A March of Folly

Former CIA analyst

“It would take 500,000 men to do it and even then it could not be done.” So spoke General Jacques Leclerc, the French World War II hero sent to Vietnam in 1946 to estimate how many troops would be required to take back that country. Leclerc’s estimate would still be valid two decades later when over 500,000 US troops were in Vietnam, as Barbara Tuchman notes in The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam.

Fast forward to General Eric Shinseki’s testimony to Congress on February 25, 2003 just three weeks before the invasion of Iraq. When asked how many troops would be needed to secure post-war Iraq, Shinseki said “several hundred thousand.” Three days later Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz dismissed Shinseki’s estimate as “far off the mark,” but it is now clear that they had no idea what the occupation of Iraq would require.

The Meaning of Fallujah

“There are no insurgents in Fallujah,” says Mohammed Latif, once a senior intelligence officer in Saddam Hussein’s regime and now commander of the Iraqi brigade controlling the city. Washington has been blaming the conflict in Fallujah partly on “insurgents.” Resistance to the occupation is a far more accurate description, and there is plenty of that in Fallujah and elsewhere in Iraq.

Words make a big difference. In Vietnam we labeled the Vietnamese Communists “terrorists” and “insurgents.” This obscured for far too long the reality that they comprised a deeply nationalist movement determined to resist any and all invaders–however powerful. In this kind of war kill ratios have little meaning. Killed: 58,000 US troops; 2 to 3 million Vietnamese.

More Troops?

The current focus on the abuse of Iraqi detainees–while entirely appropriate–distracts attention from the key decision confronting the administration and Congress. Should we send still more troops to Iraq? Thus far, very few of our leaders have been willing to pause long enough to weigh this critical step against US objectives–stated and unstated.

On May 6, for example, Congressman John Murtha, D-Pa–a strong supporter of the military–said, “We cannot prevail in this war with the policy that is going today. We either have to mobilize or we have to get out.”

Prevail? This must be measured against our objectives. First the stated objectives:

1. Eliminate Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. (There were none, but 60 percent of the American people still believe there were, so the administration can declare this objective achieved.)

2. Prevent Saddam Hussein from providing weapons of mass destruction to terrorists. (The intelligence community considered it extremely unlikely that he would, but could not completely rule out the possibility.) Achieved.

3. Remove the “brutal dictator” who most Americans still believe had a hand in the attacks of 9/11–a notion fostered with consummate skill by the administration. (President Bush has admitted quietly that there is no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved, but this was virtually ignored by our corporate-owned, government –handmaiden, “mainstream” press.) Achieved.

4. Introduce democracy to Iraq and other countries of the Middle East. This cannot be done by invading and occupying Iraq. Not achieved; not achievable, according to most experts.

Declare Victory

Three out of four objectives achieved. Not bad. One option for the administration would be to capitalize once again on the widely misinformed state of our citizenry and to tell Vice President Dick Cheney’s favorite TV channel, FOX News, to declare a 75 percent victory and say that we have already “prevailed.”

This would enable the Bush administration to do the sensible thing: make it clear that it will surrender real power to the UN, and gradually withdraw our troops, with the expectation that peacekeeping troops from other countries would then fill in behind.

Unstated Objectives

A face-saving solution of this kind, however, would be impossible to achieve absent willingness on the part of the president’s current advisers to abandon the real aims of the war. Those aims have little to do with weapons of mass destruction or ties between Iraq and terrorists–and still less with 9/11 or exporting democracy. They have everything to do with the neoconservatives’ determination to dominate strategic, oil-rich Iraq, implant a permanent military presence there, and–not incidentally–eliminate any possible threat to Israel’s security. On the latter point, several months before the war, Philip Zelikow, a member of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board from 2001 to 2003, pointed explicitly to the danger that Iraq might pose to Israel as “the unstated threat–a threat that dare not speak its name”|because it is not a popular sell.”

Yes, Sorry, Unwinnable

“|Even with 500,000 troops. But who will tell the president it was all a big mistake? Not the court sycophants who vie with one another to recite with the most macho what they think he and Cheney want to hear. How long will it take the president to realize he has been poorly served by glib ideologues whose lack of knowledge of the real world matches their extreme arrogance?

It is time for the President Bush to widen his circle of advisers to include experienced specialists and other respected citizens inoculated against charges of lack of patriotism for questioning the wisdom of this war. President Lyndon Johnson did precisely that immediately after the Vietnamese Communist countrywide offensive during Tet in January-February 1968. Meeting frequently in March, Johnson’s panel of “wise men” came up with solid recommendations in just three weeks, prompting him to make an abrupt turn toward negotiations and persuading him not to run later that year for another term.

My colleagues in Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity and I are appalled at the poverty of the today’s discussion–at how few lessons have been assimilated from the experience of Vietnam. Many of us had front-row seats for that misguided war. We had hoped it would be the last such “march of folly” in our lifetimes.

RAY McGOVERN is a 27-year veteran CIA analyst whose duties included chairing National Intelligence Estimates. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, and co-director of the Servant Leadership School, an outreach ministry in the inner city of Washington, DC. He can be reached at: rmcgovern@slschool.org

This article first appeared on tompaine.com.

Ray McGovern was an Army officer and CIA analyst for almost 30 year. He now serves on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press). He can be reached at: rrmcgovern@gmail.com. A version of this article first appeared on Consortiumnews.com.