Monday, March 19, 2007

Cheney's and Bush's "dark victory" in Iraq

On the fourth anniversary of the Cheney-Bush war in Iraq, it seems like a good time to review one of the earliest books on the war, Jeffrey Record's Dark Victory: America's Second War Against Iraq (2004), which covers events through November, 2003. Ironically, as time goes on and the architects and supporters of the war rewrite recent history to provide alibis for themselves, the early accounts acquire a particular value as contemporary evidence of what the known risks and problems were as they were unfolding.

Record puts the current Iraq War in the context of unfinished business from Old Man Bush's Gulf War of 1991, when Cheney was Secretary of Defense. Bush the elder had miscalculated that pushing the Iraqi army out of Kuwait would be sufficient to provoke an overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Record quotes Old Man Bush from a Newsweek interview in March, 2003, the month his son began his historic misadventure in Iraq: "Absolutely. I though he'd be dead, as did every single Arab leader, every leader in the Gulf felt he'd be gone. And [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak felt he'd be gone, Brits, the French, everyone." (Apparently Bush the younger isn't the only one who acted on less than sterling intelligence.) Record also observes that Saddam's restraint in not using chemical weapons in the Gulf War after special American warnings - he did have those weapons back then! - illustrated that Saddam could be contained, whereas the Old Man Bush administration actually hadn't tried to deter Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

He tells the story of the neoconservatives that has become much more familiar now, and how their Wilsonian rhetoric, interventionists inclinations and commitment to a militarized version of American primacy in the world influenced the [current] Bush Doctrine and Bush's post-9/11 thinking. The Downing Street Memo that provides strong evidence that Bush had decided to attack Iraq by July 2002 at the latest was unknown to the public at the time this book appeared. But Record cites the report by Time in March 2003, that Bush had said in March 2002 in the presence of Condi Rice and several visiting Senators, "[Cheney] Saddam. We're taking him out."

Record walks the reader through the assumptions of the Bush Doctrine, which became official US policy with the publication of the National Security Strategy in September 2002. Record makes clear that the doctrine as implemented in the March 2003 invasion of Iraq involved preventive war, not pre-emptive war. Although he doesn't dwell on the legal aspect, "preventive war" is a specific legal term describing an illegal action. Regime change, a key part of the Bush Doctrine, Record writes in restrained terms "can entail considerable, even unacceptable, military and political risk." Indeed. Record summarizes the recklessness of the Bush Doctrine this way:

Pursuit of permanent American primacy via perpetual military supremacy and, as a matter of doctrine, an aggressive willingness to use force preemptively, even preventively, to dispatch threatening regimes and promote the spread of American political values and economic institutions is imperialism pure and simple and invites perpetual isolation and enmity. Such a course also undermines the very international order the United States created after World War II, which has served America's security so well. (p. 41; my emphasis)
Maybe I should mention at this point that Jeffrey Record is a professor at the Air War College, not one of those dirty hippies of Republican lore.

He dismisses any meaningful prewar connection between Al Qaida and Saddam's regime. He argues on a more general level that rogue states and jihadist terrorism should not be carelessly blended into a single phenomenon as the Cheney-Bush administration did in the runup to the Iraq War. The two phenomena, even when some kind of operational relationship may exist, "are fundamentally different in character, modes of operation, and vulnerability to U.S. military power." He writes:

For the U.S. military, Saddam Hussein was easy pickings compared to al-Qaeda, and the failure of the U.S. removal of the former to have any discernible effect on the latter is testimony to the mistake of conflating the two. The invasion of Iraq and the war on terrorism should not be confused. (p. 63; my emphasis)
The official goals of the Iraq War were both accomplished before the invasion began: dealing with Iraq's nonexistent "weapons of mass destruction" and ending the nonexistent operational relationship between Al Qaida and Saddam's Baathist regime.

But the actual reasons the key decision-makers had for pushing to invade Iraq have still not been definitively established. Record makes the valuable observation that the goal of liberating the Iraqis and bringing them the wonders of Cheney-style democracy was a "moral cornerstone" of the administration's case for war. But only after the search for WMDs came up dry did the start "retroactively to speak as if the liberation of the Iraqi people had been America's chief war aim all along."

