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August 22, 2005

Turning Iraq Into Vietnam

Frustrated by the failure of current events to prove them right, opponents of the war on terror seem determined to turn Iraq into Vietnam by main force if need be. Sadly, even the Republican Party is not without its nervous Nellies, who, like their whimpering brethren on the Left, seek reassurance that the US will pull out of Iraq within x, y, or z months, miraculously without setting an exit date, betraying the Iraqis, or triggering any of the negative consequences that would seem to flow from such a move:

Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) NE, said on Sunday the longer the United States stayed bogged down in Iraq, the more the conflict looked like another Vietnam War.
"What I think the White House does not yet understand and some of my colleagues, is the dam has broken on this (Iraq) policy,"

"We should start figuring out how we get out of there. But with this understanding, we cannot leave a vacuum that further destabilizes the Middle East," said Hagel.

Quick translation for the English-impaired: “I demand that we cut and run (without cutting and running). The dam the good Senator refers to is that barrier of good sense which, at least formerly, held back a flood of self-serving, regrettable, and ill-timed commentary from choleric Senators eager to get their mugs in front of a television camera. I fear that in this one instance at least, Senator Hagel's powers of prediction will prove uncannily accurate.

In his quest for another Vietnam, Mr. Hagel is ably seconded by Andrew Bacevich in the Outlook section of Sunday's WaPo:

The banner decorating the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003, when President Bush announced an end to "major combat operations" in Iraq, turns out to have been accurate after all. If only the president himself had taken to heart the banner's proclamation of "Mission Accomplished." For by that date, having deposed Saddam Hussein, the United States had achieved in Iraq just about all that it has the capacity to achieve. The time has come for Bush to dig the banner out of the closet, drape it across the front of the White House and make it the basis for policy instead of continuing under the inglorious banner of "Mission Impossible."

I was so stunned by the naivety of this opening salvo that I very nearly didn't read the rest of his piece. Has he, perchance, not paid attention to the fate of the former Soviet Union? No sane person could argue that the USSR was not in far better shape when the totalitarian state collapsed from within in 1991. And yet, nearly fifteen years later, the former Soviet Union remains torn by bloody civil and ethnic strife and ridden with terrorism. One would hardly say that the fall of Communism united the Soviets: in fact, it seems to have divided them.

But Bacevich is on a mission. He seems to think Iraq’s only problem, these days, is us. If we’d just pull out, everything would be coming up daisies:

Ironically, ever since the presidential victory lap of two years ago, the Bush administration has been in the forefront of those insisting that the U.S. mission in Iraq is not accomplished -- that there is ever so much more that the United States can and must do on behalf of the Iraqi people. Hence the grandiose U.S. promises of reconstruction, economic and political reform, and nation-building. The chief effect of efforts to fulfill these promises has been to convert a short, economical and purportedly glorious war into a long, costly and debilitating one.

Moreover, senior U.S. military leaders have increasingly concluded that the long war is an unwinnable one. "[T]his insurgency is not going to be settled, the terrorists and the terrorism in Iraq is not going to be settled, through military options or military operations," Brig. Gen. Donald Alston, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, acknowledged earlier this summer. "It's going to be settled in the political process." However self-serving it may be -- the military's eagerness to offload responsibility for the course of events in Iraq has become palpable of late -- Alston's analysis is correct.

The author is hardly the first Vietnam veteran to be anti-military and anti-war, and if anyone doubted his sentiments, his last comment should surely make them abundantly clear. Making a statement that should be intuitively obvious to anyone who isn't flat-lining: that permanent political stability cannot be achieved by the military - is hardly "off-loading responsibility". Moreover, these "senior U.S. military leaders" are nowhere quoted, unless perhaps General Alston is to be given credit for multiple personalities. And in any event, reading General Alston's last press conference gives an entirely different impression - he seems quite happy to take credit for what the military has so far achieved in Iraq. He can perhaps be forgiven for not wishing them to be blamed for not jumping in and ghostwriting the Iraqi Constitution.

But Bacevich's train of thought really jumps the track when he reveals his thesis:

Alas, the Bush administration adamantly insists that any such political process can only proceed with constant American coaching and oversight. Underlying this insistence is the assumption, seldom voiced openly, that the Iraqi people are incapable of managing their own affairs. They need us.

