A new book by Andrew Kreig, Presidential Puppetry: Obama, Romney and Their Masters, explores the complex and interrelated backgrounds of our recent presidents and presidential candidates. While I have not yet read the entire volume, I am pleased to offer a sample chapter excerpt here.
Prescott Bush: Roots of the Bushes
The Bush and Walker families, forebears of President George Herbert Walker Bush, have been prominent in American life for many generations. The analysis over the next three chapters covers multiple generations of the Bush Family. That way, the disreputable methods and dire consequences for the public are understandable as part of a pattern, not mere aberrations. As one example, both George H. W. Bush and his father, Prescott Bush, presented themselves as war heroes to help launch their careers, despite serious questions about the facts. This raises doubt about their ultimate loyalties, given the central role that war-making, armaments, and energy have played in advancing the fortunes of their families and their armies of business cronies.
The history of the Yale College secret society Skull and Bones is a good place to start. William H. Russell founded the society in the 1830s after observing a model for it during his studies in Germany. Russell, who became a prominent educator and pro-union abolitionist, was a cousin of the wealthy Samuel W. Russell, a silk, tea, and opium merchant based in China for many years. Skull and Bones, also known as “The Order,” is incorporated as the Russell Trust Association and is exempt from Connecticut’s normal requirements for annual reports. Several researchers suggest the secret status proved useful in 1961 for laundering payments to CIA-orchestrated Bay of Pigs invaders of Cuba.
The Order traditionally invites fifteen of the school’s wealthiest and otherwise most outstanding juniors to forge a lifelong mutual assistance bond. This includes a rite in the longtime headquarters, a windowless stone building called “The Tomb” in New Haven. Each initiate lies in a coffin to confide intimate sexual experiences. George H. W. Bush and his father were members, as was son George W. Bush. Author Alexandra Robbins summarized the society’s importance as follows:
The men called their organization the “Brotherhood of Death,” or, more informally, “The Order of Skull and Bones.” They adopted the numerological symbol 322 because their group was the second chapter of the German organization, founded in 1832. They worshipped the goddess Eulogia, celebrated pirates, and covertly plotted an underground conspiracy to dominate the world. Fast forward 170 years. Skull and Bones has curled its tentacles into every reach of American society. This tiny club has set up networks that have thrust three members to the most powerful political position in the world… Skull and Bones has been dominated by approximately two dozen of the country’s most prominent families — Bush, Bundy, Harriman, Lord, Phelps, Rockefeller, Taft, and Whitney, among them — who were and are encouraged by the society to intermarry so that the society’s power is consolidated. In fact, the society forces members to confess their entire sexual histories so that Skull and Bones, as a eugenics overlord, can determine whether a new Bonesman will be fit to carry on the bloodlines of the powerful Skull and Bones dynasties.
Understandably brimming with self-confidence, Prescott found himself humiliated in 1918, a little more than a year after his Yale graduation. While Prescott was on his way to Allied front lines in the final months of World War I, his hometown newspaper in Columbus, Ohio printed a front-page story describing him as a hero acclaimed by three nations. The reason? Prescott, according the report, courageously used a “bolo knife” as a baseball bat to swat away an incoming shell, thereby protecting his unit. In fact, he had not yet reached the front lines. The paper published this preposterous tale as a news story, and included such flattering biographical detail as his college leadership of the Yale Glee Club and his election to Skull and Bones. But the bolo knife as baseball bat yarn prompted ridicule. And so, four weeks later, the paper published on its front page a brief letter from Prescott’s mother saying that the original story was in error.
Bush himself is reputed to have said the story arose because he wrote a humorous cable to a friend, who thought it was real and placed it in the paper. The incident was all the more embarrassing because Prescott’s father, Samuel P. Bush, was the United States official in charge of World War I purchases of small arms (including machine guns) and ammunition. Details remain shrouded because of destroyed records. Samuel Bush’s wartime post helped illustrate the kind of ongoing relationships between the nation’s Wall Street, munitions, energy, and media tycoons that would endure through the generations. Bush’s work buying ammunition and arms put him in a position to provide troops with goods from the Rockefeller-controlled Remington Arms, the nation’s largest grossing arms dealer during the war. Bush worked directly under Wall Street’s trusted Bernard Baruch, head of the War Industries Board. Baruch, a native of South Carolina, was nicknamed “The Long Wolf” because of his investment acumen but was reputed more quietly to be also to be an important liaison between Europe’s Rothschild banking family and their United States partners. The nation’s finances, including for war industries, were highly dependent also on the work of War Finance Chairman Eugene Meyer, the future Post owner who would cement friendships with the Bush and other major dynasties during this period of explosive federal growth.
After the war, Prescott Bush found marriage, and professional success through The Order and similar elite connections. He married Dorothy Walker, daughter of W.A. Harriman Brothers CEO and Co-founder Herbert “Bert” Walker, a private banker and sports fan whose successes included building Madison Square Garden, serving as New York State Racing commissioner and running the Belmont Race Track as president. But Bert Walker’s main business was to help create support for U.S. entry into World War I, and postwar to build up Harriman Brothers. Other co-founders included W. Averell Harriman, a member of The Order from Yale’s class of 1913. He chaired the firm and co-owned it with his younger brother, Roland “Bunny” Harriman. The latter was a Bonesman in the same Yale Class of 1917 as Prescott Bush. Bunny took the lead in arranging for Prescott to become the firm’s vice president. Another co-founder was Percy Rockefeller, a Bonesman in the Yale class of 1900 and the family’s controller of Remington Arms Prescott’s brother attended Yale, and both of their sisters married Yale men.
If this all seems cozy, that’s because it was. And to a significant extent, it still is. Rather remarkably, for example, 2004 Presidential candidates George W. Bush and John Kerry were Yale Bonesmen in the mid-1960s, as were at least two of the leading news commentators on their campaigns.
Prescott Makes His Mark
Prescott Bush, tall and self-righteous, worked hard to advance himself and Harriman Brothers. Among his major early successes was helping William Paley obtain financing to buy CBS. Paley later ran CBS for many years as chairman, with Bush as a director. Like CBS, NBC and later ABC were spinoffs from the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), and thus had many overlapping relationships with banks, and other financiers.
At Harriman Brothers, Bush also created a strong United States financial base for the German industrialist, Fritz Thyssen. Thyssen used Harriman Brothers as an agent for his efforts in the United States. In 1926, Thyssen also became mesmerized by up-and-coming German politician Adolf Hitler and so became Hitler’s leading financier.
Harriman Brothers was well-positioned for this business after being involved in global activities that included projects in Russia after World War I. In 1931, Harriman had merged with Brown Brothers, which had been the nation’s major shipping line for the slave trade before the Civil War, thus enabling extensive overseas offices. The new company became Brown Brothers Harriman, the world’s largest private investment bank. Bush ran the New York office, and focused heavily on Thyssen and related business. That was among Harriman’s biggest income sources as Hitler ramped up his country’s development after seizing power in 1933. Meanwhile, a Depression stagnated much of the United States.
Given Hitler’s warmongering and racist policies, however, Thyssen-related income became increasingly awkward for the firm. Thyssen himself broke with Hitler before the war, and fled to France in 1941, doubtless hoping his United States assets would remain available under the safekeeping of Brown Brothers Harriman. In 1942, the United States government seized some assets under the Trading with the Enemy Act. But Averell Harriman was one of President Roosevelt‘s top foreign policy advisors, with many henchmen installed in high places. Not surprisingly, the Hitler-Thyssen-Harriman-Bush matter was resolved discreetly, for the most part, until investigative reporting arose a half-century later.
Prescott Bush survived the Nazi taint with relatively little damage to his reputation. He was elected as a U.S. senator representing Connecticut as a Republican from 1952 to 1963. Bush’s patron Averell Harriman, a U.S. ambassador to Russia during the war, continued to hold several of the highest federal foreign affairs positions under the postwar presidency of Harry Truman. Bush served on the Armed Services Committee, and fostered close friendships with President Eisenhower and other top officials.
During the 1940s, Bush and tobacco heir Gordon Gray, fostered a friendship and alliance between their families that would affect the nation’s history for decades. Gray’s son, Boyden Gray, would augment that tradition by helping lead a secret, decade long-effort by power brokers to create “the tea party,” which was sold to the public as a spontaneous grassroots organization of patriots arising in 2009 to fight the Obama administration. The sham’s historical roots are intertwined with the power of the nation’s great dynasties.
Gordon Gray, an heir to the R.J. Reynolds tobacco fortune, was a Yale Law School graduate and newspaper publisher among his accomplishments. In the 1940s, he and his wife became leaders in the eugenics movement along with Prescott Bush. The Harriman and Rockefeller families heavily funded eugenics and sterilization, which later evolved into more socially acceptable Planned Parenthood organization and decades of U.S. Agency for International Development birth control programs for Third World nations. Gray and his wife helped lead a pilot program to reduce birthrates by sterilizing hundreds of black boys and girls who performed poorly on school intelligence tests. The trial project was in segregated Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where Gray published a newspaper.
Gray became secretary of the Army in the Truman administration. Gray’s interests would include the mind-control drug experiments by the fledgling CIA on unsuspecting test subjects whose reactions could be studied. Gray would go on to hold important national security positions under both Republican and Democratic presidents into the Ford administration during the mid-1970s.
In 1953, President Eisenhower appointed former Harriman lawyers John Foster and Allen Dulles to lead the State Department and CIA, respectively. Averell Harriman became governor of New York State for one term before losing reelection in 1958 to Nelson Rockefeller, a Dartmouth graduate. Rockefeller’s many influential posts before his four terms as governor included one with the quaint title of Special Assistant to President Eisenhower for psychological warfare. Gray became Eisenhower’s national security advisor. Gray and Prescott Bush were frequent golfing companions with President Eisenhower, with Vice President Nixon often rounding out their foursome.
Illustrating the capacity for political jousting even among the highest levels of the governing elite, Prescott Bush damaged the national aspirations of Nelson Rockefeller by savagely attacking the scion of his longtime financial allies for obtaining a divorce and remarrying. Prescott’s tirade was doubtless in part because of Nelson’s notorious reputation as a philanderer, with Rockefeller’s staff regarded as especially vulnerable to his charms. Another motive for the sabotage was the Bush Family’s increasing interest in working with oil-rich Texas conservatives who were reshaping the Republican Party toward perspectives shaped by Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater.
Prescott retired from the Senate in 1963, just as his son George’s political career was beginning in Texas. Prescott resumed his post as Brown Brothers Harriman managing director until his death in 1972. In 2004, The Guardian in the United Kingdom published an extensive investigation seeking to answer questions about Prescott Bush’s role assisting Thyssen and Hitler. The series noted that Bush enjoyed success in public life after the war, and was never prosecuted. However, it quoted John Loftus, a former federal prosecutor in the nation’s Nazi hunt that began in the 1970s, as arguing that he would have sought Bush’s indictment as a war criminal if he were still alive. The Guardian noted that the Bush Family had always declined to respond to such comments.
The news story continued:
“There is no one left alive who could be prosecuted but they did get away with it,” said Loftus. “As a former federal prosecutor, I would make a case for Prescott Bush, his father-in-law (George Walker), and Averell Harriman [to be prosecuted] for giving aid and comfort to the enemy. They remained on the boards of these companies knowing that they were of financial benefit to the nation of Germany.”
Loftus said Prescott Bush must have been aware of what was happening in Germany at the time. “My take on him was that he was a not terribly successful in-law who did what Herbert Walker told him to. Walker and Harriman were the two evil geniuses; they didn’t care about the Nazis any more than they cared about their investments with the Bolsheviks.
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There is a school of physics, or maybe science fiction, it doesn’t matter, that posits if matter and anti-matter collide it will be the end of the universe. Collapse of the time-space continuum, regression of the speed of light, that sort of thing. We can say now that such theories are wrong, having witnessed a great collision of reality and anti-reality at the Bush Library opening and lived to tell the tale.
Last week found us wallowing in the opening of the Bush Library in Texas, a monument to George W. and his eight year reign of terror in America. The library opening also signified the opening shots of Bush revisionism, the signal that all loyal or ignorant (perhaps loyal and ignorant?) pundits should start trying to make up a new version of reality to replace the evil, horrible crap that really happened between 2000-2008.
Leading the pack was Charles Krauthammer (the name is somehow not a punchline of its own), who reminded us of how wonderful the Iraq War really was. Krauthammer fapped:
Finally, the surge, a courageous Bush decision taken against near-universal opposition, that produced the greatest U.S. military turnaround since the Inchon landing. And inflicted the single most significant defeat for al-Qaeda (save Afghanistan) — a humiliating rout at the hands of Iraqi Sunnis fighting side-by-side with the American infidel.
