Counterinsurgency American-Style

When the Pentagon rolled out its new Iraq product line-the re-minted counterinsurgency doctrine of winning “hearts and minds” that had been shelved after Vietnam-branded it “the surge” and anointed Gen. David Petraeus as chief product spokesperson in early 2007, the main question was: who would buy?

Clearly not the Iraqis. The past year has included two of the bloodiest months of the Iraq war, a government in complete chaos and a persistent Darwinian nightmare for average Iraqi’s attest to the lack of Iraqi consumers for the new product. It may as well have been a cyanide-soaked toy from China.

But there is one market that has proven receptive-the U.S. Congress and especially centrist Republicans and Democrats like Brian Baird (D-Wa) who came back from a recent Pentagon-hosted trip to Iraq declaring a conversion worthy of St. Paul on the road to Damascus.

Formerly a war critic–Baird had voted against authorizing the Iraq War and still believes that the invasion of Iraq “may be one of the worst foreign-policy mistakes in the history of our nation”-he now claims he has seen the light and firmly opposes withdrawal from Iraq. In a feverish media blitz, with appearances on CNN, NPR and MSNBC among others, Baird declared that evidence from his recent trips to Iraq convinced him that “the situation has at long last begun to change substantially for the better” and “our troops and the Iraqi people themselves, deserve our continued support and more time to succeed.”

Baird’s conversion to Brand Petraeus and the Pentagon’s new counterinsurgency strategy must be seen as symptomatic of the broader consumption of the new product-line by many Congressional Republicans and Democrats. The media spectacle surrounding Gen. Patraeus’ and Ambassador Crocker’s highly anticipated visit to Washington DC last month was all whimper and no bang. Even though the overwhelming empirical evidence demonstrated the abject failure of the “surge” in Iraq, once Petraeus boarded the return jet to Iraq, the Democrats dropped their once fiery rhetoric about ending the war, fired off a few ineffectual resolutions and conceded the battle-space to Bush’s plans for a decades-long occupation of Iraq along the lines of what Bush fondly refers to as the “Korea model.”

Mission accomplished.

The Petraeus visit and the subsequent Democratic cave-in reveals that the real target of the newly minted counterinsurgency strategy was never the Iraqi people but rather the American public. The widely publicized adoption of a new counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq and the marketing of Patreaus as its guru is pure information war. It was concocted to simulate the appearance of a new strategy in Iraq and thereby create a new narrative of hope and progress in order to sell an endless Iraq occupation to the American public.

One doesn’t need to read the late French philosopher Jean Baudrillard on simulated realities to catch the drift of how politics is played in the age of Bush. In an October 17, 2004, New York Times Magazine article, the journalist Ron Suskind quoted an unnamed aide to President Bush:

“The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality-judiciously, as you will-we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actorsand you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

But one should take a quick look at The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual rushed into print this summer by University of Chicago Press with a forward by Gen. Patreaus to understand how our Empire is simulating “new realities” as part of a counterinsurgency strategy aimed against the American public.

According to the Field Manual, classic counterinsurgency doctrine maintains that conventional military force will never defeat an insurgency because the primary goal of an insurgency, as classically stated by Mao, is political-to win over a population against a government or a foreign occupation. Hence, the heavy application of military force against an insurgency will be counter-productive by creating new grievances that help it gain popular support. Therefore, the first rule of counterinsurgency is to drive a wedge between insurgents and the broader population by winning their “hearts and minds” through addressing popular grievances and winning the war of ideas through better propaganda.

The Bush administration was never truly serious about employing this strategy in Iraq-to do so would require assuaging Iraqi demands for a US troop withdrawal and foreswearing permanent military bases and control over Iraq’s oil. Instead, the Bush administration has employed classic counterinsurgency doctrine to quell the only insurgency it has a chance to defeat: the overwhelming American popular support for withdrawal from Iraq that was given a Congressional mandate in the November 2006 elections. Having learned its own lessons from Vietnam, the Bush administration knows that a primary threat to its permanent war in Iraq is a Congressional cut-off of the funds that are its lifeblood.

