Sunday, June 15, 2008

Iraq, five years later

What people, including historians, in the future will think about the Iraq war is anyone's guess. The answer will depend in part on events that have not yet happened and things we cannot now know. But it has been more than five years since the US-led invasion of Iraq, and the operation seems to be coming to a conclusion. US troop levels will start dropping even before the election and drop faster afterwards.

The most important thing about the Iraq war is not how it started, but how it is ending, with the so-called "surge" that started late last summer - essentially, concentrating a large number of the best combat troops in and around Baghdad. It reflects classical counterinsurgency doctrine, with its origins in previous wars (El Salvador, Vietnam, Algeria, Philippines, etc.) only dimly remembered by most today, but carefully studied by the military. However, the "surge" only became a reality after the Republican defeat in the 2006 elections and Bush's relinquishing of operational control of the war. Instead, a civilian, Defense Secretary Gates, and a military officer, General Petraeus, were put in charge, with the civilian as the senior partner, the optimal approach. At the urging of the military and members of Congress (including McCain), Bush was forced to accept the policy, having nowhere else to go. His dogmatism and incompetence had left him in a deadend.

The surge has led to two large positive results: a sharp decline in violence and the decisive defeat of al Qa'eda in Iraq, reflective of its apparent larger disintegration. (See the articles by Lawrence Wright in the New Yorker and Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank in the New Republic.) Al Qa'eda's mistake was the most obvious one that can be made by any guerrilla movement or insurgency, choosing or being forced to fight an organized professional army in the open. Contrary to widespread myth, no guerrilla movement alone has ever won a war, and such movements cannot survive a direct fight with an army.

But the US has also had a large bit of luck here. To be defeated, an insurgency has to lose its cover among the civilian population, while the civilian population has to feel that casting its lot with the counterinsurgency is the lesser risk. In 2004, 2005, and 2006, al Qa'eda seemed on the way to winning in Iraq, because they had cover among Iraq's suddenly powerless and angry Sunnis. But al Qa'eda made the fatal mistake of imposing its harsh version of Islam on those Sunnis, who then turned on them in 2007 and 2008. Al Qa'eda had nowhere to run. It's a scenario that has played out before in the Arab and Muslim worlds: a population attracted to a radical Islamic movement, only to be totally alienated by it. Al Qa'eda took the lives of about 50,000 of their fellow Muslims to prove this, again.*

All of which demonstrates a perennial truth about war: it often ends in a place far from where it started.

The price of the surge. Like any such sudden turnaround, the success of the surge has come at price. There's the large amount of cash (bribes, essentially) doled out to Sunni tribal chiefs to cement their shaky loyalty to the Baghdad government. The US is now following a policy of no interference in purely internal Iraqi conflicts, which means that such conflicts and the mix of corruption and violence surrounding them evolve in their own way, without American attempts to shape them, so long as they do not become connected with jihadis.

Those changes reflect a larger change in American policy, the de facto abandonment of the democratization strategy. This policy lies in tatters elsewhere in any case, by the very forces that the Bush policy never came to grips with: jihadis from Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia; the persistence of powerful tribal-sectarian divisions in the Middle East; and the sharp rise in the price of oil, which provides these forces with more material resources.** Restoration of democratic sovereignty has failed in Lebanon, thanks to Syria and Iran. Where elections do occur, they fragment populations into religious and tribal shards and open the way for jihadist groups. These forces threaten the democratically elected governments currently in charge in both Baghdad and Kabul, which could not survive in their present form without the presence of Western (mainly American) troops.

Military transformation collides with nation building. By making do with the troops available, rather than vainly wishing for the much larger number needed for a traditional occupation and "nation-building" effort, the "surge" has reasserted a more conservative and realist conception of military force and succeeded in making lemonade from lemons.

But why the lemons to begin with? The immediate cause was the push for "military transformation" which began after the Cold War and entered a heightened phase under former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld in 2001. The essence of "military transformation" was to continue to shrink US troop levels, while improving their ability to fight hi-tech conventional wars against other states. The idea is to be ready to fight another army - as in Korea or World War II - but with the newest technology, moving the US forces even further in the direction of an agile, light force capable of defeating conventional enemies quickly, but even less able to act as an occupation and nation-building force. The quick defeat of the Iraqi army in the spring of 2003 demonstrated "military transformation" perfectly. It was a faster, cheaper, and less deadly version of the 1991 Gulf war.

