parliamentary elections.  Khabat was making the case for the return of political life. By not delivering on that, as well as the other promises of the ‘revolution’, Qasim was setting himself up to look like a dictator.

Qasim was overly sensitive to criticism. He interpreted Khabat’s campaign to be a leftist bid for power. He also had to assume that Mulla Mustafa was a willing accomplice, one who was likely still under the sway of the Soviets who had taken him in. Qasim went maximalist. He responded by calling for assimilation; that the ethnicities and secondary identities within the country must voluntarily dissolve themselves into a unified Iraqi identity, going as far in one of his speeches as to dispute the idea of a unique ethnic ‘element’ for the Kurds. This naturally incensed the Kurds. Khabat continued its criticism, but a breaking point came when Iraqi authorities accused Ibrahim Ahmed Fattah, the paper’s first publisher and the General Secretary of the KDP (who many years later would secede from Mulla Mustafa’s leadership by forming the PUK—also, he was Hero’s father), of murdering the chief of the Kurdish Khoshnaw tribe near Shaqlawa, one who had been aligned with Baghdad. The escalation of newspaper rhetoric continued when the state organ Al-Thawra published an article titled ‘They Write Under the Darkness of Communists’ suggesting that the new revolutionary regime had uncovered secret correspondence in the monarchy-era headquarters of the Baghdad Pact that exposed “hidden agents” in the service of colonialism and that it would be publishing these documents soon, strongly suggesting that one such agent was Mulla Mustafa himself.

And so Baghdad’s astringent rhetoric against the Kurds escalated as the Qasim era unfolded, turning their ally into a facet of Western machinations aiming to subvert its authority, an authority that was seeking national glory by harassing the big international oil companies into making further concessions, as well as by demanding the return of Kuwait, that “stolen Iraqi sub-district” in the words of al-Bana’ (the British had granted Kuwaitis independence in June 1961). The war of words came to a head when a twenty-eight year-old lawyer, an ambitious, rising star within the KDP called Jalal Talabani assumed a stage in Baghdad where he gave a speech meant to respond to Al-Thawra article and in which he alluded that Qasim himself was serving under a British officer when the previous royalist regime was conducting military operations against the Kurds, so if there were shame in such associations and actions, then the president should be the first to atone. Al-Bana’ elaborates on this anecdote and tells us that Qasim had led an infantry platoon consisting of thirty soldiers in a nighttime raid against Barzani’s forces in 1945, in the Mergasoor sector. Nothing wrong in that, per al-Bana’s retelling, for it merely reinforces the Leader’s heroism against the brigands.

Matters soon got out of hand following a Kurdish call for a general strike in September, with armed Peshmerga strutting out on display throughout many Kurdish areas, challenging the state’s security apparatus. Qasim mobilized the army in retaliation. Here, Mulla Mustafa tried to tamp down the situation and to find a path back to negotiations; he sent Qasim what he believed was a reasonable set of demands as a blueprint for further talks. Qasim, however, responded harshly, a position he expounded on in a five and a half hour long speech in front of media outlets during which he placed the latest Kurdish actions as part of a grand conspiracy against the country, and that Mulla Mustafa was a British agent ever “since he was a postman in 1933”. Qasim, sounding somewhat unhinged, further claimed that the British had bankrolled the Barzanis to the tune of half a million Iraqi dinars and that Iraq may shutter the British legation in retaliation. The forces arrayed against each other soon tipped over into fighting, and that young aforementioned attorney headed up to the mountains and began leading guerilla bands against the Iraqi Army. Al-Bana’s expresses the government’s view that the fighting was expected and inevitable as it was designed by the Kurdish instigators and their shadowy foreign backers “to coincide with the talks being held with the oil companies, and at a time when the people are waging a crucial diplomatic battle to liberate Kuwait…”

The Communists had issued a statement framing the events as having “awakened a deep concern among the democratic forces keen on preserving national unity against colonialism given the sympathy and regard that the Barzanis enjoy among Kurdish and Arab populace equally.” Al-Bana’ responded to that by writing “communism looks favorably on Mulla Mustafa Barzani because the Soviet Union did too and gave him refuge”. Here we can see the contradiction of accusing Barzani of being a Western agent while American and British intelligence outfits deemed him a “Soviet pawn”. But there is no room for reflection on such contradictions when contriving a narrative to rile people up. Discord had advanced too far for any backtracking. Al-Bana’ adds “the Leader has a long and beautiful patience, and his mind is radiant, and his will is iron, and he shall teach those a lesson after another, and he shall purify the Iraqi soil of their filth and sin and he shall destroy their nests and hideouts…” He then breathlessly informs us that the insurgency is nearly over, citing the commander of the 2nd Division who tells him that “the information we have shows that the treasonous Mulla was severely injured and has escaped with his brother, and most likely he will die”, adding that “peace and security have returned to northern Iraq and the flag of the Iraqi republic flies over Zakho…”

Historians suggest that the demise of Qasim’s alliance with Mulla Mustafa and the eruption of fighting weakened the regime and left Qasim vulnerable to the machinations of rightist officers, who would soon lead a coup against him. Barzani, meanwhile, seemingly survived his injuries, and survived Qasim too. Mulla Mustafa would soon enough have to contend with yet another regime in Baghdad that at first tried to make amends before matters took a turn for the worst, and this time the anti-Kurdish measures were indeed worse.

Al-Bana’ concludes his book with reprinting telegrams that had been sent by Kurdish notables in support of Qasim, among them one from Rasheed Lolan who was pardoned by the former, calling upon him to “save us from those infidels and unbelievers” harkening back to the accusations that Lolan had made against the Barzani Sufi chiefs since the Ottoman era. There is another telegram from another longtime enemy of the Barzanis, Muhammad Faris Agha, the chief of the Zebaris, who accuse the Barzanis of undermining their feudal lordship for the past century. Like the Ottomans before them, the decision-makers in Baghdad were beginning to appreciate the usefulness of local Kurdish enemies of the Barzanis’—they would soon put them on payroll, deck them out with rifles and cartridges, and set them on other Kurds.

The importance of the fourth book A Spotlight on Northern Iraq by Nu’man Mahir al-Kana’ani (1965) lies in describing that very inflection point: Baghdad’s recruitment of Kurdish tribal auxiliaries to fight the secessionist movement. The book contains the portraits and names of dozens of Kurdish chieftains who would later become the first building blocks of what would be known officially as the Fursan (‘Cavalry’) or derogatorily as juhoosh (‘mules’). They would number in the tens of thousands and would play important roles in stamping out the Kurdish rebellion, such as enabling the Iraqi army to mount the genocidal Anfal campaigns in the late 1980s. It shows that old centralizing forces can easily relapse to their old ways and habits, discredited as they may have been.

Al-Kana’ani (1919-2010) was an officer from Samarra who later in life turned to poetry. He had returned to power with the coup that brought down Qasim. The last position al-Kana’ani held was that of Deputy Minister of Culture, up until the 1968 Ba’athist coup that ended the ‘Arifite era. His son provided me with a detailed biography after I first uploaded the book onto my blog a few years ago and labelled its tone “racist”. He took umbrage and answered in the comments section: “while my father was a nationalist to an extreme degree, but if you revise the narrative you will not see a racist tone as you described it, but rather the events of today corroborate [my father’s] account that the issue is one of power and interests and foreign affiliations that are not hidden to anyone.” The son was echoing the rhetoric of his father’s day: lay Kurds had been hoodwinked by the Barzani family’s feint at achieving national dignity through independence, since the secessionists are motivated by “love of ruleship and control and no other” as the father had written. Again, Iraqi social media responded to the recent referendum by voicing those same old talking points. Granted, some of the objections against the Kurdish leadership are warranted, especially when it comes to corruption, stifling dissent, restricting travel by other Iraqis to the KRG, at times in a humiliating manner, as well as breaking political accords, but they still misunderstood the moment as a referendum on Masood’s character and track record as a leader, rather than a genuine desire shared and cherished by millions of Kurds, and bled for by many thousands. Empathy by non-Kurdish, lay Iraqis towards those desires was always in short supply. The state’s tightly controlled messaging centers certainly never intended to elucidate Kurdish intentions impartially to other Iraqis, neither was a timorous intellectual class disposed to questioning the official narrative, not even nowadays. While the willingness to show severity to incur subservience was vast, and enormously popular, and continues to be. To this day, most Iraqis will draw a blank if asked to specify the calendar date of the anniversary of the Halabja tragedy, while Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iran are far more likely to provide the correct answer. Shared, inherited narratives and memories foster communal amity. Divergent narratives, or affected amnesia, will predictably separate peoples. (So will the newer phenomena of ‘noise’ and narrative entropy, currently assailing Iraq and the Middle East, but we will get to those later.)

Al-Kana’ani writes at length as to why the Kurds will never achieve independence. He coldly says that Kurds at the time constitute one million of Iraq’s population, and that Iraqi Kurds comprise a fifth of all Kurds in the Middle East. Thus, they represent only 15.5 percent of the population and their areas add up to 1/9th of Iraq’s territory. This territorial parcel produces less than 5 percent of Iraq’s wealth if judged by agriculture and livestock. Al-Kana’ani cites these numbers and asks “what would the result be if the economy of the Kurdish region relied on itself without this complementary relationship with the general economy of [Iraq]?” meaning to say that if the Kurds proceed to independence under Barzani, then they will starve.

Al-Kana’ani then recites the state’s narrative concerning Kurdish ingratitude and general boorishness in their relationship with it, saying “the participation of Kurds in cabinets was never neglected at any time, and even in the earliest cabinets in the modern history of Iraq, when it consisted of only eight posts, Kurds would have one or two, and when the number of posts increased their share increased too.” Adding, “we find that the heads of [army] divisions at any time were in the majority Kurdish” and claims that at one point, ten out of fourteen governorships across the country were held by Kurds. Moreover he claims that “their percentage according to the most accurate statistics we have that have been revealed by the official registers is that 23 percent of all government jobs are held by Kurds, whereas the number of non-Kurds serving in Kurdish areas never exceeded 3 percent.” Kurdish is the language officially applied in schools and in the courts. And Kurds get to wear their national costumes, and can reside in any part of Iraq. Al-Kana’ani then enumerates the completed projects and monies spent in the Kurdish areas, as well as the sums of compensation paid out for the damages done as a result of the military’s ‘northern maneuvers’ against secessionists. These perks are “not enjoyed by the Kurd in the other countries he lives in…” avowing that the conditions for Kurds in Turkey and Iran are very different, for the worse. “If what has been achieved for Kurdish citizenship in a country like Iraq is not satisfactory then how will the Kurdish situation be addressed in the other countries that do not share Iraq’s perspective on how to deal with Kurdish citizenship?” Al-Kana’ani concludes that the independence project is impossible given regional balances.

It’s clear that the reasons that compelled the author to write the book were not solely the government’s intent on presenting its point of view in its war with Mulla Mustafa to an Iraqi audience. It is also clear how sensitive they were to what foreign correspondents who were sympathetic to the Kurdish rebellion were writing at the time. This was a new dimension to Iraq’s Kurdish dilemma: international attention and popular sympathy in Western capitals for Kurdish aspirations. So Baghdad’s goal was to develop a counterargument to prevent the likelihood that the Kurdish issue would be internationalized in venues such as the United Nations, thereby infringing on Iraqi sovereignty by contesting its human rights record. The state kept seeing the “foreigner’s hand” in Kurdish movements. As one piece of evidence, al-Kana’ani cites a statement made by Jalal Talabani, Barzani’s spokesman in Paris, where he says “it is my duty to clarify that the Kurds are the owners of the oil wells now located in the vicinity of Kirkuk and Ain Zaleh and in Khaniqin…and that despite us being the owners, others are reaping the resources.” Al-Kana’ani interprets this statement to mean that the Kurdish mindset is that of a highway robber who expects to get shakedown money from the international oil companies paid out to him rather than the pockets of the central government. Al-Kana’ani then cites twenty five incidents of sabotage and robbery conducted by Barzani’s partisans in the period of May 1964 until January 1965.

The government’s new undertaking at the time was to mobilize the tribes that were resentful of the Barzanis, some of them had been seething for a century or so. Al-Kana’ani writes that “in northern Iraq there are Kurdish tribes and chiefs and religious leaders who hold a position more exalted than that of Barzani’s either due to the peoples flocking to their banner or their belief in the reality of their shared existence with the Arabs of Iraq under a government that that been excessive in its generosity to the Kurds over the span of half a century…” The state found it convenient to rely on the Fursan as a quick fix to stem the expansion of the rebellion. But what effectively took place was that the state took sides in local tribal disputes, and the proclivity of these tribes towards the state did not fundamentally alter the average Kurd’s understanding of his or her role within the Iraqi fabric, but rather what was evident was the state tipping the scales and setting one part of his people against another. The effort expanded into arming Arab tribes too, such as the ‘Ubaid in Hamrin and Hawija, to confront the Kurds, further adding to communal volatility.

One such recipient of arms was the late Sheikh Ali al-Dahham. He was young man back then in the 1960s, and already the head of a subsection of the ‘Ubaid. I met him in the run-up to the 2003 war, and we promptly began working together in preparation for Saddam’s overthrow. In different circumstances, given his charm and raw political acumen, al-Dahham would have become a pillar of political life, a talented and capable negotiator on behalf of his tribe, his sect, and his milieu. I recognized at the time, when engaging him in our work against the Saddam regime, that he had the magic necessary to untangle a knot as agonizing as that of the legacy of Arabization within and around Kirkuk. But even though Saddam regime was overthrown al-Dahham lingered in Amman, far away from his kin. He still could not go back. He had been so effective as a Fursan commander, and so merciless, that Kurds still demanded his head in return for a plethora of blood feuds. Neither the Americans understood enough, nor did Baghdad care enough, to mediate a bargain for his return. Such was the legacy of those days in the mid-sixties when the state exploited talents such al-Dahham’s for warfare rather than consensus. The village bearing his name in the Hamrin foothills is today haunted by the specter of jihadists, still on the prowl. Some misdeeds simply cannot be undone.

Here we need to revert back to what al-Sa’adoun had warned of in his speech at the 1924 Constituent Assembly when discussing the Kurdish issue. He said that one of the reasons of the collapse of the Ottoman state was its failure to address the aspirations of its ethnicities and sects and engaging them only through might and force. Al-Sa’adoun was prescient in his observation and contention that such solutions would not work. Such is the irony inherent in the very idea of the Fursan, nay even its name, since it was inspired fully by the Ottoman example of the Hamidiye Cavalry (Kurdish light horsemen) that Sultan Abdul Hamid II had formed to prop up his authority in 1891. The Hamidiye were originally modeled after the Tsarist Russian Cossacks who were observed by Marshall Ahmad Shakir Pasha Yozgatli Copanoglu (1838-1899) when he served as ambassador in St. Petersburg for eleven years prior to becoming the Sultan’s aide in 1890. Shakir Pasha was a reformist (he once served as adjunct to Midhat Pasha in Baghdad) and he thought such formations will sort out several problems in the six Anatolian provinces, namely to counter Russian expansionism, to subjugate the Armenians, and to strengthen the bonds between the Kurdish tribes and the central authority especially after the previous model, subsidizing and relying on Sufi networks such as that of the aforementioned Sheikh Ubaidullah, had broken down. The decision portended many important and tragic changes across the Middle Eastern landscape, the least of which was the role played by the Hamidiye Cavalry, especially those under Ibrahim Pasha of the Milli tribes, in checking the expansion of ‘Anizeh and Shammar into the Jezirah area, changing the demographics of northern Syria. At least some of those fissures explains today’s tensions between Arabs and Kurds all along and to the east and west of the Syrian Euphrates.

