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Sunday, October 24, 2004

Haunted by the ghost of Henry Kissenger (and he's not even dead yet)

The National Review wrestles with the The mess in Iraq and the still-birth of a Strong Man

Do the same standards apply to all? Given the scathing denunciations of Bill Clinton and his foreign policy from conservatives, including the writers of The National Review I wonder what they would have written if Clinton had committed the blunders in Iraq, rather than Bush? Unfortunately, we'll never know. But the recent The October 25 (2004) issue of the National Review has an article by Richard Lowry that is a must read for anyone who can't wait to see how the consevative bastion explains the disaster in Iraq and defends the Bush Administration at the same time.

I found his attempt to attack liberals and defend the Bush Administration required some selective use of facts, misdirection and the defense of a bad policy dating back decades. At the beginning of the article he defends not the Administration but the Pentagon. He sets off by paraphrasing (not quoting anyone) the "standard critique of what has gone wrong" and this critique implicates the Pentagon. He attributes this argument to "journalists such as James Fallows and David Rieff," that from these two the idea "entered the slipstream of conventional wisdom" as if the notion the Pentagon ignored all other sources of information comes only from these two journalists and has no basis in fact.

What about conservative critics of the war? Gen. Anthony Zinni, former CentCom commander, has published an article in : The 10 mistakes and you can also read Why we can not win by a soldier on active duty in Iraq. The week of October 11th the weekday "Doonesbury" cartoons gave 5 URLs of conservatives critics of the Bush Administration, including President Eisenhower's son. Recently, the Bagdad Blogger, who writes under the pseudonym Salam Pax, traveled to Washington D.C. and among other people met with a former CIA agent who actually has been to Iraq numerous times. Salam Pax is one of those "middle class not a religious nut-job" type of Iraqis that the Bush administration has hoped will prevail and form the basis of a stable democracy. The Former CIA agent is, well, a former CIA agent - hardly a clone of Howard Dean. From the Guardian re-publication of the Washington trip blog:

"The established wisdom in the state department, intelligence community and the Future of Iraq project was that we had between three and six months after the end of the war before an Iraqi revolt. This is the time you had to get things going nicely for the Iraqis before they turn against you."

"The state department had, through its Future of Iraq project, detailed plans on how to proceed. There were plans for all the ministries. Months were spent preparing reports that once they reached the Pentagon ended up in the waste basket."

Leaving aside for the moment the amount of evidence supporting this view of the relationship between the Pentagon and the State Dept. and the question of the Pentagon's culpability for the mess we're in, this is not a concoction by two liberal writers. Plenty of conservatives have published their outrage and the source of information about the Pentagon's "planning" comes from within the government, not a vicious liberal rumor.

(By the way, Salam Pax is a wonderful writer, his blog entries are laugh out loud funny and his perceptions and insights I found very interesting. To read about his meeting with the former CIA agent from which the above quote comes click here.)

Lowry zeros in on the weakest criticisms, attributes them only to liberals (ignoring the conservatives who share them and their factual basis) and hopes to make so much noise and smoke that no one notices the most damaging ones. Lowry only mentions elections in Iraq to deride General Garner for attempting to hold them too soon (Bremer would subsequently cancel all local elections in June of 2003 specifically because he did not want Baathists or Islamists to win, which he thought would happen.) The words "Abu Ghraib" do not appear anywhere in this article. Nor would one expect any reference to the Red Cross report that revealed the opinion of the U.S. intelligence officers interviewed that between 70-90% of the people incarcerated by U.S. forces were arrested by mistake. He also does not mention Bremer having shut down Mohammad Al-Sadr's newspaper at the low-point of its circulation leading to the Shi'ite leader's subsequent rise in popularity. You see no mention of the fact that the Coalition Provisional Authority can not account for 5 billion dollars that it spent. (Try to imagine the howls of outrage rising from the pages of the National Review if a Democratic President appointed these clowns). And the mainstream media has only given passing mention of the reconstruction and the contractors' hiring practices: shipping in workers from Southeast Asia and hiring rural Iraqis who did not need the jobs - because the workers were cheaper than urban Iraqis. You certainly won't read about that in the National Review.