But that was merely three or four weeks, of toppling Saddam, out of more than five years, of "now what?" The Rumsfeld doctrine of military transformation has been harshly criticized by both neocons and liberals as sacrificing "boots-on-the-ground" in favor of a shiny, hi-tech military future. Rumsfeld, like Colin Powell, was shaped by the Vietnam era and the rejection by American society in general, and the officer class in particular, of "nation building." Following this powerful prejudice of senior American military officers, its forces are prepared and equipped for wars only, in the narrow sense, like the 1991 war. The failure of preparation for a post-Saddam Iraq led to a spectacular collision of the military transformation doctrine with the reality of occupation and has put unprecedented strain on the American army.† Given that Rumsfeld was completely out of tune with what would be needed in Iraq, it's surprising he stayed as long as he did. He was originally opposed to the war and tried to resign at the end of 2003 and again in the spring of 2004. But Bush leaned hard to keep him from leaving. Here we get to another difficult puzzle, the strange effect of Bush's obsession with loyalty on the people around him.

The failure to foresee what post-Saddam Iraq would look like is at the heart of the depressing story told by the best books on the 2003-07 period. They include George Packer's The Assassin's Gate, Larry Diamond's Squandered Victory, Thomas Ricks' Fiasco, Bing West's No True Glory, and Ali Allawi's The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace. Where a realistic guess of a post-Saddam Iraq should have been was a void, eventually filled by Bush and White House staff with wishful thinking of the neoconservative type.

The neoconservative failure. Fallacious neocon theories about democratization and the Middle East are the core of the failed Bush policy. Similar intelligence was available to both Clinton in 1998 and Bush in 2002 about Saddam's weapons programs and stockpiles. One difference in 2002 was, obviously, that the 9/11 attacks greatly raised the stakes. Bush determined to prevent future attacks, not just respond to them. But the injection of neocon theorizing also made a decisive difference, because it transformed a narrow debate about terrorism and unconventional weapons into a fuzzier and open-ended fantasy of regional and political transformation. This thinking could have been taken seriously by someone who thought that the Middle East as a whole and Iraq in particular were like eastern Europe or Latin America in the 1980s, or Germany and Japan in 1945. Only conservative and libertarian critics and skeptics strongly objected to this once-liberal, now-neocon "well-intentioned" and "fuzzy-minded" thinking. (See here, here, and here for George Will's corrosive skepticism and steely-eyed, classic foreign policy realism.) But such criticism had little influence: the Republican party, led by Bush, had rearranged itself to exclude precisely such objections. Centrists and liberals took the ideas for granted with no coherent answer to the neocon theories. The far left became consumed with its own kooky counterreality of "American empire" and "Bushitler."

In this verbal snapshot, Bing West described the state of Basra at the start of the invasion:
In March 2003, I accompanied the Marine battalion and British engineers who seized the pumping station just north of Basra that facilitated a multibillion-dollar flow of oil. The engineers were appalled to find open cesspools, rusted valves, sputtering turbines, and other vital equipment deteriorating into junk. Heaps of garbage lay outside the walls of nearby houses. Yet inside the courtyards, tiny patches of grass were as well tended as putting greens. That defined Iraq: a generation of tyrannical greed had taught Iraqis to look out for their own, to enrich their families, and to avoid any communal activity that attracted attention.
It's not the sort of thing that can be changed with the snap of the fingers. This is a larger failure of "intelligence" than just misjudging the scope of Saddam's WMD programs (which were real, if small) and the size of his stockpiles (which were non-existent).

The intelligence failure. The continued obsession with WMD distracts most people from seeing this truth. The fact is, if Saddam had had such weapons or a large weapons program, the long-term results of the Iraq occupation would not have differed except in details. Al Qa'eda would still have itched to turn Iraq into a showdown. The gross inadequacy of the number and type of troops deployed; the almost complete lack of planning for a post-Saddam Iraq; the radicalization of the Iraqi Sunnis, enraged by their loss of exclusive minority rule over Iraq - none of these would have been any different. The comprehensive failure of the Bush strategy for thinking beyond the first few weeks after the invasion and the apparent fantasy of the administration neocons - that Iraq would just snap into place as a functioning civil society - remain the grand mistakes of the Iraq war. After all, there were good reasons to think that, after ejecting weapons inspectors in August 1998, Saddam had restarted his weapons programs and produced some for use. He had used chemical weapons in the past.††

That's not to say that the intelligence failure isn't important. But its importance is not what Democratic politicians, having supported the war and now running for political cover, want you to believe. If the "Bush lied, people died" trope is a little too familiar as a cliché, consider the recently released Senate Intelligence Committee report on the pre-war Iraq intelligence situation. It mostly confirms what everyone already knows, or should know: not just the CIA, but virtually all foreign intelligence services believed that Iraq had restarted of its advanced weapons programs. There is a very serious problem here, but it's not with "Bush lied" - there's no evidence that he did. In fact, Bush and the people around him fervently believed in what they were saying, and there lies the real failure: they believed too much and too well.

