Bill Totten's Weblog

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Exit Strategies

by Lewis H Lapham

Harper's Magazine (January 2006)

"It is not obligatory for a generation to have great men".
- Jose Ortega y Gasset

As it becomes increasingly evident that the war in Iraq isn't likely to lead to a happy, Hollywood ending, an ever larger number of its once-upon-a-time champions - cost-conscious Republicans as well as conscience-stricken Democrats - have begun to suffer increasingly severe shortages of memory. On their better days they can remember that Iraq is a faraway Arab country, famous for its mosques and palm trees, but when asked why Baghdad is burning, or how it has come to pass that 2,096 American soldiers are no longer reporting for work on what in the winter of 2003 was imagined as a movie set, they become anxious and forgetful. Last fall's sudden rise in newly discovered cases of amnesia coincided with the season's news reports about the Bush Administration's having set up the invasion of Iraq behind a screen of flag-waving lies - the CIA misinforming the Pentagon, the Pentagon falsifying its dispatches to the State Department, the White House gulling the Congress, Congress running a shell game on itself.

Given the multiple choice of reasons for not knowing what was what (then, now, preferably never), the convenient losses of memory also could be construed as symptoms of a too trusting faith in the goodness of one's fellow man, and during the months of October and November the Washington talk-show circuit was loud with displays of indignant surprise and wet with the tears of betrayal. Everybody a blameless dupe - misled, played for a sucker, sold down the rivers of deception - and therefore nobody responsible for the casualty lists and the dead dream of empire. Nothing wrong with anybody's character or motives, of course; nobody here in the television studio or the House of Representatives except a patriotic assembly of loyal Americans overwhelmed by a massive systems failure, which is a technical problem, not a sign of bad faith or a proof of blind stupidity. The lights went out; the secretaries forgot to put the truth in the water.

Some of the stories deserved accompaniment for solo violin, others were best understood as acts of contrition on loan from the National Cathedral, but all of them clung to the skirts of the same script. Thus Brent Scowcroft, former national security adviser to the first President George Bush, opposed to the theory of the Second Gulf War, appalled by Vice President Dick Cheney's office deploying against enemies both foreign and domestic the strategies of forward deterrence and preemptive strike, telling a writer for The New Yorker, "I consider Cheney a good friend - I've known him for thirty years. But Dick Cheney I don't know anymore."

Or Senator John Kerry, erstwhile presidential candidate who in October 2002 had endorsed the glorious march on Baghdad, speaking to an audience at Georgetown University on October 26:

"I regret that we were not given the truth; as I said more than a year ago, knowing what we know now, I would not have gone to war in Iraq. And knowing now the full measure of the Bush Administration's duplicity and incompetence, I doubt there are many members of Congress who would give them the authority they have abused so badly. I know I would not."

Or the bewildered journalist George Packer, publishing a 467-page book, The Assassin's Gate, in which he deconstructs every policy initiative and bureaucratic maneuver preliminary to what he had hoped would prove to be the creation of a fair and free Iraq subsequent to the second coming of Thomas Jefferson in a Bradley fighting vehicle, but finding at the end of his labors that he can't answer the question "Why did the United States invade Iraq? It still isn't possible to be sure - and this remains the most remarkable thing about the Iraq War." Unwilling or unable to guess at what he calls "the real motives of the Bush administration", Packer declares himself a victim of his own idealism, decides that "Iraq is the Rashomon of wars", and concludes that the reason for it "has something to do with September 11".

By the second week in October no C-SPAN camera lacked for a talking head pleading its inability to distinguish fact from fiction. So many people had been so wickedly misinformed that even the editor of the New York Times had been lost in the fog of disinformation, failing to notice that Judith Miller, a star reporter for his own newspaper, also was operating as a conduit for government propaganda. Before the last leaves of autumn had fallen from the trees on Capitol Hill it had become hard to judge which of the testimonials was the most endearing or instructive. The committees of liberal conscience in town praised Packer's soft-headedness, approved Scowcroft's geopolitical modesty, admired the trembling of Kerry's chin, but the gold medal for moral awakening they awarded to Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired Army officer who from 2002 to 2005 had served as chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell and who appeared at the podium of the New America Foundation on October 19 to say that during his long career in government (as a staff officer and as a scholar) he had studied the twistings, flummoxings, "aberrations", "bastardizations", "perturbations", apt to occur at the highest echelons of power, but never had he seen anything worse than what he had seen in his years with the Bush Administration. "What I saw was a cabal between the vice president of the United States, Richard Cheney, and the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, on critical issues that made decisions that the bureaucracy did not know were being made. And then when the bureaucracy was presented with the decision to carry them out, it was presented in such a disjointed, incredible way that the bureaucracy often didn't know what it was doing as it moved to carry them out."

