Bush's Fiascos in Iraq
The word does not require an "E," but the world desperately needs one-E for EXIT from the march of folly toward wider war brought on by plural US policy blunders: in Iraq, Israel, and Lebanon, for starters, and now threatening to spread to Syria and Iran. Fortunately, Webster's does allow the insertion of an "E" and that's precisely what we must do now. We need to make a prompt exit from the policy fiascoes that have brought violence and chaos to the Middle East.
If we do not look beyond the carnage of the last few weeks, weigh the reaction of others in and outside the region, and reflect on Washington's role in precipitating the violence, I fear there will be no exit. A brief review may be instructive. Who led our march into this modern-day Valley of Death?
Ideologues and Amateurs
Let's begin with the new people and policies that President George W. Bush brought in with him when he took office on Jan. 20, 2001. Who urged on him what Michael O'Hanlon of Brookings calls "the huge mistake of giving Israel a blank check?" Who played the leading roles in encouraging Bush to let slip the dogs of war on Iraq?
Honors for the leading role in the category of fiasco goes, ex aequo, to Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld-the "Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal" described by Colin Powell's chief of staff at the State Department, Army Col. Lawrence Wilkerson (ret.). At an award ceremony, the cabal no doubt would offer copious thanks to other key actors-first and foremost, to ideologues Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith. The Oscar for best actress in a supporting role goes to Condoleezza Rice.
It was five and a half years ago that Rice was formally initiated into the neo-conservative brotherhood as an auxiliary. Her most important service was greasing the skids for the brothers to try to shoehorn into reality their ambitious but naive dreams of using "preemptive" war to ensure total US/Israeli domination of the Middle East. At the new administration's first National Security Council meeting on Jan. 30, 2001, then-national security adviser Rice stage-managed formal approval of two profound changes in decades-long US policy toward Israel-Palestine and Iraq. Thanks to Paul O'Neill, confirmed as Treasury Secretary just hours before the NSC meeting, we have a first-hand account.
The neoconservatives had already gotten to the new president, for he began with the abrupt announcement that he was ditching the policy of past presidents who tried to honest-broker an end to the violence between Palestinians and Israelis. Rather, the president declared that the US would tilt sharply toward Israel. Most important, Bush made it clear that he would let then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon resolve the conflict as he saw fit. The US would no longer "interfere."
Powell: Dead Man Walking
O'Neill described Secretary of State Colin Powell as "startled" at hearing this. Powell warned that US disengagement would unleash Sharon and the Israeli army. But Bush shrugged dismissively, adding, "Sometimes a show of strength by one side can really clarify things." Just seven weeks later with Sharon in Washington, the president again shocked those present when, out of the blue, he turned to him and said, "I'll use force to protect Israel," according to Sheryl Gay Stolberg writing in today's New York Times.
After his requiem for the decades of US sweat and blood expended on the effort to work out a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, the president turned immediately to Iraq. Rice led off by reciting the received wisdom of the neocons (I still wonder how many of them actually believed it) that "Iraq might be the key to reshaping the entire region." Whereupon, at her request, then-CIA director George Tenet displayed a grainy overhead image of a factory in Iraq that he just happened to have with him. Tenet thought the factory "might" be associated with a chemical or biological weapons program, but no such association could be confirmed. No problem. The conversation immediately turned from this typically Tenet-ative "intelligence" to the question of which Iraqi targets to begin bombing. Remember: this watershed meeting of the NSC took place more than eight months before 9/11 and more than two years before the invasion of Iraq.
O'Neill, just inducted into the cabinet but not into the neoconservative brotherhood, was understandably nonplussed. He says he found it all quite curious and left the NSC meeting convinced that, for reasons never fully explained, "getting Hussein was now the administration's focus."
The twin decision to (1) "tilt" more decidedly toward Israel and (2) prepare to attack Iraq-were right out of a blueprint drafted in 1996 by a small group of Americans and Israelis, including arch-neoconservatives Richard Perle and Douglas Feith. Shortly after the Jan. 30 NSC meeting the two were given influential posts in the Department of Defense directly under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz-Perle as chair of the powerful Defense Policy Board, and Feith as Undersecretary of Defense for Policy (#3 in the Defense hierarchy). The policy-prescriptive blueprint, titled A Clean Break: A New Strategy For Securing the Realm, had been prepared originally for Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, but its recommendations proved to be too extreme even for him. No matter. As the new Bush administration took shape, Perle and Feith retrieved the mothballed study, made an end-run around the hapless Powell, and sold it to Vice President Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Bush.
Dr. Rice Becomes Dr. No
There is a certain poetic justice in the fact that Rice, now secretary of state, is reaping the whirlwind. She has been trapped in the extremely awkward position of having to say "No" to a ceasefire, causing the biggest PR disaster since Abu Graib. And she still managed a smile when the Israelis, adding insult to injury, mocked her by openly violating the limited cease-fire they had promised. One might think that, no matter how many times the president may tell her "Attagirl," Rice might feel thoroughly used, mocked, and humiliated.
Not so. Still an innocent abroad, Rice has cheerfully played piano accompaniment for the neocon hit song "Reshaping the Entire Region," and has dutifully adhered to the neocon script in describing the violence in Lebanon and Israel as "the birth pangs of a new Middle East." On Friday, President Bush added this stanza: "This is a moment of intense conflict...yet our aim is to turn it into a moment of opportunity and a chance for broader change in the region."
