Monday, September 13, 2004

One Track Mind

In the latest edition of the Atlantic Monthly, James Fallows presents a comprehensive assessment of the events of 2002 as seen through the lens of the decisions made by the Bush administration vis a vis the war on terror, entitled Bush's Lost Year (subscription only - but for those who don't have a subscription click here). Utilizing an array of sources from all facets of the government, some named and some un-named, Fallows methodically retraces the policy initiatives and overall strategy directives that have been consistently counterproductive to their stated purpose, and which have signified a pathological myopia rampant within the upper echelons of the Bush administration.

Over the past two years I have been talking with a group of people at the working level of America's anti-terrorism efforts. Most are in the military, the intelligence agencies, and the diplomatic service; some are in think tanks and nongovernmental agencies. I have come to trust them, because most of them have no partisan ax to grind with the Administration (in the nature of things, soldiers and spies are mainly Republicans), and because they have so far been proved right. In the year before combat started in Iraq, they warned that occupying the country would be far harder than conquering it. As the occupation began, they pointed out the existence of plans and warnings the Administration seemed determined to ignore.

As a political matter, whether the United States is now safer or more vulnerable is of course ferociously controversial. That the war was necessary - and beneficial - is the Bush Administration's central claim. That it was not is the central claim of its critics. But among national-security professionals there is surprisingly little controversy. Except for those in government and in the opinion industries whose job it is to defend the Administration's record, they tend to see America's response to 9/11 as a catastrophe. I have sat through arguments among soldiers and scholars about whether the invasion of Iraq should be considered the worst strategic error in American history - or only the worst since Vietnam. Some of these people argue that the United States had no choice but to fight, given a pre-war consensus among its intelligence agencies that Iraq actually had WMD supplies. Many say that things in Iraq will eventually look much better than they do now. But about the conduct and effect of the war in Iraq one view prevails: it has increased the threats America faces, and has reduced the military, financial, and diplomatic tools with which we can respond.

"Let me tell you my gut feeling," a senior figure at one of America's military-sponsored think tanks told me recently, after we had talked for twenty minutes about details of the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. "If I can be blunt, the Administration is full of shit. In my view we are much, much worse off now than when we went into Iraq. That is not a partisan position. I voted for these guys. But I think they are incompetent, and I have had a very close perspective on what is happening. Certainly in the long run we have harmed ourselves. We are playing to the enemy's political advantage. Whatever tactical victories we may gain along the way, this will prove to be a strategic blunder."

This man will not let me use his name, because he is still involved in military policy. He cited the experiences of Joseph Wilson, Richard Clarke, and Generals Eric Shinseki and Anthony Zinni to illustrate the personal risks of openly expressing his dissenting view. But I am quoting him anonymously - as I will quote some others - because his words are representative of what one hears at the working level. [emphasis added]
Fallows points out that the criticism from these officials, experts, and policy makers does not center around the oft-cited intelligence blunder concerning phantom weapons of mass destruction, nor does it focus on the dizzyingly reckless lack of post-war planning that Fallows himself chronicled in his piece Blind Into Baghdad. Rather, these officials are in unison in condemning the actions taken, and not taken, throughout 2002 that have made America less safe and with fewer options to respond to emerging threats.

The story is really broken into two related parts. The first part being the squandering of the enormous opportunity that the attacks of 9/11 provided the United States in terms of a mandate to exert its influence in the Muslim world in order to address the root causes of radical jihadist thinking. Sympathy with the United States was at an all time high immediately following the attacks, with leaders like Qadhafi condemning the attacks, the citizens of Iran holding empathetic candlelight vigils, and our traditional allies steadfast in their near unconditional support. With these advantageous cards to play, the Bush administration, in essence, folded.

Instead of using this powerful fulcrum as leverage to dislodge some of the stubbornly intractable, and perhaps otherwise unsolvable, conflicts that have been fueling the fires of jihadism, the Bush administration chose to ignore the unprecedented opportunity in favor of a militaristic action that only served to exacerbate the tensions with the Muslim world, augment the support for and popularity of radicals, extremists and jihadists, alienate our traditional allies, and convert the universal goodwill to almost unanimous hostility to the United States and its policies.

Early 2002 was the Administration's first chance to look beyond its initial retaliation in Afghanistan. This could have been a time to think broadly about America's vulnerabilities and to ask what problems might have been overlooked in the immediate response to 9/11. At this point the United States still had comfortable reserves of all elements of international power, "hard" and "soft" alike.

