Saturday, October 04, 2008

Woodward once again

Although Bob Woodward's new book, The War Within, is selling briskly, the economic meltdown (which I absolutely expect to continue despite the bail-out passage) and the election have diverted attention from it and, more importantly, from the situation in Iraq, upon which John McCain had counted to ride into the White House. For me, however, it is a source of extraordinary interest for at least four reasons. First, even though I work for the Department of Defense myself (albeit about 400 miles form Washington), I had no idea that the senior leadership of the American military during 2005-6 was just as eager to get American troops out of Iraq as I was. Secondly,it seems that as a result, something close to a coup d'etat was required to end run the entire civilian and military bureaucracy and put in place a new strategy--the surge--that had been written at the 99.44% pure neonconservative American Enterprise Institute. And thirdly, I did not realize that while I was writing in 2005-6 that the Iraqi experiment in democracy was obviously fragmenting the country into three parts, well-placed Americans who had the opportunity to see for themselves--led by the Baker-Hamilton commission--were reaching exactly the same conclusion. And last but not hardly least, I have correctly identified the critical issue for American foreign policy in the next ten to twenty years: are we going to continue to hopeless effort to dominate the Middle East by force, or not? Even in the last year of his Presidency, George W. Bush has proudly done everything he can to try to ensure that the answer is yes.
By late 2005, when Woodward's book begins, the Iraq adventure was clearly not going as planned, but the military--led, ironically, by Donald Rumsfeld himself--was focused upon winding it up. They took comfort, apparently, from Presidential propaganda about the success of the Iraqi elections--elections which I immediately recognized as unmistakable signs that Iraq was breaking apart--and began planning a substantial withdrawal of American troops by the end of 2006. General George Casey, the commander in Baghdad, was outraged in October 2005 when Condoleezza Rice announced that our strategy was "clear, hold and build," because he knew the last two verbs were well beyond our capabilities. General Peter Pace, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs (and thus by law the President's chief military adviser)apparently felt the same way. The assumption that the war would soon be winding down was a convenient excuse for avoiding any serious thought about the tactical problems American troops faced, much less the long-term future of Iraq, which, the conventional wisdom held, would be the business of the Iraqis themselves. That, combined with the President's compulsive aversion to self-doubt, stopped any serious re-evaluation of what we were doing for the next year and a half, as civil war and ethnic cleansing came to dominate Iraqi politics. When Stephen Hadley, the new National Security adviser, started a review in the second half of 2006, he had to keep it a complete secret. Knowledge that the Administration was questioning itself, many felt, would be devastating in the November elections. (An apparent failure to question itself, in the event, proved equally damaging.)
The Baker-Hamilton study group was, as I wrote at the time, an attempt by an aging establishment (composed entirely of members of the Silent generation) to restore sanity to American foreign policy. Traveling to Iraq and speaking to the Iraqi leaders, they found absolutely no real interest in national reconciliation, especially in Prime Minister Maliki's Shi'ite domianted government,which viewed Sunnis as the problem. They did not dare recommend encouraging the partition of the country, knowing that would not possibly accept it, but they did recommend a rapid wihdrawal.
They were not alone. Condi Rice and her senior aids at the State Department had reached a similar conclusion: that the Iraqi government was failing and the United States had to put more power in its hands. A team of highly regarded Army colonels, convened by the Joint Chiefs to review the situation, did not favor more troops, nor did the Joint Chiefs or General Casey. The man who did more than anyone else to make the surge happen, apparently, was a retired Army Lieutenant General, Jack Keane, who had been a favorite of Rumsfeld and a mentor to General Petraeus. Keane in 2006 was a member of the Defense Policy Board, whose functions are not entirely clear, and began pushing the case for more troops and a counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq in a private meeting with Rumsfeld in September 2006. Keane then suggested the colonels' review to Pace, but it did not produce the kind of reommendations he favored. By the end of 2006 senior Republicans and officials were asking President Bush to stop using words like "victory" and "win" about Iraq, but he refused. Instead, Hadley realized, as the situation steadily deteriorted in late 2006, that the President wanted more troops, and set about finding anyone who could draw up such a recommendation, starting with William Luti of his own staff. But in the midst of the deliberations that fall, General Keane discovered a new planning shop led by Fred Kagan, a political scientist and close friend of William Kristol, in the American Enterprise Institute.
Going outside the government for support, Hadley on December 11, 2006, brought in five outside experts--two of whom, academics Eliot Cohen and Stephen Biddle, who had once been students of mine. Cohen and Biddle (the latter of whom I have not spoken to for some years) both recommended more forces. Keane made the most sweeping presentation, essentially coming across as an alternate Chairman of the JCS. Calling specifically for five brigades in Baghdad to pursue a counterinsurgency strategy of living among the population. He also urged the President to ignore the argument that this would break the Army and the Marine Corps, even though it was going to require longer tours and shorter rest periods back at home. Two other retired Army generals disagreed, but Keane and Kagan also briefed Dick Cheney. Keane was also instrumental in securing Petraeus's command. With Bush clearly favoring a surge, everyone fell in line. Woodward also confirms my own long-held feeling that no one can work with George W. Bush who does not accept his world view and, more importantly, his own self-image as a determined, heroic leader. In Hadley's case this takes the form of hero-worship. Rice is more subtle but always finds a way to come around. In this case she was highly influenced by an Arab summit she attended in the fall of 2006, in which our Gulf allies lamented that we were about to withdraw, essentially hand Iraq to Iran, and even make peace with Iran over their heads.
The surge led initially, as I pointed out at the time, to heavier fighting and the heaviest American casualties of the war, but things have quieted down dramatically in the last year. Kurdistan is essentially independent; the Maliki government does seem to have established its authority more effectively in Shi'ite areas; and Sunnistan has become, essentially, an American protectorate. Sunni tribal leaders have been induced by the presence of American forces and a steady flow of American money to give up their own insurgency, at least for the time being. Yet there is still little evidence of actual reconciliation between Sunni and Shi'ite or Sunni and Kurd--and therefore, no indication that anything has been built up that will survive an American withdrawal. Army and Marine officers generally believe that one is inevitable no matter who wins the election. A glance at shows that Iraq remains very violent and very divided.
Woodward's book includes on appalling mistake. Referring to now-retired Admiral Fallon on p. 351, Woodward writes, "Fallon was haunted by the 1975 decision by Congress to cut off all funding for the Vietnam War. Like many others, including president Gerald Ford, he felt that the funding cut forced too early an American exit." Both Fallon and Woodward ought to know that Congress never cut off all funding for South Vietnam; it reduced the requested appropriation in 1974, a year and a half after the Paris peace agreement that was supposed to lead to political compromise in the South, and then refused an emergency request in the midst of South Vietnam's collapse in 1975. Conservatives have been blaming the Congress for the loss ever since, but it was the political and military failures of the South Vietnamese government that doomed it. Something similar may well happen in Iraq, but that will only be because Iraqis either could not or did not want to bring about the outcome we desired. That was the real problem in Vietnam.

