New Skepticism on War?

Other areas of the world seem to demand our attention, of course. But the question of whether the American people – or even significant sectors of those who pay attention to such things, beyond the small circle of likely losers running for the Democratic presidential nomination – are starting to reconsider the wisdom of the Boy King’s adventure in Iraq still seems central.


The draft constitution of Afghanistan declares the official religion to be Islam, and Americans have reason to wonder: Did Americans shed their blood and spend their treasure so our designated regime could establish another Islamic republic? But a closer look at the constitution (and a conversation with James Dobbins, now with RAND after having been George W.’s special envoy to Afghanistan right after the war) alleviate a few fears. The constitution does declare Islam the official religion but also says people will be free to practice other religions. Lawmaking power is vested in an elective legislature, not the mullahs, and equal treatment of women is guaranteed on paper.

The most troubling thing about the constitution is that it centralizes power, which is not the Afghan way, at least so far. James Dobbins tells me a federalist system would probably have been better, but Afghanis have no experience with such a system. The least obnoxious period in their recent history was when they had a king who ruled with a light hand, and while some would like to reinstall a king the plan now is to install Hamid Karzai in a similar position. It could be dangerous for the prospects for any approximation of liberty in Afghanistan, but in theory that is supposed to be the Afghans’ problem. The U.S. should make the theory the practice as quickly as possible.

In a way, it’s almost reassuring that the proposed constitution reflects Afghan experience more than western political theory. I hope the Afghans muddle through, but we really should let them have full sovereignty as quickly as possible. Mr. Dobbins thinks some troops to help out with hunting down or neutralizing al Qaida and/or Taliban remnants – maybe Osama is there – in the mountains along the Pakistani border. I’m not convinced of that. Afghanistan has come closest to thriving when it has not been the subject of tender ministrations from outside powers. Right now its neighbors, for a change and at least for a while, don’t want to mess with Afghanistan’s internal dynamics.

The country might just have a chance, regardless of the shape of the formal constitution, so long as Hamid Karzai doesn’t try too hard to assert central control, as western advisers will no doubt want him to; it fits the current preferred model in the vaunted "international community." But if the advisers can go away and leave just a bit of money behind, along with some introductions to possible investors …


And then there’s Colombia. The US Congress is about to renew the Plan Colombia aid program begun by Bill Clinton and continued by Dubya. Sold to the American people as a great battle in the never-ending Holy War on Drugs, the program has become a matter of US forces propping up the central government against various guerrillas. The smartest thing would be to end the War on Drugs, which would deprive the guerrillas of lots of cash and weapons, and put the narcotraffickers out of business. Then perhaps we could let Colombia settle (or not) what has been a 50-year conflict.

Unfortunately, that’s unlikely. I doubt – although the capacity of this president to seem to believe quite sincerely things no normal, rational human being could possibly believe seems quite stupendous – that any serious administration, executive branch, CIA or even military analyst really believes this aid will do any good. Some might even agree it is likely to do harm in Colombia. But most people in both the executive and legislative branches in the Imperial City seem to believe that the people will brook no sign of weakness in the rhetorical and financial commitment to the Holy War.

I suspect they’re wrong. I suspect that the people are more than ready for a prominent politician to raise the questions about the wisdom of trying to fight addiction with prisons, guns and helicopters that almost any intelligent American at least entertains from time to time. But the war lobby here, as with other wars, is strong and deeply entrenched. What would DEA agents do for a living? Better than anybody, they recognize that they are not trained to perform any useful or productive activity. So I expect little change here.


I can’t help but think, however, that questioning the Iraq war is very close to being a mainstream position now. The campaign to try to get the media to report the "positive" side of the occupation has not struck a chord. Actually, "Nightline" did a reasonably "fair and balanced job one night last week, but in reporting that there was probably more electrical capacity in the country now than before the war, it also had to report that violence continues apace and sabotage is rife. Conservative commentators may bravely note that an opposition that is "reduced" to car bombs is obviously desperate and decimated. But the violence is not on a downturn and the American people know it. The likelihood is that it will get worse rather than decline.

Of course there are no WMDs yet, although the story is that Bush is seeking another $600 million – $600 million! – to keep the search going. Such faith is touching, but it would be preferable if Mr. Bush expressed confidence in his beliefs with his own money rather than with the taxpayers.

Not only do we have Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld expressing doubts in leaked memos, we are starting to see downright hilarious comments and rationalizations. As Fred Kaplan noted in Slate last week "we have a winner in the contest for daffiest explanation of why the Pentagon did no planning for possible postwar complications in Iraq. The entry comes from Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who, when asked about the subject in Nov. 5 hearings before the House Armed Services Committee, replied as follows:

"We did not want to be planning for a postwar in Iraq before we were sure we were going to war in Iraq. We did not want to have planning for the postwar make the war inevitable."

The statement is patently ludicrous. The Pentagon is making contingency plans for unlikely scenarios all the time. It knows there is no mystical connection between making plans and carrying out actions. Just thinking about the possibility of doing something makes it inevitable that you will do it? The time is approaching, and quickly, when we will be able to laugh this war to death. It’s just too bad so many Americans and Iraqis will have to die in the meantime.


As remarkably obtuse as the comment is, however, it does seem to confirm that there really was no postwar planning. Can it possibly be that people were seduced into believing that Americans would be greeted with cheers and huzzahs and that Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress would handle the transition with no need of assistance (other than monetary and occasionally logistical) from the U.S.?

The other possibility is that the experienced analysts both in the CIA and Pentagon simply threw up their hands and let the neocon fantasists and fabulists have their heads. As Seymour Hersh and others have detailed, the evidence is that Wolfowitz, Feith and the boys found ways to skip the pesky step of having experienced people vet the raw intelligence and simply "stovepiped" the stuff that fit the preferred scenario directly to the White House. After months of this can you blame the experienced people for not even trying very much any more to warn the White House that it wasn’t going to be quite so simple and it might not be a bad idea to have some contingency plans?

And it isn’t just the civilian critics. The military keeps coming out with post-action critiques that suggest a woeful and almost criminally irresponsible lack of planning. The latest is from the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division, which captured the Baghdad Airport. The 200-page unclassified report, available for now at, includes a devastating critique of the postwar phase of operations. The Army "did not have a dedicated plan to transition quickly from combat to SASO [stability and support operations in military jargon]" the Report said. After capturing the airport, commanders had no plan to occupy or use it to bring in personnel or materials to assist either in further combat operations or in peacekeeping. The airport is still used hardly at all, and it seems eons away from any civilian use.

David Rieff, in the November 2 New York Times Magazine, tells a similar story. Those who bought the Iraq-as-an-inspirational-democratic-model scenario didn’t want to hear about complications or potential problems. These were grand theorists, not people with practical experience in the almost always messy and hardly ever predictable realities of diplomacy and military action on the ground. These theorists also never bothered to get anything resembling a deep understanding of the Iraqi or Middle Eastern culture they were so determined to transform into a mirror-image of – actually, not of any real country, but of a theory in a textbook.

A genuinely engaged, intellectually curious president might have been able to cope with all these bright theorists and asked pointed questions. But we have a president who is more of a novice than any of them, and seems to think that "moral clarity" is enough to overcome lack of experience or knowledge.

I suspect the American people – and especially the American military which is asked to bear the actual risks – are getting tired of foreign policy waged through theory and ignorance.

Read more by Alan Bock

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000).

Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).