Sunday, August 03, 2008

Deciding for war

Andrew Bacevich's new book The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism is coming out this month. Next Tuesday (Aug 5) to be more precise. I expect that if Obama is elected President that Bacevich's perspectives could become even more valuable than they are today. He is neither a "liberal hawk", nor an advocate of "humanitarian war" (one of the worst oxymorons ever invented!), nor a nativist-isolationist of the Pat Buchanan/neo-Confederate variety.

Once Obama is elected, many of the folks featured at places like The American Conservative and will suddenly start claiming that "the liberals" are a far worse menace to American foreign policy than the neocons have been. Larry Johnson's feverish polemics against Obama at his No Quarter blog are a preview of what we can expect. Johnson has been a bitter critic of the neocons, but seems to despise Obama much more.

That will make writers and analysts like Bacevich who have a perspective not driven by momentary partisanship even more important than they seem now. An Obama Presidency will show us rather quickly what a rare quantity such people are. Bacevich has so far achieved the feat of being respected from to The Nation and the New Left Review. He hasn't been welcome at the Weekly Standard the last few years, however.

Meanwhile, Bacevich has an article in the Jul/Aug Boston Review, Fault Lines: Inside Rumsfeld's Pentagon, reviewing Doug Feith's War and Decision and Ricardo Sanchez' Wiser in Battle. And, speaking of The American Conservative, he also contributed an article to a feature in the 07/14/08 issue on the topic, How Good Was the Good War? The feature has several writers responding to the question raised by Pat Buchanan's recent rightwing revisionist book on the Second World War.

Bacevich certainly doesn't embrace Buchanan's ridiculous, propaganda version of that history:

The problem with this orthodox interpretation is not that it’s wrong but that it is inadequate. The reflexive tendency to see every antagonist as another Hitler (or Stalin) and every sensitive diplomatic encounter as a potential Munich (or Yalta) has produced an approach to statecraft that is excessively militarized, needlessly inflexible, and insufficiently imaginative. The remedy is not to engage in a vain effort to change the way Americans remember World War II, however, but to restore that conflict to its proper context.

Ripped out of context, the war, especially the struggle against Nazi Germany, has become a parable. Whatever their value as a source of moral instruction, parables offer less help when it comes to understanding international politics. Parables simplify - and to simplify the past is necessarily to distort it. (my emphasis)
Bacevich suggests that the Great War of 1914-18 would be fruitful source for understanding the risks and opportunities of foreign policy:

In fact, that conflagration and the peacemaking process that followed offer a mother lode of instruction for American policymakers today.

World War I does not easily reduce to a parable. Even a polemicist as talented as [neocon godfather Norman] Podhoretz would be hard pressed to render it as a story pitting good against evil or freedom against totalitarianism. It was instead a vast, complex, and utterly avoidable tragedy, a war of empires on behalf of empire. A handful of naïve and stupid statesmen, who fancied that in war lay the solution to all manner of problems, inflicted incalculable moral and material damage upon Western civilization, while accelerating the decline of European power and leaving a poisonous legacy.(my emphasis)
In his review of the two books relating to the Iraq War, he points to some important factors that need to be understood in evaluating that conflict. Feith argues that his rouge Pentagon intelligence operation, the Office of Special Plans (OSP), had adequate plans for the immediate post-invasion situation that would have avoided the problems that occurred. But, Bacevich writes:

Yet OSD never actually intended that Iraqis - other than those chosen in advance by the United States - would determine their own nation’s fate. For Feith and his colleagues, "liberation" was a codeword that meant indirect control. OSD sought to exercise that control in three ways.

First, it established under Pentagon jurisdiction an agency designed to direct developments in Baghdad after Saddam’s removal. This was the misleadingly named Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), created by OSD in January 2003 and headed by retired army Lieutenant General Jay Garner, Rumsfeld’s handpicked choice for the job.

