Back in the 1970s, an American-backed regime in Iran was overthrown by Islamic radicals.
That led to decades of animosity between the two countries with an assortment of confrontations. Perhaps the most notorious was the seizing of American diplomatic personnel in Tehran. They were held hostage for 444 days.
In response to the radicalization of Iran, the United States embraced a brutal dictator in Iraq, by the name of Saddam Hussein.
Although Saddam acted as a ruthless and often barbaric thug, he had no interest in Islamic extremism and his government was openly hostile to the neighboring one in Iran.
But then Saddam invaded another neighbor, Kuwait. The United States and its allies demanded a withdrawal. Saddam refused and a successful war was launched on Iraq to liberate Kuwait.
Then came the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In an effort to target al-Qaida perpetrators, the United States invaded Afghanistan. Shortly thereafter, the administration of George W. Bush began to warn of activities inside Iraq, with claims that Saddam was reviving his program of chemical, biological and nuclear arms.
Suddenly, much of America’s military might shifted from al-Qaida toward Iraq. Saddam’s government was overthrown, and he was eventually captured, then executed, by the new regime.
As it turned out, however, all those weapons of mass destruction did not exist. It seems that Saddam had spent years being deliberately vague about possessing them as a way to thwart any invasion from Iran.
The downfall of Saddam created the opportunity for democratic reforms in Iraq. But it also has opened the floodgates to long-standing conflicts between Sunni and Shiite Muslims as well as ethnic Kurds. The existing borders of Iraq are an artificial creation of former British occupiers. Iraq is not a nation in any deep sense.
Now, Islamic fundamentalists — idelogically aligned with those who attacked America on Sept. 11 — have joined forces with discontented Sunnis in Iraq and are waging war on the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government. Despite years of American training, much of the Iraqi military is fleeing the front with little or no fight.