10 ways We Botched Iraq

AUSTIN, Texas -- Too bad for anyone who tuned in to President Bush's speech Monday night hoping to hear something that would cheer us up -- like a plan. That was as depressing as divorce. There he was, still peddling the phony idea that Saddam Hussein was connected to 9-11 -- I guess that one will never get too old or too disproved.

In case you think no one in public life is capable of intelligent thought about Iraq, I recommend a speech made by Gen. Anthony Zinni (well, OK, so he's slightly retired) May 12 to the Center for Defense Information. In it, Zinni lists the 10 mistakes he believes were responsible for getting us into this fine mess.

My own modest contribution to this task began the day we announced we would be using Saddam's main palace as our headquarters in Iraq. "No, no, no," I moaned. "We're Americans. We don't do palaces." We should have announced that all Saddam's palaces would be converted into universities.

"Should have" is not normally a helpful construction, but I thought Zinni's list useful indeed. Since Zinni expanded brilliantly on several points, I do disservice by simplifying -- even so, you'll see what I mean.


  • Misjudging the success of containment. Containment actually worked, we just didn't know it.


  • The strategy was flawed. We thought the road to Jerusalem led through Baghdad, when just the opposite is true -- the road to Baghdad leads through Jerusalem. In other words, an Israeli-Palestinian settlement is the key to peace and progress in the region.


  • We had to create a false rationale for going in to get public support. Zinni testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee just before the war and was asked if the threat from Saddam Hussein was imminent: "No, not at all," he said. "It was not an imminent threat. Not even close. Not grave, gathering, imminent, serious, severe, mildly upsetting, none of these."


  • We failed to internationalize the effort. That's a point on which we have now reached near-universal agreement, including George W. Bush.


  • We underestimated the task.


  • Propping up and trusting the exiles. Zinni ranks this as possibly our biggest mistake, taking up Ahmad Chalabi's "Gucci guerrillas." Zinni has the additional authority of having testified against the Iraqi Liberation Act back in 1998, telling the Senate then that the Iraqi National Congress was not credible and would "lead us into something that we will regret."


  • Lack of planning.


  • The insufficiency of military forces on the ground.


  • Ad hoc organization. The extent to which the CPA never had a game plan is incredible and, as The Washington Post rather acidly reports, the place is staffed with busy little right-wingers whose only claim to competence is their political connections.


  • A series of bad decisions on the ground. Disbanding the army, etc.


First, Zinni recommends we stop digging the hole we're in. We need a U.N. resolution, then we need a lot of Arab officers in as advisers, then he has a whole series of specific military steps. He also emphasizes jobs, jobs, jobs.

"I would go to the contractors in there and say: 'I don't want to see truck drivers that are coming from Peoria, Ill. I want to pay truck drivers that are Iraqis.' It doesn't take a hell of a lot of talent to drive a truck. Why aren't Iraqis driving trucks for their own reconstruction and redevelopment?" He also notes there is no system of education for the electorate -- no political parties, nothing.

Another citizen with some valuable suggestions is New York lawyer Neal Johnston, who was moved to write Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld concerning "proper controls upon the interrogation techniques of detainees held by our military forces abroad." Since we are extremely interested in getting the truth out of reluctant witnesses who may be covering up something, and since the Pentagon apparently feels it knows how to do this, Johnston wonders what would happen if the methods were more broadly applied. For example, he writes Rumsfeld, "When next you testify before a congressional committee, would your testimony be any more credible were you required to deliver it stripped naked? I think not.

"When our plans for Iraq are next explored at a Cabinet meeting, would your observations be any more insightful if delivered while strapped to a board and irregularly submerged in a vat of water? Doubtful at best."

Even, Johnston suggests, shoving a rolled copy of the Bill of Rights up a delicate place on the secretary's person would not necessarily improve Rumsfeld's truthfulness at his next press conference. "My solution is really quite simple: The Iraqi scum should be handled with much the same restraint we would all want to be applied to you, should the present criminal investigations wind up reaching even deeper into your office than is already the case."

Molly Ivins writes for Texas Observer.

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