Authority over the new formation was given to Marshall Zeki Pasha (1830-1924) the commander of the fourth Ottoman Army based in Erzincan, who served in that capacity for 21 years. (…he took over Baghdad as vali for seven months in 1912). But his tenure was marked by corruption: he was accused of drawing salaries for non-existing soldiers, while the cavalry consistently underperformed in martial exploits. But the biggest problem was unchecked aggression and greed against Armenians, as well as Kurdish and Alevi tribes that chose not to sign up to become part of the central state’s latest bid for control. The cavalrymen took the lands and possessions of the weak and recalcitrant. This continued even after Abdul Hamid was deposed by the CUP; they were renamed the ‘light tribal cavalry’ and they took a lead in perpetrating massacres and genocide against Christian minorities during World War I. What in effect began as a reformist measure ended up very badly. And it did not sustain security or stability, rather these formations tinkered with demographics on a wide stretch of the map, turning minor infractions over water or grazing rights into state-sanctioned warfare. Barely forty years in existence, the Iraqi state reverted to the practices of its Ottoman predecessor. That was bad enough, but of course, we know where the story goes from here, through twists and turns, culminating in crimes such as Halabja.

As the book was heading for print, a curious development was taking place: long before Bafel Talabani’s inclination to strike a deal with al-Muhandis, his father—the spokesman who had incurred al-Kana’ani ire with his talk of who owns the oil fields—had been attempting to find his own accommodation with Baghdad in 1965. Jalal was doing so in contravention of Mulla Mustafa’s wishes, and this was to be the first step towards a full political break ten years later when Jalal would engineer the formation of the PUK. Much had been made by historians about the cleft between traditionalists and intellectuals within the KDP that eventually led to the split, even though the Barzanis are not the paragon of Kurdish tribal or religious traditionalism as we have seen, while Jalal was prepared for leadership due to his family’s traditional authority among Kurds and non-Kurds. I tend to mull over a plainer, profounder reason for the fissures that manifested in the mid-1960s, for I cannot get over the scene that may have unfolded a decade earlier when a Jalal met Mulla Mustafa in Moscow. The former was part of a university student delegation from the Kingdom of Iraq participating in some youth conference hosted by the Soviet Union. The details are unclear to me, for we only have a couple of versions of the event, but whether it was auspicious or by design, an eager Jalal desperately wanted to meet that majestic eagle, that icon of the Kurdish resistance, Mulla Mustafa, and he succeeded in finding a way. The man he met, though, was living in reduced circumstances.

Sure, by post-war Soviet standards at the time, the apartment building at Novoslobodskaya 50-1/1, was a comfortable, even luxurious, living space, seeing how it was earmarked by the state to house political exiles enjoying its hospitality. Maybe befitting a leftist Indian journalist who ran afoul of his country’s authorities, but certainly not commensurate with the stature of the leader of the Kurdish nation, Jalal may have sniffed. Mulla Mustafa, sans mustache and attendees, would have been wearing a drab, grey outfit suitable for a Soviet man in his fifties (he was born in 1903). He was eleven years into his exile, a great warrior fading away, forgotten by both the Iraqi and Soviet states—at one point during his Soviet sojourn he had been put to work as an accountant in a Central Asian kolkhoz. Things improved after Stalin died, but the best he could get after finding his way to the new higher ups at the Kremlin was this new apartment in Moscow and a lifting of the residency and education restrictions that had been placed on his men and their families—charity rather than renewed geostrategic relevance. Mulla Mustafa was wise to the world of men and he must have registered the disappointment, even pity, showing through his twenty-four year-old visitor’s eyes. Jalal was a student of leadership. Every Talabani male gets to be called a sheikh due to that legacy of Abdel-Rahman’s, the founder of a self-branded Sufi order. He could spot that Mulla Mustafa’s leadership had gone creaky. It must have pained Mulla Mustafa to have gotten news of his daughter’s betrothal to a relative whose family he detested from this effervescent sophomore. They met several times after that, to work out some party business, since Mulla Mustafa rarely had a chance such as this one to send word back to his followers still in Iraq. But just as important for him, and telling too, was trying to work out the details of smuggling his youngest wife, and their son Masood, out of Iraq and to bring them to him. He was expecting his Moscow sojourn to be quite long. They parted, probably assuming that they would not see each other again, not knowing that Qasim’s coup was right around the corner.

It is very difficult for men such as Mulla Mustafa and Jalal to get over their encounter. Jalal caught a whiff of the old man’s weakness, sensing an opportunity to take the lead rather than allowing the old man to confer the top party posts to his sons. Mulla Mustafa would have always been mindful of Jalal’s every phrase and gesture, lest they betray the insolence of someone who had seen him when he was down and vulnerable. Sterile, empirical portrayals of the dialectics of class struggles do not leave much room for such profoundly human and oblique inferences of what transpired between the two men in Moscow. We are back to the balancing of how much of what propels history can be attributed to individual human agency, and how much is due to the larger vectors casting a long shadow on the trajectories of men and women.

Jalal’s final split in 1975 was ostensibly because the old man had missed a great opportunity for peace, or at least one that merited further tractability and exploration, rather opting for a disastrous war and a spell of geopolitical gambling that broke the back of the Kurdish struggle. The Ba’athists came to Mulla Mustafa bearing a great deal: full autonomy, a census followed by a referendum for Kirkuk, and a fulsome share of executive posts in Baghdad. But something was off about the Ba’athist who had showed up to his door bearing the details of this deal. Saddam Hussein was 33 at the time, and carried himself with supreme confidence and ebullience. He was the Vice-President of Iraq, while his distant cousin was serving as an increasingly figurehead president. All that Mulla Mustafa knew about him was that ten years ago, he was street thug and two-bit cutthroat, who had been elevated to the role of political assassin, a failed one at that, with Qasim being his target. There was also a stint as the underground facilitator and enforcer of the Ba’athists during the times when they laid low in the sixties. Yet now Saddam was standing center stage in Iraqi and world events, and Mulla Mustafa could easily discern the unbridled ambition soaked with the damp stench of insecurity that animated the man before him. Mulla Mustafa could not strike a deal with such a man. Several mysterious assassinations attempts directed at him and his son confirmed his suspicions that Saddam could not be trusted. Saddam had also balked when Mulla Mustafa suggested a Shi’a Kurd (a Fayli), the general secretary of the KDP at the time, to serve as Vice-President of the Iraqi republic, a position reserved for Kurds as part of a would-be deal; Saddam contemptuously dismissed the candidate as one of Iranian origin. The Iraqi state was at that time beginning to harass Faylis and Iraqis of Persian ancestry, assigning them the role previously reserved for the dwindling Jewish population as the foreign enemies’ (in this case the Shah’s Iran) principal internal collaborators. Saddam personally took charge of the campaign. A man like this, with this sort of parochial fanaticism, will turn dangerous one day, Mulla Mustafa must have thought. Within five years, he did: 400-600,000 Iraqis of Persian or Fayli ancestry were evicted from Saddam’s Iraq.

Jalal on the other hand, could not conceive of why Mulla Mustafa would even turn down Saddam when the latter came back with a final offer of sharing Kirkuk’s resources fifty-fifty. Mulla Mustafa opted for war. But Baghdad this time had an ‘RMA’ up its sleeve: spanking new Soviet helicopter gunships. And Saddam was willing to drastically raise the cost of rebellion on lay Kurds. Much of the Kurdish experience with the Iraqi state since then revolves around these three men, and their progeny. Saddam’s brood would probably have still been in the picture if not for the 2003 war—a war that would not have happened, in my opinion, if not for Chalabi’s persistence. Individual human agency, again.

 

*                             *                             *

 

On January 9th, a Tuesday, Soleimani met with Abadi at the latter’s residence. Soleimani arrived at the meeting alone, unaccompanied by his usual adjuncts al-Muhandis and al-Ameri. The Iranian general was seeking to assuage bruised egos. On Monday, the day before, Abadi had sat down with a PMU delegation, but the delegates were carrying themselves with self-importance and conceit, to Abadi’s chagrin. They were offering the opportunity of an electoral alliance, yet they did so while making demands that Abadi took to be outlandish, such as, for example, reserving the slate’s number one slot in every province but Baghdad for a PMU candidate. Abadi believed that he had the upper hand. The Americans had shown him polling numbers that had him ahead by wide margins, expecting a seat tally of 85-90 (out of 328, a ‘landslide’ win in an Iraqi parliamentary context) simply by virtue of his name headlining a slate. Never mind that the pollster’s credibility had been under question for years for pulling stunts such as erasing past, erroneous predictions from his website. As far as Abadi was concerned, the Americans could not possibly get something as critical as this metric wrong, after all, it seemed to him that McGurk’s career was essentially tied to his own. Abadi, in his own mind, was America’s indispensable man in Iraq, albeit with one caveat: The Americans have a track record of being notoriously unreliable as patrons of Iraqi political contenders. Initially, they would work assiduously for their ‘man’, giving the impression that they would never let him sink, but they could also tire rather quickly if the effort to keep him afloat became too cumbersome. The Americans may then quickly normalize another candidate for the prime minister’s job, even one that seemed to be beholden to the Iranians. So Abadi needed another’s assurance to secure a second term. He needed Iran’s blessing.

All that was required for smooth sailing was to get on Soleimani’s good side. Hitherto, Abadi thought he was all set: back in autumn 2017, a rumor went around the political gossip mills of Baghdad suggesting that Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah had delivered a message to Maliki, Abadi’s main antagonist and Soleimani’s perceived favorite, that Iran’s Khamenei supported a second term for Abadi, and that Maliki should not contest the post as the Iranians would not endorse him. It was a cryptic story that left many scratching their heads. If I had to guess, it could have been released into the ether by the Iranians as a nod to Sistani’s wishes that they would not interfere in the run-up to the Iraqi elections. A top Maliki aide confirmed to me that his boss had been in Beirut for a medical procedure during the same time frame as the story suggests but did not get back to me on whether Maliki thought that the message attributed to Khamenei was false or not, or whether it was even delivered at all. By early October, a following story had it that the Iranians had changed their minds, after the Kurdish referendum. Abadi was again scrambling for ways to endear himself to Soleimani. The operation to recapture Kirkuk brought them very close, but was it enough to get Soleimani to trust him? Abadi must have agonized over this question, leaving him susceptible to any lures, however paltry, coming from Soleimani’s end. The British had been encouraging this relationship for months, cultivating what they believed to be several channels leading directly to Soleimani, all with the intent of circuitously selling him on Abadi. Monday’s meeting, though, was a very bad start.

Even though he thought he was going to win big, Abadi wanted the PMUs on board so as to close any possible loopholes. This way he would be aligning with Soleimani’s adjuncts, while throttling the off-chance that al-Ameri would get the top billing as prime minister. Abadi knew that if push came to shove, the Americans, and McGurk especially, would be willing to live with al-Ameri. He had heard that there was a faction in McGurk’s team that believed that al-Ameri was not such a bad guy, and that he could be weaned off his dependence and devotion to the Iranians—a story placed in the New York Times right ahead of election day does a thorough job of summarizing that faction’s phantasm. Abadi did not want to take any chances. He needed the PMUs, but their demands were a nonstarter.

Nonetheless, Soleimani could not have been friendlier when they met. He told Abadi not to worry about what had transpired in the meeting the day before. He explained the frayed nerves on display as a matter that had nothing to do with him, rather it was a problem that had been festering between al-Muhandis and al-Ameri for months as to who would be the public face of the electoral list. The delegation had taken its in-house acrimonies out on Abadi; he was the not the intended recipient, or so Soleimani reassured him. Furthermore, Soleimani told him that the PMUs would join Abadi with no prior conditions. Abadi would have full discretion to pick rankings and distribute candidates among various provincial slates, and not only that, but the PMU candidates would join Abadi as individuals and not as party cadres. This way Abadi could maintain his campaign myth that his slate was the only one that had broken with political confessionalism while putting distance between it and the discredited parties that had been ruling Iraq since 2003. Abadi was elated. The following day, the PMUs signaled to Abadi that they would stick by Soleimani’s offer. Abadi was so excited that he extended the projected alliance to the al-Hakim family’s slate and the Fadhila Party too, the more the merrier, even though he had rejected their advances in late December. This way, almost all the Shia political forces would be running under him, effectively shunning and isolating Maliki, and stealing a march on al-Ameri’s prospects (…or those of the second tier of candidates for that matter: Muhammad al-Sudani, Falih al-Fayyadh, Qasim al-‘Araji, Qusay al-Suheil, etc.). It was an auspicious turn of events indeed.

So Maliki was left outside the tent, growling. He still had a card to play, to damage Abadi as well as the Da’awa Party cadres who had thrown in their lot with the latter. Maliki was the head of the party, as it was registered with the proper authorities. He aimed to run his slate under the Da’awa name, either forcing Abadi to resign from the party, or holding the latter culpable for officially splintering it. Here again, Soleimani reassured Abadi that he would sort it out. Soleimani had tried his hand at a resolution on January 2nd, but Maliki wouldn’t budge. Soleimani sent word on January 13th, that he would be coming back to Baghdad to settle this matter once and for all. After realizing that Soleimani had worked out a deal with Abadi a few days earlier, Maliki relented. By the time Soleimani arrived in the evening, around 9:30, Maliki had already withdrawn the Da’awa Party from the running. His slate would be his own, rather than associated with the party. Soleimani only stayed in Baghdad for a couple of hours. He left just before midnight, after putting the final touches on the statement that would go out the following morning that Abadi and the PMUs would be running on a single slate. It was to be a short-lived alliance. By the early afternoon on January 14th, several PMU leaders, at the head of them Abu Ahmad al-Asadi—who has vague links to U.S. intelligence that I have not been able to get to the bottom of—were clamoring for breaking the deal because, by their rationale, Abadi had preceded them in doing so. By incorporating the Hakims and Fadhila in the deal, Abadi was seeking to dilute the PMU’s expected seat gains, they argued. Al-Ameri, still bruising from his dust-up with al-Muhandis, did not put up enough of a counter. The deal fell apart a day before the official deadline for alliance registrations was to pass.

It was all very odd. One could almost, if Soleimani was removed from the picture, attribute the incident to the vagaries of bumbling politicians—something familiar and somewhat expected coming as it is from the Iraqi political class. But Soleimani was very much part of the picture, and in a role that was subtly different from his previous intrusions during critical decision-making junctures. This time around he was not a mere representative of the Islamic Republic, or a messenger voicing Khamenei’s injunctions against this candidate for office or that. He was not a broker among the myriad of Iraqi political forces that seek to remain relevant or at least conciliatory to Iranian designs. This time Soleimani was representing an Iraqi faction—one that ultimately got the second highest seat allocation per election results; no small thing. He was negotiating on behalf of an Iraqi institution, the PMUs, which enjoys budget allocations and constituencies that are nominally independent of the Iranian state. Soleimani did not work through one of his cut-outs. He was performing this role himself. Many observers forget what a marked change this shows: in September 2011, when al-Muhandis was wistfully reminiscing and sharing pictures of the good old times under the title “From the fields of jihad” on his Facebook page, he Photoshop-ed out a visitor in what seemed to be a purposely clumsy manner. The visitor was almost certainly Soleimani (the only other person I can think of who would warrant such an effort may have been Imad Mughniyah, but he had already been dead — since 2008 — and his pictures were widely accessible at the time of al-Muhandis’ post). At the time, not many pictures were in circulation for the Iranian general. Al-Muhandis must have had many pictures taken over the years at Badr’s and the Qods Force’s Varamin training camp to Tehran’s southeast from which to choose to share online, ones that did not require alteration or editing for security concerns. But he seems to have purposefully doctored these particular mementos, impressing Soleimani’s omnipresence as a haunting, eerie specter.

Now it seems that Soleimani can’t get enough selfies, or enough emphasis on his manifest visibility such as negotiating directly with Abadi. Much like what happened in Kirkuk, few Iraq-watchers asked themselves “Why is he doing this?” Abadi too should have been asking the same question. Someone should have reported back to him what Soleimani had been saying to anyone listening, that he did not believe that any one Shia political faction would break fifty seats on its own. His predictions were off by a handful of seats, but still far more accurate than the polls the Americans were brandishing. If Soleimani did not believe that Abadi would win by a landslide, then why invest the general’s prestige in wooing him? Perhaps Soleimani wanted to diminish Abadi’s popularity: right after the announcement of the alliance, Iraqi social media sites were denouncing Abadi’s kowtowing to the militias, ones that he had only recently denounced, even going as far as implicitly accusing the PMUs of murdering their own ‘accountant’ to hide instances of corruption. Echoing the internet’s uproar, Muqtada al-Sadr piped up with a very angry communique too.

