Post-war Iraq: Quagmire or Master Plan?

"We know where they are," declared Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld on March 30, assuring television viewers about the location of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD), two weeks into the war in Iraq. "They are in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad."

It was just the latest in string of blanket statements issued by the Bush administration on the subject of Iraq. The neocons within the administration were brimming with confidence, not only on Saddam's guilt but also the outcome of the war. "I really do believe we will be greeted as liberators," said Vice President Dick Cheney as U.S. troops massed along the border between Kuwait and Iraq on the eve of the war. "Wildly off the mark," blustered Rumsfeld's deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, in response to then-Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki's estimate that more than 200,000 troops would be needed as a post-war occupation force.

Yet here we are, nearly two months after President Bush declared "victory" in dramatic fashion from the deck of an aircraft carrier, and the "Q-word" -- "quagmire" -- is back in the headlines. As it becomes increasingly clear that U.S. troops may be facing a guerrilla war, the reasons for the U.S. presence are more uncertain than ever. Not only are the much-touted WMD still to be found, but there is still no proof of ties between Iraq and al Qaeda or Iraqi knowledge of or complicity in the Sept. 11 attacks.

If that were not embarrassing enough, Washington still has around 150,000 troops in Iraq -- twice the number projected before the war -- and is desperately seeking as many as 30,000 more from its "coalition" partners, with all expenses to be paid by the U.S. taxpayer. And events of this past weekend -- when unknown persons in a remote desert area blew up a key oil pipeline that supplies Baghdad power plants -- suggest that even the additional troops may not be sufficient to do the job.

Some officers on the ground complained before television cameras this week that they are far too thinly spread to impose order over such a large country. It's no easy task especially when a significant number of Iraqis do not appreciate the presence of U.S. troops, and a well-armed and tenacious few are trying to kill them. What's more, they are succeeding, and at an accelerating rate. In the last couple of weeks, they have killed an average of about one U.S. soldier every two days and wounded several more.

As is apparent even in mainstream media coverage, news from Iraq isn't good. The declining morale among the troops was evident in the Friday Washington Post. "The war is supposed to be over, but every day we hear of another soldier getting killed," a U.S. sergeant told the Post. "Saddam isn't in power anymore. The locals want us to leave. Why are we still here?"

A recent comment on the all-military website, Defense and the National Interest, gloomily noted, "The Army is getting bogged down in a morale- numbing 4th Generation War in Iraq that is now taking on some appearances of the Palestinian Intifada." Another predicted that the Pentagon's plans for rotating new units into occupation duty could well "melt down" the Army's personnel system within the year.

And then there was this little-noticed headline that appeared in USA Today on Thursday: "U.S. Troops May Be In Iraq for 10 Years: Defense officials reportedly seek up to 54 billion dollars a year." The same Wolfowitz who ridiculed Shinseki's estimates had now testified before a Senate hearing that a U.S. withdrawal was a remote prospect. He suggested instead that permanent bases may have to be built to house troops -- a notion unlikely to go down well even with U.S.-backed exiles like Ahmed Chalabi. Chalabi, touted as the heir apparent to Saddam by the neocons, has spent much of his recent visit to the U.S. accusing the Paul Bremer-led administration of essentially blowing it.

Meanwhile, a report released by the prestigious joint task force of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and the Asia Society suggests that if the United States does not sharply increase its commitment to peacekeeping and reconstruction in Afghanistan, the country could quickly collapse back into the political chaos that resulted in the rise of the Taliban.

So why are we in this handbasket? Is it the result of grave errors of judgment or part of a neoconservative master plan?

Until now, most foreign-policy analysts in the U.S. -- if not the regional specialists -- have been inclined to give Washington hawks the benefit of the doubt. After all, no has ever accused Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz or Woolsey of being just plain stupid. So how could they have brought the nation headlong into the face of disaster?

One theory is that the neocons, like many in power before them, tend to believe their own propaganda -- the "war on terror" rhetoric they and their supporters have been spouting even before the dust of the World Trade Center towers settled over Lower Manhattan. The degree to which they helped twist the intelligence about Iraq has become increasingly clear over the past few weeks, as angry intelligence professionals have taken their complaints to the press.

But hints of a second, not unrelated reason may be found in recent, plain-speaking comments on the enormous budget deficits the administration is running up, even as it continues its drive to cut taxes.

"The lunatics are now in charge of the asylum," declared a Financial Times editorial last month. The sentiment was seconded by Harvard economist Paul Krugman in his New York Times column. Krugman, like the Financial Times, argues that the administration ideologues are deliberately creating a fiscal crisis in order to achieve their goal of dismantling a social and economic system that ensured domestic tranquility since the New Deal. "The people now running America aren't conservatives: they're radicals," wrote Krugman. "How can this be happening? Most people, even most liberals, are complacent. They don't realize how dire the fiscal outlook really is, and they don't read what the ideologues write."

The same can be said of U.S. foreign policy. Despite the radical trajectory on which the neocons have taken U.S. foreign policy since Sept. 11, the complacency, especially among Democrats, has been truly remarkable. Most members of the "opposition" still aren't reading, or at least absorbing the full import of, what the foreign policy ideologues behind Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Wolfowitz write or say.

"This fourth World War, I think, will last considerably longer than either World Wars I or II did for us," said former CIA chief and member of the Defense Policy Board James Woolsey, during the third week of the war. "As we move toward a new Middle East over the years, and, I think, over the decades to come ... we will make a lot of people very nervous."

Unfortunately, this is one neocon statement that may be entirely true.

Jim Lobe writes on foreign policy for Alternet,, Foreign Policy in Focus, and Inter Press Services.


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