Repeating Mistakes of the Cold War

This is not the first time that bogus allegations have helped the United States go a-warring against another country. But it may be the first time so much lying about another nation has set the U.S. up for disaster in precisely the kind of military engagement it is least prepared to fight.

During the Cold War, the CIA fed policymakers incorrect information about target states and groups all the time. Not that analysts knew the facts were wrong -- they both did and didn't. Just as neocons in the "bat cave" -- as former CIA counterterrorism chief Vince Cannistraro calls the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans -- may or may not have known they were being conned by the shoddy WMD evidence supplied by Iraqi exiles. What matters in such instances isn't necessarily the truth. "Intelligence," Gen. Richard Myers reminds us, "doesn't mean something is true." What matters is whether the intelligence advances a nation's security strategy and the policies that flow from it.

President Bush provided an interesting variation on this principle at his last press conference when, in response to questions about the failure to establish links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, he agreed that "it's always best to produce results ... In order to, you know, placate the critics and the cynics about the intentions of the United States, we need to produce evidence." Evidence, in other words, isn't necessary to establish the validity of "intentions," but to sell a doubting public on a course of action the government has already chosen for reasons it does not share.

During the Cold War, the CIA's mission in the Third World, including the Middle East, remained fairly constant for 40 years. It was, in the main, to determine whether indigenous opposition movements that upset the balance of power in a particular region were Communist-inspired. Foreign agents were trained to think in terms of democracy vs. totalitarianism, the U.S. vs. the USSR, and to evaluate local conflicts in the context of the global struggle against the Soviet bloc. Thus were governments overthrown and pro-American regimes installed in nations such as Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954, mainly on the grounds that an indigenous challenge to vital U.S. interests (land reform in the coffee plantations of Guatemala, the nationalization of oil in Iran) was the direct result of Soviet penetration.

One could argue that after World War II the larger purpose of our national security strategy was to defend and expand the United States' dominant position in the world arena. In other words, the CIA's mission to investigate challenges to American power, including movements of national liberation, was more times than not an order to find a Communist connection in order to win the public mandate for military intervention. With the conspicuous exception of Vietnam, where Ho Chi Minh's Communists really were leading the resistance to American occupation, the strategy tended to work -- in part because of U.S. willingness to exercise power within multilateral frameworks and alliances, which sometimes included backroom deals with Moscow.

Nothing of this structure, however, remains under the Bush doctrine, whose precariousness lies in the fact that it is sustained by brute force and continuous aggression. How else can one describe the strategy underlying the invasion of Iraq. which is to use Iraq as the launching pad for the roll-back of militant Islam throughout the Middle East?

Iraq is a test case, in other words, as was Vietnam in a different strategic context, for a doctrine that justifies unilateral preemptive war. Militant Islam is to the war on terror what communism was to the Cold War, except there is no home address for the new adversary, and no sign the administration understands its nature any more (and likely less) than it understood communism's appeal in the Third World. The "cakewalk" Iraq was supposed to have been has turned into a nightmare for U.S. forces, whose civilian leaders continue to broadcast a comic-strip fantasy of American power so remote from reality as to raise questions of competence. "We are going to fight them and impose our will on them and we will capture or ... kill them, until we have imposed law and order on this country," Washington's Baghdad proconsul, Paul Bremer, told Americans in July. "We dominate the scene ..."

According to Rand Beers, the special assistant to the president for combating terrorism -- who recently resigned his post -- Washington underestimates the enemy and has thus far failed to address the root causes of terror. Nowhere is this failure more apparent than in Iraq, whose resemblance to Vietnam is reinforced every time Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Myers, proclaim new victories.

On Aug. 6, without citing a single example, Rumsfeld asserted that "each of these successes, the political ones, the civil ones and the military ones ... is putting pressure on those who seek to disrupt Iraq's transition from tyranny to a free and civil society."

The truth is closer to Lt. Gen. David McKiernan's version of the developing situation in Iraq. His warning that the hoped-for capture of Saddam Hussein "won't end any degree of resistance in Iraq" opens the door to the key question: Who is the enemy? If not elements of Hussein's military under Baathist command -- a conjecture fast losing credibility on the battlefield -- then perhaps former Iraqi army soldiers allied with foreign Islamic troops who serve as advisers and carry out special operations. In any event, the tenacity of the fighters has convinced military commanders that they are motivated by something more than Baath ideology. It is most likely some combination of patriotism and Islamic ideology.

The military is struggling to adjust to the new reality. On Aug. 6, U.S. Army Chief of Staff John Keane announced that the Army is planning to deploy an "experimental force" consisting of special forces, regular infantry, military police, and civil affairs troops. Its purpose will be to combine counterinsurgency capabilities with pacification forces in one package. Here we are again: a time warp back to Vietnam. But as in Vietnam, it misses the heart of the problem, which is the American presence in Iraq.

Meanwhile, in Washington the influential Center for Strategic and International Studies has issued a grim assessment of the future. Citing 26 "avoidable problems" the U.S. has already committed in Iraq, CSIS military expert Anthony Cordesman writes, "Unless this situation changes soon, and radically, the United States may end up fighting a third Gulf war against the Iraqi people ... It is far from clear that the United States can win this kind of asymmetric war."

Indeed, it's more likely the Bush administration has delivered the United States into an endless guerrilla war in a complex land that it cannot hope to dominate.

Carol Brightman's book, "Total Insecurity: The Myth of American Omnipotence," is due out in the fall of 2004.

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