In testimony last week before the Senate Armed Services Committee, “longtime diplomat Eric Edelman and retired Admiral Gary Roughead said a $733-billion defense budget was ‘a baseline’ or a ‘floor’ – not the ideal goal – to maintain readiness and modernize conventional and nuclear forces,” reported USNI News.
Which leads to a question: How much money will satisfy America’s military-industrial complex? If $733 billion is a “floor,” or a bare minimum for national defense spending each year, how high is the ceiling?
Part of this huge sum of money is driven by plans to “modernize” America’s nuclear triad at an estimated cost of $1.6 trillion over 30 years. America’s defense experts seek to modernize the triad when we should be working to get rid of it. Perhaps they think that in the future nuclear winter will cancel out global warming?
Also last week, Senator Elizabeth Warren gave a foreign policy speech that addressed military spending in critical terms. Here’s an excerpt:
The United States will spend more than $700 billion on defense this year alone. That is more than President Ronald Reagan spent during the Cold War. It’s more than the federal government spends on education, medical research, border security, housing, the FBI, disaster relief, the State Department, foreign aid-everything else in the discretionary budget put together. This is unsustainable. If more money for the Pentagon could solve our security challenges, we would have solved them by now.
How do we responsibly cut back? We can start by ending the stranglehold of defense contractors on our military policy. It’s clear that the Pentagon is captured by the so-called “Big Five” defense contractors-and taxpayers are picking up the bill.
If you’re skeptical that this a problem, consider this: the President of the United States has refused to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia in part because he is more interested in appeasing U.S. defense contractors than holding the Saudis accountable for the murder of a Washington Post journalist or for the thousands of Yemeni civilians killed by those weapons.
The defense industry will inevitably have a seat at the table-but they shouldn’t get to own the table.
These are sensible words from the senator, yet her speech was short on specifics when it came to cutting the Pentagon’s bloated budget. It’s likely the senator’s cuts would be minor ones, since she embraces the conventional view that China and Russia are “peer” threats that must be deterred and contained by massive military force.
Which brings me to this week and the plaudits being awarded to President George H.W. Bush before his funeral and burial. I respect Bush’s service in the Navy in World War II, during which he was shot down and nearly killed, and as president his rhetoric was more inclusive and less inflammatory than that used by President Trump.
But let’s remember a crucial point about President Bush’s foreign and defense policies: With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bush could have charted a far more pacific course forward for America. Under Bush, there could have been a true “peace dividend,” a truly “new world order.” Instead, Bush oversaw Desert Shield/Storm in 1990-91 and boasted America had kicked its “Vietnam Syndrome” once and for all (meaning the U.S. military could be unleashed yet again for more global military “interventions”).
Bush’s “new world order” was simply an expansion of the American empire to replace the Soviet one. He threw away a unique opportunity to redefine American foreign policy as less bellicose, less expansionist, less interventionist, choosing instead to empower America’s military-industrial complex. Once again, military action became America’s go-to methodology for reshaping the world, a method his son George W. Bush would disastrously embrace in Afghanistan and Iraq, two wars that proved a “Vietnam syndrome” remained very much alive.
In sum, defense experts now argue with straight faces that Trump’s major increases in defense spending constitute a new minimum, Democrats like Elizabeth Warren are content with tinkering around the edges of these massive budgets, and the mainstream media embraces George H.W. Bush as a visionary for peace who brought the Cold War to a soft landing. And so it goes.
Note: for truly innovatory ideas to change America’s “defense” policies, consider these words of Daniel Ellsberg. As he puts it:
“neither [political] party has promised any departure from our reliance on the military-industrial complex. Since [George] McGovern [in 1972], in effect. And he was the only one, I think, who—and his defeat taught many Democratic politicians they could not run for office with that kind of burden of dispossessing, even temporarily, the workers of Grumman, Northrup and General Dynamics and Lockheed, and the shipbuilders in Connecticut, and so forth.”
You read it here first: the fatal flaw in U.S. foreign policy is training wheels. Yes, those supplemental wheels you add to your child’s bike when she’s first trying to learn how to balance herself as she pedals.
How so? Listen closely to America’s leaders as they talk about helping Iraqis, Afghans, and other peoples. A common expression they use is training wheels, which they visualize themselves as affixing to or removing from the Iraqi or Afghan governmental bike. Because the idea of democracy is apparently so new and novel to foreign peoples, and because these foreigners basically act like so many children when it comes to governing themselves equitably, the U.S. must treat them like so many unskilled and tippy children on bikes. We must affix training wheels to their bikes of state, and at the proper moment – a moment that only American adults can determine – those training wheels must then be removed.
Sounds simple – or is it?
