Lost Chances

Mohamed Hakki

In a little less than 10 days, President George W Bush will deliver his annual State of the Union Address to a joint session of Congress. One of the central points will be to declare victory in Iraq. The capture of Saddam Hussein, he will say, is only the beginning of the transformation of the Middle East and the triumph of freedom and democracy. The other piece in this scenario will probably be the change of attitude in Libya towards more accommodating policies to the USA and Israel.
George Bush wants to know what difference it makes whether WMDs are found or not. He may know by November.
In his revealing interview with Dianne Sawyer on ABC-TV, Bush literally lost his temper when she continued to press him on the question of the absence of any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He burst out indignantly, “what difference does it make?” He was not missing the whole point, as many viewers had thought. He was not exactly saying: “so what if I lied?” It now turns out as, revealed by former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neil, that Bush began planning to oust Saddam Hussein from the first day he took office. O’Neil said that in the first meeting of the National Security Council Bush announced that Saddam Hussein was a bad person, and simply demanded: “Find me a way to get rid of him”. No one in the room contradicted the president.

But what victory? As Mark Danner observes in The New York Review of Books, “If victory in war is defined as accomplishing the political goals for which military means were originally brought to bear, then nine months after it invaded Iraq, the USA remains far from victory.” It is now estimated that several hundred USA soldiers have died since the invasion, and more than 11 thousand have been wounded. At first, the Pentagon officials estimated the guerrilla strength at about 20,000. They then revised the figure to 50,000. They also continued to assert that the resistance is all concentrated in the Sunni triangle around Baghdad. We have now witnessed daily incidents around the whole country, North and South, including areas that are predominantly Shiite. The mainstream media in the USA is reluctant to write about what the USA is doing wrong in Iraq. In fact, they are constantly asked by administration officials to see what they call “the positive side of the picture”, what the USA is doing right.

A sample of why the USA is bogged down in a constant fight with resistance movements in Iraq is attitude. It was reported that Lt. Colonel Nathan Sassaman, who commands a battalion that controls the Iraqi town of Abu Hishma, told a New York Times journalist, “with a heavy dose of fear and violence, and a lot of money for projects, I think we can convince these people that we are here to help them.” He then goes on to say to his fellow officers, “You have to understand the Arab mind. The only thing they understand is force.”

Sounds familiar? War critics in the USA are saying that this is the same theory that guided USA policy in Vietnam. It is the old mentality of the white man’s burden. It did not work in Vietnam. It did not work for any other colonialist power, neither for the British, the French, the Dutch, the Germans, the Belgians nor the Italians. It will not work for the USA.

The USA-enforced Israeli colonisation of Palestine has resulted in brutalised generations on both sides.

The USA-enforced Israeli colonisation of Palestine has resulted in brutalised generations on both sides.

But where did we hear this before? From Israel, of course: who else is bogged down in a hopeless colonialist war? In his usual blunt and penetrating investigative reporting, Seymour Hersh tells us in The New Yorker,

"One step the Pentagon took was to seek active and secret help in the war against Iraqi insurgency from Israel, the USA’s closest ally in the Middle East. A new Special Forces group, designated Task Force 121, has been assembled from Army Delta Force members, Navy Seals, and CIA paramilitary operatives, ordered to report by January. Its highest priority is neutralising of Baathist insurgents, by capture or assassination. According to American and Israeli military and intelligence officials, Israeli commandos and intelligence units have been working closely with their American counterparts at the Special Forces training base at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and in Israel to help them prepare for operations in Iraq.”

Hersh concludes,

"Officials I spoke to were sceptical of the administrations’ plans. Many of them fear that the proposed operation - called ‘pre-emptive manhunting’ - has the potential to turn into another Phoenix Program. Phoenix was the code name for a counter-insurgency programme that the USA adopted in Vietnam, in which Special Forces teams were sent out to capture or assassinate Vietnamese believed to be working with or sympathetic to the Vietcong. The operation got out of control and some of the thousands of victims assassinated had nothing to do with the war.”

One of the key planners of the Special Forces offensive is Lieutenant General William Boykin, who was giving a Sunday talk in uniform to church groups in which he repeatedly equated the Muslim world with Satan. He said that the Muslim world hates USA because “we are a nation of believers”, but “we” are going to win this war because “our” God is bigger than “their” God. Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld defended Boykin in the face of wide-ranging criticisms from Muslim organisations around the country, but the comments are said to be “under official review”.

The misguided General Boykin is perfect for the job of dehumanising and oppressing those Iraqis who don't want USA control of their country.

The misguided General Boykin is perfect for the job of dehumanising and oppressing those Iraqis who don’t want USA control of their country.

