Learning From Our Mistakes

Finally, after much thought, are my reflections on the debate answers I gave one year ago.

You ask, why is it necessary, or important, to revisit a debate that has been settled for so many months?

I believe that it’s important to challenge our most closely held beliefs, because that’s the best way to find out just how valid those beliefs are. It’s especially important to do that when the circumstances in which those beliefs were shaped change.

I think that that time has long since passed when it comes to Iraq. If we are to learn anything useful from this, then we must be willing to challenge what we thought to be true regarding Iraq.

That is why I’m doing this. Few people may read this; yet, if only one does, and derives some small nugget of information which may, in the future, more judiciously govern our elective use of force, then I’ll be happy, knowing I’ve done my job.

Enough. Let us begin. What I’ll do is state the question, and then give my answer based on what I know now. If you’re interested in the original answers, you can look here. I’m doing this to shorten the length of this article, which is already monstrously long.

1. Attacking Iraq has been publicly called a “pre-emption” of a threat  from Saddam Hussein’s regime, whose sins include launching regional wars of  aggression. Do you think there is a clear and reliable difference between  pre-emptive and aggressive warfare, and if so, what is it?

The central point of my original answer was that Saddam’s regime presented a “clear and present danger to the stability of the Middle East”.

I no longer believe that. One of the most startling things I’ve learned about Saddam’s armed forces was that they were in an amazing level of disarray. His Special Republican Guard, and to a lesser degree, the Republican Guard, did possess equipment that was in decent condition, and they had some training, and even somewhat competent leadership.

But that didn’t extend to the regular forces. They had broken-down equipment that, in some cases, hadn’t worked since the first Gulf War. And these forces were composed of ill-trained, ill-fed conscripts, led by, frankly, incompetent leaders, unable to take advantage of the fact that they knew the terrain and, in a number of cases, outnumbered us.

Given all that, it’s no surprise that the bulk of the armed forces decided to simply melt away and see what our occupation held in store for them. Others (especially the SRG, as well as the assorted secret police agencies) decided to take up arms in an insurgency that continues to this day (and shows no sign of ending, by the way), gambling that at least this way, they could gain some small measure of revenge against us.

A much more aggressive inspections regime, coupled with the insertion of American forces in order to enforce compliance, alongside some (if not all) of our NATO allies, might well have answered the questions about Iraq’s WMD program, with little or no loss of life. Looking back at how we’ve handled things, it’s hard to think that this was a worse alternative to what actually happened.

So, no, I don’t think that Saddam was a clear and present danger at the time war broke out. And I think the possible solution I stated above would have worked much better in answering the WMD questions.

As for the difference between “preemptive” and aggressive war, I would have to say that preemption can only be justified when there’s an imminent, clear, and present danger to us or our society—but it’s hard to see how you can put that policy into practice. And given how the Iraq situation has unfolded, I think that the Bush Administration has dealt the idea of preemptive war a grievous blow with its behavior before, during, and after the war.

2. What do you feel are the prospects that an invasion of Iraq will succeed in a) maintaining it as stable entity and b) in turning it into a democracy? Are there any precedents in the past 50 years that influence your answer?

The only way that Iraq will remain a stable entity, let alone become a democracy, is if we remain there, actively involved in the life of the country. Thanks to the Administration’s lack of spine and obsession with domestic politics, that’s not going to happen.

Despite what some (on both the left and the right) are saying, Iraq is nowhere near being a stable, democratic country. And it’s all due to a series of mistakes we made, before, during, and after the invasion.

1. Hope Is Not A Plan

Yet, we based virtually all our planning on the best-case scenario, and refused to plan for the worst-case scenario. This became more and more obvious the higher you ascended the Pentagon’s chain of command. For example, it wasn’t until early August that the highest levels of command admitted that we were fighting a guerrilla war—even though we had already lost more men than in the Bosnia and Kosovo operations combined by that point.

And it wasn’t just the guerrilla war…it was thinking that Iraq had a far more modern infrastructure (it doesn’t); it was thinking that the population would embrace us (they haven’t; in fact, they can’t stand us, except for those who work for the occupation authorities, and even there, opinion is decidedly mixed); it was hoping that other nations would pitch in to help us, even though we had offended most of the world with our actions throughout the past two years (Kyoto, the ICC, and the build up to war only being a few examples)…I could go on, but the conclusion is simple and inescapable: we were banking on hope, rather than reality, to see us through. And you can’t do that. Hope is not a plan.

2. Failing to Invade From the North.

Our original war plan, now largely forgotten, involved the bulk of Coalition forces invading from the south, and the 4th Infantry Division invading from Turkey.

Had that been the case, there is reason to believe that we could have crushed the SRG and RG units located between Tikrit and Baghdad. These were the forces that make up the core of many of the insurgent cells we’re fighting, which means the insurgency might not have proved as sturdy as it’s become.

Instead, this plan was derailed by Turkey’s refusal (thanks, in no small part, to our insulting treatment of its government) to allow our forces to use its bases from which to stage the attack.