Do they? In fact, apart from consuming $300 billion and many thousands of lives (including more than 1,850 U.S. soldiers), the attempt to tutor Iraqis on their journey to American-style freedom has yielded results quite opposite from those intended: Rather than producing security, our continued massive military presence has helped fuel continuing violence. Rather than producing liberal democracy, our meddling in Iraqi politics has exacerbated political dysfunction. And by signaling the importance that it attributes to satisfying the core interests of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds alike, Washington has encouraged all three factions to increase their demands. Convinced that the Americans will never permit a cataclysmic collision, each faction is committed to playing a high-stakes game of chicken. If Iraq in August 2005 qualifies as the political equivalent of a clapped-out, self-abusing dependent, then the Bush administration ought to be recognized as being an enabler.

At last it can be revealed! The many ethnic and religious factions in Iraq have no reason, saving our presence, not to get along! Who knew it was so simple! Apparently Steven Vincent's last dispatch to the NY Times, in which he noted the huge difference in ethnic and religious strife in the British-controlled areas of Iraq, was just a big mistake! Vincent and his Iraqi interpreter attributed the rise of sectarian strife to the fact that the British, unlike the Americans, had made absolutely no attempt to teach democratic values to the Iraqis in areas under their control: ideas like toleration, inclusion, representation of minority rights.

fairy.jpg But apparently, according to Bacevich, people can simply absorb completely new political philosophies, even totally reconstruct an entire society overnight by osmosis and feats of magic! Little fairies come while the Iraqis sleep, instilling democratic values and rebuilding schools, power plants, roads, and war-torn economies! Shazzam! Huge influxes of foreign capital appear like magic, without any hand to guide them!

I must say, this is wonderful news! How exciting, to learn that efforts like this have been totally unneeded:

There are 35 battalion-size operations going on every day in Iraq, and Iraqi security forces solely are running roughly 20 percent of those, Alston said. The Iraqi soldiers' presence in communities gives the citizens confidence and encourages them to give the soldiers information about weapons and insurgents, he added. Several weapons caches are discovered every week, he said, and they include items like counterfeit U. S. money, mines, anti-tank missiles, anti-aircraft guns, dynamite and bombs.

"All of this and more are now off the streets of Iraq thanks to the efforts of the Iraqi security forces, their coalition partners and the people of Iraq," he said.

Undoubtedly, if we just left, the terrorists would not try to seize control. Why, they would just peacefully melt away! And if not, the Iraqis can just train themselves: the fact that it is taking us significant time and energy to do the job does not, by any means, imply that the job is difficult.

And after all, the UN is in Iraq, and even Kofi Annan sees progress, although none of this would have happened, had President Bush done as Bacevich suggests and left immediately after the fall of Saddam. But surely the UN would remain in Iraq if the US military withdrew?

Elections were held in January, on schedule. Three months later the Transitional National Assembly endorsed the transitional government. The dominant parties have begun inclusive negotiations, in which outreach to Sunni Arabs is a major theme. A large number of Sunni groups and parties are now working to make sure that their voices are fully heard in the process of drafting a new constitution, and that they participate fully in the referendum to approve it and the elections slated for December.

In aid of the transition, the United Nations is at work, both inside and outside the country, to support donor coordination, capacity-building of Iraqi ministries and civil society organizations, and delivery of basic services. Reconstruction of schools, water-treatment and waste-treatment plants, power plants and transmission lines, food assistance to children, mine clearing and aid to hundreds of thousands of returning refugees and internally displaced persons -- all of these activities occur every day in Iraq under U.N. leadership.

TaskForce Baghdad reports that since the US deposed Saddam:

..a total of 1,451 projects valued at $1.4 billion have been completed. Large-scale capital projects like power plants, water treatment plants and oil infrastructure facilities are being reconstructed and, in some cases, built anew.
Demand for electricity is currently growing faster than it is able to be supplied; however, new power lines of 33 kilovolts have been completed. Generation plants are being built and transmission lines are being constructed to replace a decades-old, neglected electrical power system.

A total of more than 2,000 megawatts of power have been added to the grid (enough to service 5.4 million Iraqi homes). More than 1,400 electrical towers and 8,600 kilometers of transmission lines have been installed.

Much has been reported on the shortage of electricity in Iraq, but there is one interesting fact I have not heard mentioned: electricity in Iraq is FREE. That's right, there is no charge for electric power in Iraq. Is it any wonder, then, that demand far outstrips supply?