Second, against bitter opposition from the CIA and State Department, Feith and his colleagues tried to ensure that OSD would have the final say in deciding exactly which Iraqis would occupy positions of influence in the IIA [Iraqi Interim Authority]. Contemporary press reports identified neoconservative favorite Ahmad Chalabi as the Pentagon’s preferred candidate to run the IIA. Feith denies that OSD was promoting Chalabi, but his relentless attacks on Chalabi’s critics, professing bafflement at how others could malign someone of such manifest decency, belie those denials. (Subsequent charges that Chalabi was playing a double game, leaking sensitive intelligence to Iran, number among the matters that Feith ignores altogether.)

Third, even as it was touting the Iraqi Interim Authority as an embryonic government run by Iraqis, OSD established narrow limits on that government’s prerogatives. For example, as Feith notes in passing, under the IIA, the United States would retain “the authority to appoint top officials for the ministries of Defense, Finance, Interior, and Oil.” That authority provided the ultimate guarantee that the United States would continue to call the shots. The IIA would be a puppet regime, Feith and his colleagues apparently expecting Iraqis either not to notice or not to care who was actually pulling the strings. (my emphasis)
Bacevich writes of Gen. Sanchez' memoir "is above all an expression of his anger and bitterness at not achieving four-star rank" (he made only three stars). And he comments, "The result can only be described as unseemly. It is never pretty to see a grown man whine."

Sanchez tries to blame Rumsfeld for the development of the disaster in Iraq. But Bacevich is willing to point to the failures of some of our glorious generals, not intimidated as so many of our elected officials seem to be of making any kind of criticism of uniformed military officers who are supposedly subject to civilian authority. He writes:

When Sanchez assumed command, evidence of a brewing insurgency was already mounting. While back in Washington Feith was lovingly perfecting his vision of an Iraqi Interim Authority, Baghdad was already coming apart at the seams. By the time Sanchez departed Baghdad a year later, chaos had engulfed Iraq, and U. S. forces were caught in the middle of a civil war that Sanchez himself reports “our actions had undeniably ignited.” Punctuating this deteriorating situation was the Abu Ghraib scandal, which seemed to affirm that something had gone fundamentally wrong.

In short, when the animals in Iraq escaped their cages, Ricardo Sanchez was the chief zookeeper. His mission was to secure Iraq. He failed egregiously. The results of his efforts were almost entirely negative. As measured by the number of American soldiers and Iraqi civilians killed and wounded, they were also costly. Yet none of this, Sanchez insists, was his fault.

According to a core value of the military professional ethic, commanders are responsible for everything that occurs on their watch. The whole point of Wiser in Battle is to suggest that in the case of Ricardo Sanchez the principle of command responsibility should not apply. (my emphasis)
When responsible senior officials have such terrible results, we shouldn't assume that their own performance is free of responsibility for the bad things that happen, while anything good that occurs is taken as evidence of the brilliance of their leadership.

The following will surely become one of the building blocks of the stab-in-the-back excuse that the generals and conservative Republicans have already been constructing for years now:

Sanchez refrains from criticizing the president directly, depicting him as well-intentioned yet utterly out of his depth. During a videoconference in the midst of the notorious first Fallujah offensive of April 2004, Bush offered the following guidance to his field commander: "Kick ass! If someone tries to stop the march to democracy, we will seek them out and kill them! We must be tougher than hell! . . . Stay strong! Stay the course! Kill them! Be confident! Prevail! We are going to wipe them out!" Two days later orders from above directed Sanchez to suspend the offensive. "Politics"—Sanchez employs the term as shorthand for any intrusion by ignorant civilians with ulterior motives - had produced "a strategic defeat for the United States and a moral victory for the insurgents." (my emphasis)
Bacevich concludes his review by referring to the institutional aspects of the dysfunctional decision-making process that produced the Iraq, saying, "To imagine, however, that simply electing a new chief executive in November will fix the problem is surely to succumb to an illusion."

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