How Wrong Could One Administration Be?

Ask the average American their theory on why we "lost" in Vietnam and you are likely to get this answer or some variation of it: "We didn't let the military fight the war, the war was fought by politicians. If we'd let the military do their job, we would have won." This notion has become thoroughly ingrained in our national memory, despite (or perhaps because of?) being completely wrongheaded. One wonders if, in the future, we will see that this is in fact the perfect explanation for what has happened in Iraq. The examples are numerous.

In the buildup for the war, as I mentioned recently, there were widespread reports that the military brass wanted a much larger force than the politicians, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in particular, thought was necessary. General Eric Shinseki testified before Congress that the war and occupation would take several hundred thousand troops and cost at least $100 billion:

"Something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers are probably, you know, a figure that would be required," General Shinseki told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee today. "We're talking about post-hostilities control over a piece of geography that's fairly significant, with the kinds of ethnic tensions that could lead to other problems."

General Shinseki continued, "It takes a significant ground force presence to maintain a safe and secure environment, to ensure that people are fed, that water is disturbed, all the normal responsibilities that go along with administering a situation like this."

Paul Wolfowitz called a press conference to publicly undress Shinseki, calling his predictions "wildly off the mark" and adding, "I am reasonably certain that they will greet us as liberators, and that will help us to keep requirements down." A whispering campaign was aimed at reporters to undermine Shinseki:

In semi-private, the Pentagon's civilian leadership was far more scathing. A "senior administration official" told the Village Voice newspaper that Gen Shinseki's remark was "bullshit from a Clintonite enamoured of using the army for peacekeeping and not winning wars".

He was quickly marginalized in the Pentagon by the civilian leaders, replaced as Army Chief of Staff by Peter Schoomaker and hustled off to retirement. When Army secretary Thomas White agreed with Shinseki, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz threw a fit and White ended up resigning after a public feud with the two, saying:

Former Army secretary Thomas White said in an interview that senior Defense officials "are unwilling to come to grips" with the scale of the postwar U.S. obligation in Iraq. The Pentagon has about 150,000 troops in Iraq and recently announced that the Army's 3rd Infantry Division's stay there has been extended indefinitely.

"This is not what they were selling (before the war)," White said, describing how senior Defense officials downplayed the need for a large occupation force. "It's almost a question of people not wanting to 'fess up to the notion that we will be there a long time and they might have to set up a rotation and sustain it for the long term."...

White said it is reasonable to assume the Pentagon will need more than 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq to provide stability for at least the next year. Pentagon officials envisioned having about 100,000 troops there immediately after the war, but they hoped that number would be quickly drawn down.

There were even reports that Rumsfeld wanted as few as 70,000 troops, an example of the quick-strike light military organization that he had been advocating since the end of the Cold War. They ultimately settled on something less than 200,000 troops, still much less than needed.

The warnings came in from the field generals both active and retired, including Wesley Clark and Anthony Zinni in addition to Shinseki, that this simply was not enough troops. Clark said repeatedly on television in the buildup to the war that we would quickly conquer the Iraqi military and take over (as we did, obviously), but that there were not enough boots on the ground to do all of the things necessary in the aftermath of that - control the major cities, prevent looting, protect the government infrastructure, hunt down Baathist holdouts, secure the oil fields from being blown up, seal the borders to prevent outsiders from getting in, and perhaps most importantly, secure all of the Iraqi ammunition and arms depots, which were literally scattered all over the country. The results: widespread looting, including some of the most precious archaeological artifacts and art work in the world, while we protected the oil ministry, sending the obvious message that we didn't really care about the people of Iraq or their national heritage, we only cared about the oil; the looting and dispersal of huge stores of arms and ammunition from Iraqi military caches to insurgent groups, so that our troops now face an enemy hiding among the people but armed with rocket propelled grenades and mortars; Islamic militants pouring in from Iran and Syria to join the fight against the Great Satan. All of these things were predictable and predicted, especially by current and retired generals, but those predictions were ignored by the administration.

