As a groggy and very hung-over American hegemon wakes from a dream of imperial dominion and faces the harsh light of morning in war–torn Iraq, the cruel reality of what General William E. Odom calls "the greatest strategic disaster" in our history is beginning to dawn on our political and military elites. The U.S. Senate, which originally signed on to the president’s war policy by a 77-23 vote, is backing away, and even some in the president’s own party are beginning to voice strong doubts about "staying the course." Especially when we are on a course set for the same disastrous fate that eventually overtook all the strutting imperialists of times past, who took on a weaker opponent only to find that there are different kinds of strength. As Martin van Creveld, a military historian of some note, put it in an interview not so long ago:
"Basically it’s always a question of the relationship of forces. If you are strong, and you are fighting the weak for any period of time, you are going to become weak yourself. If you behave like a coward then you are going to become cowardly it’s only a question of time. The same happened to the British when they were here
the same happened to the French in Algeria
the same happened to the Americans in Vietnam
the same happened to the Soviets in Afghanistan
the same happened to so many people that I can’t even count them."
Van Creveld was speaking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the same principle applies to the Iraqi insurgency in spades, and I want to quote him at length because I have not read a clearer exposition of the strategic dilemma in which we now find ourselves.
"Question: Martin you used the word ‘cowardly’ yet what we’ve seen tonight these commando units, the anti-terrorist squads these aren’t cowardly people.
"Van Creveld: I agree with you. They are very brave people they are idealists they want to serve their country and they want to prove themselves. The problem is that you cannot prove yourself against someone who is much weaker than yourself. They are in a lose/lose situation. If you are strong and fighting the weak, then if you kill your opponent then you are a scoundrel if you let him kill you, then you are an idiot. So here is a dilemma which others have suffered before us, and for which as far as I can see there is simply no escape."
No escape that is precisely van Creveld’s evaluation of our present conundrum, which, in his view, has earned our leaders the sharpest rebuke imaginable:
"For misleading the American people, and launching the most foolish war since Emperor Augustus in 9 B.C. sent his legions into Germany and lost them, Bush deserves to be impeached and, once he has been removed from office, put on trial along with the rest of the president’s men. If convicted, they’ll have plenty of time to mull over their sins."
This isn’t some poster over at DailyKos.com or Democratic Underground talking: van Creveld is the author of some 15 books on military history and strategy, including Supplying War (1977), Command in War (1985), and The Sword and the Olive (1998), and has been on the faculty of Hebrew University in Israel since 1971.
Yes, says van Creveld, we must withdraw, and it will be a long and very painful retreat, likely to incur many casualties, but it is nevertheless "inevitable." Yet, in his view:
"A complete American withdrawal is not an option; the region, with its vast oil reserves, is simply too important for that. A continued military presence, made up of air, sea and a moderate number of ground forces, will be needed."
The genie has busted out of the bottle, and to mix metaphorical fables all the president’s men cannot put it back together again. If the idea of invading Iraq was to commit us irrevocably to a course set for perpetual war, then surely the cabal that lied us into Iraq has succeeded. The "creative destruction" they pined for has been visited on the Middle East, and the pillars of stability have been shattered, ushering in a new and far more credible threat to the region: the Shi’ite mullahs of Iran.
The irony is that, in conjuring a nonexistent nuclear-armed threat in Baghdad, we wound up empowering a real-world version of that imaginary monster in Tehran.
Perhaps this is what Bush was saying when, a few weeks after demolishing the Iraqi regime, he proclaimed "Mission accomplished."
Van Creveld is right that Bush and the Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal need to be put on trial in my view, the charge should be treason but wrong when it comes to his existentialist "no exit" stance, which makes about as much sense from an American perspective as Sartre’s play, i.e., very little.
The vast oil reserves [.pdf] in the region are not, after all, going to disappear: whoever pumps it has to sell it to someone, and that is inevitably going to be us: it is a question of price, not availability. As Michael Scheuer, former CIA analyst in charge of the bin Laden unit, points out, a key plank in al-Qaeda’s platform of anti-Western grievances has been the complaint that we are getting their oil at cut-rate prices. If the rules of the marketplace which the U.S., as the fountainhead of capitalism, is pledged to observe were to be followed, then the artificially low prices paid by Western consumers for Middle Eastern oil would rise overnight and we’d be forced to spend our money on the difference, rather than on what van Creveld describes as "the new weapons [which] are so few and so expensive that even the world’s largest and richest power can afford only to field a relative handful of them."
