Six Months After The Fall Of Baghdad

Helena Cobban

It is six months since Baghdad fell to General Tommy Franks’ forces, and already it is clear that the Bush administration’s decision to launch the fundamentally unilateral, preventive war of early 2003 will change the whole Middle East and the whole global balance - just not in the way they intended it to.

Obligingly beamed across all the world's news networks, the initial bombing phase over Iraq was designed primarily as a political message to all potential and future competitors to USA hegemony.

Obligingly beamed across all the world’s news networks, the initial bombing phase over Iraq was designed primarily as a political message to all potential and future competitors to USA hegemony.

When Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld persuaded the President to launch this kind of war, in this kind of way, they were evidently hoping that it would send a huge wave of “shock and awe” not just through Iraq’s military leadership, not just through the Middle East - but throughout the whole world. The swift and victorious assault against Iraq was designed to be the dramatic opening scene in a broader campaign to persuade the whole world of the sheer unstoppability of the unilateralist, “preventive war” doctrine that the President had outlined in his infamous “National Security Strategy” document of September 2002.

One can recall the thinking behind the design of President Truman’s decision to employ not one but two of the USA’s brand-new atomic bombs over tightly-populated urban areas in Japan in August 1945.  Was a campaign of such terrible and lethal consequences as that one necessary to persuade Japan’s emperor to surrender?  Probably not.  Many historians have argued, for example, that a “demonstrative” detonation of one or both bombs out at sea, but visible to Tokyo, could have brought about the surrender with considerably less loss of life.  They have noted, too, that not sufficient times was allowed between the first detonation and the second to see if just one bomb could bring the offer of surrender. But then, much of the intended “audience” for the launching of those two bombs was not in Japan - but in Russia, a country that in the eyes of many Americans would likely be the next challenger to Washington’s worldwide power.

As USA strategist Harlan Ullman has noted, the intent of the Hiroshima bombing, as of the assault against Iraq, was primarily to induce “shock and awe”.  (Other people might use the term “terror”.) But what needs noting in particular is that the aim is to spread this effect far more widely than just within the ranks of the immediate target.  The aim on both occasions was shock and awe on a worldwide scale.
Badly led, poorly equipped, and lied to, USA troops were expected to bear the burden of the consequences of an illegal and badly planned invasion.
So most of the rest of the world - including me - might have warned the Bush administration fanatics that their attempt to spread “shock and awe” worldwide would end up doing no such thing, but would instead leave USA forces stuck in the marshes, mountains, valleys, and deserts of Iraq with no easy way out.  We warned that toppling Saddam would open up a hornet’s nest of inter-group rivalries in the north of Iraq, and that elsewhere in the country a population that had felt grievously betrayed by the breaking of previous USA promises and battered by 12 years of lethal, USA-policed sanctions was not about to welcome the USA soldiers with open arms.  And we were right.  I take no particular pleasure in noting that my predictions in this regard were quite correct.  Indeed, if anything, they were too cautious: I had expected that the advancing USA forces might at least have been greeted by a small honeymoon of support from some sectors of Iraqi society; but I think that didn’t happen anywhere except possibly in some Kurdish regions.

Ah, but those supremely arrogant men Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld thought that they knew better!  “Knew better,” based on what, I wonder?  Based on what Ahmad Chalabi, a convicted fraudster, was whispering in their ears about the broad networks of supporters he had inside Iraq, who could “take over” its administration at a moment’s notice once the USA forces had toppled Saddam?  Based on the urgings they were receiving from Ariel Sharon and many other Israelis that they should go in and take out Saddam Hussein, because “Now was the time”, and besides, toppling Saddam would certainly make it easier to impose a solution on the Palestinians?  Yes, both of these things.  But mainly, Rumsfeld and Cheney’s self-confidence was based on their own wishful thinking and a na?ve belief that Rumsfeld had been captured by, that the USA had finally found a way to fight and win wars without incurring many casualties of their own.

So all those sources of error came together into the decision-taken quite against the advice of the uniformed military leaders - to launch the war against Iraq using only Rumsfeld’s favoured “rapid, light forces.” Those were the forces that were sent in.  And it didn’t matter if they didn’t provide enough “boots on the ground” to run the post-victory administration of the country, since Ahmad Chalabi’s alleged “networks of supporters” would spring into action and do the job for them!

It was “war lite”.  Front-line soldiers were promised they could be home “in three weeks”.  Earnest offers that the State Department made, to send in Arab-affairs specialists to help Rumsfeld’s people to run the occupation, were peevishly turned aside?

So, here we are, six months, 300 dead USA soldiers, and much continuing death and grief for Iraqis later.  Worldwide “shock and awe”?  If there is shock, it is mainly shock that a government with such enormous power in world affairs could behave so very badly.  If there is awe, it is awe at the magnitude of the clean-up task that the USA has presented the world with, and at the stubbornness of a USA administration that continues to try to hide from these problems. (Restoring stability to Iraq is, of course, an urgent goal in which not only the Iraqis, but also the whole of the rest of the world have a strong interest.  The French, the Russians, everyone else recognizes this.  Only the Bush administration is too short-sighted to understand this basic fact: they still see controlling Iraq as a “zero-sum game” in which they can still hope to be “winners”.)

