Defining Moments in the War on Iraq

Perhaps the one thing you can be reasonably sure of is that we’re not getting the whole story about the current troubles in Iraq (even by reading almost everything, from all the different sources made available to you on This is not necessarily because the media are hiding anything, but simply because they can’t be everywhere at once – and because in the heat of all the action it is almost impossible to step back and take the longer, what-does-it-all-mean view.

For this and other reasons, therefore, this has to be somewhat speculative. But what if this turns out to be one of those defining, revolutionary moments in a nation’s history, something like the fall of the Shah in Iran in 1979 or the demise of the Berlin Wall? What if this is the time people look back to as the time a significant enough portion of the Iraqi population rose up and turned the tables on their “liberators” from the United States, and said, in effect, thanks all the same, but we would just as soon liberate ourselves. For starters we’d like to be liberated from your occupation.

There are reasons to suspect this might be the case. The current uprising might have started as the work mainly of a few smaller groups, a few lower-level militia-type groups. But rather than being contained quickly by a U.S. military whose essential competence is in little doubt, the rebellion seems to have spread. This doesn’t bode well for getting it under control very soon.


What makes the spread of the uprising more significant is that more Shiite groups seem to be involved. The Shiites, remember, constitute 60-65 percent of the Iraqi population. Most observers I have talked to, including some who have spent time in the country, have been pleased and in some cases almost surprised that the Shiites have been relatively quiescent. Even when Ayatollah Sistani called for demonstrations a few weeks ago, the demonstrations, although massive, were relatively peaceful, and in the main directed to demanding more democracy more quickly, the goal toward which the US was ostensibly working. Sistani has been critical of the proposed new draft constitution, but he has been careful not to be overtly anti-American, and to keep the demonstrations he called disciplined and peaceful.

The general thinking is that the Shiites (the group generally most oppressed by Saddam when he was in power) have figured that once something resembling representative government came into being they would be able to control the government. They are organized and armed. Although few believe that Sistani wants a theocratic regime dominated by clerics as in Iran – although who can be sure even of that? – many people (including have suggested there is a strong Iranian influence among Iraq’s Shiites. The Iranian motive wouldn’t necessarily have to be establishing a mirror-image of their regime in Iraq, simply neutralizing a country that has been a traditional adversary, going back hundreds, even thousands of years before Saddam Hussein was born.

It could well be that Muqtada al-Sadr, the young Shiite cleric who has suddenly become prominent in the last week or so, is a fringe type, rejected by most respectable Shiites, whose followers are but a sliver of the Shiite majority. It could well be that the majority of Shiites have tacitly decided to let him be the sacrificial lamb if the US wants to take him out. But in most large-scale political changes, it isn’t really majorities that precipitate them but motivated minorities. Chances are a minority of American settlers wanted independence at the time of the US revolutionary war, but those who wanted independence were more motivated and active than those who were content with the status quo.


Events sometimes take courses even those who initiated them didn’t predict. The fact that other Shiites than al-Sadr followers seem to have taken up arms against coalition troops, that they have driven some US allies out of certain cities, could mean that significant numbers of the Shiites have decided – or been pushed by events into acting as if they have decided – that waiting for the US to establish something relatively democratic will take too long and is an uncertain project at best, that now is their moment. If this is so – and even most conventional news sources now describe the fighting as just about as fierce as during the “active” military campaign last year – could it be the beginning of Iraqis seizing their independence rather than waiting for the US to hand it to them, with numerous conditions, of course?

My information is obviously too incomplete to be sure about this, but I wouldn’t rule it out.


Now on to the event that captured the attention of most of the media yesterday, in a genuinely striking manner. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice was everything most people expected her to be yesterday – confident, on-message, in full command of a wide array of facts, self-assured and on balance reassuring. Unfortunately, in part because of the limited mission of the September 11 commission to which she offered her testimony, her appearance offered little hot news. While it is possible that US military forces will recover and regain effective control of significant portions of Iraq that have been lost, it could turn out to be the ultimate irony that her testimony came on the same day that the policy of US occupation was falling apart.

