Readings in the Age of Empire

The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End
Peter Galbraith
Simon & Schuster, 2006
261 pp.

Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq
Thomas E. Ricks
Penguin Press, 2006
482 pp.

Losing Iraq: Inside the Postwar Reconstruction Fiasco
David L. Phillips
Westview, 2005
292 pp.

Blood Money: Wasted Billions, Lost Lives, and Corporate Greed in Iraq
T. Christian Miller
Little, Brown, 2006
334 pp.

Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone
Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Knopf, 2006
321 pp.

One particularly striking feature of the Iraq imbroglio is the consensus among policymakers and analysts, reflected in the new report by the Iraq Study Group, that Iraq is a disaster. Other than Bush appointees and neocon propagandists, few Americans believe that the invasion was justified or that the occupation has turned out well. Even some true believers have given up. In Imperial Life in the Emerald City, Rajiv Chandrasekaran quotes John Agresto, president of Saint John’s College (Santa Fe), brought in to reshape Iraq’s educational system: “I’m a neoconservative who’s been mugged by reality.”

This consensus is reflected in the publishing world, and particularly the five volumes reviewed here: the Bush administration has bungled everything in Iraq that it has touched. Other than the memoir of Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), and a few volumes concentrating on the heroics of the U.S. troops, there are no panegyrics about the administration’s campaign to establish liberal democracy in Mesopotamia.

All five of these books are worthy, though three of them warrant particular attention. Galbraith’s The End of Iraq provides the best overview, putting more emphasis than the others on the failed justifications for the invasion, for instance. In Fiasco Ricks covers the military campaign, demonstrating how the very toughness lauded by the neocons dramatically undercut their campaign to transform Iraq. Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City provides the most detailed look at the follies committed in the Green Zone.

The sad starting point in Iraq today is assessing what America’s invasion has wrought. In The End of Iraq, Peter Galbraith, a former ambassador, neatly summarizes the consequences of the Iraq war:

“It is, however, impossible to argue that the United States is better off. Although initiated to protect the United States from weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a rogue state, the Iraq War has left the United States more vulnerable to potential Iranian and North Korean nuclear weapons. And because of the administration’s planning failures, looters had free access to a wide range of dangerous materials from Iraq’s defunct nuclear and biological weapons programs. Some of these materials may have ended up in Iran or in the hands of terrorists, leaving the U.S. more at risk from Iraqi WMD-related materials than it was before the war.

“By enabling clerical Iran to achieve its historic ambitions in the Shiite Arab world, the war is a major strategic setback for the United States in the Middle East. The only ‘democratic fallout’ from the Iraq War has been the elections of hard-line extremists in Palestine and Iran. American prestige in the Arab world is at an all-time low with polls in some Arab countries showing Osama bin Laden viewed more favorably than President Bush. The war has damaged U.S. relations with its closest allies in Europe. No American president in living memory is as poorly regarded in Europe as George W. Bush.

“The Iraq War has failed to serve a single major U.S. foreign policy objective. It has not made the United States safer; it has not advanced the war on terror; it has not made Iraq a stable state; it has not spread democracy to the Middle East; and it has not enhanced U.S. access to oil. It has been costly.”

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

There’s still a chance that things will work out, “that the Bush administration’s inflexible optimism will be rewarded,” writes Thomas Ricks in Fiasco. But “more troublesome outcomes,” as he puts it, are far more likely. The best case, he suggests, is something like the guerrilla war in the Philippines more than a century ago, in which the U.S. killed hundreds of thousands of natives to maintain American rule. At the other end of the spectrum is a “nightmare” possibility – read his book and pray it doesn’t happen.

Why might Uncle Sam have nightmares? The terrorist assault on 9/11 energized neocons within and without the administration. Ricks looks at the birth of administration’s preemptive war and how administration officials both dissembled about their plans for war and manipulated intelligence to make their case to the public and Congress. Unsurprisingly, “the administration’s ex post facto defense that everybody got it wrong” was simply untrue, he contends.

As Galbraith points out, Baghdad was the least dangerous of the so-called “Axis of Evil.” Ricks adds that containment of Iraq had worked. And that’s before UN inspectors reentered Iraq. Notes Galbraith, “As long as UN inspections continued, the maximum possible WMD threat from Iraq consisted of some aging chemical weapons and small quantities of biological agents.”

