Summary: The Iraq War begins a new phase, perhaps with US involvement. But we’ve not admitted, let along learned from, the massive institutional failures of the public policy machinery that produced it. Departments of Defense and State, the National Security Council, military, the President, NGOs, the press — all failed. Instead we focus on pretend solutions, and the Dreamland of what-ifs. Here is some material to help start the process. How well we learn might determine our results during the next generation.
“My first company commander told me that there’s two ways to learn: blunt trauma and mindless repetition.”
— Mike Few, from the comments
- The big picture of US foreign interventions
- How we got into Iraq
- The long results of Iraq
- For More Information
(1) The big picture of US foreign interventions
“Iraq delivers bloody lesson on blowback”
Stephen Kinzer (Visiting Fellow, Boston U), Boston Globe, 22 June 2014
After many decades in the covert-action business, Americans have come to learn what “blowback” means. Often our foreign interventions produce quick victory. Then things go bad. Short-term success dissolves into long-term failure. Many of our interventions have not only thrown target countries into violent upheaval, but weakened our own security.
The recent explosion of militant power in Iraq is a new example of how serious this blowback can be.
… Bombing Khadafy out of power may have briefly felt good, but it has thrown Libya into chaos and strengthened some of North Africa’s most brutal terrorist armies.
This weekend marks the 60th anniversary of one of the most ill-conceived of all American interventions. At the end of June 1954, the CIA deposed the elected president of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz. “Operation Success,” as the Guatemala project was brightly code-named, did seem successful at the time. We deposed a leader we didn’t like and replaced him with one who would do our bidding. Yet within a few years, tensions set off by this intervention cast Guatemala into civil war. Hundreds of thousands of people, most of them Mayan peasants, died violently over the next 30 years. Today Guatemala is poor and backward, a weak state penetrated by drug gangs and plagued by unremitting violence.
Last year was the 60th anniversary of an equally disastrous intervention, the one that brought down Iran’s last democratic government in 1953. The CIA code-named it “Operation Ajax,” supposedly after the household cleanser. Its premise was that if we could return the shah to his Peacock Throne, he would wipe away Iranian nationalism and Iran would become pro-American forever. The opposite happened.
American interventions — from Cuba and Nicaragua to Vietnam, the Congo and Afghanistan — have been a major part of modern world history. Many have provoked violent backlash that has palpably weakened the United States. Despite these painful experiences, though, some in Washington continue to insist that we must continue crashing into foreign countries to “bring freedom” or “fight terrorism.” Their aggressiveness ultimately provokes responses like this month’s militant surge in Iraq.
The blowback from our long-ago interventions has long been evident. Now we can add Iraq to the list of countries where we mistakenly thought we could impose our will by force. Another foreign adventure has come back to haunt us.
(2) How we got into Iraq
This provides a brief description of how we got into Iraq. It’s a sad story. Bushes officials followed what they imagined Bush wanted, in a way that echos “working towards the Führer” (That’s an observation about organizational dynamics. Bush was not Hitler, or like Hitler).
“Iraq: The War of the Imagination”
Mark Danner, The New York Review of Books, 21 December 2006
This is precisely what the President didn’t want, particularly after September 11; deeply distrustful of the bureaucracy, desirous of quick, decisive action, impatient with bureaucrats and policy intellectuals, the President wanted to act. Suskind writes:
For George W. Bush, there had been an evolution on such matters — from the early, pre-9/11 President, who had little grasp of foreign affairs and made few major decisions in that realm; to the post-9/11 President, who met America’s foreign challenges with decisiveness born of a brand of preternatural, faith-based, self-generated certainty. The policy process, in fact, never changed much. Issues argued, often vociferously, at the level of deputies and principals rarely seemed to go upstream in their fullest form to the President’s desk; and, if they did, it was often after Bush seemed to have already made up his mind based on what was so often cited as his “instinct” or “gut.”
Woodward tends to blame “the broken policy process” on the relative strength of personalities gathered around the cabinet table: the power and ruthlessness of Rumsfeld, the legendary “bureaucratic infighter”; the weakness of Rice, the very function and purpose of whose job, to let the President both benefit from and control the bureaucracy, was in effect eviscerated. Suskind, more convincingly, argues that Bush and Cheney constructed precisely the government they wanted: centralized, highly secretive, its clean, direct lines of decision unencumbered by information or consultation. “There was never any policy process to break, by Condi or anyone else,” Richard Armitage, the former deputy secretary of state, remarks to Suskind. “There was never one from the start. Bush didn’t want one, for whatever reason.” Suskind suggests why in an acute analysis of personality and leadership:
Of the many reasons the President moved in this direction, the most telling may stem from George Bush’s belief in his own certainty and, especially after 9/11, his need to protect the capacity to will such certainty in the face of daunting complexity. His view of right and wrong, and of righteous actions — such as attacking evil or spreading “God’s gift” of democracy — were undercut by the kind of traditional, shades-of-gray analysis that has been a staple of most presidents’ diets. This President’s traditional day began with Bible reading at dawn, a workout, breakfast, and the briefings of foreign and domestic threats…. The hard, complex analysis, in this model, would often be a thin offering, passed through the filters of Cheney or Rice, or not presented at all.
…This granted certain unique advantages to Bush. With fewer people privy to actual decisions, tighter confidentiality could be preserved, reducing leaks. Swift decisions — either preempting detailed deliberation or ignoring it — could move immediately to implementation, speeding the pace of execution and emphasizing the hows rather than the more complex whys.
What Bush knew before, or during, a key decision remained largely a mystery. Only a tiny group — Cheney, Rice, Card, Rove, Tenet, Rumsfeld — could break this seal.