As the fighting wound down in Tora Bora, the Administration could in principle have matched a list of serious problems with a list of possible solutions. In his State of the Union speech, in late January, President Bush had named Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as an "axis of evil." The Administration might have weighed the relative urgency of those three threats, including uncontested evidence that North Korea was furthest along in developing nuclear weapons. It might have launched an all-out effort to understand al-Qaeda's strengths and weaknesses - and to exploit the weak points. It might have asked whether relations with Pakistan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia needed fundamental reconsideration. For decades we had struck an inglorious bargain with the regimes in those countries: we would overlook their internal repression and their role as havens for Islamic extremists; they would not oppose us on first-order foreign-policy issues - demonstrating, for instance, a relative moderation toward Israel. And the Saudis would be cooperative about providing oil. Maybe, after serious examination, this bargain would still seem to be the right one, despite the newly manifest dangers of Islamic extremism. But the time to ask the question was early in 2002.

The Administration might also have asked whether its approach to Israel and the Palestinians needed reconsideration. Before 9/11 it had declared a hands-off policy toward Israel and the PLO, but sooner or later all Bush's predecessors had come around to a "land for peace" bargain as the only plausible solution in the Middle East. The new Administration would never have more leverage or a more opportune moment for imposing such a deal than soon after it was attacked.

Conceivably the Administration could have asked other questions - about energy policy, about manpower in the military, about the fiscal base for a sustained war. This was an opportunity created by crisis. At the top level of the Administration attention swung fast, and with little discussion, exclusively to Iraq. This sent a signal to the working levels, where daily routines increasingly gave way to preparations for war, steadily denuding the organizations that might have been thinking about other challenges.

The Administration apparently did not consider questions like "If we pursue the war on terror by invading Iraq, might we incite even more terror in the long run?" and "If we commit so many of our troops this way, what possibilities will we be giving up?" But Bush "did not think of this, intellectually, as a comparative decision," I was told by Senator Bob Graham, of Florida, who voted against the war resolution for fear it would hurt the fight against terrorism. "It was a single decision: he saw Saddam Hussein as an evil person who had to be removed." The firsthand accounts of the Administration's decision-making indicate that the President spent most of his time looking at evidence of Saddam Hussein's threat, and significant but smaller amounts of time trying to build his coalition and hearing about the invasion plans. A man who participated in high-level planning for both Afghanistan and Iraq - and who is unnamed here because he still works for the government - told me, "There was absolutely no debate in the normal sense. There are only six or eight of them who make the decisions, and they only talk to each other. And if you disagree with them in public, they'll come after you, the way they did with Shinseki."
The reasons for the failure on Bush's part to address these festering conflicts that spawn the radicalism that threatens us, in favor of an invasion of Iraq, are debatable. Perhaps the Bush administration is stuck in a Cold War paradigm, viewing nation states as the primary actors and believing that removing leaders in some of these states will assuage the radical tendencies of the populace. Maybe Israeli influence is disproportionately high, and so objectives that are more pertinent to Israeli foreign policy goals than American aims, such as the toppling of Saddam, are implemented. It is possible that there are ulterior interests that have dominated the decision making process, such as the desire to maintain a robust military presence in the Middle East in perpetuity, and the related concern over securing an ample oil supply. It could very well be a confluence of all those rationales, but one things is certain, the Bush administration has consistently mis-stated the true nature of the threat from radical jihadists.

President Bush's first major speech after 9/11, on September 20, 2001, was one of the outstanding addresses given by a modern President. But it introduced a destructive concept that Bush used more and more insistently through 2002. "Why do they hate us?" he asked about the terrorists. He answered that they hate what is best in us: "They hate what we see right here in this chamber - a democratically elected government...They hate our freedoms - our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other." As he boiled down this thought in subsequent comments it became "They hate us for who we are" and "They hate us because we are free."

There may be people who have studied, fought against, or tried to infiltrate al-Qaeda and who agree with Bush's statement. But I have never met any. The soldiers, spies, academics, and diplomats I have interviewed are unanimous in saying that "They hate us for who we are" is dangerous claptrap. Dangerous because it is so lazily self-justifying and self-deluding: the only thing we could possibly be doing wrong is being so excellent. Claptrap because it reflects so little knowledge of how Islamic extremism has evolved.

