President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 ultimately may come to be seen as one of the most profligate actions in the history of American foreign policy. The consequences of his choice won’t be clear for decades, but it already is abundantly apparent in mid-2006 that the U.S. government went to war in Iraq with scant solid international support and on the basis of incorrect information--about weapons of mass destruction and a supposed nexus between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda’s terrorism--and then occupied the country negligently. Thousands of U.S. troops and an untold number of Iraqis have died. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent, many of them squandered. Democracy may yet come to Iraq and the region, but so too may civil war or a regional conflagration, which in turn could lead to spiraling oil prices and a global economic shock.
That’s the opening paragraph of Ricks’s journalistic expose, which he subtitles “The American Military Adventure in Iraq.”
The book’s subtitle terms the U.S. effort in Iraq an adventure in the critical sense of adventurism--that is, with the view that the U.S.-led invasion was launched recklessly, with a flawed plan for war and a worse approach to occupation. Spooked by its own false conclusions about the threat, the Bush administration hurried its diplomacy, short-circuited its war planning, and assembled an agonizingly incompetent occupation. None of this was inevitable. It was made possible only through the intellectual acrobatics of simultaneously “worst-casing” the threat presented by Iraq while “best-casing” the subsequent cost and difficulty of occupying the country.
And that’s the second. Together, they comprise an excellent summary of both the underlying thesis of this book, as well as the accusations that prove to be well-substantiated in Ricks’s ensuing narrative and research.
It’s a book that left me with a handful of major takeaways.
1. The Congressional vote to provide President Bush with the authority to go to war didn’t succeed because those voting had any deep insight or understood the historical import of what they were doing.
The exchanges on the Senate floor offered little of the memorable commentary seen in the two other most recent congressional debates on whether to go to war, in 1991 and in 1964, regarding the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. “The outcome--lopsided support for Bush’s resolution--was preordained,” wrote the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank. Republicans were going to support the president and their party, and Democrats wanted to move on to other issues that would help them more in the midterm elections that at that point were just three weeks away.
As I’ve discovered elsewhere in my journeys through American history, Congress typically passes things--even historic pieces of legislation--because of in-the-moment and historically forgotten political calculations. We say we want our Representatives and Senators to show political courage, to cast the tough votes based on conscience and political ideology, but too often they simply don’t. They vote the way they do because each vote is going to help them or their objectives in the short term. It’s something that I’ve encountered time and time again, and it persists even, as it did for some in Ricks’s account, the failure to stick to principles comes back to bite those who should have shown more courage.
One of those voting for [the authorization] was … Max Cleland, who was in a tight campaign for reelection in which his challenger, Saxby Chambliss, was running commercials that showed images of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein and implied that Cleland wasn’t standing up to them. Despite his misgivings, Cleland felt under intense political pressure to go with the administration. “It was obvious that if I voted against the resolution that I would be dead meat in the race, just handing them a victory,” he said in 2005. Even so, he now considers his prowar choice “the worst vote I cast.” …
Despite his vote for war, the next month Cleland lost his Senate race by a margin of 53 percent to 46 percent, in part because of a statewide controversy over the Confederate battle flag that helped get out the rural white vote. He said he took it harder than being blown up by a hand grenade in Vietnam. “I went down--physically, mentally, emotionally--down into the deepest, darkest hole of my life,” he recalled. “I had several moments when I just didn’t want to live.”
This should not only be a fundamental lesson for those who find themselves in Congress and who want to make history, it should also be a fundamental lesson for anyone who wants to get any kind of legislation passed. For those in Congress, please, vote your conscience, that’s what we elected you to do. And for the legislators, always downplay the historical importance of your legislation and always schedule the vote when the political facts on the ground are in your favor.
2. Despite this historical reality about how Congress behaves--Congress was especially asleep at the wheel during the Iraq war.
In previous wars, Congress had been populated by hawks and doves. But as war in Iraq loomed it seemed to consist mainly of lambs who hardly made a peep. There were many failures in the American system that led to the war, but the failures in Congress were at once perhaps the most important and the least noticed.
One of the rules of thumb in military operations is that disasters occur not when one or perhaps two things go wrong--which almost any competent leader can handle--but when three or four things go wrong at once. Overcoming such a combination of negative events is a true test of command. Similarly, the Iraq fiasco occurred not just because the Bush administration engaged in sustained self-deception over the threat presented by Iraq and the difficulty in occupying the country, but also because of other major lapses in several major American institutions, from the military establishment and the intelligence community to the media. In each arena, the problems generally were sins of commission--bad planning, bad leadership, bad analysis, or in the case of journalism, bad reported and editing. The role of Congress in this systemic failure was different, because its mistakes were mainly sins of omission. In the months of the run-up to war, Congress asked very few questions, and didn’t offer any challenge to the administration on the lack of postwar planning.
3. The villains in Ricks’s tale are largely the civilians in the upper ranks of the Bush administration.
Primarily Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld...