Her appearance coincided with intensified fighting in Iraq that has raised new questions (or raised old questions anew) about the wisdom of trying to approach the threat of terrorism by invading, occupying and attempting to democratize a country that had little to do with the terrorists who brought down the World Trade Center almost three years ago. But the 9/11 commission’s charge is to explore intelligence shortcomings prior to that attack. By now (perhaps in part due to the commission’s work to date) a consensus is emerging about those shortcomings.

Despite some murmurings from some commission members it seems unlikely that a definitive smoking gun or aha! moment will emerge that will give us confident knowledge that if only we had done X the attack could have been prevented. To be sure, by making Ms. Rice give the title of the August 6 2001 presidential briefing paper, something to do with Osama bin Laden’s desire to strike a big blow inside the United States, Watergate veteran lawyer Richard Ben-Veniste raised a possible administration point of propaganda vulnerability. That briefing paper should certainly be declassified – as should thousands of papers kept secret by the most secrecy-obsessed administration since Nixon. But one wonders if there will be a smoking gun even there.

At this point, however, aside from possible suggestions that may be still to come about improving intelligence capability, there’s really little point to such a gotcha exercise. The attack happened. What’s important is whether the Bush administration’s response to it, especially the war on Iraq, was anything resembling an appropriate course of action.


What was most striking about Ms. Rice’s testimony was how little, after all the sound and fury of the last couple of weeks, her version of events differed from that of former “terrorism czar” Richard Clarke. Both agreed that even if every suggestion from Mr. Clarke had been implemented immediately rather than undergoing what some perceived as a laborious and tedious bureaucratic gauntlet, it was unlikely that the attack would have been prevented.

Ms. Rice thought that some of Mr. Clarke’s ideas – hooking up with the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan right away rather than trying to change Pakistan’s attitudes and working with forces in the south of Afghanistan first – would have taken the US off-track. Mr. Clarke thought there was an insufficient sense of urgency in the Bush administration about terrorism as an imminent threat, while Ms. Rice thought it more important to proceed in a more deliberate fashion. Both positions in these controversies are worthy of debate and discussion, but neither is inherently unreasonable in the context of decision-making within our eminently less-than-perfect government.

Indeed, as Fred Kaplan of Slate has pointed out, it’s interesting that neither George Tenet nor Colin Powell, who had reason to know whether Richard Clarke was spinning phantasmagorical stories, have refrained from joining in the White House-directed (I assume, although it could be some partisans initiated it on their own; certainly some talk radio and Fox people didn’t have to be urged to try to take out a perceived enemy of the administration that started their precious little war) attack campaign against Dick Clarke

Ms. Rice skillfully handled certain questions that have arisen. Did she say “nobody” could have predicted using airliners as guided missiles? She should have said “I,” because at the time she couldn’t have, although she later found out other experts had suggested the possibility earlier. Was President Bush’s comment about “swatting flies” an unfortunate choice of words? Perhaps, she almost conceded to former Sen. Kerrey, but the figure of speech conveyed the important message that deciding to eliminate the threat rather than responding to each individual provocation separately should be the goal.

Ms. Rice was more than a little complacent about the beneficial effects of the Patriot Act. I am hardly alone in seeing some unfortunate and unnecessary invasions of Americans’ privacy, and believe those sections of it that were scheduled to expire should do so. Approaching this issue afresh, not in the heat of the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and knowing more than we did then, rather than simply renewing it and enacting Patriot II, would be the wiser course.

Certain other questions deserve attention. All agree now that the separation between the CIA and the FBI, to the point that they hardly communicate with each other, had become almost obsessive. But it should be remembered that back in the 1970s, when former Idaho Sen. Frank Church held hearings that led to laws separating the two, his committee had uncovered genuine abuses involving the CIA conducting intrusive surveillance on US citizens. The pendulum probably swung too far then, but having an international intelligence agency conducting investigations of American citizens could be troubling again. The new consensus bears watching.

Nobody, as far as we know, has yet discussed the possibility, though it peeks out through every discussion, that US intelligence agencies failed not because they were too small and too deprived of resources, but because they have become too large, unwieldy and bureaucratic. Intelligent discussion of reform should include trimming them down to fighting weight as an alternative to merely giving them more money and power.

The issue of whether attacking Iraq was a wise move is beyond the scope of this commission. But it may be the most important question for Americans to consider and debate vigorously in the coming months and years.

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).