As with Lincoln, it took Bush years of agonizing bloody stalemate before he finally found his general and his strategy. Yet, for all the terrible cost, Bush bequeathed to Obama a strategically won war.
Wow. That’s enough to make an old man proud. Out of breath here, gimme a minute, OK…
Meanwhile, in the real Iraq, last week saw the deaths of some 200 people, mostly those perky Sunnis Krauthammer writes about, in combat against the dominate Shia regime (Krauthammer at least got it right that it was a civil war.) The fighting escalated to the point where Sunni fighters briefly took over a town and had to be killed by the Iraqi army to restore Shia order.
Also among the Sunni dead last week were two Sahwa (“Sons of Iraq”) leaders, gunned down with silenced pistols in a classic assasination. The Sahwa of course were America’s creation, the Sunnis willing to fight on our side for money.
The killings noted above were preceded by a series of pre-election bomb blasts across Iraq that killed at least 42 people and wounded more than 257 others. Suck on that Boston!
The whimpering U.S. Embassy in Baghdad was roused from its absinthe-fueled haze to issue a bland statement that “raised concerns” about the Sunni-Shia clashes, without of course assigning blame. It again called for an “urgent and transparent investigation.” And get this line, delivered without irony: “The United States stands firmly with the Iraqi people who seek to live in peace after so many decades of war.” Hah hah, it’s funny because it was the U.S. that created those decades of war! It’s like SNL, the good years!
But the most significant sign of Iraq’s state of democracy was that Iraqi authorities announced Sunday they revoked the operating licenses of pan-Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera and nine other satellite TV channels, alleging that they are promoting a “sectarian agenda.” That agenda seems to include reporting on more than the wonderfulness of the Shia Maliki government, hence the censorship.
Now if you want to be sad, read this bit of revisionism, as one American soldier continues to imagine his time in Iraq “made a difference.” You understand the politicians and the pundits say their stupid things for gain or money, but this soldier is just plain sad trying to make his sacrifice seem worthwhile. My heart goes out to him in his ignorance of how he was used.
So, that all clearly justifies 4,462 American and 122,000 Iraqi dead under Bush’s war. Moving on…
Bonus: Condi Rice explains why Bush-era torture was OK (Turns out it was all nice and legal)
Extra Bonus: Handy guide, “How to Debunk George W. Bush’s Attempts at Revisionism,” neatly destroys the “but he kept us safe” myth.
Copyright © 2013. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Today, the writer is D. Inder Comar, a San Francisco lawyer who is seeking to do what the Obama Administration refuses to do, hold the Bush Administration accountable for the unnecessary invasion of Iraq and its ongoing, horrific, aftermath. Here’s what Comar has to say:
On March 13, 2013, I filed two lawsuits in the Northern District of California against George W. Bush, Richard Cheney, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice and Paul Wolfowitz on behalf of an Iraqi client and on behalf of myself as a United States citizen.
My Iraqi client, Ms. Sundus Saleh, alleges that these defendants planned and waged a “war of aggression” in violation of laws set down at the Nuremberg Trials in 1946. She has exercised the jurisdiction of the court through the Alien Tort Statute, a law passed by the first Congress in 1789. She seeks to hold these defendants personally liable for their actions.
My case seeks to set new precedent regarding the obligations of government leaders. I am asking the court to acknowledge that I have a common law and/or constitutional right (premised in the First Amendment) to receive honest and candid information from government officials with respect to war and peace. I have also alleged that the defendants violated California’s false advertising law in planning and waging the Iraq War.
I am handling these cases completely pro bono. I have litigated numerous cases in the federal courts, both as an associate for a major law firm and now on my own. I want to win these cases, both for my client and for myself.
But these lawsuits won’t go anywhere without the help of people like you.
First, the more people who care, the more likely the courts will care. Take the Prop 8 litigation: that legal case has acted as a spearhead for a larger movement that is recognizing that the Constitution cannot discriminate based on sexual orientation. These lawsuits need similar support for the idea that leaders cannot deceive and mislead the public, particularly in matters of war and peace, and remain unaccountable. With the Supreme Court tightening access to the courts (even with the Alien Tort Statute in the very recent Kiobel decision), the courts need to know that people want to hold leaders accountable under law.
Second, my firm is a small San Francisco boutique that is primarily involved in corporate counseling and court appointed trial and appellate work. I will shamelessly admit that I cannot handle these cases alone! I need the support of passionate, intelligent and thoughtful people to secure the court orders that I want for myself and for my client.
As Americans, we are fortunate to have a functioning judiciary. Today, there are millions of people living in other countries who would be killed if they dared to question their leaders. In America, we are heirs to an 800 year tradition extending back to Magna Carta that says no one is above the law – not even the king. And George W. Bush was no king.
Please join me to make this trial a reality. You can help by supporting our fundraising campaign at indiegogo, by spreading the word about the lawsuits, and by reaching out to me (inder at comarlaw dot com) if you want to get involved.
Please help me hold our leaders accountable to prevent another Iraq War.
Copyright © 2013. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
“The card was from Lesotho, a country I learned which was one of them African nations you never hear about. The Lesothoians wrote ‘Thanks for Not Invading Us’ and claimed to be one of the last places on earth that had not been invaded by the United States, either on foot or by drone or via our sneaky Pete special forces. Got me to thinking, so I called up Barack. We talk from time to time, usually when he can’t find something around the White House and needs my help.”
“It was George’s call that made me get out the map,” said Obama. “I didn’t want to bother the Joint Chiefs, and the CIA was tied up with new prisoners, so I just used one of Sasha’s from school. Turns out George was right, there was a country called Lesotho– it was even on Wikipedia– and as best I could tell the U.S. had not ever invaded it. I made a quick call to the Pentagon and they said they weren’t sure if it was a country, but they were sure we had not invaded it. The guy over there asked me if I wanted to invade it, he’d get things started, but I said I’d want to think about it.”
“So Barack called me back, and as we were talking we realized between the two of us we had invaded, droned, sent Special Forces, set up secret prisons, had CIA sites and what have you just about everywhere else in the world. You know, there after 9/11 I kinda let Dick Cheney run things for awhile, and he may have done a lot of it but darn it, it turns out I signed off on a bunch of them myself. You don’t think of it as you do them one-by-one but over time the countries really add up.”
“Once I started making my own list,” continued Obama, “it was damn near everywhere.”
“Everywhere,” said Bush, “‘Cept maybe that Lesotho place.”
“I was faced with a real quandary,” continued Obama. “But then George and I got to talking.”
“Turns out,” said Bush, “between the two of us we had damn near bankrupted the U.S. with wars every freaking place, but Lesotho. I logged on my secret worldwide cabal account, and sure enough, almost all of the U.S. tax money had been transferred into my Rothschild MegaFund, in Chinese currency no less. Since I was online anyway– damn AOL account is so slow and I hate that modem sound– I started reading these ‘blogs’ and message boards and it turns out most people around the world hate the U.S. Nobody told me.”
“George was right. The Secret Service doesn’t let me get online much, but I kept this kinda secret account from Michele so I could, um, look at, um, nature photography sites, and people really did hate us. Pretty much everyone except Lesotho.”
“So me and Barack put two and two together. We made a list of all the places the U.S. had messed up since 9/11 and then sent a note to the Pentagon and Langley recalling every soldier, spook, analyst, torturer, diplomat and all the rest. Everybody– just brought them all back to the U.S. in one awesome Executive Order.”
“Should I tell him George?”
“Nah, it’s a surprise… oh hell, go ahead Barack.”
“We didn’t recall any Americans. I just ordered a nuke strike on Lesotho. April Fool!”
This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.com
I was there. And “there” was nowhere. And nowhere was the place to be if you wanted to see the signs of end times for the American Empire up close. It was the place to be if you wanted to see the madness — and oh yes, it was madness — not filtered through a complacent and sleepy media that made Washington’s war policy seem, if not sensible, at least sane and serious enough. I stood at Ground Zero of what was intended to be the new centerpiece for a Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the invasion of Iraq turned out to be a joke. Not for the Iraqis, of course, and not for American soldiers, and not the ha-ha sort of joke either. And here’s the saddest truth of all: on March 20th as we mark the 10th anniversary of the invasion from hell, we still don’t get it. In case you want to jump to the punch line, though, it’s this: by invading Iraq, the U.S. did more to destabilize the Middle East than we could possibly have imagined at the time. And we — and so many others — will pay the price for it for a long, long time.
The Madness of King George
It’s easy to forget just how normal the madness looked back then. By 2009, when I arrived in Iraq, we were already at the last-gasp moment when it came to salvaging something from what may yet be seen as the single worst foreign policy decision in American history. It was then that, as a State Department officer assigned to lead two provincial reconstruction teams in eastern Iraq, I first walked into the chicken processing plant in the middle of nowhere.
By then, the U.S. “reconstruction” plan for that country was drowning in rivers of money foolishly spent. As the centerpiece for those American efforts — at least after Plan A, that our invading troops would be greeted with flowers and sweets as liberators, crashed and burned — we had managed to reconstruct nothing of significance. First conceived as a Marshall Plan for the New American Century, six long years later it had devolved into farce.
In my act of the play, the U.S. spent some $2.2 million dollars to build a huge facility in the boondocks. Ignoring the stark reality that Iraqis had raised and sold chickens locally for some 2,000 years, the U.S. decided to finance the construction of a central processing facility, have the Iraqis running the plant purchase local chickens, pluck them and slice them up with complex machinery brought in from Chicago, package the breasts and wings in plastic wrap, and then truck it all to local grocery stores. Perhaps it was the desert heat, but this made sense at the time, and the plan was supported by the Army, the State Department, and the White House.
Elegant in conception, at least to us, it failed to account for a few simple things, like a lack of regular electricity, or logistics systems to bring the chickens to and from the plant, or working capital, or… um… grocery stores. As a result, the gleaming $2.2 million plant processed no chickens. To use a few of the catchwords of that moment, it transformed nothing, empowered no one, stabilized and economically uplifted not a single Iraqi. It just sat there empty, dark, and unused in the middle of the desert. Like the chickens, we were plucked.
In keeping with the madness of the times, however, the simple fact that the plant failed to meet any of its real-world goals did not mean the project wasn’t a success. In fact, the factory was a hit with the U.S. media. After all, for every propaganda-driven visit to the plant, my group stocked the place with hastily purchased chickens, geared up the machinery, and put on a dog-and-pony, er, chicken-and-rooster, show.
In the dark humor of that moment, we christened the place the Potemkin Chicken Factory. In between media and VIP visits, it sat in the dark, only to rise with the rooster’s cry each morning some camera crew came out for a visit. Our factory was thus considered a great success. Robert Ford, then at the Baghdad Embassy and now America’s rugged shadow ambassador to Syria, said his visit was the best day out he enjoyed in Iraq. General Ray Odierno, then commanding all U.S. forces in Iraq, sent bloggers and camp followers to view the victory project. Some of the propaganda, which proclaimed that “teaching Iraqis methods to flourish on their own gives them the ability to provide their own stability without needing to rely on Americans,” is still online (including this charming image of American-Iraqi mentorship, a particular favorite of mine).
We weren’t stupid, mind you. In fact, we all felt smart and clever enough to learn to look the other way. The chicken plant was a funny story at first, a kind of insider’s joke you all think you know the punch line to. Hey, we wasted some money, but $2.2 million was a small amount in a war whose costs will someday be toted up in the trillions. Really, at the end of the day, what was the harm?
The harm was this: we wanted to leave Iraq (and Afghanistan) stable to advance American goals. We did so by spending our time and money on obviously pointless things, while most Iraqis lacked access to clean water, regular electricity, and medical or hospital care. Another State Department official in Iraq wrote in his weekly summary to me, “At our project ribbon-cuttings we are typically greeted now with a cursory ‘thank you,’ followed by a long list of crushing needs for essential services such as water and power.” How could we help stabilize Iraq when we acted like buffoons? As one Iraqi told me, “It is like I am standing naked in a room with a big hat on my head. Everyone comes in and helps put flowers and ribbons on my hat, but no one seems to notice that I am naked.”
By 2009, of course, it should all have been so obvious. We were no longer inside the neocon dream of unrivaled global superpowerdom, just mired in what happened to it. We were a chicken factory in the desert that no one wanted.