Soleimani’s first experiences with Abadi, back in September 2014, must have gnawed at the general’s sense of decorum. Before then, I would hardly think that Abadi had registered with him, seeing how he was a second tier Da’awa Party apparatchik who came from its exiled London bench. Soleimani was busy facilitating Maliki’s proposed third term, even after the fall of Mosul. Abadi’s assigned role in the initial plan was to assume the position of second deputy speaker of parliament, a promotion over his tenure as chairman of that body’s finance committee, one that had rubber-stamped all of Maliki’s fiscal trickeries, such as the thoroughly unconstitutional absence of a budget for 2014. Abadi’s failure to secure that vote was the first indicator that Maliki’s re-investiture was in trouble, and unlikely. If he could not get Maliki through, Soleimani had a Plan B in the person of Maliki’s former chief of staff, Tariq Najim, another second-tier Da’awa cadre. It was here that Abadi, exhibiting all the chivalry of a pickpocket, surprised Soleimani by turning on his comrade Maliki. Was Soleimani impressed by such a capacity for treachery, filing away this potential for later use? If Soleimani were a political animal, he may have. But he does not see himself that way. Besides Abadi’s turncoat-ing embarrassed the general, showing him up as a man who was not in control of the situation, especially as things were falling apart on the security front. Could it be that Soleimani was now merely working towards returning the favor to Abadi, ‘gallantly’ stabbing him in the back as the latter did with Maliki? Or doctoring the choices so that Najim would become PM, as an acceptable alternative to Abadi? It just seems like meager pickings for a man such as Soleimani, who does not strike me as one who would be content with the nihilistic satisfaction of shit-stirring. Unless, of course, creating discord is a means to an end, which I believe is Soleimani’s play here.

Soleimani has several options to choose from in arriving at that end, and he could now see the path ahead clearly. He could bleed out political life in Baghdad with a thousand cuts. He did not need to do much. The elections results would, whether by hook or crook, offer up an excellent opportunity to let the Iraqi political class hang itself. There was immense anger in a populace that was already deeply disillusioned with political life, reflected as it were with low voter turnouts and high-pitched popular gripe. Young Iraqis were coming untethered from the bonds and balances that had given order to their societies: totalitarianism, wars, sanctions, followed by jarring upheavals such as incessant terror and sectarian convulsions, and a shock as massive as the Islamic State, had naturally taken their toll. All coming on top of serial mismanagement of their futures by the decision makers, who squandered the wealth and opportunities that Iraqi youth were supposed to inherit; a population boom whereby a million new Iraqis are being added to the rolls every year; ecological distress; the dizzying din of data toxification; and increasing talk of revolution—there are few authorities and norms whose legitimacy and supremacy Iraqi youth are willing to acknowledge, not their conventions, not their customs, not their elders, and certainly not their government. Historical memory runs shallow in emotive, maximalist times like these, and one finds many Iraqis youths yearning for a strongman or a military coup, as if they have learned nothing from their recent past; they cheerfully share rumors over messaging apps of American plots and preparations for a government in waiting, one that would efface the current ruling order. They may actually get their wish, but it will likely be Soleimani’s dark horse or one of his fellow-travelling martial conspirators who would deliver the coup de grace to the political system at some point down the road. To get there, Soleimani would want Iraqi politics to implode from within, to collapse under the weight of its own perfidies and shallow-minded imprudence. And what better vehicle to trivialize and depreciate politics than Muqtada al-Sadr, who in Soleimani’s opinion has the mental competence and disposition of a twelve and half year old brat? Al-Sadr now wants to be the paternalis sage of a ‘newer’ New Iraq. That must have sent Soleimani chuckling.

Al-Sadr was the biggest vote and seat earner. He could rely on a reliable constituency that elects its representatives with cult-like discipline and obedience. Like the Barzanis, al-Sadr’s father managed to create a ‘nation’. Al-Sadr pere sold his particular brand to them as one at variance with the ‘foreigners’ (whether Persian, Azeri, or Pakistani) and ‘aristocrats’ dominating the pseudo-ecclesiastical hierarchies of Najaf. His trademark was bred-in-the-bone Iraqi and ‘a man of the people’, of the impoverished and the downtrodden, even though his third cousin once removed served as an Iraqi prime minister, for a short while, under the monarchy, and presided over the Senate for long stretches. Even though another third cousin was married to Khomeini’s son; her brother served as Iran’s Deputy Prime Minister in the early days of the revolution. And yet another third cousin is married to former president Mohammad Khatami. Most of the Najaf establishment kept their distance from Muqtada’s father not because of his pedigree or origins, which were just as aristocratic and transnational as theirs, but rather because they thought him to be off his rocker, suffering from a form of manic depressiveness that was widely-known to afflict the al-Sadr bloodline. But his followers took the cleric’s eccentricities and sharp spikes of anger to be a touch of the divine. Muqtada inherited these masses, who were indeed historically downtrodden, and long overlooked by Najaf due to their alms-poor returns: gypsies, the blacks of Basra, and the descendants of the Tigris clans of the Amara that had moved to the outskirts of large cities to populate sprawling slums, especially those of Baghdad’s. The more excitable among them kiss the tires of the 4×4 Muqtada rides in, should his feet prove inaccessible. Their votes, hence, were dependable. Sure, there was some old-school and high-tech cheating going on, a little more than usual, but that goes for many other political forces (however I would not put the attempt to burn the ballot boxes in Baghdad’s Rusafa past a Sadrist cover-up). Their seat share was further amplified by depressed turn-outs of a public-sector-job-wielding middle class that usually votes for the incumbent political order, Abadi’s extended tenure in this most recent case, now in jeopardy.

Al-Sadr had an unusual and surprising trajectory over the last six years. On balance, it was a good development for the Iraqi body politic. Except for one essential reservation, gnawing at the soul of any well-wisher: Was al-Sadr ascending a learning curve towards statesmanship, or was this all akin to a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure game for him? I had hoped for the best, indirectly assisting the transition through intermediaries. But two years ago, after his dramatic incursion into the Green Zone, I concluded that al-Sadr was an unreliable agent of reform. He is a disruptor, and sometimes disruption is a positive, but in the Iraqi context, there was plenty of disruption going on already. What was needed was a dynamism that reinforces what little tethering grounded the youth, even if it were only the part of the population beholden to al-Sadr, and as that mass stabilizes, so too their example may calm down the general volatility. But there was no real way of influencing him constructively. I wrote at the time:

What this crisis revealed to me is that no one—not Hassan Nasrallah, not Qasim Soleimani, not Ammar al-Hakim, not Sadr’s nephew, not his chief aides (M. Ya’coubi, W. Zamili, W. Kreimawi, S. Obeidi), not the politburo of the Sadrist movement—has any unique insight into Sadr’s thinking, or the means to influence it. His mind is quicksand, as Abadi soon discovered. That said, there are two sets of ‘brakes’ that Sadr acknowledges and responds to: Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and Iranian Leader Ali Khamenei. They can make him stop, but they cannot steer him. And even when these brakes are applied, the skid marks that Sadr leaves in his wake are enough of a reminder that we are dealing with a person who lurches haphazardly to and fro, and his movements might as well be described as policy by divination.

Iraq’s destiny now hung between a callous adventurer, who wants to destroy Iraqi politics, and an erratic scalawag with a pedestrian concept of reform. To Soleimani’s mind, al-Sadr in the political realm is a toxin, not a tonic—and he may prove to be right. Letting al-Sadr be al-Sadr will do enough damage as it is. Jingoism, and a sense that his last name is endowed with an eschatological mission, shape the cleric’s pronouncements, which can vary dramatically from week to week. Building a broad alliance with such a man as its tent pole will prove exceedingly difficult. And to top things off, al-Sadr could be quite a double-dealer. Consider how he dealt with Baha al-‘Araji, once his top political whizz. Al-‘Araji performed several roles for al-Sadr, including serving as the head of the Sadrist parliamentary bloc, and for a time as the chairman of the integrity committee. He also became wealthy in concurrence with his expanded profile. This did not sit well with al-Sadr, not because of any scruples he may have held over a pissant growing rich on his hallowed family name, but seemingly because he wasn’t kicking up a sizable enough cut to the boss. While Abadi was putting together his cabinet in 2014, one of the deputy prime minister slots was reserved for the Sadrists. Muqtada sold the position to al-‘Araji for a large sum of money—a claim first made by Soleimani to several Iraqi political actors. However, when Abadi annulled the positions of deputy prime minister, as part of his cosmetic reforms a year into his tenure, al-‘Araji was surprised when a short while later an armed detachment from al-Sadr’s retinue arrived at his home and proceeded to slap him around, before ‘arresting’ him and bundling him off to Najaf. An antique jewelry dealer, who happened to be presenting his wares at al-‘Araji’s residence at the time of its storming, was severely beaten (and his merchandise pilfered). Al-‘Araji spent several months imprisoned in a house within a stone’s throw away from Muqtada’s. The latter would actually offer visitors a tour to behold the incarcerated former deputy prime minister, as if he were showing off a caged pet. Ostensibly, there were corruption charges against al-‘Araji that al-Sadr’s staff claimed they were investigating. But what I think happened is that al-Sadr was shaking down his former star player, squeezing out as much monies as he could (…a foretaste of the Ritz-Carlton treatment administered by Bin Salman to Saudi princes and bigwigs). Now, al-Sadr is advocating for a technocratic, non-denominational, and fully independent cabinet that shall uphold Iraqi sovereignty and root out corruption. Soleimani has dealt long enough with Muqtada—including hosting him for long stints in Tehran—to know how this may end.

Al-Sadr antics, and the overall slow death of consensus politics, are likely to further compound governmental dysfunction and corruption, rather than addressing them. The extent of state mismanagement is tremendous; many anecdotes that should count as extreme scandals go unreported, not even in Western diplomatic or intelligence cables, let alone in the Iraqi or foreign press. For example, an international oil company walked away from a super-giant oil field after it was confronted with a 100-million-dollar shake-down, which the company suspects was orchestrated by the upper echelons of the Ministry of Oil, a ministry headed by a ‘technocrat’ ever since Abadi’s prior attempts at reform.  Granted the oil company was looking for ways to get out of its commitment, but the whole episode was handled so sloppily and greedily that the foreign corporation gained all the advantage, threatening to reveal how it was being treated under the glare of international arbitration. Things took a ridiculous turn when the oil minister proposed that the Iraqi government would buy-out the company for the princely sum of 16 billion dollars—a sum the country certainly did not have—so that two other international companies could pick up the contract. Needless to say that it is deeply troubling that this is how Iraq’s principal financial lifeline is being managed. Now imagine going down the line to how less glamorous mega-projects are being fleeced.

Abadi’s biggest challenge was the bloated public sector, the many millions living off the government’s dime and eating up the largest proportion of Iraq’s oil revenues, a challenge exacerbated during the last few lean years. His big initiative on payroll was to draw up legislation offering a five year voluntary vacation for government employees, aiming to at least cut their perks and overhead expenses since he could not touch their salaries or pensions without incurring political backlash. Abadi was not able to get it passed in parliament, so the proposal was incorporated as a temporary budget amendment, on a trial basis, for the year 2017. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank thought it was a great idea, deeming it a step in the right direction, however modest. Little did Abadi’s team understand the mentality of the average Iraqi bureaucrat: they projected several hundred thousand would sign-up. Only 3,800 did. This is but one example of what counts as ‘reform’. That the Iraqi dinar has not lost a third or half of its value is more miracle (or rather smoke-and-mirrors pseudo-accounting coupled with nifty PR) than sound fiscal policy. And now with high oil prices returning to international commodity markets, thus staving off the necessity of drastic austerity measures in oil-producing countries, one can reasonably expect the reform agenda would be put on the Green Zone’s back-burner, again.

More money flowing back into the state coffers would dampen the anti-corruption thrust too, not that it was Abadi’s strong point at any time. The case of Iraqi-British businessman Hamid al-Najjar attests to how absurdly it has been handled to date. Al-Najjar was arrested in Baghdad in November, taken away by a special security team off a flight arriving from Amman. His arrest sent shockwaves throughout the ranks of the Iraqi oligarchy, a conglomerate that had been responsible for one of the greatest larcenies, in dollar value, of state coffers in the history of mankind. Al-Najjar was no minor player. He was an associate fronting for Tariq al-Hassan, a mysterious billionaire of Palestinian or Syrian origin who was active in Iraq prior and after 2003, and who was exceptionally well plugged-in during both eras. The gossip mills had it that al-Najjar was arrested over an illegal withdrawal that was made in early 2015 to the tune of 140 million dollars, ‘taken’ from an Iraqi customs account at Rafidain Bank. The money was parked there as a result of a short-lived regulation whereby banks had to deposit eight percent of dues on some imported goods. Al-Najjar had no special claim to the money. It was supposed to be returned to the private banks that had issued letters of credit for the merchandise, but pending a new set of regulations, it just sat there, in limbo. He managed to get the right number of sign-offs to get to it, a stunt he ostensibly pulled off with his partner, a former acolyte of Uday Saddam Hussein’s, together with a deputy minister of finance (a Kurd later ‘incarcerated’ by Masood over some obscure corruption charges), with the fourth conspirator being the head of customs at that time, who was later killed in a suspicious car ‘accident’.

It seems that al-Najjar initially thought that his arrest was the real deal; that the Abadi government was going to confront corruption seriously. The gossipers were sharing all sorts of leaks from the investigation. In the first two days, al-Najjar had plenty to tell his interrogators. He implicated many high profile names, with whom he was conducting business on behalf of al-Hassan, including two top aides close to Abadi, and a politician often touted as a potential prime minister. However, by the third day, he was allowed to use his personal cellphone from his prison cell. It seems he was told not to take what is happening seriously, and that he should walk things back. All sorts of heavy hitters intervened to secure his release. But it was a phone call from Najaf, from one of its highest profile public figures representing the marji’iyya, that clinched his emancipation. A couple of weeks later, and in what seems to be a face saving spin on the event lest anyone would think that al-Hassan was losing his influence, a set of talking points were released into the gossip dens of Baghdad: it was al-Hassan who had arranged to have al-Najjar arrested since the latter had turned uppity and was playing hardball when selling a few family properties to the former. Meanwhile, al-Najjar was posting pictures on social media of himself performing ‘umra in Mecca, offering thanks for his freedom.

Although short on details, most observers realize that the Iraqi state is in distress. Many argue that there has been some improvement, but their benchmark for that claim is to measure current conditions against what was going on four years ago, when ISIS took Mosul and much else. However, has governance improved enough to manage the newly acquired territories in Kirkuk and across the Disputed Territories (DTs)? And what would be the consequences if Baghdad’s writ, suffering as it is from the twin maladies of dysfunction and corruption, is extended to such highly volatile flashpoints? What are the contingencies laid down by those whose job it is to think these matters through, and who have been, up to this point, advocates for Abadi’s actions last October?

I would suggest that if one were to look for analogies as to what may happen in Kirkuk, then one should take a look at the city of Samarra and its environs as a case study, one that actually represents the best-case-scenario for Baghdad since Samarra never fell to the Islamic State—the largest Sunni Arab city not to—even though the jihadists tried to seize it in multiple ways. Taking Samarra held lots of prestige points for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi; his family is from there. The city holds symbolic value as a onetime seat of the Abbasid caliphate, and holds local eschatological value as well whereby Sunni and Shia lore cross-pollinate to assign the city an important role in the end times. Displaced people from Anbar and elsewhere had swelled its population by a half in late 2014. There were lots of strategic nodes around Samarra; ones that would put other areas near Baghdad in play. Its shrine, supremely holy to Shias and once a target, could spark widespread conflagration if targeted again. Thus, Samarra’s importance to the jihadists made it very important for the central government too.

The Iraqi government found it expedient to allow the PMUs to hold and manage Samarra. Specifically, the PMU presence inside the city was mostly limited to Saraya al-Salam (‘The Peace Companies’)—al-Sadr’s militia, in its latest incarnation. The people of Samarra welcomed them, seeing how al-Sadr had rebranded himself into a champion of Sunni rights. The Saraya, if compared to other militias, got the highest marks for discipline, and for their respectful treatment of residents as well. But things began to change for the worse by the end of 2016; the Saraya began drifting into ‘warlord-ism’ and there was very little the central state was willing to do to address that. For example, the Sadrists manage their own prison. The officer in charge of the Iraqi Army’s Samarra Operations had no access to it, nor visibility as to its rolls. Families of detainees ‘taken’ by the Saraya are given the runaround, and shaken down. This is a familiar situation across Sunni Arab Iraq, but the difference here is the unique importance of this city.

