Bush’s Iraq Poker Game


Washington, DC

“Americans never quit.”
General Douglas MacArthur (among others)

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit.
There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.”

W. C. Fields (alone)

Emotionally and instinctively, most of the U.S. public would agree and self-identify with the conqueror and dismiss the comedian.
More’s the pity. As so often with statements of absolutes like “never,” the principle becomes so dogmatic that believers cannot recognize instances wherein rational pragmatism points to needed change – sometimes radical change – in tactics.

“Bringing democracy” to Iraq is a case in point.

From the White House to the battlefield commanders, the official line is the insurgents are “desperate” after the January 30, 2005 National Assembly elections. Daily attacks have fallen from the hundreds to the forties, sometimes lower. The new Iraqi police and army are assuming more and more of the security burden, allowing U.S. and coalition forces to fade into the background.

The public, both in the U.S. and Iraq, hold another view. In the U.S., polls going back to before the November 2004 election have registered a lack of support for the president’s handling of Iraq. Fatalities among U.S. military and civilian contractor personnel continue to rise, standing at more than 1,560 and 85, respectively – with no end in sight. In the week ending April 23, the number of attacks rose 40 percent, mostly directed against Iraqis. April will be another month in which U.S. fatalities average more than one per day (only in February 2004 were average fatalities under one per day).

In Iraq, almost 90 days after the January ballot, the politicians still are jockeying for positions in the new cabinet – and holding up the election of the commission that is to draft the country’s new constitution. The widespread public optimism of the early post-election days has deteriorated to such an extent as to call to mind an observation by satirist P. J. O’Rourke: “Feeling good about government is like looking on the bright side of any catastrophe. When you quit looking on the bright side, the catastrophe is still there.”

For their part, Iraqi security forces (ISF) have assumed more of the risks and more of the casualties – in some months rivaling the number of deaths among ordinary Iraqis. For example, based on readily accessible media reports (and therefore only partial figures), one well-regarded Iraq war website found that in March, 2005, at least 200 police and military personnel died violently compared to 240 Iraqi civilians. The UN, in an internal security risk assessment covering the period April 7-18, recorded 89 ISF casualties and 119 Iraqi civilian casualties. And for the final five days (April 14-18), the UN mission recorded 146 incidents – including 11 assassinations just in 12 major centers of unrest.

Moreover, the UN report forecast that “contractors and locals aligned with” coalition troops and the incoming Iraqi transitional administration “are likely to be pursued as attractive, low risk, high pay off targets” by insurgents. The UN assessment singled out Iraqi security forces – police and army – in the Baghdad area as particularly at risk from the insurgent “Army of God” Faction.

Nor are matters going smoothly on the non-military side. Civic order in general is under siege from the constant kidnapping of civilians for ransom and “on-order” thuggery. Major reconstruction projects worth billions and run by U.S. firms have been postponed indefinitely because so much money has been diverted for training, job creation, and above all, added security – nearly five billion (and counting) of the original $18.4 billion appropriated by Congress.

And even the few projects that are still in train – e.g., installing new electric generators – will have little practical effect because the distribution system is in such a dilapidated condition. The 229 water treatment facilities desperately need repair; an estimated 30 percent of the 17 million Iraqis served by the Ministry of Public Works do not have safe drinking water.

More telling – and more dangerous to the hope that a functioning democracy will emerge eventually – is the failure of the U.S. to engage Iraqis in the process of creating and empowering civil society organizations.

A case in point is a national conference, held in early April, attended by leading Iraqi women on the future of their country.

One woman, an engineer who considered herself a moderate before the meeting, wrote a six page “letter” about the meeting. A few points she highlighted are:

-although conference dates were known to coalition forces and the Iraqi transitional government, there was no extra security on Iraq’s dangerous highways (no one was flown) and many delegates were harassed at the Jordanian border – the conference was held on the shores of the Dead Sea;

-the conference coordinators and organizers were Iraqis who, during the Saddam era, lived in the U.S. – including a woman “who read a speech in Congress thanking Bush for liberating Iraq” – and now were “salesmen to market the American ideas…exactly as the Ba’athists used to do…opportunists, who deserve no respect”;

-the Americans who spoke either didn’t know the context of political conditions in Iraq or were lying – in either case the delegates sensed “hypocrisy” and condescension;

-an Arab who headed an American university in an adjoining Arab state “looked like there was a brand on his brow that says “Made in America”…How do we trust him?”;

-an American focused on separating religion from the state, but the attendees argued that “separating it [religion] from the state would spread chaos and corruption in society”;

-another American warned against government control of Iraq’s oil wealth and said Iraqis should “forget the government in our future life,” to which some attendees asked how they could trust the private sector, given that in the post-war era “corrupt leadership came, steeling [sic] a lot of the people’s money?”

While the letter records many more inaccurate assumptions, poor understanding of conditions on-the-ground (including the pillars of Iraqi society), and egregious errors in recommendations proffered, three phrases summarize the viewpoint of the author and most of the women from Iraq: “Not the American way”; The future of Iraq belongs to us [Iraqi women], not to you [Americans]”; and “This is a brain wash.”

Lest one try to write off the letter’s author as unrepresentative, the sentiments expressed (and in context shared by many conference delegates) struck such a resonating chord that the letter is now circulating among a significant number of individuals and groups who are or will be the core of civil society in Iraq. The net effect is a radicalizing of the very people the U.S. is trying to win over to “democracy.”

The Bush administration still believes it can shape Iraq (and Afghanistan) into a free-market, federalist representative republic that will be the beginning of a Middle East democratic tsunami. The problem it now faces is it raised the ante to a region-wide democratic remake before it had a clear, positive, and winning strategy in hand in Iraq.

How the women of Iraq see current and future events will have a marked influence on the relationships among the basic institutions of the Iraqi nation-state. Conferences run by Westerners and exiles reek of arrogance and condescension; they are another example of a failing strategy.

What the U.S. ought to run are conferences whose sole purpose is not instructing, not lecturing, but listening – listening to those who, like Faiza, have an enduring stake in the game – and empowering.

“I have seen the true face of those who occupied Iraq, and understood their plans about the future of Iraq….Iraqi women…will not be anyone’s fool.…Sooner or later they will collide with the occupation, and its true
face will be revealed.…

“Those are the new opposition, an opposition against the foreign occupation of Iraq and against all who support this occupation, or spread and market its thoughts. Sooner or later, they [the new nationalists] will show up and lead the people to the path of liberation, salvation, and democracy. Away from fake leaders, salesmen of fake ideas, and vicious intentions that became exposed to the young and old, to the ignorant and educated, to the near and far.

“I must move from the middle to some other, clearer position. And I think what befell me will befall most Iraqis with the passage of time, when they face the true face of the American occupation….It is always a matter of time.”

Col. Daniel Smith, a West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran, is Senior Fellow on Military Affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker lobby in the public interest. He can be reached at: dan@fcnl.org

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