Bush's text elicited uncharacteristically acerbic ridicule from Richard Haass, who served under Bush as head of policy planning at the State Department. (Yes, this is the same Haas who in July 2002 begged Rice for an appointment with the president, whom he wanted to warn of the folly of invading Iraq. Rice reportedly told him, "The decision's been made; don't waste your breath.") Referring to Bush's remarks on Friday, Haass, now head of the Council on Foreign Relations, laughed at the president's optimism, according to a report by Peter Baker in Monday's Washington Post. "That's the funniest thing I've heard in a long time," said Haass. "If this is an opportunity, what's Iraq? A once-in-a-lifetime chance?"
It is far from funny. Rather, it is amateur hour again at the White House, with Rice acting as the president's personal secretary under instruction to do what Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the neocons tell her to do. The results have been entirely predictable. Seldom before has Washington been so widely seen to be joined at the hip to an Israel on the rampage. Seldom has US stock in the region sunk to such depths as it did last week, with civilian casualties in Lebanon piling up (literally) and with Rice continuing to join Israel in rejecting appeals for an immediate ceasefire on grounds it must be "sustainable." Policy and performance alike have been myopic in the extreme, and have resulted in an embarrassing US setback from which it will take decades to recover. The ramifications are region-wide; but looking at Lebanon alone, one of my former CIA colleagues observed:
"The irony in all this is that Israel has an interest in a multicultural Lebanon and not an Islamist Lebanon, and the high hopes for the former are being dashed."
Meanwhile Back in Baghdad-More "Last Throes"
In terms of those killed, Iraq was even more violent than Lebanon over the past week, but Western media put Iraqi developments on the back burner.
On July 25, President Bush told the press, "Obviously, the violence in Baghdad is still terrible, and therefore there needs to be more troops." Bush observed that "Conditions change inside a country. And the question is: Are we going to be facile enough (sic) to change with [them]." Some 4,000 US troops are being sent from elsewhere in Iraq to reinforce Baghdad. Sen. Chuck Hagel (R, NE) noted on July 28 that this "reverses last month's decision to have Iraqi forces take the lead in Baghdad...and represents a dramatic setback for the US and the Iraqi government." Highly respected military analyst Anthony Cordesman has expressed the same view.
--Secretary Rumsfeld approved Gen. George Casey's request to extend the Iraq tour of a 3,700-strong Stryker brigade, which had been scheduled to return to the US this summer, and the Pentagon announced that the number of US troops in Iraq rose last week to 132,000-the highest level since May. In a command performance in June, Gen. Casey reportedly gave Bush a plan for withdrawing 7,000 troops before the mid-term elections-a plan that probably will be overtaken by events.
--Whether he intended to or not while fielding questions from the press, national security adviser Stephen Hadley, virtually redefined the mission of US troops. Addressing what he called the "new challenge," Hadley said, "This isn't about insurgency. This isn't about terror. This is about sectarian violence." The number of sectarian killings has doubled since the start of the year. Press reports indicate that many Sunnis are even afraid to go out to retrieve the bodies of relatives in Baghdad's overflowing morgues, lest they too become prey to Shia militia. The very large unanswered question: Is that why our troops lie exposed in the middle-to stop Iraqis from killing one another?
--Richard Armitage, who was Secretary Colin Powell's deputy at the State Department, warned of the danger that bringing in more troops at this late stage may prove to be "too little too late, and that the US will turn into a bystander in an Iraqi civil war it does not have sufficient resources to prevent." Western press reports suggest that this is already the case-with virtually everyone below the rank of general admitting that inadequate troop strength remains a major problem. At the same time, it is universally recognized that requesting more troops would sound the death knell for one's career.
--One important Shia leader has objected to the deployment of additional US forces to Baghdad, and Shia militias are increasingly clashing with US troops. The Shia militias are also using more effective, armor-piercing IEDs. US officers have expressed concern over what the Shia might do in reaction to the US green light for Israeli attacks on Lebanon. And Col. Patrick Lang (USA, ret.) has expressed grave concern over the vulnerability of US supply lines from Kuwait into the Iraqi heartland, and Iran's ability to stir up the Shia in that area.
--Former adviser to the US occupation authority in Iraq, Michael Rubin, now with the American Enterprise Institute has said, "The Shia-led Interior Ministry is out of control." And there is a strong move afoot in the Iraqi Parliament to replace the interior minister.
Otherwise, everything is going just fine-or so the Bush administration and FOX News Channel would have us believe. It has become increasingly difficult to put a positive spin on all this. Now and again, out of desperation, a PR person will reach for the all-too-familiar chestnut, "We have not once been defeated in battle."
Many years ago, Army Col. Harry Summers learned the hard way not to use this one. At the end of the war in Vietnam, Summers received orders to negotiate with North Vietnamese Army Col. Tu the terms of the withdrawal of US forces from Vietnam. Summers could not resist reminding Tu, "You know you never beat us on the battlefield." Col. Tu paused for a moment; "That may be so," he said, "but it is also irrelevant."
Thirty-three months have gone by since we Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) branded this war "unwinnable." The word has now been banned from use by "patriotic" folks here in Washington; not even my Microsoft Word dictionary recognizes it.
Our early conclusion on the war required no rocket science-just a modicum of experience in guerrilla warfare and Vietnam. It is now time for all of us Americans who care about justice, sanity, and peace to draw the appropriate conclusions and summon the courage to stick our necks out, in whatever way we can, to stop the madness. It is time, in other words, to walk the talk.
For it is simply not right to ask "volunteer" troops from the inner cities and farms of this nation not only to play referee between armed Iraqi factions, but also to "stay the course" for us-out of the forlorn hope they might just get lucky and succeed in "reshaping the entire region."