In an interview with Der
Spiegel online, American
military historian Gabriel Kolko argues that the situation in Iraq is worse
than ever and that the artificial nation, created after World War I, is breaking
up. The "surge," he says, is also failing.
SPIEGEL: The long-awaited results of the "surge" are now in. Has the surge
succeeded? Is there reason for optimism in Iraq?
KOLKO: Both United States Gen. David H. Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan C.
Crocker will deliver "progress" reports to Congress on Monday, but the skeptics
far outnumber those who believe Bush's strategy in Iraq is succeeding. They
will say that Shi'ite attacks on Sunnis in Baghdad have fallen, but they will
not add that Baghdad has been largely purged in many areas of Sunni inhabitants
and their flight much earlier, and not the increase in Americans, is the reason
"success" can be reported to Congress. Indeed, most of the administration's
statistics have been met with a wave a skepticism.
The Iraq military, but especially the political "benchmarks" that
this administration thought so crucial – and used to justify its "surge"
of 28,500 additional troops – have, in the opinion of Congress' Government Accountability
Office (GAO) report issued at the end of August, not been attained (there are
now 168,000 American troops in Iraq, plus roughly half as many civilians). In
its unexpurgated, original form, the GAO claimed that only three of the 18 congressionally
mandated "benchmarks" had been reached: violence was as high as ever, reconstruction
was plagued by corruption on both the Iraqi and American sides, the Shi'ites
and Sunnis were as disunited as ever, murdering each other, crucial laws, especially
on oil, have not been enacted yet and probably many political changes will never
occur, and the like. Of its nine security goals, only two had been met. White
House and Pentagon efforts to soften GAO criticisms failed.
SPIEGEL: Who has benefited from the mess?
KOLKO: The situation is worse than ever, and the artificial nation – created
after World War I in a capricious manner – is breaking up. The surge, as one
Iraqi is quoted, "is isolating areas from each other … and putting up permanent
checkpoints. That is what I call a failure." The civilian death toll last August
was higher than in February. Geopolitically, as Bush senior feared after the
first Gulf war in 1990-91, Iran is emerging more powerful than ever, increasingly
dominant in the region. The many official Israeli warnings before the war that
this would be the outcome of war against Iraq and the removal of Saddam Hussein
from power have come true.
SPIEGEL: How would you describe the situation of the Bush White House today?
What options does it have?
KOLKO: The Bush administration suffers from a fatal dilemma. Its Iraq adventure
is getting steadily worse, the American people very likely will vote the Republicans
out of office because of it, and the war is extremely expensive at a time that
the economy is beginning to present it with a major problem. The president's
poll ratings are now the worst since 2001. Only 33 percent of the American public
approve his leadership, and 58 percent want to decrease the number of American
troops immediately or quickly. Fifty-five percent want legislation to set a
withdraw deadline. In Afghanistan, as well, the war against the Taliban is going
badly, and the Bush administration's dismal effort to use massive American military
power to remake the world in a vague, inconsistent way is failing. The U.S.
has managed to increasingly alienate its former friends, who now fear its confusion
and unpredictability. Above all, the American public is less ready than ever
to tolerate Bush's idiosyncrasies.
SPIEGEL: What went wrong? Was the war doomed from the very beginning? How can
the U.S. military and the U.S. government which is spending $3 billion per week
in Iraq be losing the war?
KOLKO: The U.S. is losing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the very same
reasons it lost all of its earlier conflicts. It has the manpower and firepower
advantage, as always, but these are ultimately irrelevant in the medium- and
long-run. They were irrelevant in many contexts in which the U.S. was not involved,
and they explain the outcome of many armed struggles over the past century regardless
of who was in them, for they are usually decided by the socio-economic and political
strength of the various sides – China after 1947 and Vietnam after 1972 are
two examples, but scarcely the only ones. Wars are more determined by socioeconomic
and political factors than any other, and this was true long before the U.S.
attempted to regulate the world's affairs. Political conflicts are not solved
by military interventions, and that they are often incapable of being resolved
by political or peaceful means does not alter the fact that force is dysfunctional.
