What It Means to “Salvage U.S. Prestige” in Iraq
By Tom Engelhardt
Things are always complicated. In the Washington Post, for instance, James Mann, author of Rise of the Vulcans recently suggested that it was far “too simplistic” to claim “the appointment of Robert M. Gates to replace Donald Rumsfeld [represents] the triumph of Bush the Father’s administration over Bush the Son’s.”
Still, I prefer the analysis of Washington Post reporter (and author of Fiasco) Thomas Ricks. When asked by the Post’s media columnist Howard Kurtz whether a Newsweek headline, “Father knows best,” was just “an easy, cheap Oedipal way for the press to characterize what’s going on,” Ricks replied: “Well, just because it’s easy and cheap doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”
At a moment when every version of the dramatic arrival of James A. Baker III and Robert Gates on the scene — and the scuttling of Rumsfeld’s Titanic — is at least suspect, it’s still worth considering the bare bones of what can be seen and known — and then asking what we have.
Sooner or later, failure has a way of stripping most of us of our dreams and pretensions. So let’s start with a tiny history of failure. George W. Bush’s life trajectory of failing upward has had a rhythm to it — and a rubric, “crony capitalism.” Daddy’s friends and contacts helped him into and — after he failed — out of the oil business, into and out of the baseball business, into and now, it seems, out of the failed game of global politics. His is, as the Boston Globe’s Michael Kranish and John Aloysius Farrell put it back in 2002, “the story of a man who struck out numerous times before being bailed out by big hitters who often were family members, friends, or supporters of his father.”
It’s appropriate, then, that the man who bailed him out in Florida when he essentially lost the presidency in 2000, Bush family consigliere James A. Baker III, would reappear six years later, in the wake of another failed election, to bail him out again now that he’s screwed up the oil heartlands of the planet. Daddy — we’re talking here about former President George H.W. Bush — has three adopted boys: His former National Security Advisor (and alter ego) Brent Scowcroft, who went into opposition to the younger Bush’s Iraq policy even before the invasion of 2003 and now lurks quietly in the wings; his former CIA Director Robert Gates; and Baker.
Like Daddy, Gates was deeply involved in, but never indicted for his dealings in the scurrilous Iran-Contra affair; was later involved in the tilt toward and arming of Saddam’s Iraq against Khomeini’s Iran, pioneered fertile territory in the late 1980s in terms of manipulating intelligence in the debate over the nature of Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, had a hand in the first Gulf War, and most recently held the presidency of Texas A&M, where he was the keeper of the flame for Daddy’s library. Could you ask for a better insider CV for taking over the Pentagon from one of Bush elder’s rivals in the Gerald Ford era, Donald Rumsfeld?
We don’t know how all this happened, but a little speculation never hurt anyone. Congress mandated the Iraq Study Group (ISG) to come up with some new recommendations for Iraq policy last March. Baker and co-chair Lee Hamilton began work in April. Iraq has been in an ever more horrific and bloodthirsty spiral downward ever since. Yet the ISG has still delivered nothing but promises of recommendations — which Baker and others continue to swear will be no “magic” or “silver” bullet — sometime in December or even January. Back in March, Baker insisted on getting the President, who initially seemed reluctant, to sign on personally. But the question is: What happened over the last 8 months as Iraq boiled? I think we have to assume — and a cover piece in Time seems to confirm this — that Baker, a distinctly hard-nosed guy, never intended to present a bunch of suggestions that Donald Rumsfeld could simply shoot out of the skies and so was stalling until his departure. (Time quotes a “Gates aide” as saying, “Baker wasn’t going to let his report come out, so that Rummy could stomp all over it.”)
Assumedly, he knew that, if his group took long enough, Rumsfeld would be gone and a secretary of defense more to his liking in place. Hence, the distant date for delivering “solutions.” It’s been, in essence, a stall. Everyone involved has claimed, of course, that Father Bush had nothing directly to do with all this and that Baker didn’t even know, until the last second, that Rumsfeld was about to fall like a brick. I’d be surprised if that story lasted out the month.
In fact, what we’re seeing undoubtedly adds up to something more than Iraq policy recommendations — possibly even a genuine purge of most of the remaining neocons and their allies (who are also in the process of, as ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern has written, eating their own). At the Pentagon, rumor has it, the leftover neocons, many of them allies of Vice President Cheney, are just waiting for their pink slips when Gates steps aboard. All this seems aimed at leaving the Vice President’s office increasingly isolated and Cheney himself sidelined.
