The excited media coverage of former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s new memoir Duty as an unusually frank retelling of his time in the Bush and Obama administrations caused me to make an exception to my lifelong moratorium on reading the memoirs of politicians or government officials. Reviews and excerpts of the book revealed Gates accusing the Obama White House of being more secretive and centralized than the Nixon-Kissinger White House. He also once suggested banning Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from visiting the White House. Gates even revealed, for the first time, that the U.S. had tried to orchestrate the overthrow of Afghan President Hamid Karzai in the 2009 elections. I had to have that book.
I’m about 100 pages into it and so far it is filled with national greatness ideology and a mindless “support-our-troops” mantra in place of thoughtful analysis or strategic thinking, mostly with regard to Iraq. At one point, Gates even rehabilitates the old Bush-era trope that if one doesn’t support the war mission, one can not then support the troops (obviously nothing could be more supportive of U.S. soldiers than to get them out of needless wars of choice like Iraq).
But what really strikes me about Gates’s commentary is that he barely hides the true motive behind the surge. The surge in Iraq was not implemented out of military or strategic necessity, but for blatantly political reasons. The Bush administration was in the second half of its second term and the war was universally recognized as a failure. The aim was to stabilize Iraq enough so that the Bush team could leave office without hanging their heads in defeat, at least plausibly claiming that the war went OK in the end.
And yet, throughout the book, Gates insists that the troops were not fighting in vain. Nothing demonstrates the vanity of the surge better than a review of what is going on in Iraq now, namely a continuation of the sectarian civil war that erupted as a result of the U.S. invasion and post-Saddam de-Baathification policies. The supposed gains from the surge – specifically, that violence had decreased as a result of increased U.S. forces and a temporary alliance with Sunni tribesmen to fight al-Qaeda – were not sustainable for Iraq’s security and simply served as an expedient stopgap for America to avoid the embarrassment of military failure.
Yesterday’s New York Times described the current U.S. strategy as a continuation of the surge policies (minus U.S. troops). The Obama administration is boosting arms support for Iraqi security forces and indirectly arming the Sunni tribal fighters we earlier supported in the “Anbar” or “Sunni Awakening.”
At a command center in western Anbar Province, Iraqi military officials are handing out guns and cash to local Sunni tribal fighters who are battling militants for control of Iraq’s largest province.
The United States, at the same time, is rushing shipments of small arms and ammunition to the Iraqi government and urging the Iraqis to pass the weapons on to the tribes.
As Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki struggles to put down an insurgency led by militants affiliated with Al Qaeda, he has embraced the same strategy the Americans used in 2007, one that has been attempted with varying degrees of success by the authorities here for nearly a century: paying and arming tribal militias to fight as proxies.
The American version, known as the Sunni Awakening, coupled with an American troop increase, helped turn the tide of the Iraq war but ultimately, as recent events have laid bare, achieved no lasting reconciliation.
We’re still fighting the Iraq war. To do this, we’re supporting the Shiite dictator in Baghdad, Nouri al-Maliki, as he tries desperately to crush a lingering insurgency and al-Qaeda’s creeping hold on portions of western Iraq. This foolishly ignores the fact that Maliki bears considerable responsibility for Iraq’s continuing descent into chaos. The Sunni-Shia violence in Iraq, as the International Crisis Group (ICG) explained months ago, is “as acute and explosive as ever” primarily because “Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has implemented a divide-and-conquer strategy that has neutered any credible Sunni Arab leadership.” Additionally, many ordinary Sunnis have been radicalized into militants after years of being denied basic rights.
The only disgrace more apparent than Washington’s Iraq policies is the fact that the architects of the policy, both of the invasion and the surge, refuse to admit its abject failure.