A Clear Strategy – for Disaster

The bromide-heavy speech that President George W. Bush gave Wednesday at the Naval Academy presents a clear strategy for continued quagmire and eventual disaster in Iraq. Despite the gathering storm of opposition to the administration’s approach to the war in Iraq, the speech was long on tired clichés and bereft of new ideas, calling to mind the words of Emerson: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

The problem is that this hobgoblin has consequences. Bush’s renewed warning of a future “Islamic empire from Indonesia to Spain” at first seemed to me as outlandish as President Ronald Reagan’s warning that the Russians planned to land in Nicaragua in order to invade Texas. Now it seems that Bush’s concern may become self-fulfilling prophecy, since the course he is on could hardly be better designed to usher in an eventual Islamic, rather than American, “empire.”

Iraqi Security Forces: A Pathetic Pillar

The president indicated that in the days ahead he would be addressing various pillars of his strategy in Iraq. Wednesday’s speech was devoted largely to the training of Iraqi army and security forces, and he protested too much in his efforts to accentuate the positive. His tortured attempt to explain why, after so many months of U.S. training, only one Iraqi army battalion can fight independently was no more convincing that earlier attempts by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his star-bedecked generals. Statistics just confuse the issue, we have been told. Progress is being made. Trust us.

All this is reminiscent of the rhetoric at a similar juncture at the beginning – yes, the beginning – of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. The Lyndon Johnson tapes show how in February 1964 President Johnson found fault with a draft of a major policy speech by then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara:

LBJ: “I wonder if you shouldn’t find two minutes to devote to Vietnam.”

McN: “The problem is what to say about it.”

LBJ: “I would say that we have a commitment to Vietnamese freedom. … Our purpose is to train [the South Vietnamese] people, and our training’s going good.”

The training was not going good then, and it’s not going good now. The Johnson administration’s self-deception helped usher in a decade of war resulting in 2-3 million Vietnamese and 58,000 American servicemen killed. The parallel is eerie. Just a few months ago Rumsfeld was talking about the need for U.S. forces to remain in Iraq for perhaps as long as 12 years.

Let “Freedom” Ring…

As for LBJ’s commitment to “freedom” for a foreign client, Bush’s speechwriters would not be outdone. In his speech the president used “freedom” or “free” no fewer than 36 times. The nine-paragraph coda, apparently orchestrated by Bush speechwriter and ambassador Karen Hughes, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, was a veritable free-for-all, with 19 “frees” or “freedoms.”

… and “Real Progress” in Preparing Iraqi Forces

I found it embarrassing to listen to President Bush stretch for evidence of “real progress” in readying Iraqi army and security forces to “stand up [so that we] can stand down.” Did you know that, because of our help, the Iraqis now have their own supply depot north of Baghdad; simulation models for roadblocks; a bomb-disposal school; a training program for squad leaders? Bush even quoted a U.S. soldier saying, “We have turned the corner.” For veteran observers of the Vietnam, this brings on a very troubling flashback.

How Many “Insurgents?”

Missing from the president’s words was any information on how many “insurgents” there are. No surprise here. Rumsfeld, whose fingerprints are all over the speech (until the coda), is apparently still seeking “situational awareness,” the lack of which he has famously bemoaned time and again.

Those of us with experience of Vietnam remember only too well that the Pentagon kept the count of Vietnamese Communist forces at an artificially low level, lest its claims of “real progress” be given the lie. It is hard to know which is worse – artificially low numbers, or none at all. It is, in fact, quite telling that Rumsfeld and the president prefer to leave enemy strength in the Rumsfeldian category of “known unknowns.” And it is small solace that this category is a step higher than the “unknown unknowns” in his lexicon.

Still, does it not seem odd that no figures are ever offered on the “insurgents” that are causing such havoc in Iraq, or on whether we are “killing or capturing more terrorists each day than are being recruited against us” – the question Rumsfeld posed to Pentagon brass more than a year ago?

A pity that those running the war in Iraq found ways to sit out Vietnam. For there, too, was a guerrilla war in which it was very difficult to estimate the number of “insurgents,” without including thousands and thousands of the populace who were supporting the resistance, with many of them acting as nighttime guerrillas. The lesson is that an army trained and supplied by foreign occupiers can almost always eventually be outmatched and out-waited in a guerrilla war, no matter how many billions are pumped into things like simulation models for roadblocks.