Have we ever seen an economic system where a good is not charged for and the supply is adequate to the demand? We have also heard that gas is in short supply. But this Rand study is quite revealing:

It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of liberalizing gasoline and diesel fuel prices for the health of the Iraqi polity and economy. Currently, gasoline and diesel fuel are sold at about a nickel a gallon; smuggled into neighboring Turkey, they can be resold for more than $5 a gallon. Confronted with these nonsensical differences in prices, no society is immune from corruption. It is pervasive in the downstream activities of the Ministry of Oil. The severity of corruption is revealed in the lengths to which those involved are willing to go in order to preserve their access to state resources. The last two executives in charge of refining and product distribution were reportedly shot by organizations involved in stealing fuel, not insurgents. The first executive was wounded; the second was killed. These people were not victims of the insurgency, but of corruption.

Although the Iraqi economy grew by 50% in 2004, most of that growth was driven by oil revenue and that growth was in turn hampered by the rampant corruption, theft, and outdated accounting practices inherent in the current Iraqi system.

But despite the setbacks, overall life seems to be getting better for most Iraqi families. Bacevich not only refuses to credit this progress to our efforts so far, but blames the 'ongoing turmoil' on our presence. Anticipating our withdrawal, he paints a happy picture of pan-Arab cooperation that will ensure a stable Iraq:

In addition to assuming that Iraqis require American supervision, the Bush administration's insistence on staying the course also implicitly assumes that a U.S. withdrawal would leave a dangerous political vacuum in the region. But this assumption too is suspect. More likely, the American departure would foster a political dynamic in which Iraq's neighbors would exert themselves to keep Iraq from spinning out of control -- not out of any concern for the well-being of the Iraqi people but out of sheer self-interest.

Well let's think this one over for a moment: who are "Iraq's neighbors"? Non-democratic states who have no reason to greet the emergence of a democratic Iraq with any great degree of joy. Could this be why Syria and Iran are sending insurgents over the border to subvert the fledgling Iraqi government? All over the Arab world, the public opinion has been changing over the past two years. It has become much more favorable towards the United States and towards democracy in general. Much of the population in Arab states such as Lebanon, Iran, and Egypt are beginning to demand democratic reform from their own governments. This is a key fact which Bacevich totally ignores in his analysis:

Among the autocrats holding sway in the Persian Gulf, Saddam Hussein was the last remaining quasi-revolutionary. The regimes that control Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and even Iran are not maneuvering to overturn the political order in the region. This is not to say that they are benign. But they do share one overriding interest, namely preserving their own hold on power -- an objective not at all served by allowing Iraq to wallow in perpetual turmoil. Iraq's neighbors have a compelling interest in facilitating a political process that just might bring a semblance of order to that country. For religious, cultural and historical reasons, they are also far better positioned than the United States to offer assistance that might actually prove helpful.

Saddam was not a revolutionary. He was merely the most effective of the Arab despots. He modeled himself on Josef Stalin. Bacevich is right about one thing - Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran are interested in maintaining their hold on power, and a democratic Iraq is a threat to that goal, because the spread of democratic values in the Middle East will undermine the totalitarian nature of their governments. For this reason, the incentive for these states is to undermine rather than strengthen the political process in Iraq: they are far more likely to find a tyrant and back his rise to power than to wish to see democracy (and a government that is both friendly to, and indebted to, the US) gain a foothold there.

But it is Bacevich's last assertion which alarmed me most: I was unable to decide whether it was just naive or simply disgustingly cynical.

Will a U.S. withdrawal guarantee a happy outcome for the people of Iraq? Of course not. In sowing the seeds of chaos through his ill-advised invasion, Bush made any such guarantee impossible. If one or more of the Iraqi factions chooses civil war, they will have it. Should the Kurds opt for independence, then modern Iraq will cease to exist. No outside power can prevent such an outcome from occurring anymore than an outside power could have denied Americans their own civil war in 1861.
Dismemberment is by no means to be desired and would surely visit even more suffering on the much-abused people of Iraq. But in the long run, the world would likely find ways to adjust to this seemingly unthinkable prospect just as it learned to accommodate the collapse of the Soviet Union, the division of Czechoslovakia and the disintegration of Yugoslavia.

Does the author seriously imagine for one second that if the Kurds were to secede, Turkey would stand quietly by and do nothing? If so, he is sadly mistaken. Such an act would be destabilizing in the extreme, and could likely result in another flare-up that we might find impossible to ignore. And once the Kurds seceded, what would prevent the disaffected Sunnis, who refused to participate in the January elections, from throwing their hand in with Iran? That is surely a development the West would greet with great alarm, though I doubt the Iranians would be dismayed to see Iraq annexed to Iran and the Sunnis once more in control. Given the centuries of tension between Iraq and Iran, such an invitation to invade might be all the pretext needed to send the region spinning out of control.