3. Disbanding the Iraqi Army.

One of Paul Bremer’s first acts after assuming power in May was to dissolve the Iraqi Army. He did so, despite warnings from some that doing that would mean that a large number of Iraqis would then be unemployed and armed, with no means of providing for themselves or their families.

He did so anyway, and looking back at this, I think it marked the beginning of the insurgency. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were armed, many of them angry at an occupier that had humiliated them on the field of battle, and they were allowed to melt away. It’s no surprise, then, that many of them chose to take up arms, if only to regain some small measure of dignity.

Had we retained their services, I think it would have been far easier to maintain law and security, something that we failed to do spectacularly in the case of Baghdad, where it took most of the summer to restore a basic level of order in the streets, and where our reputation as an intimidating force took a massive hit.

4. The Creation of the Iraqi Governing Council.

Much like the Holy Roman Empire, the IGC is neither Iraqi, nor G
overning, nor even a Council.

For one, it’s composed largely of Iraqi exiles, many of whom have tenuous ties to Iraqis. Of these, the most notorious is Ahmed Chalabi, who’s been accused (with some justification) of embezzling $45 million from a Jordanian Bank back in the early 1990s. Most Iraqis believe that he’s beholden to American interests (thanks to his ties to the CIA and Pentagon), and his presence in the IGC serves as damning proof (to Iraqis) that the IGC is merely a rubber stamp for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).

Which brings me to the next point: the IGC has no real authority. All of its decisions are subject to review by the CPA, which only makes the charge that it’s a rubber stamp body harder to dismiss. Had we decided to give it some power (allowing it to administer the internal affairs of Iraq, largely free of oversight, except in those cases where civil liberties were being affected), this charge would have proved harder to stick, and the IGC might have been more effective, and less irrelevant.

And that’s the thing. Since even its members know that they are largely irrelevant, IGC meetings are sparsely attended by its members, which makes the whole exercise pointless.

If we had either made the IGC a true provisional government, or not established it at all, I think things would have gone better. It’s hard to make the argument that Iraqis are ready for the appearance of self-governance, but aren’t ready for self-governance. As it is, the IGC just gets in the way.

5. The November 15 Agreement

That’s the last big mistake. By stating that we would turn over all power to a provisional government by July 1, we lost any opportunity to influence the establishment, let alone growth, of democracy and freedom in Iraq.

The agreement was borne out of pressure placed on us by the Shi’ite leadership, particularly the Grand Ayatollah, Ali al-Sistani. Once the other constituencies in Iraq (the Sunnis and the Kurds) saw that we were, in effect, giving up control of Iraq, they became much more intractable in their demands.

The Kurds are now equating present autonomy (which neither the Shi’ites or the Sunnis are disposed to allow in whatever government takes power July 1) with future independence, and are prepared to fight for it, if that’s what it takes.

As for the Sunnis, I think that there’s a definite connection between the adoption of the November 15 Agreement and the fact that attacks have increased in lethality, if not number. I think that the Sunnis believe that if they kill enough of us, we may turn over power before June 30, and hopefully, even leave.

It doesn’t help that we’ve decided to turn over the policing and security of Baghdad over to the Iraqi security forces, despite their relative lack of training and discipline. If we limit our involvement in Iraq to the occasional raid, and remain shut down in our fortress-like bases, that only limits our ability to affect events in Iraq positively, and makes it easier for the insurgents to attack us, either through mortar attacks (which are difficult to defend against) or through “terrorist” acts, like car bombs (again, difficult to defend against).

We’ve painted ourselves into a corner. From where I’m standing, I don’t see where Iraq makes the transition to a free market democracy. I hope I’m mistaken, but given that Iraq has no tradition of freedom, I probably am not. And none of the major parties are predisposed to compromise with each other, in the long term, because their long-term interests are contrary to each other.

We could have done a lot better. We had the research showing us a different way to approach events in Iraq, and we chose to ignore it. The Bush Administration deserves eternal scorn for how it has handled events in Iraq, and in a just world, its rank incompetence in how it has handled events would disqualify it from a second term in office.

3. How successful do you think the military operations and “regime change” in Afghanistan have been in achieving their stated objectives? Does this example affect your feelings about war in Iraq in any way?

From the vantage point of two years hence, not very. This may change with the vaunted spring offensive that we’re supposedly planning. I say supposedly because I doubt it’ll happen, given that the enemy now knows what we’re going to do. If we go through with it, it’ll be a huge risk, because the terrain in the Afghan/Pakistani frontier is some of the most forbidding in the world—it’s extremely favorable to defenders who have time to entrench themselves, and it’ll be very difficult to evacuate casualties. We’ll definitely be risking a lot of lives. It’s for the biggest prize of the War on Terror—Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants—but I have my doubts as to whether he’ll be there if the operation takes place.

