One of my projects for the winter break has been to read some of the Iraq War books that keep showing up in the local Barnes and Noble. First up: Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq by Thomas Ricks, senior Pentagon correspondent for The Washington Post.
The book makes for strange reading. On the one hand it is very hard to put down. The story it tells is gripping and it is written with considerable skill. On the other hand it is difficult to take for more than a few pages at a time. The story it tells is one of unrelenting arrogance and incompetence on the part both of the military’s civilian leadership and of the generals running things on the ground.
You could open the book to a random page and find something quotable. For example, in a section entitled “Rumsfeld vs. Reality”:
The root cause of the occupation’s paralysis may have been the cloud of cognitive dissonance that seems to have fogged in Rumsfeld and other senior Pentagon officials at this time. They were not finding what they had expected: namely, strong evidence of intensive efforts to develop and stockpile chemical and biological weapons, and even some work to develop nuclear bombs. Meanwhile, they were finding what they had not expected: violent and widespread opposition to the U.S. military presence. There were no big battles, just a string of bombings and snipings that were killing U.S. troops in ones and twos, and also intimidating the Iraqi population.
But U.S. officials continued to speak about Iraq with unwarranted certainty, both in terms of WMD and the situation on the ground there. “There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that we will find the weapons of mass destruction,” Marine Gen. Peter pace, the vice chairman of the Join Chiefs of Staff, said as Baghdad fell.
For weeks in the late spring and early summer, Rumsfeld and other officials declined to say they were facing a continuing war in Iraq. His exchanges with reporters during this period underscored what one defense expert termed the “institutional resistance to thinking seriously” about the situation. Rumsfeld’s refusal to say he was facing war sent a signal downward across the military establishment, that most hierarchical of institutions, built to act on the words and views of those at the top. (p. 168)
The U.S. civilian occupation organization was a house built on sand and inhabited by the wrong sort of people, according to many who worked there. “No clear strategy, very little detailed planning, poor communications, high personnel turnover, lots of young and inexperienced political appointees, no well-established business processes,” concluded retired Army Col. Ralph Hallenbeck, who worked at the CPA as a civilian contractor dealing with the Iraqi communications infrastructure. Personnel was an especially nettlesome issue. Hallenbeck said that in addition to being young and inexperienced, most of the young CPA people he met during his work as a contractor were ideologically minded Republicans whose only professional experience was working on election campaigns back in the United States. (p. 203)
Or the distressingly blunt:
The Bush administration offered three basic rationales for the U.S. intervention in Iraq: the threat it believed was posed by Saddam’s WMD; the supposed nexus it saw between Saddam Hussein’s government and transnational terrorism; and the need to liberate an oppressed people. In the spring of 2004, the first two arguments were undercut by official findings by the same government that had invaded Iraq, and the third was tarred by the revelation of the Abu Ghraib scandal. (p. 375)
Page after page of this. Most distressing is the documentation of the numerous blunders made by the military in response to the insurgency. Ricks points out that there is a large literature on the subject of waging an effective counterinsurgency, but the commanders on the ground seemed completely unaware of it:
It is striking how much of the U.S. counterinsurgency campaign in the late summer and fall of 2003 violate the basic tenets of such efforts. (p. 264)
Ricks documents the unbridled arrogance of many of the statements made in the lead-up to the war, the willingness of the administration to present a highly misleading version of the relevant intelligence to Congress and the public, their contemptuous dismissal of senior military leaders who warned of precisely the eventualities that later occurred, and their complete lack of seriousness in giving any thought to what would happen after the Hussein regime collapsed. He documents the sheer incompetence of the people on the ground in Iraq, the brutal tactics used by various Army divisions which drove many Iraqis to the insurgency, and the inability of many in the civilian leadership to adjust to new realities.
Basically, no matter how bad you thought the administration was, the reality is much worse.
In fact, one place where the book really changed my own thinking is about whether the current chaos in Iraq was inevitable. Prior to reading the book I tended to think that it was, but Ricks’ provides some reasons to think that wasn’t the case. He points to several places where individual commanders had great success in persuading the Iraqis to accept a U.S. presence, where law and order was restored quickly, and where there didn’t seem to be much hostility towards the occupying force. These were commanders who seemed to understand the realities of the situation, and what was needed for the U.S. effort to be a success, but they were few and far between.