"There are very few people in the world who are going to kill themselves so we can't vote in the Iowa caucuses," Michael Scheuer said to me. "But there's a lot of them who are willing to die because we're helping the Israelis, or because we're helping Putin against the Chechens, or because we keep oil prices low so Muslims lose money." Jeffrey Record said, "Clearly they do not like American society. They think it's far too libertine, democratic, Christian. But that's not the reason they attack us. If it were, they would have attacked a lot of other Western countries too. I don't notice them putting bombs in Norway. It's a combination of who we are and also our behavior." This summer's report of the 9/11 Commission, without associating this view with Bush, was emphatic in rejecting the "hate us for who we are" view. The commission said this about the motivation of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, whom it identified as the "mastermind of the 9/11 attacks": "KSM's animus toward the United States stemmed not from his experiences there as a student, but rather from his violent disagreement with U.S. foreign policy favoring Israel." In discussing long-term strategies for dealing with extremist groups the commission said, "America's policy choices have consequences. Right or wrong, it is simply a fact that American policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and American actions in Iraq are dominant staples of popular commentary across the Arab and Muslim world." The most striking aspect of the commission's analysis is that it offered any thoughts at all about the right long-term response to Islamic extremists. The 9/11 Commission was one of several groups seeking to fill the void left by the Administration's failure to put forward any comprehensive battle plan for a long-term campaign against terrorism. By its actions the Administration showed that the only terrorism problem it recognized was Saddam Hussein's regime, plus the al-Qaeda leaders shown on its "most wanted" lists.

The distinction between who we are and what we do matters, because it bears on the largest question about the Iraq War: Will it bring less or more Islamic terrorism? If violent extremism is purely vengeful and irrational, there is no hope except to crush it. Any brutality along the way is an unavoidable cost. But if it is based on logic of any sort, a clear understanding of its principles could help us to weaken its appeal - and to choose tactics that are not self-defeating...

"I have been saying for years, Osama bin Laden could never have done it without us," a civilian adviser to the Pentagon told me this summer. "We have continued to play to his political advantage and to confirm, in the eyes of his constituency, the very claims he made about us." Those claims are that the United States will travel far to suppress Muslims, that it will occupy their holy sites, that it will oppose the rise of Islamic governments, and that it will take their resources. "We got to Baghdad," Michael Scheuer said, "and the first thing Rumsfeld said is, 'We'll accept any government as long as it's not Islamic.' It draws their attention to bin Laden's argument that the United States is leading the West to annihilate Islam." The Administration had come a long way from the end-of-Ramadan ceremony at the White House. [emphasis added]
The crux of the second part of the narrative, that the administration's choices have hindered our tactical ability to confront threats, be they from radical jihadist terrorist organizations or rogue states like North Korea, is laid out in Fallows' introductory paragraph:

By deciding to invade Iraq, the Bush Administration decided not to do many other things: not to reconstruct Afghanistan, not to deal with the threats posed by North Korea and Iran, and not to wage an effective war on terror.
Although Fallows goes into greater detail throughout the body of the work, these summary paragraphs further flesh out the substance of the central tenets of his analysis:

Because of that shift, the United States succeeded in removing Saddam Hussein, but at this cost: The first front in the war on terror, Afghanistan, was left to fester, as attention and money were drained toward Iraq. This in turn left more havens in Afghanistan in which terrorist groups could reconstitute themselves; a resurgent opium-poppy economy to finance them; and more of the disorder and brutality the United States had hoped to eliminate. Whether or not the strong international alliance that began the assault on the Taliban might have brought real order to Afghanistan is impossible to say. It never had the chance, because America's premature withdrawal soon fractured the alliance and curtailed postwar reconstruction. Indeed, the campaign in Afghanistan was warped and limited from the start, by a pre-existing desire to save troops for Iraq.

A full inventory of the costs of war in Iraq goes on. President Bush began 2002 with a warning that North Korea and Iran, not just Iraq, threatened the world because of the nuclear weapons they were developing. With the United States preoccupied by Iraq, these other two countries surged ahead. They have been playing a game of chess, or nerves, against America - and if they have not exactly won, they have advanced by several moves. Because it lost time and squandered resources, the United States now has no good options for dealing with either country. It has fewer deployable soldiers and weapons; it has less international leverage through the "soft power" of its alliances and treaties; it even has worse intelligence, because so many resources are directed toward Iraq.