Time Travel to 2003
Anniversaries are times for reflection, in part because it’s often only with hindsight that we recognize the most significant moments in our lives. On the other hand, on anniversaries it’s often hard to remember what it was really like back when it all began. Amid the chaos of the Middle East today, it’s easy, for instance, to forget what things looked like as 2003 began. Afghanistan, it appeared, had been invaded and occupied quickly and cleanly, in a way the Soviets (the British, the ancient Greeks…) could never have dreamed of. Iran was frightened, seeing the mighty American military on its eastern border and soon to be on the western one as well, and was ready to deal. Syria was controlled by the stable thuggery of Bashar al-Assad and relations were so good that the U.S. was rendering terror suspects to his secret prisons for torture.
Most of the rest of the Middle East was tucked in for a long sleep with dictators reliable enough to maintain stability. Libya was an exception, though predictions were that before too long Muammar Qaddafi would make some sort of deal. (He did.) All that was needed was a quick slash into Iraq to establish a permanent American military presence in the heart of Mesopotamia. Our future garrisons there could obviously oversee things, providing the necessary muscle to swat down any future destabilizing elements. It all made so much sense to the neocon visionaries of the early Bush years. The only thing that Washington couldn’t imagine was this: that the primary destabilizing element would be us.
Indeed, its mighty plan was disintegrating even as it was being dreamed up. In their lust for everything on no terms but their own, the Bush team missed a diplomatic opportunity with Iran that might have rendered today’s saber rattling unnecessary, even as Afghanistan fell apart and Iraq imploded. As part of the breakdown, desperate men, blindsided by history, turned up the volume on desperate measures: torture, secret gulags, rendition, drone killings, extra-constitutional actions at home. The sleaziest of deals were cut to try to salvage something, including ignoring the A.Q. Khan network of Pakistani nuclear proliferation in return for a cheesy Condi Rice-Qaddafi photo-op rapprochement in Libya.
Inside Iraq, the forces of Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict had been unleashed by the U.S. invasion. That, in turn, was creating the conditions for a proxy war between the U.S. and Iran, similar to the growing proxy war between Israel and Iran inside Lebanon (where another destabilizing event, the U.S.-sanctioned Israeli invasion of 2006, followed in hand). None of this has ever ended. Today, in fact, that proxy war has simply found a fresh host, Syria, with multiple powers using “humanitarian aid” to push and shove their Sunni and Shia avatars around.
Staggering neocon expectations, Iran emerged from the U.S. decade in Iraq economically more powerful, with sanctions-busting trade between the two neighbors now valued at some $5 billion a year and still growing. In that decade, the U.S. also managed to remove one of Iran’s strategic counterbalances, Saddam Hussein, replacing him with a government run by Nouri al-Malaki, who had once found asylum in Tehran.
Meanwhile, Turkey is now engaged in an open war with the Kurds of northern Iraq. Turkey is, of course, part of NATO, so imagine the U.S. government sitting by silently while Germany bombed Poland. To complete the circle, Iraq’s prime minister recently warned that a victory for Syria’s rebels will spark sectarian wars in his own country and will create a new haven for al-Qaeda which would further destabilize the region.
Meanwhile, militarily burnt out, economically reeling from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and lacking any moral standing in the Middle East post-Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, the U.S. sat on its hands as the regional spark that came to be called the Arab Spring flickered out, to be replaced by yet more destabilization across the region. And even that hasn’t stopped Washington from pursuing the latest version of the (now-nameless) global war on terror into ever-newer regions in need of destabilization.
Having noted the ease with which a numbed American public patriotically looked the other way while our wars followed their particular paths to hell, our leaders no longer blink at the thought of sending American drones and special operations forces ever farther afield, most notably ever deeper into Africa, creating from the ashes of Iraq a frontier version of the state of perpetual war George Orwell once imagined for his dystopian novel 1984. And don’t doubt for a second that there is a direct path from the invasion of 2003 and that chicken plant to the dangerous and chaotic place that today passes for our American world.
On this 10th anniversary of the Iraq War, Iraq itself remains, by any measure, a dangerous and unstable place. Even the usually sunny Department of State advises American travelers to Iraq that U.S. citizens “remain at risk for kidnapping… [as] numerous insurgent groups, including Al Qaida, remain active…” and notes that “State Department guidance to U.S. businesses in Iraq advises the use of Protective Security Details.”
In the bigger picture, the world is also a far more dangerous place than it was in 2003. Indeed, for the State Department, which sent me to Iraq to witness the follies of empire, the world has become ever more daunting. In 2003, at that infamous “mission accomplished” moment, only Afghanistan was on the list of overseas embassies that were considered “extreme danger posts.” Soon enough, however, Iraq and Pakistan were added. Today, Yemen and Libya, once boring but secure outposts for State’s officials, now fall into the same category.
Other places once considered safe for diplomats and their families such as Syria and Mali have been evacuated and have no American diplomatic presence at all. Even sleepy Tunisia, once calm enough that the State Department had its Arabic language school there, is now on reduced staff with no diplomatic family members resident. Egypt teeters.
The Iranian leadership watched carefully as the American imperial version of Iraq collapsed, concluded that Washington was a paper tiger, backed away from initial offers to talk over contested issues, and instead (at least for a while) doubled-down on achieving nuclear breakout capacity, aided by the past work of that same A.Q. Khan network. North Korea, another A.Q. Khan beneficiary, followed the same pivot ever farther from Washington, while it became a genuine nuclear power. Its neighbor China pursued its own path of economic dominance, while helping to “pay” for the Iraq War by becoming the number-one holder of U.S. debt among foreign governments. It now owns more than 21% of the U.S. debt held overseas.
And don’t put away the joke book just yet. Subbing as apologist-in-chief for an absent George W. Bush and the top officials of his administration on this 10th anniversary, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently reminded us that there is more on the horizon. Conceding that he had “long since given up trying to persuade people Iraq was the right decision,” Blair added that new crises are looming. “You’ve got one in Syria right now, you’ve got one in Iran to come,” he said. “We are in the middle of this struggle, it is going to take a generation, it is going to be very arduous and difficult. But I think we are making a mistake, a profound error, if we think we can stay out of that struggle.”
Think of his comment as a warning. Having somehow turned much of Islam into a foe, Washington has essentially assured itself of never-ending crises that it stands no chance whatsoever of winning. In this sense, Iraq was not an aberration, but the historic zenith and nadir for a way of thinking that is only now slowing waning. For decades to come, the U.S. will have a big enough military to ensure that our decline is slow, bloody, ugly, and reluctant, if inevitable. One day, however, even the drones will have to land.
And so, happy 10th anniversary, Iraq War! A decade after the invasion, a chaotic and unstable Middle East is the unfinished legacy of our invasion. I guess the joke is on us after all, though no one is laughing.
I grow weary of “journalists” who don’t get counterinsurgency. So I’ll try and use simple words: We kill the bad guys so that the LEGITIMATE GOVERNMENT can assert its control. The key to why almost every counterinsurgency struggle fails (Vietnam and Iraq are my faves) is the absence of that legitimate government. The U.S., using massive firepower, clears a hole that is filled either by the legitimate government should one exist, or, if not, by the insurgents, or, in worse case scenarios like Libya, no one and chaos ensues.
If you are Alissa Rubin of the New York Times, or know her, or read her dumb ass piece on Afghanistan in the Times, please re-read that opening paragraph above until it makes sense. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Reporting from Helmand Province
Rubin reports to us from Helmand Province, Afghanistan, the once-to-be center of Greater Georgebushistan, when the U.S. had any plans for Afghanistan other than trying to figure out the best way to just make it all go away. It seems while we’ve been at the bar waiting for a table, 21,000 Marines have been surging the heck out of Helmand, clearing naughty Taliban out left and right. Rubin is now surprised that since the Marines have cut back to about 6500 on the ground, the Taliban are “creeping back.”
Counterinsurgency tip no. 147: Don’t fight the big guys, especially when you know they’ll only be around for a short while. Let them surge in as you surge out and then when their numbers drop off, move back in and reclaim your turf. Still not sure? Watch what cockroaches do when you flip on the kitchen light at night– do they stand on their hind legs and try to tear the insecticide can from your hands?
Now back to that legit government. Rubin does seem to have a bit of a clue when she quotes a local:
Afghan forces now control his district, he said, but will not be able to hold it unless “the foreigners manage to get rid of corruption in the Afghan government, in the districts and the province levels.”
“Before the Marines launched this big offensive, Marja was the center of the opium trade,” said Ahmad Shah, the chairman of the Marja development shura, a group of elders that works with the government to try to bring change here. “Millions and millions of Pakistani rupees were being traded every day in the bazaar. People were so rich that in some years a farmer could afford to buy a car.
“We were part of the eradication efforts by the government, and if they had provided the farmer with compensation, we could have justified our act. But the government failed to provide compensation, and unless it does so, the people will turn against us or join the insurgency and be against development, as they were during the Taliban.”
A corrupt government that fails to ensure the livelihood of its people will not win a counterinsurgency war. The Marines can hold off the Taliban temporarily indefinitely, but they will never be an Afghan government.
To wit from a half-wit:
Hajji Atiqullah, the tribal leader in Nawa, says the road between his city and the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, has been life-changing. “This road will last for many years, and I think people will remember it as one of the biggest contributions of the American Marines,” he said.
Other economic benefits, however, are dwindling as the Western troops leave. The surge brought jobs for many rural residents. There were small irrigation and construction projects, which are finished now. In Marja alone, about 1,400 people were hired to work for the informal security forces set up by the Marines at the height of the surge, according to elders in Marja. But when the Interior Ministry began to integrate these forces into the Afghan Local Police, they offered places to only 400, said Mr. Shah, the chairman of the development shura. As the rest find themselves jobless, village elders say, they will turn to whoever will protect them, even if that is the Taliban or criminals.
Counterinsurgency tip no. 672: If the government must rely on foreign troops to protect the people, it cannot be seen by the people as legitimate.
Looking for an Optimist
Rubin wonders “So why, then, was it so difficult to find an optimist in Helmand Province?”
Let’s help her figure that out by calling the Times and reading out loud to her: “Counterinsurgency will always fail without a legitimate government and Afghanistan does not have one. The Afghan government was created by the U.S. for our own domestic political purposes. It is corrupt. It cannot secure its people and cannot provide them with a way of living.”
Let us now return to the words of the best writer on counterinsurgency, Bernard B. Fall, who covered both the French and the American defeats in Vietnam. Fall said:
The French in Algeria learned every lesson from the French in Viet-Nam. The troop ratio there was a comfortable 11-to-1. The French very effectively sealed off the Algerian-Tunisian border, and by 1962 had whittled down the guerrillas from 65,000 to 7,000… It cost 3 million dollars a day for eight years, or $12 billion in French money. The “price” also included two mutinies of the French Army and one overthrow of the civilian government. At that price the French were winning the war in Algeria, militarily. The fact was that the military victory was totally meaningless. This is where the word “grandeur” applies to President de Gaulle: he was capable of seeing through the trees of military victory to a forest of political defeat and he chose to settle the Algerian insurgency by other means.
Some of these wars, of course, can be won, as in the Philippines, for example. The war was won there not through military action (there wasn’t a single special rifle invented for the Philippines, let alone more sophisticated ordnance) but through an extremely well-conceived civic action program and, of course, a good leader–[Ramon] Magsaysay.
Civic action is not the construction of privies or the distribution of antimalaria sprays. One can’t fight an ideology; one can’t fight a militant doctrine with better privies. Yet this is done constantly. One side says, “land reform,” and the other side says, “better culverts.” One side says, “We are going to kill all those nasty village chiefs and landlords.” The other side says, “Yes, but look, we want to give you prize pigs to improve your strain.” These arguments just do not match. Simple but adequate appeals will have to be found sooner or later.
Leaving aside how lowly first-time authors are treated in the contract world (I signed away rights to all the Beatles’ early songs), let’s instead drop in on former State Department employee Zalmay Khalilzad. Zal, as he is known to many, was former US ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, and the United Nations during the glory years of the Bush Decade o’ Horrors. That’s Zal in the photo, on the right.
Given that, you’d expect Zal might be at a mountain top Zen (or Zal) monastery, seeking forgiveness. Instead, he runs Gryphon Partners, a consulting firm that, among other things, goes after US Government contracts in Afghanistan. He sits on the boards of the American University of Iraq in Suleymania, and the American University of Afghanistan. None of this could possibly be a conflict of interest, nor anything close to profiting from his government service.
