Sunday, March 17, 2013

Mything Iraq: The Invasion Was Swell

There are two related myths that drive the Iraq disaster deniers--the defenders of the Bush Administration--that the real problem was not the invasion but the aftermath.  "The invasion was swell, but the mission crept into an occupation and that was the big mistake."  Check out the discussion at on this especially the claims made by Doug Feith.  I address the second claim elsewhere --that the US could have and should have avoided occupation*, but will address the first part here--that the invasion was dandy.
*  This, I guess, allows these folks to them be blameless for screwing up the occupation.  I mean, Doug Feith, really?  Really?  REALLY?

Again, the fans of the invasion argue that everything was going well until somehow the U.S. ended up owning Iraq and had to figure out what to do with it.  This ignores the reality that the invasion itself was a huge mess.  Yes, the U.S. military was able to overcome the limitations imposed by Rumsfeld (a small force, micromanaged from DC), bad weather, and the realization that helicopters are really vulnerable to get to Baghdad and not have to lay siege.  So, that all went well.  Well, sort of.

But that ignores the classic Clausewitz line that war is politics by other means, and we had plenty of politics in 2002-2003 that went quite poorly.  First, no weapons of mass destruction.  No real programs either.  Fans of the war like to glide past the reality that the supposed justification of the war was, well, just a wee bit empty.  Sure, the Bush folks wanted the war and wanted Hussein dead (mission accomplished indeed), but the entire war was justified not by Saddam's brutality to his own people (our concern about that is selective and inconsistent), not by bringing democracy to the region, or whatever else.  It was about WMD.  But nada.  Oops.  I remember being asked before the invasion what would happen if they found nothing, and I remember being at a loss of words.  Yes, me at a loss of words.  Hard to imagine.  Because even though I opposed the war, I figured that they could at least find some weapons program stuff, perhaps some chemicals or biological materials.  Nope.

Second, the diplomacy prior to the war was a freaking disaster.  Turkey did not approve of its territory by American troops to invade Iraq from the north.  While the Iraq military fell apart quickly enough so that this did not hurt the invasion, it did mean that fewer troops were on the ground to deal with the aftermath.  More importantly, a key ally that needs the US said no.  It is one thing for France to say non or the Germans to say nein, but for Turkey?  A country near Russia and near the conflict zones of the Mideast?  As recent events in Syria indicate, Turkey is just a wee bit more in harm's way.

Speaking of the French and the Germans, the U.S. did its best to alienate its allies in the run up to the war. One of my last jobs in the Pentagon was trying to get the US troops in Bosnia protected from the mandate of the International Criminal Court.  The US was expending a heap of political capital in the summer of 2002 to deal with the bogus menace posed by the ICC when everyone in the Pentagon knew that the US would want allies to support the invasion the next year.  So, with ICC, with the handling of the WMD issue at the UN and elsewhere, with Old vs New Europe, the Bush Administration alienated two of its key allies.  While neither was expected to send guns or personnel to Iraq, it made the diplomacy much harder.

Sure, the Bush folks might not care about harming people's feelings, but their own feelings were hurt.  Rumsfeld sought to ban all mil to mil exchanges with any country that had not helped out the US after the invasion--this would mean Germany, France, Canada and so on.  Only upon realizing that the US needed France in other places did Rumsfeld relent.  He forgot, apparently, that the Iraq war part of the GWOT: the Global War on Terrorism.  Some terrorism emanated out of places where the French had more influence and intel (Africa).  Indeed, how did the U.S. get access to bases in Djibouti?  I believe France might have had something to do with that. 

Indeed, if the war against terrorism or simply against a few terrorist groups was a serious priority, it is clear that even a successful invasion of Iraq would have negative consequences.  As a recruitment tool, the war played in the hands of Al Qaeda's propaganda efforts.  The war hurt American credibility and credit in the region even if the US proved it can break a regionally powerful country pretty quickly.  It diverted scarce resources from elsewhere.  I remember stories of Spanish-speaking Special Operations Forces going to Afghanistan because those that knew the region had to go to Iraq.

I could go on, but the point here is clear--that even a successful invasion had real problems for American interests in the region and beyond.  The "war was swell but the occupation was a mistake" crowd ignores that the pre-war diplomacy and the conduct of the war had many negative consequences.  But then, we should not be surprised.  These folks had only one real aim, getting rid of Hussein, and did not really care that much about the second/third order effects of the effort. 

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