Authors: Andrew J. Bacevich
Tags: #General, #Military, #World, #Middle Eastern, #United States, #Middle East, #History, #Political Science
In June 2004, General Sanchez left Baghdad. Retired in grade, he penned a bitter memoir in which he complained of having been unfairly denied a fourth star.
Later that same month, Bremer also departed. With Iraq’s sovereignty restored on June 28 through the stroke of George W. Bush’s pen, Bremer’s successor assumed the title of ambassador. Of course, sovereign Iraq was host to 160,000 foreign troops, who continued to conduct combat operations across the length and breadth of that country.
Bremer duly published an account of his tenure as proconsul, blaming others for any problems that had cropped up on his watch.
Meanwhile, over the course of many months, seemingly innumerable investigations of the Abu Ghraib scandal played themselves out. In the end, Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, a female reservist, claimed honors as the highest-ranking person to be held accountable. Her punishment was to retire at the lesser rank of colonel. She too penned a self-exculpatory memoir.
At a difficult moment in his presidency, John Kennedy cited “an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan.” In the spring of 2003, the Third Gulf War had boasted many proud parents. A year or so later, the ranks had thinned considerably. “I have seen this movie,” remarked General Zinni, the former CENTCOM commander, in April 2004. “It was called Vietnam.”
In the meantime, the war itself meandered on, with bad news outweighing the good. U.S. forces did come out on top in notable combat actions such as the Battles of Najaf (August 2004) and Second Fallujah (November–December 2004). Yet these encounters had no more bearing on the outcome of the Third Gulf War than the much larger Battles of Second Bull Run (August 1862) or Fredericksburg (December 1862) had on the outcome of the American Civil War. That is, apart from offering bloody markers of an ongoing stalemate, they possessed marginal significance.
Needless to say, casualties continued to mount. By the middle of 2004, the number of American soldiers killed in Iraq had already passed the one thousand mark. Over the course of that year, the monthly toll of those wounded averaged 668. Some months were worse than others. In April, 1,215 U.S. troops were wounded in action. In November that number reached a new peak of 1,431.
Financial costs skyrocketed. By the end of 2004, U.S. war-related expenditures in Iraq were approaching $7 billion per month.
In contrast to the Second Gulf War, America’s allies did not volunteer to pony up their share. Although President Bush had inherited a budget surplus, the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan combined to generate huge deficits. In 2004, the federal government spent $412 billion more than it took in. Worse was to come. By the time Bush left office in 2009, annual deficits had breached the trillion-dollar mark.
Since 2004 was an election year, winning a second term eclipsed all other presidential priorities. Although success eluded Bush in Iraq, at the polls he fared better. In November, he handily defeated Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, who tied himself in knots trying to explain why voting for and then turning against the Iraq War offered reason to anoint him commander in chief. Reelection gave Bush breathing space. For a time at least, he was free to pretend that Iraq was still going to come out right, thereby validating the Freedom Agenda as a proper basis for U.S. policy.
Among the many perverse effects of the American cult of the presidency is the conviction that the outcome of any presidential election signifies something profound. This notion persists even though the average American votes for candidate A over candidate B not because A looks to be the next Abraham Lincoln but because B seems the lesser alternative. Certainly that was the case in the 2004 balloting.
Even so, Bush chose to interpret his reelection as a divine mandate, as his Second Inaugural Address made clear. In it, Bush committed the United States to the “goal of ending tyranny in our world.” Speaking with greater eloquence than accuracy, the president declared:
From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth. Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave. Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our Nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation’s security, and the calling of our time.
In reality, as the course of the festering war in Iraq had amply demonstrated, indulging the conceit that America is history’s chosen instrument of liberation is more likely to produce grief than glory.
To be sure, Bush’s Second Inaugural qualifies as a thoroughly American text, the president reiterating sentiments voiced by more than a few of his predecessors. Yet the speech also bears the unmistakable imprint of self-indulgent fantasy, of sobriety overtaken by fanaticism. Bush’s expectations of ending tyranny by spreading American ideals mirrored Osama bin Laden’s dream of establishing a new caliphate based on Islamic principles. When put to the test, the president’s vision of peace gained by waging preventive war had proven to be just as fanciful as bin Laden’s and hardly less pernicious. As adversaries, truly they were made for each other.
In June 2004, when General George W. Casey, Jr., arrived in Baghdad to succeed Ricardo Sanchez as overall commander of coalition forces in Iraq, he made an astonishing discovery: There was no plan. Casey’s overtaxed predecessor had never formulated a blueprint for conducting the war over which he presided. What was the ultimate objective? What interim steps would move coalition forces toward that objective? No document providing answers to these questions existed. It was as if Anglo-American armies had landed at Normandy on D-Day vaguely understanding that they should head toward Berlin but lacking guidance on how to get off the beaches.