The book concludes with remarks pregnant with significance. General Petraeus had expected to leave Baghdad for the NATO command in Brussels. But when Admiral Fallon--who never accepted the absolute priority of Iraq, much less war with Iran--was let go last spring, Petraeus's mentor General Keane--surely the most influential general of the decade, if Woodward is to be believed--urged to him to take over CENTCOM instead, claiming that the international center of gravity was now in the Middle EAst. "We're going to be here for 50 years minimum, most of the time hopefully preventing wars, and on occasion having to fight one, dealing with radical Islam, our economic interests in the region, and trying to achieve stability. . .Where should we have bases? Where should we have prepositioned equipment? Where should we have forward industrial bases? Because it doesn't make any sense to keep sending that shift home?" Petraeus has now taken the job. Last April, Keane bluntly told Secretary of Defense Gates that with Petraeus at CENTCOM and his deputy Raymond Odierno in command in Iraq, and Democratic Administration would have to face a higher political price if it wanted to withdraw in 2009. Keane, in short, wanted to lock the strategy in regardless of the views of the American people.
In farewell interviews with Woodward, the Secretary of State and the President expressed similar views. Rice (who also disclaimed any responsibility for the initial failures in Iraq) began by repeating the classic neoconservative administration line about the Middle East--that the status quo in 2001 had been so dreadful that any measures to overturn it were justified. She reiterated that Iran must not secure nuclear weapons, arguing, bizarrely, that an analogy with the Soviet Union would help understand this: "The Soviet Union became nuclear before it became powerful," she said, ignoring the impact of the Second World War, which had brought Soviet troops to the heart of Europe where they would have remained for half a century with our without nuclear weapons. "Before we re-stabilize the Middle East," she said,"let's be careful that we don't just lock in bad deals. . .I don't want to make a grand bargain with the Ayatollah Khamenei and Ahmadinejad because that grand bargain is going to be a kind of least-common-denominator view of what the Middle East ought to look like. . . .Let's say we have to live with the Iranian revolutionary state for some time. Would Ir ather live with the Iranian revolutionary state with American forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Gulf and Central Asia? You bet." (Here is one historian who does not believe the people of the Middle East will ever accept long-term American presence, and that therefore, such strategies will continue to erode our position.) And echoing Keane, she said that the "epicenter" of American power has now shifted from Europe to the Middle East. "We didn't come here to maintain the status quo," she said. "And the status quo was cracking in the Middle East. It was coming undone. And it was oging to be ugly one way or another. And it just might as well have been ugly in a good cause. And now, with the emergence of Iraq as it is, it's going to be bumpy and it's going to be difficult but big. Historical change always is." President Bush, too, confirmed that there was "kind of a recentering of American power in the Middle East, and once again compared a troop presence there to those in Germany and Korea.