Sadrists also set-up roving checkpoints within the city even though there are approximately four thousand Iraqi government security and military personnel serving there too. The PMUs are still garrisoned within schools and other important civilian infrastructure. Checkpoints administered jointly with Samarra Operations extort farmers bringing produce into town. Fishermen are allowed to fish in Tharthar Lake only after sharing proceeds with businesses fronting for the PMUs. Furthermore, there are restrictions on locals entering the shrine area, this being a touchy subject especially since the government has been forcing locals into selling their properties around the shrine. Many internally displaced persons from the Al-Jazira area near Samara are still not allowed to return for the most part. In the past, local notables have been cooperative and thankful to the Saraya for keeping the peace. But with a resentful populace harrying them to do something about the increasingly untenable situation, the notables find no recourse to the Iraqi state, rather, they take their complaints to al-Sadr. Saraya commanders, though, justify their heavy-handedness to him by asserting the presence of IS sleeper cells. Both sides are now caught in a descending loop. The cumulative effect of these defects allow the jihadists to find room to operate and mount attacks, which are increasing from week to week. The situation is likely to get worse; for example, the nearby village of Mteibeejeh is back under IS control. Needless to say that a successful jihadist attack on the shrine would unleash a cascade of unknowns for the central government.

One should also note that Baghdad still does not feel comfortable in trusting the task of maintaining order in Samarra fully to the Iraqi Army, or to contingents of local Sunni recruits. That, in itself, says much about the state’s innate incapacity for stabilization. The PMUs have made themselves indispensable to the central government’s ability to project authority and power; they are a critical element of the security ‘cocktail’ which also comprises the Quick Reaction Force and the Counter Terrorism Units. Despite the official propagandist line, the delusion of a reconstituted Iraqi Army is not borne out by reality. The Army chronically needs a large dose of US air cover and French artillery barrages to fight. The PMUs may be restricted without air cover, but they have demonstrated that they can fight independently. Expecting that the Iraqi Army would restrain the PMUs, or substitute for them, is wishful thinking at this stage. So, the PMUs will likely remain in many of the most sensitive areas; expecting them to willingly forgo authority as well as access to illicit revenue streams, especially with the anticipated reconstruction windfall, is also wishful thinking. It should be noted too that Soleimani has cultivated and incorporated lots of influence and personnel within U.S. trained and subsidized special operations units, according to anecdotal observations made by officers who find the levels of infiltration distressing, and are powerless to undo it.

Samarra shows that even the best-case scenario and the best troops available, in an area of utmost importance to the state, would likely descend into undisciplined malice, with illegal economies being the norm. One can easily see the same playing out if those conditions are superimposed on Kirkuk and other DTs. It was no picnic being a non-Kurd living under KRG administered areas; there was systematic harassment of Arabs, Turkmen, Yezidis and Christians who chose to remain unaligned with Kurdish aspirations. But it was disciplined, guided malice. With the Iraqi Army and PMUs substituting for the Peshmerga, a new element has been added to the mix: lack of discipline when exercising malice and acting on decades-old hurts. The town of Tuz Khurmatu provided a preview of what that may look like in the days following the collapse of Kurdish forces. There were already festering ethnic and religious tensions, going back decades: since 2003, Kurdish homes made a point of flying their colors above their roofs, while the Turkmen answered with their own. In the days following the capture of Kirkuk by the central government, 210 Kurdish men were ‘taken’ off the streets of Tuz Khurmatu by the PMUs, especially by its Shia Turkmen component. Many of the disappeared did not have clear-cut political affiliations. Hundreds of homes and shops were looted then burned down. Three beheaded corpses were found. One young man, seemingly of Kurdish origin, uploaded a video of himself bad-mouthing Qais al-Khaza’ali, a PMU leader. A couple of days later, fighters loyal to al-Khaza’ali stormed the young man’s home. He had fled by then, but they intimidated his father into disowning his son on tape, and then promptly uploaded that video too. Adventurers looking to start a fight in such conditions don’t need to look far.

Happy talkers play up events such as the repair and reopening of the Altun Kupri Bridge two weeks ago. The American spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve Col. Sean Ryan saccharinely tweeted that the bridge running over the Lower Zab River, historically linking Kirkuk and Arbil, “enables citizens to visit friends and family during the important Eid al Adha holiday.” He even shared pictures of Iraqi Federal Police and Kurdish Security Forces officers walking together at the reopening, as if to suggest that all that had happened, including the act of blowing up the bridge to stop the Iraqi Army’s advance last October was, well, water under the bridge. I have a hard time believing that such photo-ops can actually bring about peace. With so many unresolved slights and hurts, there is much fighting to do, still. Will Masood’s and Kosrat’s Peshmerga do the fighting? Will a rebellion against Bafel and his cousins break out in Suleimaniya, with a new, militant Kurdish faction emerging from there? Maybe the old and grizzled revolutionaries are just that, old and tired. Maybe Kosrat worries more about his cut out of the Taqtaq oil field nowadays rather than hoisting a Kurdish flag over Kirkuk. Maybe the townspeople of Suleimaniya really do care about their salaries most of all. If so, who does the fighting?

I think the PKK would fit the bill. Still fresh from a fight in Syria and Turkey, they’ve already got blood in their teeth. And they may come to realize that the Kurds in Kirkuk and the DTs, left to the mercies of Baghdad, the PMUs, and the Turkmen, would be a natural constituency for those willing to keep fighting for Kurdish rights, a population that is up for grabs as the older, established Iraqi Kurdish parties fail to undo the disaster of October 15, 2017. For well over three decades, it was assumed that the PKK was not interested in expanding their recruiting footprint into Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurds there were thought to be locked down for the KDP and PUK, and a host of smaller parties as well, ones that had been in the fight for decades before the PKK came into being. The PKK’s field of play was Anatolia, while picking up support in Northern Syria as a result of their practically overt, state-sanctioned presence there under the reign of the Asads, not to mention the historical ties linking Kurds across the Syrian-Turkish border—a majority of Kurds in Syria are relatively recent transplants from Anatolia themselves. The PKK used Iraqi territory as a sanctuary from Turkish wrath, holding down a few high-altitude bastions where they wiled away the time training, manning checkpoints, administering a dab of light indoctrination into the tenets of Marxism (substituted by the communal-confederal concepts of Murray Bookchin since the mid-2000s) to a bored shepherd, while cultivating honey and collecting milk thistle nuts as a side business. They would do their fighting, when needed, in Turkey proper, and occasionally would beat back or escape Turkish military incursions and air strikes. The PKK did find a political footing in Iraq though when the jihadists attacked the Yezidis: They sent in their fighters from the Syrian side of the border to aid the stricken peoples of Sinjar. But no one thought of them as a real contender; their intrusion into Iraq would be transient and marginal. Until recently, Baghdad’s Ministry of National Security was paying the salaries of the majority of the PKK fighters and their affiliates in Sinjar, probably as a way to irritate Masood, who had cultivated his own Yezidi acolytes.

Once I envisioned a scenario by which the PKK may find political and organizational ground in Iraq, I began asking questions, only to find that there is a significant disconnect between what the Iraqi and Kurdish security outfits think is happening, and what is being described to me, elliptically, by operatives who seem sympathetic to the PKK. A simple enough question such as “What is the proportion of Kurds from Iraqi territories who are with the PKK in Qandil Mountain?” elicits diametrically opposite answers. Other questions engender puzzlement among the security folks, such as “Why have the PKK focused on building out secret political and sleeper cells in Garmiyan?” “What secret cells?!” is what I get from some of them. One source acknowledged that PKK recruiting in Garmiyan had swelled their ranks in Qandil by as much as thirty percent over the last four years, making up for the cadres transferred to Rojava. The PKK even fielded a candidate from Garmiyan who operates under an officially licensed Iraqi party, managing to win a seat in the last election—she denies any affiliation with the PKK, but her social media accounts, rife as they are with pictures and adorations of Abdullah Ocalan, suggest otherwise. It should be noted that this party fronting for the PKK stood vocally against the independence referendum, a sign, sources suggest, that the PKK toes the Iranian line on several topics. Baghdad and the PUK may think that the PKK cannot become a problem since the Iranians have been coordinating with them on Syria for a while now, even though a PKK front ostensibly clashes with Iranian forces on the Iranian side of Kurdistan from time to time. The PKK needs Iran down the road as the Americans depart Syria and Asad extends a form of centralized control into Rojava or SDF-controlled territories, and that objective may contribute towards restraining their mischief and expansion in Iraqi territories if the Iranians ask them to play nice, or so goes that line of thinking. Masood may be thinking about this vexation in another way: if the PKK becomes a political and military contender in Kirkuk and the DTs, then that erodes the constituencies of his political rivals—no skin off his back. And if the PKK becomes too successful and too much of a problem, then he will be the only man standing who can fix it.

Conversely, it is difficult to gauge the PKK leaders’ thinking. They must be watching events with trepidation. Erdogan is on the warpath. He learned a lesson from what happened in Kirkuk too: there is room for adventurism at America’s expense, and consequently he attacked Afrin with the Americans offering next to nothing to their Syrian Kurdish allies. Erdogan is now building out a permanent military presence inside Iraq, expanding on his previous toe-holds in Bamirni and a few outposts yonder. The Turkish military seeks to smother the PKK in Qandil by laying a physical and electronic siege on the adversary, denying them their traditional margins for movement. Erdogan is also locked into a political marriage with virulently anti-Kurdish coalition partners in Ankara. So the PKK can expect another long bout of fighting; their bloodied fists are not coming down any time soon. As their options dwindle, and contrary to how many observers calculate these considerations, it may make sense for the PKK to harass the Iranians in their Iraqi zone of influence, by targeting the Iraqi Army and the PMUs, in order to get concessions for Rojava’s autonomy. Or the PKK may conclude that, in an atmosphere of unpredictability and anything-goes, it is their time to lay a bet on the table and to seriously work towards breaking off a chunk of Iraqi Kurdistan as their own, one with oil wealth that dwarfs the depleting wells of the Al-Omar field in Syria. I tend to think that revolutionaries always go big: just look at what the PKK did at the end of the Raqqa operation last October. By unfurling a giant banner with Ocalan’s face on it along with screeching speeches about a ‘new societal order’ they were doing the exact opposite of what they were supposed to. But if one thinks of them as revolutionaries, come what may, then such a moment of ‘screw you, imperialist swine’ becomes all too predictable. Perplexingly, the US government looked away, choosing to un-see yet another sign of trouble ahead, much like how it responded to Kirkuk.

Like Soleimani, the PKK got this far in Syria mostly by sheer luck and partly due to serial U.S. misjudgments and unforced errors. That same level of mismanagement has concurrently given the PKK misgivings about America’s reliability, that may yet compel them to strike upon a fate-changing geopolitical adventure in a post-IS order that is still supremely fluid, with no real signs of solidifying, or stabilizing. The PKK has amassed enough chips to stomach a few unlucky bets, thus raising the stakes for everyone involved. A dysfunctional and corrupt administration in Baghdad took charge of a charged situation like Kirkuk, while a radical group such as the PKK lurks waiting in the wings, standing in line behind roving jihadist squads, chauvinist Turkmen and their Turkish intel backers, whoever the ‘White Flags’ are supposed to be, crestfallen Peshmerga bent on revenge, grizzled men like Masood and Kosrat licking their wounds, and Shia militiamen who will fleece and abuse whomever passes their way. Again, who in Washington is doing the math of what that may look like? McGurk’s shop? And who is supposed to be the political maestro who would subdue such riotous sparks and accommodate the reconcilables—Abadi? Muqtada?

 

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A week after the optics of Soleimani doing a victory lap in Kirkuk, US policy makers saw fit to award Abadi yet another accolade: a photo-op with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The latter was attending the inaugural meeting of the Saudi-Iraqi Coordination Council in Riyadh, lending America’s imprimatur to this budding relationship. Abadi stood there beaming, flanked by Tillerson and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman. Clearly, the United States was demonstrating that whatever happened in Kirkuk, including the humiliation of its Kurdish ‘allies’, was of little consequence, while the newly formed council was very important since it “will in some ways counter some of the unproductive influences of Iran in Iraq,” according to Tillerson. “Certainly, Iranian militias that are in Iraq, now that the fight against Daesh and ISIS is coming to a close, those militias need to go home,” he added. I imagine that Soleimani found the whole spectacle in Riyadh very amusing.

The new council was the culmination of many efforts, spearheaded by McGurk, to make use of Mohammad Bin Salman’s penchant for trying something new. Bin Salman got it into his head that he can wean Iraq off Iran, or at least neutralize Tehran’s influence in Baghdad. The venture, though, got off to a bad start. The Saudis sent in their answer to Soleimani, a security officer named Thamir al-Sabhan, to be their first ambassador after reopening the Saudi Embassy in Baghdad towards the end of 2015. Al-Sabhan managed to alienate many very quickly with his caustic and unwise statements; he wasn’t well-prepped, and seemingly not particularly bright. He would be eventually removed, to be promoted back in Riyadh, now tasked with impeding Soleimani across the region after having failed to do that in Iraq. McGurk kept trying and succeeded in arranging for the Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir to visit Baghdad in February of last year. Around this time, Bin Salman was encouraged by the willingness on the part of Sistani’s people to establish a secret channel with the Saudi royals. Things progressed quickly after that. The Iraqi president was invited to the Islamic-American summit welcoming Trump to the Saudi capital in May, followed a month later by Abadi meeting King Salman in Jeddah. Muqtada al-Sadr came calling in July to meet the king (this was not a first for al-Sadr, having met with the late King Abdullah in January 2006, and exchanged many letters with him thereafter), and then the ‘Ar’ar border crossing was reopened in September. Such was the lead-up to Abadi’s second visit in October when the council was formalized.

The Americans were elated: this was geopolitical synergy at its finest, with two of their top bets—wagering on the individual human agencies of Bin Salman and Abadi—locking arms and facing down the challenges ahead. In practical terms that meant getting the Saudis and other Persian Gulf allies to pay for rebuilding the cinder block ruins of Ramadi, Raqqa, Mosul, etc. In return, the Saudis would gain a say and a dollop of geostrategic relevance when fashioning the future political trajectories of Baghdad and Damascus, which Washington was supposedly working on. This, however, is a slapdash, quick-fix deflection, not a serious plan at resolving challenges; it highlights America’s unrealistic and unworkable vision for resolution of Iraq and Syria. The first part, concerning finances, has already come up short: the ‘donor’ conference held in Kuwait last February did not succeed in securing Saudi or other funds commensurate with the rebuilding effort needed to resurrect Iraq’s cities. And no one was writing substantial checks for Raqqa, no matter how many times McGurk took al-Sabhan or any other Gulf official there to tour its devastations, until Trump nixed stabilization funds for Syria as a whole, and only after he badgered the Saudis and Emiratis to pony up some coin, albeit with a fraction of what is needed. Furthermore, I project that Bin Salman will not be able to shape events where it matters across the region, and that al-Sabhan will prove no match for Soleimani. And that is mostly because they are unserious wags—dangerous to themselves, and to America as well, relying as it were on their imagined ‘prowess’ to sort out the nitty-gritty details on the ground, ground that has already been to all intents and purposes ceded to Soleimani over the last year, when his milestones for Deir Azzour, Kirkuk and now Dara’a were reached.

