Adam Ash

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Thursday, November 23, 2006

The myths about the Iraq War that prevent the administration from doing anything sensible about it (like getting the hell out)

1. Washington's Iraq Chimeras -- by John Brown and Ray McGovern/

The war in Iraq began as a war based largely on illusions. But now most Americans realize that the always-illusory option of “staying the course” in Iraq will never work. This was the main message of the recent Congressional elections. Still, there is a great danger that we will fall victim to additional Iraq-related illusions—illusions fostered by the administration, Congress, the Pentagon and the mainstream media.

Three persistent illusions—which, intentionally or not, serve to cover up or minimize the mess President George W. Bush has created in Iraq—stand out:

The Baker/Hamilton Commission is our way out.
The possibility afforded by the James Baker/Lee Hamilton-led Iraq Study Group (ISG) for a new approach has been met with knee-jerk optimism in the media. This is especially true of newspapers like The Washington Post whose editorial pages present apologias, rather than the mea culpas more appropriate to the paper’s three-year varsity cheerleading for the war.

Bush can use the ISG to good advantage. It gives him some time to sort out the implications of the severe Republican election losses; it makes Iraq not just a Republican problem, but a “bipartisan” (read: also Democratic) one; and, perhaps most importantly, it serves as a vehicle to take the bloody situation in Iraq itself off the headlines. Instead, the media can be directed to what is being said in Washington about Iraq (always of greater interest to our domestically-focused news corporations than what is actually happening abroad). All the while, of course, Americans are being encouraged to buy into the illusion that the ISG is doing something concrete to find a successful way out of Iraq.

What the Iraq Study Group can actually do, though, is quite limited. There simply are no good options. This or that recommendation may be able to provide cover, should the White House decide to choose what it considers a lesser evil.

But the administration itself seems to be moving to tamp down expectations that the Baker-Hamilton group is primus inter pares among the burgeoning number of commissions and committees on Iraq, and that the ISG will provide the panacea solution for which the mainstream press lusts.

In an effort to portray the president as something more than a bit player, the White House announced yesterday that he will meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Amman on November 29-30 to focus on "progress made to date in the deliberations of the high-level joint committee on transferring security and responsibility, and the role of the region in supporting Iraq." National security adviser Stephen Hadley told the press that the idea for a summit meeting "came up ... maybe a little longer than a week ago. But, obviously, things accelerated as you do on these things in the last couple days." Asked to elaborate on the timing and venue, Hadley lamely explained that the president would fly to Amman after the November 28-29 NATO summit in Riga, Latvia, since "the president was going to be in the region [sic]." Hadley stressed, "There are many voices the president will want to listen to," besides the Baker-Hamilton study group and, in his determination to "draw from a varietyof sources," Bush will "want to hear what Primer Minister Maliki wants to say."

The administration recently established an "Iraq Policy Review" to harness expertise from within the government; the Pentagon has completed its own study, with planners said to be favoring a hybrid strategy labeled by one defense official “Go Big But Short While Transitioning to Go Long [sic]”; Dr. Victory-is-the-Only-Outcome and presidential adviser Henry Kissinger now says military victory is impossible; and the languishing final draft of last summer’s National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq can also be put in play should any of its conclusions lend themselves to supporting the preferred policy adjustment.

Thus, there is varied counsel to choose from, with the wisdom of the Iraq Study Group just one among many places to go for it; in effect, the ISG has been deliberately taken down a peg. So, illusions, politically useful as they are for the short term, are kept under long-term control through "other views," lest they actually lead to questioning the administration's policies, whatever they may be.

Training Iraqis will save the day.
Training Iraqi troops to replace American ones has long been touted by the administration and the Pentagon as key to success in Iraq, a view reiterated last week by General John Abizaid in his testimony before Congress. On the surface, U.S. training of Iraqi soldiers and police seems like a viable option: It takes Americans out of the line of fire, it “softens” the impact of the U.S. occupation, making American soldiers appear to be instructors rather than aggressors, and, most importantly, it ideally gives Iraqis themselves responsibility for safety and order in their own country.

But there are many reasons to be skeptical about the effectiveness of U.S. training. First, report after report indicates the limited success—and notable failures—of U.S. training, including a recent article by Michael Scherer in Salon and yesterday's Washington Post report by Thomas E. Ricks.

Second, it is doubtful that American forces, the object of much hostility in Iraq, are sufficiently familiar with local conditions and traditions (not to mention the language) to impart even specialized military knowledge to Iraqi counterparts. Third, U.S. military training itself is by no means perfect or necessarily applicable, as a recent article in The Weekly Standard by Eric Egland, “Six Steps to Victory: The bottom-up plan to defeat the insurgency” suggests. Egland writes that:

According to one soldier in Iraq, his unit spent days going over how to clear a foxhole, something many had already trained to do numerous times in their careers. The problem is that the enemy we face in Iraq is not entrenched in foxholes, but moves fluidly and blends into the civilian population.

Of course, the key issue regarding creating a reliable home security force in Iraq is not “training” but—as neoconservative pundit Charles Krauthammer points out in one of his rare insightful moments—allegiance.

The chances of members of the various Iraqis under arms giving genuine allegiance to a central Iraqi government—or to any likely Iraqi government in the foreseeable future—range from slim to non-existent.
Indeed, ethnic and religious differences and widespread infiltration of the army—not to mention the police—by sectarian forces are so pervasive that it is debatable whether one can accurately speak of an “Iraqi Army.”