Lowry's prose attempts to exonerate the Administration with repetitious references to the unpredictability of the course of events. He uses expressions like "inevitable uncertainties and surprises of warfare," and states that "the brilliant and successful war plan had unintended consequences." However, during Salam Pax's trip to Washington he visited with two experts on Iraq who actually knew something about the country. One of them was Judith Yaphe at the National Defense University who recalls the British in 1920 making the same mistakes as the Bush Administration has now and the other was the above mentioned retired CIA officer. At the end of his last day in Washington Pax writes: "There is no way the Bush administration can get away with the mess it created in Iraq by saying it did not know and could not predict this, because for two hours I sat with a man who was so knowledgeable on things I thought no one in the west knew or cared about. It is a shame he is now in the "private sector. ... On my way out of the US, I have to go to the office of border protection again to get my passport stamped. I do my "I believe we should work with the Americans" spiel, but with less conviction than I usually do. The Americans I want to work with seem to be excluded - all they can do is wring their hands and say: "We tried to tell them.""

Let's move on to Lowry's apologia for the Pentagon staff. He defends them with this arguement: "the pure Defense Department pre-war vision that wasn't implemented would have avoided one of the pitfalls of what transpired..." And this was "[The Pentagon favored] the creation of an Iraqi government even before the invasion. And it pushed from the very beginning for a serious effort to train indigenous Iraqi forces, ... so that Iraqis can carry on the fight for their country themselves." Doesn't this sound familiar? It should.

What about this idea of a "creation of and Iraqi government even before the invasion?" Hint: he's talking about Ahmad Chalabi. Lowry's explanation of Chalabi speaks volumes. He quotes a former CPA official: "He had no street credibility, if you ask people about him, you would hear one of three things, or maybe all three: 1) He's a crook; 2) he's not one of us; 3) he's a stooge of the U.S." But then Lowry writes "In any case, he lost all support from the U.S. government when he was quoted in the Daily Telegraph saying any erroneous information that members of his group might have given the U.S. about WMD prior to the war was fine, that they were "heroes in error."" What does this mean?! If Chalabi had not blabed to the press that he lied about WMD and was proud of it then the U.S. would have continued to support him regardless of his obvious unpopularity in Iraq? This also does not explain why the Bush Administration supported a convicted embezzler without supporters in the country. The more Lowry tries to defend the Pentagon planners, the worse they look.

To see what an Iraqi who actually lives in Iraq thinks of Chalabi and the exile government read the Bagdad Blogger. You can even read news from conservative papers like the Wall Street Journal about the corruption of Chalabi and his cronies, his links to Iran and his fall from grace. Attempting to push an exile government on Iraq (especially Chalabi) was one of the blunders, not a solution.

But in his descriptions of specific failings Lowry falls deeper into an astonishingly appauling alternate reality (one we have seen before). The Administration was too nice and too humanitarian. [No kidding, go look up the article yourself if you don't believe me.] He quotes General Myers appearance in the Senate Armed Services Committee in June. "[The idea was] to let regular Iraqi divisions [go], while destroying equipment and some of their people. If they melted away, then let them melt away, because they were conscripts, after all. So if there is a blame here, it was making some assumptions on how the Iraqi people would react to that, and I would submit we were probably too gracious in our victory in hindsight." So what was the alternative? Kill them all? Lowry writes: " In Iraq, the conciliatory gesture, the half-measure, took priority over the work of smashing the enemy and establishing order." Read that sentence again. It is very revealing. This is an old argument that dates back to the time that Nixon was Vice President: "They [insert name of foreigners here] hate us because they think we're weak and they do not respect us."

This ignores Gen. Anthony Zinni, who wrote in that in the 90s the U.S. dropped leaflets all over Iraq promising to take care of the ordinary Iraqi soldier if there was another war. The fact that Bremer ignored and effectively broke this promise Lowry explains away by blaming the Iraqis: "the army had really disbanded itself. It was, in its essence, an instrument of repression. Shia conscripts weren't going to serve another day under the lash of Sunni officers." Does this mean the U.S. could not appoint Shia officers from among the ranks? And how do we know that this disaffection did not happen after they realized that no one would receive their army pay anymore? Lowry does not even bother discussing the devastating economic effects on the businesses from which the soldiers used to purchase goods and services. No, we were too gracious in our victory (?!). But this line of reasoning grows far worse: "The U.S. got a little taste of how trying to maintain Saddam's army would have worked in its April 2004 deal with former Baathist officers in Fallujah, who promised to police the city and promptly faded away or joined the other side." Fast forward to a year later as a justification for screwing the Iraqi Army soldiers?! And Lowry forgets that when Bremer disbanded the army he let them keep their weapons "because we may need to use them again someday"(?!). Lowry's perception of cause and effect exists in its own separate (and surreal) version of the space-time continuum.