At the beginning of 2002 the United States imported over 50 percent of its oil. In two years we have increased that figure by nearly 10 percent. The need for imported oil is the fundamental reason the United States must be deferential in its relationship with Saudi Arabia. Revenue from that oil is the fundamental reason that extremist groups based in Saudi Arabia were so rich. After the first oil shocks, in the mid-1970s, the United States took steps that reduced its imports of Persian Gulf oil. The Bush Administration could have made similar steps a basic part of its anti-terrorism strategy, and could have counted on making progress: through most of 2002 the Administration could assume bipartisan support for nearly anything it proposed. But its only such suggestion was drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Before America went to war in Iraq, its military power seemed limitless. There was less need to actually apply it when all adversaries knew that any time we did so we would win. Now the limits on our military's manpower and sustainability are all too obvious. For example, the Administration announced this summer that in order to maintain troop levels in Iraq, it would withdraw 12,500 soldiers from South Korea. The North Koreans, the Chinese, the Iranians, the Syrians, and others who have always needed to take into account the chance of U.S. military intervention now realize that America has no stomach for additional wars. Before Iraq the U.S. military was turning away qualified applicants. Now it applies "stop-loss" policies that forbid retirement or resignation by volunteers, and it has mobilized the National Guard and Reserves in a way not seen since World War II.

Because of outlays for Iraq, the United States cannot spend $150 billion for other defensive purposes. Some nine million shipping containers enter American ports each year; only two percent of them are physically inspected, because inspecting more would be too expensive. The Department of Homeland Security, created after 9/11, is a vast grab-bag of federal agencies, from the Coast Guard to the Border Patrol to the former Immigration and Naturalization Service; ongoing operations in Iraq cost significantly more each month than all Homeland Security expenses combined. The department has sought to help cities large and small to improve their "first responder" systems, especially with better communications for their fire and emergency medical services. This summer a survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that fewer than a quarter of 231 major cities under review had received any of the aid they expected. An internal budget memo from the Administration was leaked this past spring. It said that outlays for virtually all domestic programs, including homeland security, would have to be cut in 2005 - and the federal budget deficit would still be more than $450 billion.

Worst of all, the government-wide effort to wage war in Iraq crowded out efforts to design a broader strategy against Islamic extremists and terrorists; to this day the Administration has articulated no comprehensive long-term plan. It dismissed out of hand any connection between policies toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and increasing tension with many Islamic states. Regime change in Iraq, it said, would have a sweeping symbolic effect on worldwide sources of terror. That seems to have been true - but in the opposite way from what the President intended. It is hard to find a counterterrorism specialist who thinks that the Iraq War has reduced rather than increased the threat to the United States.

And here is the startling part. There is no evidence that the President and those closest to him ever talked systematically about the "opportunity costs" and tradeoffs in their decision to invade Iraq. No one has pointed to a meeting, a memo, a full set of discussions, about what America would gain and lose.

Fallows also includes the accounts from such insiders as Michael Scheuer, a career CIA officer who spent the late 1990s as head of the agency's anti-bin Laden team who is also the "Anonymous" author of the book Imperial Hubris, and Laurence Pope, a former ambassador, who point to the fact that the limited intelligence assets within the government, such as Arabic speakers and Middle East experts, were diverted from the effort to track down al-Qaeda and instead redirected to the Iraqi theater. So, contrary to common sense, people were removed from the effort to track down the perpetrators of 9/11, and instead reassigned to Iraq, a country with no meaningful links to terrorism or the spread of radical jihadism. In the meantime, it looks like North Korea might have gone as far as to test a nuclear device as of this past week.

There is probably nothing groundbreaking in this Fallows article. Many of these arguments have been made before, and they will be made with increasing frequency in the future, eventually taking their place in history books whose eventual authors will enjoy the advantages of hindsight, and the clearness of vision extricated from the biases prevalent in a deeply partisan election year. But the value of Fallows' scholarship lies in the thoroughness of the account and the impassion in his voice. This is not a partisan screed, or an unfounded attack. It is an objective expose of how the mono-maniacal obsession with Saddam Hussein, that by all accounts preceded the attacks of 9/11 for Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Feith and other decision makers, has led to the catastrophic invasion of Iraq that has left this country vulnerable, unprotected, unpopular, overstretched, financially strained, and toothless, while strengthening the hand of our enemies who seek to do us harm.

The only shocking aspect of Fallows' piece is that it is not common knowledge; that most Americans still think Saddam was behind 9/11 and, more confounding still, that President Bush is strong on the "war on terror." It seems to be the best kept secret in the Beltway.

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