Some examples suggest it’s not so simple. In January 2004, President George W. Bush told his fellow Republicans that Iraqis were ready to “take the training wheels off” and assume some responsibility for their own self-government. Yet a decade later in June 2014, retired General Michael Hayden, formerly head of the NSA and CIA, claimed that America “took the training wheels off the new Iraqi government far too early,” and by “too early” Hayden meant 2011, not seven years earlier in 2004.
Another American “adult” in the room, retired General Anthony Zinni, formerly commander of US Central Command, disagreed with Hayden, saying in December 2014 that those training wheels were still very much on in Iraq as well as Afghanistan, and that it was now high time for us to take them off. That may have surprised Vice President Joe Biden, who said back in November 2010 that it was time for Afghans to remove their governmental training wheels, and if they didn’t, “Daddy” would do it for them.
In fact, those were Biden’s exact words on Larry King Live: “Daddy is going to start to take the training wheels off … next July , so you [Afghan leaders had] better practice riding.” That admonition from their American “Daddy” in 2010 has failed over the last half-decade to inspire Afghan leaders to pedal smartly for American-style democracy.
And there’s the rub. You don’t win foreign peoples to your side by treating them like so many unskilled and tippy children. You don’t condescend to them by comparing their efforts to children trying to learn to ride a bike for the first time. And you certainly don’t shake a finger at them that “Daddy” has lost patience and is going to remove the training wheels, whether they’re ready or not.
So, how do Americans respond when their Iraqi or Afghan “children” get angry at “Daddy” for messing with their training wheels? Whether oblivious or indifferent to their own condescension, Americans respond by treating their foreign “children” as ingrates. “Ingratitude, the vilest weed that grows,” to cite Eugene O’Neill’s play, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, generates anger – and violence.
Dammit, why can’t these foreign “kids” learn to ride their democratic bikes? Time to cut their allowance (in this case, American aid). Or perhaps it’s even time for a good ass whooping with Daddy’s belt (in this case, drones firing Hellfire missiles).
Those foreign ingrates! We gave them everything — lots of money, lots of aid, American troops and advisers, even “training wheels” for their bikes of democracy — and they still despise us. Why?
I’ll tell you why. They don’t hate us for our freedoms, as former President George W. Bush once claimed. But they may very well despise us for our training wheels – and for all the smugness and paternalism and condescension they represent.
For George W. Bush, American troops were the greatest force for human freedom in the world. For Barack Obama, the troops represented the world’s finest fighting force, not just in this moment, but in all of human history. What is the reason for such hyperbolic, I’d even say unhinged, praise for our troops? Well, presidents obviously think it is both politically popular with the heartland and personally expedient in making them seem thankful for the troops’ service.
But here’s the problem: We don’t need hyperbolic statements that our military is the “finest fighting force” ever or that our troops are the world’s liberators and bringers of freedom. Such words are immoderate and boastful. They’re also false, or at least unprovable. They’re intended to win favor both with the troops and with the people back home, i.e. they’re politically calculated. And in that sense they’re ill-advised and even dishonest; they’re basically nothing more than flattery.
If I were president, I’d say something like this: “I commend our troops for their dedication, their service, their commitment, their sacrifice. They represent many of the best attributes of our country. I’m proud to be their commander in chief.”
Our troops and most everyone else would be more than satisfied with that statement. Our troops don’t need to hear they’re the best warriors in all of history. At the same time, they don’t need to hear they’re the bringers of freedom (“a global force for good,” to use the U.S. Navy’s slogan, recently dropped as demotivating to sailors and Marines). Let’s pause for a moment and compare those two statements. The toughest warriors and the finest liberators? Life-takers and widow-makers as well as freedom-bringers and world liberators? You think there just might be some tension in that equation?
We need honesty, not immodesty, from America’s presidents. Give me a president who is able to thank the troops without gushing over them. Even more, give me a president who thanks the troops by not wasting their efforts in lost causes such as Afghanistan and Iraq. Give me a president who thanks the troops by downsizing our empire while fully funding benefits and health care for wounded veterans.
That’s the kind of thanks our troops really need – not empty flattery.
About seven years ago, I had an impassioned debate with a conservative friend about whether the U.S. had engaged in torture and, if we had, whether it had been effective. My position was clear: we had engaged in torture, and it was both wrong and counterproductive. My friend was unconvinced. His arguments, which I detail below, provide a contrary perspective on the issue of torture as well as insight into the rationale of those who supported Dick Cheney’s unapologetic stance on torture.
(My friend is now deceased. I don’t believe he would object to having his views outlined here, but I do believe he would wish to remain anonymous. I have edited his comments for clarity, putting them in the form of a list.)
1. Torture. The very word makes us feel a bit uncomfortable. Yet we have yet to come to anywhere near an agreement on exactly what the word means. To some it is hot irons, the rack, and beatings. At the other end are those who maintain the act of keeping prisoners at a facility like Gitmo, or indeed at any facility, is in of itself a form of torture.