Lowry spends a lot of ink writing about how the training of an Iraqi security force sooner would have made all the difference while ignoring the fact that the recruits have to come from somewhere. He treads a fine line between conceding the obvious and ignoring factual information readily available from even conservative news sources (such as the Wall Street Journal). If we use the same "fast forward" technique as Lowry, consider the experience of Canadian Journalist Scott Taylor (, Wednesday, September 22nd, 2004) who was kidnapped at an Iraqi police check-point with the aid of the Iraqi security people. This makes one wonder whether "better training" done sooner would have made the them more or less dangerous and for whom. The insurgency has heavily infiltrated the Iraqi Security Forces (surprise?). Maybe the problem does not boil down to a choice between an intact Iraqi Army vs. "Security Forces" but instead on a foundation of betrayal and broken promises. I am not just talking about disbanding the Iraqi Army. Remember that Bush Sr. called upon the Iraqi people to rise against Saddam in 1992 and then halted that war while anti-Baathist Iraqis and Shi'ites were rioting in the streets. During the recent war U.S. forces found the mass graves of the current Bush Administration's would-be Iraqi supporters. That Bush Jr. does not have a sizable part of the Iraqi population, grateful for the fall of Saddam and supportive of U.S. objectives, should not come as a surprise: his father expended many their lives in a cravenly opportunistic, atavistic act, even for warfare. Does Lowry think that their surviving relatives, as well as most other Iraqis, have forgotten that? They still remember the crusades.

This article also shows a contempt for democracy, or at least a democracy that would elect leaders lacking Lowry's or the Bush Administration's approval. Throughout the article Lowry brushes aside the importance of a democratic process in Iraq. He writes of establishing an Iraqi government more quickly, but concurs with Bremer and derides General Garner regarding elections: "He [Garner] talked, absurdly, of convening a constitutional convention, writing a constitution, and holding an election all by August. He had a political tin ear, and the U.S. military didn't take him seriously." And of Bremer he writes: "With his [Bremer's] arrival, the U.S. lurched into a full-fledged military occupation of a country in much worse shape than it had imagined. This represented a total defeat of the Pentagon's vision, which had been to avoid, or minimize, a U.S. occupation, by creating an Iraqi provisional government before the invasion or immediately after it." (emphasis mine). He also bemoans in passing a plan to recruit and train Iraqi security forces before the invasion did not materialize. In Lowry's world a puppet regime of Iraqi exiles would prove far more acceptable to Iraqis than early elections. Doesn't this sound familiar? It should.

Keep in mind that the "solution" Lowry argues for, an emphasis on "Iraqi Security Forces" recruited and trained by the United States under the control of a puppet regime of former exiles, echos a failed policy of the past. A leader "friendly to U.S. interests" with a Pretorian Guard loyal to him should look sickeningly familiar to any student of 20th century U.S. foreign policy: remember Manuel Noriega, Augusto Pinochet, Anastacio Samoza, Papa and Baby Doc Duvallier, and [drum roll please] the Shah of Iran (Gee, remember how well that worked out for us?). Lowry cleverly avoids stating outright this return to past practice, but the spirit of Henry Kissenger's "strong man policy" lurks between the lines. We do not see anything new here. Had the Pentagon a "clear field" and installed the exile regime with their "Iraqi security force" to back them, what would have happened instead? In Lowry's mind: victory, a "stable" pro-Israel, Pro-U.S. "democracy." And pigs will fly over Mecca. When will this old decrepit and anti-democratic policy finally die, when will people in the U.S., even republicans, recognize it in whatever guise it may take, and repudiate the policy and the leaders (and writers) who perpetrate it? But more importantly, just because initial attempts to install a friendly regime in Iraq (with a pretense of democracy) have failed does not mean that the Bush Administration will quit trying.

Not surprisingly, Lowry comes to the conclusion is that Bush should have a second term. He quotes an un-named official who thinks "... there is going to be vigorous retooling in a second term." Is that a promise or a threat?

What Went Wrong? Richard Lowry. National Review. New York: Oct 25, 2004. Vol. 56, Iss. 20; pg. 34, 8 pg

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