Someday, when the full story is in, we’re bound to be riveted. After all, Baker has managed in these months to gather in the wings something like an alternative State Department/National Security Council/CIA-in-waiting in the shell of the Iraq Study Group, which is filled with old movers and shakers going back to the Reagan administration. (He’s even begun to conduct something akin to his own foreign policy, meeting with the Syrian foreign minister and Iran’s ambassador to the UN, both no-nos for this administration.) The ten key ISG members, in fact, are largely not military strategists or geopolitical thinkers of a sort who might be expected to offer Iraq solutions. They are instead a who’s who of establishmentarianism, extending back to the Reagan era.
Is this a major shift in Washington? You bet. How big remains to be seen. But here’s the real question: Can the new crowd — even if the President bows down to Daddy’s Boys, which is hardly a given — get us out of Iraq? Do they even want to? At a moment of such flux, with a new Democratic Congress and growing public pressure for a genuine Iraq exit strategy, what kind of gates will the Gates nomination actually open?
When Is an “Exit” Not the Way Out?
Let’s start with one sure side effect of the Gates nomination and the extended delivery schedule of the Iraq Study Group. It buys time from election-driven pressure for whatever administration is in formation. We now have to wait for the Gates confirmation hearings; the ISG recommendations (and possibly those from an alternate White House version of the same); endless consideration of them; and, barring an unlikely flat turn-down from an increasingly cornered administration, the time to implement those policies and check out the results (which are guaranteed to be deeply disappointing, if not disastrous). Six months to a year could easily pass before it becomes obvious to Americans that we’re not really heading out those Iraqi gates.
If you happen to have lived through the Vietnam era, then think of this as the beginning of the season of non-withdrawal withdrawal gestures. The key word right now is “redeployment,” something Senator Carl Levin, who will soon take over the Armed Services Committee, is pushing hard. His modest drawdown plan, however, is not even meant to begin for another four to six months and offers no timetable or any particular end in sight. Levin does, however, make it clear that redeployment and departure are two different creatures. In the form of some kind of military advisory group (not to speak of our massive new embassy in the heart of Baghdad and a few of the massive bases we’ve built), he expects us to be in Iraq into the distant future.
We don’t, of course, know exactly what plan the Iraq Study Group will offer, but all reports on its deliberations suggest that, while public expectations are soaring, the actual recommendations “may sound familiar.” Actually, they may sound that way because the proposals the group seems to be considering are indeed remarkably familiar. These range from a bulking up of U.S. troop strength by 10,000-40,000 more soldiers to a far more likely scenario described by Neil King Jr., Yochi Dreazen, and Greg Jaffe in the Wall Street Journal just two days after the election. This would involve a long-term drawdown of American forces to the 50,000 level — still 20,000 more than Rumsfeld and pals hoped to leave in-country only months after the taking of Baghdad. Assumedly, these would largely be pulled back into those permanent bases we’ve built.
“The new defense secretary is more likely to oversee a shift of the U.S. effort away from providing security in urban areas such as Baghdad to a more advisory role In such a scenario, the Pentagon would turn big U.S. units into quick reaction forces to bail out Iraqi soldiers and advisers who get overrun. Teams of American advisers who live and work with Iraqi units would increase in number.”
Recently, Julian Borger of the British Guardian summed up what’s known this way: “[The ISG] is also looking at various types of troop deployment. Most probably it will suggest pulling US forces out of the urban patrolling that causes most of the casualties and regrouping in bases in Iraq or in neighbouring countries.”
Along with this would go various forms of pressure on the Iraqi government to step up (“benchmarks,” but not perhaps the dreaded “timetable” for withdrawal that the President opposes so vigorously). In addition, a regional conference of neighboring states, the Europeans, and the U.S. would be convened whose task would evidently be to draft Iran and Syria into the process of “stabilizing” Iraq. (Having played a high-stakes game of chicken with the Bush administration based on an assessment of American power and seemingly won, the Iranians, in particular, are unlikely to settle now for what little the Bush administration might offer in return for their help.)
Yes, the presidential idea of “victory” or “success” will be nowhere in sight, nor will an emphasis on fostering “democracy” in Iraq — and further coup rumors may proliferate. But all of this, however palatable it may seem in Washington, will only add up to a series of tactical, not strategic readjustments — most of which (minus that conference) have already been tried in Iraq and have only been so many benchmarks on the road to catastrophe.
Before the election, an upsurge in violence in Iraq was compared to the Tet Offensive “turning point” moment in Vietnam. In fact, the last weeks bear no particular relationship to that nationwide Vietnamese campaign that saw bitter fighting all over the country, even inside the American embassy compound in Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital. But let’s remember another, more telling aspect of Tet. As a “turning point” in that conflict, it was still followed by another seven years of war. Almost as many Americans, and probably more Vietnamese, died in the period after Tet as before.