Thirteen years ago, I cited Nostradamus in a tongue-in-cheek attempt to highlight al-Zarqawi’s destructive agency. The intended quirkiness did not go down well in analytical and scholarly circles, but I got the predictive timeline down pat. I don’t remember the particular rabbit hole that took me, a few months ago, into the internet’s weirder corners, where Nostradamus’ other occult ‘predictions’ are hotly debated. But one thread caught my eye: it seems that there is to be a character called ‘Mabus’ whose death triggers a massive calamity. The interpretations of this quatrain vary, with some suggesting that it had already come to pass, or alternately that it was a hoax. Yet it is a bit striking that Mabus sounds a lot like ‘MBS’—Washington’s shorthand for Muhammad Bin Salman. I thought I was on to another sardonic inference but I was crestfallen to discover that other internet cranks had beaten me to this ‘revelation’. Yes, yes, I know this is ridiculous and detracts from the solemnness of the essay, but I would posit that if it does turn out that Bin Salman is not quite there, neither in the head nor within reach of his goals, then not enough people realize how seismically significant his fall from grace would be, for Saudi Arabia and for the region—so much so that its shockwaves would alert soothsayers of its coming five hundred years prior, if the tale were set to an ancient Greek stage. Twenty-seven years of war and mayhem would follow the death of Mabus, as one elucidation of Nostradamus’ mumbo-jumbo has it. I would not expect anything less than that if Bin Salman fumbles. For with his feverish actions, he is prolifically constructing one ‘station’ after another towards completing the black hole’s rim.

Kirkuk was a significant example of such a station, given the transnational aspect of Kurdishness. There are lots of other stations or proto-stations of varying sizes taking shape too across the Middle East, for instance Erdogan’s remodeling of the Turkish state’s hierarchies and identity, or the death rattles of Egypt’s economy. But Bin Salman is the one to watch. It is he, his person and individual agency, and the confidence with which America is investing in his prospects, by building out its strategy around him, whether it be stabilizing Abadi and Iraq, or bringing about Arab peace with Israel, or confronting Iran, that to my mind may incur the ‘event horizon’. It would be very difficult to predict what the Middle East would look like after it re-emerges at the other end of the black hole. One does hear a smattering of voices in Washington candidly cautioning against too close of an embrace of Bin Salman or buying wholeheartedly into what he represents, yet even they, those few not beholden to anti-Saudi agendas, whether Qatari-financed or otherwise, are lacking imagination in explicating what the possibilities beyond Bin Salman’s failure may occasion. The modalities of ‘likely’ and ‘unlikely’ are unknowable and unattainable by actuarial logic in such a vast expanse of possibility, when some half-forgotten menace from the past harkens, or something wholly novel unexpectedly emerges. The possibility that al-Zarqawi’s revolution may come out victorious in Saudi Arabia is terrifying. And because it is a possibility that cannot be measured against quantifiable odds if or when Saudi Arabia dips into the folds of the black hole, then Bin Salman’s tragically clumsy bungling of so many high-stakes gambits should elicit far more alarm than it does. For once it starts it will already be too late: given the atmospherics of the Middle East, and the pack of gamblers and adventurers at the ready, and what’s at stake if a state like Saudi Arabia is up for grabs, then there will be no time to mitigate damage, or get a chance for a do-ever, when the tragic slip-up, that event horizon, catches us unawares.

Much has been written already about Bin Salman, after all he is one of the hottest stories emerging from the Middle East, and has been for well over two years, which is quite a feat considering how much else is going on. Dore Gold, Israel’s former envoy to the United Nations, who once authored a virulently anti-Saudi book with the title Hatred’s Kingdom: How Saudi Arabia Supports the New Global Terrorism (2003) but then went on to cultivate some of the first overt Israeli contacts with Saudi citizens, tweeted out a couple of months ago that Bin Salman “represents the best chance we have for pulling the Middle East as a whole out of violence and extremism that have afflicted it for too long.” Every time Bin Salman does something thought-to-be-heretofore audacious, there is a collective gasp of relief afterwards breaking out from the onlookers in the bleachers when it turns out that he had carried the day and that his action did not lead to a disaster, much like the momentary reprieve of an uneventful ‘click’ during a duel of Russian roulette. But the game continues, although it has taken some quite bizarre turns, such as arresting those women activists then allowing Saudi media to level the charge of “high treason” against them, and more recently the spectacle of an anti-Canadian paroxysm. A well-greased public relations machine tells us all that the prince knows what he is doing. But what if he doesn’t? What if what we are seeing is a manic ‘weirdo’ systematically unbolting the traditional brakes that, in a Saudi context, could curb the excesses of a would-be mad king? There is a mini-world of politics within the royal ‘house’, whose dynasts are numerous enough to warrant an upgraded term such a royal barrio. The institution of Saudi royalty can draw on a long, at times embittered, memory of fratricidal feuding, elegiac enough to reveal what pitfalls to avoid. Such was the inherited wisdom by which the kingdom’s founder instituted a successional order to sustain his offspring for several generations. What comes next was to be mediated by family politics and consultation, involving multiple branches not only that of Ibn Saud’s sons and their progeny, but of more distant cousins too. Bin Salman is often compared to his grandfather; his PR wizards have even branded him ‘the second founder.’ But there is a big article missing from this narrative: like what Soleimani has been doing in Iraq, and in contravention to Ibn Saud’s wishes, Bin Salman finds politics, as little of it as exists in Saudi, to be an impediment. What we are watching is his bid to destroy that little space, to clear his path for absolute unencumbered governance. With the brakes gone, all one gets is the man and his instincts and reflexes at the wheel. And again, I think this particular individual is not altogether there.

Consider how novel it is to introduce the word ‘corruption’ into the Saudi lexicon of doing things as squads fanned out across Riyadh last November, arresting the high and mighty, then depositing them at the Ritz Carlton. With that action, the iron-cast lid of traditional norms—whereby corruption went by another name and was critical for regime coherence—has been completely removed from the Saudi pot. The contents beneath are opaque even to the best connected, and best informed. What is at stake has been amply described by observers already. Thousands if not tens of thousands of Saudis are connected to many of those arrested through patronage networks and familial bonds. These networks, within military, tribal, financial, religious frameworks, held Saudi rule together. Variations of this model run back three hundred years. By breaking the mold, Bin Salman is directing loyalty to his person. He is making a big bet on Saudi youth, and his ability to distract them with ‘quality of life’ escapes such as cinemas and internal tourism, as well as unleashing their entrepreneurial drive. Without the intermediary lid of a co-opted, well compensated elite, and given his alleged penchant to re-enact the Meiji Restoration that he had read up on during his Japanophile youth, then his bid can only go in one direction: totalitarianism. This is massive social, even psychological, engineering in Saudi Arabia at a time of uncertainty, internally and across the Middle East—after all, the arrests were justified as the need for drastic action during a time of financial duress. That the arrestees had to be squeezed for almost all that they had embezzled over decades during the previous times of plenty, to shore up the state coffers and to pay for Bin Salman’s futuristic plans, is akin to rummaging between the folds of a sofa looking for change. Bin Salman would argue that his steady hand, and his alone, setting a course to the future is what is best for his country precisely because of the prevailing conditions.

If so, then why the public humiliation of Prince Mit’eb bin Abdullah? What value would such spite have in charting a future for the country? If Bin Salman already knew that Mit’eb was no threat, as evidenced by the lack of reaction among what was thought to be Mit’eb’s constituency, especially among the National Guard, then why invite the suggestion of it? Why, earlier, did Bin Salman impugn Prince Muhammad Bin Nayif by implying to the Americans, who were invested in Bin Nayif’s handling of Saudi security for decades past, that their man was secretly aiding jihadist fighters in Syria and Iraq? It did not end there. Bin Salman was also telling leading members of the House of Saud that Bin Nayif’s shadowy adjuncts had collected compromising videos of them. He then went overboard with leaking allegations of Bin Nayif’s drug abuse. It was distasteful, petty, mean and worst still, unnecessary. Wouldn’t these character reveals, when read as a libretto, foretell a crescendo towards capriccio and madness?

Then there was the odd spectacle of sending Saad Hariri—a tragic character in his own right—out with a televised “we’ve had enough” tantrum, signaling a shot across the bow into Hezbollah’s battle lines. How ridiculous was that? Nine years had elapsed since Hezbollah emasculated Hariri politically. Hezbollah went on a rampage in Beirut in early May, 2008. That was Soleimani’s opening salvo, indicating that he was about to follow a new strategy in overpowering Iran’s regional foes and their American backers. The context was that the Sadrists, backed by Iran then, had just been defeated in Basra. Momentarily it seemed that Iranian influence was on the wane. Hezbollah was tasked with an overreaction, a flexing of geostrategic muscles. The alleged provocation came when Fouad Siniora, Hariri’s second, and Lebanon’s prime minister, took steps to curtail Hezbollah’s surveillance of Hariri International Airport. Siniora’s clampdown then expanded into dismantling Hezbollah’s secure landline communications. Two years had elapsed since Israel launched the 2006 war to cripple Hezbollah, and the prevailing thinking was that it was too weak to stand-up to official governmental authority. Siniora was gravely mistaken. Hezbollah reacted by unleashing its cadres, plus those of its allies: Amal along with pro-Syrian SSNP and Ba’athist militias. Hariri-related properties were smashed, with Hariri hunkering down in the family’s palatial residence at Qreitem, terrified for his life. The tantrum showed up America and the Saudis, who could not do anything to help him. The Bush administration did not have the bandwidth to respond, since it was an election year in the U.S., and SOFA negotiations were proceeding with Iraq. The Saudis would not move without America’s cover. Soleimani notched an easy victory.

Now suddenly, after all that had elapsed, Bin Salman thought he could arrange a rematch with the Iranians in Beirut. He would do that, it seems, by tossing Hariri to the frontlines. Bin Salman would also work to choke off Lebanon’s economy by withholding Saudi largesse. In effect, he would be cutting off his nose to spite his face; sacrificing his most valuable asset, humiliating those he wants to win over, and burning down his own tent just to show the enemy that he means business. A few years ago, I asked a Lebanese friend as to why a civil war hasn’t broken out yet. His answer was: “No one is paying for it.” I wonder to what extent Bin Salman thought he could push matters; to a rekindling of a civil war? The Lebanese proxies fighting for a Saudi flag would invariably be its Salafists—not a good look for Bin Salman in America’s eyes. Or did he think that he would push matters towards an all-out Israeli levelling of Hezbollah’s infrastructure and weapons arsenals as it did in 2006? Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal has expanded by tenfold since its last mauling by Israel. Contrary to Netanyahu’s rhetoric, it is unlikely that Israel would stomach another round; beating up Hezbollah is expensive, exhausting and ultimately futile without addressing Iran’s power projection, which would only replenish Hezbollah once more. More recently, I asked that same Lebanese friend: “If Soleimani wanted to humiliate the United States and the Saudis in Lebanon, in a moment of clarity to show who was in charge, as he did in 2008, what would it look like nowadays?” He looked at me with a frown, “Why would he need to do that? That is the situation now.” According to him, it is already a done deal, save for the decorum of what passes as electorally contested Lebanese politics, such as the nothing-will-ever-change election back in May. U.S., French and other Western actors know what’s what: If you need to get anything done, then contact the Director of General Security Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, and he will take that request to Hezbollah and they will gladly oblige all those who have implicitly recognized their supreme authority by choosing this channel. Ibrahim can even run messenger errands to Damascus too. Western officials may meet Hariri for a photo-op and the occasional pronouncement on standing by Lebanese sovereignty. But he isn’t who they would call when there is serious business afoot.

Whatever Bin Salman was thinking, it is clear that he and his advisers were disconnected from Lebanese realities. But what allegedly happened next was even more worrisome: he bartered Hariri off to a power-projection hungry Emmanuel Macron, who in turn promised to reconfigure existing yet stalled French-Saudi arms deals away from rival clans within the House of Saud, especially those of the late King Abdullah’s and Prince Sultan’s, and channel France’s weapons procurement through Bin Salman’s own Saudi Arabian Military Industries outfit. It was too quick and paltry a lurch from thinking that he can turn Lebanon into a regional test of wills, to skimming off a weapons deal kickback.

Bin Salman employed detention tactics to apply pressure on another geostrategic concern: he had Sabih al-Masri arrested in Riyadh in mid-December. Al-Masri’s contractual work with the Saudi state and consequently his vulnerability on public sector corruption charges are negligible; though holding Saudi citizenship in addition to several others, al-Masri could not be vilified as an oligarch growing fat on the public dime as the Ritz Carlton detainees were. This was a geostrategic incarceration plain and simple: the al-Masri family of Nablus have fronted and invested Fatah (PLO) money for decades. Much of that financial infrastructure flowed and flows through the Arab Bank. Arresting Sabih al-Masri was a thinly veiled threat against the Fatah leadership, namely that of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’. The Saudis were essentially telling him that they can get information on where the Fatah folks have been hiding the crown jewels, and that they can put the Arab Bank under reputation duress. Bin Salman may have thought that he was demonstrating usefulness to Jared Kushner and the latter’s drive to compel the Palestinians into agreeing to negotiate with the Israelis under new terms. Again, something significant was amiss: shaking the reputation of the Arab Bank would leave a bruise on the Jordanian economy and given how wobbly things are there, may even gut it. Maybe, at that time, Bin Salman did not view King Abdullah II of Jordan as an integral ally, or that Jordan mattered all that much. With the Saudis taking the lead on Palestinian affairs, Jordan is mattering less and less for America’s vision beyond being a training and logistical depot, and even that was petering out as the Coalition’s campaigns against IS in Iraq and Syria were winding down. Thus, Jordan’s viability could be a justifiable loss, should it come to that, had Bin Salman’s overall gambit worked out, bringing Fatah to its knees, at the negotiating table. It should also be noted that Bin Salman is being advised by Palestinian-Jordanian Basem Awadallah, who has an axe to grind with the Jordanian elite, seeing how he was once the king’s golden boy but was later discarded amid accusations of corruption and ineptitude. Awadallah, spurned by his country’s ruling class, would have been fully aware of what al-Masri’s arrest may portend, and may have been more than willing to see the Jordanian king, his previous patron, who had failed to protect him, experience a few palpitations. Be that as it may, Al-Masri was released a few days later. It is unclear as to why that happened, who intervened on his behalf, and what Bin Salman got out of it, if anything. A few months later, in yet another lurch, Bin Salman changed his opinion entirely on the topic: rather than neglecting Amman, Saudi Arabia would cover Jordan’s budgetary deficits. That was yet another about-turn that was poorly thought out, and executed maladroitly. But he was on a roll.

Amidst the feverish month of high-drama in November, Bin Salman found time to host the Inaugural Meeting of the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC) Ministers of Defense Council. This too revealed a certain tone-deafness. He should have dropped this initiative, launched two years prior, and saved himself the embarrassment. The ‘Islamic Alliance’ was supposed to be the vehicle of Saudi power projection, especially into Syria. It was such a potential game-changer at the time of its announcement that even the ‘caliph’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was frazzled by it, suggesting that he understood such a muscular, warlike Saudi approach would effectively overtake the jihadists and nullify their message of resurrecting Sunni martial glory. Yet the alliance never managed to launch beyond a photo-op. Why would Bin Salman remind the Saudi population of an unmet promise, a humiliation in fact, by hosting the defense ministers and going through the motion and pretense that it is still in play?

The Islamic Alliance was a good idea, at least when it came to the optics of Saudi geostrategic virility, had it actually shown up to the fight. Now we know that it was George Nader’s whimsy, having apparently suggested it to his boss the Emirati Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayed, who suggested it to Bin Salman, his pupil in geostrategic affairs. Last year, in my previous essay, I discussed that alliance and its missed opportunity at length. I added a screen-shot of a tweet, showing Bin Salman and Kushner sitting alongside the retired Pakistani General Raheel Sharif, who was supposed to lead the alliance. The picture was a clear manifestation of how central this idea was supposed to be to the overall revamping of the security landscape in the region when these matters were being discussed a little over a year ago, geared as they were towards defeating the jihadists and rolling back Iranian influence. But I had missed a very important detail. Lingering behind the trio, almost fading into the faceless crowd of hangers-on and wait staff, was Nader himself. His appearance had changed since I had seen him last, well over a decade ago, chiefly because of those thick-framed spectacles. But even without the glasses, my mind would have never made the mental leap that it could be him. When news came out last January that Nader was in the thick of the Saudi-Emirati engagement with the Trump administration, my mouth was agape for a good thirty seconds, even though little surprises me these days. But this one was a biggie, for I had knowledge of Nader’s backstory, mostly gossipy stuff, and if only a quarter of it were true then this had the makings of a major embarrassment for all involved.