The colonel's reference to "a cabal" - daring word, daringly borrowed from the manifestos of the unshaven, revolutionary left - earned him a moment in the sun of the New York Times' op-ed page (as did his saying, of Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, "Seldom in my life have I met a dumber man"), but the columnists who set him up with the laurel leaves (noble teller of truth to the stone face of power) apparently didn't read the full text, which might have curbed their enthusiasm. The document is remarkable for its pedantry, its presumptions of virtue, its childishness. Proud of his postings as a teacher of military science at both the Naval and Marine war colleges, the colonel fancies himself a sage, but, like Packer, whose book he praises as a Boy Scout guide into the wilderness of bureaucratic dysfunction, he doesn't know why the United States declared war on Iraq. The plan was unintelligible, the objective a mystery. Yes, something criminal probably was afoot in the "Oval Office cabal", but the colonel doesn't care to know the details. Not because he doesn't deplore the abuses of government power but because good American boys don't consort with cabals, don't go into the woods where the wild things are, don't fool around with their sisters. More inclined to preserve his own state of grace than to mess around with snakes, and as unwilling as Packer to think for himself, the colonel devotes the bulk of his text to statements of high-minded bureaucratic principle supported by innovative suggestions for more effective corporate management:

"The complexity of the crises that confront governments today are just unprecedented ... You simply cannot deal with all the challenges that government has to deal with, meet all the demands that government has to meet in the modern age, in the twenty-first century, without admitting that it is hugely complex.

"And if something comes along that is truly serious, truly serious, something like a nuclear weapon going off in a major American city, or something like a major pandemic, you are going to see the ineptitude of this government in a way that will take you back to the Declaration of Independence ... [R]ead in there what they [the Framers] say about the necessity of the people to throw off tyranny or to throw off ineptitude or to throw off that which is not doing what the people want it to do. And you're talking about the potential for, I think, real dangerous times if we don't get our act together.

"I really think we have to protect ourselves against institutional imperfections, and in particular we have to protect ourselves against the institutions of humans and the imperfections that we bring.

"I like to use the word gracelessness, and I use that word because grace is something we have lost in the modern world. It's a very important product.

"We can't leave Iraq. We simply can't ... But we're there, we've done it, and we cannot leave. I would submit to you that if we leave precipitously or we leave in a way that doesn't leave something there we can trust, if we do that, we will mobilize the nation, put five million men and women under arms and go back and take the Middle East within a decade. That's what we'll have to do. So why not get it right now?

"[T]he world is essentially fractious today and failed states are the future, not the past, and we are the proprietor. It is our obligation and our responsibility in some cases to be a good proprietor. In other cases we have to be more realistic.

"You never know what you are going to need on the battlefield, so you'd better have six of them. Five of them won't show up, four of them won't be able to communicate, and I could go on. But you need overlap, you need redundancy. You need, as Powell used to say, 'decisive force'. You'd better have ten cases of water where you think you'd need one. You'd better have fifteen million MREs where you think you only need a million because you never know in a crisis, and the best way to be prepared is to have lots more than you think you're going to need or want."

It might also be prudent to have on hand a surplus of intelligence, but if the tone and quality of the colonel's thought is representative of what passes for wisdom in the head of the American government, where then is the hope of confronting the "hugely complex" challenges of the twenty-first century with anything other than a childish belief in magic? After reading the transcript of the presentation to the New America Foundation, I watched the rerun of the television broadcast, which, unhappily, didn't correct the impression of a charismatic Christian speaking in tongues. I could see that the colonel was probably a very nice man, earnest and well-intentioned, proceeding diligently from power point to power point, here to help and not to hurt, but so lost in the ritual language of bureaucratic abstraction that although he presumably knew what he was talking about, he undoubtedly didn't know that what he was talking about wasn't worth knowing.