We Will Keep Some Kind of Control No Matter What.
There is a deeply ingrained belief, perhaps rooted in eternal American optimism, that the U.S.still has the ability to control developments in Iraq to a greater or lesser degree. Advocates for different policies—augmenting U.S. troops or withdrawing them—seldom consider the possibility that local conditions could turn out to be so chaotic that we could not do what we want to do once we have decided to do it. This Green-Zone naiveté may be psychologically soothing, but it is dangerously divorced from reality in Baghdad, which is becoming more violent and fragile each day. In The Guardian (November 15), Simon Jenkins wisely warns against the “we’re in control” illusion:

As we approach the beginning of the end in Iraq there will be much throat clearing and breast-beating before reality replaces denial. For the moment, denial still rules. In America last week I was shocked at how unaware even anti-war Americans are (like many Britons) of the depth of the predicament in Iraq. They compare it with Vietnam or the Balkans—but it is not the same. It is total anarchy. All sentences beginning, "What we should now do in Iraq ... " are devoid of meaning. We are in no position to do anything. We have no potency; that is the definition of anarchy.

In sum, at a time when the American public has said “no” to what passes for administration policy on Iraq, we must be on the alert for shimmering chimeras—illusions about what the U.S. can still accomplish in that troubled country. Only then can we safely sort out and choose among the best approaches—ranging from talking with “enemies” like Syria, Iran and the “insurgents” themselves, to international conferences.

Our aim must be the quickest possible withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, letting Iraqis themselves decide the fate of their country. The urgency of achieving this becomes even more acute in light of the heavy-handed demagoguery already in evidence from prospective presidential candidates in 2008. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., for example, has chosen to play fast and loose with the lives of Americans and Iraqis alike, in calling for sending substantially more troops to Iraq.

If McCain really thinks the situation can be rescued by more troops he needs a tutorial on counterinsurgency. Rather, his appeals seem motivated primarily by a wish to escape responsibility for “losing Iraq” when electoral politics heat up again. If that is his calculation, what he will not escape is responsibility for any delay this crass political tactic causes in getting our country out of this misbegotten adventure and bringing our troops home, as soon as this can be done in an orderly way.

(John Brown, a former Foreign Service officer who practiced public diplomacy for over twenty years, now compiles the "Public Diplomacy Press Review," which can be obtained free by e-mail .
Ray McGovern, a CIA analyst for 27 years, now works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC.)

2. The Whistle Blown on Lies That Lead to War -- by Errol Simper/The Australian

The best source any journalist may ever have is a dedicated whistleblower. We're not talking here about an embittered former employee or casual mischief-maker. We're talking about serious people, conscience-stricken insiders who've formed an unequivocal view it's in the broad public interest for certain happenings to become public knowledge.

It's been fascinating to watch two Australian television interviews in recent weeks with the man who - probably with justification - frequently has been described as the world's loudest whistleblower, Daniel Ellsberg. Tony Jones interviewed Ellsberg for the ABC's Lateline in October, while David Brill spoke with him for an SBS Dateline edition screened on November 8. Both segments may have resonated most, perhaps, with older viewers. Because without a brief history lesson and a bit of context the enormous significance of Ellsberg's whistleblowing activities could be lost.

To fully appreciate an interview with Ellsberg, you probably have to know he's someone who'll go to the grave in the full knowledge that he changed the world. Whether he should have done it will come down to individual convictions. To give some idea of the magnitude and polarising nature of Ellsberg's leaks, he once faced a potential jail sentence of 115 years. His wife, Patricia, told Brill: "When we came back from the Ellsberg trial my dad took me out to lunch. And then he said: 'That bum Ellsberg should have gone to jail."'

Now, 35 years later, Ellsberg has been warning of close parallels between Iraq and Vietnam. To paraphrase, Ellsberg has called the Iraq invasion stupid, illegal and justified by a premise constructed from blatant lies.

Jones: "Do you really believe the war in Iraq was based on lies?"

Ellsberg: "No question, no matter how much misunderstanding there was about the role of the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The senior administration figures, all of them - George Bush, Richard Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld (since resigned) - said: 'We have no doubt, our intelligence agrees, we know for a fact.' All those things were lies. The evidence they had, which was misleading at best, was extremely thin by any standards. The administration managed to conceal from the public for years the amount of controversy there was about the aims of the project, how much it would cost, how long it would take. All those things were concealed from the public and lied about, just as happened with Vietnam ... Iraq was a wrongful war."

Jones: "Do you not trust, in the end, the common sense of your President?"

Ellsberg: "I wish I could say yes ... But I would say if there had then been an effective opposition party in the (US) House of Representatives, in the Senate, he (Bush) has richly earned impeachment."

The real Iraq story still hasn't quite been told. And it relates to exactly why Iraq was invaded in the first place. Iraq had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11. When the former security adviser to the White House, Richard Clarke, was told the US would move into Iraq, he said it was akin to invading Mexico in retaliation for Japan having bombed Pearl Harbor.

So why did it happen? Tony Blair appeared to concede recently the invasion had been "a disaster" while other observers and protagonists have lately taken to calling it "a mistake". Close to 3000 US military personnel have lost their lives. Many thousands more are maimed for life. Unknown thousands of Iraqi civilians, some say more than 600,000, have died. That's quite some mistake.

Former NSW premier Bob Carr said on Lateline the other night he fears - fears shared by Ellsberg - that far from disengaging with the Middle East the US is seriously contemplating a strike against Iran. The scribe has a hunch Ellsberg and Carr are wrong. But you shouldn't put too much faith in that. The scribe never really believed the Bush administration would invade Iraq. He thought it was mere sabre-rattling. So much for sabres.


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