Authors: Andrew J. Bacevich
Tags: #General, #Military, #World, #Middle Eastern, #United States, #Middle East, #History, #Political Science
It will probably not be possible to remove Hussein quickly without a U.S. invasion and occupation—though it will hardly require half a million men, since Hussein’s army is much diminished since the Gulf War, and the U.S. will probably have plenty of help from Iraqis, once they trust that it intends to finish the job this time. Once Hussein is deposed, an American-led, international regency in Baghdad, to go along with the one in Kabul, should be imposed.
Over the years the U.S. has earned opprobrium in the Arab world for its backing of repressive dictators such as Hosni Mubarak and the Saudi royal family. This could be the chance to right the scales, to establish the first Arab democracy, and to show the Arab people that the U.S. is as committed to freedom for them as it was for the people of Eastern Europe. To turn Iraq into a beacon of hope for the oppressed peoples of the Middle East. Now that would be a historic war aim.
So whether or not Saddam actually had anything to do with 9/11 was beside the point. After all, the ultimate objective of administration strategy, a.k.a. the Freedom Agenda, was not merely to
against the prospect of another 9/11 but to
of anti-American terrorism in the Greater Middle East. This meant rendering the region itself congruent with American interests and American values. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq offered the optimum locale for launching this lofty undertaking.
Try this thought experiment. Imagine that President Bush’s famous “Mission Accomplished” speech of May 1, 2003, declaring that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended,” had proven accurate; that Vice President Cheney’s prediction of U.S. forces being “greeted as liberators” had held, along with Rumsfeld’s projections of total war costs coming in at “something under $50 billion”; that Wolfowitz’s estimate of Iraq being able to “finance its own costs of reconstruction” had panned out; and that Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith’s promise of U.S. military action putting “Iraq on a path to become a prosperous and free country” had come to fruition.
Imagine, in other words, that Operation Iraqi Freedom had played out as the Bush administration had expected.
How would such an outcome have affected America’s standing in the Greater Middle East? In
Thomas Hobbes wrote, “What quality soever maketh a man beloved, or feared of many; or the reputation of such quality is power; because it is a means to have the assistance and service of many.”
As applicable to the twenty-first century as to the seventeenth, this aphorism pithily captures the true rationale for Gulf War 3.0. It did not appreciably differ from the motives prompting Saddam Hussein to launch Gulf War 1.0 in 1980 or 2.0 in 1990. Although victory in Iraq might not induce much love for the United States, it would certainly translate into fear and respect. Put simply, by demonstrating the will and the capacity to deal with Iraq, the United States itself would emerge as Leviathan.
General Wesley Clark tells the story of a senior officer on the Joint Staff apprising him just weeks after 9/11 of a Bush administration plan to “take out seven countries in five years,” starting with Iraq and Syria and ending with Iran.
Absent documentary confirmation, we may question the specifics of Clark’s anecdote. We should not, however, doubt the larger thrust of administration intentions, which the anecdote accurately conveys. To “take out” several countries did not necessarily imply a succession of wars, of course. Indeed, per Hobbes, using Iraq to illustrate the folly of resisting American power held the promise of enabling the United States to have its way elsewhere without actually needing to employ that power.
So for all the vituperation U.S. officials heaped on Saddam Hussein, sending him packing was never more than an interim goal. Acting strategically, Rumsfeld believed, meant doing “something that has three, four, five moves behind it.”
Intervention in Afghanistan did not lend itself to next moves; intervention in Iraq, by contrast, would. As Feith, the Pentagon’s third-ranking civilian, put it, removing Saddam would “make it easier to confront—politically, militarily, or otherwise—other state sponsors of terrorism.” By way of examples, he specifically cited Gaddafi’s Libya and Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. These regimes had “a record of backing down under pressure.” As such, they presented problems likely to be “solvable through coercive diplomacy rather than through military action.”
Vanquishing Saddam Hussein and destroying his army promised to invest American diplomacy with the power to coerce.
In short, victory in Iraq would open the door to much else. Indeed, the logic of the argument extended even to nominal allies such as Pakistan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Each one an incubator of violent Islamism, they too were going to have to start doing things differently. The overall scope of the Bush administration’s domino plan was nothing if not vast. As one Bush administration official remarked, “The road to the entire Middle East goes through Baghdad.”
Given the self-evident centrality of Iraq in this scheme, President Bush seems never to have made an actual decision to go to war there. It was simply a given. So the president never convened a meeting to poll his key advisers on the question. No carefully staffed paper weighing pros and cons ever made it into the Oval Office. With Afghanistan (assumed to be) finished, going after Iraq emerged by tacit agreement as the obvious next step. Here was the
consensus, in contrast to the artificially constructed one regarding WMD to which Wolfowitz had alluded. By early 2002 at the latest,
to invade Iraq was not the question, just when and how.
Laying the groundwork for war, a process that spanned the ensuing year, encompassed three major tasks. The first, which fell chiefly to the national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, was to codify the new norms that war with Iraq was intended to validate. The second task, in which Vice President Cheney showed a keen interest, was to manage domestic opinion, refuting objections to the prospective war raised by naysayers and skeptics. The third task, over which Secretary Rumsfeld claimed ownership, was to produce a war plan guaranteed to deliver victory.
The effort led by Rice yielded a text as critical to understanding America’s War for the Greater Middle East as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is to understanding the American Civil War. That text took the form of a speech delivered by President Bush at the U.S. Military Academy on June 1, 2002. In that speech, Bush made the case for preventive war.