Neither Rice nor Bush would accept the word, but Keane (whom I have never met) sounds ready to admit that he wants an American empire in the Middle East for some time to come. I remain convinced that the absence of serious threats in more developed regions of the world, the salience of the Israeli-Palestinian issue in American politics, and the conservative obsession with confronting America's enemies have enormously distorted ou strategic priorities and given us a decade of military involvement that cannot possibly have a good result. That will be a subject for more commentary in the coming months and years. Meanwhile, I must thank Secretary Rice, whom I have never met, for confirming so much of what I have thought, and argued, about the unshakable self-confidence, the hubris, and the destructive impulses of the generation of Prophets to which she, I, and the current President of the United States all belong. Perhaps come next year a younger leader will be able to harness some of these qualities in a better cause.


signsanssignified said...


This is an excellent and very important post.

One quibble. You write:

"Conservatives have been blaming the Congress for the loss ever since, but it was the political and military failures of the South Vietnamese government that doomed it. Something similar may well happen in Iraq, but that will only be because Iraqis either could not or did not want to bring about the outcome we desired. That was the real problem in Vietnam."

I would amend that to say that the real problem in Vietnam was the fact that we created an artificial country on paper (the preamble to the 1954 SEATO Treaty), then propped it up economically with military aid, all in defiance of the overwhelming Vietnamese public sentiment in favor of Ho Chi Minh and the Vietminh. Imperial hubris and an utter unwillingness to alter ideological and strategic certainty to account for the Vietnamese frame of reference was the real problem in Vietnam—and the source of all the other problems which ensued. Substitute ‘Iraq’ for ‘Vietnam’ in the last sentence and the statement still applies, which just underlines the fact that American foreign policy for the past 8 years has been conducted by people who stubbornly refused to learn anything of value from the Vietnam debacle.

Anonymous said...

Excellent, David. One can only hope that, after the election of Obama (assuming that happens), the next administration will open a genuine national (i.e. mainstream) debate on US strategy and aims in the coming years - especially in the Middle East. What a sad reflection of our so-called democratic, free country that that debate cannot take place right now, lest it feed into jingoistic right-wing conservatives efforts to elect McCain and Palin.

Anonymous said...

And for more info about Condoleezza Rice, check out this new documentary - pretty damning in what it says about her involvement in US strategy in Iraq - essentially it dubs her a war criminal.