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February 22, 2008

No End in Sight: Iraq's Descent into Chaos


Readings in the Age of Empire

by Doug Bandow
No End in Sight: Iraq's Descent into Chaos
Charles H. Ferguson
PublicAffairs, 2008
640 pp.

As is typical in Washington, the administration has solved the crisis in Iraq by redefining success. No longer is the goal a liberal, multi-ethnic nation ready to lead the rest of the Middle East towards democracy, enlightenment, and the American Way. Now the objective is preserving a nominal country in which the various sectarian groups minimize violence by living apart and ignoring the inefficient, ineffective, corrupt, and largely irrelevant central government. A situation that in 2003 would have been considered a grotesque failure is now treated as victory, a product of the far-sighted "surge," advanced by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is ready to initiate as many new wars as necessary to continue promoting democracy, enlightenment, and the American Way. Bombs Away!

With the administration busy rewriting history, it is worth remembering what the neocon ivory tower warriors promised and delivered in Iraq. Charles Ferguson, an internet entrepreneur with an interest in foreign policy produced a documentary on Iraq – essentially how the administration mismanaged virtually every decision, big and small. No End In Sight draws from the research for the television show and is filled with interviews with people ranging from policymakers to front line soldiers. Ferguson, who originally leaned in favor of the war, has painted a portrait of arrogance and incompetence more devastating than anything coming from the Democratic National Committee.

To read Ferguson's summary is to marvel at the sheer stupidity of the so-called "adults" running U.S. foreign policy. Writes Ferguson:

"They won't start any planning for the occupation at all until two months before the war, and then they'll start completely from scratch. They'll exclude the State Department and CIA people who know the most about the country. They won't have telephones or email for months after they arrive in Iraq. Our troops will stand by as nearly every major building in the country is looted, destroyed, and burned."

After tossing millions of bureaucrats and soldiers onto the street, the administration was shocked to find a growing insurgency. Yet as opposition builds, writes Ferguson, "they will deny its existence and refuse to negotiate, even when leaders of the insurgency signal a desire for compromise. They will airlift $12 billion in hundred-dollar bills into the country, with no accounting controls, and three-quarters of it will remain permanently unaccounted for." Twenty-somethings will be vetted to write Iraqi laws based on their opposition to abortion rather than their knowledge of Arabic. And as sectarian violence swells, the administration and its acolytes will insist that the media is ignoring all of the good news – trash being collected, harbors being dredged, cell phones being used.

Had tens of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands, or perhaps millions, of Iraqis not been wounded, maimed, and killed because of the administration's misbegotten adventure, the Iraq saga would be a comedy routine. But there is nothing funny about the catastrophe that has enveloped Iraq, courtesy the neocon war party.

Ferguson's comprehensive volume methodically details the idiocies that masqueraded as U.S. policy. The war itself went well, but was merely the first installment of a lengthy conflict that the neocons never expected to have to fight. A matter of almost religious doctrine was the belief that Washington merely had to show up to rule. George Packer, a journalist who helped convince Ferguson to make his documentary, observed that the administration idea of installing Ahmed Chalabi as president and then cutting troop levels to 30,000 "was a ludicrous plan. It was a plan that didn't begin to grapple with how difficult and dangerous and complex these postwar situations are." But then, "Donald Rumsfeld and the officials under him decided that they were not going to be deterred by history" or the contrary experience of any prior conflict.

Ferguson's book well covers the many almost legendary examples of administration idiocy and hubris. Refusing to seriously plan for the occupation. Failing to involve anyone knowledgeable about Iraq in what little planning was done. Allowing the country to descend into lawless chaos. Creating a top-down occupation essentially run by College Republicans and largely excluding Iraqis. Generating tens of thousands of recruits for the insurgency by discharging the military and barring even minor Baathists from government jobs. Discounting the idea that a serious insurgency could develop. Exacerbating sectarian divisions through occupation policy. Helplessly watching the explosion in sectarian violence.

Through it all the Bush administration remained a fantasyland in which only good news was tolerated. The knock on President George W. Bush, notes Ferguson, is not that he was disengaged, but that he was involved in the major decisions. Alas, his involvement occurred in a different dimension, cleansed of inconvenient ideas, facts, and conclusions.

For instance, Feisal al-Istrabadi, for a time Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, observed: "those of us who were saying things that were different, we were not allowed. There was a – I was going to say a glass barrier, but there was a concrete barrier. Our voices were silenced. Those who were not on board the ideological, you know, the sweets-and-flowers agenda, nobody wanted to hear from us."

Similar is the account of Barbara Bodine, a senior foreign service officer employed in Baghdad by the occupation. She explains, "with this administration, the difference is they don't want to hear the inconvenient fact. And if removing you, excluding you, from the meeting or the process or the structure is the way not to have to deal with your inconvenience, then that's what they'll do. They prefer an echo chamber."

Even when good advice got through, it had no apparent impact. Larry Diamond of the Hoover Institution, who worked in the occupation authority, says that he "strongly urged the administration to make a clear, emphatic, declaratory statement that we were not seeking permanent military bases in Iraq, and would not seek them." But no such declaration was made because the administration in fact expected to gain permanent bases for use against any state in the region that refused to kowtow to Washington's demands. Even now it is not clear that the administration has abandoned its goal of a long-term military presence in Iraq.