(An aside. My old boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, must be proud of her daughter Chelsea. Chelsea, age 31 and a grad student, has been working on the board of Barry Diller’s media company, a gig that pays $50k a year with a $250,000 stock signing bonus. None of this had anything at all to do with Mom and Dad’s government service. I’m having my daughter send off a resume today).
Back to Zal. Zal has the stones to write a “think piece” on Foreign Policy bitching about losing a contract to the Chinese in Afghanistan, whining that “flaws in the Pentagon-backed process mean that state-owned Chinese companies are at an advantage over private companies.”
Private companies such as his own firm.
Balls, the man has balls. Maybe I should hire his consulting firm to represent me on my next book deal, for the win!
Leon Panetta declared that the US is at a “turning point” in the Afghan War. “Turning Point,” like “robust,” is one of those words that when used by someone in government should make you run away. Still, it is the holiday season and we want to be light of tone, I’l let this one pass for Leon given that he just shut the lights off as the last US soldier left Iraq.
And what better way to sum up some early history of the Iraq invasion and celebrate the holidays at the same time than with the gift of music. Here is the book for my upcoming operatic version of We Meant Well.
1945-1973: several Vietnam Wars play out, with the Japanese, French and finally, the Americans. US loses over 50,000 soldiers in what Lyndon Johnson calls, “that bitch of a war,” failing in fighting a counterinsurgency. US convinces itself the anti-colonialist, nationalist North Vietnamese insurgents are the spearhead of a global Communist attack against the US and its allies, the domino theory. People say, “If we don’t fight them over there, we’ll fight them in California.” Many terrible things happen, some lessons are learned.
Pause; Overture Resumes
Several of what author Peter Beinart calls “Potemkin Vietnams” occur, in Grenada, Lebanon, Panama, Kosovo and the like. Some lessons previously learned are forgotten.
1980: Iran-Iraq war starts.
1984-87: US protects non-Iranian tankers in the Gulf from Iranian attack, allows Iraq to attack Iranian tankers.
1987: Iraq mistakenly attacks the USS Stark, kills thirty-seven American sailors. All is forgiven as Iraq is a US friend engaged in killing Iranians.
1988: Iran-Iraq war ends in a tie.
1990: Iraq invades Kuwait.
1991: Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm pushes Iraq out of Kuwait. Not much else changes, most previous lessons are forgotten, new lessons mislearned that US military power alone can quickly and cleanly change complex world events. This strategy will prove as useful as one that seeks to pay a mortgage by buying lottery tickets.
Curtain Raises to Reveal Smoking Ruins of Twin Towers on Stage
October 3, 2001: US semi-invades Afghanistan and, fighting mostly with proxy local forces, pushes Taliban out of power. US takes bin Laden’s bait and stirs up wrath of Muslim world.
January 21, 2002: In his State of the Union address, Bush discovers the Axis of Evil and starts an open-ended global war.
March 19, 2003: US invades Iraq. Iraq becomes everything bin Laden hoped for — US ground forces killing Muslim civilians live on satellite TV. The war that makes little sense in the aftermath of 9/11 except as revenge.
May 1, 2003: Mission Accomplished. Bush’s pouch featured on an aircraft carrier.
“This month will be a political turning point for Iraq,” Douglas Feith, July 2003
“We’ve reached another great turning point,” Bush, November 2003
December 14, 2003: We got him. Saddam is captured.
Curtain closes as Americans cheer loudly at happy ending of disgraced evil dictator Noriega bin Laden Saddam (played by James Edwards Olmos)
“That toppling of Saddam Hussein… was a turning point for the Middle East,” Bush, March 2004
April 28, 2004: Images of torture at Abu Ghraib become public; US stirs up wrath of Muslim world by continuing occupation of Iraq. After failing to take the bait in Afghanistan, US accomplishes al-Qaeda’s goal of permanently pissing off Muslims everywhere while entering Vietnam-like counterinsurgency quagmire.
“Turning Point in Iraq,” The Nation, April 2004
“A turning point will come two weeks from today,” Bush, June 2004
June 28, 2004: US transfers sovereignty to Iraq. Bush writes note to Condi saying “Let freedom reign!”
“Marines Did a Good Job in Fallujah, a Battle That Might Prove a Turning Point,” Columnist Max Boot, July 2004
January 12, 2005: WMD search in Iraq is declared over. None found.
“Tomorrow the world will witness a turning point in the history of Iraq,” Bush, January 2005
“The Iraqi election of January 30, 2005… will turn out to have been a genuine turning point,” William Kristol, February 2005
“On January 30th in Iraq, the world witnessed … a major turning point,” Rumsfeld, February 2005
May 30, 2005: Dick Cheney tells Larry King, “The insurgency is in its last throes.” Larry mentions radio and TV were invented just so more people could hear his voice.
October 15, 2005: Iraqis vote to ratify Constitution. Many, many photos of Iraqis with purple fingers showing they voted.
October 25, 2005: Bush states Iraq is the central front in the Global War on Terror and Muslim extremists fighting in Iraq seek to create an Islamic Caliphate stretching from Indonesia to Spain. This essentially duplicates the Vietnam-era domino theory.
December 15, 2005: Iraqis vote to elect members of Iraqi Assembly. Many, many photos of Iraqis with purple fingers showing they voted.
“I believe may be seen as a turning point in the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism.” Senator Joe Lieberman, December 2005
“The elections were the turning point. … 2005 was the turning point,” Cheney, December 2005
“2005 will be recorded as a turning point in the history of Iraq… and the history of freedom,” Bush, December 2005
Curtain closes as Americans cheer loudly at happy voting images.
Intermission while audience ponders attack on Iran.
February 22, 2006: The Golden Mosque in Samarra is badly damaged in a bomb attack that ignites the Sunni-Shia sectarian war.
“We believe this is a turning point for the Iraqi citizens, and it’s a new chapter in our partnership,” Bush, May 2006
“We have now reached a turning point in the struggle between freedom and terror,” Bush, May 2006
June 15, 2006: US troops killed in Iraq reaches 2500.
“This is a turning point for the Iraqi citizens.” Bush, August 2006
September 24, 2006: Bush calls Iraq violence “just a comma” in history.
October 4, 2006: Al-Qaeda letter says “The most important thing is you continue in your jihad in Iraq… Indeed, prolonging the war is in our interest, with God’s permission.”
“When a key Republican senator comes home from Iraq and says the US has to re-think its strategy, is this a new turning point?” NBC Nightly News, October 2006
November 9, 2006: Iraqi health minister reports 150,000 Iraqis killed so far.
December 30, 2006: Saddam is hanged.
January 3, 2007: Death toll of US soldiers in Iraq reaches 3,000.
“Iraq: A Turning Point: Panel II: Reports from Iraq.” American Enterprise Institute, January 2007
Curtain closes as Americans cheer loudly at death porn images of Saddam’s body on TV.
January 10, 2007: Bush announces Surge.
January 11, 2007: Republican senator Chuck Hagel calls Surge “The most dangerous foreign policy blunder since Vietnam.”
“Shrine Bombing as War’s Turning Point Debated,” Tom Ricks, March 2007
April 16, 2007: US dead reach 3300.
June 18, 2007: Foreign Policy Magazine shows Iraq ranks second on its failed state index.
September 5, 2007: Bush tells the press “We’re kicking ass” in Iraq.
“This Bush visit could well mark a key turning point in the war in Iraq and the war on terror,” Frederick W. Kagan, September 2007
“Bush Defends Iraq War in Speech… he touted the surge as a turning point in a war he acknowledged was faltering a year ago,” New York Times, March 2008
July 22, 2008: Surge ends.
“The success of the surge in Iraq will go down in history as a turning point in the war against al-Qaeda,” The Telegraph, December 2008
February 6, 2009: Another election, more photos of inked fingers.
March 7, 2010: Yet another election, more photos of inked fingers.
June 2, 2010: US deaths breach 4,400.
September 1, 2010: Obama declares combat operations over, albeit while leaving 50,000 troops occupying 92 bases in Iraq. The official name of the war changes from Operation Iraqi Freedom to Operation New Dawn. The weather remains the same.
Curtain closes, then reopens with entire cast on stage for finale.
On June 8, 2006, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al-Qaeda in Iraq leader who led a brutal insurgency that included online beheadings, killed in an airstrike. According to Fox News:
US President George W. Bush said Zarqawi’s death “is a severe blow to al-Qaeda and it is a significant victory in the war on terror.”
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said the killing of Zarqawi was “enormously important” for the fight against terror in Iraq and around the world. “Let there be no doubt the fact he is dead is a significant victory in the battle against terrorism in that country and I would say worldwide,” Rumsfeld said.
On April 19, 2010, four years later, the two top al-Qaeda in Iraq figures were killed. According to the AP:
US forces commander Gen. Raymond Odierno praised the operation. “The death of these terrorists is potentially the most significant blow to al-Qaeda in Iraq since the beginning of the insurgency.”
On August 25, 2010, just four months later, the Army issued a press release titled “Iraq Attacks Show al-Qaeda Remains as Threat,” concluding “A wave of attacks in Iraq today demonstrates that al-Qaeda in Iraq is still capable of operating.”
Curtain remains up with house lights on as Act comes to a close. Audience removes shoes and is searched for al-Qaeda sympathizers.
This article originally appeared on TomDispatch, HuffPo, Salon, the Nation and other sites on 9/11/12.
Here is what military briefers like to call BLUF, the Bottom Line Up Front: no one except John Kiriakou is being held accountable for America’s torture policy. And John Kiriakou didn’t torture anyone, he just blew the whistle on it.
In a Galaxy Far, Far Away
A long time ago, with mediocre grades and no athletic ability, I applied for a Rhodes Scholarship. I guess the Rhodes committee at my school needed practice, and I found myself undergoing a rigorous oral examination. Here was the final question they fired at me, probing my ability to think morally and justly: You are a soldier. Your prisoner has information that might save your life. The only way to obtain it is through torture. What do you do?
At that time, a million years ago in an America that no longer exists, my obvious answer was never to torture, never to lower oneself, never to sacrifice one’s humanity and soul, even if it meant death. My visceral reaction: to become a torturer was its own form of living death. (An undergrad today, after the “enhanced interrogation” Bush years and in the wake of 24, would probably detail specific techniques that should be employed.) My advisor later told me my answer was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise spectacularly unsuccessful interview.
It is now common knowledge that between 2001 and about 2007 the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) sanctioned acts of torture committed by members of the Central Intelligence Agency and others. The acts took place in secret prisons (“black sites”) against persons detained indefinitely without trial. They were described in detail and explicitly authorized in a series of secret torture memos drafted by John Yoo, Jay Bybee, and Steven Bradbury, senior lawyers in the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel. (Office of Legal Counsel attorneys technically answer directly to the DOJ, which is supposed to be independent from the White House, but obviously was not in this case.) Not one of those men, or their Justice Department bosses, has been held accountable for their actions.
Some tortured prisoners were even killed by the CIA. Attorney General Eric Holder announced recently that no one would be held accountable for those murders either. “Based on the fully developed factual record concerning the two deaths,” he said, “the Department has declined prosecution because the admissible evidence would not be sufficient to obtain and sustain a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Jose Rodriguez, a senior CIA official, admitted destroying videotapes of potentially admissible evidence, showing the torture of captives by operatives of the U.S. government at a secret prison thought to be located at a Vietnam-War-era airbase in Thailand. He was not held accountable for deep-sixing this evidence, nor for his role in the torture of human beings.
John Kiriakou Alone
The one man in the whole archipelago of America’s secret horrors facing prosecution is former CIA agent John Kiriakou. Of the untold numbers of men and women involved in the whole nightmare show of those years, only one may go to jail.
And of course, he didn’t torture anyone.
The charges against Kiriakou allege that in answering questions from reporters about suspicions that the CIA tortured detainees in its custody, he violated the Espionage Act, once an obscure World War I-era law that aimed at punishing Americans who gave aid to the enemy. It was passed in 1917 and has been the subject of much judicial and Congressional doubt ever since. Kiriakou is one of six government whistleblowers who have been charged under the Act by the Obama administration. From 1917 until Obama came into office, only three people had ever charged in this way.
The Obama Justice Department claims the former CIA officer “disclosed classified information to journalists, including the name of a covert CIA officer and information revealing the role of another CIA employee in classified activities.”
