Friday, July 08, 2005

Ike, 43, and the Failure of Neocon Ideology

In Dwight Eisenhower’s excellent memoir “Crusade in Europe” he recounts the circumstances he faced when appointed Supreme Commander of the (Western) Allies in World War II. There was no particular reason at that point to believe that the Allies had any chance of winning: in Europe, Britain and France had just been crushed by Germany, and the Soviet Union seemed to be collapsing under the German onslaught. Elsewhere, the U.S. Pacific Fleet was still reeling from the battering at Pearl Harbor, and throughout the Pacific and China the Japanese were advancing nearly unopposed. Eisenhower observes that in these dark times, one of his first problems was building a staff that actually believed the Allies could and would defeat the Axis powers. He managed to assemble such a staff, and then notes, “Any expression of defeatism or any failure to push ahead in confidence was instant cause for relief from duty, and all officers knew it.”

These words capture for me the proper attitude for tackling life in general, and I try to live by them. I repeat them here because I wish to keep them clearly in mind in what follows.

In light of the recent bombings in London, it is important to reflect on a few points. The Bush administration argues that we are in a long run war on terrorism, and that we must “push ahead in confidence.” But some facts are obvious.

1. The United States are not at war. Article I Section 8 of the Constitution specifically grants to Congress, and only to Congress, the power to declare war. Nowhere else in the Constitution is any power to declare war granted to anyone. Congress has not declared war. Given that the United States are not (yet) a lawless banana republic, we are not at war. (Perhaps conservative “strict constructionists” should chew on that a while.)

2. A “war on terror” makes no more sense than a war on Blitzkrieg, or a war on indirect artillery fire, or a war on combined arms operations. Terror is a tactic, not an enemy.

3. The American invasion and occupation of Iraq was planned and conducted on false pretenses, and with poor understanding of what was being done. I’ll dwell on this "old history," because it is essential to understanding what is now occurring.

Note the ever changing rationale given by Bush administration members: the initial excuse for war – given to the American people – was an alleged connection to Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attack. In taking the case for war to the world, the Bush administration next claimed that war was necessary because Iraq was close to possessing WMDs (this assertion based on “secret evidence” that the U.S. could not share with foreign governments for fear of jeopardizing sources). After the invasion it became clear to the U.S. government that Saddam had no WMDs nor programs, hence the excuse became the need to eliminate a dictatorship, an excuse that then morphed into a need to establish democracy in the Middle East.

These shifting rationales are given the lie by the actual plans the Bush administration, members of which advocated overthrowing Saddam well before there was a Bush administration (e.g. Paul Wolfowitz in Foreign Affairs, March/April 1999). Bush’s first Treasury Secretary, Paul O’Neill, notes how he learned with surprise that in the first ten days of the Bush administration, “Getting Hussein was now the administration’s focus, that much was already clear.” Bush, Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz were all explicit about this (Suskind, The Price of Loyalty, pp. 75-86). He also notes “There was never any rigorous talk about this sweeping idea that seemed to be driving all the specific actions. …From the start, we were building the case against Hussein and looking at how we could take him out and change Iraq into a new country. And, if we did that, it would solve everything. It was all about finding a way to do it. That was the tone of it. The President saying, ‘Fine. Go find me a way to do this.’”

O’Neill further notes that to his amazement by mid-March 2001 the administration had actual plans to invade and occupy Iraq “complete with disposition of oil fields, peacekeeping forces, and war crimes tribunals…” (p. 129, Suskind’s words).

Immediately following the 9/11 attacks (September 15) Wolfowitz began the campaign to shift America’s response from Al Qaeda to Iraq, and O’Neill notes that invading Iraq was the primary focus of the administration, relying on the “fixed” intelligence mentioned by the Downing Street memos. O’Neill repeatedly laments the absence of actual facts and hard-nosed analysis behind the decision to attack Iraq.

Unfortunately, the unwarranted attack on Iraq diverted America from its pursuit of its real enemy, Al Qaeda.

4. As O’Neill notes, and subsequent events have made clear to all, there was not any serious consideration of how to deal with a post-war Iraq. The prevailing ideology was, as we all know, that Iraqis would welcome America with open arms and quickly adopt liberal democracy. Unfortunately this was nonsense. We know that the Iraqi insurgency is firstly home-grown. But of course it is also true that there is a growing foreign militant Islamist presence – a country that was not a center for Al Qaeda prior to the American invasion has become one. American military commanders correctly note that there is no military solution to the debacle – each time a foreign Islamic militant is killed he’s replaced by two more. And each time an Iraqi civilian becomes our “collateral damage” another Iraqi joins the insurgency. And the folly of occupying a hostile country with insufficient troops has become obvious.

