Tuesday, November 04, 2008

A horrible record that we should not forget

Tom Engelhardt did a summary of the Cheney-Bush administration's foreign policy the other day at TomDispatch.com, called Foreclosed: The George W. Bush Story. Sarah Palin may never be able to identify what the Bush Doctrine is. But we all need to remember how genuinely disastrous its results have been. Taking a metaphor from our current economic situation, he writes, "The bubble world of George W. Bush was bound to be burst. Based on fantasies, false promises, lies, and bait-and-switch tactics, it was destined for foreclosure."

Patrick Cockburn, who distinguished himself as one of the best reporters on the Iraq War, surveys the wreckage of the centerpiece of the Cheney-Bush regime in Friends like these The National (Abu Dubai) 10/30/08:

Over the past five years, America and its Iraqi allies have pointed triumphantly at a series of spurious milestones meant to mark turning points on the road to stability and security. But the ongoing stalemate over a new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which the Iraqi government refuses to sign despite intense American pressure, marks a true turning point in the conflict: it is a clear sign that American political influence in Iraq is weaker than ever.

It is the first time that an Iraqi government has rebuffed the US on a crucial issue since the invasion of 2003. ... The Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, who could not have obtained nor held his job without American backing, says he will not sign it as it is.

President Bush has himself pushed hard for the accord over the last eight months without success. His failure to secure the pact shows that the US is unable to get its way despite exaggerated claims of military success by the White House and the Pentagon.
Bush, Rummy, Cheney, Condi-Condi, Colin: y'all did a heckuva job in Iraq!

Cockburn's report reinforces Engelhardt's point that the actual playing out of US policy in Iraq shows what spectacularly wrong the neocons and Cheney-style nationalists were in their assumptions about American power:

Nothing better illuminates the real political landscape in Iraq – and the absurdity of the fantasies pumped out in Washington and broadly accepted in the US – than the concessions forced on the Americans. The American problem in Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein has always been political rather than military. Simply put, the Americans have had too few friends in Iraq, and their allies have sided with the US for tactical reasons alone. The majority Shia community initially co-operated with the US in order to achieve political domination, and it needed American military force to crush the Sunni Arab uprising of 2004-7. But the Shia leaders always wanted power for themselves and never intended to share it with the Americans in the long term. The Sunni guerrillas did surprisingly well against the American army, but their community was decisively defeated in the bloody battle for Baghdad fought by government death squads and sectarian militias. It was this defeat – and not simply hostility to al Qa’eda in Iraq – that led the Sunni rebels to seek their own alliance with the US. [my emphasis]
But, boy hidey, that was great watching that statue of Saddam fall back in 2003, wasn't it?

Cockburn also warns that American views, even the views of many who oppose the war, are currently shaped by a false picture of the situation in Iraq and the supposed success of The Surge:

I was in Baghdad during the first half of October and then flew to New York. Never has there been such a deep gap between what Americans think is happening in Iraq and the reality on the ground. Senator John McCain keeps celebrating the supposed triumph of the “surge”, and seems to imagine that “victory in Iraq” is now in sight. His exotic [?!?] running mate Sarah Palin sneers at the “defeatist” Barack Obama. And Obama, afraid to appear unpatriotic, has recanted his earlier doubts about the surge and attempted to avoid discussion of Iraq in general. With American voters understandably absorbed by the financial crash and coming depression, attention to events in Iraq has evaporated: the American media have barely mentioned the rejection of the SOFA [status of forces agreement].

In New York I found it strange that so many people believed the surge had brought an end to violence in Iraq. It was a curious sort of military victory, I observed, that required more troops in Iraq today – 152,000 – than before the surge began. The best barometer for the real state of security in Iraq, I kept telling people, is the behaviour of the 4.7 million Iraqi refugees inside and outside the country. Many are living in desperate circumstances but dare not go home. Ask an Iraqi in Baghdad how things are, and he may well say “better”. But he means better than the bloodbath of two years ago: “better” does not mean “good”. [my emphasis]
"Baghdad," he says, "is still the most dangerous city in the world."

And he says of the situation in Iraq confronting the new President:

The danger in Iraq is that neither McCain nor Obama seem to understand how far the US position in Iraq has weakened this year or why Iraq refuses to sign the security accord. The overselling of the surge as a great victory means that few Americans see that they are increasingly without allies in Iraq. The US no longer makes the political weather there. No matter who inherits the White House, American military retreat is now inevitable. The only question that remains is who will hold power in Baghdad after they have gone. [my emphasis]
Cockburn reports separately on the sad situation in Afghanistan, as well, in The commander is right... you'll never beat the Taliban The Independent 10/07/08. He writes:

US policy in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein has been constantly denigrated as a recipe for self-inflicted disaster. But President Bush's policy in Afghanistan in the wake of the fall of the Taliban was just as catastrophically misconceived.
The reporting we mostly get in the United States on the Afghanistan War has been even more deficient than that on the Iraq War:

The presence of foreign troops was always more popular in Afghanistan than in Iraq. The Afghans have a deep loathing for their warlords. But no foreign occupation force, particularly if reliant on ill-directed air attacks and engaged in combat, stays popular for long. This is particularly true if the foreign troops do not, in fact, deliver security. Meanwhile their presence means that Taliban fighters can portray themselves as patriots battling for their country and their faith.

The overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 was never quite what it looked like. Soon after they had given up the fight, I drove from Kabul to Kandahar along one of the world's worst-built roads. The Taliban were adroitly changing sides or going home as local deals were hammered out.

... There were enough foreign troops in Afghanistan to delegitimise the Afghan government but not enough to defeat its enemies. Chasing Taliban fighters around the hinterland year after year only led to the insurgency expanding. [my emphasis]
Part of the lessons that many Republicans and the military officer corps "learned" from the Vietnam War is that if the US just keeps fighting long enough, we'll eventually "win". That, combined with the generally misguided American emphasis on air power and a poorly-grounded faith in its magical abilities, has brought us to where we are in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Our policymakers need to realize that in the cases of both Iraq and Afghanistan, having the US involved in a protracted war is in itself a real problem for the US and for anyone who allies with the US in those countries.

It's worth noticing that Cockburn's article talks about the US/NATO fight against the Taliban, i.e., Pashtun warlords, not against "Al Qa'ida". Fighting the Taliban was clearly in the American interest in 2001. It's not any more.

The Republicans and at least some of the officer corps are already promoting a stab-in-the-back excuse for the Iraq War, in particular. The same will be applied to Afghanistan.

But reality matters. Despite their postmodern/New Agey obsession with creating their own reality, this administration crashed hard into reality. And it's going to be important for historians and for the people looking back on these last eight years to recognize how ignoring the limits of power leads to horrible consequences.

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