Don’t take my word for it. Professor Martin van Creveld of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the only non-American military historian on the U.S. Army’s list of required reading for officers, recently criticized President Bush for “launching the most foolish war since Emperor Augustus in 9 BC sent his legions in to Germany and lost them.”

Staying the Course

The president’s words struck an overall defensive tone, especially when he took on critics of his policy of “staying the course.” Bush rang a number of changes on the theme of how “flexible and dynamic” our military has become in “adapting and adjusting” to the situation in Iraq. As an example, he noted: “We have changed the way we train Iraqi troops.”

There was no sign in the president’s speech that this flexibility includes openness to the step that is the sine qua non for the U.S. to climb out of the Iraqi quagmire. As author Robert Dreyfuss has emphasized, that step is to sit down face-to-face with representatives of the Ba’ath Party – not the quisling Sunnis with whom U.S. officials prefer to deal. Why? Because the Ba’athists are the backbone of the resistance/insurgency. And never has it been more politically possible to sit down with then.

The good news is that a peace process has begun, despite Washington’s decision to boycott it because of its allergic reaction to dealing openly with the real resistance/insurgents. At a Reconciliation Conference sponsored by the Arab League two weeks ago in Cairo, Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish representatives sat down together and reached a surprising degree of consensus, including agreement on a demand for a timetable for withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq. A second, much larger session will convene in February, and so the die is cast.

In his speech, the president completely ignored the Reconciliation Conference, strongly suggesting that “foolish consistency” rules the roost and rules out the kind of flexibility needed to join and take advantage of the political track. Indeed, he may not even know of the key events in Cairo. There has been meager reporting in the press (surprise, surprise!) and, besides, Bush has admitted that he does not read newspaper articles anyway, preferring to rely on his staff for such information.

But surely, you say, Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte would have ensured that the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) included a report on the Cairo meeting. That ain’t necessarily so. After all, Negroponte’s star rose sharply when, as ambassador to Honduras, he distinguished himself for his success in suppressing reports that the forefathers of present-day “neoconservatives” – the brain-trust of the Iran-Contra affair – did not want disseminated to Congress or the press. That intelligence included reporting on the infamous Honduran death squads, known to all but Negroponte, who insisted on having weekly lunches with the generals who were actually running them. Sound familiar? Yes, those are the death squads after which are patterned similar squads now at work in Iraq, where Negroponte was also ambassador.

Negroponte now controls what intelligence goes to the president, and Bush has made it clear that this is the way he wants it. Thus, even if, say, a CIA analyst drafted an analytical report for the PDB on the Cairo conference, and even if it found its way into the Oval Office, there remains many a slip between cup and lip – because the president apparently does not read the PDB either. Rather he has it read to him, and on any given day it is possible for a reader to be cut short, or to give but cursory mention to such an article, given the president’s well-known insistence on “staying” a course that does not permit of open negotiation with “insurgents.”

Then Will No One Tell the President?

In his Naval Academy speech Bush totally ignored the results of the Cairo conference, which suggests that the U.S. will remain odd man out while the negotiations among key Iraqi leaders and other interested parties continue in February. Were it not for the experience of watching the White House the past four years, it would be very difficult for me to believe that Bush’s advisers cannot see the handwriting on the wall, and that they would not see merit in suggesting to the president that he adjust U.S. goals and join the peace process begun in Cairo.

The goals are the rub; they have not changed. Remarkably, the Cheney-Rumsfeld-cum-ideologue-neoconservative cabal still running U.S. policy is still focused primarily on oil, permanent military bases, and making the Middle East even safer for Israel. There are no convincing signs yet – despite the looming disaster apparent to most others – that they or the president are willing to adjust, rather than “stay” the course.

Given the president’s penchant for erupting in rage when provided with information not to his liking, it seems improbable that anyone in his small circle of advisers would dare remind him of how many times, and for how many years, presidents Johnson and Nixon insisted on “staying the course” before the helicopters lifted the last of the fleeing Americans from the rooftops of the U.S. compound in Saigon in 1975.

An earlier version of this article appeared on Truthout.com.

Author: Ray McGovern

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. In the Sixties he served as an infantry/intelligence officer and then became a CIA analyst for the next 27 years. He is on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).