Back in 1946, the Nuremberg Tribunal had categorically condemned preventive war. “To initiate a war of aggression,” it declared, “is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”
No presidential administration since that time had dared to question this dictum.
The Bush administration was now seeking to carve out exceptions that would be exclusive to the United States. “The gravest danger to freedom,” the president told the graduating West Point cadets, “lies at the perilous crossroads of radicalism and technology.” This new danger rendered concepts such as deterrence and containment obsolete. To remain passive was to court disaster. “If we wait for threats to fully materialize,” Bush warned, “we will have waited too long.” This the United States refused to do: “We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge. In the world we have entered, the only path to safety is the path of action. And this nation will act.”
Confronting threats “before they emerge”: This defined the essence of what now became known as the Bush Doctrine, which the administration euphemistically referred to as “anticipatory self-defense.”
Yet that doctrine did not come out of nowhere. It traced its lineage back to Carter’s declaration of 1980 that had initiated the War for the Greater Middle East by tying the American way of life to control of the Persian Gulf. Preventive war might be a bastard child of the Carter Doctrine, but there was no denying the genetic similarities.
To invest this freshly asserted prerogative with moral authority, President Bush packaged it within a confident interpretation of history’s forward trajectory. “The 20th century,” Bush continued, had “ended with a single surviving model of human progress, based on non-negotiable demands of human dignity.” Chief among those demands was “the rule of law, limits on the power of the state, respect for women and private property and free speech and equal justice and religious tolerance.” Here the key word was “non-negotiable,” the president emphasizing that the “requirements of freedom apply fully” to all people everywhere, to include “the entire Islamic world.” So while committed to eliminating threats “before they emerge,” the United States was no less committed to enforcing the “non-negotiable demands of human dignity.” Bush expressed confidence that preventive war to change the way they live was going to work to the benefit of all.
While Bush soared aloft, his vice president was engaged in somewhat grimier work below. With implacable tenacity, Cheney took it upon himself to bolster the case that Saddam Hussein really did pose a looming menace. Using means both fair and foul, he also sought to discredit or destroy anyone given to contrary views. In this enterprise, intellectual honesty figured at best as optional. As one very senior British official who was well informed about views held in the inner circles of the U.S. government put it, within the administration “the intelligence and the facts were being fixed around the policy.”
Indeed they were. Along with fixing facts, there was blatant scaremongering. “Time is not on our side,” Cheney warned. “The risks of inaction are far greater than the risks of action”—an old chestnut that is the last refuge of the militarist.
Critics of the vice president, who numbered more than a few, professed outrage at his willingness to smear opponents, make bogus claims, and credit dubious information acquired from doubtful sources. In fact, Cheney was merely playing political hardball. However contemptible his conduct, he was hardly the first politician to maneuver his country toward war by relying on demagoguery while playing fast and loose with the facts. In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson had branded senators opposed to the prospect of war with Germany as “a little group of willful men, representing no opinion but their own.” Their temerity in refusing to do the president’s bidding had “rendered the great Government of the United States helpless and contemptible.” In effect, Wilson declared open season on anti-interventionists, who soon found themselves pilloried by the press as “perverse and disloyal obstructionists” and “political tramps” whose names would “go down in history bracketed with Benedict Arnold.”
Similarly, prior to U.S. entry into World War II, Franklin Roosevelt had slandered anti-interventionists as “Copperheads,” a Civil War–era term equivalent to calling someone “pink” or a “fellow traveler” in the 1950s.
And the half-truths, untruths, and downright lies that President Lyndon Johnson and members of his administration told in order to justify direct intervention in Vietnam could fill several volumes. But note: In all three cases, an administration hell-bent on war got its way.
So Cheney was merely adhering to a tawdry but hallowed American tradition. Facilitating the initiation of a war abroad meant first engaging in political warfare at home. Cheney viewed his adversaries in Washington precisely as they viewed him: as an enemy to be allowed no quarter.
Meanwhile, shielded from public scrutiny, Rumsfeld took the lead in shaping the actual approach to toppling the first domino. Success required not merely overthrowing Saddam—that outcome was foreordained. For Iraq to serve as strategic catalyst, the United States needed to win a victory of historic proportions—swift, clean, unquestionably decisive, above all serving as a testament to the futility of resisting American power. Rumsfeld disdained the previous administration’s incrementalism, where it took weeks and weeks of bombing to defeat a puny country like Serbia. This “gradualism” might be fine for some, he said, but “what it doesn’t do is shock and awe, and alter the calculations of the people you’re dealing with.”
For Rumsfeld, the coming war against Saddam was all about altering the calculations of others.
In that regard, CENTCOM’s existing war plan—basically a rerun of Desert Storm—was not well suited to producing a sufficiently dazzling outcome. It was fusty and old-fashioned. Even General Franks considered OPLAN 1003 “stale, conventional, predictable,” not to mention “too big, too slow, and out-of-date.”
Rumsfeld readily agreed and was intent on helping Franks devise something better.
The ensuing dialectic revolved around two issues: numbers and sequencing. Rumsfeld the RMA enthusiast did not believe that more “boots on the ground” translated into greater combat power. Fewer could actually be better. He also disliked the U.S. military’s preference for gaining control of the air and then pummeling the enemy with bombs
introducing ground troops. The step-by-step approach was unnecessarily time-consuming. The defense secretary preferred simultaneity.