There are many arguments to be made for helping the military out in the long and difficult job of rebuilding Iraq. I am not, and have never been, sure why DOD seems to be uniquely tasked with the job of reconstructing an entire society. We are the world's richest nation, with an enormous government composed of many branches. The military itself is composed of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard, of which at present only the Army and Marine Corps appear to be at war.

Perhaps rather than trying desperately to pluck failure from the ashes of success, great minds like Andrew Bacevich might turn their laser-like mental talents to analyzing how a great nation might better use its resources to accomplish this great task we have set before us? I am sick of little minds bewailing how the mightiest nation on the face of the earth cannot handle this, that, or the next job because of a few setbacks in our way.

History shows us that great things are not accomplished easily. If we would claim a place among our forebears, then we must show a little fortitude, some resolve, and the ability to adjust our thinking when things do not go smoothly. These things are not beyond us, if we do not succumb to the wailing of defeatist intellectuals who cherry-pick examples and quotes to convince us that we are beaten before we even venture out our front doors in the morning. God help this nation if "We can't do it!" is to be the clarion call that summons a new generation to defend American values and interests in the 21st Century.

Posted by Cassandra at August 22, 2005 09:20 AM

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Iraq's neighbors have a compelling interest in facilitating a political process that just might bring a semblance of order to that country.

Why do I have this image of Darth Vader standing over Luke saying "Join me and we can bring order to the galaxy".

Order is not the goal here. Democracy is. Yes, Iraq's neighbors will want order in Iraq. Most likely theirs'. Iraq's neighbors won't be incentivized to help, but to conquer. Then what you get is Syria, Turkey, Iran, maybe even Saudi Arabia all fighting with each other to annex Iraq. While that may take the US off their radars for a few years, it would only be a temporary reprieve. It would also give the islamofascists yet another reason (not that they need one) to foment anger at us: The American's promised this and that and what did they do? They abandoned you at the first sign of danger to fend for yourselves.

Yes, it may bring "order". Stalin's Russian and Mao's China were very ordered and it only took 70 million slaughtered peasants to do it. But we'll have only traded one despot for another.

Posted by: Masked Menace© at August 22, 2005 10:22 AM

I am an award-winning journalist and columnist with a project, Ruminations on America. I have called for essays from coast to coast on the subject of true core American values and the current state of the union. You are cordially invited to participate, or to check out what others, including John Ventimiglia of the HBO show The Sopranos, a Catholic nun in prison for civil disobedience, and others, have to say. Today's entry is a conversation between a Vietnam veteran who opposes the war in Iraq and a soldier who is presently in Iraq.

This is an experiment in democracy and free speech. Each entry must be less than 1000 words, accompanied by a photograph that conveys a sense of who you are and a brief introduction to your life.

Posted by: Rita J. King at August 22, 2005 10:49 AM

Menace, I had a similar thought when reading that line. Bacevich reminds me of the UN types who seek the maintenance of the status quo at any price, even if that means ignoring genocide, rape, murder, etc.

Posted by: Cassandra at August 22, 2005 11:22 AM

Cassandra, it seems like a category error to call Bacevich "anti-military." He spent over 20 years as a regular Army officer, retiring as a colonel. Unless by "anti-militay" you mean someone who disagrees with you.

Posted by: George at August 22, 2005 11:46 AM

Dear George,
I am (and I am sure that Cassandra is) well aware that Andrew Bacevitch is a retired Army colonel (by the way, Cass's husband is presently a SERVING colonel in the USMC).
He (Bacevitch) has attacked our actions in Iraq from several angles in the past:
1)It is bad for the Army that he has served in and loved because of the strains on the command, soldiers, etc. I can understand that, to a point. Robert E. Lee once said something to the effect of "War is difficult for Generals, because even to win it you have to break something (the army) that you love."
2) It is bad for the American Republic, because our "nation-building" excercises in Iraq (and elsewhere) is not conducive to good political life here at home (?). I can see that too, but it would also be bad political practice to ignore despotic regimes,and fomenting of terrorism (like pretending that Osama Bin Laden would go away, in much of the '90's).
Not a few former military officers of rank have this opinion, and I respect it in the sense that they fear loss of civilian control of policy and the military. But is is also weird that they (among them Bacevitch) have so little trust in their serving brother officers and professional non-coms, who are schooled in understanding the Constitution and lawfullness of orders. This is the thrust of the second half of Cassandra's essay above, I believe. It doesn't have to be the Army/Marines doing all the nation-building, does it?
3) Finally, Col. Bacevitch just doesn't like Pres. Bush. I can accept that too, because he is retired now and can speak his mind, good for him.
But his comments have become so ridiculously rash, that I begin to wonder if he has another agenda. And like others in the public arena, his service doesn't make him immune from criticism by those who disagree with him; he doesn't speak with "absolute moral authority" just because he was a career Army officer, and has a differing opinion than that held by the current administration.

