May 13, 2003

The Gloomy View Here's a

The Gloomy View

Here's a pessimistic (from Gary Sick) take on how the U.S. is handling Iraq reconstruction so far. I will post my reaction per Sick's number headings below his note. Of course, Sick had been associated with Democrats for most of his career and is hardly a neutral source. But he knows the region well and his views are worthy of consideration--even if many of us will disagree with many of his conclusions.

"I am deeply disappointed -- no, angry -- at U.S. performance in Iraq thus far. It is absolutely self-evident that:

(1) U.S. intelligence prior to the war was deeply flawed. Most of the top WMD sites identified prior to the war have by now been inspected and found to be either empty or looted. Clearly, Saddam once had a major WMD program that made him a threat to his neighbors and, potentially to the United States; but a good part of that program, if not all of it, had in fact been destroyed in advance. That fact was reported with some authority by Lt. Gen. Hussein Kamel al-Majid, Saddam's son-in-law and probably the most important defector ever from Iraq, in August 1995 [see ]. [ed. note: Didn't link this as link appears dead] It was further reported by former nuclear scientist Imad Khadduri in November 2002 after he had moved to Canada. The first report was concealed until February 2003, and the second was simply ignored by the United States.

Instead, we placed our faith in other Iraqi exiles and expatriates who were offering, with convincing claims of inside knowledge, specific knowledge of WMD sites in Iraq. We should have been alerted to the (un)reliability of these reports when the UNMOVIC inspectors finally got back into the country and began unannounced visits to some of these sites, only to find nothing. But UNMOVIC was despised in Washington, and we chose to believe those who told us what we wanted to hear. We began to have some official doubts when, contrary to all predictions, Saddam did not use any WMD during the brief war, even though he had absolutely nothing else left to lose. Now, the Iraqi scientists who have been taken into custody are apparently telling us the same thing -- that WMD materials were destroyed. Barton Gellman reports today[ed.note: appeared in WaPo yesterday, link below] in the Washington Post that the special unit designed to hunt down WMD in Iraq is packing up to go home, disgusted and disappointed. Stores of WMD may yet be discovered, but it is increasingly unlikely that they will be in a form or a location that would have constituted a serious threat.

(2) As a result, we almost certainly went to war for the wrong reason. Preemption makes sense when an attack is imminent; it may perhaps be justified when an attack is not imminent but may occur without warning at any time. It is not justified when it is a figment of our imagination.Today there was an article by Michael Schrage of MIT in the Washington Post ["No Weapons, No Matter. We Called Saddam's Bluff,"] [ed. note: link below] which argues that we were perfectly justified in launching the war because Saddam was behaving AS IF he had an active WMD program. Have we really come to this in justifying the invasion of another country?

(3) We failed to secure even the most critical sites as the fighting ended. Of course, the loss of historical artifacts and manuscripts in the museums and libraries of Iraq to looters was a cultural and historical disaster of major proportions. But it is even more surprising that the U.S. forces failed to secure known nuclear sites, which have been stripped of sophisticated equipment, plans, and even perhaps small quantities of radioactive materials that had remained under safeguards. In some cases, U.S. forces went to these sites, quickly surveyed the damage, and then left again. When they returned, they were surprised to discover that more looting had occurred. One of our stated objectives in going to war was to prevent Iraq's unconventional warfare capabilities from falling into the wrong hands, possibly including terrorists. We failed utterly. In the meantime, we continue to insist that the UNMOVIC inspectors, who have the best inventories of the past WMD sites, are not permitted to enter the country.

(4) First impressions count. Today, one month after the fall of Baghdad, we have not restored electricity, water, gasoline, cooking fuel, or other basic services to the country. Looting and lawlessness are still endemic. Jay Garner and many of his top people who spent months planning the post-war effort are being politely but summarily relieved and replaced by a new team in the next few weeks. If the military campaign was a well-oiled machine, the post-war reconstruction thus far has more closely resembled an episode of Keystone Kops.

(5) Decision-makers in Washington seriously toyed with the idea of enlisting the anti-Iranian Mujahedin-e Khalq -- an officially recognized terrorist organization -- to go to work for us. In time, that idea was recognized as a loser, since it would tell the world in the most cynical possible terms that we were prepared to cooperate with terrorists when that served our own political purposes. The fact that we even had to debate the issue at high levels in the White House is certain to cast doubts on our seriousness of purpose in the war on terrorism.

It is no doubt true, as many people said before and during the war, that securing the peace and introducing stability and some form of democracy in Iraq was going to be much more difficult than the initial fighting. I served in the government -- military and civilian -- for many years, and I am sympathetic to the difficulty of the job. Officials are not superhuman, and even the best of intentions and plans can have unintended consequences. But the U.S. performance thus far is too deficient to be casually explained away. If we are taking on an imperial role -- by necessity or by design -- we must do better than this.

Policy suggestions

In the interest of constructive policy, here are some guidelines that might be considered:

(1) Beware of expatriates bearing information, especially when they have their own agenda. Some people now seem to be promoting a confrontation with Iran based on the analysis and reporting of the U.S. pro-monarchist Iranian exile community. Are we going to buy this pig in a poke a second time?

(2) We need to create an armed constabulary that can travel with, or just behind, combat troops. Establishing order in the chaos after a battle is critical and does not just happen by itself. Our combat troops are not trained for this, and it shows. More U.S. soldiers are now being killed while directing traffic and pulling guard duty than died in the war.