More than once he repeated a dire warning with the emphasis of implied exclamation points ("problems are brewing! problems are brewing! ... My army right now is truly in bad shape - truly in bad shape!"), but when something goes wrong in America it isn't because anybody in government means to lie, cheat, steal, commit murder, or otherwise do harm. How could they? They're Americans and therefore good. It's never the people who are at fault; it's because the system is "dysfunctional", because the intelligence agencies "don't share", "never talk to each other", don't grasp the fact that everybody's "got to work together ... under leadership they trust and leadership that on basic issues they agree with ..."

It wasn't until I'd read through the colonel's cri de coeur for a second and third time that I began to understand how it could happen that so many of Washington's nominally well-informed politicians and journalists suffered so massive an intelligence failure prior to the invasion of Iraq, or why the same cloud of unknowing hadn't descended on the conversation in New York. By late January 2003, six weeks before the bombs fell on Baghdad, the Bush Administration's stated reasons for going to war already had been shown to be fraudulent, and despite the news media's doing their patriotic best not to notice what was wrong with the sales pitch, the swindle was a matter of public record - Andrew Card, the President's chief of staff, had suggested to the New York Times in September of 2002 that the timing of the assault on Baghdad was mostly a matter of marketing; the UN weapons inspectors during the autumn of that year had made numerous journeys to Iraq, finding no instruments of mass destruction; Saddam Hussein's supposed connection to Al Qaeda was clearly illusory; Vice President Cheney's intelligence operatives and those under contract to the CIA were quarreling openly in the newspapers about the data gathered from sources dubious and self-serving, reliable only to the extent that they could be trusted to say what they had been paid to say.

The available facts were consistent with what was known at the time about the Bush Administration's will to power and with what could be reasonably inferred about its commercial motive and imperial intent, the postulates easily enough obtained merely by numbering the false statements in any one of President Bush's speeches, or simply by watching the Pentagon press briefings at which Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's attitude implied that the waging of war in Central Asia really wasn't much different than playing a video game in a penny arcade aboard the USS Franklin D Roosevelt. Nobody needed access to privileged gossip or a talent for interpreting aerial reconnaissance photographs to know that the President wanted a war in Iraq, that he possessed the means to get what he wanted (a cowed legislature, an accommodating press, an inert electorate), and that it didn't matter what reasons were given for the blitzkrieg - exporting democracy, winning World Wars III and IV, saving Israel, protecting America, bringing the Christian faith to heathen Islam, et cetera - as long as they came wrapped with the ribbon of the American flag.

Such at least was the general understanding on the part of the many people (by some estimates at least 800,000 people) who on February 15 2003, staged street demonstrations in 150 American cities as a way of voicing their skepticism. Maybe they didn't know whether it was the Euphrates or the Tigris River that flowed through Baghdad, but they could recognize the difference between the truth and its expedient equivalents.

The capacity to notice the difference and the willingness to act on the observation presuppose the mind and presence of an adult - that is, an individual whose character and moral sense is formed by his or her own thought and experience. Washington these days doesn't have much use for adults; they can't be trusted to go along with the program, play well with others, believe what they read in the newspapers. What is wanted is a quorum of dutiful children, who know that skepticism is wicked and credulity a virtue that also stands and serves as job requirement for their successful rising in the ranks of the government and media bureaucracies. Like the anxious courtiers in feathered hats who once decorated the throne rooms of old Europe, they fit their convictions to the circumstance, borrow their sense and sensibility from the consensus present in the school dormitory or the Senate conference committee, in this year's color scheme or last week's opinion poll. If from time to time the consensus changes (the war in Iraq is good, the war in Iraq is bad), staff officers as well trained as Colonel Wilkerson in the art of devising exit strategies and politicians as willing as Senator John Kerry to change trains know that the American public would rather comfort a child than pardon a criminal or forgive a fool.

Bill Totten


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