Iraq: Anatomy of a Quack-Mire
How could such smart people get so much wrong?
"I really do believe we will be greeted as liberators," U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney declared on television just as U.S. troops were massing along the border between Kuwait and Iraq on the eve of Washington's march to Baghdad.
"Wildly off the mark," declared Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, when asked by senators just before the war whether he agreed with then-Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki's estimate that more than 200,000 troops would be needed as an occupation force after the war.
"I believe it is definitely more likely than not that some degree of common knowledge between (al Qaeda and Iraq) was involved" in the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, former Central Intelligence Agency chief and Defense Policy Board member James Woolsey testified before a federal court just before the war.
"We know where they are," Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld assured television viewers about the location of Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD) at the end of March, two weeks into the war. "They are in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad, and east, west, south and north somewhat."
"The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa," declared President George W. Bush in his late-January State of the Union address.
"We know he's out trying once again to produce nuclear weapons and we know that he has a longstanding relationship with various terrorist groups, including the al-Qaeda organization," asserted Cheney on the war's eve.
Now, three months after U.S. troops consolidated control over Iraq, not only has the White House admitted that neither it nor the British ever had solid--as opposed to obviously forged--evidence that Hussein was trying to buy uranium in Africa; no WMD have been discovered; the notion of ties between Iraq and al Qaeda has been officially dismissed by a special U.N. panel; and public sentiment in Iraq--at least as registered by even the compliant U.S. press--appears ever more doubtful about its "liberation," to say the least.
That last observation is bolstered by the fact the administration is engaged in a major debate over whether significantly more troops than the 145,000 U.S. troops in Iraq now are needed to secure the country. Washington has asked no less than 70 countries to contribute troops or police--at mostly U.S. taxpayers' expense--to an occupation that is increasingly open-ended.
Meanwhile, U.S. lawmakers, including growing numbers of Republicans, have become distinctly uneasy about the situation in Iraq, as the gap between the confident predictions made at the start of the war by top U.S. officials and the grim reality of the actual situation--in which U.S. allied and soldiers are facing an average of 13 violent attacks each day--appears to be moving toward guerrilla warfare.
"The problem here is that Americans are unsure about the future of our involvement in Iraq," Republican Sen. John McCain, an Iraq hawk before the war, gently told an increasingly defensive Rumsfeld at a hearing Wednesday as Democrats called openly for the administration to swallow its pride and ask NATO, if not the U.N., to take over. "So what you need to do, in my view, is give...a concrete plan as much as you can."
The 'Q' word--for quagmire--not to mention the 'V' word, for Vietnam--is back in mainstream discourse as each day appears to bring the killing of at least one more U.S. or British soldier, and U.S. troops and officers in Iraq tell television cameras that they are stretched far too thinly to impose order on a country the size of California with a population that grows less and less appreciative of their presence, and appears to be harboring people who actually want them dead.
"The Army is getting bogged down in a morale-numbing 4th Generation War in Iraq that is now taking on some appearances of the Palestinian Intifada," according to a comment late last month on an all-military website, while even some conventional media have suggested that Iraq could turn into a U.S. Chechnya.
"Some frustrated troops stationed in Iraq are writing letters to representatives in Congress to request their units be repatriated," the Christian Science Monitor reported this week. The Monitor quoted from one letter by an Army soldier: "Most soldiers would empty their bank accounts just for a plane ticket home." An officer from the same Division: "Make no mistake, the level of morale for most soldiers that I've seen has hit rock bottom."
U.S. Middle East experts, particularly former diplomats and intelligence officers and academic analysts, had long warned that defeating Iraq militarily would be the easy part. The key question was, what about the morning after? These were the same specialists who also questioned the administration's assertions about Iraq's links to al Qaeda, its reconstitution of a nuclear program, and the more extravagant claims about the quantity of chemical and biological weapons it had at its disposal.