The charges result from a CIA investigation. That investigation was triggered by a filing in January 2009 on behalf of detainees at Guantanamo that contained classified information the defense had not been given through government channels, and by the discovery in the spring of 2009 of photographs of alleged CIA employees among the legal materials of some detainees at Guantanamo. According to one description, Kiriakou gave several interviews about the CIA in 2008. Court documents charge that he provided names of covert Agency officials to a journalist, who allegedly in turn passed them on to a Guantanamo legal team. The team sought to have detainees identify specific CIA officials who participated in their renditions and torture. Kiriakou is accused of providing the identities of CIA officers that may have allowed names to be linked to photographs.
Many observers believe however that the real “offense” in the eyes of the Obama administration was quite different. In 2007, Kiriakou became a whistleblower. He went on record as the first (albeit by then, former) CIA official to confirm the use of waterboarding of al-Qaeda prisoners as an interrogation technique, and then to condemn it as torture. He specifically mentioned the waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah in that secret prison in Thailand. Zubaydah was at the time believed to be an al-Qaeda leader, though more likely was at best a mid-level operative. Kiriakou also ran afoul of the CIA over efforts to clear for publication a book he had written about the Agency’s counterterrorism work. He maintains that his is instead a First Amendment case in which a whistleblower is being punished, that it is a selective prosecution to scare government insiders into silence when they see something wrong.
If Kiriakou had actually tortured someone himself, even to death, there is no possibility that he would be in trouble. John Kiriakou is 48. He is staring down a long tunnel at a potential sentence of up to 45 years in prison because in the national security state that rules the roost in Washington, talking out of turn about a crime has become the only possible crime.
Welcome to the Jungle
John Kiriakou and I share common attorneys through the Government Accountability Project, and I’ve had the chance to talk with him on any number of occasions. He is soft-spoken, thoughtful, and quick to laugh at a bad joke. When the subject turns to his case, and the way the government has treated him, however, things darken. His sentences get shorter and the quick smile disappears.
He understands the role his government has chosen for him: the head on a stick, the example, the message to everyone else involved in the horrors of post-9/11 America. Do the country’s dirty work, kidnap, kill, imprison, torture, and we’ll cover for you. Destroy the evidence of all that and we’ll reward you. But speak out, and expect to be punished.
Like so many of us who have served the U.S. government honorably only to have its full force turned against us for an act or acts of conscience, the pain comes in trying to reconcile the two images of the U.S. government in your head. It’s like trying to process the actions of an abusive father you still want to love.
One of Kiriakou’s representatives, attorney Jesselyn Radack, told me, “It is a miscarriage of justice that John Kiriakou is the only person indicted in relation to the Bush-era torture program. The historic import cannot be understated. If a crime as egregious as state-sponsored torture can go unpunished, we lose all moral standing to condemn other governments’ human rights violations. By ‘looking forward, not backward’ we have taken a giant leap into the past.”
One former CIA covert officer, who uses the pen name “Ishmael Jones,” lays out a potential defense for Kiriakou: “Witness after witness could explain to the jury that Mr. Kiriakou is being selectively prosecuted, that his leaks are nothing compared to leaks by Obama administration officials and senior CIA bureaucrats. Witness after witness could show the jury that for any secret material published by Mr. Kiriakou, the books of senior CIA bureaucrats contain many times as much. Former CIA chief George Tenet wrote a book in 2007, approved by CIA censors, that contains dozens of pieces of classified information — names and enough information to find names.”
If only it was really that easy.
For at least six years it was the policy of the United States of America to torture and abuse its enemies or, in some cases, simply suspected enemies. It has remained a U.S. policy, even under the Obama administration, to employ “extraordinary rendition” — that is, the sending of captured terror suspects to the jails of countries that are known for torture and abuse, an outsourcing of what we no longer want to do.
Techniques that the U.S. hanged men for at Nuremburg and in post-war Japan were employed and declared lawful. To embark on such a program with the oversight of the Bush administration, learned men and women had to have long discussions, with staffers running in and out of rooms with snippets of research to buttress the justifications being so laboriously developed. The CIA undoubtedly used some cumbersome bureaucratic process to hire contractors for its torture staff. The old manuals needed to be updated, psychiatrists consulted, military survival experts interviewed, training classes set up.
Videotapes were made of the torture sessions and no doubt DVDs full of real horror were reviewed back at headquarters. Torture techniques were even reportedly demonstrated to top officials inside the White House. Individual torturers who were considered particularly effective were no doubt identified, probably rewarded, and sent on to new secret sites to harm more people.
America just didn’t wake up one day and start slapping around some Islamic punk. These were not the torture equivalents of rogue cops. A system, a mechanism, was created. That we now can only speculate about many of the details involved and the extent of all this is a tribute to the thousands who continue to remain silent about what they did, saw, heard about, or were associated with. Many of them work now at the same organizations, remaining a part of the same contracting firms, the CIA, and the military. Our torturers.
What is it that allows all those people to remain silent? How many are simply scared, watching what is happening to John Kiriakou and thinking: not me, I’m not sticking my neck out to see it get chopped off. They’re almost forgivable, even if they are placing their own self-interest above that of their country. But what about the others, the ones who remain silent about what they did or saw or aided and abetted in some fashion because they still think it was the right thing to do? The ones who will do it again when another frightened president asks them to? Or even the ones who enjoyed doing it?
The same Department of Justice that is hunting down the one man who spoke against torture from the inside still maintains a special unit, 60 years after the end of WWII, dedicated to hunting down the last few at-large Nazis. They do that under the rubric of “never again.” The truth is that same team needs to be turned loose on our national security state. Otherwise, until we have a full accounting of what was done in our names by our government, the pieces are all in place for it to happen again. There, if you want to know, is the real horror.
[Note to Readers: What’s next for Kiriakou? The District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia will begin Classified Information Procedures Act hearings in his case on September 12. These hearings, which are closed to the public, will last until October 30 and will determine what classified information will be permitted during trial. Kiriakou has pled "not guilty" to all charges and is preparing to go to trial on November 26.]
Some images remain like scars on my memory. One of the last things I saw in Iraq, where I spent a year with the Department of State helping squander some of the $44 billion American taxpayers put up to “reconstruct” that country, were horses living semi-wild among the muck and garbage of Baghdad. Those horses had once raced for Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein and seven years after their “liberation” by the American invasion of 2003, they were still wandering that unraveling, unreconstructed urban landscape looking, like many other Iraqis, for food.
I flew home that same day, a too-rapid change of worlds, to a country in which the schools of my hometown in Ohio could not afford to pay teachers a decent wage. Once great cities were rotting away as certainly as if they were in Iraq, where those horses were scrabbling to get by. To this day I’m left pondering these questions: Why has the United States spent so much money and time so disastrously trying to rebuild occupied nations abroad, while allowing its own infrastructure to crumble untended? Why do we even think of that as “policy”?
The Good War(s)
With the success of the post-World War II Marshall Plan in Europe and the economic miracle in Japan, rebuilding other countries gained a certain imperial patina. Both took relatively little money and time. The reconstruction of Germany and Japan cost only $32 billion and $17 billion, respectively (in 2010 dollars), in large part because both had been highly educated, industrialized powerhouses before their wartime destruction.
In 2003, still tumescent with post-9/11 rage and dreams of global glory, anything seemed possible to the men and women of the Bush administration, who would cite the German and Japanese examples of just what the U.S. could do as they entered Iraq. Following what seemed like a swift military defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the plan had gotten big and gone long. It was nothing less than this: remake the entire Middle East in the American image.
The country’s mighty military was to sweep through Iraq, then Syria — Marines I knew told me personally that they were issued maps of Syria in March 2003 — then Iran, quickly set up military bases and garrisons (“enduring camps”), create Washington-friendly governments, pour in American technology and culture, bring in the crony corporations under the rubric of “reconstruction,” privatize everything, stand up new proxy militaries under the rubric of regime change, and forever transform the region.
Once upon a time, the defeated Japanese and Germans had become allies and, better yet, consumers. Now, almost six decades later, no one in the Bush administration had a doubt the same would happen in Iraq — and the Middle East would follow suit at minimal cost, creating the greatest leap forward for a Pax Americana since the Spanish-American War. Added bonus: a “sea of oil.”
By 2010, when I wrote We Meant Well, the possibility that some level of success might be close by still occupied some official minds. American boots remained on the ground in Mesopotamia and looked likely to stay on for years in at least a few of the massive permanent bases we had built there. A sort-of elected government was more or less in place, and in the press interviews I did in response to my book I was regularly required to defend its thesis that reconstruction in Iraq had failed almost totally, and that the same process was going down in Afghanistan as well. It was sometimes a tough sell. After all, how could we truly fail, being plucky Americans, historically equipped like no one else with plenty of bootstraps and know-how and gumption.
Failure Every Which Way
Now, it’s definitive. Reconstruction in Iraq has failed. Dismally. The U.S. couldn’t even restore the country’s electric system or give a majority of its people potable water. The accounts of that failure still pour out. Choose your favorites; here are just two recent ones of mine: a report that a $200 million year-long State Department police training program had shown no results (none, nada), in part because the Iraqis had been completely uninterested in it; and a long official list of major reconstruction projects uncompleted, with billions of taxpayer dollars wasted, all carefully catalogued by the now-defunct Special Inspector for Iraq Reconstruction.
Failure, in fact, was the name of the game when it came to the American mission. Just tote up the score: the Iraqi government is moving ever closer to Iran; the U.S. occupation, which built 505 bases in the country with the thought that U.S. troops might remain garrisoned there for generations, ended without a single base in U.S. hands (none, nada); no gushers of cheap oil leapt USA-wards nor did profits from the above leap into the coffers of American oil companies; and there was a net loss of U.S. prestige and influence across the region. And that would just be the beginning of the list from hell.
Even former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, George W. Bush’s accomplice in the invasion of Iraq and the woman after whom Chevron Oil once named a double-hulled oil tanker, now admits that “we didn’t understand how broken Iraq was as a society and we tried to rebuild Iraq from Baghdad out. And we really should have rebuilt Iraq outside Baghdad in. We should have worked with the tribes. We should have worked with the provinces. We should have had smaller projects than the large ones that we had.”
Strange that when I do media interviews now, only two years later, nobody even thinks to ask “Did we succeed in Iraq?” or “Will reconstruction pay off?” The question du jour has finally shifted to: “Why did we fail?”
Corruption and Vanity Projects
Why exactly did we fail to reconstruct Iraq, and why are we failing in Afghanistan? (Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s new book, Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan, is the Afghan version of We Meant Well in detailing the catastrophic outcomes of reconstruction in that never-ending war.) No doubt more books, and not a few theses, will be written, noting the massive corruption, the overkill of pouring billions of dollars into poor, occupied countries, the disorganization behind the effort, the pointlessly self-serving vanity projects — Internet classes in towns without electricity — and the abysmal quality of the greedy contractors, on-the-make corporations, and lame bureaucrats sent in to do the job. Serious lessons will be extracted, inevitable comparisons will be made to post-World War II Germany and Japan and think tanks will sprout like mushrooms on rotted wood to try to map out how to do it better next time.
For the near term a reluctant acknowledgment of our failing economy may keep the U.S. out of major reconstruction efforts abroad. Robert Gates, who succeeded Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, told a group of West Point cadets that “any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.” Still, the desire to remake other countries — could Syria be next? — hovers in the background of American foreign policy, just waiting for the chance to rise again.
The standard theme of counterinsurgency theory (COIN in the trade) is “terrorists take advantage of hunger and poverty.” Foreigners building stuff is, of course, the answer, if only we could get it right. Such is part of the justification for the onrushing militarization of Africa, which carries with it a reconstruction component (even if on a desperately reduced scale, thanks to the tightening finances of the moment). There are few historical examples of COIN ever really working and many in which failed, but the idea is too attractive and its support industry too well established for it to simply go away.
Why Reconstruction at All?
Then there’s that other why question: Why, in our zeal to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan, we never considered spending a fraction as much to rebuild Detroit, New Orleans, or Cleveland (projects that, unlike Afghanistan and Iraq in their heyday, have never enjoyed widespread support)?
I use the term “reconstruction” for convenience, but it is important to understand what the U.S. means by it. Once corruption and pure greed are strained out (most projects in Iraq and Afghanistan were simply vehicles for contractors to suck money out of the government) and the vanity projects crossed off (building things and naming them after the sitting ambassador was a popular suck-up technique), what’s left is our desire for them to be like us.
