Editor's Note: Steve Buck first wrote for our web site three years ago about Iraq and has enunciated a carefully thought-out criticism of the Bush Administration policies throughout the entire period. His 39 years in the Foreign Service, all but a few in the Middle East, including U.S. Embassy Baghdad 1986-88, give him a unique perspective among classmates. In retirement, Steve remains very active on Middle East issues. He recently was the Keynote Speaker at a convention of community college professors in Michigan expressing his concerns about American policy.
"Iraq - From Here to Samarra"
By Stephen Buck, Foreign Service Officer, retired
March 16, 2006
"The steel girders of the Washington's Capitol dome are still in place, but the rest is in ruins. Washington is in its fourth day of all-day curfew to separate the blacks and the whites, the Protestants and the Catholics.
"From Ulan Bator, capitol of the Mongolian Empire, the world's only remaining superpower, Genghis Khan XIV assures his restive public that they should be patient and 'stay the course.' Deftly parrying charges that there were no weapons of mass destruction and that the Americans were not linked to anti-Mongolian terrorists, he notes that America always had the underlying tensions that are now bringing it to the brink of civil war. They need to remember that the Genghis Khan approach to management is what has made Mongolia great and what the world needs. Leading Mongolian thinkers point out that the U.S. South going its own way would not be such a bad thing and would right the wrong of the lost war of the states. While most commentators on Mongolian TV have either never been to the U.S. or only since the invasion, requiring always that they be accompanied by at least 40 soldiers with sub machine guns, Mongolian TV is awash with "experts," pontificating about the U.S. Most tents in Outer Mongolia have large flags and "support our troops" signs, with many feeling that those who question Khan's policies are unpatriotic. Few question the policy that ensures that only proven supporters are allowed at any public event when Khan speaks.
"Meanwhile, Americans talk of the days when they had electricity and running water and could leave their houses without fear of being kidnapped. While some are protesting the widespread use of stamping an "A" on the forehead of adulterers, the vast majority, followers of the "Back to our Roots" party, which won a near majority in the recent elections, feel that at a time of such trouble, one must return to core values...."
This imaginary report may strike some as far-fetched, but imposing the situation in Iraq after the bombing of a holy Shi'a shrine in Samarra on an American context may begin to convey the ghastliness that is Iraq today, three years after the invasion.
If Iraq is not in the midst of a civil war, it certainly is as close to the brink as one can get. One cannot predict the future, but one can learn some lessons from this tragic, unnecessary adventure and make a few recommendations for the future. So here goes:
There were no weapons of mass destruction and no Iraqi tie to al-Qaeda. Iraq was not an imminent threat to the U.S. Those who still stick to this line are living in fantasy.
The administration did not "mistakenly" go to war on the basis of faulty intelligence. Paul Pillar, former National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia and most senior intelligence official in charge of coordinating intelligence on the Middle East from 2001 to 2005, convincingly argues in the current issue of Foreign Affairs that the Bush administration had already decided to invade Iraq. He says that the administration "cherry picked" the most unreliable, raw intelligence to bolster their case, deep-sixing any intelligence and analysis that ran counter to its views.
After an invasion based on false premises, the Bush administration compounded the problem by:
- ignoring a 17-volume State Department report on what the occupiers would face the day after invasion;
- having a plan only for invasion, not occupation (a point stressed to me in interviews I did with senior Coalition Provisional Authority officials for the U.S. Institute of Peace's Iraq project. They repeatedly said "there was no plan B");
- banning employment for members of the Ba'ath party, gutting the core of the Iraqi state, its public administration;
- blacklisting State Department officials with Arabic and Iraq experience in favor of "ideologically sound" persons, often in their 20's with no experience abroad, much less in the Arab world, or persons such as Yale's own Jerry Bremer, with lots of diplomatic experience, but none in the Arab world;
- relying on carpetbaggers, such as Ahmed Chelabi, who had not set foot in Iraq since 1958, and who fed Washington with false "intelligence" from a source the CIA aptly called "Curveball." In the national elections, Chelabi's party did not win one seat;
- in a highly centralized state, introducing federalism and letting the constitutional negotiations gut the power of the state, leaving oil revenue, 95% of state revenue, to the provinces, thereby greatly strengthening regional/sectarian divisions;
- constantly talking about Sunni, Shia and Kurd, fostering division, rather than Iraqi nationalism;
- ignoring a hundred year Iraqi history of resisting foreign occupation by referring to the Iraqi resistance as "a few dead enders," rather than recognizing and dealing with wide-spread dissatisfaction with occupation, particularly among the Sunni.
At the State Department, when a major incident occurs at a diplomatic facility abroad involving killing or wounding of personnel, there is always an independent Accountability Review Board. Although there has been an official report of intelligence failure, there has been none on the subversion and distortion of the intelligence process or the policy failures that have led to so many unnecessary deaths, both American and Iraqi. There should be.
Alas, we are now in the worst of all possible worlds.