But their views were systematically ignored, even in Congress where most Democrats, eager not to be seen as "soft" on Saddam post-9/11, were reluctant to be seen as calling into question the words of a popular president.
Just as evidence--such as the CIA's conclusion that the "British" reports about Iraqi uranium purposes were forged--was diverted or deep-sixed before it could affect policy-making, so it is clear that those who actually knew something about the Middle East were excluded from policy-making circles.
"It is fairly incredible that the civilians in the Pentagon inhaled their own propaganda about the welcome that U.S. forces would receive from the Iraqis," said retired ambassador Chas Freeman, president of the Middle East Policy Council, a group of former U.S. officials and analysts who specialize in the region. "No one who knew anything about the region ever bought the notion that U.S. troops would be welcomed as liberators, but no one who knew anything about the region was invited to take part in policy discussions."
The result, however, is that the ideologues, particularly those clustered around Cheney and Rumsfeld, simply reinforced each other's assumptions and attacked everyone, including the real experts, who disagreed with them.
The professionals were seen by the hawks as apologists for Arab dictators, Israel-haters, Saudi-lovers, shills for Big Oil, intellectually incurious, and slaves to traditional thinking. As Rumsfeld once complained about U.S. intelligence, "We tend to hear what we expect to hear, whether it's bad or good. Human nature is that way. Unless something is jarring, you tend to stay on your track and get it reinforced rather than recalibrated."
So certain was Rumsfeld that the professionals were wrong, that he set up his own shop to "recalibrate" the intelligence, staffing it with people hand-picked by and ideologically compatible with Wolfowitz. At the same time, Cheney and his deputy, I. Scooter Libby, made frequent visits to CIA headquarters in what was taken as an effort to intimidate the analysts (and presumably CIA director George Tenet). It never occurred to the hawks, of course, that they might be as susceptible to human nature's failings as the professionals.
When the professionals argued in the administration's inner councils that U.S. troops would face as much apprehension and hostility as gratitude from key sectors of the Iraqi population, the hawks replied that they underestimated the attraction and political skills of a man like Ahmed Chalabi, the head of the Pentagon-backed Iraqi National Congress (INC), who told them of his far-reaching secret network of informants and supporters inside Iraq.
Indeed, it was "defectors" who were "recruited" by the INC who provided the information that made the ideologues so confident about the existence of WMD, the ties between Baghdad and al Qaeda, and the rapturous greeting U.S. soldiers would get in Baghdad and on the way there.
"Why was the Pentagon so unprepared for the Day After?" asked Trudy Rubin, foreign affairs analyst for The Philadelphia Inquirer. "Back in November," she wrote last week, "Wolfowitz told me he believed that the London-based Iraqi opposition (headed by Ahmed Chalabi) would return to Baghdad and assume the reins of power, just as Gen. Charles de Gaulle and the Free French returned triumphantly to postwar France."
The hawks thus saw westernized Chalabi, who had not been in Baghdad since he was a teenager, as the man of destiny whom U.S. military forces had merely to install in the capital. The professionals, who had worked with him in the early 1990s, on the other hand, saw him as a confidence man.
"What he did was pander to the dreams of a group of powerful men, centered in the Pentagon, the Defense Policy Board, the vice president's office, and various think tanks scattered around Washington," according to Thomas Engelhardt, a New York writer who produces a daily web log on the war.
"The thing that needs to be grasped here is that since 1991 these men have been dreaming up a storm about reconfiguring the Middle East, while scaling the heavens (via various Star Wars programs for the militarization of space), and so nailing down an American earth for eternity. Their dreams were utopian and so, by definition, unrealizable. Theirs were lava dreams, and they were dreamt, like all such burning dreams, without much reference to the world out there. They were perfect pickings for a Chalabi."
Of course, the fact that Chalabi is now scarcely mentioned as a possible political force in Iraq is barely acknowledged by the hawks who still insist, albeit with less conviction, that things are going their way and that there is no reason to panic.