I am not in favor of categorically using physical means to obtain intelligence from captives. From the tone of the [White House] memos [on torture], and from what I have read of the views of those in both the White House and the Pentagon, no one there was in favor of that approach either. That is clearly not in the best interests of anyone. At the same time, it is folly to advertise [to the enemy] exactly what we will and will not do.
Clearly, from the very fact that the memos exist at all, and that questions were asked requiring legal answers, this subject was not approached in a cavalier fashion by anyone [in the Bush Administration].
It was St. Augustine who first offered the admonition that you may not do evil that good might come of it. But he also said that it is at time permissible to tolerate a lesser evil to prevent a great evil.
2. Waterboarding did yield results that stopped an attack on US soil. I believe that Cheney is correct in asking that further memos be released that either prove or disprove that point. I also believe that these episodes of waterboarding are being presented [by the media] out of context and without perspective. In sum, if waterboarding resulted in obtaining info that did indeed foil an operation against the U.S., then I see no problem with having used it.
3. The Geneva Conventions [on the treatment of prisoners of war] do not apply here. Terrorists are not soldiers of any state. They do not wear uniforms. We have a new paradigm to which we must adjust, both in the pure military sense, as well as the way we deal with those we capture.
Are such men to be treated as soldiers? Are they to be treated as criminals? Are we to extend such niceties as the Geneva conventions to those who would offer the exact opposite to those who would come under their control?
If we treat all captives as if they were soldiers, under Geneva Convention rules, that would create some problems, and would also effectively end the conversation. There would be no interrogations. On the other hand, if we treat this as a war, and all captives as POWs, then we are well within our rights to keep those same persons under confinement until the war ends.
If we treat these captives as criminals, we have other problems. First, and this may sound silly, but I doubt that they were read their Miranda rights as they were taken prisoner. But if they are to be treated as criminals, then other rules apply as well, and one of those rules is the right for authorities to question them.
As it stands now, how you treat terrorists is open to debate. They are clearly not soldiers. They are also not actually criminals either.
4. The nature of the enemy: What we have now is a very different paradigm. These are not State actors. There is no fear on their part of betraying their “State,” or of facing consequences relating to betraying the State. There is no “State” in the first place. These are Islamo-fascist terrorists, who have no state, only a religious conviction from which they draw their motivation.
We also know that they view cooperation and diplomacy and forbearance as weakness.
We know how totalitarian thugs act and react. We know what drives them, and we know what stops them. We have had ample experience over the centuries.
5. Abu Ghraib in Iraq, while deplorable, also did not represent an attempt to garner intelligence. And its commander was sacked. I take exception to any comparisons with such places as the Hanoi Hilton [in North Vietnam]. The objective there was not information, but rather confession.
And what do we do to detainees who, after being treated as “guests,” respond by throwing feces and attempting to assault US guards? Is no physical response to be permitted at all?
6. This media focus, some would say obsession, with torture is more about attacking the Bush Administration than it is about protecting the rights of prisoners.
7. While I have concerns about the prisoners who are the recipients of torture and abuse, I also worry about those on the other side. The act of abusing another human being is not healthy, and leads to many psychological problems. I worry about the effect any of this activity will have on our own people.
8. The validity of information obtained under torture is always suspect. But we come back then to the very definition of torture. Is the stress of being questioned in of itself a form of torture? And again, we are not talking about soliciting confessions; we are talking about obtaining and confirming information, from various persons and from different sources. If we decide that we cannot in any way, shape, or form question captives, then we might as well just treat them as we would soldiers. And that would mean keeping them locked up for a very long time.”
If I were to summarize my friend’s views, I’d say he believed that torture was regrettable but necessary to keep America safe, that those who were making a big deal about it were motivated by animus against the Bush Administration, and that those who objected to torture in principle didn’t realize the nature of the enemy, i.e. “Islamo-fascist thugs” who had to be “stopped,” even at the cost of committing lesser evils (torture) to prevent greater evils (attacks on innocent Americans).
And I’d say his views, politicized and biased as they were, were and are widely held in America, which is exactly why the Obama Administration chose not to prosecute anyone for the crime of torture. “We tortured some folks,” as Obama memorably said, but let’s look forward, not backward. So, in essence, Obama pretty much agrees with my conservative friend.
Update: Another thought: this debate over torture is much like the current debate over the renewal of The Patriot Act. The Obama Administration is trotting out the usual suspects to argue that, to defend ourselves from Islamo-fascist thugs, we must reauthorize the Patriot Act and consent to unlimited surveillance.
It’s yet another version of “we had to destroy the village to save it.” In this case, it’s “we must empower authoritarian and secretive governmental agencies to preserve democracy and freedom in America.” Good luck with that!