Unfortunately, Iraqi civilians and American service personnel were unable to enjoy the fantasies being built in the sky by administration officials. They lived on and patrolled the bloody streets of Baghdad and other cities, towns, and villages across Iraq. "By 2006, killings were so numerous that most were no longer reported, and it became increasingly difficult to assess the level or the source of violence," writes Ferguson. Far from feeling liberated, average Iraqis complained to Ferguson that life was worse than under Saddam Hussein, that the value of life had become "trivial."

Antagonism towards the U.S. was fueled by occupation practices. Ferguson notes that "If one combines raids, arrests, detentions, and shootings of civilians, it seems likely that by 2007, U.S. military conduct had directly affected, wounded, or killed over 100,000 Iraqis, and possibly well over 200,000." Yet U.S. actions "seem to have been frequently indiscriminate or misguided," with the result "that the military's error rate was quite high in its dealings with Iraqis, both friendly and hostile." But such errors should come as no surprise for an administration that never expected to have to fight a guerrilla conflict.

Over time U.S. forces got much better, but by then the insurgency, as well as al-Qaeda terrorist attacks, had burgeoned. Increasing American force levels last year sharply reduced the levels of violence, but, like all the king's horses and all the king's men, could not put the Iraqi Humpty Dumpty back together again. Ferguson explains:

"As of late 2007, Iraq is a quasi-warlord society with a paralyzed central government whose individual ministries are controlled by various political parties and militias. The country is denominated by four regional power struggles, which often approach open warfare, conducted through a combination of politics, corruption, crime, and militia violence. ... Iraq is in a state of near civil war, which is barely contained by the American military presence. The country suffers from an extremely high level of criminal violence and pervasive corruption. The south and Baghdad are predominantly controlled by fundamentalist Shiite militias and their affiliated political parties. American occupation forces have been progressively marginalized. The recent American troop surge is generally regarded as having produced a substantial but unsustainable reduction in violence, without altering the fundamental processes under way in the country, including continuing ethnic cleansing, geographical segregation along sectarian lines, deteriorating infrastructure, and political paralysis."

No End in Sight covers all of these problems in detail. The discussion of casualties, both American and Iraqi, is particularly poignant. Moreover, four to five million Iraqis have fled their homes – one-sixth or more of the population. The equivalent number in the U.S. would be more than 50 million.

Harvard's Samantha Power makes the telling observation that "One of the elements that kind of unites the U.S. relationship to Iraq across time is a disregard or just a nonconsideration of the welfare of the Iraqi people." Indeed, one has to believe that there is a special level of Hell reserved for ivory tower social engineers who cavalierly initiate war with little concern for the likely consequences on those unwillingly providing the battlefield.

Equally important is Ferguson's assessment of the impact on the U.S. and the world. The ultimate financial cost of the war to the American people is likely to exceed $2 trillion. Washington has strengthened Iran, turning it into the region's principal Islamic power. And the Bush administration's botched preventive war has exacerbated the problem of terrorism.

Jessica Stern of Harvard told Ferguson: "The United States has facilitated the next iteration of that international jihadi movement. We have given that movement the best possible training." Contrary to the fantasies prevalent in Washington, the terrorists will not all stay in Iraq to be killed. Rather, observes Stern, "This is not a kind of roach motel, where we gather the world's international jihadis and kill them in Iraq. They will escape from that motel, and we've already seen that in Jordan – they are now very well-trained and very angry. And I believe we will eventually see them on Western streets."

Moreover, the war has created more terrorists. There is no fixed number of jihadists who must be killed. Rather, there is a large pool of potential terrorists who are motivated in part by what the U.S. government does. The war in Iraq has created yet another grievance. Thus, complains Stern, "the war in Iraq has really facilitated bin Laden's effors to continue to spread that jihadi movement internationally."

Perhaps the book's most sobering conclusion is that the so-called "surge" cannot be sustained. Iraqi observers seem to be particularly skeptical. Violence is down, yes, but they expect it to eventually rise since little has changed about Iraqi society or governance.

Larry Diamond makes much the same point. He contends: "unless we get a political consensus among the principal Iraqi parties on what the rules of the game and the constitutional structure are going to be on these and related realms, there is no chance of stabilizing the country. And the most that we can do is what we are doing there now, which is basically become the police force for the country – they certainly don't have one – and hold up the floor." And we are doing this "so these different Iraqi political parties, factions, militias, incipient warlords and whatnot, can seek to corner power and resources in the uncertainty of the current situation and with the extraordinary greed that characterizes political and military actors in this situation."

This does not warrant the sacrifice of more American lives or waste of more American treasure, he persuasively argues. Which is the bottom line that the hawks who desire to fight to the last soldier and Marine must eventually confront.

Getting out of Iraq obviously is the most important goal of U.S. policy today. The war was a horrible mistake based on flawed intelligence with horrendous humanitarian consequences for Iraqis. It is bleeding precious lives from patriotic communities across the U.S. and generating a flood of red ink for an already spendthrift government. The misbegotten conflict has weakened America, degraded American security, and wrecked America's international reputation.

There is an equally important longer-term objective. Never again. Never again a war of choice. Never again a war based on fantasy expectations. Never again a war without realistic planning. Never again a war of ideology against interest. Never again a "humanitarian" war. Never again the public turning government over to crackpot ideologues, giving them the power to kill, bomb, and destroy. Never again.

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  • Joshua Frank is the author of Left Out!: How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush, just published by Common Courage Press. You can order a copy at a discounted through Josh's blog at www.brickburner.org. He can be reached at brickburner@gmail.com.

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