Still, the neocons' impractial, utopian dream of bringing democratic freedom to the Arab world via bombs, bullets and torture did contribute significantly to the administration's thinking. Access to and control of oil supplies had to have been some part of the thinking. And the goal of frightening (terrorizing?) other nations into following American orders was clearly a major motive:

The Vietnam War and subsequent U.S. uses of force adversely affected America's strategic reputation, encouraging enemies, including Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, to believe that the United States was a "sawdust superpower," a state whose military might vastly exceeded its will to use it. The United States was defeated in Vietnam, run out of Lebanon and Somalia, and by the time of its Balkan interventions, so casualty-phobic that it placed the safety of its military forces above the missions they were assigned to accomplish. (p. 68; my emphasis)
In Cheney's Stomach Theory of war, showing that the US has the "stomach" to make war is vital in itself. The "casualty phobia" of which Record speaks here is less a lack of "stomach" on the part of the public than a deeply-rooted notion on the part of military planners that the popularity of a war among the public in inversely related to the number of American casualties. But short-range minimizing of casualties through heavy use of air power and artillery has a very different effect in conventional war than in counterinsurgency.

Record's discussion of the conventional phase of the war in March-April 2003 is relatively brief. He does make clear that however the Joint Chiefs of Staff may have tailored their formal recommendations to Rummy's expectations, a number of military officials planning for the war stressed the need for a sufficient occupation force. He assesses the success of the conventional war and the subsequent occupation on the basis of seven specific war aims that Rummy laid out on 03/21/03 - and finds the results severely wanting. What is far more well known now was still being bitterly denied by Bush supporters when Record wrote this:

What Iraq and the Middle East will look like a year, or five years, or ten years hence remains to be seen. As of November 2003, however, America's imperial enterprise in Iraq appeared decidedly inauspicious. The "victory" occasioned by completion of major U.S. combat operations against Iraq's fielded military forces was not followed by a cessation of hostilities but rather by persistent irregular warfare against U.S. forces. Moreover, it quickly became apparent that the Bush administration had paid far more attention to the planning and conduct of the war than to the planning and conduct of the "peace." (p.116; my emphasis)
A key point relating to current withdrawal discussions is that at the time of the invasion on March 19, 2003, "The Pentagon had in fact planned to withdraw most U.S. forces from Iraq by the fall of 2003" (my emphasis), he writes. They expected to have not fewer than 30,000 troops and no more than 70,000 in Iraq by the end of 2003. Something to remember as we're now hearing the latest rolling versions of predicting the drawdown of tens of thousands of troops in another year. Here, the administration's incompetence in planning made a poisonous link-up to the officer corps' rejection of "nation-building" as not being part of their mission to fight Real Wars. But, in fact, the conventional-war victory left the US with the task of nation-building in Iraq, "an unavoidably high-risk, obstacle-ridden enterprise". A fair description, as we now know only too well.

Record listed a number of those risks and obstancles from the standpoint of 2003 that were already visible to those who made enough effort to get past the superficial view provided by the American "press corps": the guerrilla warfare already then well under way; the lack of an allied native government in Iraq; the absence of major international help, the largely Potemkin "coalition" notwithstanding; US "global military overstretch"; the lack of training and experience of US troops in nation-building operations; the tension between the utopian goal of building a model democracy in Iraq and the pragmatic one of getting an effective government in place quickly; the Coalition Provisional Authority's lack of political legitimacy among Iraqis; and, the financial cost of the occupation and counterinsurgency war.