The fact is that the USA does not know who its enemies are, and are gaining new ones every day with this policy of manhunting. Ahmed Hashim, an expert on terrorism who is a professor of strategic studies at the USA Naval War College, predicted in a paper presented to the Middle East Institute that eliminating Saddam and his dynasty may demoralise pro- regime insurgents but may actually embolden anti-regime and anti-USA insurgents who may have held back in the past because of fears that the regime could come back.

Some of the more thoughtful comments were made in a symposium convened by the respected Middle East Policy Council last October. Ambassador Chas Freeman, president of the Council, stated,

"We have ousted Saddam and his regime. We have not replaced that regime. So we have not accomplished regime change. We have accomplished regime removal. Second, we have proved that the UN inspectors did a vastly better job of rooting out weapons of mass destruction than even they imagined they had.”

Freeman says that Iraq, which is regarded by some as a badly managed Pentagon-operated theme park, has been named the central battleground in the global war against terrorism—a sort of super-cuisinart, where the terrorists will be sliced, diced and shredded, and where Al-Qaeda will meet its doom in direct confrontation with USA forces. But some argue that Iraq is becoming not the death ground for terrorism, but a magnet for terrorists—a training ground for Jihadists and a place for extremist target practice on American soldiers.

Even Kenneth Pollack, who was one of the earliest advocates of the war against Iraq, with strong Zionist leanings, warns, “Iraq could slide into chaos”. If negative trends persist, it could mean Iraq looking not like Poland, but like Lebanon of the 1970s and 1980s. If things continue to go wrong and the Iraqi people do not see progress, they are going to begin to take matters into their own hands. That could be a recipe for chaos. He admits that if the USA continues to pump tens of billions of dollars into the Iraqi economy every year, and if we are willing to keep a hundred thousand or more troops in Iraq, the USA can prevent it from sliding into civil war and keep the nascent economy going. But it is going to be an economy mostly on life-support, propped up by us.

If the British-led occupation of the Shiite south unravels further, Iraq is likely to descend into war between rival Iraqi forces.

If the British-led occupation of the Shiite south unravels further, Iraq is likely to descend into war between rival Iraqi forces.

There are so many points that are coming into the open every day now about this whole Iraq debacle. One of the most revealing is a report by James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic. He describes, and interviews, several shadowy, Rasputin- like figures in the administration, like Under- Secretary for Defence Policy Douglas Feith, and Vice President Cheney himself, who have great private influence with limited public visibility and accountability. The picture he paints is horrific. Sample: nobody planned for security after the take over of Iraq because Ahmed Chalabi told us everything was going to be swell.

The new line of defence used by the administration, and by President Bush himself, is that in 1998 Congress passed, and President Bill Clinton signed, the Iraq Liberation Act, that declared that it “should be the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power”. But the intellectual case for regime change argued during Clinton years, notably by Paul Wolfowitz, shifted clearly towards operational planning after September 11th 2001.

Fallows says that the very next day, 12 September, James Woolsey, who had been Clinton CIA director, told him that no matter who proved to be responsible for the attack, the solution had to include removing Saddam Hussein, “because he is likely to be involved the next time.” Military planners were asked to draw up scenarios for the assault the next day.

All the government working groups concluded that occupying Iraq would be far more difficult than defeating it. Wolfowitz either didn’t notice this evidence or chose to ignore it. And when NGOs started to make their checklists ready, including the obligations placed on any “occupying power” by the Fourth Geneva Convention, they were stopped and told the American troops would be “liberators” rather than “occupiers”, so the obligations would not apply.

It is not that the civilian and military leadership did not know or were not told the facts—they did, and they were. For instance, Fallows says that if the failure to stop the looting was a major sin of omission, sending the Iraqi army home was a catastrophic error of judgement. The problem with the wholesale dissolution of the army, rather than selective purge at the top, was that it created an instant enemy class: hundreds of thousands of men had their weapons but no longer had a pay-cheque, or a place to go.

Walter Slocombe who held Feith’s job under Clinton and who now is security adviser on Bremer’s team told The Washington Post that he had discussed the plan with Wolfowitz at least once, and with Feith several times, including the day before the order was given. “The critical point,” he said, “was nobody argued that we shouldn’t do this.” No one, that is, the administration listened to.

Fallows singles out several factors, but says the nature of the president himself exacerbated the problem. “Leadership is always a balance between making large choices and being aware of details.” George W Bush has an obvious preference for large choices. This gave him his chance for greatness after the 11 September attacks. But his lack of curiosity about significant details may be his fatal weakness. When the decisions of the past 18 months are assessed and judged, the administration will be found wanting for its carelessness. Because of warnings it chose to ignore, it squandered American prestige, fortune and lives.


Published Saturday, January 17th, 2004 - 12:54pm GMT

Article courtesy of Al-Ahram Weekly

This is the print-ready version of Lost Chances

Mohamed Hakki



It was found in the Occupation Woes section of the World Crisis Web.

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