Monday, November 19, 2007

No End in Sight

Last night I watched "No End in Sight," the infuriating documentary about the catastrophe in Iraq. It's an infuriating movie at two levels, one intentional, the other not.

The intentionally infuriating aspect of the movie has to do with the central narrative, which focuses in particular on the Bush regime's complete lack of planning for the postwar situation in Iraq, and on the decisions that were made, especially by Paul Bremer and his cronies, in the early days after the fall of Baghdad. What comes across quite clearly is that the planning of the postwar was non-existent, beginning with the fateful decision not to use nearly enough troops. General Eric Shinseki, who had extensive experience from the Balkans in dealing with occupation and reconstruction efforts, was fired by Donald Rumsfeld for suggesting that it would take "several hundred thousand" troops to secure the country. With not enough troops in the country, the United States did nothing to stop the complete collapse of order in the wake of Saddam's ouster, immediately destroying US credibility as a liberator. Worst of all, the decisions to engage in radical de-baathification, which destroyed Iraq's civil service at a stroke, and to disband the Iraqi army, which immediately ended the employment of half a million armed and angry men, were made by unilaterally by Bremer (perhaps in consultation with Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, though apparently not with Bush), without any consultation with local Iraqis, with Americans in Iraq, or with anyone who knew anything at all about occupation and reconstruction efforts. The movie argues, in effect, that these decisions precipitated the catastrophe that Iraq has become. What's most galling is not the moral anguish of those who tried to avoid these mistakes, but rather the complete insouciance of those who did make the decisions, who apparently feel not an ounce of remorse.

The unintentionally infuriating part of "No End in Sight," however, is that it subtly perpetuates the dominant narrative of what we might call the McCain-Clinton consensus on Iraq. This consensus holds that the problems the United States faces in Iraq are entirely the result of execution errors by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al. This is the narrative that Hillary Clinton in particular has promoted (as did Kerry in 2004), since it is the only one that can justify her war authorization vote in 2002 on substantive grounds. "Yes Iraq is a catastrophe," she and others who participate in this consensus argue, "but it didn't need to have turned out that way!" While such a rationalization may be politically convenient for presidential candidates who seek the nomination of a party that has turned against this war, it is catastrophically wrong. In fact, as David Halberstam observed posthumously in the August issue of Vanity Fair:
It is hard for me to believe that anyone who knew anything about Vietnam, or for that matter the Algerian war, which directly followed Indochina for the French, couldn't see that going into Iraq was, in effect, punching our fist into the largest hornet's nest in the world. As in Vietnam, our military superiority is neutralized by political vulnerabilities. The borders are wide open. We operate quite predictably on marginal military intelligence. The adversary knows exactly where we are at all times, as we do not know where he is. Their weaponry fits an asymmetrical war, and they have the capacity to blend into the daily flow of Iraqi life, as we cannot. Our allies—the good Iraqi people the president likes to talk about—appear to be more and more ambivalent about the idea of a Christian, Caucasian liberation, and they do not seem to share many of our geopolitical goals.
As Small Precautions has argued for years, in fact the real miracle is that things didn’t turn out worse in Iraq than they have (though they may).

Something close to the reverse of the argument put forth by the movie is in fact the case. There were many experts who knew full well that “punching the hornet’s nest” was likely to turn out catastrophically. The war would have been impossible to sell to the American people, Bush and Cheney knew, if an honest reckoning was made of what the postwar situation was likely to be like. The American people would most likely never have accepted the war if the President had told them what reconstruction experts were saying, namely that (at best) the war would cost a trillion dollars and require a ten year occupation of half a million troops. Those who began to suggest such things, like Shinseki, were fired.

Wolfowitz went to Congress on February 27, 2003 and told them with a straight face, "There has been a good deal of comment—some of it quite outlandish—about what our postwar requirements might be in Iraq. Some of the higher end predictions we have been hearing recently, such as the notion that it will take several hundred thousand US troops to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq, are wildly off the mark. It is hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself and to secure the surrender of Saddam's security forces and his army—hard to imagine." A month later, Wolfowitz declared, "We are dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction and relatively soon." These were things that had to be said in order to make the war acceptable to the American public.

Serious planning for the postwar would have revealed the absurdity and fatuity of such claims. In fact, the most charitable possible interpretation of Wolfowitz's statements (and similar ones by Rice, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Bush and countless pundits) is that they were not so much lying as intentionally trying to avoid facing the truth about the hornet's next they had already decided to punch. Serious planning for the postwar would have created such a shock as to the real expected costs, that it would have precluded the ability to wage it in the first place. What's more, who needed planning, since Saddam was just a Stalinist thug whose removal would free the Iraqi economy and society to organize and finance its own reconstruction. All of this, which is the crucial political lesson the American people need to draw from the war, "No End in Sight" does nothing to illuminate.

The real lessons that this country must learn from Iraq (for if we fail to do so, it will mean the end of American power) are realism about the limits of American power, the limitations of military force, and the need to be willing to make deals with unsavory characters if you’re going to deal with difficult parts of the world. The United States must (re)learn how to assess its geopolitical options rationally--not instinctually or ideologically. "No End in Sight" does nothing to advance these insights, and indeed perpetuates the American post-Cold War myth that the the United States can achieve imperial hegemony. Halberstam gets to the nub of the issue in understanding that behind the poor decisions of the Bush administration lies a fundamental misapprehension of recent history, and in particular, the meaning of the end of the Cold War:
What went wrong in the current administration, not just in the immediate miscalculation of Iraq but in the larger sense of misreading the historical moment we now live in. It is that the president and the men around him—most particularly the vice president—simply misunderstood what the collapse of the Soviet empire meant for America in national-security terms. Rumsfeld and Cheney are genuine triumphalists. Steeped in the culture of the Cold War and the benefits it always presented to their side in domestic political terms, they genuinely believed that we were infinitely more powerful as a nation throughout the world once the Soviet empire collapsed.

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