As fighting continues in Iraq 20 months after the fall of Baghdad, with more U.S. troops en route, some of the war's biggest proponents are putting out a new story line to deflect blame.
Heaven forfend that those responsible should accept the blame for the gross mismanagement of postwar Iraq (and give us hope of wiser policies down the line). No, instead we see a shameless passing of the buck.
Iraq's troubles are the fault of Colin Powell, the State Department, and the CIA, says Richard Perle, the former chairman of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Review Board. Perle is one of the most active of the neoconservatives whose thinking shaped the handling of the postwar.
Last week Perle told Fox television's Bill O'Reilly that Iraq's problems should be laid at Powell's door.
I know you thought that it was Powell who lost out in the battle with the Pentagon over Iraq. So listen up to Perle's argument, which goes like this:
The United States made a big mistake after Iraq was liberated by not handing the "keys" over to Iraqis to run their own country. There was "an umbrella group of opposition figures" to whom U.S. officials could have handed power, meaning the group headed by the Pentagon's favorite exile leader, Ahmed Chalabi.
"Instead," Perle says, "we embarked on what became an extended occupation. That was fundamentally mistaken."
Whose fault was this? "It was Secretary Powell and some others who wanted the extended occupation," Perle insists.
There is more.
Perle says that before the war, the Department of Defense wanted to "train thousands of Iraqis to go in with us so that we wouldn't be the aggressor, we wouldn't be the occupying power."
Those proposals were blocked by the State Department and the CIA, and poor Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was "never able to get approval for the political strategy that might... have saved us from much of the subsequent misery."
Now for a reality check.
Yes, it would have been wise for the administration to midwife a transitional Iraqi government before the election - provided that it left half of the seats open for Iraqis inside the country.
I argued for such a policy in my column and followed this story in Washington, London and Iraqi Kurdistan, just before the war, where exile groups were meeting.
So why didn't it happen?
It didn't happen because Pentagon civilian leaders (Perle included) were interested only in a transitional government headed by Chalabi. But Chalabi had alienated all the other exile groups, including Kurds and Shiites, that had once been part of his umbrella group.
The State Department, the CIA, and key members of the National Security Council - which means the White House - had all concluded by the autumn of 2002 that Chalabi was an unreliable leader. Despite the illusions held by Pentagon officials (who appear to hold them still), he had no base inside Iraq. There was no obvious Iraqi exile to anoint as a transitional leader before the war, no parallel to Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai.
But had the Pentagon worked in tandem with State, had the White House devised a coherent policy for the postwar period, the United States could have encouraged Iraqi exile groups to agree on a transitional governing body that would have stepped in after Baghdad's fall.
Instead, Pentagon officials pursued their Chalabi illusion, airlifting him into Iraq behind U.S. troops. Iraqis never welcomed him back, as anyone could have predicted. With no Iraqi leadership in sight, U.S. officials had to step into the vacuum.
Blame the Pentagon or White House incoherence for the ensuing occupation and its problems, not Powell.
As for the bit about the Pentagon wanting to train "thousands of Iraqis" to take over Iraqi security - this is outright baloney. Yes, the Pentagon did want to train some Iraqis, and in fact some hundreds of exiles were assembled at a NATO base in Hungary. But this was never meant to be, nor could it have been, a fighting force.
These were mostly overweight exiles, with no recent combat experience, who were meant to play a limited role helping out U.S. troops. Few of them ever made it to Iraq.
When the Pentagon airlifted Chalabi into southern Iraq, he did bring with him around 600 militiamen who proclaimed themselves the Free Iraqi Forces (FIF). But these were mostly a pickup army he recruited in northern Iraq just before the war. Once back in Baghdad, FIF fighters developed a reputation for stealing cars.
It was never possible for the Pentagon to train an exile army from scratch just before the war. This cannot serve as an excuse for the failure to send enough troops to provide stability after the fall of Baghdad.
Perle is still selling the same kind of illusions about Iraq that led the United States into the current Iraq mess. We won't get out until there is a coherent White House policy that focuses on real facts.
And the second Bush team won't have Powell around to blame.
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