The fact that there is any social and economic activity in Iraq testifies to the resilience of Iraqis, used to ten years previously of leaning to cope with the brutal UN sanctions regime.

The fact that there is any social and economic activity in Iraq testifies to the resilience of Iraqis, used to ten years previously of leaning to cope with the brutal UN sanctions regime.

Meanwhile, in Washington as in the rest of world, the position of commanding authority that the President had hoped the war would keep him in now looks more distant than ever - and this, of course, will be ultimate source of his undoing.

Just this time last year, the President looked nearly invincible on Capitol Hill.  Fresh from his carefully stage-managed appearance at the site of the Twin Towers bombing in New York, and with much of the country still suffering from the long-drawn-out trauma induced by that attack, he was able to totally “over-awe” and “overcome” any potential opposition from the democrats.  In short order he pushed through Congress a law mandating massive cuts in the taxes paid by the richest Americans and then the crucial law that gave his administration the authority to launch a war against Iraq whenever it should choose.  Finally, in early November, Bush’s Republican Party beat the cowed and confused Democrats easily in the nation-wide congressional elections.

This time last year, the most leaders of the Democratic Party were so much “in awe” of Bush’s aura of national popularity that most of the party’s leaders in Congress actually supported the war-enabling resolution.  And they were unable or unwilling to mount any effective opposition to the tax-cut law, either.  On the war, the most powerful voices speaking in opposition were those of very senior Democratic figures like Senators Robert Byrd and Teddy Kennedy who know they have already reached the peak of their political careers.  Nearly all the younger, more politically ambitious Democrats were more cautious: they supported Bush on the war resolution.

General Wesley Clark, so 'proud of the resolve' of George Bush in the lead-up to the war, has suddenly become an 'anti-war candidate' when it suits his political ambitions.

General Wesley Clark, so ‘proud of the resolve’ of George Bush in the lead-up to the war, has suddenly become an ‘anti-war candidate’ when it suits his political ambitions.

How things have changed! Now, the momentum inside the Democratic Party has already moved considerably toward those Democrats who can credibly claim that they opposed the war all along.  That includes presidential hopefuls Howard Dean, Dennis Kucinich, and the possibly charismatic latecomer to the race, General Wesley Clark.  People like Senator John Kerry who supported last year’s war resolution have been forced to work hard to try to rationalize that decision.  Kerry was formerly viewed as a strong possibility to win the Democratic endorsement.  But now he has lost front-runner status to either Dean or Clark.

It is not just that the Democratic Party has become newly energized.  In the past three months, as the Bush administration got more and more deeply bogged down in Iraq, Bush’s public opinion ratings have dropped steadily.  In July-August, even some members of his own party failed to support some appointments that the White House was pushing hard to win.  And now, finally, in Washington as in London, there are the beginnings of serious investigations into the distortion of intelligence that the national leadership engaged in before the war, in an attempt to increase public support for the decision to go to war.

In London, Lord Hutton has finished the investigative phase of his enquiry.  And though he has not yet presented his report, the evidence he extracted from the Blair administration has already shown clearly that in September 2002 Blair’s people manipulated the available intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of “mass destruction” in order to further their political goals.

Here in the USA, it took far longer for serious questions to be asked by any official watchdog bodies about the Bush administration’s parallel manipulation of the intelligence.  But now, at least two significant enquiries have been launched here.  One is an internal enquiry by the military’s “Defence Intelligence Agency” (DIA), which has looked at the “accuracy” or otherwise of the information that Chalabi’s people provided on Iraq’s weapons.  (The conclusion reached there, according to the New York Times, has been that, “no more than one-third of the information was potentially useful, and efforts to explore those leads since have generally failed to pan out.")

The other enquiry is the one announced Sept. 30, in which the FBI is investigating allegations that a highly placed White House insider tried to intimidate retired Ambassador Joseph Wilson by “revealing” that his wife is a CIA covert operative.  Though this investigation - like Lord Hutton’s, in London - is not primarily about the pre-war manipulation of intelligence by high-ranking political operatives, in both cases that manipulation is an evident part of the whole story.  So just as the Hutton Enquiry has thrown light on Blair’s manipulation of the intelligence, so too is the Wilson-Plame enquiry likely to keep attention on the way the White House sought to suppress Wilson’s pre-war report that the allegations that Iraq tried to buy uranium from Niger were almost certainly false.

This time a year ago, President Bush and the much smarter men in his cabinet who (in my view) have manipulated his naivety and his ignorance for their own ends, decided to go to war in order to inaugurate a new era of USA supremacy in world affairs.  Now, twelve months later, it is clear they have not won that prize at all.  But the full extent of the failure of their global power-grab is still not discernible.  Its full history has yet to be made, and only after that can it start to be told.


Published Wednesday, November 12th, 2003 - 02:15pm GMT

Article courtesy of Dar al-Hayat

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Helena Cobban



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