On 30 April 1970, 45 years ago this month, President Richard M. Nixon ordered an invasion into Cambodia. Explaining his reasoning for widening the war in Southeast Asia, Nixon declared:
If, when the chips are down, the world’s most powerful nation acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions.” [Emphasis added]
So much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, then and now, is frightfully worried about appearing weak, helpless, impotent. The solution, then and now, is military action. They all want to be Caesars, if only in their own besotted minds. As Shakespeare had Cassius say about Caesar:
he doth bestride the narrow world/Like a colossus, and we petty men/Walk under his huge legs and peep about/To find ourselves dishonorable graves.
America, to its image-conscious imperators like Nixon, must bestride the world like a well-hung giant, while little foreigners gasp in awe at the shadow cast, especially when aroused.
Think about John McCain’s fervent desire to bomb Iran, as Dan White deconstructed here. Think about George W. Bush’s transparent desire to play the conquering hero in the Middle East, ending Saddam Hussein’s reign once and for all in Iraq in 2003. Recall here the words of Henry Kissinger when he was asked about why he supported the invasion of Iraq, when it was clear that country bore no responsibility for the 9/11 attacks. “Because [attacks on] Afghanistan wasn’t enough,” Kissinger replied. Radical Islam had humiliated the U.S. at 9/11, and now it was our turn to strike back harder and to humiliate them. That simple.
As America’s foreign policy establishment continues to struggle with radical Islam and instability in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and elsewhere, don’t expect any strategic retreats or retrenchment. Don’t expect wisdom. Don’t expect a containment policy that might allow radical Islam to burn itself out. No. Expect more military strikes, more troops, more weapons, more impassioned speeches about holding the line against barbarians determined to end our way of life.
Why? In part because it’s far easier for insecure men to lash out as a way of compensating for their impotence and growing irrelevance. Acting tough is the easier path. Having patience, demonstrating forbearance, knowing when to sheath the sword, requires a quieter strength and a more confident sense of self.
You would think the “most powerful nation on the planet” with “the world’s best military in all of history” would have such quiet strength and confidence. But remember that Nixon quote: No matter how big and strong we are, we can’t afford to look tiny and weak.
American reporting on Iraq focuses on the eternal now, such as the rise of ISIS or recent battles in Tikrit. Rarely is any context given to these events, and rarer still is any accounting of the costs of war (still rising) to the Iraqi people.
Let’s return to 2003 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Before the invasion, the U.S. Army War College accurately predicted what was to come. A report co-authored by Conrad C. Crane and W. Andrew Terrill warned that U.S. forces would have “to prevent Sunnis from fighting Shiites, secular Iraqis from fighting religious ones, returned Iraqi exiles from fighting non-exiles, Kurds from fighting Turkomans or establishing an independent state, tribes within all these groups from fighting one another, Turkey from invading from the north, Iran from invading from the east, and the defeated Iraqi army–which may be the only national institution that can keep the country from being ripped apart–from dissolving,” as summarized in “After Saddam,” a short article in “Primary Sources” in the Atlantic Monthly in June 2003.*
Read that last bit again: America’s military experts stated the Iraqi army had to be preserved so as to prevent Iraq from devolving into factionalism and chaos. So what did America’s proconsul for Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, proceed to do when he took over in 2003? He dissolved the Iraqi army! Under the orders of the all-wise Bush Administration.
In a much longer article for the Atlantic Monthly, James Fallows detailed how the Bush Administration went “Blind into Baghdad” (January/February 2004). Fallows concluded that Bush/Cheney (and Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz) oversaw “a historic failure” in Iraq precisely because they “willfully” disregarded “a vast amount of expert planning.” Whether this was by design or not is still disputed, but one must recall Cheney’s rosy prediction that Iraqis would welcome U.S. troops as “liberators.”
Hubris is one explanation for such folly. Other commentators suggest a deliberate policy to destabilize Iraq. Whatever the case, the big winner of Iraq’s decline and near fall was Iran, followed by various forms of Islamic extremism that arose from the ashes of violence and civil war.
By the spring of 2004, as the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) headed by Bremer prepared to return “sovereignty” to the allegedly newly-democratic Iraq, American officials who hadn’t drunk the kool-aid recognized that civil war was coming. A friend of mine, an Army major, was at that time serving with the CPA in Baghdad. He wrote to me at the time that:
“The emperor has no clothes … corruption, private militias, insecurity, and coming civil war [in Iraq] is accepted as given amongst the CPA staff. The focus is on making some sort of transition on 30 June  to whatever ‘government’ we can get in place by then. Anything after 30 June is ‘we’ll get to that when we can.’ This whole operation is a train wreck waiting to happen, and the [Bush] administration simply refused to acknowledge it, much less do anything about it.”
Ominously, my friend concluded that “Even the Iraqis who welcomed us after Saddam [fell] have lost patience with us and are pursuing other routes to power and national control.” This was because the U.S. was throwing its support behind an Iraqi regime “which is seen as completely illegitimate by the people it’s supposed to rule in the name of democracy.”