In the post-Tet period, we had to live through a Senator-Levin-style near complete withdrawal of American ground troops from Vietnam under the pressure of a disintegrating army and rising antiwar feeling at home, only to see the use of U.S. air power escalate dramatically to fill the power gap. Expect some modified, scaled-down version of this Nixon-era “Vietnamization” program in Iraq. As early as November 2005, Nixon’s Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, who claims full credit for the strategy (and still thinks it was a successful way to win the Vietnam War in the face of increasing public opposition at home), proposed a similar Iraqification plan in Foreign Affairs magazine. Now, its moment may be arriving.
Like almost all strategies floating around Washington at the moment, this is but another way to try to hang on to some truncated but permanent imperial presence at the heart of the oil lands of the planet — and as such it is doomed to fail. Unfortunately, to make much sense of what an Iraqification policy might actually mean, you need to be able to assess two key aspects of our Iraqi venture that the mainstream media essentially have not cared to cover.
Permanent Facts on the Ground
As the New York Times revealed in a front-page piece by Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt on April 19, 2003, just after Baghdad fell, the Pentagon arrived in the Iraqi capital with plans already on the drawing board to build four massive military bases (that no official, then or now, will ever call “permanent”). Today, according to our former Secretary of Defense, we have 55 bases of every size in Iraq (down from over 100); five or six of these, including Balad Airbase, north of Baghdad, the huge base first named Camp Victory adjacent to Baghdad International Airport, and al-Asad Airbase in western Anbar province, are enormous — big enough to be reasonable-sized American towns with multiple bus routes, neighborhoods, a range of fast-food restaurants, multiple PX’s, pools, mini-golf courses and the like.
Though among the safest places in Iraq for American reporters, these bases have, with rare exceptions, gone completely undescribed and undiscussed in our press (or on the television news). From an engineering journal, we know that before the end of 2003, several billion dollars had already been sunk into them. We know that in early 2006, the major ones, already mega-structures, were still being built up into a state of advanced permanency. Balad, for instance, already handled the levels of daily air traffic you would normally see at Chicago’s ultra-busy O’Hare and in February its facilities were still being ramped up. We know, from the reliable Ed Harriman, in the latest of his devastating accounts of corruption in Iraq in the London Review of Books, that, as you read, the four mega-bases always imagined as our permanent jumping-off spots in what Bush administration officials once liked to call “the arc of instability” were still undergoing improvement.
Without taking the fate of those monstrous, always-meant-to-be-permanent bases into account — and they are, after all, just about the only uniformly successfully construction projects in that country — no American plans for Iraq, whatever label they go by, will make much sense. And yet months go by without any reporting on them appearing. In fact, these last months have gone by with only a single peep (that I’ve found) from any mainstream publication on the subject.
The sole bit of base news I’ve noticed anywhere made an obscure mid-October appearance in a Turkish paper, which reported that the U.S. was now building a “military airport” in Kurdistan. A few days later, a UPI report picked up by the Washington Times had this: “Following hints U.S. troops may remain in Iraq for years, the United States is reportedly building a massive military base at Arbil, in Kurdish northern Iraq.”
Kurdistan has always been a logical fallback position for U.S. forces “withdrawing” from a failed Iraq. But so far nothing more substantial has been written on the subject.
There is, however, another symbol of American “permanency” in Iraq that has gotten just slightly more attention in the U.S. press in recent months — the new U.S. embassy now going up inside Baghdad’s well-fortified Green Zone and nicknamed by Baghdadis (in a sly reference to Saddam Hussein’s enormous, self-important edifices) “George W’s Palace.” It’s almost the size of Vatican City, will have its own apartment buildings (six of them) for its bulked-up “staff” of literally thousands and its own electricity, well-water, and waste-treatment facilities to guarantee “100 percent independence from city utilities,” not to speak of a “swimming pool, gym, commissary, food court and American Club, all housed in a recreation building” and it’s own anti-missile system. Ed Harriman tells us that it’s a billion dollar-plus project — and unlike just about every other construction project in the country, it’s going up efficiently and on schedule. It will be the most imperial embassy on the planet, not exactly the perfect signal of a sovereign Iraqi future.
Again, few have had much to say about the embassy project here, a rare exception being an August Dallas Morning News editorial, “Fortress America: New Embassy Sends Wrong Message to Iraqis,” that denounced the project: “America certainly needs a decent, well-defended embassy in Baghdad. But not as much as ordinary Iraqis need electricity and water. That our government doesn’t seem to understand that reality could explain a lot about why the U.S. mission is in such trouble.”