While, dollar-for-dollar, corruption and contractor greed account for almost all the money wasted, the idea that, deep down, we want the people we conquer to become mini-versions of us accounts for the rest of the drive and motivation. We want them to consume things as a lifestyle, shit in nice sewer systems, and send everyone to schools where, thanks to the new textbooks we’ve sponsored, they’ll learn more about… us. This explains why we funded pastry-making classes to try to turn Iraqi women into small business owners, why an obsession with holding mediagenic elections in Iraq smothered nascent grassroots democracy (remember all those images of purple fingers?), why displacing family farms by introducing large-scale agribusiness seemed so important, and so forth.
By becoming versions of us, the people we conquer would, in our eyes, redeem themselves from being our enemies. Like a perverse view of rape, reconstruction, if it ever worked, would almost make it appear that they wanted to be violated by the American military so as to benefit from being rebuilt in the American fashion. From Washington’s point of view, there’s really no question here, no why at all. Who, after all, wouldn’t want to be us? And that, in turn, justifies everything. Think of it as an up-to-date take on that classic line from Vietnam, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”
Americans have always worn their imperialism uncomfortably, even when pursuing it robustly. The British were happy to carve out little green enclaves of home, and to tame — brutally, if necessary — the people they conquered. The United States is different, maybe because of the lip service politicians need to pay to our founding ideals of democracy and free choice.
We’re not content merely to tame people; we want to change them, too, and make them want it as well. Fundamentalist Muslims will send their girls to school, a society dominated by religion will embrace consumerism, and age-old tribal leaders will give way to (U.S.-friendly, media-savvy) politicians, even while we grow our archipelago of military bases and our corporations make out like bandits. It’s our way of reconciling Freedom and Empire, the American Way. Only problem: it doesn’t work. Not for a second. Not at all. Nothing. Nada.
From this point of view, of course, not spending “reconstruction” money at home makes perfect sense. Detroit, et al., already are us. Free choice is in play, as citizens of those cities “choose” not to get an education and choose to allow their infrastructure to fade. From an imperial point of view it makes perfectly good sense. Erecting a coed schoolhouse in Kandahar or a new sewer system in Fallujah offers so many more possibilities to enhance empire. The home front is old news, with growth limited only to reviving a status quo at huge cost.
Once it becomes clear that reconstruction is for us, not them, its purpose to enrich our contractors, fuel our bureaucrats’ vanity, and most importantly, justify our imperial actions, why it fails becomes a no-brainer. It has to fail (not that we really care). They don’t want to be us. They have been them for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. They may welcome medicines that will save their children’s lives, but hate the culture that the U.S. slipstreams in like an inoculation with them.
Failure in the strict sense of the word is not necessarily a problem for Washington. Our purpose is served by the appearance of reconstructing. We need to tell ourselves we tried, and those (dark, dirty, uneducated, Muslim, terrorist, heathen) people we just ran over with a tank actually screwed this up. And OK, sure, if a few well-connected contractors profit along the way, more power to them.
Here’s the bottom line: a nation spends its resources on what’s important to it. Failed reconstruction elsewhere turns out to be more important to us than successful reconstruction here at home. Such is the American way of empire.
Manhattan Federal Magistrate Judge Frank Maas in late July ruled in favor of the 110 survivors and 47 victims’ estates that are parties to the lawsuit. The ruling orders not just the Taliban and al Qaeda, but also the current Iranian regime, to pay $6 billion to the victims of the 9/11 attacks. In December, Federal Judge George Daniels concluded that the heinous acts of Sept. 11, 2001 were also aided by Grand Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei and, why not throw them in, Hezbollah.
Readers are forgiven any confusion. Many may remember that George W. Bush tried very, very hard to convince people that it was actually Saddam of Iraq that committed 9/11. Clever citizens noted that most of the 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. Yet despite all this, apparently it was Iran all along. Sneaks! And this information is finally coming to light only coincidentally now that the US is preparing for some sort of October surprise Persian Gulf War-a-Polooza.
The so-called evidence of Iranian 9/11-ism is that Federal Judge George Daniels found that Iran, its Grand Ayatollah Khamenei and Hezbollah aided the attacks. According to the unimpeachable New York Daily News, Iran concealed hijackers’ travel through the country and “could have prevented them from entering the U.S.,” while an Iranian government memo not actually cited suggested Khamenei knew of the plot in May 2001. Investigators also believe that Iran helped Al Qaeda members escape Afghanistan after 9/11.
Collecting One’s Winnings
Now about that $6 billion al Qaeda, the Taliban and Iran now owe the 9/11 victims’ families. There is actually a long history of victims seeking cash compensation from despots. Families of victims of Iraqi, Iranian, and Libyan terrorism spent much of the ’80s and ’90s in pursuit of justice, until Congress finally opened the courtroom door by waiving sovereign immunity for countries that sponsor terrorism (list courtesy of the State Department). The victims’ families–because of Congress’ help–started winning default judgments against the likes of Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein back in 1997. But when they went to collect on their judgments–by tapping the frozen US assets of dictators– the State Department turned around and fought the families.
Since sponsors of terrorism tend not to respect the findings of American courts, their frozen national assets held by the U.S. government are only chance the families have to collect on the court judgments. The “compromise” position offered by State is that the families be compensated by the U.S. government, not by the regimes responsible for the terrorist attacks. Why is State so desperate to hoard the frozen assets all for itself? In a letter to the Senate, then Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage (the same guy who leaked the identity of CIA NOC officer Valerie Plame and was never punished for it) wrote, “There is no better example [of protecting national security] than the critical role blocked assets played in obtaining the release of the U.S. hostages in Tehran in 1981.” In other words, bribe money.
The State Department also is always atwitter of the possible affect of actually helping Americans get compensation on bilateral relations. While demanding 9/11 blood money sound good when the sap is current bad guy Iran, the 9/11 families should not expect to get any money out of a Foggy Bottom ATM.
State Department Also Blocked Victims’ Compensation to Aid Iraq Reconstruction
State has a long, sordid history of protecting bad guys over American victims. By mid-2002, 180 persons who had been used as “human shields” by Saddam during the first Gulf War had obtained judgments totaling $94 million. On the eve of Operation Iraqi Freedom, George W. authorized their payment from blocked Iraqi accounts. But the administration then transferred all remaining Iraqi funds to the Coalition Authority in Iraq instead. The Bush administration promised to “make sure that people who secure judgments find some satisfaction,” and Secretary of State Colin Powell assured Congress that his State Department would lead that effort. But for four years, the Department did nothing. Powell left office under the shame of yet another lie.
In December 2007 Congress stepped up, passing a defense bill which contained a provision that would have enabled American victims of Saddam to obtain compensation from Iraqi money still in U.S. banks. Bush vetoed that mammoth defense bill just before the New Year and demanded that Congress re-enact it without the offending compensation language, all based on advice from the State Department that granting the compensation would hold back the reconstruction effort by draining Iraqi money.
Bush Administration Blocked American POW’s Saddam Compensation
Not the State Department this time, but in 2005 the Bush administration fought former U.S. prisoners of war in court, trying to prevent them from collecting nearly $1 billion from Iraq that a federal judge awarded them as compensation for their torture at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The case — Acree v. Iraq and the United States, named after then-Marine Lt. Col. Clifford Acree, happily pitted the U.S. government against its own war heroes.
“No amount of money can truly compensate these brave men and women for the suffering that they went through at the hands of this very brutal regime and at the hands of Saddam Hussein,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters when he was asked about the case in November 2003. Government lawyers insisted, literally, on “no amount of money” going to the Gulf War POWs. “These resources are required for the urgent national-security needs of rebuilding Iraq,” McClellan said.
And thanks for your service, suckers!
If only the people who ordered torture as a policy of the once magnificent United States had the stones to actually get their own hands dirty, maybe– maybe– things would be different? Good God, what have we become?
(The image above floated to me from the internet. Anyone with Photoshop skills who wants to redo this with Obama and his torturous henchmen, because the use of torture by the Government of the United States continues, and because Obama has refused to investigate the horrific actions of his predecessor, is welcome to do so and send it to me to run in this space. I do not in any way let Obama off the hook. There is plenty of blood on the hands of those now in power.)
For perhaps the first time, ambassador nominee Brett McGurk has withdrawn himself. In a letter sent Monday to Obama and Hillary, McGurk said he was removing himself from consideration for the job with a “heavy heart.” He said he was doing so after consulting with his most recent wife, Gina Chon, because he believed it was in the “best interests of the country, and of our life together, to withdraw my nomination and serve in another capacity.”
And with that pull out, we conclude our double-entendre jokes in this matter.
Brett, all joking aside, I feel for you man. I know how it is to have State turn on you, push you out of a job and all that. Despite some water under the bridge between us, I think maybe we could get along, you know, maybe hang out now that both of us have afternoons free. Whattaya say, we leave the wives at home and hit a few rooftop bars, see what comes up, um, goes down, aw dammit, I just did it again didn’t I?
But we’re moving on. Who’s next to claim the head job at the world’s largest and most expensive embassy? The previous landlord, Jim Jeffrey, quit the job so quickly that he didn’t even wait for his replacement to arrive. Now everyone else in Iraq falls under a State Department policy requiring the outgoing person to stay on for a week overlap with his/her replacement, but like lots of things at State, that only applies to the little people.
So who will it be? One rumor is that Obama will nominate Meghan O’Sullivan. Sully, like McGurk, is another Bush administration left over covered in Iraqi blood. She was an assistant to Paul Bremer in the Coalition Provisional Authority, Senior Director for Iraq at the National Security Council and Special Assistant to Bush and Deputy National Security Advisor for Iraq and Afghanistan. Like McGurk, she was deeply involved with all the wonder and goodness that US accrued in nine sad years of occupation in Iraq.
Let’s collectively hope the rumor isn’t true. While there is certainly some cosmic karmic justice in making all the bright young things that dragged us into the Iraq War clean up their own mess out there, isn’t there anyone Obama can find who might bring some new thinking to the task? Right now we have a white elephant embassy that is too expensive ($6.5 billion a year), too huge (16,000 staff) and too useless, because the Iraqis want no part of us and it is too dangerous for State’s warriors to leave campus and visit nearby Baghdad. At the same time Iraq has devolved into a de facto Malaki dictatorship, with growing ties to Iran at no extra charge.
Oh– and if anyone has any saucy Meghan O’Sullivan emails to share, please forward them to the usual suspects.
In general, don’t hug Muslim women. It offends and makes you look like a pimp.
The book is a neat history of US engagement in Afghanistan, with abbreviated coverage of Afghan history from Alexander’s time through the Soviet invasion, followed by much more detailed chapters on the post-9/11 struggle. Wissing spent considerable time in Afghanistan and includes many personal anecdotes alongside the more formal presentation. His conclusion is sad: US money is funding the Taliban, via:
– Dollars intended for reconstruction and rebuilding being siphoned off by corrupt officials;
– Ignorance and naivete in the contracting process that sends money to Taliban-affiliated subcontractors;
– USG/CIA collusion to allow farmers to continue to grow poppies;
– Direct payoffs to warlords and others known to work with the Taliban, seeking short-term gains whilst sacrificing any hopes for long-term success.
But never mind all that. The book is also chock full of interesting quotes about Afghanistan, so we’ll cheer ourselves up by playing “Afghanistan Quotable Quotes.” I’ll list the quotation, you guess who said it. Answers below.
A) “It’s the perfect war, everyone is making money.”
B) “This is a noble cause, and you will always be honored for seeing it through to the end.”
C) “Easy to march into, hard to march out of.”
D) “A war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity,brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached.”
E) “The less the Afghans see of us, the less they dislike us.”
F) “It will be over in three to four weeks.”
G) “I took my revenge after a hundred years, and I only regret that I acted in haste.”
H) “We were going to have to bomb them up to the stone age”
I) “When I take action, it’s going to be decisive.”
A) US intelligence official, sometime after 9/11
B) Alexander the Great, on starting his invasion of Afghanistan, 329 BC.
C) Alexander the Great, later in his invasion of Afghanistan.
D) Chaplain, after the defeat of the British Army in Afghanistan, 1843.
E) British Major General Fredrick Roberts, after the second British incursion into Afghanistan
F) Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, as the Russians took a shot at conquering Afghanistan, 1979.
G) Pashtun proverb.
H) Unnamed Clinton administration official.
I) George W. Bush
Antiwar.com’s Kelley Vlahos’ end-of-the-war-for-now Iraq wrap up is worth reading. Unlike some of the lumbering garbage being churned out (“we need to wait for the judgement of history”), Vlahos calls it like it is:
After years of talking about what victory would look like (and downgrading that definition, conveniently, to accommodate evolving realities “on the ground”) it seems to matter little. No one — not the most strident defender of Bush’s preemptive strike strategy or the war’s greatest skeptic — can say with any sincerity that the U.S. and its coalition partners have achieved greatness in Iraq. For those who feel obligated to maintain pretenses, any rhetoric about democracy and peace sound like boilerplate now and feel as satisfying as a tie in a fight. Everyone just wants to go home, pride dented, bodies bloody and tired, and without cause for celebration. “Empty” seems like the right word.