In short, the CPA and Bush Administration were selling a lie in 2004, and they knew it. But Bush won reelection later that year, so who really cares if the U.S. lost, in the words of my friend, “serious credibility” in the region as a result?
For informed Americans not suffering from amnesia, the above narrative shouldn’t come as a total surprise. By its actions and inaction and lies, the Bush Administration brought endless civil war to Iraq. The U.S. essentially created the conditions for the rise of ISIS and similar extremist groups. But the U.S. media has cloaked this hard reality in a shroud of myths about the “decisive” Petraeus Surge of 2007 (really a temporary lull in the civil war) or various other “mission accomplished” moments promoted by both Bush and Obama.
Mission accomplished? A magnificent victory? Only if the “mission” was the dismantling of Iraq, and “victory” is measured by more and more war.
*The report, dated February 2003, was “Reconstructing Iraq: Insights, Challenges, and Missions for Military Forces in a Post-Conflict Scenario.”
Over at TomDispatch.com, retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich asks a telling question: Why does Washington continue to rely on policy “experts,” the “best and brightest” as they were called during the Vietnam War, even when events prove their advice to be consistently wrong?
As Bacevich puts it (with considerable relish):
“Policy intellectuals — eggheads presuming to instruct the mere mortals who actually run for office — are a blight on the republic. Like some invasive species, they infest present-day Washington, where their presence strangles common sense and has brought to the verge of extinction the simple ability to perceive reality. A benign appearance — well-dressed types testifying before Congress, pontificating in print and on TV, or even filling key positions in the executive branch — belies a malign impact. They are like Asian carp let loose in the Great Lakes.”
One of the big drawbacks of a Hillary Clinton vs. Jeb Bush joust in 2016 is that both candidates will be relying on the same neocon “experts” who got us into Afghanistan and Iraq and the ongoing, seemingly endless, war on terror. What Washington needs most of all is fresh blood and fresher thinking; what 2016 promises is retread candidates and recycled pundits.
The problem is that these pundits rarely admit that they’re wrong. Even when they do, their admissions run false. They say things like: “We were wrong for the right reason [about Iraq and WMD],” a sentiment echoed by George W. Bush in his memoir that “There are things we got wrong in Iraq, but the cause is eternally right.” So, as long as your cause is “eternally right” (fighting against Communism in Vietnam; against terror in the Middle East), it doesn’t matter how many things you get wrong (such as how many innocents you end up killing, especially if they’re foreigners).
Their mantra is something like this: Never admit your wrong. And never apologize. Instead, double down on talking tough and committing troops.
As Bacevich notes:
The present-day successors to Bundy, Rostow, and Huntington subscribe to their own reigning verities. Chief among them is this: that a phenomenon called terrorism or Islamic radicalism, inspired by a small group of fanatic ideologues hidden away in various quarters of the Greater Middle East, poses an existential threat not simply to America and its allies, but — yes, it’s still with us — to the very idea of freedom itself. That assertion comes with an essential corollary dusted off and imported from the Cold War: the only hope of avoiding this cataclysmic outcome is for the United States to vigorously resist the terrorist/Islamist threat wherever it rears its ugly head….
The fact that the enterprise itself has become utterly amorphous may actually facilitate such efforts. Once widely known as the Global War on Terror, or GWOT, it has been transformed into the War with No Name. A little bit like the famous Supreme Court opinion on pornography: we can’t define it, we just know it when we see it, with ISIS the latest manifestation to capture Washington’s attention.
All that we can say for sure about this nameless undertaking is that it continues with no end in sight. It has become a sort of slow-motion Vietnam, stimulating remarkably little honest reflection regarding its course thus far or prospects for the future. If there is an actual Brains Trust at work in Washington, it operates on autopilot. Today, the second- and third-generation bastard offspring of RAND that clutter northwest Washington — the Center for this, the Institute for that — spin their wheels debating latter day equivalents of Strategic Hamlets, with nary a thought given to more fundamental concerns.”
Tough talk by “experts” with no skin in the game has proved to be a recipe for disaster in slow-motion. The best and the brightest have become the venal and the vacuous. Bacevich is right: We can do better, America.
Rachel Maddow at MSNBC aired a new documentary last night on why we went to war against Iraq in 2003. In a word: oil. Bush and Cheney were looking to overthrow Saddam Hussein as a prerequisite to controlling and privatizing Iraqi oil production. Pre-war planning in the U.S. as well as Great Britain focused on identifying, safeguarding, and ultimately privatizing Iraqi oil facilities. When U.S. forces took Baghdad, the one building they protected was the Iraqi oil ministry (museums containing priceless objects from the dawn of human civilization, left unprotected, were looted).