Midnight at the oasis. A long-running deficiency has plagued American intelligence in the Middle East since the late 1970s. We used to be able to collect our own Middle East intelligence, largely thanks to the relatively free country of Lebanon, the Arab world's previous and failed democratic experiment. When the Lebanese civil war started in 1975 and Western diplomats and spies there started being kidnapped in the early 1980s, that venue vanished, and the US began to rely on proxies for intelligence: first the Shah, who fell in 1979; then Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan.‡ This is not to let the Bushies off the hook - a failure of such long standing, including the failures that let to 9/11 - should have been dragged out front and center in 2002 for thorough scrutiny. The problem is that changing this dependency would require a complete overhaul of US alliances and, even harder, the policies and interests controlling our relationships with Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

If there is a specific thread that keeps popping up again and again in this history, it is the long-term degeneration and failure of the CIA. This failure is evident from the recent Senate report, the Kay report on Iraq's weapons programs, the 9/11 Commission report, and the CIA's repeated public misjudgments of the Middle East. The "work" (if it can be called that) of former CIA people gone public (Michael Scheuer, Valerie Plame, Joe Wilson) makes it clear that the CIA's mindset is so far off base from what's needed that the agency is probably beyond saving. It should just be shut down: if "empty suit syndrome" means anything, the CIA is it.

This large and costly lesson about intelligence should never be forgotten: decisions of war and peace should be made only on public and obvious things. Intelligence has been used, both successfully and unsuccessfully, during wars. But decisions to step from peace to war, and from war to peace, should only be made on something more reliable than guesswork. It doesn't preclude military action in the future; it does preclude the doctrine of pre-emption, unless the threat is sitting on someone's lawn, so to speak. It means the end of the distinctive mix of mistaken neoconservative ideas that went into the Iraq war: connecting secular dictators with jihadi terrorists, "regime change" with poor prospects for functioning replacement governments, pre-emption based on intelligence trusted as more certain than it can ever be, the belief that Middle Eastern democratization improves American security in any but marginal and costly ways.

A moment of silence. It is far from the first time soldiers have died for the strategic mistakes of their leaders, far from the worst instance, and probably won't be the last. I know that's small consolation to those who lost relatives and friends in Iraq. The intervention does have positive achievements: the overthrow of a cruel dictator, and the crushing defeat and apparent dissolution of al Qa'eda outside its home territory.

But these have come at too high a cost and taken much too long. While falling apart elsewhere, al Qa'eda is regenerating on its home turf, the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Supposed allies like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia continue to play a thoroughly ambiguous game with radical Islamic groups in no way in keeping with Bush's famous "you're with us or you're against us." In the wake of the debacle of neoconservatism, the big strategic issues are again up for grabs. In our present hyperpartisan hysteria, there's little hope they will be addressed, at least while we live under the evil sway of the "permanent campaign."

POSTSCRIPT: Listen here for a podcast interview with Douglas Feith, about his book War and Decision, the Iraq war, and more. What Feith says and documents in his book, and also what he does not address, are as important as the books mentioned above.
* The civil war in Algeria, which led to the same result, ran for a decade after 1992 and took the lives of over 150,000. The Lebanese civil war (1975-1990, although it's never really ended) killed between 50,000 and 100,000. Iraq's 2003-08 civil war falls into the same class.

** Of course, it also provides them with more to fight over as well.

† An army of half a million would have been necessary to implement a traditional occupation, rather than the 150,000 deployed. To sustain that over time, with normal troop rotations, would have required a larger base of 2.5 million. Even the larger Cold War military of the 1980s, about 1.6 million and double the size of the post-Cold War military, could not have done it. The American military has not had an army that size since the earlier stages of the Vietnam war, when there was a draft. While most combat troops in Vietnam were volunteers, contrary to myth, draftees did free up volunteers to serve in combat roles.

†† Actually, the evidence is that Saddam thought he restarted his programs and had stockpiles - the people running these programs were evidently doing something else, like stashing money in European bank accounts - and his chemical weapons program ended up in Syria. It's not clear how much Saddam knew about his own regime. That's what dictatorships are like in their final stages. Think of the drug-addled Hitler in his bunker in the spring of 1945.

‡ Not accidentally, every president since Carter has had a misintelligence/misadvice-enabled Middle East folly. Carter had the fall of the Shah, the assassination of Sadat after the Camp David treaty, and the first US security guarantees to the Gulf kingdoms. Reagan had the Marines in Lebanon and the Iran part of the Iran-Contra affair. Bush Sr. had American troops in Saudi Arabia for the long term. Clinton had the Oslo process and not taking al Qae'da seriously (except briefly). Bush Jr. had not taking al Qae'da seriously (at first) and the Iraq war. The list of failures over thirty years is long and striking.

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