Ultimately, however, the fault for the lapse in the planning must lie with Rumsfeld, the man in charge. In either case, it is difficult to overstate what a key misstep this lack of strategic direction was--probably the single most significant miscalculation of the entire effort. In war, strategy is the searchlight that illuminates the way ahead. In its absence, the U.S. military would fight hard and well but blindly, and the noble sacrifices of soldiers would be undercut by the lack of thoughtful leadership at the top that soberly assessed the realities of the situation and constructed a response.
Strategic leadership was apparently one of Rumsfeld’s weaker suits. But so was a confused reporting structure that, it seems, even he did not understand.
In a meeting in the White House situation room one day, there was a lot of “grousing” about [Coalition Provisional Authority Chief L. Paul] Bremer, a senior administration official who was there recalled. As the meeting was breaking up [Condoleezza] Rice, the national security adviser, reminded Rumsfeld that Bremer reported to him. “He works for you, Don,” Rice said, according to this official.
“No, he doesn’t,” Rumsfeld responded--incorrectly--this official recalled. “He’s been talking to the NSC, he works for the NSC.”
Bremer relates a similar anecdote in his memoir, saying that Rumsfeld told him later in 2003 that he was “bowing out of the political process,” which apparently meant he was detaching from dealing with Iraq--a breathtaking step for the defense secretary to take after years of elbowing aside the State Department and staffers on the National Security Council.
Speaking of Bremer, he is clearly another civilian villain in Ricks’s tale.
One of the first things Bremer did after arriving in Iraq was show [Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance Chief Jay] Garner the order he intended to issue to rid Iraq if Baathist leadership. “Senior Party Members,” it stated, “are hereby removed from their positions and banned from future employment in the public sector.” In addition, anyone holding a position in the top three management layers of any ministry, government-run corporation, university or hospital and who was a party member--even of a junior rank--would be deemed to be a senior Baathist and so would be fired. What’s more, those suspected of crimes would be investigated and, if deemed a flight risk, would be detained or placed under house arrest.
Garner was appalled. …
If issued as written, the order Bremer was carrying would lead to disaster, Garner thought. He went to see the CIA station chief, whom Garner had seen work well with the military. “This is too hard,” Garner told the CIA officer, who read it and agreed. The two allies went back to Bremer.
“Give us an hour or so to redo this,” Garner asked.
“Absolutely not,” Bremer responded. “I have my instructions, and I am going to issue this.”
The CIA station chief urged Bremer to reconsider. These are the people who know where the levers of the infrastructure are, from electricity to water to transportation, he said. Take them out of the equation and you undercut the operation of this country, he warned.
No, said Bremer.
Okay, the veteran CIA man responded. Do this, he said, but understand one thing: “By nightfall, you’ll have driven 30,000 to 50,000 Baathists underground. And in six months, you’ll really regret this.” ...
Bremer looked at the two. “I have my instructions,” he repeated, according to Garner, though it isn’t clear that he really did, as the policy he was implementing wasn’t what had been briefed to the president. A few months later, the veteran CIA man would leave Baghdad, replaced by a far more junior officer. In the fall of 2005 he would resign from government service.
To hear Ricks tell it, these men, and others like them, had all been placed in positions above their competency levels, and none of them possessed the humility to even try to understand the actual situation on the ground.
There is an interesting passage in Ricks’s account that demonstrates the disastrous and tragic results of Bremer’s decision to “de-Baathify” the country.
At the end of May and in early June [of 2003], dismissed ministry workers and former Iraqi army soldiers [who Bremer also autocratically put out of work] held a series of demonstrations. Some vowed they would violently oppose the U.S. decisions. “All of us will become suicide bombers,” former officer Khairi Jassim told Reuters. The wire service article was distributed at the CPA [the Coalition Provisional Authority] with that quotation highlighted.
“The only thing left for me is to blow myself up in the face of tyrants,” another officer told Al Jazeera.
Bremer insisted he wouldn’t be moved. “We are not going to be blackmailed into producing programs because of threats of terrorism,” he said at a press conference in early June.
The protests continued. On June 18 an estimated two thousand Iraqi soldiers gathered outside the Green Zone to denounce the dissolution decision. Some carried signs that said, PLEASE KEEP YOUR PROMISES. Others threw rocks. “We will take up arms,” Tahseen Ali Hussein vowed in a speech to the demonstrators, according to an account by Agence France Presse. “We are all very well-trained soldiers and we are armed. We will start ambushes, bombings and even suicide bombings. We will not let the Americans rule us in such a humiliating way.” U.S. soldiers fired into the crowd, killing two.
What I find so fascinating about this passage, I think, is the way the two sides are so tragically talking past each other, each using words that mean something quite different in the opposite’s culture.
Please keep your promises, the Iraqis are saying. You are humiliating us.
We will take up arms, the Americans are hearing. We will become suicide bombers. And, as a result, are saying in return, We will not be blackmailed by threats of terrorism.