Now we're in a situation where we no longer control a sizable portion of the country and can't even guarantee the security of the vaunted Green Zone inside Baghdad. The insurgency is becoming more sophisticated and more organized and the past month has been the bloodiest since the invasion. Meanwhile, intelligence analysts warn that Al Queda has rebuilt its chain of command, has recruited thousands of new members, and is quickly rebuilding its ability to operate. But the President is in the middle of an election campaign, so he's busy pretending that none of this is happening, that everything is going great and that's why you should keep him on the job. In the first decent speech he's given in the entire campaign, Kerry rightly said that every single thing that the Bush administration has said about Iraq, from the justification given prior to the war to his statements about the current reality, has been false. Even the Republicans in Congress are saying publicly that Bush has to stop pretending everything is fine in Iraq. And just look at this utterly moronic response from the President:

Later, asked by reporters about calls from GOP Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Chuck Hagel (Neb.) for a more candid assessment about the Iraq situation, Bush replied that both men "want me elected as president. We agree that the world is better off with Saddam Hussein sitting in a prison cell. And that stands in stark contrast to the statement my opponent made yesterday, when he said that the world was better off with Saddam in power."

A complete non-answer, coupled with a flat-out lie. The fact that both men want him elected as President has precisely nothing to do with the question that was asked, or the valid criticisms that McCain and Nagel have made. And it is simply a lie to claim that Kerry has said the world was better off with Saddam in power. It's incredible to me that we tolerate from a President what we would never tolerate in any other setting. If you were teaching a class and a student gave an answer to a question that thoroughly stupid, he'd be flunked. But the President says something that foolish, and we hardly even blink. And did the reporter who asked him that question even bother to say, "Mr. President, you didn't answer the question"? Nope. Did the reporter writing the article in the "liberal" Washington Post bother to point out that he didn't answer the question? Nope.

Nor is this the only area in which we accept from a President a statement we would condemn as utterly moronic if it came from someone else. As Bill Maher pointed out on his show the other day, if a political pundit said something as stupid as "the terrorists hate us for our freedom", he'd get laughed off the set. But the President says that over and over again and we just accept it. It's like we expect so little of our leaders that we don't even flinch when they tell us obvious lies or make conspicuously idiotic statements. And we wonder why we're in this situation.


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Another example of the politicians screwing things up was the CPA. It was effectively a Pentagon-run oppertation (the DOD jeaously lorded over everything, while our hapless CiC stood by and let them), absent of any necessary expertise from State. The final chapter has yet to be written on the CPA, but preliminary reports reveal an extremely incompetent opperation, understaffed and hamstrung by cronyism. People with no relevant experience were hired because they had ties to conservative organizations, or were in tight with the Republican party -- either way, they had to be "on board" with the Neo-con vision. And part of that vision was to do it on the cheap. The CPA staff was therefore overworked and unqualified, and consisted of almost no one who understood the local language or culture. Very little of the reconstruction money went where it was supposed to go. After awhile, they just started giving large wads of cash to officers in the field to bribe every Iraqi in sight.

While it's true that political concerns in the case of Iraq, and also in the case of the Vietnam War, muddled and complicated the tactical situation, the flow of this post, as I read it, seems to contribute precisely to the myth that Ed seeks to strike down, namely, that there exists some sort of conceptually pure military operation, free from political interference, and that if only we Americans were able to pursue such a Platonic military operation, perennial victory would be ours. In reality, all wars are politically motivated, politically pursued, and politically (and morally) judged. What those of us who want to strike down the Vietnam myth (which Ed so accurately identified) must do is to show how all wars are politically defined; it would then follow that a proper assessment of whether or not to use military force always and completely rests on political goals and equations. War, in short, is always a political question. As long as the myth persists, that in a time of war the generals must replace the politicians, we will always be susceptible to the rhetoric of the warmongers.