The administration’s other justifications were no better founded. “Logic and facts did not stop the Bush administration from looking for connections” between Iraq and anti-U.S. terrorism, Galbraith notes. Sadly, of course, the administration managed to turn Iraq into the central front in the War on Terror since, he writes, “As a result of the American invasion, Sunni fundamentalist terrorists have flooded into Iraq” with devastating consequences.

Then there was the quest for democracy. This argument became more important as the others were discredited. In Ricks’ words: “With the invasion rationales of WMD and terrorism collapsing under the weight of authoritative postwar inquiries, the Bush administration began to lean more on the third leg of the rationale – liberation.” Here, too, fantasy replaced analysis. Observes Galbraith: “For the Iraq War to fit into a larger Middle East democracy strategy, three conditions would have had to be met in sequence: first, Iraq would have to democratize successfully; second, democracy in Iraq would have to trigger democratic change in other Middle Eastern countries; and third, democratic governments in the Middle East would have to behave in a way that is more in the U.S. interest than their autocratic predecessors were. The Bush administration simply assumed that each of the steps would occur.”

Refighting the decision to go to war is of limited utility today, so all of five writers focus on the disastrous invasion aftermath. Even after having made a bad decision to go to war, the administration need not have botched the job so badly. As Ricks observes: “the Bush administration hurried its diplomacy, short-circuited its war planning, and assembled an agonizingly incompetent occupation.” Still, while the administration deserves the bulk of the blame, he points out that neither the media nor Congress covered themselves with glory.

One problem was pervasive ignorance. Galbraith cites a meeting between the president and three Iraqi-Americans: “As the three described what they thought would be the political situation after Saddam’s fall, they talked about Sunnis and Shiites. It became apparent to them that the president was unfamiliar with these terms. The three spent part of the meeting explaining that there are two major sects in Islam.” (David Phillips reports the same incident in Losing Iraq.) It was natural, then, that policymakers were so easily duped by those, such as Ahmed Chalabi, who told them what they wanted to hear.

Not that being knowledgeable would have made much difference. Galbraith points to “a culture of arrogance that pervaded the Bush administration. From the president and the vice president down through the war’s neoconservative architects in the Pentagon, there was a belief that Iraq was a blank slate on which the United States could impose its vision of a pluralist democratic society.”

Administration officials also ignored the likely aftermath of the war. Writes Galbraith: “The Bush administration’s most catastrophic assumption about postwar Iraq was that it would be easy.”

The occupation was botched at most every turn. The early disorder and looting was disastrous for America. First, notes Chandrasekaran, “the looting had caused far more damage to Iraq’s infrastructure than the bombing campaign, and the failure to restore order was creating a climate of near-total impunity.” But the harm went deeper. Explains Galbraith: “Iraqis had two views of the looting. They saw a United States that was either too incompetent to keep order or so evil as to desire the country’s physical destruction. Either view made resistance a logical response.”

Complains David Phillips, who worked with the State Department’s Future of Iraq Project: “The problem was not the absence of a plan. Iraq was thrown into crisis when Bush administration officials, especially Pentagon political appointees, rushed to war and decided to ignore the planning that was underway.”

Ricks makes much the same point, though he deals more with the military side. He explains: “It wasn’t that there was no planning. To the contrary, there was a lot, with at least three groups inside the military and one at the State department working on postwar issues and producing thousands of pages of documents. But much of the planning was shoddy, there was no one really in charge of it, and there was little coordination between the various groups.” As a result, argues Phillips, “The Bush administration had goals for Iraq, but no coherent strategy for accomplishing them. Its policy was based on a combination of naiveté, misjudgment, and wishful thinking.”

Institutional animosity between the Departments of Defense and State, and particularly between the president’s political appointees and Uncle Sam’s careerists, played an important role. Phillips details the bureaucratic warfare that raged before the war: “The neocons wanted to marginalize anyone who questioned their plans to reinvent Iraq and push radical reform across the Middle East. For the most part they succeeded.” Most anyone who opposed the coming war – or who even believed that it might be worth planning for the coming war – “ended up as a casualty.”

In his eminently readable but ultimately depressing book, Chandrasekaran provides numerous stories about additional bungling. The administration flip-flopped between Jay Garner and Jerry Bremer, shifting expectations from a short to a long occupation. Early arrivals were shockingly ill-equipped; for a time some occupation personnel relied upon a tourist map purchased in Washington to get around. Relations between the CPA and the military ranged between strained and hostile.