Perhaps that wouldn’t be such a bad tradeoff after all.
The sense of crisis expressed by one of the foremost military tacticians of the day is shared by many in Washington, and among the military. That’s why Rep. Jack Murtha, who has a long-standing relationship with the uniformed three-and-four-stars in the Pentagon, rose to give voice to the very real fears now shaking up the establishment. In calling for a withdrawal of American troops, and a complete turnaround in our regional policy, Rep. Murtha sent a seismic shockwave through the White House, which immediately responded by likening him to Michael Moore, the left-wing filmmaker demonized by the neocons as a symbol of "anti-Americanism." The hamhandedness of this White House is positively Soviet, and about as effective as the Kremlin’s denunciations of Eastern European rebels and its own dissidents as "wreckers" and "agents of imperialism."
Ah, but rumor has it that we’re in for a new era of perestroika, if not bipartisan glasnost, when it comes to Iraq policy. There has been increased speculation, of late, that the U.S. is getting ready to draw down the number of troops in Iraq and hand over the reins to the Iraqis, who are on the verge as we are constantly assured of standing up so we can, at long last, begin to stand down. The problem is that this is nonsense, as Seymour Hersh points out in his latest contribution to The New Yorker.
We aren’t cutting and running, according to Hersh: we’re cutting and bombing. The idea is to substitute air power for boots on the ground and cut down our losses. It’ll be just like in the Kosovo war, when the "Kosovo Liberation Army" acted as spotters for our fighter jets, who would rain down death on targets scouted out by the KLA. That this will greatly increase Iraqi casualties, civilian as well as military, seems not to be a consideration: the assumption is that we’ll be killing the bad guys, with the Iraqis doing most of the grunt work. Not everyone, however, is happy with this new strategic turn. The Air Force, says Hersh, is balking, and he quotes a senior Pentagon consultant who defines the problem inherent in such a strategy: "A lot of Iraqis want to settle old scores," but "who is going to have authority to call in air strikes?" As Chris Matthews pointed out on Hardball Tuesday, you’re going to have the Air Force at the beck and call of Ahmed Chalabi, a prospect that ought to transfix American policymakers with the sheer horror of it.
We aren’t withdrawing from Iraq: instead, the war is being intensified, with the so-called El Salvador option unleashed, as predicted here some months ago. Iraqi death squads are even now roaming the streets of our "liberated" province, murdering Sunnis and ravaging other centers of opposition to the consolidation of Shi’ite rule. The party militias the Badr Brigade, the Da’wa Party, the Mahdi Army of Moqtada Sadr, and others have taken over the Iraqi "police," and the fastening on of a new tyranny is taking place in Kurdistan, where the authorities are preparing an all-out attack on the Arab population. With the full authority and backing of the two major Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), Arabs are being systematically forced out of their homes. Meanwhile, the ultra-nationalist Kurdish parties subsidize "settlements" for "repatriated" Kurds from all over the Middle East, in a conscious imitation of the Israelis.
Israel by the way, is the Kurds’ major ally and regional sponsor, as Hersh reported in a previous New Yorker piece. Their agents, said Hersh, are crawling all over Kurdistan, even as they recognize that the American attempt to pacify the rest of Iraq is failing. This is their "Plan B," as Hersh calls it: if Iraq is being split apart at the seams, their best option is to grab a piece of it as it decomposes. That Kirkuk-to-Israel pipeline Chalabi promised his neocon backers may not be a pipe dream after all, especially if the Kurds succeed in their plan to shift the ethnic balance of oil-rich Kirkuk and seize control of the city they hail as their Jerusalem. This has American officers worried, and it contradicts the much-touted "pro-American" reputation of the Kurds as our trusted friends and allies: American commanders fear the Kurdish militias are about to precipitate a civil war, with our troops caught in the crossfire.
Once we make this an air war, the Kurdish parties will wield American jet fighters as a whip to be used against their sectarian enemies, lashing out at the Arabs, the Assyrians, and anyone else who gets in their way. While Shi’ite and Kurdish death squads comb the streets, carrying out search and destroy missions against alleged "terrorists," the Americans will patrol the skies, zapping entire villages as directed by our proxies on the ground.