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Much of the gossip was verified by recent journalistic sleuthing; Nader had gotten caught in the headlights of the Mueller investigation, being one possible conduit tying the Kremlin to the Trump team, maybe to Trump himself, so he was a big news story, and the press wanted to know all it could about him. At that moment when I first read that he was meeting the Trump team as an emissary of Bin Zayed’s, I thought that there is no clearer sign of how much the Bin Salman story was a clown show. If Bin Zayed is supposed to be mentoring Bin Salman, then what caliber of a mentor would rely on Nader? It was surreally funny, then I realized what it macabrely portended.

Nader’s business is brokering a meeting of minds. Part hustler, part self-starter, he has a knack for getting his foot through the door and talking the rest of his body in. There’s a cheapness about how he does it, sure, but one cannot deny that he had been effective. And to be effective, one needs to be creative, to think quickly on one’s feet, and to go in for the kill when it avails itself. Nader is a throwback to another era, to the ways Washington navigated the grey areas of the Middle East in the 1980s and 1990s. He was one of a cast of characters that made connections, struck arms deals, leaked stories, and willingly provided their reputations as scapegoats and alibis for security dons when espionage gambles went bust. He was a disposable ‘agent’, in the mold of Albert Hakim, Manucher Ghorbanifar, and Razah Raad of Iran-Contra fame, as well as the Beirut hostage negotiations of the 1980s, during which Nader managed to broker many releases, especially from the clutches of Hezbollah. But there was more. Hassan Nasrallah, in a recent interview, described how Nader visited him after 9-11, claiming to be an emissary from Vice President Dick Cheney, a claim he backed up with evidence. Nader channeling Cheney offered to facilitate Hezbollah’s integration within Lebanese politics, to allow it to keep its light weaponry, and offered two billion dollars towards the reconstruction of southern Lebanon, to be disbursed directly by Nasrallah’s people, all in return for no longer harassing Israel. Granted, Nasrallah is a bit of a gossip and a braggart, and his reminiscing serves to keep him current and newsy, but he was also fully aware of the question that he would be raising in people’s mind: very few individuals get to meet Nasrallah, so how did Nader, with all those red flags undulating around him, get that far?

Nader was raised by a single mom in the northern Lebanese region of Koura, a Greek Orthodox bastion. He had a younger brother maimed as a child early on in the Lebanese Civil War, when a friend of his who was standing next to him reached for a booby-trapped device which detonated, killing the boy and amputating the brother’s hand, or at least that is the story that Nader would tell and would cite as the formative experience compelling him to extinguish the flames of war in his homeland. Nader found his way to the United States as a teen, still unclear exactly how, just as the war got underway. He demonstrated a penchant for journalism, jumpstarting his own publication with a Middle Eastern focus. Being vocal in his call for an Arab reconciliation with Israel, he soon enough got someone’s attention in Washington. Initially, Nader made himself useful in early efforts to normalize America’s relationship with Muammar Qadhafi, the Libyan dictator being the first of many who would be enthralled by Nader’s name dropping of all the powerful ‘deep state’ liaisons he had back in Washington, even with some in Israel. However, those efforts stalled in 1984 after a British female police officer was killed outside Libya’s embassy in London. Nader then turned his attention to Beirut. Within the world of Lebanese history, he left his mark on that country’s trajectory by instigating Samir Gaegea’s rebellion against the Gemayel leadership. He was also trying to find ways to get the Americans to talk to the Asad regime, and to the Iranians.

Who was Nader working for? That part is still not clear, and the fogginess is troubling. He had an early mentor in the person of Max Kampelman. Kampelman is remembered (d. 2013) as an attorney and a diplomat who served several administrations. His highest profile work was leading the U.S. negotiating team in nuclear arms accords with the Soviets. There isn’t much tying him to the Middle East. But it seems he made lots of introductions for Nader. One of whom led Nader to the late Uri Lubrani, Israel’s last head of mission in Tehran right before the Islamic Revolution, who worked on and off with Nader throughout the 1980s and 1990s it seems. At that time, Lubrani had become Israel’s one-man brain trust on all things Shia in the Middle East, especially Hezbollah. Together, it seems that Lubrani and Nader explored the possibility of prompting a rift within it. In 1985, Nader began showing up at the doorstep of Muhammad Hussein Fadhlallah, often described as Hezbollah’s spiritual guide albeit the relationship was slightly more complicated and tenuous. But it was enough of an association to compel American-backed operatives to bomb his compound a few months before Nader’s visits. Bob Woodward maintained in his book Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA (1987) that, subsequent to the bombing, the Saudis paid Fadhlallah two million dollars to get Hezbollah to cease and desist from attacking American targets, which the cleric accepted. All sides mentioned in Woodward’s account have denied the incident. However, it is tantalizing to speculate whether Nader was part of this alleged deal, which would place his Saudi links way back in time.

Later, Fadhlallah vouched for Nader when the latter travelled to Tehran in February 1987. In Nader’s retelling of his visit in a Washington Post Op-Ed, the Iranians even extended him the courtesy of an audience with Khomeini. Sure, it was one of those daily scenes whereby dozens get to gather at the Ayatollah’s home for a round of sermonizing and afternoon pleasantries, with Nader’s being one face among many. But bringing in an American journalist into such a setting, with several Hezbollah operatives also attending, and who may have recognized this fellow Lebanese or had recourse to ask around about him, would have required quite the ‘pull’ and gall to do so, despite it not being four months since details concerning the Iran-Contra scandal began pouring out. Whoever arranged for Nader to get those bragging rights, on display in that WaPo piece, surely knew how the optics would be interpreted, but also knew enough about Washington and how to manipulate that town. They were consciously elevating Nader’s status, probably as a potential negotiator to keep the spirit of the Iran-Contra deal going. Therefore, security dons in Tehran would have been aware of Nader from the mid-1980s. I don’t know how sophisticated the Iranian operation was in Washington back then, so I don’t know when they would have picked up on Nader’s proclivity for pederasty, a charge that was first leveled against him in the courts in 1985, or it may have been something they had deduced from keeping watch over him in Beirut. The Iranians had a low opinion of their American interlocutors, deeming them suckers who showed up to their rendezvous with bizarre gifts such as a bible signed by Reagan, a bunch of handguns, and a key-shaped cake. So why wouldn’t the Iranians playback Nader to the Americans? It should be added that Nader, even before word of the Iran-Contra deal made the headlines, seemed to be particularly well-briefed on its details when speaking to his associates in Washington and around the Middle East. However, I have not been able to place him conclusively within one of the three main channels through which American-Iranian negotiations were flowing.

As a testament to Nader’s abilities, he even managed to draw-in Hafez al-Asad, a man famously known for his restraint and guile. Asad would have seen through any huckster brought before him, but with Nader, he chose to engage. Landing Asad was Nader’s biggest coup, and he got there by name-dropping left and right. He first got to Lebanon’s Minister of Defense, Muhsin Dalloul, who, thinking that Nader was indeed connected to the shadowy world government forever conspiring against the Arabs, took him to the Syrian Army’s Chief of Staff General Hikmet al-Shehabi, a man who was of the same mind as to the role of wicked global forces, which he thought would have to be accommodated so that the Syrian regime could survive and prosper. Al-Shehabi then took Nader to Asad. Asad, of course, was no febrile conspiracy theorist, but he quickly figured out that Nader could open doors in Washington and Jerusalem that were hitherto closed to him. Armed now with the possibility of liaising directly with Asad, possibly leading to normalizing relations between the United States and Syria, and maybe even achieving peace with Israel, Nader would unsurprisingly find many suitors. Uri Lubrani came back into the picture, and so did pro-Israel American philanthropist Ron Lauder who took it upon himself to bankroll this channel during the 1990s. But all throughout, Nader kept trying to land that even more elusive deal that would have the Iranians sitting across from the Americans. He may even have thought, and he was probably right to, that a thaw on that front would make Asad’s journey towards peace with Israel more assured, given the latter’s alliance with Iran.

These connections to the Iranians matter in Nader’s case. There are too many loose ends and open questions for comfort. And those connections could be germane to his new career as counselor extraordinaire for Gulf royals. Back in 2005, a mutual friend had asked me to help Nader out during the latter’s trip to Washington, with Ammar al-Hakim in tow. Nader was now brokering relationships for the family headlining the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). The CIA and State Department had built-up a relationship with the Hakims in the short period preceding the 2003 war, again as a way to work around Chalabi, just as they had done with the Kurds. SCIRI was even designated as one of the recipients of funds congressionally mandated under the ILA. But the Hakims wanted to interact with higher-ranked officials rather than Agency handlers, to sell Washington on the idea that they would be worthy of taking the prime minister’s slot in Baghdad, and that they could also establish back channels to the highest rungs of the Iranian leadership. This is where Nader comes in. His relationship with the Hakims began in late 2004 after finding his way into the confidences of Adel Abdel-Mahdi, the Hakims’ candidate for PM, then serving as Iraq’s Finance Minister. Nader then broke through into the inner sanctum of the family through Abdel-Mahdi’s recommendation, convincing them that he could deliver in America.

Naturally, in 2005, I was curious to see how far the Hakims would go, and I did owe my friend plenty of favors. But something about Nader was not right. One meets all sorts of people in this line of work, yet there was something more to Nader than just being one among many shady middlemen, taking starry-eyed Middle Eastern bumpkins for a ride up to Capitol Hill. He exuded the nervous energy of someone who was expecting the police to beat down the door at any moment. So I went asking. I didn’t have to look for long before I got this shocking answer: “Nader was compromised by the Iranians, and he had been locked up in Prague for eight months for soliciting an underage boy.” I had no way of knowing whether it were true or not, but the answer was delivered assertively enough by a source whom I trust, so I had to give it credence. Afterwards, I asked Ammar al-Hakim whether he thought that Nader was the best conduit to get introductions in town. I said this in passing, as I was heading out the door of his hotel room. The young Hakim blocked my exit, beseeching me, “Tell me more, please, since we don’t know much about him.” Taken back by their carelessness, I responded, “it’s your job to vet him before bringing him in—“ but I stopped there because I glimpsed Nader walking up the corridor, so I bid my hurried goodbyes. I mused to myself then that the Hakims would not go far with such mediocrities running the show. In recent months, the Prague angle (the arrest occurred in 2003) and other aspects of his pedophilia going back to the 1980s have been revealed by the American press. But his relationship with the Iranians hasn’t been fully explored. At the time when I was told these alarming things, the point was specifically made about Nader’s very cozy relationship in the 1990s with Sadiq Kharrazi, an Iranian diplomat stationed at his country’s United Nations mission in New York City, who happens to be the brother of Kamal Kharrazi, the Iranian Foreign Minister at the time. It is not a reassuring combination to have someone who was depraved in that particular way working closely with bad actors who could, and most certainly would, leverage that depravity against him. That is probably where the conjecture of “compromised by the Iranians” had gotten into some peoples’ heads.

At the time of the visit, the Hakims were still part and parcel of Iran’s designs on Iraq. In late 2006, the Hakim compound in Baghdad was raided by U.S. forces and two IRGC officers were arrested on its premises. This action came not two weeks after Ammar’s father, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, had met President George W. Bush at the Oval Office. Furthermore, Ammar was detained and humiliated at the Iranian-Iraqi border two months later, ostensibly on grounds of an expired passport, but more likely this was a stern message from the U.S. military to the Hakims warning them that their close association with the Iranians was not unnoticed. With the Iranians so involved, could it be possible that they had missed the spectacle of Nader worming his way into the Hakims’ graces? Wouldn’t some of the Iranian spooks handling this file have gone back to the archives to see what else may turn up on Nader? Wouldn’t they have been asking, what had changed about Nader’s fortunes that he was now forced to scrounge around for some advisory work in Baghdad after he had lived the high life of a jet setting mover and shaker?

Nader was also billing Eric Prince, of Blackwater notoriety, for consultancy services in Baghdad. That too was a role with high visibility to the Iranians. Not only that, but as the years passed, Nader expanded his political portfolio beyond the Hakims (he kept consulting for them until a year ago, when he was detained by the Mueller team). In 2009 he was arranging meetings for Nechirvan Barzani with the Nahyans and others in the Emirates—after Prince had vouched for Nader to Bin Zayed. He was also offering to arrange high-level meetings for the Kurds in Riyadh with top Saudi princes. By 2012 Nader had gotten so far into the weeds of the Iraqi political class that he was brokering arms deals in Moscow for Nouri al-Maliki’s son, Ahmed. Again, the Iranians would have picked up on his movements in such circles, some of which, such as the ins and outs of Maliki’s office, they would have considered within their sphere of influence. Not only that, but press reports, as well as a parliamentary inquiry, suggest that Nader was brokering the Moscow deal in partnership with another Lebanese fellow, Ali Taan Fayad. Fayad would be later indicted in 2014 by a New York court on all sorts of charges, including fronting for Hezbollah, and conspiring to kill Americans. He was arrested by DEA agents in Prague that same year but the U.S. could not have him extradited because ‘someone’ had abducted five Czech citizens in Lebanon two years later and wanted to trade them for Fayad. The Czechs sent Fayad back to Beirut. It has been suggested that the Obama administration looked the other way so as not to endanger its Iran deal. Some have disputed that Fayad was working the original Russian arms deal together with Nader, stating that his involvement was solely concerned with another deal involving Ukrainian-made arms, since Fayad, if press reports are to be believed, was close to former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. (Oddly, his lawyer stated that Fayad was in Prague at the time of his arrest in April 2014 to meet Maliki in his capacity as an official Ukrainian envoy, but the last time Maliki had visited the Czech Republic was in 2012.) However, the Iraqi parliamentary investigation studied those claims and decided to keep Fayad as part of the official narrative linking him to Nader and to what was going on in Moscow. Again, if this were true, how is it that a Hezbollah front man would feel so comfortable doing business with Nader?

With all these threads leading back to the worst elements of the Iranian regime, how could a man such as Nader end up in the same picture frame as Kushner and Bin Salman? How could the Emiratis ever imagine that it was acceptable to send such a thoroughly disreputable person as their customer-facing intermediary with the bigwigs of the incoming Trump administration? Did they not vet him properly? Were they comforted that former, highest-clearance-cleared U.S. officials were partnering on consultancy gigs with him, suggesting that America’s counter intel did not deem him turned? Did no one take Bin Zayed aside to tell him that a cloud of scandals was possibly following Nader around? Or did they know but were so brash and untouchable as to think they could get away with such sloppiness? Even if Nader was useful, no one in their right minds would give him so visible and high-profile a role. Especially not when they had other capable fixers (for example, Tom Barrack and Ziad Abdelnour) eager to place Gulf clients deep into Trumpian circles.

It seems that Nader did a lot of highly sensitive work for the Emiratis, including some of the coordination for their campaign against the Houthis in Yemen. Bin Zayed even brought him into the confidences of Bin Salman, and that seems to have been the genesis of the Islamic Alliance. In any well managed effort at geostrategic domination, one would think that the mere suggestion of Nader’s long history with the Iranians should have compartmentalized him away from all the sensitive discussions. But he seems to have been in the thick of it, even reporting back to an American partner that Bin Salman and bin Zayed secretly snicker at Kushner behind his back, calling him ‘the Clown Prince’.

As more details about Nader dribble out in the press, choosing him as their front-man may well have poisoned the Saudi and Emirati relationship with Trump. Trump went from asserting that the Saudis and Emiratis “know exactly what they are doing” a year ago to denying Bin Zayed the opportunity (so far) of an Oval Office meet-up, and then cruelly putting Bin Salman in his place during his most recent visit to Washington. Sitting in front of the cameras, Trump help up placards showing what weapons the Saudis would be buying. The way he foisted the placard upon the prince, and the way Bin Salman flinched at the perceived humiliation, was not merely a Middle Easterner’s overly sensitive and honor-obsessed reaction to a transgression against decorum. That particular stanza of body language is understood in most cultures, and it was clear that Trump knew perfectly well what he was doing when treating the prince as a prop. I concede that I may be reading too much into it, but then again, Trump is very mindful of choreography as he meets foreign leaders. The whole scene cannot be chalked up to chance or carelessness, and if it isn’t, then it’s been quite the backslide in the relationship from the time when Trump chose Riyadh as his first overseas destination as president.