Chandrasekaran’s description of the CPA’s “motley” crew is striking: “businessmen who were active in the Republican Party, retirees who wanted one last taste of adventure, diplomats who had studied Iraq for years, recent college graduates who had never had a full-time job, government employees who wanted the 25 percent salary bonus paid for working in a war zone.” Most bizarre was the Bush administration’s decision to staff the occupation authority with political appointees – a “Brat Pack” of 20-somethings who were responsible for a $13 billion budget, a bright but unqualified 24-year-old who was tasked to reopen the stock exchange, and many more. Applicants were asked such questions as for whom they voted and how they stood on abortion.

CPA defenders argued that appointees sacrificed mightily to help rebuild Iraq. Maybe, but Galbraith notes that “employees benefited from an extraordinarily generous pay system that included danger pay, hardship allowance, and other benefits,” allowing recent college graduates to earn six-figures.

More to the point, many CPA employees had no qualifications for what they were doing. And even well-qualified appointees ran into a succession of obstacles. There was no money for reconstruction; there were few employees to man Iraqi ministries; there were unrealistic plans for Western-style reforms; there was bureaucratic infighting; there was micro-management by CPA head (or “viceroy,” as Chandrasekaran calls him) Jerry Bremer. The one consistent feature, though, was endless spin by Dan Senor, Bremer’s chief PR flak. According to Chandrasekaran, “Off the record: Paris is burning,” Senor once told reporters, while “On the record: Security and stability are returning to Iraq.”

Americans largely remained within the secure Green Zone, nicknamed the Emerald City, where they developed grandiose but unrealistic plans for remaking Iraqi society. Three U.S. officials plotted to privatize Iraqi industry. A Maryland tort attorney rewrote Iraq’s traffic laws. The sense of unreality is captured by Chandrasekaran’s account of the reaction of Green Zone denizens to a nearby bombing:

“In the Green Zone, I could hear stories with happy endings. Nobody mentioned the bombing over dinner. The shrine was just a few miles north of the Green Zone, no more than a ten-minute drive away. Had they heard about what had happened? Did they know that dozens had died? ‘Yeah, I saw something about it on the office television,’ said the man to my right. ‘But I didn’t watch the full report. I was too busy working on my democracy project.'”

The CPA’s policies were worse than its people. Oft-discussed have been de-Ba’athification of the bureaucracy and dissolution of the military. Bremer was repeatedly warned that he was creating enemies, but to no avail. Ricks notes that recruiting is typically the most difficult task for an insurgency, but Washington made it easy, having “created a class of disenfranchised, threatened leaders.”

The attempt to rapidly privatize the economy and rationalize worthless state enterprises, well detailed by Chandrasekaran, was justified in economic terms. However, by increasing short-term unemployment it exacerbated the political impact of de-Ba’athification Writes Ricks: “The combination of all these moves – a prolonged foreign occupation that was built on de-Ba’athification, dissolution of the military, and economic upheaval – radically undercut social stability and built opposition to the American presence.”

The transition to Iraqi authority, too, was bungled. Chandrasekaran details how Bremer expected to run Iraq for a couple of years, failed in his effort to browbeat Iraqi leaders to accept his plan for drafting a new constitution, and ultimately had to yield to the Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s insistence on holding elections. Early on Bremer and his aides, largely Republican apparatchiks, thought they could ignore Sistani and just “get someone to write another fatwa,” as one CPA employee told Chandrasekaran. Moreover, Bremer’s decision to fill the governing council by quota, carefully divvying up the positions based on religious and ethnic background, may have helped create sectarian divisions that have steadily widened.

Even economic reconstruction has turned out to be largely a bust. Concentrating on the gory details is T. Christian Miller’s Blood Money. He begins the book by repeating Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz’s inimitable claim that the occupation would pay for itself. Instead, of course, Iraq has turned into a money pit, swallowing tens of billions of dollars in American aid, with very limited positive impact.

Observes Miller, a reporter with the Los Angeles Times: “After three years Iraqis have less power in their homes than under Saddam. Hospital neonatal units lose electricity, and doctors watch children die. Families suffer through withering 130-degree summers. Factories shut down because there is not enough electricity to power their machines. Oil production is far below its prewar peak. Pipelines in the north are bombed repeatedly. Oil tankers in the south sit empty at the port for days. Poor Iraqis in Baghdad slums suffer through outbreaks of easily preventable diseases like hepatitis for lack of clean water or health care. Children step through puddles of raw sewage on their way to school.”