It's notable at this point that Record did not include hostilities among Shi'a Arabs, Sunni Arabs and Kurds as one of the most obvious obstacles - much less the prospect of civil war. The guerrilla warfare was mainly Sunni insurgents fighting the Americans at that point. But he did recognize that those fault lines were significant:

Primary loyalties inside Iraq are ethnic, tribal, and religious, not national, and it is Iraq socieity's very fragmentation along these lines and the long history of Sunni-Shiite and Arab-Kurdish strife that pessimists believe will engulf the U.S. occupation. (p. 85)
Still, Record can right claim to have foreseen some of the more grime possibilities for the immediate future, and the absence of any immediate prospect of more hopeful developments. Hence the title Dark Victory. And his analysis provides valuable insights into developments with long-term consequences that were there to see for those who looked. But not to the cheerleaders at FOX News who were fixated on that toppled statue of Saddam and those freshly-painted schools we still hear about - and mostly not to the complacent American press generally. For instance, Record recognized that not only was the Afghanistan War not the instantly successful war of liberation the Cheney-Bush administration pretended it was. It also foreshadowed present (in 2003) and future trouble in Iraq:

The same was true in Afghanistan. Though the Bush administration removed the Taliban regime in 2001, it was not prepared to invest the resources necessary to prevent Afghanistan's descent into that country's pre-Taliban warlordism. As of the fall of 2003, the "government" of Hamid Karzai controlled little territory outside Kabul; a brigade-sized U.S. Army force remained in Afghanistan, where it was conducting operations against a resurgent al-Qaeda presence in eastern Afghanistan and in Pakistani territory bordering Afghanistan. The central government in Kabul lacked adequate security forces, infrastructure, and foreign assistance; the absence of government forces or an outside occupation force in the countryside effectively ceded most of Afghanistan to local warlords and the continuing strategic intrigue of Iran and Pakistan; massive heroin production resumed.' The lack of a determined U.S. political follow-through in Afghanistan was, in the judgment of Frederick W. Kagan, "emblematic of a larger failure to recognize that the shape and nature of a military operation establishes for good or ill the preconditions for the peace to follow. It is possible, as we saw both in Afghanistan and in our earlier campaign against Iraq in 1991, to design military operations that are brilliantly successful from a strictly operational point of view but that do not achieve and may actually hamper the achievement of larger political goals." (p. 142; my emphasis)
Frederick Kagan, who he quotes there, is one of the neocon bigwigs. But even a neoconcan be right on occasion. And those occasions are rare enough to deserve special mention.

It's also worth noting that the situation is generally worse in Afghanistan in 2007 than it was in 2003.

Record also emphasized the change in American relations to its European allies brought about by the Iraq War, which is still far too little understood in the US except by some of the foreign-policy wonks:

But was it necessary for the leader of the Atlantic alliance to go out of its way to divide the alliance between those who, for a variety of motives, supported the administration policy on Iraq ("new Europe") and those who, also for a variety of motives, did not ("old Europe")? Should the administration's decision for preventive war against Iraq have been employed as a loyalty test for the other eighteen members of the alliance? And should the United States continue to exclude from participation in Iraq's reconstruction those members of NATO that refused to believe that Iraq posed a credible threat to the United States and U.S. interests in the Gulf? If the existing trend in trans-Atlantic relations continues, especially "if pre-Iraq war diplomacy becomes the pattern," contends Kissinger, "[t]he international system will be fundamentally altered. Europe will be split into two groups defined by their attitude toward cooperation with America. NATO will change its character and become a vehicle for those continuing to affirm the transatlantic relationship. The United Nations, traditionally a mechanism by which the democracies vindicated their convictions against the danger of aggression, will instead turn into a forum in which allies implement theories of how to bring about a counterweight to the hyperpower United States." Surely, such a divided West, Europe, and NATO cannot be in America's long-term interest, especially in a world of rising Islamist violence against Western civilization and everything it stands for.(pp. 150-151; my emphasis)
And Record's main conclusion is far more obvious today: "It is the central conclusion of this book that the U.S. war against Iraq in 2003 was not only unnecessary but also damaging to long-term U.S. political interests in the world."

Sadly, it would be too much to expect of our corporate media to expect that they would give priority to people like Jeffrey Record who were so right back then, instead of continually bringing us the grand opinions of the Bill Kristols of the world who have been so spectaculary wrong about the Iraq War all along.

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