Vlahos includes comments from a number of people on the war, including me:
So who won the war? Iran. Iran sat patiently on its hands while the United States hacked away at its two major enemies, Saddam and the Taliban, clearing both its east and west borders at no cost to Tehran. (Iran apparently reached out to the U.S. government in 2003, seeking some sort of diplomatic relationship, but after being rebuffed by the engorged Bush administration, decided to wait and watch the quagmire envelop America.) We leave Iraq now with an increasingly influential Iran seeking a proxy battleground against the United States and a nicely weak buffer state on its formerly troublesome western border.
None of that tallies toward a stable Iraq. Indeed, quite the opposite. Worst-case scenario might look a lot like the darkest days in Lebanon, with many of the same players at the table.
Also featured are remarks by Boston University professor and author Andrew Bacevich, Celeste Ward Gventer, director of the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas and former deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Bush administration, Gordon Adams, professor of international relations at American University and a former White House national security official in the Clinton administration and others.
The whole article is worth reading over at Antiwar.com.
Iraq, Iran and Pakistan bottomed out as the countries with the worst reputation, according to a survey conducted by the US Reputation Foundation.
Published by Agence France Press (AFP), said the survey covered 50 countries, gauging quality of life, security and public services, with Canada, Australia and Sweden taking the forefront.
The survey covered 42,000 people in 50 countries about “their people’s trust, appreciation and admiration, about the quality of life, security and concern for the environment.”
The report shed light on Iraq as result of its occupation that ranked it “very low, as well as Iran and Pakistan,” pointing out to rampant corruption and cronyism in government institutions in the water and electricity supplies, worse than during the regime of Saddam.
In an extended review of Condi’s new book, the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler suggests Condi might read “We Meant Well”:
Rice is much more open detailing the administration’s struggle to deal with Iraq’s descent into violence during Bush’s second term. She congratulates herself on forcing more State Department officials into the field, but she might want to read “We Meant Well”— a hilarious and often depressing account by a foreign service officer of what really happened on the ground.
It is altogether too easy for officials like Rice to make casual decisions, such as hand over the reconstruction of Iraq to State and repurpose diplomats and visa officers as development experts, and then walk away from the consequences of that decision. I do include Condi in my book’s acknowledgements, thanking her and Colin Powell for “leading an organization I once cared deeply for into a swamp and abandoning us there.”
Rice will no doubt outsell my book hundreds to one, and will no doubt have a warm seat and hot coffee waiting for her on the Sunday news shows so she can explain how she was right all along, make faux (Fox?) apologies for her work hubby George W. and otherwise smooth off the rough corners of her history.
Thanks, then, to the Washington Post for at least trying to call Condi’s attention to the results of her decisions.
I joined Ted Koppel, General (ret) Jack Keane, Bob Woodward and Brian Katulis on NPR’s Talk of the Nation to discuss the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, and that country’s future.
Koppel nailed it in his first question:
As much as the world loathed Saddam Hussein, Saddam Hussein was the equalizing force in the Persian Gulf that kept Iran in check. When George Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq in 2003, he did for the Iranians what they were never able to do for themselves: He got rid of Saddam Hussein.
Bob Woodard described the military reaction in a way totally different from what I have been hearing from soldiers, but he does talk to a much higher level at the Department of Defense:
The level of distress within the military couldn’t be higher at this decision. I’ve even heard talk about some senior people in the military discussing resigning over this. The alternative to the withdrawal is to try to persuade the Iraqi government to let some troops stay, to make absolutely the maximum effort to have [that] insurance policy in the Middle East.
For my part, it was all Iran:
The Iranians are not going to attack Iraq with tanks and grenades. They don’t need to. They’ve already successfully shown that they can influence events there. The prize of the oil is in the Southern part of Iraq, and the Iranians are a steady influence there. The decision to withdraw was made in Baghdad, not by President Obama. The issues that we uncorked in 2003 — the Sunni/Shia, the Arab/Kurd, and in particular, the rise of Iran’s power in Iraq — were not stopped by 100,000 soldiers during the surge, and they haven’t been whittled back by 40,000 soldiers during the last two years. As the U.S. has stepped back from internal politics in Iraq, the Iranians have filled that void very comfortably, and will continue to do so.
W-a-y back in 2003, the plan was that the oil that was to pour out of a liberated, democratic Iraq would pay for the war, pay for reconstruction and maybe have enough left over for dessert and drinks. It never happened, and even today muttonheads like former-Bush office wife Meghan O’Sullivan still claim that any day now the oil will spurt out, the neocon money shot.
Though the oil has yet to come, Iraq has emerged a world leader in another category: widows.
A new study by a global humanitarian aid organization says three out of every five widows in Iraq lost their husbands in the years of violence that followed the 2003 US-led invasion o’freedom. The study released Sunday by Los Angeles-based Relief International concluded that about 10 percent of the estimated 15 million women who live in Iraq are widows. We will be greeted as liberators, at least liberators from marriages via widowhood.
There will be many legacies left behind from the US invasion. Dead husbands and left behind widows is sadly another of them.
Ayad Allawi, a former prime minister of Iraq, leads the largest political bloc in Iraq’s Parliament. He won the popular vote in Iraq’s last (likely last ever) election in March 2010, but was out-maneuvered for the Prime Minister’s job by al-Malaki and al-Sadr, brought together by the Iranians as the US sat back and just watched it happen, 4474 soldier’s lives flushed away in a desperate act of a coward’s political expediency. State was ready to accept any deal that created any kind of government, hoping that “good news” would allow the US to finally claim victory in Iraq. Mission Accomplished Mr. Ambassador! And thanks for your service!
Allawi, shown here with a deeply constipated George Bush, is no saint himself, but does sort of sum it all up for Iraq in this Op-Ed, originally in the Washington Post.
As the Arab Spring drives change across our region, bringing the hope of democracy and reform to millions of Arabs, less attention is being paid to the plight of Iraq and its people. We were the first to transition from dictatorship to democracy, but the outcome in Iraq remains uncertain. Our transition could be a positive agent for progress, and against the forces of extremism, or a dangerous precedent that bodes ill for the region and the international community.
Debate rages in Baghdad and Washington around conditions for a U.S. troop extension beyond the end of this year. While such an extension may be necessary, that alone will not address the fundamental problems festering in Iraq. Those issues present a growing risk to Middle East stability and the world community. The original U.S. troop “surge” was meant to create the atmosphere for national political reconciliation and the rebuilding of Iraq’s institutions and infrastructure. But those have yet to happen.
More than eight years after Saddam Hussein’s regime was overthrown, basic services are in a woeful state: Most of the country has only a few hours of electricity a day. Blackouts were increasingly common this summer. Oil exports, still Iraq’s only source of income, are barely more than they were when Hussein was toppled. The government has squandered the boon of high oil prices and failed to create real and sustainable job growth. Iraq’s economy has become an ever more dysfunctional mix of cronyism and mismanagement, with high unemployment and endemic corruption. Transparency International ranks Iraq the world’s fourth-most-corrupt country and by far the worst in the Middle East.
The promise of improved security has been empty, with sectarianism on the rise. The Pentagon recently reported an alarming rise in attacks, which it blamed on Iranian-backed militias. The latest report to Congress by the U.S. special inspector general for Iraqi reconstruction notes that June was the bloodiest month for U.S. troops since 2008 and concludes that Iraq is more dangerous than it was a year ago. Regrettably, Iraq’s nascent security forces are riddled with sectarianism and mixed loyalties; they are barely capable of defending themselves, let alone the rest of the country.
Despite failing to win the most seats in last year’s elections, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki clung to power through a combination of Iranian support and U.S. compliance. He now shows an alarming disregard for democratic principles and the rule of law. Vital independent institutions such as the election commission, the transparency commission and Iraq’s central bank have been ordered to report directly to the office of the prime minister. Meanwhile, Maliki refuses to appoint consensus candidates as defense and interior ministers, as per last year’s power-sharing agreement.
The government is using blatant dictatorial tactics and intimidation to quell opposition, ignoring the most basic human rights. Human Rights Watch reported in February on secret torture prisons under Maliki’s authority. In June, it exposed the government’s use of hired thugs to beat, stab and even sexually assault peaceful demonstrators in Baghdad who were complaining about corruption and poor services. These horrors are reminiscent of autocratic responses to demonstrations by failing regimes elsewhere in the region, and a far cry from the freedom and democracy promised in the new Iraq.
Is this really what the United States sacrificed more than 4,000 young men and women, and hundreds of billions of dollars, to build?
The trend of failure is becoming irreversible. Simply put, Iraq’s failure would render every U.S. and international policy objective in the Middle East difficult to achieve, if not impossible. From combating terrorism to nuclear containment to energy security to the Middle East peace process, Iraq is at the center. Our country is rapidly becoming a counterweight to all positive efforts to address these issues, instead of the regional role model for democracy, pluralism and a successful economy that it was supposed to be.
It is not too late to reverse course. But the time to act is now. Extending the U.S. troop presence will achieve nothing on its own. More concerted political engagement is required at the highest levels to guarantee the promise of freedom and progress made to the Iraqi people, who have suffered and sacrificed so much and are running out of patience.
It is necessary, and achievable, to insist on full and proper implementation of the power-sharing agreement of 2010, with proper checks and balances to prevent abuse of power, and full formation of the government and its institutions on a nonsectarian basis. Malign regional influences must be counterbalanced. Failing these steps, new elections free from foreign meddling, and with a truly independent judiciary and election commission, may be the only way to rescue Iraq from the abyss. This solution is increasingly called for by Iraqi journalists and political leaders and on the street.
The invasion of Iraq in 2003 may indeed have been a war of choice. But losing Iraq in 2011 is a choice that the United States and the rest of the world cannot afford to make.
The Army suffered a record 32 suicides in July, the most since it began releasing monthly figures in 2009. The number includes 22 active-duty soldiers and 10 reservists. The previous record was 31, from June 2010.
The penultimate chapter, Missing Him, from my book, recounts one of those 31 suicides from the previous record-breaking month of June 2010. The guy was fairly new, and had not made many friends. One morning he put his M-4 rifle in his mouth and triggered off a three round burst to end his life. No note, no explanation, just another story obliterated. Every death ends a story, a boy who would have been a good father, or maybe a bad husband, a decent office worker, a career soldier, we’ll never know. For all out there worried only about my book mocking the State Department or embarrassing our reconstruction efforts, you think too shallow.
Thankfully some rules have changed since June 2010. Then, the next-of-kin of suicides did not receive a letter of presidential condolences, a Bush administration practice carried on by Obama until earlier this year.
The sadness one feels for every death in war is made awkward for some when the cause of death is suicide. That is wrong. These men and women died as much of the war as from the war, and deserve the same sadness, the same love, the same anger as any other time a young person is taken from us too soon.
We will miss them, every one of them.
Way out on the edge of Forward Operating Base Hammer, where I lived for much of my year in Iraq as a Provincial Reconstruction Team leader for the U.S. Department of State, there were several small hills, lumps of raised dirt on the otherwise frying-pan-flat desert. These were “tells,” ancient garbage dumps and fallen buildings.
Thousands of years ago, people in the region used sun-dried bricks to build homes and walls. Those bricks had a lifespan of about 20 years before they began to crumble, at which point locals just built anew atop the old foundation. Do that for a while, and soon enough your buildings are sitting on a small hill.
At night, the tell area was very dark, as we avoided artificial light in order not to give passing insurgents easy targets. In that darkness, you could imagine the earliest inhabitants of what was now our base looking at the night sky and be reminded that we were not the first to move into Iraq from afar. It was also a promise across time that someday someone would undoubtedly sit atop our own ruins and wonder whatever happened to the Americans.
From that ancient debris field, recall the almost forgotten run-up to the American invasion, the now-ridiculous threats about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, Secretary of State Colin Powell lying away his own and America’s prestige at the U.N., those “Mission-Accomplished” days when the Marines tore down Saddam’s statue and conquered Baghdad, the darker times as civil society imploded and Iraq devolved into civil war, the endless rounds of purple fingers for stage-managed elections that meant little, the Surge and the ugly stalemate that followed, fading to gray as President George W. Bush negotiated a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of 2011 and the seeming end of his dreams of a Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East.
