A number of books are coming out about Iraq, and following the advice of Colin Powell’s former Chief of Staff Larry Wilkerson, I got George Packer’s The Assassin’s Gate from my library system and read it over the weekend. Packer, a New Yorker reporter, has made numerous trips to Iraq over the last three years, and his account is poignant, as well as rich in detail, because he acknowledges that he idealistically favored the war in 2002-3, largely because of contacts with an inspiring Iraqi exile. His hopes, however, seem nearly dead as one finishes the book, all the more so in light of the events of the last six months. In general, the book suggests that the Administration, having adopted a spectacularly optimistic set of assumptions, has never had the curiosity or the patience to find out what Iraq is really about. Like many original supporters of the war—of which I was not one—Packer likes to blame our current situation on planning failures. Certainly those made matters work, but much of his evidence suggests to me, at least, that our vision of a new Iraq never had much chance of coming to fruition, and that the Iraqi people are doomed to suffer even more, with our without our presence, for a long time to come.
Packer, to begin with, does the best job that I have seen of explaining the baneful intellectual effects of Leo Strauss and neoconservatism on the process that led to the war. In my experience Straussians tend to believe that they can prove they are smarter than normal people like you and me by claiming that source materials mean more or less the opposite of what they say, and Packer shows that this is related to a belief that intuition and basic insights are more important than facts. This in turn accounts for the deep distrust of Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, Scooter Libby and Donald Rumsfeld for the State Department and the CIA, which goes back to the 1970s when these agencies, in their view, underestimated the Soviet threat. (Nor have they been deterred by being proven wrong. Packer is no friend of Perle, but he, like every other journalist I have noticed writing about the man, never mentions that Perle in the 1970s and 1980s was certain that the Soviet Union had a second set of nuclear missiles all ready to reload into empty silos and fire after their first strike. The end of the Cold War proved this a fantasy, but no one seems to care.) Diplomats and intelligence agencies draw conclusions based on hard data, but Straussians, as Packer shows, find it more important to understand the “essence” of a regime. “A new method [of intelligence analysis] was urgently needed,” Packer writes, “starting with the higher insights of political philosophy rather than evidence from the fallen world of social science.” Because Saddam was a totalitarian, he was sure to want weapons of mass destruction to use against the US sooner or later—his lack of a stockpile is irrelevant. Such “insights” can have bizarre consequences. Packer mentions one Administration figure—unidentified—who decided that Shi’ites and Jews could work together in the Middle East after discovering that both his own Rabbi and Shi’ite clerics felt that fertility treatments did not violate religious law. He also mentions that one Administration neocons—unnamed—actually discussed a solution to the problems of the Middle East, based upon the principle of “everybody moves over one.” Israel would annex the West Bank, Jordan would become a Palestinian state, and the Hashemite dynasty would return to a new, pro-western Iraq! On such foundations, apparently, is our attempt to transform the Middle East built.
More frightening is the Administration’s failure to grasp how wrong they had been. In early June 2003, Jake Garner, who had briefly headed the American occupation, returned to Washington with a hopeful memorandum for the President, whom he met for 45 minutes of small talk. “You want to do Iran for the next one?” the President asked him as he left. “No sir,” the retired Lt. General replied, “me and the boys are holding out for Cuba.” The Administration had taken to heart the accounts of exiles, some of whom hadn’t lived in Iraq for decades, that described the most westernized, culturally relaxed nation in the region—accounts which were both exaggerated and, crucially, several decades out of date. Both Shi’ites and Sunnis had become far more religious, the latter, after 1991, with Saddam’s encouragement. Packer himself was shocked on an early visit to meet a doctor and former Ba’athist who argued that his party had initially been a force for good. When Packer reminded him that the regime had opened its tenure in 1969 by hanging seventeen Iraqis, thirteen of them Jewish, in public on trumped-up charges, the doctor replied that they were spies, and that “Any patriotic system would have done the same.” That was one of Packer’s wake-up calls. To paraphrase a postmodernist tenet, Iraqi and American reality, it turns out, never coincide and very rarely intersect.
Into this situation came the Coalition Provisional Authority, staffed in part by young Republican ideologues from the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute with no knowledge of the Middle East, much less Arabic. Few of them stayed very long, and their plans for Iraq drew on elements of contemporary conservative economic though like a flat tax and rapid privatization. Meanwhile, the Americans could not (and still cannot) fix Iraq’s electrical grid or repair its water supply. The insurgency took off during 2004, and relations between American soldiers and ordinary Iraqis, Packer found, deteriorated rapidly. Trying to use tips from locals to catch insurgents, the Americans often found they had been taken advantage of, thrown into the midst of local feuds. Oddly, Packer himself shows some typically American insensitivity at times. While he likes and truly wants to understand the Iraqis, he can’t stop himself from telling sexual jokes that seem to fall very flat. Detention, to judge from recent New York Times reports, has become an even bigger part of our strategy during 2005, and no one has any idea how many of the prisoners were truly insurgents, much less what shall be done with them now.
Most serious are the divisions among the Iraqis themselves, which seem far, far more likely to lead to a three-way civil war than to any western-style pluralistic democracy. (We should, alas, not be surprised; as I plan to discuss soon in another post, we are seeing the recrudescence of ethnic and national feeling, the scourge of the first half of the twentieth century in Europe, for which, alas, humanity has found no solution.) The Iraqi people are physically and emotionally traumatized by three decades of totalitarianism, three major wars, twelve years of sanctions, and three years of post-invasion chaos. They have no trust beyond their family, their tribe, and their religious/ethnic group. Shi’ites and Kurds are determined upon concrete revenge, while Sunnis cannot grasp the idea of an Iraq in which they do not rule. This has already led, in Kirkuk, to the ethnic cleansing of thousands of Sunnis whom Saddam planted there to control the Kurds, and as the New York Times reported last Sunday, it is leading to informal population exchanges between Shi’ite and Sunni towns in the south and central regions. Today Packer’s book was finished before Iraqis adopted their new constitution, but he cannot have been surprised that it provides, essentially, for quasi-independent Kurdish and Shi’ite states in the north and south, an option which the Sunnis decisively rejected in the recent vote.