 

*                             *                             *

 

In an interview with an American journalist, held during his recent three-week long public relations trip to the United States advocating for investments in his country, which began with his meeting with the president, Bin Salman recast his family’s history as a start-up mercantile venture that eventually expanded into a state:

“The first Saudi state, why was it established? After the Prophet Muhammad and the first four caliphs, the people of the Arabian Peninsula went back to fighting each other like they did for thousands of years. But our family, 600 years ago, established a town from scratch called Diriyah, and with this town came the first Saudi state. It became the most powerful economic part of the peninsula. They helped change reality. Most other towns, they fought over trade, hijacked trade, but our family said to two other tribes, “Instead of attacking the trade routes, why don’t we hire you as guards for this area?” So trade grew, and the town grew. This was the method. Three hundred years later, this is still the way. The thought was always that you need all the great brains of the Arabian Peninsula—the generals, the tribal leaders, the scholars—working with you. One of them was Muhammad ibn abd al-Wahhab.

“But our project is based on the people, on economic interests, and not on expansionist ideological interests. Of course we have things in common. All of us are Muslim, all of us speak Arabic, we all have the same culture and the same interest. When people speak of Wahhabism, they don’t know exactly what they are talking about. Abd al-Wahhab’s family, the al-Sheikh family, is today very well known, but there are tens of thousands of important families in Saudi Arabia today. And you will find a Shiite in the cabinet, you will find Shiites in government, the most important university in Saudi Arabia is headed by a Shiite. So we believe that we are a mix of Muslim schools and sects.”

Many across the Middle East were asking themselves whether the Islamic State indeed reflected, with its actions, the true nature of Islam. Many were repulsed by what they saw. Bin Salman may have come to think that now was the appropriate time to make a push for a less stringent application of religiosity. He keeps insisting that Islam in Saudi Arabia took a turn to the extreme only after 1979, after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and after the takeover of Mecca by millenarian radicals, and all that he is trying to do with his program for social liberalization is to turn the clock back to a mellower time, after that turn four decades ago had progressed to its inevitable ends, the horrors of a modern-day caliphate. As such, one can count Bin Salman’s ‘2030 Vision’ as yet another reverberation of the Islamic State’s singularity.

The Saudi state is in its third realm. Its first was stamped out by Egyptian forces acting in the name of orthodoxy, deeming ‘Wahhabism’ a dangerous fountainhead of sedition. Bin Salman’s ancestors made a miraculous comeback to establish the second Saudi realm but this time around it fell apart due to intrafamilial feuds and power struggles. His grandfather resurrected the family’s fortune in an audacious recapture of the town of Riyadh, in 1902, and within three decades managed to expand his writ to control most of the Arabian Peninsula, declaring a kingdom in 1932. The standard histories have it that the foundation of the various Saudi states came about as a result of a pact fostered between the ‘book and the sword’, with the Saudi clan providing muscle in conjunction with Ibn Abdul-Wahhab’s teachings, later upheld by his progeny, known since as the family of the ‘Sheikh’. For Bin Salman to cast Ibn Abdul-Wahhab as one of the “great brains” among many, and to dismiss the al-Sheikh family as simply one of “tens of thousands of important families in Saudi Arabia today” is as eyebrow-raising as claiming that the venture was embarked upon to increase trade and raise living standards. Bin Salman even glossed over the complicated twists and turns of his family’s relationship to the Shias, both inside Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, for one of their earliest ‘regional’ exploits was to wage a sectarian raid against Karbala in Ottoman Iraq (1801), massacring thousands, and to subsidize a publishing industry of hatred against Shias throughout the late 1970s until today that paved the way for the likes of al-Zarqawi. This is a re-write of history on a grandly brazen scale. Still, Bin Salman may get away with it, after all, rewriting history is usually the prerogative of a victorious autocrat. Except, he does not stand in the arena alone.

Perhaps the Crown Prince’s most daring action so far occurred in early July when he had Safar al-Hawali arrested. But Bin Salman had to do it. Al-Hawali, bedridden for well-over a decade with chronic encephalitis, had thrown down the gauntlet between the Salafists and Wahhabists on one end, and the House of Saud on the other. His latest book leaked onto the internet in its unedited, rough draft. Dealing with the topic of Islam and the West, and rambling on for three thousand pages, al-Hawali had included a 300-page appendix titled ‘The Third Advice is to the House of Saud’. The content is repetitive in places, and seems to have been the transcribed version of multiple streams of consciousness that the sheikh, who is in his early sixties, had uttered. Mixed in are old papers on judicial reform that he had authored. Before the arrest, I would have assumed that he was dead. He was no longer making waves, and was not being mentioned when his colleague and collaborator of yesteryear, Salman al-Audah, was arrested on Bin Salman’s orders over a year ago. Back in the mid-1990s, al-Hawali and al-Audah were the faces and voices of the Sahwa (‘Awakening’) generation of Wahhabi scholars; they were firebrands demanding reforms, which to their mind meant a stricter application of Wahhabi doctrine, both internally and in foreign relations. They were released in 1999, after their threat to the regime seemed to subside, and while al-Audah mellowed, al-Hawali remained hardline and intransigent, but both were at least willing to side with the regime against Al-Qaeda’s attempt to launch a jihad within Saudi Arabia proper. Al-Hawali would chime in from now and then to warn against embracing the Shias, but for the most part, his star had dulled. He was still very respected by the clerical and the more religiously-minded volunteer networks, such as that of the influential Salafist summer camps, but it was assumed that his sickness had triumphed over his will to fight. Yet with this book and this appendix, al-Hawali came back in fighting form, and although jumbled, the message is at once pleasantly conversational and approachable for a general Saudi audience, hitting all the right notes, sprinkling his screed with granular, gossipy allusions and asides that would be familiar to many young Saudis shooting the breeze, all the while delivering a powerfully adamant and vicious threat to the royals. Stylistically, it by far superior to any of the staid and formulaic diatribes that Al-Qaeda or, in more recent years, the Islamic State had to say about Saudi Arabia. With his words, al-Hawali had punched in the secret code triggering a countdown towards delegitimizing Saudi rule, as beheld by Salafism, and in a way that to my mind is creative and hard to counter. Bin Salman had to answer al-Hawali’s challenge by putting him, and reportedly his four sons, in shackles, but in doing so, the Crown Prince alerted me and thousands others to al-Hawali’s continuing legacy, and all but ensured that thousands more would be downloading and sharing that secret code.

Al-Hawali’s first salvo when providing ‘advice’ in his book is to remind the Saudi royals as to where their authority derives from, but then he deviously offers an alternate history for the flourishing and endurance of Salafism, one that is not beholden to them:

“…they deceive you [by saying] that the reason for terrorism is Ibn Taymiyyah and Wahhabism, and they stressed the importance of forsaking Ibn Taymiyyah as the West forsook Augustine! But forsaking Ibn Taymiyyah means forsaking the Quran and the Sunnah, since the Sheikh of Islam was but a proselytizer for them. And they call upon you to forsake the call of Sheikh Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab that is the source of the legitimacy of your rule, claiming that it is extremist and takfiri, yet Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab was but a module of Ibn Taymiyyah’s.”

I thought I was fairly proficient about Saudi history, but al-Hawali proceeds to highlight the roles of Salafist characters that historians had largely overlooked, or written out of the official version. In doing so, al-Hawali is putting the second and third realms of the Saudi states under something of a shadow, downplaying their centrality in the Salafist saga. He is also downgrading how much gratitude should be owed by the Salafists to the land of Nejd, which the House of Saud and Ibn Abdul Wahhab hail from, and to Nejdis in general. Al-Hawali makes the case that the call propagated by Ibn Abdul Wahhab, which he and his colleagues consider to be the only brand of Salafism, although the term was applied to a myriad of other schools of thought, survived the demise of the first realm because it was kept alive by a non-Nejdi authority, in a land closer to where al-Hawali was born, to the southwest of the Arabian Peninsula. Al-Hawali proceeds to introduce the reader to those keepers of the Salafist flame, the House of ‘Aidh and its allegiant tribes, spanning the territories from Ta’if to Aden, and extending into parts of western Nejd too. Not only was this authority non-Nejdi, it could claim an illustrious pedigree, going all the way back to the Umayyads and hence to Quraysh. There, in their court, Salafism endured throughout, even during the time of the comeback then demise of the second Saudi realm. It is clear that al-Hawali is making a play for the sentiments of this regional constituency that incorporates such isolated and impoverished parts of the Peninsula that the people in some villages, according to him, still call upon Allah to render the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II victorious since they have not received word of a legitimate ruler since. It is not clear whether he is being flippant or serious here, but he does play up the regional angle in its service of Salafism, even citing a local boy and a hero to the Salafists, Ibn Sahman (1851-1930), hailing from a village near al-Hawali’s own, who was “a one man media machine” answering the detractors of Salafism during its bleakest times, and that for all that illustrious service the people of that region have given, they live today in abject poverty and suffer disenfranchisement. Al-Hawali also introduces more heroes into the pantheon of Salafism from beyond the scope of the Arabian Peninsula, citing the scholar Birgevi as well as the Kadizadelis of the Ottoman realms, together with those who answered the Salafist call in its early dawn in lands as far away as Java and Nigeria, Morocco and the Sudan.

Then he makes a play for the sentiments of another constituency, that of the migrants to the Arabian Peninsula. Recently, xenophobia has become a significant factor in Saudi political, economic and social discourse. Whether it is ‘indigenous’ Hejazis chaffing at the sartorial intrusions brought in by ‘newcomers’ that are now taken to be authentically Hejazi dress items, or the rabid incitement against Lebanese salesmen and Turkish barbers, demanding that they vacate those professions for out-of-work young Saudis, the kingdom’s social media is abuzz with those declaiming who is and who isn’t a real Saudi. The authorities seem to be fine with it. No actions have been taken to muzzle the more extreme ‘nationalists’, or whatever this emerging form of nativist pride is supposed to mean in a Saudi context, not a few of whom are prominent newspaper columnists. Al-Hawali steps in to argue that the Arabian Peninsula cannot, actually, allow such sentiments to take root, since the privilege of encompassing Mecca and Medina means that the land should be open to any Muslim to settle and be a part of, should he or she choose to do so. Clearly, he could be alienating some, but he probably assumes that they are lost anyways to Bin Salman’s new creed. In return, he shall be winning over the multitudes who themselves, or whose ancestors, have migrated from Africa, India, Indonesia, Yemen and elsewhere, to the Peninsula and who are now being told that they do not really belong. It should be noted that over the last three years, up to three million residents of Saudi Arabia—some there legally, most illegally—have been forced to leave. Consequently, this potential constituency opens up many other parts of the globe for Salafism as those who were forced out or deported find solace and restitution in al-Hawali’s welcoming words.

Al-Hawali’s second gambit is to subtly downplay the ‘miraculous’ success of Ibn Saud. He does that by introducing and highlighting the role of Abdul-Karim al-Darwish, whom he effectively describes as the ideological commissar and spiritual guide of the Ikhwan movement. In fact, al-Hawali suggests that the Ikhwan movement preceded Ibn Saud, whom historians usually credit with its founding. The secret code here is driving the point that the Ikhwan, whose subsequent suppression by Ibn Saud after having used then discarded them, have a story, nay an ideology that is unique to them. They made Ibn Saud rather than the other way round, al-Hawali seems to insinuate, and at the center of his thesis is the resurrection of al-Darwish as a key figure in the early history of the Arabian Peninsula’s twentieth century.

Rummaging through what scant accounts exist of al-Darwish’s biography, one would immediately find that chroniclers of early Saudi Arabia could not even agree on his name, with some rendering it al-Maghribi, or ‘Khudairi’, or al-Mosuli and so on. Al-Darwish (‘the dervish’), who earned his title later in life as a signifier of his austerity and piety, was born in Afghanistan. An Arab descent is proclaimed for him, returning him to the Bani Khalid, and Bani Makhzum, and hence he too was a Qurayshite in this telling. There may be something to that, since four centuries before he was born Tamerlane did take some of the Bani Makhzum in bondage from the outskirts of Damascus and dispersed them to Central Asia, from where they could have migrated to the Hindu Kush. Al-Darwish lived in the land of his birth well into his early forties, but seems to have been forced to flee due to his adoption of a Salafist-like creed that was too inconveniencing to his religiously-lackadaisical neighbors and relatives who eventually grew tired of his reprimands and chased him away.

Al-Darwish made it all the way to Mosul, hence one of his later identifiers being ‘al-Mosuli’. He then found employment as a religious figure with the Sa’aduns, the Sheikhs of the Muntafiq, one of whose progeny, Abdul-Muhsin, was the prime minister mentioned above, the one who committed suicide due to Jiyawook’s harangues. Al-Darwish’s stint in southern Iraq was either preceded or followed by another under the Arab Sheikhs of modern day Khuzestan in Iran, where those demonstrations over the salinity of the drinking water are breaking out, again, as mentioned earlier. The only problem is that having a neo-Salafist sheikh operating in a Shia environment such as the domains of the Sa’aduns or in Khuzestan, would invariably invite trouble. His sojourn in southern Iraq mirrors that of Ibn Abdel-Wahhab’s, but in the latter’s day Shi’ism was an urban phenomenon, extending in some cases to the extramural orchards, but was not numerically dominating and rural in character. By the time of al-Darwish’s visit a century and a half later, many newly-settled tribes, who were wholly or semi-nomadic not two generations ago, had adopted Najaf as their lodestar, thus achieving a Shia majority in lower Mesopotamia. As it stands, it seems that al-Darwish actively sought trouble, and he had to flee again after waiting in ambush for and then fatally stabbing a Shia preacher who spoke ill of some of Muhammad’s companions, one of the usual bones picked between Sunnis and Shias. Al-Darwish made his way to Mecca and then turned to roaming all around the Peninsula, spending much time in Nejd, even taking two wives there. He seems to have killed again, this time unintentionally after casting his walking stick at a slave girl who was singing near a mosque in the town of Ha’il.

It was on his various itineraries as a proponent for Salafism that al-Darwish pulled off what was tantamount to a miracle: he brought the nomadic tribes of the Peninsula into the folds of the true faith, first by settling them into villages called hujar, and then by giving them a creed to fight for: militant, expansionist, revivalist Salafism. The wild tribal leaders, who as far as the religious authorities at the time were concerned had no faith whatsoever, succumbed to al-Darwish’s admonitions where his relatives didn’t, and they rested their heads against his lap as he set about cutting off their thick mustaches with scissors, as al-Hawali floridly describes the scene. The sheikhs gave up their turf, and invited all those who would answer the call to settle around the water wells that they had guarded jealously, and fought over, for centuries. Tribalism broke down then disappeared, and a new society of brothers, doing the hard work of tilling the soil under Allah’s watch, were bonded in worship, and jihad. This almost seems like the ‘nation’ that the first Barzanis created in their lands, but there was an important twist: al-Darwish, according to al-Hawali, “was inspired by the Islamic society of Medina [created by Muhammad] and not the city of God as established by Calvin in Geneva, or suggested by Augustine…” The new society was designed to spawn, or rather to respawn an empire, much in the same vein as the Zarqawists in Iraq cited the early Medinese society as their blueprint. Here too, al-Hawali makes a radical claim in contravention to the official account by asserting that the first hujar, in Artawiya, was established in the early 1890s by the sheikhs of the tribe of Harb, when Ibn Saud was still a refugee in Kuwait, awaiting his opportunity to recapture Riyadh. The hujar then multiplied like mushrooms, eventually running up to two hundred in number, with al-Darwish guiding them and setting down their utopian ethos, which al-Hawali describes as one that was totally egalitarian, much like the ‘Asharites in the time of Muhammad. Al-Darwish had succeeded where the Communists and Socialists had failed, but “kolkhozes and kibbutzim were not the only socialist farms that failed to create an ideological society living on equality…” for capitalist ventures to sedentarize the Bedouin also failed, such as those attempted by the British in Iraq, “because [they] sought to create farmers who worshiped the soil and not the lord of the sky and the earth, missing [to lay] the foundation which is Allah’s faith!” Under his guidance, the inhabitants of those ‘communes’ were burning to cleanse Iraq of the Shias, finishing up that stabbing spree that al-Darwish had started, as well as ridding Palestine of “terrorist Jewish gangs”.