Posted by: David at August 22, 2005 12:13 PM

The author is hardly the first Vietnam veteran to be anti-military and anti-war - Cass

Cass is fully aware of Bacevich's military service. She mentioned it, herself, in the post (if you bothered to actually read it, you would know that). She also, quite obviously, doesn't believe that former military service automatically makes you pro-military for life as you do.

There are quite a few long time PETA members who are now quite anti-PETA. There are quite a few long time communist party members who are now quite anti-communist. The military is no different.

Posted by: Masked Menace© at August 22, 2005 12:13 PM

Oh, I don't know. I think of John Kerry as 'anti- military' in his policies, based on his actions and the things he says.

That may or may not have been a cheap shot. I think it was a pretty cheap shot to mischaracterize a completely common-sense statement like "the military can't solve political problems" as 'self serving" and "trying to off-load responsibility".

Before I wrote that, I spent over 20 minutes Googling Gen. Alston's prior statements to see whether in any way, shape, or form, his prior statements could be construed to agree with Bacevich's position and had an awfully hard time concluding that they could. In fact, my conclusion was that Mr. Bacevich distorted the plain meaning of something Gen. Alston said to serve his agenda.

I don't know: what do you think, George?

Posted by: Cassandra at August 22, 2005 12:15 PM

And George, every time I disagree with someone, you seem to think that I believe they somehow have no right to hold a contrary opinion.

I spent this entire, very lengthy post refuting Bacevich's article using the best arguments I could come up with. If you (or he) disagrees with them, that is fine, why not say so? I may not be right - maybe I don't know what I'm talking about.

I do see Bacevich's stance as somewhat anti-military, since he apparently wants our military to go to war and get killed (twice now) for no fricking reason. How many times is this nation going to ask her military men and women to die to achieve a political end that is ultimately abandoned in midstream?

What in the Holy Hell are people like my husband supposed to tell these kids when we pull out? What do we tell their parents?

That all those lofty words meant nothing? That all that crap about democracy was just bullshit? That the officer corps just said it to get them to go over and fight and die for us, but heck: they didn't really MEAN it? That the US is just a piddly, small country, and we can't kick the crap out of a midsized Arab nation even with the help of 30 other countries?

That is the most cynical, arrogant crap I've ever heard in my life and frankly it really pisses me off.

I know you're military George, and I'm just a wife. I can't pretend to have gone through what you have. Except that my life could have been a whole lot different too.

I'm not complaining, because it was a free choice on my part, but I could have done a million things with my life. But I didn't, because I chose to be a wife to my husband while he travelled all around the goddamned country, and raise his children while he was off doing whatever the hell Uncle Sam told him was his duty.

I can't count the things I've wanted to do, but passed up because they weren't practical or I needed to be available for the battalion wives or because my husband was overseas for a year and my children needed the stability of a mother who was at home and not at work. And if I had to do it over again, I'd make the same decision.

Because I was stupid enough to believe in it too. And I still believe in it. And I don't want to live in a world where no one is willing to stand up for those kinds of ideas, because that kind of world isn't much worth living in.

Posted by: Cassandra at August 22, 2005 12:48 PM

Can it be that our whole country has the attention span of a ritalin-soaked gnat?

Posted by: Jimmie at August 22, 2005 04:47 PM

If that attitude is stupid, please put me squarely and proudly in that catagory.
I'll live there with no regrets.
We are doing the right thing.

Posted by: Carrie at August 22, 2005 08:43 PM

This obviously a Dave Ross piece

Posted by: Robert at August 26, 2005 10:45 PM

Who the hell is Dave Ross?

Posted by: Cassandra at August 26, 2005 11:09 PM

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