Shifting Sands

As images of the bombed United Nations headquarters in Baghdad appeared on television last week, my thoughts turned to a conversation I had with a very senior national-security official (a political appointee with no military experience, not a career bureaucrat) prior to the invasion of Iraq. He earnestly told me that after Saddam Hussein's fall, Americans would be welcomed in Iraq, and not with a fleeting shower of goodwill but with a "deluge" of "rose water and flowers" that would last in perpetuity. Ahmad Chalabi and American advisers would set up shop to oversee a transition spearheaded by scores of returning Iraqi exiles, who would transform Iraq into a profitable, oil-pumping society. After all, the official said, this wasn't Afghanistan, where there were lots of religious and tribal differences among the local populations. We wouldn't need to stay long, and we certainly wouldn't need the United Nations -- which, as far as this official and his compatriots were concerned, could go screw itself. The United States could handle it all. Within a year, he said, Iraq would be a beacon of democracy and stability in the Middle East.

These sentiments weren't anything new, of course; I'd heard -- and continue to hear -- the same refrain sung by the neoconservative wing of Washington's brilliant-but-wrong choir. I therefore sighed as I anticipated the response to the query-as-rejoinder about to pass my lips. "So what do you think of the Army War College report?" I asked. The document I referred to was titled Reconstructing Iraq: Insights, Challenges and Missions for Military Forces in a Post-Conflict Scenario, and it had been released in draft form the previous October, with a much more detailed version appearing in February 2003. That report said that the administration hadn't planned adequately for a post-Hussein Iraq; it also very presciently rendered the likely results of such poor planning and gave well-considered suggestions for how to either properly shepherd Iraq to stability or, if too late for that, what not to do to make a bad situation worse. The last line of the document's penultimate section wasn't exactly encouraging: "Without an overwhelming effort to prepare for occupation," it said, "the US may find itself in a radically different world over the next few years, a world in which the threat of Saddam Hussein seems like a pale shadow of new problems of America's own making."

The official smiled a smug smile, reiterating his belief that most of those in uniform really didn't know anything. He dismissed internal military concerns about how thinly stretched U.S. forces were and how onerous the manpower requirements in postwar Iraq would be. He was particularly derisive of Eric Shinseki, the soon-to-be-forcibly-retired Army chief of staff, whose estimates of manpower requirements for postwar Iraq had been characterized by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz as "wildly off the mark." Shinseki's comments, the official I spoke with said, were "bullshit from a Clintonite enamored of using the army for peacekeeping and nation building and not winning wars."

When I saw the official a few months later -- right at the time Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was saying there wasn't a guerilla war in Iraq but his top general on the ground was saying that, well, yes, in fact there was -- I asked him if he'd gotten around to reading the report. No, he said, adding as his Stepford programming kicked in that there was nothing to be worried about -- those attacking U.S. troops were just a handful of Baathists, not foreign terrorists. "We know how to deal with them," he preened, "and the average Iraqi isn't going to take up arms against us."

Now the administration has changed its tune yet again, admitting that scores
of rogue Baath Party loyalists and foreign terrorists are marauding throughout Iraq. But only Baathists and al-Qaeda-linked terrorists -- or so my administration acquaintance swears. Earlier this week I sent him a copy of Sydney Morning Herald reporter Paul McGeough's Aug. 16 investigation into the burgeoning anti-American guerilla movement, which is neither Baathist nor associated with al-Qaeda or Ansar-al-Islam. As a result, McGeough reports of the post-Hussein chaos that the Bush administration was so sure couldn't occur, "tribal sheiks, Baghdad businessmen and many ordinary Iraqis [are] speaking in such harsh anti-American terms that it is hard not to conclude there is a growing body of Palestinian or Belfast-style empathy with the resistance." No response from my acquaintance has been forthcoming.

One can only hope that the events of the past week might prompt neoconservatives to reconsider certain fundamental notions about the nature of modern war and peace -- or to at least recognize that their peculiar ideas, put into practice, have proven so problematic that the United States now cannot even create a secure environment for organizations like the United Nations that actually do appreciate the complexities of rebuilding civil society. Such reconsideration is not likely to happen, however, and not just because of simple neocon zealotry. It's bad enough that the neocons default to a combination of denial and spin when confronted with realities that might conflict with their articles-of-faith worldview. What makes it worse is how that default is emboldened by a lack of informed outrage on the part of Congress or the media.

To give but one example: Last month, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith -- the official essentially responsible for the debacle of post-Hussein Iraq -- accepted a report he had hastily commissioned from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on requirements for stabilization of the country. Though the report implicitly condemned Feith's work to date (its lists of things that either haven't been done or need to be done in a radically different manner are damning), you wouldn't know it from The Washington Post's account, which made one passing reference to the report's "critical" nature and assured readers that the undersecretary had "embraced" many of the document's findings.

The Post, and everyone else, also failed to mention that the CSIS paper was essentially a rehash of the pre- and postwar work of the think tank's own Anthony Cordesman, a conservative analyst whose grounded-in-reality assessments have put him at odds with the neoconservatives -- as well as the War College's Reconstructing Iraq, which had been so cavalierly dismissed by my acquaintance in the administration.

So far the United States has taken the opposite approach of the one prescribed by that report -- and just about every avoidable malady the document predicted has come to pass. Despite its remarkably perceptive qualities, the report itself has only been cited in two U.S. news sources. And the main use the media has found for one of its authors, Conrad Crane (a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel), has not been for consultation on the perils of improperly executed occupation and reconstruction operations -- rather, his prime utility to news organizations like National Public Radio and The Associated Press has been to explain how military operations are given their nicknames.

In that vein, we might consider referring to postwar Iraq as "Operation Cognitive Dissonance" or "Operation Willful Ignorance," as the administration's civilian leadership and its crony generals appear to be unwilling or unable to abide reality. Though President Bush may still be unaware of it, his early July "bring 'em on" invitation to Iraqi insurgents infuriated swaths of officers and enlisted men and women alike. ("Only a frat boy who has no idea what it's like to have his ass under fire would say that," a retired officer seethed to me at the time.) It also enraged their families -- who, thanks to an administration and a Congress that have pledged "unequivocal support" to servicemen and their dependents, are about to see combat pay and family separation allowances cut and enlisted raises capped.

It's not exactly the type of practice that's in the spirit of the CSIS report, which ends by noting that the "US government -- both the executive branch and Congress -- must change certain business as usual practices in order to maximize the [Coalition Provisional Authority's] opportunities to be successful. The CPA needs more resources, personnel and flexibility. We owe it to our people in the field, and to Iraqis, to provide everything necessary to get this right. US credibility and national interest depend on it." But coming from an administration that bases policy more on faith than facts, it's hardly surprising.

Jason Vest is a Prospect senior correspondent and a contributor to The Nation and The Village Voice.

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