Miller fills Blood Money with tales of corruption by both Americans and Iraqis, ineptitude and ineffectiveness in everything from providing electricity to training the Iraqi military, and disbelief mixed with disinterest in Washington. “One astonishingly slapdash act followed another,” he writes:

“Political appointees in Washington jostled to make sure friends got in on the action. Americans in Baghdad picked a used car dealer to buy weapons for the Iraqi military, an international arms broker to transport building supplies, and a self-described mercenary to protect government workers. In some cases U.S. officials handed out bricks of cash to pay contractors, keeping some for themselves to buy luxury cars and Breitling watches. Millions of dollars in Iraqi and U.S. money went missing. As the effort ground on, U.S. officials repeatedly changed strategies. Money drained away as security costs mounted. Projects were cut back. Goals were rarely set and rarely met. Achievements were tallied like body counts: another hundred schools painted, another clinic opened, another thousand Iraqis employed – statistics that said little about the reality on the ground. It was rebuilding without a foreman or blueprints.”

Affecting everything was (and is) the lack of security. The inability to protect Americans or Iraqis would have been enough alone to destroy the neoconservative plan to transform Iraq. Chandrasekaran writes:

“From the earliest days of the occupation, the CPA had labored under the assumption that Iraq would be a quiescent terrarium in which to cultivate democracy and a free market. Peter McPherson’s economic development strategy assumed that the country would be safe enough for multinational firms to establish factories. John Agresto’s higher-education strategy assumed that he and his team would be able to travel to every university. Jerry Bremer’s political strategy assumed that governance specialists could drive around the country to promote democracy.”

Still, Washington constantly underestimated the insurgency. To its credit, before the war started the Army provided more than its share of warnings about the difficulties the U.S. was likely to face, which “weren’t heeded – or even welcomed,” as Ricks puts it. Moreover, reports Ricks, who alone among the five offers a detailed critique of military operations, “even as the capital fell, there was a quite chorus of concern, especially from seasoned Army officers.”

Unfortunately, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld discouraged independent thinking. His chief flaw, argues Ricks, is not that “he made errors, it was that he seemed unable to recognize them and make adjustments.” After tracking the worsening insurgency and the military’s inadequate response, Ricks contends:

“[L]ate spring [2003] was the point at which Rumsfeld might have made a decisive difference. Some in the military saw Rumsfeld as a strong leader, while others disparaged him as a bully. In either case, it was at this point that his strong personality could have been useful in forcing the U.S. military to understand that it was caught in a counterinsurgency campaign and would need to make wrenching adjustments to win, just as other conventional militaries had in similar situations.”

Unfortunately, the military’s performance, too, was uneven. Ricks argues that the U.S. military invaded without the right strategy: “the war plan was built on the mistaken strategic goal of capturing Baghdad, and it confused removing Iraq’s regime with the far more difficult task of changing the entire country.”

Another mistake was a “tangled” chain of command. Top commanders, such as Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, performed poorly. The insurgents took advantage of the failure to secure weapons depots and the border – in part driven by the civilian leadership’s refusal to commit sufficient numbers of troops.

Moreover, military operations sometimes fueled the insurgency. The blame fell not on individual soldiers, but on their superiors who, writes Ricks, “didn’t prepare the U.S. Army for the challenge it faced, and then wasted a year by using counterproductive tactics that were employed in unprofessional ignorance of the basic tenets of counter-insurgency warfare.” American troops could win any standup fight and improvised in response to insurgent attacks, but the insurgents adapted too. The basic strategy often remained flawed.

Sadly, Ricks details many, many cases of maltreatment of innocent Iraqis and unnecessary abuse of possible insurgents. Even soldiers complained that hapless civilians were commonly shot and killed. Among the most appalling practices was snatching relatives in an attempt to force fugitives to surrender. Something as simple as driving on the sidewalk or opposing lane to escape a traffic jam (or a possible ambush) bred ill will.

The natural result of these trends was the scandal at Abu Ghraib. Its impact, despite desperate rationalizations by conservative pundits, was disastrous. Ricks points out, “U.S. military intelligence officials later estimated that most of those detained were more or less innocent, and that the vast majority – perhaps 90 percent – had no intelligence value.”