This is truer today than ever with the spread of weapons technology. Washington
refuses to heed this lesson of modern history.
SPIEGEL: What is the position of the U.S. military? Are its forces united behind
KOLKO: Some of the most acute criticisms made of the gross simplisms which
have guided interventionist policies were produced within the American military,
especially after the Vietnam experience traumatized it. My history of the Vietnam
War was purchased by many base libraries, and the military journals treated
it in detail and very respectfully. The statement at the end of July by the
new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael G. Mullen, that "no
amount of troops in no amount of time will make much of a difference" if Iraqi
politics fails to change drastically reflects a current of realism that has
existed among military thinkers for some decades (whether he acts on this assumption
is another matter and depends greatly on considerations outside of his control).
But the senior military remains extremely disunited on this war, and many officers
regard Gen. Petraeus – the top military commander in Iraq – as a political opportunist
who ultimately will do as Bush commands.
Admiral William J. Fallon, who commands American forces in the region and is
Petraeus' superior, is publicly skeptical of his endorsement of the president's
policies in Iraq. The Army, especially, does not have the manpower for a protracted
war and if the U.S. maintains its troop levels after spring 2008, it will face
a crisis. It will have to break its pledge not to leave soldiers in Iraq longer
than 15 months, accelerate the use of National Guard units, and the like – and
it will lose the war regardless of what it does.
SPIEGEL: But if there are critical voices in the military, why are they ignored?
KOLKO: Like the CIA, the military has some acute strategic thinkers who have
learned from bitter experiences. The analyses of the U.S. Army's Strategic Studies
Institute – to name one of many – are often very insightful and critical.
The problem, of course, is that few (if any) at the decisive levels pay any
attention to the critical ruminations that the military and CIA consistently
produce. There is no shortage of insight among U.S. official analysts – the problem
that policy is rarely formulated with objective knowledge is a constraint on
it. Ambitious people, who exist in ample quantity, say what their superiors
wish to hear and rarely, if ever, contradict them. Former CIA head George Tenet
is the supreme example of that, and what the CIA emphasized for the president
or Donald Rumsfeld was essentially what they wanted to hear. While he admits
the CIA knew far less regarding Iraq than it should have, Tenet's recent memoir
is a good example of desire leading reporting objectively. The men and women
who rise to the top are finely tuned to the relationship between ambition and
readiness to contradict their superiors with facts. The entire mess is Iraq,
to cite just one example, was predicted. If reason and clarity prevailed, America's
role in the world would be utterly different.
SPIEGEL: But what about the Iraqi security forces? Are they able to take over
from the Americans?
KOLKO: The Iraqi army and police that are to replace the Americans is heavily
infiltrated by Shi'ites loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr and others – estimates vary,
but at least a quarter is wholly unreliable. When Paul Bremer was sent as proconsul
to Iraq in May 2003, he decided unilaterally to purge the military completely
of Saddam's officers and loyalists – Bush still wanted, vaguely, to keep the
existing army intact – but the task of reconstructing it proved far too difficult
for his successors. The American administration in now using the very Sunni
tribes that Saddam had worked with, mainly by purchasing their loyalty. It is
very significant that Bush during his visit to Iraq a few days ago went to Anbar
province rather than Baghdad, reflecting the realization that Nouri al-Maliki's
government is no longer the chosen vehicle for attaining America's goals.
SPIEGEL: How does Washington plan to go about the business of ending the war?
KOLKO: There is utter confusion in Washington about how to end this morass.
Goals are similar but the means to attain them are increasingly changing, confused,
and as victory becomes more elusive so too does this administration look pathetic.
The "surge," in the opinion of a majority of quite conservative establishment
foreign policy experts (80 percent of whom had once served in government) was
failing; the administration's handling of the war, in their view, was dismal.
In fact, it is disastrous.
Interview conducted by John Goetz.