5. By rushing into an unnecessary war on flimsy pretenses and without building genuine international support for the war, the Bush administration threw away the overwhelming support and respect that the U.S. enjoyed around the world following the 9/11 attack. The rest of the world –the French, for example – proved to be correct – there was no WMD threat from Iraq, and outside of the United States everyone can see the flimsiness of the Bush administration’s shifting excuses for the invasion. No one has done more to discredit American ideals around the world than this administration.

The evidence is clear that the Bush crew – addled by its own ideological fixations – has blundered horribly. America’s military is being worn down in an unwinnable conflict that is proving to be the jihadists’ best recruiting and training tool. As our Vice President announces that the insurgency is on its “last legs,” well-coordinated attacks hit the diplomatic representatives to Iraq from multiple Muslim countries, London is bombed, and the Secretary of Defense announces that America will likely be fighting the insurgency for another 12 years.

Guided by ideology, rather than facts and rational analysis, the administration is giving us a Keystone Cops approach to the “war on terror.” Rather than pursue war on a genuine enemy, Al Qaeda, they chose to declare “war” on a tactic; and then in turn to use this as an opportunity to pursue their own ideological fixations. We’ve stupidly grabbed the tail of a tiger – that of occupying an unfriendly country and attempting the fool’s errand of nation-building – and now what?

Rather than parrot “stay the course,” we ought to consider what Eisenhower really was saying when he insisted that on pushing ahead in confidence. “Push ahead” with what? Eisenhower based all of his decision making on a well defined and sensible objective – the utter defeat of Nazi Germany. The Allies did not make “war on Blitzkrieg.” They did not invade places irrelevant to this goal, say Argentina (even though there were likely more Nazis in pre-war Argentina than Al Qaeda jihadists in Hussein’s Iraq). And they built a genuine coalition against the Axis. (Eisenhower’s memoir makes it clear that holding this alliance together was among his most important and challenging tasks.)

Unfortunately, the Bush administration seems to be impervious to learning from its mistakes, perhaps because this would require admitting to mistakes. It also appears to be in disarray and confusion as events unfold in ways that falsify its ideology. Hence we continue to drive down a road – perhaps to disaster. It is not defeatism to ask for a reality check, to reconsider whether or not we are doing the wrong things. But there’s no sign that any reality check is occurring.

What’s the solution? Well, if I were in charge…but I am not in charge and don’t have any solution. It is a bit late to point out what was obvious long before the American invasion of Iraq, that the invasion was a mistake. I don’t know what you should do once you’ve grabbed a tiger’s tail – that’s exactly why you shouldn’t grab the damned thing in the first place.

If there’s any practical advice in this essay, perhaps it’s the following – maybe as individuals we should contemplate and prepare for what might happen if the U.S. is defeated in Iraq. I’ll not dwell deeply on this here – this entry is too long as it is – but consider three likely consequences: increased support for jihadist groups in the Muslim world, increased terror attacks in the west, and increased repression at home as “stabbed in the back” theories proliferate (one staple of conservative talk radio on 7 July was pinning ultimate blame for the London attacks on “the liberals” and even on Clinton, and as I write this on 8 July Rush Limbaugh is reciting a long list of democrats and liberals who are “sympathetic to terrorism," his words, not mine). (“Stabbed in the back” is a reference to Hitler's hypothesis that Germany lost W.W.I because it was betrayed by traitors at home.)

It is a sickening picture. But it’s the likely result of “pushing ahead in confidence” with strategy built not on reason and facts but addled neoconservative ideology.

The United States are not at war.

I normally don't comment because you manage to say everything I could possibly. So I'll just say kudos for saying "are" and not "is".
Agreed. Excellent essay. A couple things that could be further examined:

Unfortunately, the Bush administration seems to be impervious to learning from its mistakes, perhaps because this would require admitting to mistakes.

The Washington Post has speculated that this is part of their strategy. See Bush words reflect public opinion strategy.

2. A “war on terror” makes no more sense than a war on Blitzkrieg, or a war on indirect artillery fire, or a war on combined arms operations. Terror is a tactic, not an enemy.

Although I agree with you on this—that the name doesn't really make much sense—the actual premise of eliminating terrorism isn't necessarily nonsense. The same quibbble could have been made over piracy.

Ultimately, the biggest problem with Iraq is that we've painted ourselves into a corner. While there was no overriding reason why we needed to go in there in the first place, now it has become too costly in the eyes of the majority of Americans and policymakers alike to lose.
In reply to Daniel's point about a "war on terrorism:" It is not a quibble. Fighting a "war on terrorism" is quite different from fighting a war on Al Qaeda.

If we set a goal of eliminating Al Qaeda, the goal defines where we go and what we do. If we instead fight a "war on terrorism," we've defined a much different (broader) set of limits -- almost not limits at all, as political opportunists can use a vague "war on terrorism" to "justify" invasions wherever they choose.

In particular, there was no sensible connection between the invasion of Iraq and a war on Al Qaeda -- but a "war on terrorism" makes any rogue state state fair game, and provided the Bush administration with one of its many excuses for indulging in its fixation on Iraq.
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