This is a familiar story, of course, though many Americans continue wrongly to believe that Saddam had WMD or that he was allied to Al Qaeda (or both). Watching the documentary, I appreciated the honesty of the Polish government, which admitted that it had participated in the invasion of Iraq precisely to gain access to Iraqi oil resources. Bush and Blair, naturally, denied any such connection, even as Bush was warning Iraqis not to damage oil facilities, even as Blair’s government was negotiating with British Petroleum on how best to divide the spoils.
When it comes to oil, maybe “The Beverly Hillbillies” song had it right: “Black gold. Texas tea.” And whether it’s black gold or the yellow variety, the West has always shown a rapacity for it that borders on the insane. Just ask the Aztecs and the Incas, for example.
Here’s an article I wrote back in 2012 for Huffington Post on the question of why the U.S. invaded Iraq and not, say, North Korea, which as Maddow points out was identified as one head of Bush’s three-headed “Axis of Evil,” but which unlike Iraq and Iran actually was hard at work on building an atomic bomb, efforts that ended in a successful test in 2006. But North Korea is not floating on a sea of oil, is it?
Why We Fight? Oil (written in 2012)
I’m old enough to remember the Arab oil embargo of 1973 and long lines for gasoline in the United States. A joke that circulated among my schoolmates caught the spirit of the moment. It involved calculators, which were fairly new back then for the masses. It went like this: 142 Arabs fight 154 Israelis for control of 69 oil wells for five years. Who wins?
Punch the numbers 142, 154, and 69 into your calculator and then multiply by 5 and you get 71077345. Turn the calculator upside down and those numbers spell out “ShELLOIL,” or so we joked. Call it the cynicism of 11-year-olds.
Thirty years later, as an Air Force officer I recall a discussion of what we should name the operation to liberate Iraq from Saddam Hussein. Wags in my office suggested the obvious: Operation IRAQI LIBERATION, with lots of chuckles about the resulting acronym (OIL). Call it the cynicism of 40-somethings.
Fighting for vital resources is nothing new in history, and nothing new in U.S. history either. Smedley Butler, the famous U.S. Marine general who penned War Is a Racket, wrote in the 1930s that “those damned oil companies” should fly their own flag — perhaps one with a gas pump on it — over foreign lands that they viewed as their personal property. Call it the cynicism of a retired major-general who twice was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
But is it cynicism — or just plain honesty? Consider the book by Greg Muttitt on the Iraq war and its fallout, which places oil back where it belongs, front and center, in American motivations and machinations. This is hardly surprising, for recall the words of then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz that Iraq floated on a sea of oil, or the background of then-Vice President Dick Cheney and his overweening ambition to dominate global energy resources.
Our nation’s great thirst for oil should come as no surprise to anyone. Even former President George W. Bush gave a speech in which he declared that the U.S. was addicted to foreign oil. What’s surprising is that we continue to wrap our wars in the rhetoric of “freedom” even as we pursue the fix that our leaders believe they need to thrive: foreign oil, and lots of it.
There’s plenty of oil still in the ground in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, and at $100 a barrel for oil and $4.00 a gallon for gasoline, you’re talking trillions of dollars for oil companies over the next few decades.
Considering the vast profits involved, you don’t have to be a cynic to recognize that concerns about oil continue to drive our nation’s foreign policy. But you do have to be willing to face that fact; and you do have to be willing, like General Smedley Butler was willing, to ignore the siren song about waging war for freedom and democracy.
As former President Bush said, we’re addicted to oil. And history has shown we’re willing to fight for it, though the biggest winners may well be powerful energy companies.
Don’t believe me? Read Smedley Butler or Greg Muttitt. Or just ask to see an 11-year-old’s calculator.
Note to readers: I wrote these words in November 2008, just after Obama was elected President for the first time. I’ve decided not to edit them. Perhaps they capture the thoughts (however flawed) of one American who was trying to understand the mess we had made of Iraq.
Straight Talk on Iraq: Of Revolutions, Surges, and Victories (2008)
As a retired U.S. military man, I’d like to see “victory” in Iraq, not only for Americans, but also for the oft-neglected and oft-misunderstood Iraqi people. With Saddam deposed and executed and the illusory weapons of mass destruction eliminated from our fevered intelligence guestimates, one could make an argument we’ve already won. But “winning,” of course, was never supposed to be just about eliminating Saddam or WMD; it was about creating democracy, or at least a simulacrum of democracy, in Iraq. We aimed to inspire and sustain an Iraqi government, allied with the United States, which would give a voice to the people instead of terrorizing them into compliance and silence. This new freedom-loving Iraq would then serve as a positive role model to other states in the Middle East. Or so it was pitched in 2003, among those who subscribed to neo-con dreams of the unqualified benevolence and irresistible potency of American power.