The core rationale for invading Iraq was that it was part of the "War on Terror." What was not a threat has now become one in that the images - for the first time - of America invading an Arab, Muslim country and the subsequent photos from Abu Gharaib have done more for recruiting young Muslims world-wide to his cause than anything Usameh bin Ladin could have imagined. Arguing "better to fight in Iraq than the U.S." is a fool's game. The Russian invasion of Afghanistan produced "Afghanis" around the world. Iraq is doing this for us. Also, we have turned Iraq into a training ground for urban guerillas who will return to key countries such as Saudi Arabia, to foment discord - the so-called "blow-back" effect.
President Bush talks about "staying the course," but it is unclear what that course is. As international editor Fareed Zakaria, pointed out in the March 13 issue of Newsweek, continuing to work on "standing up" the Iraqi army is only likely to make matters worse, because it is rightly perceived by the Sunnis as largely made up of Shia and Kurdish militia. The solution to Iraq's problems will not be military, but political. In a recent Zogby poll, a significant majority of Iraqis saw the U.S. military presence as part of the problem, not the solution.
In this country, polls indicate steadily increasing dissatisfaction with our Iraq adventure. The clear trend is for withdrawing forces, particularly in an election year. Already the administration has signaled a winding down approach by asking for no Foreign Assistance funds for Iraq in the FY 2007 budget.
The State Department, completely ignored and outflanked by what Secretary of State Colin Powell's Chief of Staff has called the Rumsfield-Cheney "cabal" in the run-up to invasion, is now being asked to take the lead in Iraq. Secretary of State Rice has called for setting up 16 Provincial Reconstruction Teams around Iraq, but the Defense Department is refusing to provide them with any security, and four months after State's announcement only 3 are in place. What would have been a good idea immediately after invasion may go nowhere because DOD is unwilling, and the Iraqi government may be unable, to provide security.
In early March, the Foreign Service Journal (where I volunteer as an editorial board member) published the results of an extensive survey on service in Iraq sent to all Foreign Service officers, both those serving in Iraq and elsewhere. The results raise troubling questions, but not about the loyalty of highly dedicated foreign service officers, who are putting their lives at risk in Iraq (and elsewhere). Rather the question is why has the administration turned our embassy in Baghdad into the largest U.S. embassy in the world by "robbing Peter to pay Paul," drawing down personnel and resources from other posts around the world to staff Iraq. Worse, it is not at all clear why most of the personnel are there, since they cannot leave the "Green Zone," a small enclave in central Baghdad, for the "Red Zone" - all of the rest of Iraq. Doing so requires a minimum of 20 heavily armed military escorts, and makes contact with Iraqis virtually impossible, since any Iraqi pinpointed by such a "visit" becomes an immediate target for assassination. (For more on this, go to: www.afsa.org/fsj/mar06/iraqservice.pdf.)
So what are the lessons of all this and what should we do?
- Establish, as Pillar suggests in his article, a truly independent intelligence analysis organization, on the model of the Federal Reserve, that cannot be brow-beaten by Vice Presidential visits.
- Recognize 100 years of Iraqi resistance to foreign occupation by stopping all construction of permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq and stating clearly and unequivocally that the U.S. has no intention of maintaining military bases in Iraq.
- U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Khalilzad is engaged in heroic efforts to undo past administration mistakes and come up with an Iraqi government not dominated by the Shi'a SCIRI and Da'wa parties, who have spent most of the past 20 years as exiles in Tehran. The U.S. could obtain some leverage if instead of demonizing Iran, it engaged in quiet talks with the Iranian government, whose senior clerical leaders do not share all the views of its new, fire-brand president.
The likely outcome of our multi-hundred-billion dollar folly in Iraq may be for Americans to withdraw from foreign "adventures," as they did after Vietnam. We shouldn't withdraw from international engagement, and there is a lesson - The United States must base policy on reality, rather than ideological fervor.
A British playwright, David Hare, had a play in London that will soon come to New York, called "Stuff Happens." The phrase is Donald Rumsfeld's response to criticism that little had been done to prepare for possible looting in Iraq. Hare gives the last word to an unnamed Iraqi exile, who says of Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair - "They came to save us, but they had no plans."
Every day that U.S. forces remain in Iraq reminds the Iraqis, and the whole Arab and Muslim world, that the U.S., at least under the present administration, has gone from being an anti-colonial to an imperial power. Worse, a woefully incompetent one.
Exiting Iraq in a way that minimizes further damage to core U.S. national interests will require focusing on the political in Iraq, pushing "standing up" the Iraqi army off center stage and letting reality drive policy, rather than the reverse. While there is some indication that this is beginning to happen, it is likely to be too little too late.
In our haste to eliminate Saddam's brutal regime, we also eliminated the most efficient centralized government I experienced in eight Arab posts. The Constitution we largely drafted eviscerates central control and facilitates the centrifugal forces we have unleashed. Pursing a policy of damage limitation, while not satisfying to ideologues, at least may not make matters worse. Given the sorry history of the past three years, that would be an accomplishment.
Our debacle in Iraq does not mean we should withdraw from the world. It does mean an increasingly imperial Presidency should be held far more accountable, even in a supposed "time of war." When Americans defer to rhetoric and calls to patriotism in "wartime" without asking, and expecting, real answers to tough - and patriotic - questions, they pay a heavy price.
(Steve's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org)