4. In contrast to these civilian leaders, Ricks portrays many of the military leaders as the pyrrhic heroes of the tale, having done the best they could under the very difficult situations created for them.
And unlike their civilian leaders, they understood the situation on the ground and the people they would come to fight. One shining example is Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Holshek, who took exception to the way his commanding officer was treating the civilian Iraqi population.
He asked his commander to imagine himself the head of a household in an Iraqi village. “Two o’clock in the morning, your door bursts open. A bunch of infantry guys burst into the private space of the house--in a society where family honor is the most important thing--and you lay the man down, and put the plastic cuffs on? And then we say, ‘Oops, wrong home?’ In this society, the guy has no other choice but to seek restitution. He will do that by placing a roadside bomb for one hundred dollars, because his family honor has been compromised, to put it mildly.” Simply to restore his own self-respect, the Iraqi would then have to go out and take a shot at American forces.
What was Colonel Holshek’s preferred method for dealing with these situations?
The wrong doors continued to be smashed on occasion, but when they were, Holshek would issue a letter that stated, “We are sorry for the intrusion, we are trying to help here, and it is a difficult business, and we sometimes make mistakes. If you have information that would help us, we would be grateful.” The cash equivalent in dinars of one hundred dollars would accompany the note. Those gestures of regret didn’t really win over Iraqis, Holshek recalled later, but he said he thought they did tend to tamp down anger, and so curtail acts of revenge.
Because that’s the essential point. Certainly in the beginning, before there was an organized counterinsurgency, and throughout the occupation among certain civilian populations, the attacks on American forces were not acts of terrorism, but those of revenge against aggrieved honor.
[Major Isaiah] Wilson, the historian and 101st planner, later concluded that much of the firing on U.S. troops in the summer and fall of 2003 consisted of honor shots, intended not so much to kill Americans as to restore Iraqi honor. “Honor and pride lie at the center of tribal society,” he wrote. In a society where honor equals power, and power ensures survival, the restoration of damaged honor can be a matter of urgency. But that didn’t mean that Iraqis insulted by American troops necessarily felt they had to respond lethally, Wilson reflected. “Honor that is lost or taken must be returned by the offender, through ritualistic truce sessions, else it will be taken back through force of arms.” In Iraq this sometimes was expressed in ways similar to the American Indian practice of counting coup, in which damaging the enemy wasn’t as important as demonstrating that one could. So, Wilson observed, an Iraqi would take a wild shot with a rocket-propelled grenade, or fire randomly into the air as a U.S. patrol passed. “Often the act of taking a stand against the ‘subject of dishonor’ is enough to restore the honor to the family or tribe,” whether or not the attack actually injured someone, he wrote. “Some of the attacks that we originally saw as ‘poor marksmanship’ likely were intentional misses by attackers pro-progress and pro-U.S., but honor-bound to avenge a perceived wrong that U.S. forces at the time did not know how to appropriately resolve.” But U.S. troops assumed simply that the Iraqis were bad shots.
I find this fascinating, this cultural divide between the Americans and the Iraqis, how it affected the progress of the war, and how few people in the U.S. apparatus seemed to understand the fundamental premise that the people they encountered were simply that--people.
[Captain Oscar Estrada] thought about an incident a few weeks earlier on the road east of Baqubah the soldiers called RPG Alley. The groves of date palms along the road provided insurgents with hiding places from which to fire their rocket-propelled grenades. When a unit ahead of them in a convoy reported taking fire from one such grove, he recalled, everyone began firing--automatic weapons, grenades, and .50 caliber heavy machine guns.
“What the hell are we shooting at?” he had screamed at a buddy as he fired his M-16.
“I’m not sure,” the soldier had responded. “By the shack. You?”
“I’m just shooting where everybody else is shooting,” Estrada had said, continuing to squeeze off rounds.
When the firing ended, he heard the commander on the radio. “Dagger, this is Bravo 6. Do you have anything, over?”
“Roger. … We have a guy here who’s pretty upset. I think we killed his cow, over.”
“Upset how, over?”
“He can’t talk. I think he’s in shock. He looks scared, over.”
“He should be scared. He’s the enemy.”
“Uhm, ahh, roger, 6. … He’s not armed and looks like a farmer or something.”
“He was in the grove that we took fire from. He’s a fucking bad guy.”
A fucking bad guy. We all know what you do when you encounter a bad guy, right? You shoot him. Good guys always shoot the bad guys. It helps keep their sisters and girlfriends safe.
Estrada wondered what was gained from that minor incident, and what was lost. “Did his family depend on that cow for its survival? Had he seen his world fall apart? Had we lost both his heart and his mind?” Fundamentally, Estrada was asking himself whether the U.S. Army should be in Iraq, and if so, whether it was approaching the occupation of Iraq in the right way. “I was beginning to come to terms with serious doubts about our cause,” he later said, “and whether even if I accepted that our cause was just, our day-to-day actions did anything to champion it.”
After reading Ricks’s book, I find that Captain Estrada is not the only person asking these questions.
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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at email@example.com.