Even before the war in Iraq became an occupation that degenerated into an insurgency and civil war among rival factions, even before the Iraqi people paid a terrible price in lives lost and refugees created, our new president-elect expressed his opposition to the war, calling it a mistake and couching his criticism primarily in strategic terms (as a distraction from the real war on terror in Afghanistan, for example). Many people in the U.S. and around the world believed the war was not simply a strategic distraction—one that allowed Bin Laden and other senior Al Qaeda leaders to escape from a noose tightening around them—but also an immoral one. For them, the war was worse than a mistake. It was a crime.
Those today who view the war as either a mistake, or a crime, or both naturally have little compunction about pulling our troops out immediately, even if it means “losing” the war. But surely our new president-elect got it right when he said repeatedly on the stump, “We need to be as careful getting out [of Iraq] as we were careless getting in.”
The Iraqi Revolution: Made by America
Before we get out, however, we should understand what we did when we went in. Basically, by overthrowing Saddam, disbanding the Iraqi army, and criminalizing the Ba’ath party and thus throwing most of Iraq’s professional bureaucracy out of work, we initiated a revolution in Iraq. And revolutions, as we should know from our own history, are usually bloody, unpredictable, and run to extremes (think Reign of Terror) before they play themselves out (think Thermidorean Reaction), followed often by the emergence of a strong man (think Napoleon or Lenin; the U.S. was very fortunate indeed to produce George Washington).
Moreover, the Iraqi revolution we precipitated and attempted to negotiate was more than political and military: It was social, economic, religious, you name it. Many of the Iraqi professional and educated elite fled the country as it degenerated into violence; a socialist economy, already weakened by more than a decade of sanctions, collapsed under U.S. bombing, Iraqi looting, and widespread corruption; a Shi’a majority, oppressed under Saddam, suddenly found itself able to settle violently its grievances and grudges against a previously overbearing Sunni minority. Post-Saddam Iraq was a world that we turned upside down. And our troops were in the thick of it—no longer victors, increasingly victims, whether of extremist violence or of our own leadership that failed to give them the equipment, both physical and mental, to defend themselves adequately.
Our military has its faults, but offering blunt self-assessments is not one of them. As one Army field-grade officer put it to me recently, “We deployed an Army [in 2004-05 that was] unsympathetic to local Iraqis, sophomoric even at fairly senior levels in their approach to the fight, refusing to admit there was the potential and then the presence of an insurgency.” His assessment squares with one made by a friend of mine assigned to the CPA in Baghdad in 2004 that the U.S. approach was “a train wreck waiting to happen, and the [Bush] administration simply refused to acknowledge it, much less do anything about it.”
And the wreck came. An Army battalion commander told me recently of a conversation he had with a former Iraqi insurgent leader about the “hot time” of 2004-05. “Everyone,” this Iraqi leader confessed, “had gone just a little crazy killing members of their own tribes, other sects, in addition to fighting the [Iraqi] government forces and us [the U.S. military].” His is a painful reminder that the Bush Administration started a revolution in Iraq that they chose neither to understand nor adequately control. More than five years later, we are still picking up the pieces.
Of Simplistic Narratives
When Americans bother about Iraq, they rarely think of the violent top-to-bottom revolution that we precipitated. Instead, they usually see it in the simplistic and solipsistic terms of the presidential debates. For John McCain, Iraq was all about staying the course to victory (however defined) and achieving “peace with honor.” Somehow, achieving victory would redeem the sacrifices of American troops (the sacrifices of Iraqis were rarely if ever mentioned).
For Barack Obama, Iraq was all about pulling out (most) troops as expeditiously as possible, following a seemingly prudent timeline of sixteen months. Stressing the generous American taxpayer was contributing $10 billion a month to stabilize and rebuild Iraq, while an untrustworthy and seemingly ungrateful Iraqi government continued to pile up scores of billions in unspent oil-related profits, Obama called for shifting the war’s burden to the Iraqis, both militarily and monetarily.
Thus McCain and Obama, perhaps unwittingly, essentially stressed two different sides of the old Nixonian playbook of 1969: “peace with honor” together with an Iraqi version of Vietnamization completed in lockstep with a U.S. withdrawal. Neither candidate chose to emulate Nixon’s “madman theory”: His idea that the North Vietnamese would negotiate in better faith if he convinced them the president was wildly unpredictable and so fanatically anti-communist that he might do anything, even toss a few nukes. (Interestingly, the candidate who came closest was Hillary Clinton in her promise to “obliterate” Iran if it ever dared to threaten Israel.)
Complicating the simplistic narratives offered in the presidential debates were certain unpleasant facts on the ground, the most recent one being the Iraqis themselves and their growing assertiveness in affirming their autonomy and sovereignty. Their resistance to renewing the status of forces agreement (SOFA) is a clear sign of growing weariness with our military occupation. Other annoying facts include Iranian meddling: Iran’s leaders obviously have little interest in seeing either the U.S. or Iraq succeed, unless the latter is ruled by a Shi’a party closely aligned with them. And let’s not forget other niggling facts and factions, such as the Sunni Awakening and its disputed role in Iraq’s future; the Kurds and their contested desire for more autonomy and control over Iraq’s oil resources; various extremist factions jostling for power, such as the Shi’a JAM (Sadrist militia) and its related criminal elements; and looming humanitarian and logistical problems such as accommodating millions of returning Iraqi refugees, assuming conditions improve to a point where they want to return.