So in response to this threat, and in line with classic counterinsurgency doctrine, the Bush administration devised a marketing campaign to simulate a new strategy and promote the Brand Petraeus “surge” in Iraq in order to drive a wedge between the insurgency that mattered (growing Congressional support for withdrawal) and the will of the American people. The means were simple. Create a cult figure out of Patraeus, flood the media with stories of progress on the ground, and carefully nurture Congressional fence-sitters to prevent a majority for withdrawal emerging as a viable force within Congress.

And one of the most effective tools in the arsenal has been the brief and tightly controlled codels (short for congressional delegations) who are shown only what the Pentagon and the Bush administration wants them to see, which includes Potemkin village-like displays of security progress and soldiers who plead with them not to let the war have been in vain.

“Spin city” is how Rep. James Moran (D-Va) described his most recent trip to Baghdad as part of a congressional delegation. “The Iraqis and the Americans were all singing from the same song sheet, and it was deliberately manipulated,” he told the Washington Post on August 31. One U.S. soldier, Staff Sgt. Josh Campbell, who was ordered to pay Iraqi shopkeepers to open their stores for these congressional visits, told the Washington Post (Sept. 4) “personally, I think it’s a false representation. But what can I say? I’m just doing my job and don’t ask questions.”

It is precisely on the basis of two such codel’s in the past year that Congressman Brian Baird converted from moderate critic to an evangelical proponent of Patreaus and “the surge.” Baird has insisted that he was completely free to meet with whomever he wanted in Iraq-a bizarre claim if one considers the options for travel in Iraq alone-but his nearly word for word repetition of Bush administration talking points upon his return indicates that he swallowed the entire sales-pitch.

To take just one example, just as the Bush administration was concocting increasingly apocalyptic scenarios about the dangers of withdrawing from Iraq-chaos, mass murder, regional war, terrorist attacks on the US and the like-Baird was offering his own shrill hypotheticals to the editorial board of The Olympian newspaper:

“What happens to you and you and me morally if we withdraw and there’s wholesale slaughter? What happens if a Shi’a theocracy takes over and progressive independent women who are currently in the region are suddenly all forced into burqas and they can’t go to school and ­ and they’re stoned to death for learning to read? What happens if we allow that?”

In another meeting with constituents, Baird speculated that if the US withdrew, Al-Qaida would become empowered and “then begin operations on the United States. Is that worth an American life to try and prevent that? I believe it is.”

Never mind the fact that the odious “burqas” are only worn in Afghanistan and that no Iraqi women have ever been stoned to death for learning to read. That might be true of Saudi Arabia, but Baird is not calling for its invasion.

The fact of the matter is that all these claims are the stuff of fantasy. There will be no genocide or terrorist safe haven in Iraq after the US leaves. Iraq after an American withdrawal will look very much like Iraq today-a land divided along ethnic lines into Arab and Kurdish states with a civil war fought along the seams of its Sunni and Shiite Arab zones, each ruled by rival militias and gangs. Iraq’s Shiite-led government is in no danger of losing the civil war to al-Qaida, and in fact, in this Darwinian context al-Qaida would likely be destroyed as local Sunni militias assert their control.

Nevertheless, Brian Baird’s conversion to war supporter and his repetition of the Bush administration’s more outlandish talking points is notable as the purest expression of the counterinsurgency strategy being waged today against the American public and its representatives in Congress. And given the increasing unlikelihood of any Democratic-led effort to truly end the war in the near future, one must consider it a success thus far.

This leads to a few preliminary conclusions.

Certainly war opponents would do well to drop simplistic and moralizing slogans against the war and focus more on dismantling the phony narratives of sophisticated marketing campaigns that tout the successes of counterinsurgency and the dire consequences of an American withdrawal. We are operating in the age of information war and simulated realities, and the Empire knows very well that people support wars on the basis of symbols, emotions, stories and fantasies, all of which have proven to be more powerful than the most rational discourse. Take a look at Baird.

But ultimately, as in any insurgency, war opponents have to re-mobilize the widespread popular support for withdrawal into a broad-based and assertive movement that makes its own realities, and doesn’t rely upon Congressional Democrats but rather gives them no place to hide if they continue to support the Iraq occupation, in any form. Only then, in Mao’s felicitous phrase, will the insurgents–proponents of withdrawal in Congress–be able to “move among the people like a fish in the sea” and turn off the spigot of permanent war.

STEVE NIVA is a professor of Middle East Studies and International Politics at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA and lives in Brian Baird’s home district.