Most of the book deals with events on the ground in Iraq in the first year and a half after the fall of Baghdad. But there is also some discussion of the build-up to the war. And here there is something I found especially interesting. Remember those cruise missiles President Clinton lobbed into Iraq at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the ones Republicans (the same ones who now tell us you must not criticize the leadership in times of war) casually dismissed as ineffective and “wag the dog”? Well, guess what:
Some congressional Republicans were deeply suspicious of President Clinton and suggested that the strikes were simply a ploy to undercut the impending impeachment proceedings against him. As the bombing began, Sen. Trent Lott, then the Senate majority leader, issued a statement declaring, “I cannot support this military action in the Persian Gulf at this time. Both the timing and the policy are subject to question.” Rep. Dana Rohrbacher, a California Republican, called the military action, “an insult to the American people.”
Yet the raids proved surprisingly effective. “Desert Fox actually exceeded expectations,” wrote Kenneth Pollack in The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq, his influential 2002 book. “Saddam panicked during the strikes. Fearing that his control was threatened, he ordered large-scale arrests and executions, which backfired and destablizied his regime for months afterward.
[Marine General Anthony] Zinni was amazed when Western intelligence assets in Baghdad reported that Desert Fox nearly knocked off Saddam Hussein’s regime. His conclusion: Containment is clearly working, and Saddam Hussein was on the ropes. A U.S. military intelligence official, looking back at Desert Fox years later, confirmed that account.
When I read things like that I am infuriated anew by people who think it’s clever to say there is no difference between the Democrats and the Republicans. There are big differences, and those differences matter.
What is especially infuriating is that the reality of American politics is the precise opposite of the stereotypes. In popular mythology the Republicans are the hard-headed realists, the foreign policy geniuses, the ones who understand how to use the military. The Democrats are supposed to be the ones who have their heads in the clouds, the ones who thnk negotiation can solve everything, and the ones who are too naive too recognize evil in the world. But compare the military operations in Desert Fox and in Bosnia to the Republican handling of the war in Iraq. It looks to me like Democrats use the military in calm, measured and effective ways based ona sober assessment of the facts on the ground. Republicans, meanwhile, say things like this:
“The Clinton administration was totally risk averse” on Iraq, Richard Perle, a leading Iraq hawk, would argue later. &ldquoThey allowed Saddam over eight years to grow in strength. He was far stronger at the end of Clinton’s tenure then at the beginning.” Perle made those assertions in July 2003, just about the time they were becoming laughable to those who understood the situation on the ground in Iraq. (p. 19)
But didn’t many Democrats support the war? Indeed they did. Some simply agreed with the Administration, while others made a cold political calculation. But I suspect that for most Democrats the issue was far simpler. They simply assumed that you wouldn’t send your Secretary of State to lecture the U.N. about WMD unless you really had the goods. They assumed that when Congress asked for a National Intelligence Estimate summarizing what was known about Iraq, they would get the real thing and not some administration propaganda piece stripped of all nuance and uncertainty. That is, their mistake was in thinking that even an administration as ideological and vicious as this one would not play fast and loose with something this important. Well, they were wrong.
Speaking of Powell’s speech, let me close with one last quote:
Powell didn’t know it, but his bravura performance was a huge house of cards. It is now known tha talmost all of what he said that day wasn’t solid, that much of it was deemed doubtful even at the time inside the intelligence community, and that some of it was flatly false. The official, bipartisan conclusion of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s review of the prewar handling of intelligence was, “Much of the information provided or cleared by the Central Intelligence Agency for inclusion in Secretary Powell’s speech was overstated, mislesading, or incorrect.” The assertion about chemical weapons would be proven flat wrong. The assertion about the nuclear program was based heavily on the belief that Iraq was seeking aluminum tubes for centrifuge to enrich uranium for a nuclear program. The key question was whether the tubes were of a lower quality alloy suitable for military rockets, or more finely made for nuclear work. “It stirkes me as quite odd that these tubes are manufactured to a tolerance that far exceeds U. S. requirements for comparable rockets,” Powell said. But the State Depertment’s own intelligence office had contradicted that very assertion two days earlier in its critique of a draft of Powell’s speech. It objected to the statement about manufacture. “In fact,” it stated in a memorandum, ”the most comparable U.S. system is a tactical rocket – the U.S. Mark 66 air-launched 70 mm rocket – that uses the same high-grade (7075-T6) aluminum, and that has specifications with similar tolerances.” Worst of all, the assertion about biological weapons was based largely on the statement of one defector, codenamed Curveball, whose testimony already had been discredited. There was a second source for the statements about biological efforts – and that source had been formally declared a fabricator ten months earlier by the Defense Intelligence Agency, which was handling him, but no one had told Powell about that. (p. 90-91).
On and on and on it goes….