Surging to Victory of a Sort
It’s undeniable that last year’s surge orchestrated by General Petraeus helped to curb violence in Iraq, providing a glimmer of hope that a comparatively bloodless political reconciliation in Iraq might yet be possible. Yet most Americans, conditioned by campaign rhetoric, still remain unaware of the fact that the surge was arguably not the most important factor in the decrease in violence. Petraeus himself has testified that recent gains achieved by Iraqis and American troops are both fragile and reversible. As one U.S. Army battalion commander recently described it to me, Iraq remains “a Rubik’s cube of cross cutting rivalries and vengeances.” As someone who never had much luck solving Rubik’s cube, I wasn’t encouraged by his analogy.
Our military has learned the hard way that Iraq eludes simple solutions. The immense challenge facing us in the immediate future is to build on our limited gains and to make them irreversible. And the first step for Americans in this process is to recognize that “victory” is ultimately in Iraqi hands, not ours. Are we finally ready to admit the limits of our military power—and to share these limitations honestly and forthrightly with the American people? Especially those whose knowledge of the war begins and ends with “Support Our Troops” ribbons?
If, as one U.S. Army commander puts it in plain-speak, a “shit storm” comes to Iraq despite our best efforts to head it off, are we honest enough to admit our culpability and the limits of our own power to remake the world? Or will we once again play the blame game, and ask, “Who lost Iraq?” And if we insist on asking, will we remember to look back to the huge blunders committed in 2003-04 by Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld/Bremer before rendering a final verdict?
Just before I retired from the Air Force in 2005, I shared a few words of goodbye with an Iraqi-American officer in my unit. After consenting to sharing kisses with him (a sign of affection and honor in Iraqi culture, and the first time I’ve kissed a scraggly cheek since I was a kid), he left me with an optimistic message. I don’t recall his exact words, but the gist of it was that although things in Iraq looked dire, ordinary, decent Iraqis would eventually come to the fore and renew the country of his birth. His guarded optimism reminded me that there is hope for Iraq, and it resides in the Iraqi people themselves. And as we slowly withdraw our combat forces, let us do whatever we can to support and preserve the spirit of peace-loving Iraqis.
Andrew Bacevich, a retired U.S. Army colonel and professor of international relations, writing in January 2009 as Barack Obama took office as president, made the following cogent observation about the need for true “change” in Washington:
When it comes to national security, the standard navigational charts used to guide the ship of state are obsolete. The assumptions, doctrines, habits, and routines falling under the rubric of “national security policy” have outlived their usefulness. The antidote to the disappointments and failures of the Bush years, illustrated most vividly in the never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is not to try harder, but to think differently. Only then will it become possible to avoid the patently self-destructive behavior that today finds Americans facing the prospect of perpetual conflict that neither our army nor our economy can sustain.
Of course, Obama promised “change,” but with respect to national security policy, the sum total of the last five years of his watch has simply been more of the same.
Admittedly, the war in Iraq finally ended (for U.S. troops, not for the Iraqi people), but that was only because the Iraqis themselves refused to countenance the eternal presence of our troops there (of course, our boondoggle of an embassy in Baghdad survives). Obama didn’t get us out of Iraq; he acquiesced to a deal Bush had already struck with the Iraqis.
Meanwhile, the U.S. remains ensnared in Afghanistan, squandering lives and resources to the tune of $100 billion a year. Vague promises are made of an American withdrawal in 2014, but with an “enduring presence” (God help us) for another ten years after that. Under Obama, drone strikes have expanded and continue; the national security state remains fat as it ever was, garrisoning the globe and spying on the world (including, as we recently learned, American citizens); and various tough-talking “experts” in Congress continue to call for new military interventions in places like Iran and Syria.
Why has this happened? One reason is that Obama and his team wanted to be reelected in 2012, so they embraced the Bush neo-conservative approach of a hyper-kinetic, interventionist, foreign policy. Fresh thinking was nowhere to be found, since any downsizing of American military commitments or its national security apparatus would have exposed Obama to charges of being “soft” on (Muslim) terror.
With respect to a bloated national security apparatus and wasteful military interventions, change didn’t come in 2008. It was a case, as The Who song says, of “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.” Nor is change coming, seemingly, in the future. Americans remain wedded to a colossal national security state that neither the president nor the Congress appears willing to challenge, let alone change.
Fresh thinking is the one thing you can’t buy in Washington because it’s priceless. And for the lack of it, we’re paying a very high price indeed.
Next Article: Some fresh thinking on where we should be headed.