Now, with less than seven months left until that withdrawal moment, Washington debates whether to honor the agreement, or — if only we can get the Iraqi government to ask us to stay — to leave a decent-sized contingent of soldiers occupying some of the massive bases the Pentagon built hoping for permanent occupancy.
To the extent that any attention is paid to Iraq here in Snooki’s America, the debate over whether eight years of war entitles the U.S. military to some kind of Iraqi squatter’s rights is the story that will undoubtedly get most of the press in the coming months.
How this won’t end
Even if the troops do finally leave, the question is: Will that actually bring the U.S. occupation of Iraq to a close? During the invasion of 2003, a younger David Petraeus famously asked a reporter: “Tell me how this ends.”
Dave, it may not actually end. After all, as of October 1, 2011, full responsibility for the U.S. presence in Iraq will officially be transferred from the military to the Department of State. In other words, as Washington imagines it, the occupation won’t really end at all, even if the landlords are switched.
And the State Department hasn’t exactly been thinking small when it comes to its future “footprint” on Iraqi soil. The U.S. mission in Baghdad remains the world’s largest embassy, built on a tract of land about the size of the Vatican and visible from space. It cost just $736 million to build — or was it $1 billion, depending on how you count the post-construction upgrades and fixes?
In its post-“withdrawal” plans, the State Department expects to have 17,000 personnel in Iraq at some 15 sites. If those plans go as expected, 5,500 of them will be mercenaries, hired to shoot-to-kill Iraqis as needed, to maintain security. Of the remaining 11,500, most will be in support roles of one sort or another, with only a couple of hundred in traditional diplomatic jobs. This is not unusual in wartime situations. The military, for example, typically fields about seven support soldiers for every “shooter.” In other words, the occupation run by a heavily militarized State Department will simply continue in a new, truncated form — unless Congress refuses to pay for it.
It would better serve America’s interests to have an embassy sized to the message we now need to send to the Middle East, and it shouldn’t be one of boastful conquest.
A place to call home
After initially setting up shop in a selection of Saddam Hussein’s Disneyesque palaces (in one of the dumbest PR moves of all time), plans were made to build an embassy worthy of the over-the-top optimism and bravado that characterized the invasion itself. Though officially photos of the inside of the Embassy compound are not allowed for “security” reasons, a quick Google search under “U.S. Embassy Baghdad” turns up plenty, including some of the early architectural renderings of the future gargantuan compound. (Historical minifact: back in 2007, TomDispatch first broke the story that the architect’s version of the embassy’s secret interior was displayed all pink and naked online.)
The blind optimism of that moment was best embodied in the international school building stuck in one corner of the embassy compound. Though a fierce civil-war-cum-insurgency was then raging in Iraq, the idea was that, soon enough, diplomatic families would be assigned to Baghdad, just as they were to Paris or Seoul, and naturally the kids would need a school. It may seem silly now, but few doubted it then.
Apartments were built, each with a full set of the usual American appliances, including dishwashers, in expectation that those families would be shopping for food at a near-future Sadr City Safeway and that diplo-tots Timmy and Sally would need their dinners after a long day at school. Wide walkways, shaded by trees and dotted with stone benches — ultimately never implemented — were part of the overall design for success, and in memory now serve as comic rim-shots for our past hubris.
In la-la land they may have been, but even the embassy planners couldn’t help but leave some room for the creeping realities of an Iraq in chaos. The compound would purify its own water, generate its own power, and process its own sewage, ensuring that it could outlast any siege and, at the same time, getting the U.S. off the hook for repairing such basic services in Baghdad proper.
High walls went up rimmed with razor wire, and an ever-more complex set of gates and security checkpoints kept creeping into the design. Eventually, the architects just gave up, built a cafeteria, filled the school building with work cubicles, and installed inches-thick bulletproof glass on every window. The embassy’s housing for 4,000 is, at present, packed, while the electrical generators run at capacity 24/7. They need to be upgraded and new units added very soon simply to keep the lights on.
And now, the embassy staff in Baghdad is about to double. One plan to accommodate extra personnel involves hot-bunking — sharing beds on day-and-night shifts as happens on submarines.
The embassy will also soon need a hospital on its grounds, if the U.S. Army truly departs and takes its facilities with it. Iraqi medical care is considered too substandard and Iraqi hospitals too dangerous for use by white folks.
You and whose army?
A fortress needs guards, and an occupier needs shock troops. The State Department’s army will be divided into two parts: those who guard fixed facilities like the embassy and those who protect diplomats as they scurry about trying to corral the mad Iraqis running the country.
For static security, a company named SOC will guard the embassy facilities for up to $973 million over five years. That deflowered old warhorse Blackwater (now Xe), under yet another dummy corporate name, will also get a piece of action, and of the money pie.
SOC will undoubtedly follow the current security company’s lead and employ almost exclusively Ugandans and Peruvians transported to Iraq for that purpose. For the same reasons Mexicans cut American lawns and Hondurans clean American hotel rooms, embassy guards come from poverty-stricken countries and get paid accordingly — about $600 a month. Their U.S. supervisors, on the other hand, pull down $20,000 of your tax dollars monthly. Many of the Ugandan and Peruvian guards got their jobs through nasty intermediaries (“pimps,” “slavers”), who take back most of their meager salaries to repay “recruitment costs,” leaving many guards as little more than indentured servants.
Long-time merc group Triple Canopy will provide protection outside the embassy fortress, reputedly for $1.5 billion over a five-year span. The overall goal is for State to have its own private army in Iraq: those 5,500 hired guns, almost two full brigades worth of them. The Army guards Fort Knox with fewer soldiers; my Forward Operating Base made due with less then 400 troops and I slept comfortably.
The past mayhem caused by contracted security is well known, with massacres in public squares, drunken murders in the Green Zone, and the like. Think of the mercs as what the Army might be like without its NCOs and officers: a frat house with guns.
Most of them are Americans, though with a few exotic Brits and shady South Africans thrown in. They love 5.11 clothing and favor fingerless leather gloves. Think biker gang or Insane Clown Posse fan boys.
Popular is a clean-shaven head, no moustache but a spiky goatee teased straight out. You know the look from late-night convenience store beer runs. They walk around like Yosemite Sam, arms out as if their very biceps prevented them from standing straight. They’re bullies of course, flirting inappropriately with women and posturing around men. Count on them to wear the most expensive Oakley sunglasses and the most unnecessary gear (gold man-bracelets, tactical hair gel). Think: Jersey Shore rejects.
Aggressive tattoos on all exposed skin seem a prerequisite for membership in Club Merc, especially wavy inked patterns around the biceps and on the neck. They all let on that they were once SEALS, Green Berets, SAS, or Legion of Doom members, but of course they “can’t talk about it.” They’re not likely to disclose last names and tend to go by nicknames like Bulldog, Spider, Red Bull, Wolverine, or Smitty.
If arrogance was contagious they’d all be sneezing. All Aryan, all dudely, and now all that stands between those thousands of State Department personnel and Iraq. Oh yes: the seersuckered and bow-tied diplomats are supposed to supervise the mercs and keep them on the right diplomatic path, kind of like expecting the chess club to run herd on the football team.
With the U.S Army departing in whole or in part by year’s end, most of the array of Army air assets State used will need to be replaced. A recently released State Department Office of the Inspector General’s (OIG) “Report on Department of State Planning for the Transition to a Civilian-led Mission in Iraq Performance Evaluation” explains that our diplomats will, in the future, have their own little Air America in Iraq, a fleet of 46 aircraft, including:
* 20 medium lift S-61 helicopters (essentially Black Hawks, possibly armed)
* 18 light lift UH-1N helicopters (new models of ‘Nam era Hueys, possibly armed)
* Three light observation MD-530 helicopters (Little Birds, armed, for quick response strike teams… er, um, observation duties)
* Five Dash 8 fixed-wing aircraft (50-passenger capacity to move personnel into the “theater” from Jordan)
The OIG report also notes that State will need to construct landing zones, maintenance hangars, operation buildings, and air traffic control towers, along with an independent aviation logistics system for maintenance and fueling. And yes, the diplomats are supposed to supervise this, too, the goal being to prevent an Iraqi from being gunned down from an attack helo with diplomatic license plates. What could go wrong?
At this point, has cost started to cross your mind? Well, some 74% of embassy Baghdad’s operating costs will be going to “security.” State requested $2.7 billion from Congress for its Iraq operations in FY 2011, but got only $2.3 billion from a budget-minded Capitol Hill. Facing the possibility of being all alone in a dangerous universe in FY 2012, the Department has requested $6.3 billion for Iraq. Congress has yet to decide what to do. To put these figures in perspective, the State Department total operating budget for this year is only about $14 billion (the cost of running the place, absent the foreign aid money), so $6.3 billion for one more year in Iraq is a genuine chunk of change.
Which only leaves the question of why.
Pick your forum — TomDispatch readers at a kegger, Fox news pundits following the Palin bus, high school students preparing to take SATs, unemployed factory workers in a food-stamp line — and ask if any group of Americans (not living in official Washington) would conclude that Iraq was our most important foreign policy priority, and so deserving of our largest embassy with the largest staff and largest budget on the planet.
Does Iraq threaten U.S. security? Does it control a resource we demand? (Yes, it’s got lots of oil underground, but produces remarkably little of the stuff.) Is Iraq enmeshed in some international coalition we need to butter up? Any evil dictators or WMDs around? Does Iraq hold trillions in U.S. debt? Anything? Anyone? Bueller?
Eight disastrous years after we invaded, it is sad but altogether true that Iraq does not matter much in the end. It is a terrible thing that we poured 4,459 American lives and trillions of dollars into the war, and without irony oversaw the deaths of at least a hundred thousand, and probably hundreds of thousands, of Iraqis in the name of freedom. Yet we are left with only one argument for transferring our occupation duties from the Department of Defense to the Department of State: something vague about our “investment in blood and treasure.”
Think of this as the Vegas model of foreign policy: keep the suckers at the table throwing good money after bad. Leaving aside the idea that “blood and treasure” sounds like a line from Pirates of the Caribbean, one must ask: What accomplishment are we protecting?
The war’s initial aim was to stop those weapons of mass destruction from being used against us. There were none, so check that off the list. Then it was to get rid of Saddam. He was hanged in 2006, so cross off that one. A little late in the game we became preoccupied with ensuring an Iraq that was “free.” And we’ve had a bunch of elections and there is a government of sorts in place to prove it, so that one’s gotta go, too.
What follows won’t be “investment,” just more waste. The occupation of Iraq, centered around that engorged embassy, is now the equivalent of a self-licking ice cream cone, useful only to itself.
Changing the occupying force from an exhausted U.S. Army that labored away for years at a low-grade version of diplomacy (drinking endless cups of Iraqi tea) to a newly militarized Department of State will not free us from the cul-de-sac we find ourselves in. While nothing will erase the stain of the invasion, were we to really leave when we promised to leave, the U.S. might have a passing shot at launching a new narrative in a Middle East already on edge over the Arab Spring.
Embassies are, at the end of the day, symbols. Sustaining our massive one in Iraq, with its ever-lengthening logistics and security train, simply emphasizes our failure there and our stubborn inability to admit that we were wrong. When a country becomes too dangerous for diplomacy, like Libya, we temporarily close our embassy. When a country becomes dangerous, but U.S. interests are still at stake, as in Yemen, we withdraw all but essential personnel. Similarly, in Baghdad, what’s needed is a modest-sized embassy staffed not by thousands but by scores — that is, only the limited number of people necessary to make the point that it is no longer an extension of a failed occupation.
Nothing can change the past in the Middle East, but withdrawing the troops on schedule and downsizing our embassy radically to emphasize that we are no longer in the business of claiming more space for the American empire might very well help change the future.
Author Tom Ricks is a kind of patron saint of intelligent writing about the Iraq conflicts, first as a reporter for the Washington Post and now as a blogger and author for Foreign Policy. Ricks is known for his connections within the military, who, knowing he will handle information intelligently and better yet, understand its context, feed him inside baseball-like data on a regular basis. It is this understanding of how things work that informs Ricks’ two books on the war, making them as close to a contemporary history as you are going to get.
Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq takes you from pre-war planning through the initial mistakes, the early CPA days and up through the full-out civil war in Iraq of 2005 onward. It is factual, unsympathetic and written from the perspective of the military on the ground. That Fiasco has little tolerance for sloppy decision making in Washington and poor leadership on the ground (a younger Odierno is treated particularly harshly by Ricks) is not surprising.
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