The new commander immediately set out to correct this deficiency. The son of an army general killed in Vietnam, Casey was himself experiencing war for the first time. Deliberate, reflective, devoid of flamboyance, he brought to Baghdad one key attribute that Sanchez had lacked: Coming directly from Washington, he understood that his superiors there were nursing incompatible expectations. Through victory, President Bush was still hoping to resuscitate his Freedom Agenda and thereby preserve some semblance of a purposeful grand strategy. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, meanwhile, was keen to move on. He wanted to have done with Iraq as quickly as possible, thereby preventing the American claim to military supremacy from suffering further erosion. To satisfy his bosses fully, Casey needed to win big and get out soon. On-the-ground military realities made that outcome exceedingly unlikely.
The campaign plan that Casey devised and promulgated in August offered Bush and Rumsfeld some of what each wanted, but not all.
In essence, he promised something less than outright victory, with even that achieved only after considerable further effort. In his confirmation hearings, Casey had referred to the U.S. goal in terms of building “security” rather than vanquishing the enemy. And “if you want security,” he told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, “you have to have intelligence, and if you want to have intelligence in a counter-insurgency environment, you have to change the perception of the people, first, toward the insurgency and, second, toward the coalition forces.”
Changing people’s perceptions was not a standard U.S. military mission. Implicit in Casey’s assessment of the way ahead was a lowering of expectations along with an appeal for patience.
Casey’s reference to counterinsurgency was also noteworthy. As a direct consequence of Vietnam, the concept had fallen into disrepute in American military circles. Now Casey was proposing to revive it. Counterinsurgency, or COIN as it came to be known, was to provide the mechanism for changing Iraqi perceptions. Upon his arrival in Baghdad, Casey told President Bush that his number-one priority was to “develop an integrated counterinsurgency plan.”
In practical terms, the new commander’s version of COIN meant two things: making the U.S. occupation less disagreeable to the occupied while simultaneously creating Iraqi military and political capabilities sufficient to enable that country to manage its own affairs. COIN, in other words, offered the prospect of enabling the United States to make a graceful exit, with December 2005 Casey’s target date for completing the mission.
The approach rested on three core assumptions. The first and most important was that a nation-state called “Iraq,” inhabited by a people identifying themselves as “Iraqis,” actually existed, providing a solid foundation upon which coalition forces could build. The second was that foreign troops, if employing kinder, gentler methods, could make themselves tolerable. The third was that demonstrated progress on the ground would buy enough additional time back in Washington to allow the campaign to play out. Unfortunately, all three assumptions proved to be questionable.
Further complicating matters was the hydra-headed nature of the enemy. In June 2005, Vice President Cheney was assuring Americans that the Iraq insurgency was in its “last throes.”
More accurately, it was evolving and becoming more complex. Two years after the fall of Baghdad, the armed resistance consisted of Sunni “rejectionists” unhappy with the prospect of the Shia majority exercising political power, Shia militias unhappy with prolonged military occupation, and so-called foreign fighters who were anything but unhappy. Seizing upon the opening created by the invasion of Iraq, they welcomed the opportunity to wage anti-Western jihad there.
Crossing into Iraq from neighboring countries, these foreign fighters came from across the Arab world, with some from even more distant quarters of the Greater Middle East. In October 2004, they took to calling themselves Al Qaeda in Iraq, their leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi pledging fealty to Osama bin Laden. Prior to 2003, in its quest to create a new caliphate, Al Qaeda had not managed to gain a foothold in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Now, paradoxically, thanks to George Bush’s war on terrorism it had.
General Casey commanded coalition forces in Iraq for thirty-two months. During that time, he periodically returned to Washington to provide progress reports. Frequently accompanied by Generals Myers and Abizaid, he journeyed to Capitol Hill to assure the Congress and by extension the American people that events were headed in the right direction. Always careful to note that “challenges” remained, the military leaders directly responsible for overseeing operations in Iraq offered a consistently hopeful appraisal. In their collective judgment, the war there not only remained winnable but had to be won and would be.
In June 2005, for example, Myers assured the Senate Armed Services Committee that “we are on the right course.” For his part, Abizaid saw evidence of “good progress” with greater success “undoubtedly ahead.” Chiming in, Casey described the mission as “both realistic and achievable.” When Senator Edward Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, characterized Iraq as a quagmire, Casey pushed back against such a “misrepresentation of the facts.” The insurgents had “no vision, no base, [and] limited popular support,” he said. On the other side were the mass of Iraqis committed to democracy and “Iraqi security forces that are fighting and dying for their country every day.” That, Casey concluded, “is not a quagmire.”
In September, the trio once more trooped back to the Capitol. Myers and Abizaid deferred to the commander in Baghdad to provide an update on Iraq. A “strategy based on proven counterinsurgency principles,” Casey testified, was enabling the coalition “to make progress in Iraq every day.” He assured senators that “we have a strategy and a plan for success in Iraq and we are broadly on track in achieving our goals.” Casey expected improving conditions to allow the United States to begin withdrawing U.S. troops within a year.
By 2006, Myers had retired, his place taken by Marine General Peter Pace. On Iraq, the new JCS chairman affirmed his predecessor’s platitudinous assessment. “We have come a long way in Iraq,” he told senators in August. Although there still remained “a long way to go,” he continued, “we will persist and we will prevail.” Speaking after Pace, Abizaid offered a more substantive and far-ranging view, situating Iraq within a much larger struggle that ranged “throughout Central Asia, the Middle East, and the Horn of Africa.”