Of course, as we learned in Vietnam, even the most permanent facilities can turn out to be impermanent indeed and even the best defended imperial embassy can, in the end, prove little more than a handy spot for planning an evacuation. But if the Iraq Study Group doesn’t directly confront these facts-on-the-ground (as it surely won’t), whatever acceptable compromises it may forge in Washington between an embedded administration and a new Congress, things will only go from truly bad to distinctly worse in Iraq.
The Uncovered War
Here’s another mystery of Iraq (and Afghani) coverage: The essential American way of war — air power — has long been completely MIA, except at websites like this one. There has been not a single mainstream piece of any significance on the air war these last years, with the single exception of journalist Seymour Hersh’s remarkable December 2005 report, “Up in the Air,” in the New Yorker. (“A key element of the drawdown plans, not mentioned in the President’s public statements, is that the departing American troops will be replaced by American airpower. Quick, deadly strikes by U.S. warplanes are seen as a way to improve dramatically the combat capability of even the weakest Iraqi combat units.”) It is, of course, an irony that the only American reporter to look up and notice all those planes, helicopters, and drones overhead has never been to Iraq.
Such modest coverage of the air war in Iraq as exists in our press generally comes in the form of infrequent paragraphs buried in wire service round-ups as in a November 14th Associated Press piece headlined, “U.S. General Confronts Iraqi Leader on Security”:
“On Monday night, U.S. forces raided the homes of some Sadr followers, and U.S. jets fired rockets on Shula, their northwest Baghdad neighborhood, residents said. Police said five residents were killed, although a senior Sadr aide put the death toll at nine. The U.S. military said it had no comment.”
This incident assumedly took place somewhere in the vast Baghdad slum of Sadr city. In other words, we’re talking about American planes regularly sending rockets or bombs into relatively heavily populated urban areas. All you have to do is imagine such a thing happening in an American city to grasp the barbarism involved. And yet, over these years in which such targeting has been commonplace and, in larger campaigns, parts of cities like Najaf and Falluja have been destroyed from the air, hardly a single reporter has gone to an air base like Balad and simply spent time with American pilots.
Not surprisingly, this remains a non-issue in this country. How could Americans react, when there’s no news to react to, when there’s next to no information to be had — which doesn’t mean that information on our ongoing air campaigns is unavailable. In fact, the Air Force is proud as punch of the job it’s doing; so any reporter, not to speak of any citizen, can go to the Air Force website and look at daily reports of air missions over both Iraq and Afghanistan. The report of November 15th, for instance, offers the following:
“In Iraq, U.S. Marine Corps F/A-18s conducted a strike against anti-Iraqi forces near Ramadi. The F/A-18s expended guided bomb unit-31s on enemy targets. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons provided close-air support to troops in contact with anti-Iraqi forces near Forward Operating Base McHenry and Baqubah. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles provided close-air support to troops in contact with anti-Iraqi forces near Baghdad.
“In total, coalition aircraft flew 32 close air support missions for Operation Iraqi Freedom. These missions included support to coalition troops, infrastructure protection, reconstruction activities and operations to deter and disrupt terrorist activities.”
This was a pretty typical day’s work in recent months; there were 34 strikes on November 14th, 32 on the 13th, and 35 on the 12th — and note that each of the strikes mentioned was “near” a major city. These reports can be hard to parse, but they certainly give a sense, day by day, that the air war in Iraq is no less ongoing for being unreported.
Here’s the crucial thing: American troop levels simply cannot be slowly drawn-down in Iraq without — as in Vietnam — some increase in the use of air power. And yet, you can look far and wide and find no indication of any public discussion of this at the White House, in Congress, or in what we know of the deliberations of the Iraq Study Group. And yet, as the Iraqi chaos and strife grows while the American public increasingly backs off, air power will be one answer. You can count on that. And air power — especially in or “near” cities — simply means civilian carnage. It will be called “collateral damage” (if anyone bothers to call it anything at all), but — make no mistake — it will be at the heart of any new strategy that calls for “redeployment” but does not mean to get us out of Iraq.
“A True Disaster for the Iraqi People”
On ABC’s Sunday political talk show, “This Week,” White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten had this to say: “I don’t think we’re going to be receptive to the notion there’s a fixed timetable at which we automatically pull out, because that could be a true disaster for the Iraqi people.”