On a broader standpoint, we’re no closer to achieving a lasting peace in Afghanistan now than we were two years ago. The Karzai government holds sway only in Kabul and its surrounding areas. Elsewhere, warlords run things, as they did prior to the Taliban’s ascent, and the Taliban is itself resurgent.

So there isn’t much cause for optimism there. Things can get better, but it will be along time before they do—if ever.

4. As a basis for war, the Bush Administration accuses Iraq of trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction, supporting terrorism, and brutalizing their own people. Since Iraq is not the only country engaged in these actions, under what circumstances should the U.S. go to war with other such nations, in addition to going to war with Iraq?

We know now that there’s no evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and there was no imminent threat that they would use them—at least according to the CIA. That most everyone thought he had them is immaterial; that wasn’t the point.

The point was that the Administration was saying that he was going to use them in the very near future, either by selling them to a terrorist group (possibly al-Qaeda) or by using them themselves, either against American forces in the region or against American cities. In doing so, the Administration repeatedly invoked the ghosts of September 11, often in as demagogic and provocative a fashion as possible, in order to win approval for its decision to go to war.

We know now that that wasn’t the case. Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, so it would have been impossible for there to have been a threat.

Even if Iraq had WMD, there was no evidence—then or now—that they were threatening to use them. Saddam had not been rattling his sabre, chemical or otherwise, for some years, except in the most general of ways. There was simply nothing that justified going to war when we did, and the CIA—the agency charged with coordinating our intelligence activities—said as much. That is why the Bush Administration decided to establish another agency (the Office of Special Plans) that would come up with “evidence” supporting a decision to go to war that had already been made, and in the end, decided to simply ignore any and all intelligence that contradicted that decision.

It was faith-based intelligence at its finest. The Soviet Union couldn’t have done any better.

As for its support of terrorism, it’s impossible that in a region full of bad actors, two of the worst (Iraq and al-Qaeda) would not have had contacts with each other.

But there’s no evidence that shows that those contacts were anything more than exploratory. On the contrary, there’s more evidence that shows that Saddam and al-Qaeda were, in fact, extremely opposed to each other.

Saddam, besides being a rat
her secular man for a Muslim, viewed groups like al-Qaeda as deadly for his ability to maintain control of Iraq, and what’s more, he would not brook any competition for the devotion of Iraqis. Iraq under Saddam bore a horrifying resemblance to Stalinist Russia and North Korea in its worship of a chief of state, and it’s important to keep that in mind when discussing Iraq’s ties to terrorist groups.

Saddam decided, long before al-Qaeda came into the scene, to invest its money and efforts into a formidable security and intelligence apparatus, and eschewed working with terrorists. There were exceptions (the Mujaheddin-e-Khalq (MEK) and Abu Nidal being the most noteworthy), but by and large, Iraq was not a player in the terrorist scene.

al-Qaeda, for what it’s worth, thinks that secular regimes were an abomination and a barrier to its goal of reestablishing the caliphate. While it has no compunction to working with them, it seems that, whenever and wherever possible, it has avoided doing so.

As for brutalizing the Iraqi citizenry, it is only there that the Bush Administration has been able to salvage some small shred of credibility. And even then, it’s a vanishingly small shred. Why?

Because, if you’ll recall, any humanitarian case for war was made in the most dismissive, peripheral way possible. Freeing the Iraqi people from bondage was never a central pillar of the Administration’s case for war, and it only comes up rarely in the statements of key advisors prior to the war.

Tony Blair made a better case along those line, but then again, Tony Blair’s not the President (would that he were); George Bush is. And George Bush chose not to make the case for war along those terms, instead hoping to frighten us into action by invoking the ghosts of September 11.

His actions in doing so have forever damaged our ability to forcefully take action in any of those three instances. It’s good to be resolute; but it’s far better to be resolute and right, than resolute and wrong. Here, we were resolute and blindingly wrong.

5. The Bush Administration has issued numerous allegations about the threat represented by Iraq, many of which have been criticized in some quarters as hearsay, speculation, or misstatements. Which of the Administration’s allegations do you feel stand up best to those criticisms?

From the vantage point of a year, and knowing what we know now, none of them.

In his alacrity to go to war, George W. Bush and his Administration did incalculable harm to the Presidency and America’s international reputation. What’s more, they’ve shown little inclination to repair the damage, and in fact, by our actions in Iraq, have actually increased it.

I said that in a just world, this would disqualify Bush from getting a second term, and it may keep him from gaining reelection (something that’s devoutly to be wished for).

But, in a real sense, I think that the actions of Bush and his advisors were a crime against democracy. They decided to go to war against a country whose principal offense was its failure to comply with American wishes—we wanted Iraq to disarm, get rid of Saddam, and maybe even make peace with and support Israel, and they didn’t want to.

And once that decision was made, they acted as deceitfully as possible, in full contempt and scorn for that democracy and freedom they so loudly claimed to champion.

In a just world, Bush wouldn’t just fail to gain election; he and his advisors would be forced to forfeit their honor and reputations, and be made to suffer utter indignity.

Only then shall our consciences be cleansed.


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