Author of Clinton’s Secret Wars
The Aspen Security Forum meets every summer and features notable foreign policy officials such as Admiral William McRaven, commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), and Gen. Keith Alexander, head of the U.S. military’s cyber war efforts. During a discussion last week, participants were floored when Stephen Cambone, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s undersecretary of defense for intelligence, described the U.S. decision to invade Iraq in 2003 as, “one of the great strategic decisions of the first half of the 21st century, if … not the greatest.” He said the results of the decision resulted in “the aftershocks that you see flowing through the region, whether it be in Libya, or in Egypt, or now in Syria.” All the region’s latest developments “can be traced to it,” he said. As a piece of effrontery, this has perhaps few equals. Think about it for a minute. Imagine luring your country into a war based on false premises, on dubious and contaminated information to remove an Arab leader and destroy his nuclear weapons that were allegedly threatening the peace of the world.
To put it more clearly, in 2003, the United States decided to make war on Iraq, conquer it, remove its existing political institutions, and then, under U.S. leadership, turn the place into a popular democracy powered by a free market economy. This miracle was to occur in an Islamic culture whose roots stretched back to the days of Abraham and Ezekiel. True, the initial U.S. military victory was stunning. The invasion of Iraq lasted from March 20 until April 9, and the recently deceased military historian John Keegan described the fighting as a “lightning campaign so complete in its results as to be almost unprecedented,” making “incredible gains at possibly the lowest casualty rate of any U.S. campaign in its history.” No nuclear weapons were discovered. In most cases, defeating a nation in battle is not the best way to turn it into a dependable ally. Vice President Richard Cheney declared pompously that American troops in Iraq “will be greeted as liberators,” but the aftermath of the victory was not a liberation. It was a rousing, disheartening mess. We were occupiers, not liberators, and unfortunately, we were very incompetent occupiers. We did not move to take any of those actions that most responsible occupiers take, such as using the administrative talents of indigenous officials to restore order and public services, directing civilians to return to work, imposing curfews, or controlling the populace and the local governments.
Instead, the U.S. victory became famous for its failure to create an effective, interim government, its inability to hire government and essential employees, or to even take steps to ensure that Iraq still had a functional judiciary. Thomas Ricks’ excellent book “Fiasco,” noted that much of the trouble was due “to a lack of understanding or interest” among senior U.S. military commanders. As one U.S. army colonel said, “No one had talked about what would happen when we got here.” The U.S. military had not left in place any Iraqi group able to govern effectively and, blinded by ideology, the Bush administration lacked the requisite rudimentary knowledge of Iraqi culture to be able to enlist its people as partners in a functioning society. Cambone, like Cheney, and other neocons like Paul Wolfowitz, Ken Adelman, Mike Ledeen, was right in the middle of this administrative paralysis and intellectual denseness. The ruling Baath Party was portrayed by Cheney and Cambone as a Middle East version of Nazis, and they were hostile to any idea that it had useful talents. Instead Cambone and company aimed to destroy it, issuing orders to terminate the employment of any Baathists.
Thousands of influential Iraqis were fired, their only crime being that they had become party members under a despotic system. They had joined the party in the same spirit that they wore clothes to work – it was the accepted thing to do. There were 45,000 Baathists in the city of Fallujah alone. The Iraqi Army was the topic of supreme importance for the U.S. forces in Iraq. Yet from the beginning the neocons saw the Baath Party as a hostile force, a menace to U.S. forces. L. Paul Bremmer III, the chief U.S. civilian official in Iraq, had been warned by a senior CIA official not to touch the army or the Baath. “You do it,” the agency official said, “by night fall you will have driven 30,000 to 50,000 Baathists underground.” Bremmer, unfortunately, was a man who could never make the distinction between a boss and a leader, and in May of 2003, he ended up throwing out tens of thousands of Iraqi’s who were Baathists, and he then reached the acme of his stupidity – he destroyed the Iraqi Army. He disbanded it. All nations have a center of gravity.
In Iraq, that center of gravity was its army. As Pat Lang once said to me, Iraq’s army “was the soul of the country,” deeply respected by the Iraqi people. And in an interview with me, former CentCom commander Gen. Anthony Zinni said that having an effective functioning Iraqi Army had always been a key element in CentCom’s planning. The 2003 conquest of Iraq was in no way designed to induce instability in the army, he said. During the 1998 bombing of Iraq, called Operation Desert Fox, he had never dropped a single bomb on the Iraqi Army, and said, “The army was the solid ground under the feet of the Iraqi people.” It was then that Cambone, Cheney and Bremmer began to work to destroy it. Bremmer was warned to leave it be, but he destroyed it anyway. By firing an army of over 385,000 people, Bremmer’s orders also shut down 285,000 jobs in the Ministry of Interior, including domestic security forces and the presidential security units, a task force of some 50,000, and they decapitated the police forces. All of these would form a group of humiliated, injured, insulted and highly politicized men and women who no longer saw the U.S. as a liberator, but an enemy.
“You just blindsided CentCom,” said Bremmer’s military aide when he heard of the Iraqi Army’s fate. Bremmer next began a program to move Iraq into a free-market economy, shutting down the profitable state-run industries that so many depended on for their livelihood. Just after that the looting of Baghdad began, with one U.S. official watching in bewilderment as an Iraqi carried a sofa on his head, moving slowly down the crowded street. Lord Acton said we had to judge a human being by the worst act they ever committed. He was very firm in stating that “Different ages cannot have different moral standards; what is wrong in one age must be wrong in another, for the moral law is timeless.” Acton’s view of the supremacy of the moral law led him to condemn the inclination to excuse the sins or failures of a period as due to the ‘spirit of the time.’ He also once observed that “Wrong is itself a thing of evil, even though it may be victorious.” But for a man to confess a terrible act, to honor some ethical law superior to himself, requires that he is endowed with a refined, discerning conscience that honors certain ideals and values that enable him to judge as he does. So how does such a conscience judge a series of acts as utterly and completely corrupt as the 2003 invasion of Iraq? Or does the question even occur to the Cambones of the world? (“The Unanswered Question.” A few words on Saddam’s WMD will come next.)