Al-Hawali laments that such a wonderful society was destroyed and forgotten, bemoaning present times whereby “such is the breakdown and [intellectual] impoverishment that it is meant for the grandchildren of the hujar today should join the grandchildren of the kolkhozes in placing their faith in the new faith: globalization and market economies!!” Adding “we were created for jihad, and for confrontation, and not hiding…” and that the people of the Arabian Peninsula were chosen by Allah and “given the task of guiding the world out of the darkness, and leading them to the happiness of the [home on earth and home in heaven] and to teach them real freedom, for man can attain happiness and feel free only through enslavement to the one God.” Al-Hawali counsels the House of Saud that “we are not a beggarly nation in the market of global ideas, in fact we have a history and experiences that no other nation on earth possesses, and it is enough if we study it, not needing to copy anyone else’s thought.” The royals would be foolish to think that a nation that has been promised mastery of the entire world would “turn into a flock of softies, whose only concerns are supporting football teams, or watching channels, or novels, and newspapers and websites, that enflame lust and base instincts, [since] this is a failing policy and a bad bet.” “[Ours] is a unique nation,” al-Hawali states, and “our pride are those two haramein [the ‘sanctuaries’ of the Ka’aba in Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina] that have no match neither in the West nor the East, and the whole world needs Islam and we don’t need another religion or a different culture,” especially as the rest of the world is turning to religion during these times. The founders of the hujar did not fight alongside Ibn Saud to expand trade, and they certainly never meant for the type of social liberalization being spearheaded by his grandson these days.

Take some advice from a local guy rather than for-hire foreign advisors, such as McKinsey & Company, al-Hawali counsels the royals: “This advice I write to you while you are on the precipice of a massive social change, establishing the fourth Saudi realm…but Allah’s vengeance will fall upon you if you join the vessel of secularism to placate America, Israel and the Emirates.” Al-Hawali couches the current struggle as one between monotheism and polytheism, and “secular encroachment must be repelled with all force.” The first stirrings of the Ikhwan rebellion occurred the same year al-Darwish died, around his centenarian birthday, in 1926, when they ignored Ibn Saud’s order and attacked an Iraqi border outpost in Bassiyeh south of Samawa (incidentally, this is the same stretch of barren desert where thousands of Barzani males were killed and buried in mass graves in 1983). There are several interpretations for what happened, and unfortunately the account as to the Ikhwan’s thinking on these matters was not preserved or chronicled by their own, however, I think the Ikhwan were demonstrating that they intended to take their Salafist revolution further afield in the Middle East, and would not recognize these new borders divvying up the lands of Islam, assigning them to nation states. And for most of Saudi history since the founding of the Kingdom, the main peeves of the Ikhwan and later manifestations of their stringency, even the more recent jihadist challenges, was a dispute with the royals over foreign affairs and how to deal with foreigners. Local matters of interpretation, such as how to react to novelties like the telegraph, or television, or modern banking, and the process of legislating laws, and so on sparked a few flashes of wrath and disruption here and there. But never has the gulf between royals and clerics on local issues been tested as by the social engineering now underway, and this, the audacity—even having the temerity to question whether shops should be closed during prayer times—by which Bin Salman is reworking history and society, is what is incurring al-Hawali’s ire, and why he had decided to write with such clear rebuke, even disdain to his rulers:

“The crux of the matter is that religion is the source of legitimacy for the Saudi regime, and those who established the Saudi state were not secularists or liberals or modernists or [Shias] or Isma’ilis, and there was no Christian or nationalist or modernist or cuckold [among them], but it was founded by the people of religion and it was said that the tribe that entered into authority had become religionized, for religion is the foundation and it is the unifier…and what will reform this state is what formed it at the beginning…”

Al-Hawali has plenty to say about what he thinks is wrong with Saudi foreign policy too, but interestingly, he couches his explanations in terms of the senility and decay of the royal house, citing Ibn Khaldun’s cycles to suggest that this generation of Ibn Saud’s grandchildren have reached the stage whereby dynasties wither, and become enfeebled, both mentally and physically. The Saudi royals are being taken for fools by President Trump, who deems them a “cow worthy for milking”. Ibn Saud, when striking a deal with the Americans, was acting wisely, for “America then, was as harmless as Norway today, [presenting] nothing to fear, for the Zionists had not infiltrated it to the degree as they have done today.” Al-Hawali believes the Saudis need to cut off relations with the United States immediately because of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which he takes particular umbrage with. But the self-inflicted humiliations keep accruing, he argues: “The billions taken by Sisi did not budge him from a position of supporting Bashar [Asad], and not participating in the Arab Alliance, but even worse it has been verified that he sends weapons to the Houthis, and the same thing goes for the Lebanese Army that is controlled by the rejectionist Hezbollah, and you are wagering a losing bet on the Future Movement, and your policies in the Gulf too, for you have made Qatar, Kuwait and Oman leap into Iran’s bosom and now Iran’s main port is Dubai…You are bolstering Iranian policy and awarding [the Iranians] free gifts, especially when trying to normalize with Israel, whilst Iran’s slogan and that of its proxies is (Death to Israel, Victory for Islam) and that makes millions of Muslims believe them!” Al-Hawali is against placating the Shias in Iraq, “who tried to assassinate [Thamir] al-Sabhan”, while he wants Saudi foreign policy to turn conciliatory towards Hamas, Erdogan and the Muslim Brotherhood. His opinion of the Emiratis is disdainful and severe: “they are not your friends”. Saudi Arabia must quit Yemen, as well as the United Nations and the Arab League. The fight against Iran should be declared plainly as a fight against Shi’ism, and the Shias inside the Peninsula are not to be trusted as Saudi ‘citizens’ since there is no differentiation between Persian or Arab Shi’ism—both are equally despicable and treacherous. But mostly, al-Hawali aims to thwart any attempt to find common ground with the Israelis, even if such an ‘alliance’ was directed against Iran, since the Jews will forever be the enemy, one that needs to be fought by all means, and in the very least, there must be sympathy and support for the Palestinians, for “Are not the Arabs of Palestine the same as the Arabs of Ahvaz?” He even suggests that the kingdom needs to exercise its own innate martial destiny when proposing ventures such as the Islamic Alliance, since the “youth of these lands are more reliable than the mercenaries of Blackwater and importing armies from Egypt or Pakistan.”

Al-Hawali goes further, much further, even bordering on deliberate insolence. It is not enough that he discusses a taboo topic such as the feuds and embitterment within the royal house, but he even mentions in passing scandals such as Bander bin Sultan being considered an illegitimate child by other princes. It is neither enough that he proposes that the name of the state be changed to the ‘United Islamic Kingdom’ since a nation cannot be named after a family, with the uncomfortable suggestion that Ibn Saud illegitimately fathered anyone who calls himself a Saudi. He even places the decision to go with the name Saudi Arabia as one taken by a Druze, a member of a religious community of unbelievers as far as the Salafists are concerned. He goes on to argue that authority does not lie with the princes alone, but is shared by the princes in conjunction with the scholars. But all this needling is for naught, since al-Hawali dares to fundamentally undo Saudi legitimacy by pointing out that there are not descended from Quraysh, while in Islam ruleship is confined to the Qurayshites. He even muses that the Ottomans may have been Qurayshites, but the House of Saud clearly isn’t. Now, if they want to avoid the pitfall of being branded Kharijites—the same moniker that Saudi propaganda wields against the jihadists, since the Kharijites did not acknowledge Qurayshite supremacy—then the House of Saud must abdicate the throne in favor of a Qurayshite contender, and there are many to choose from, but preferably the choice should fall upon one who is both a Qurayshite and a scholar. Al-Hawali reassures the House of Saud that he has no aspiration to rule in their stead, primarily since he was not a Qurayshite either.  Otherwise, the royals must declare that they are not Imams, so that the rules that instruct Muslims as to what to do in the absence of an imam can be enacted. Al-Hawali also introduces another little-known Qurayshite ‘hero’ from early Salafist history, Khalid bin Mansour Ibin Lu’ay al-‘Abdali, who answered the Salafist call and fought against his own clan and their interests to uphold the true faith. From the general tone of his writing, I have a suspicion that al-Hawali already has a Qurayshite candidate who meets the requirements hoped-for in a future ruler of the ‘United Islamic Kingdom’—this book was no mere kneejerk reaction through long-winded verbiage, there seems to have been more real-world planning to it. It should be noted here that the Islamic State’s caliphate managed to bring the issue of Qurayshite descent back in vogue, by highlighting its own caliph’s proper lineage and stressing the issue of legitimacy. A few decades ago, when Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi was penning a diatribe against the House of Saud, their non-Qurayshite handicap was hardly mentioned, but here we have al-Hawali making it the centerpiece of his argument. Yet another matter dredged up by the pull of the singularity.

What al-Hawali has done is absolutely risqué in a Saudi setting, and he knew perfectly well what beacon he was kindling with such disrespect. It was almost as if he was daring Bin Salman to arrest him, so that al-Hawali would bear the cross of Salafism, and go down in history either as its rejuvenator, or its martyr. I think Bin Salman has a big problem on his hands. Al-Hawali is no mere polemicist, or revisionist historian, or a has-been star preacher craving the limelight. He seems to be in the thick of an amorphous, little understood, yet highly influential network: a Salafist ‘Internationale’. The last I had heard of him was his pronouncement, in 2007, that al-Zarqawi’s heirs had gone too far with their proto-caliphal ‘Islamic State of Iraq’, and that they must be fought and defeated. Al-Hawali had been a vocal supporter of the jihad in Iraq, but he deemed that trying to jump-start the caliphate prematurely and startlingly as Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and his ilk had done would endanger the overall Salafist plan, and it would effectively “kill the objective by choosing such means,” as he allegedly put it. His edict provided the clarity, gravitas and funds that other Salafist groups such as the Islamic Army, the Mujahidin Army, as well as segments of the Ansar al-Sunnah, needed to wage war against the Zarqawists in 2007-9, almost breaking their back.

There is not much in the public domain on this supra-Salafist network. I doubt that the various international and regional intelligence agencies involved have studied the evidence adequately either. The network presents itself within the blurry parts of the narrative that analysts use in describing the jihadist trajectory, in episodes that we still don’t have good answers for, or sufficient lucidity about, such as exactly how did al-Zarqawi get to Iraq from Afghanistan, or what really went down when the jihadists abducted the Iranian Consul in Baghdad, or even who killed off Abdul-Aziz al-Qatari and threw his body down a well in northern Syria. I described the network in a recent book review as such:

Zarqawi’s sojourn in Baghdad, as well as that of al-Muhajir’s, prior to the advent of the war, and the establishment of the Rawah camp after it, suggest to me that a pan-Middle Eastern Salafist jihadist supra-network was seeding Iraq with jihadists. This network does not seem to be dogmatically or exclusively beholden to Al-Qaeda, and was open to working with any jihadist who came armed with references. It seems to have operated from several Gulf states. The network made introductions, provided funds and sent those jihadists to be absorbed by existing Salafist jihadist networks inside Iraq, for example, in Zarqawi’s case, that constellation of Palestinian families in the Baladiyyat neighborhood. It is unclear to me whether this network acted strategically, assuming that Iraq would become a battleground for jihad after the Americans arrived, or whether its actions were premised on the convenience of having trusted networks within Baghdad that could provide sanctuary to jihadists on the run from regional intelligence agencies in the wake of 9/11. The added benefit seems to be that the Baghdad networks could operate or at least provide sanctuary without being exposed or harassed by the Iraqi regime’s own security services, not by way of collaboration but rather because the regime was worrying about other threats, namely its imminent demise should a war erupt. This network would have acted as an ‘angel investor’ in the world of jihad, seeding the terrain with men and resources and seeing what sprouts later. Interestingly, this model seems to fit the manner by which Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s ISI, as well as Al-Qaeda and a multiplicity of other Salafist jihadist networks, behaved at the early onset of the Syrian uprising, placing many bets on disparate networks, then watching which one got ahead, as was the ISI’s case with al-Nusra, and perhaps with al-Qatari’s Jund al-Aqsa.

Whether this network existed or not represents a gap in the narrative. There isn’t enough content in the public record at this point to confirm or dismiss the hypothesis. These sorts of gaps blur the prevailing narrative, and we can identify at least a dozen or so episodes of equal importance. The fact that this network is understudied, for example, casts a shadow on our understanding of how the jihad was jumpstarted in Iraq, and perhaps even in Syria. It may even tell us something about where next it shall place its seedlings in its next iteration.

Let’s suppose that this network does exist, and that al-Hawali continues to be one of its pillars. If so, what message did it receive with the publication of his book, or his subsequent arrest? Did it signify to the Salafist Internationale that matters in Saudi Arabia have gone beyond redemption and that it is high time for action? What will it do about it? What resources can its facilitators marshal inside Saudi Arabia? The prospect that this network may put Saudi Arabia in play, seeding it with jihadist start-ups as it did in Iraq and Syria, while we have such limited visibility into its working, precisely because no one wanted to ask such uncomfortable questions in Riyadh, or Doha, or Kuwait City, or Abu Dhabi in the preceding decades, should be terrifying to those paying attention.

Saudi Arabia does not care whether Qatar bankrolls the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), or whether the Qataris provide the Brethren with a media platform. The Emiratis may worry about the local branch of the MB, but this matter was never of much concern to the Saudis. Maybe they played it up as a way of winning over the Israelis by beating up on Hamas. What the Saudis actually do care about, and what got them very worried at one point, was Qatar’s persistent tinkering in the Salafist milieu, subsidizing them in places such as Egypt, Syria and Libya, after Salafism-for-export having been the exclusive enterprise of the Saudis for decades. Suddenly, the Salafists had an option for seeking sanctuary, funds and world-class logistics in Doha, and having not to rely as much on Riyadh. The Saudis began noticing how game-changing this shift had been, with them losing control over multiple Salafist networks, as happened with the advent of the Arab Spring. I suspect that the Salafist Internationale consciously took the Qataris up on their offer of assistance, in part to diversify their options, and as preparation for the day when the Salafists may make a bid for Saudi Arabia itself. I fear that with al-Hawali’s beacon now lit, that process is actually underway. One can add them to the Al-Qaeda and IS jihadists who have been trying to kindle jihad in Saudi Arabia too. One wonders how much strain the system can take. One need no longer wonder, though, whether Bin Salman is up to the challenge, not after the track record he has had so far. I have a hunch that the story of this network, and what fate it decides for the Saudi royals, shall be a rather important one in the Middle East over the next few years.

 

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“I just adore Sultan Abdul Hamid—he stood up to the Jews!” So proclaimed a precocious twelve year-old girl to me last December, in Baghdad. She was perched excitedly at the end of a sofa, mimicking the effusive and eloquent mannerisms of her father—a dear friend—who was sitting at the sofa’s other end, nodding approvingly at his daughter, more to her performance than opinion. Her ancestors had held the keys to the Ka’aba since before Muhammad’s time, a tradition that al-Hawali stresses in his treatise must remain inviolate, holding the House of Saud indirectly responsible for a ‘scandal’ that occurred back in 2013, when a Qatari rally driver, who is married to a famous Emirati singer, was invited to participate in the annual washing of Islam’s holiest structure, to the chagrin of the Salafists who considered that invitation a direct contravention of Muhammad’s decree that only the Bani Shaybeh are to be in sole control of custodial matters. When subsections of the Bani Shaybeh clan came to Iraq, they took over the custodianship of the Shia shrines, in some instances turning Shia too. The girl’s great-great-great-great-grandfather was also the great-grandfather of worldwide Shiism’s acknowledged Grand Ayatollah during the 1960s. Her great-grandfather had been one of the leaders of the jihad movement against the British as they crept up towards Baghdad from Basra during World War I. Three decades earlier he had managed to gain an audience with Abdul Hamid II in Istanbul where he argued that custodianship over the Kadhimain shrine should be withdrawn from his cousin and bestowed on him instead. A great-uncle, through her father’s maternal line, served as one of four Shias ever to hold the prime minister’s post during the mon