To the rest of the government, of course, this “mystery” must have been excruciating to endure; Suskind describes how many of those in the “foreign policy establishment” found themselves “befuddled” by the way the traditional policy process was viewed not only as unproductive but “perilous.” Information, that is, could slow decision-making; indeed, when it had to do with a bold and risky venture like the Iraq war, information and discussion — an airing, say, of the precise obstacles facing a “democratic transition” conducted with a handful of troops — could paralyze it. If the sober consideration of history and facts stood in the way of bold action then it would be the history and the facts that would be discarded. The risk of doing nothing, the risk, that is, of the status quo, justified acting. Given the grim facts on the ground — the likelihood of a future terrorist attack from the “malignant” Middle East, the impossibility of entirely protecting the country from it — better to embrace the unknown. Better, that is, to act in the cause of “constructive instability” — a wonderfully evocative phrase, which, as Suskind writes, was
the term used by various senior officials in regard to Iraq — a term with roots in pre-9/11 ideas among neoconservatives about the need for a new, muscular, unbounded American posture; and outgrowths that swiftly took shape after the attacks made everything prior to 9/11 easily relegated to dusty history.
The past — along with old-style deliberations based on cause and effect or on agreed-upon precedents — didn’t much matter; nor did those with knowledge and prevailing policy studies, of agreements between nations, or of long-standing arrangements defining the global landscape.
What mattered, by default, was the President’s “instinct” to guide America across the fresh, post-9/11 terrain — a style of leadership that could be rendered within tiny, confidential circles.
America, unbound, was duly led by a President, unbound.
It is that “duly led,” of course, that is the question. Information, history, and all the other attributes of a deliberative policy may inhibit action but they do so by weighing and calculating risk. Dispensing with them has no consequences only if you accept the proposition that the Iraq war so clearly disproves: that bold action must always make us safer.
(3) The long results of Iraq
“Iraq Everlasting: We are still stuck in 2003, and it isn’t (only) George W. Bush’s fault”
Frank Rich, NY Magazine, 4 June 2014
Rich names liberals who supported the war, liberals who opposed the war, and liberals who supported the war AND later admitted they were wrong. Excerpt:
Where are we, exactly? As President Obama implicitly reconfirmed in last week’s West Point address calling for a restrained American role abroad, the massive blunder of Iraq remains the nation’s inescapable existential burden two and a half years after our last troops departed. Indeed, the war continues to pile up collateral damage and defeats daily. Without America’s wrong turn into Iraq, perhaps the Taliban would be extinct rather than resurgent in Afghanistan as we head for the exits to meet Obama’s new 2016 pullout deadline. Without the taint of the Iraq debacle, a war deceitfully carried out in the name of 9/11, perhaps ticket sales at the new 9/11 museum would not be moving so slowly that one can imagine them ending up at the half-price booth; perhaps even George W. Bush might have dared to show up for the museum’s opening rather than plead a “scheduling conflict.”
As for Iraq itself, the just-completed election (few photos of purple fingers this time) all but guaranteed a third term for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a mercurial autocrat like the other leaders America sponsored after 9/11, Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai and Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf. Under Maliki, Iraq is an ally of Iran, its partner in supporting the criminal Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. And though Iraq was not a terrorist stronghold when “shock and awe” toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, it is today.
The Anbar-province city of Fallujah, liberated by American forces in our country’s bloodiest warfare since Vietnam, fell to Al Qaeda earlier this year. As Mark Danner summarized in his ongoing assessment of the war’s origins and legacy for The New York Review of Books, “The Sunni-Shia struggle set in motion by the American invasion of Iraq has become the vortex of a violent political struggle that stretches from South Asia to the Gulf.” Iraq itself has become a one-stop-shopping jihadist laboratory for car bombs, IEDs, and kidnapping scenarios like the one enacted by Boko Haram in Nigeria.
Iraq’s legacy in America goes well beyond the steep toll of casualties, injuries, and billions wasted on corruption and folly. Of the 2.6 million Americans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than half have physical or mental-health problems …
“We live in a world the Iraq War has made,” Danner wrote last December. For the time being, we are defending ourselves against that reality with denial. The public doesn’t want to hear more about the war from anyone, period.
… Over the long term, there may well be a reckoning: Should the aftershocks set off by the Iraq invasion continue to unravel the world, or a large chunk of it, history will look back at the liberal and conservative hawks alike as having flunked the biggest judgment call of their time. They will be seen not just as counterparts to the bipartisan promoters of the Vietnam quagmire but as frivolous sleepwalkers akin to those who a century ago greased the skids for the catastrophe of World War I.
(4) The next round of the Iraq War
Connecting Iraq’s past to the present, and to its future: “Insurgency and War on a Sea of Oil“, Michael Schwartz (Prof Emeritus Sociology, Stony Brook State U), TomDispatch, 24 June 2014.
Form another perspective, the next round of our Iraq War is post-war learning. Steven Metz expects little from this: “What Lessons Will the U.S. Military Learn From Iraq’s Collapse?“, World Politics Review, 25 June 2014. Metz is a defense analyst and the author of Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy (2008).
(5) For More Information
(b) About the aftermath of the Iraq War:
- Important: What we did we wrong in Iraq – the simple, short version, 9 July 2008
- Looking back at how our folly and ignorance fanned the flames in Iraq, 3 June 2012
- Time to ask about lessons learned from our wars, a last opportunity to gain something from them, 30 October 2013
- The best way to celebrate the 11-year anniversary of our Expedition to Iraq, 18 March 2014
- Choose to follow those who were right about our wars, or those who were wrong, 17 June 2014
- After 13 years of failed wars, do we know our warmongers?, 20 June 2014