By Dave Snyder (not verified) on 22 Sep 2004 #permalink

I agree. Colonial-style wars tend to be doomed to failure from the outset, no matter how over-matched the resisting populace may be. Nationalism and ethnicism guarantee a steady supply of resisters, regardless of the death toll (the death toll usually just increases nationalistic sentiment), and guerilla tactics prevent any outright defeat in the field. If the populace as a whole cannot be subdued, there is simply no way to win in the long run. This happened previously in Iraq to the British; also in Afghanistan to the Soviets, in Vietnam to both the French and the Americans, in Algeria to the French, and in Palestine/Israel to the British.
One of the best examples, and it would surprise most people, was the American War for Independence. The British army outmatched the colonialists in almost every way. By war's end, the British had won the vast majority of battles and controled all of the major cities. But they lost anyway. They simply couldn't subdue the populace, even though there were a large percentage of loyalists in the beginning. They tried to "Americanize" the war by putting the loyalists in charge and arming them, but the loyalists, many of whom were recent immigrants, simply used their new found authority to take vengence on the native-borns, and chaos reigned. The rest of the people simply lost faith in the ability of the British to maintain control. The same thing happened in Vietnam, and it's happening again in Iraq.

By Steve Reuland (not verified) on 22 Sep 2004 #permalink

I think Kerry has to connect the dots. Bush wasn't in Vietnam and he hasn't learned the lessons of Vietnam. (Kerry dosn;t actually have to say what those lessons are or should be -- there's quite a bit of actual disagreement about that.) We're stuck in exactly the same mire as we were then -- we don't know who the enemy are; we're viewed as occupiers not liberators; if we actually gave the people democracy, they -- like most of the moslem world -- would choose an anti-US government.

Iraq shows all the problems with Bush's "faith-besed" policy making -- actual facts which contradict the ideology are not allowed to be discussed.

Now we're talking. This is the correct analysis. We can't win because we can't distinguish enemies from friends. This was inevitable. We lost this war the moment we began it.

The invasion of Iraq equals a de facto policy of replacing a secular dictator who was once our client, and who opposed Islamist terrorists, with an Islamist regime that is likely to sponsor terrorism. The Iraqi people will be no better off, and we will be in much greater danger. This is the Bush policy, suported by Democrats and Republicans in Congress. It's not what they intended, but it's the only thing that could have resulted.

I know of only two methods to control a country in the face of popular reistence. One method was employed by the Nazi's -- you kill one of our soldiers and we'll kill ten of your civilians. America can't do this, although we flirted with it in Vietnam before we finally gave up. The other method is the one we employed in Germany and Japan in World War II -- bomb the country to the ground. That's not an option. So what else is there? Get out. The harm was already done the minute we invaded, and we can only make it worse now by killing more Iraqis and more of our own soldiers.

What, then, do we do about terrorism, given that Bush's war in Iraq has been a de facto terrorist recruitment campaign? We have to change our foreign policy. No financial or military aid to Middle East dictators. No saber rattling against Middle Eastern regimes. Aid to Israel stops until they abandon their settlements. They can build their wall if they want to, but only along the 1967 line.

Do I expect any of these things to happen? No. But it's the only thing that would work.

By Perry Willis (not verified) on 22 Sep 2004 #permalink

I'm not as cynical. There's still plenty of time left for some enterprising reporter to reach down and feel for some semblance of testicles and ask a tough question and even follow up effectively if the question is dodged.

Hell considering what we've seen to date ... IMO it's good to see the candidates and the media actually discuss a current issue like Iraq, instead of Vietnam or TANG . (Speaking of TANG, although I'm leaning towards Kerry pretty heavily, I really can't blame a guy for choosing to fly high performance supersonic fighter jets over enlisting in a shitty war people were already starting to realize was a no win deal. Hell I'd choose the jets also, I'd pay good money to get to fly one)