(3) We need to train an administrative corps that can move into place quickly and efficiently to restore public confidence and order. This is not easy, and, as events have shown, the considerable planning effort that preceded this war was sadly insufficient.

(4) Approach intelligence estimates with a degree of humility, and build into the system an ability to question the prevailing conventional wisdom without losing one's job. There was no shortage of skepticism about some of the official (and unofficial) intelligence estimates prior to the war, but they were smothered.

(5) In the immortal words of Talleyrand, "pas trop de zele, monsieur" (not too much zeal, sir). The certainty that you are right and everyone else is wrong is a pathological symptom. Pursued to the end, it is certain disaster."

Re: Sick's Point #1 on the WMD, as even the NYT tacitly admits in its masthead, and aside from the bio labs that are turning up, it's just too early to make definitive judgements about the scope of Iraq's WMD program as it existed from the time of Bush's Sept. 12, 2002 speech until the war began. And even per the downcast Barton Gellman WaPo piece that so many Iraq-skeptics are quoting (including Sick) there appears this key graf:

"Even the sharpest skeptics do not rule out that the hunt may eventually find evidence of banned weapons. The most significant unknown is what U.S. interrogators are learning from senior Iraqi scientists, military industrial managers and Iraqi government leaders now in custody. If the nonconventional arms exist, some of them ought to know. In public, the Bush administration has declined to discuss what the captured Iraqis are saying. In private, U.S. officials provide conflicting reports, with some hinting at important disclosures. Cambone also said U.S. forces have seized "troves of documents" and are "surveying them, triaging them" for clues."

And further, I don't know about you, but the fact that Lt. Gen. Hussein Kamel al-Majid, Saddam's son-in-law, reported with "some authority" that "a good part of that [WMD] program, if not all of it" had been destroyed is not persuasive to my ears. Critically, he wasn't necessarily privy to the entire spectrum of Iraq's WMD capability. And regardless, even a defector is not without varying motivations regarding what information he will or won't disclose.

Sick's Point 2 is a straw man. We just don't know whether Saddam had a fully active WMD program or not--so it's too early for Sick to conclude that we didn't even have grounds for a preemptive strike. On top of this, Sick trots out this article and asks:

Today there was an article by Michael Schrage of MIT in the WashingtonPost ["No Weapons, No Matter. We Called Saddam's Bluff," text in Thread 14] which argues that we were perfectly justified in launching the war because Saddam was behaving AS IF he had an active WMD program. Have we really come to this in justifying the invasion of another country?

But Mr. Schrage's piece is just that, an op-ed by an academic, and not revelatory in any fashion of the motivations behind Administration policy.

On Sick's Point 3 regarding inadequate preparation regarding preventing looting in the Baghdad museum I have already addressed that here. If insiders are planning on looting the place--how are you supposed to a) be aware of that beforehand and b) adequately prevent it? And regardless, the extent of the looting was less than generally thought given the initially hyperbolic reports.

The looting of nuclear facilities is, as Sick notes, more worrisome. And, on this issue, I've got to say that I mostly agree with what David Adesnik has got to say on the matter. Yes, in the chaos of war, with all the attendant massive troop movements and the like, securing some of these facilities might not have necessarily topped the agenda. But it should have been pretty close to the top of the list and, seemingly, for reasons not yet fully known, we didn't really have our act together on this one in a serious way.

Point 4 has to do with such dispatches from Baghdad. The bottom line on this, as observers pointed out well before, is that we would inexorably be facing a massive undertaking that would involve having a (less swaggering) MacArthur like figure backed by significant coalition forces and the development of a national Iraqi army corps post-Saddam to help enforce order, stem revanchist killings and ensure the territorial integrity of the country.

Do I think we have a bit of egg on our face because we didn't even secure the capital a month into the victory? Sure. Do we wring our hands in despair and castigate the Administration for a half-assed, amateurish job? Well, not just yet. Garner's being pulled out, and a new team headed by Jerry Bremer is on its way in. They have a mammoth task that awaits them. But let's give the Administration a couple more months to bring order to what is, after all, a large country with a particularly complex ethnic makeup, a legacy of brutish Saddamism, and myriad pressing humanitarian needs.

On Sick's Point No. 5 I haven't seen any corroboration (nor does Sick offer any) that we considered linking up with this group. So it's sheer speculation at this stage. Needless to say, as we are involved in a global war on terror, there should no longer be any "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" justifications for convenient short-term alliances with any terror groups. Such Macchiavellian machinations would fatally compromise our moral standing on the issue of terrorism and must therefore be avoided at all costs.

I won't comment on Sick's policy prescriptions at the end of his note now, except to note that I agree with him that we should also have a constabulatory force in the area. Why? Because I feel that our soldiers should be trained for war--and that protracted gendarmerie like duties sap their warrior ethos and erode their prior combat training. That said, I hope to appraise sometime in the future what impact (if any) the protracted Bosnia peacekeeping duties had on U.S. troops to flesh this contention out more in the coming days.

Note: In fairness to Sick, he does say: "I served in the government -- military and civilian -- for many years, and I am sympathetic to the difficulty of the job. Officials are not superhuman, and even the best of intentions and plans can have unintended consequences. But the U.S. performance thus far is too deficient to be casually explained away. If we are taking on an imperial role -- by necessity or by design -- we must do better than this."

My point is simply that we shouldn't be overly hasty in issuing post-mortems. Nothing that has occurred to date has fatally jeopardized the chances of ultimately suceeding in fashioning a sustainable, democratic Iraqi polity, say, two years hence.

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