Just this morning, the secular Shi’ite Ayad Allawi, a former US protégé and Prime Minister, gave a chilling interview to the British Observer in response to the recent discovery of a packed torture chamber in Baghdad. “'People are doing the same as [in] Saddam's time and worse,' Allawi said. 'It is an appropriate comparison. People are remembering the days of Saddam. These were the precise reasons that we fought Saddam and now we are seeing the same things.'
“In a damning and wide-ranging indictment of Iraq's escalating human rights catastrophe, Allawi accused fellow Shias in the government of being responsible for death squads and secret torture centers. The brutality of elements in the new security forces rivals that of Saddam's secret police, he said.” (Reproduced for non-commercial-use only.)
This is the situation within which the United States, as James Fallows discusses in the current Atlantic, is trying to build an Iraqi army. The mission, as Fallows notes, is one that the American military has never valued very highly, and our first year of efforts got us nowhere. Even now we are making no effort to set up logistical units that will allow the new Army to take care of itself, and we are unwilling to give them sophisticated weapons for fear of what might happen to them. Fallows concludes that hundreds, perhaps thousands of American soldiers would have to agree to remain in Iraq indefinitely (rather like British subalterns in India) to give the effort any chance of success, and he does not see much chance of that happening.
An excellent web site that has been counting coalition casualties since the beginning of the war-- http://icasualties.org/oif/ -- has just begun listing Iraqi military, police and civilian casualties as well. Their figures—which they acknowledge are inevitably rough—show about 2400 military and police and 5400 hundred civilians killed during 2005. The number of uniformed Iraqi deaths has actually been falling over the last four months, from a high of 304 in July to less than 200 this month, but it obviously remains high, and shows an effective insurgency. A recent New York Times story quoted US military sources to the effect that insurgent attacks were still increasing, and US killed in action this month seem likely to top 80 for the third month out of four.
Congressman John Murtha generated enormous publicity two weeks ago by calling for the withdrawal of American forces. Less noticed was his trenchant survey of the military situation in Iraq, an account apparently based upon his conversations with American military leaders.
"I just recently visited Anbar Province Iraq in order to assess the conditions on the ground. Last May 2005, as part of the Emergency Supplemental Spending Bill, the House included the Moran Amendment, which was accepted in Conference, and which required the Secretary of Defense to submit quarterly reports to Congress in order to more accurately measure stability and security in Iraq. We have now received two reports. I am disturbed by the findings in key indicator areas. Oil production and energy production are below pre-war levels. Our reconstruction efforts have been crippled by the security situation. Only $9 billion of the $18 billion appropriated for reconstruction has been spent. Unemployment remains at about 60 percent. Clean water is scarce. Only $500 million of the $2.2 billion appropriated for water projects has been spent. And most importantly, insurgent incidents have increased from about 150 per week to over 700 in the last year. Instead of attacks going down over time and with the addition of more troops, attacks have grown dramatically. Since the revelations at Abu Ghraib, American casualties have doubled. An annual State Department report in 2004 indicated a sharp increase in global terrorism."
Teaching courses involving insurgency, I have sometimes put forth “Kaiser’s Law,” which holds that by the time an insurgency reaches the front pages of the New York Times it is probably too late to think about defeating it completely. That does not say anything about the justice of the insurgency—unfortunately, as Charles A. Beard wrote many years ago, history proves there is no correlation between the justice of a cause and men’s willingness to die for it. It simply means that an insurgency that big has mobilized a great deal of passion—often, nearly pure hatred—that it has achieved some organizational success, and that it will not easily go away in the face of a sophisticated military effort. The most important passions motivating the Iraqis, Packer’s work suggests, are ethnic vengeance, a fear of the erosion of Muslim values (independent women, it is clear, are increasingly at risk in much of Iraq), an obsession with honor fueled by the inevitable mistakes of the American occupiers, and a paranoid distrust of Israel and the United States, seen for almost 40 years as close allies. (It is another sad implication of the book that the creation of Israel was in a real sense a setback for the Arab states, whose Jewish communities were one of their most progressive elements.) Today’s newspapers confirm much of this story.
With President Bush’s approval ratings falling and Congressional Republicans showing signs of desperation, the papers also play up speculation that we will shortly start to reduce our presence. The example of Vietnam suggests that such steps will be accompanied by declarations of victory. Once the United States government has gone to war for its objectives, it never acknowledges that they might not be met. New documentation shows that when President Johnson finally halted the bombing of North Vietnam and agreed to peace talks in the first week of November 1968, he did so because Walt Rostow and Dean Rusk had convinced him that the United States had won the war and North Vietnam was ready to quit. President Nixon accompanied every withdrawal with claims that “Vietnamization” had succeeded, and after he had finally signed an agreement that gave the Viet Cong and the Saigon government equal status within South Vietnam, he called it “Peace with Honor.” Now, of course, most neoconservatives will wisely explain that we really won in Vietnam, but the Congress stabbed the South in the back. (This process, too, has already begun; various neocons have already gone on record that the real failure in Iraq took place in 1991, when the first Bush Administration lacked the nerve to go to Baghdad, or that we should have allowed our favorite Achmed Chalabi to train more troops.) This is one of the worst long-term consequences of any misadventure abroad—the increased distortion of reality occasioned by our chronic inability to admit that we had been wrong.