With hundreds of thousands of dead and more following daily, it makes you wonder exactly what it’s been so far for the Iraqi people, as Bolten sees it. But perhaps he’s right; perhaps the disaster behind us will be nothing compared to the disaster ahead, especially if Daddy’s Boys, the Iraq Study Group, other Democratic and Republican movers and shakers, and all those generals and former generals floating around our world decide that this isn’t the moment to rediscover a Colin Powell-style “exit strategy,” but “one last chance” to succeed by any definition in Iraq. Then, god help us — and the Iraqis. Sooner or later, we’ll undoubtedly be gone from a land so determinedly hostile to being occupied by us, but that end moment could still be a long, long time in coming.
Here, for instance, is Robert Gates’ thinking eighteen months ago in a seminar at the Panetta Institute at California State University in Monterey on “phased troop withdrawals” from Iraq:
“But Mr. Gates qualified his comments, noting it sometimes takes time to accomplish your goals. Sixty years after the end of the Second World War, ‘there are still American troops in Germany,’ he noted. ‘We’ve had troops in Korea for over 50 years. The British have had troops in Cyprus for 40 years If you want to change history, you have to be prepared to stay as long as it takes to do the job.”
So hold onto your hats. Tragedy and more tragedy seems almost guaranteed, and the Pentagon has just submitted to Congress a staggering $160 billion supplemental appropriation request in order to continue its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
So far, what have the American invasion and occupation of Iraq led to — other than a staggering bloodbath, killing fields galore, and a secret landscape of detention centers and torture chambers? As a start, an already badly battered Iraqi economy was turned into a looting ground for Bush administration crony corporations and thoroughly wrecked. (Tall Afar, for instance, is considered an American “success” story when it comes to security, though part of the city is now a “ghost town” of rubble and unemployment there is estimated at almost 70%.) The Iraqi education system is in tatters; the medical system in ruins; basic social and urban services almost undeliverable; oil production barely up to pathetic prewar levels (if present-day figures are even real, which is in doubt); the position of women now disastrous; child malnutrition on the rise; and well over a million Iraqis have fled their homes in a country of only 26 million people.
In addition, national sovereignty has been destroyed; the national police system is on its last legs, its ranks well-stocked with men loyal to various murderous Shiite militias; a Sunni insurgency rages ever more violently; a Kurdish form of independence seems ever more likely (though inconceivable to neighboring states); corruption is rampant; and a central government, whose sway doesn’t reach most streets in its capital, is now considered “the least accountable and least transparent regime in the Middle East.” (The Interior Ministry alone “reportedly employs at least a thousand ghost employees, whose wages amount to more than $1 million a month.”)
Throw in the fact that the Iraqi Army the Bush administration has been so intent on “standing up” is largely a Shiite one (as the fine Knight-Ridder reporter Tom Lasseter discovered back in October 2005 and New York Times correspondent Richard A. Oppel found only last week in Diyala Province, north of Baghdad). So if the plan is to bulk it up further to create a modicum of “stability” before departure, forget it. By it’s nature, such a training program, even if successful, is but a plan to generate an even more murderous civil war.
Now, add in endless months or years of non-withdrawal withdrawal plans, keep in mind the likelihood that American air power will be ratcheted up, and you have a formula for further carnage, collapses and disintegrations of every sort, coups, assassinations, civil war, and god knows what else.
In the Vietnam era, President Richard M. Nixon went on a well-armed, years-long hunt for something he called “peace with honor.” Today, the catchword is finding an “exit strategy” that can “salvage U.S. prestige.” What we want, it seems, is peace with “dignity.” In Vietnam, there was no honor left, only horror. There is no American dignity to be found in Iraq either, only horror. In a Washington of suddenly lowered expectations, dignity is defined as hanging in there until an Iraqi government that can’t even control its own Interior Ministry or the police in the capital gains “stability,” until the Sunni insurgency becomes a mild irritation, and until that American embassy, that eighth wonder of the world of security and comfort, becomes an eye-catching landmark on the capital’s skyline.
Imagine. That’s all we want. That’s our dignity. And for that dignity and the imagined imperial stability of the world, our top movers and shakers will proceed to monkey around for months creating and implementing plans that will only ensure further catastrophe (which, in turn, will but breed more rage, more terrorism that spreads disaster to the Middle East and actually lessens American power around the world).
Now, the dreamers, the greatest gamblers in our history, are departing official Washington and the “realists” have hit the corridors of power that they always thought they owned. It wouldn’t hurt if they opened their eyes. Even imperial defenders should face reality. Someday, it’s something we’ll all have to do. In the meantime, call in the Hellfire-missile-armed Predator drones.
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.com (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews with American Iconoclasts and Dissenters (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews.
Copyright 2006 Tom Engelhardt