There’s just one problem with this strategy: "It’s not going to work," says the former director of air power studies at the Royal Air Force’s advanced staff college, Andrew Brookes, now an analyst with the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. Hersh cites him as asking a very pertinent question, one that conjures up the same ghosts of interventions past channeled by van Creveld.
"’Can you put a lid on the insurgency with bombing? No. You can concentrate in one area, but the guys will spring up in another town.’ The inevitable reliance on Iraqi ground troops’ targeting would also create conflicts. ‘I don’t see your guys dancing to the tune of someone else,’ Brookes said. He added that he and many other experts ‘don’t believe that airpower is a solution to the problems inside Iraq at all. Replacing boots on the ground with airpower didn’t work in Vietnam, did it?’"
The neocons hate the Vietnam analogy precisely because it suits the facts so snugly. They don’t like to be reminded that their last great crusade to implant "democracy" at gunpoint ended not just in failure, but in a full-fledged military defeat. To even bring up the subject is to be accused of wanting to repeat that result as if the critics of the policy, rather than the policymakers, are to be held morally responsible for the consequences of the course our rulers have chosen.
As the barbarian torturers we’ve unleashed on the Iraqis cause even our own guy, Iyad Allawi, to aver that things have gotten worse since the overthrow of Saddam, and attacks on American forces escalate along with the casualty rate, those few defenders of the war outside the White House ascribe rising opposition to those Sixties-era lefties who, we are told, want to recreate their glory days of bell-bottomed, love-beaded protest politics. It’s all about "Boomer narcissism." Or so they say.
When it comes to the course this war is about to take, however, it is the narcissism of one particular Baby Boomer that carries the most weight, and George W. Bush is fundamentally different from his generational fellows in ways that are rather frightening. Hersh, citing administration insiders as well as military sources, paints a portrait of a president so caught up in his own sense of historic and religious mission as to be virtually inaccessible, either to reasoned argument or plain common sense:
"’The president is more determined than ever to stay the course,’ the former defense official said. ‘He doesn’t feel any pain. Bush is a believer in the adage "People may suffer and die, but the Church advances."’ He said that the president had become more detached, leaving more issues to Karl Rove and Vice President Cheney. ‘They keep him in the gray world of religious idealism, where he wants to be anyway,’ the former defense official said. Bush’s public appearances, for example, are generally scheduled in front of friendly audiences, most often at military bases. Four decades ago, President Lyndon Johnson, who was also confronted with an increasingly unpopular war, was limited to similar public forums. ‘Johnson knew he was a prisoner in the White House,’ the former official said, ‘but Bush has no idea.’"
Bush is a prisoner of his own demons, and we, in this era of the imperial presidency, are his prisoners, as he steers the country on a reckless road to ruin. The idea that there is something very wrong with that man in the White House, that he is wreathed in a darkness of potentially apocalyptic deadliness that he is, in short, a deeply disturbed and dangerous individual is chilling. From the image of the president as benevolent father-figure, we have come, in the historical blink of an eye that marks the time since the days of Dwight Eisenhower, to the chief executive as a reckless and wanton destroyer not Zeus, but Loki. Blind to evidence, and rendered half-mad by a toxic mix of religious and ideological fervor, the most powerful man in the world is on a death-dealing rampage. No different, really, than one of those crazed gunmen you read about in the news, who go on a spectacular crime spree, kidnapping and murdering their way across several state lines, holding hostages and threatening to kill them the whole way.
We are, all of us, George W. Bush’s hostages, and, what’s especially scary is that we don’t know what he’s going to do next. He seems capable of anything. Hersh reports the creation of a special squadron detailed to crossing over the border and pursuing the insurgents into Syria, and certainly we have every reason to expect this war to spread. The reversion to air power perhaps augurs the dawning of new "shock and awe" campaigns, this time over Damascus and points west. This is what the War Party is gunning for, and unless popular opposition to the war forces an American withdrawal along lines suggested by Rep. Murtha out in six months that is exactly the prospect we face. We must escalate, or get out we cannot "stay the course." The president and his advisers are beginning to realize this, and, given Bush’s views after all, I didn’t entitle a column "George W. Bush, Trotskyite" for nothing I leave it to the imagination of my readers which option he will choose.