The abuses that come naturally, and inevitably, in wartime should have caused Washington to pause before loosing the dogs of war. Even more so, having decided to invade Iraq, the Pentagon should have prepared the troops for the irregular war that it should have recognized was likely to come.

Through everything administration officials simply lied to, or shared their delusions with, the public. Ricks reports on Jerry Bremer’s trip back to the U.S. in July 2003 in which he declared that things were going so much better than Americans realized, since they “were distracted, understandably, by the trickle of casualties.” Observes Ricks: “In fact, the U.S. occupation was about to be confronted by a full-blown counterinsurgency. But as the United States entered its first sustained ground combat in three decades, this was his story, And he and the entire Bush administration stuck to it.”

No one was a bigger cheerleader than President Bush, who argued: “The more successful we are on the ground, the more these killers will react.” One witty officer warned a reporter to “Be careful, or you might become another sign of progress.”

Today one must look with horror at what Iraq has become. Galbraith argues that Iraq is irretrievably broken. As Iraq falls into sectarian, if not civil, war, what does the “national unity” government actually run? Not much. Certainly not Kurdistan, which is essentially independent. As Galbraith observes, “Baghdad ministries are not allowed even to open offices in the north.”

How about in the Shiite south? Nope. Writes Galbraith: “It is run by a patchwork of municipal and governorate officials who front for the clerics, religious parties, and militias who are the real power in the south.” Perhaps the Sunni center? Sorry, “it is a battleground,” he explains, where the U.S. forces “assisted by Shiite troops, are at war with insurgents and foreign terrorists.”

Not even in Baghdad. Explains Galbraith:

“Even before the sharp escalation of sectarian violence in February 2006, Iraq’s capital was a city of armed camps. Nine-foot-high concrete walls, known as Bremer barriers, surround public buildings, hotels, and the residences of the rich and powerful. Wealthy Iraqis maintain private armies for security.

“Ministers and other top government officials use their own militias for protection, or borrow peshmerga forces from the Kurds. Only the reckless would rely on the police or Iraqi Army for protection, unless those units were in fact peshmerga or militias in the guise of being Iraqi Army or police. Outside the Green Zone and the private fortresses, Baghdad’s misery is compounded by an explosion of violent crime – murder, kidnapping for ransom, armed robbery, and rape – that is the consequence of the breakdown of authority.”

So what to do? The administration obviously has no plan. Observes Ricks: “despite a solid year of fighting and those three major elections, by the end of 2005, the insurgency had intensified. The number of bomb attacks had increased steadily, eventually hitting eighteen hundred a month in the fall of 2005. In addition, the bombs became more powerful, capable of utterly destroying an armored Humvee. Another twist was that some bombers figured out how to attach propane or jellied gasoline, effectively creating napalm bombs.” We are well past the point of finishing the job or completing the mission, or whatever other cliché the president and his supporters choose to employ.

Miller makes a poignant pitch for a new reconstruction program, a Marshall Plan of sorts, an effort to “rebuild the reconstruction.” But expecting the current administration to exercise competent management is a forlorn hope. Establishing security for a raft of new projects is even less likely.

Galbraith argues for Iraq’s partition. It’s an intelligent solution, but one that only the Kurds likely would support. It almost certainly could not be achieved without substantial population movement and attendant violence.

The Iraq Study Group has come up with a well-publicized compromise plan. It’s an advance over the administration’s “stay and die” policy, but the proposal prolongs the U.S. occupation without offering a realistic hope for a better long-term outcome.

Alas, no U.S. policy is likely to bring rival groups into harmony, pacify Iraq, enshrine Western values, and promote American geopolitical ends. The neocon dream of an Americanized Iraq is over. All we can do now is get out with a minimum of dignity, saving the lives of American soldiers that will otherwise be consumed in the violent cauldron that Washington’s invasion and occupation have created.

While serving as America’s “viceroy” in Iraq, Jerry Bremer declared: “We’re going to transform this place.” He (and they) did so. Oh how they did so.

How could so many people have been so wrong? One reason the neocons were able to convince policymakers to plunge the nation into war is because the American people know so little about history. Now, at least, they have no excuse for not learning what the U.S. government has done and is currently doing in their name in Iraq. Even if the president chooses not to read, U.S. citizens can no longer afford the luxury of ignorance.

Read more by Doug Bandow