Saturday, September 09, 2006

In Praise of Repetition, Redundancy and Repeating Myself

Pardon me if I repeat myself, but as we've seen with the recent ABC "docu-drama" on the events leading up to, and including, 9/11 that relies so heavily on truthiness, history can be a malleable substance. Just ask history's insurgents over at the Weekly Standard who, with steely resolve and relentless determination, use rhetorical asymmetrical warfare to "prevent truth from winning." In that sense, history can be seen as a struggle to ensure that empirical evidence, fact and accuracy triumph over politically motivated mendacity, misinformation and revisionism. To the victors go the spoils. At times, though, the effort to preserve the notion of truth can feel like beating a dead horse - actually more like pulverizing the horse to a pulp of glue.

But it all serves a purpose. If you don't believe me about history's moldability, just ask someone why we failed to achieve our objectives in Vietnam. Better yet, compare the conventional wisdom that was prevalent 30 years ago, with that of today.

I think, for the most part, there was a consensus opinion 30 years ago (as we disengaged from the conflict) that we were pursuing a flawed strategy with tools that weren't conducive to success, that our mission had failed to achieve more than a bloody and costly stalemate (if that) and that there was little indication that prospects going forward were promising or indicative of an imminent change in fortune. On a fundamental level, as became clearer in the aftermath, we had overestimated the regional domino threat, we didn't appreciate the nature of the conflict (nationalist struggle vs. proxy for external powers) and did not implement tactics and strategies to match.

But this is by no means a settled issue. To hear it discussed today in certain circles, the loss in Vietnam was a self-inflicted wound - but not for the reasons laid out above. Instead, it is argued, our biggest failing was lacking the will and tenacity to win. We were this close to pulling it off, honest, but then Jane Fonda made us leave. Right on the eve of total victory. Just as the Vietnamese people were coming around to view us as saviors and protectors, we "cut and ran." According to this theory, the way to make a defective policy work is just to redouble your efforts. If you push the square peg hard enough, it will eventually squeeze into the round hole.

These arguments should sound familiar to those paying attention to the current debate about the wisdom of our military engagement in Iraq - and even the debate about opening up new fronts in Syria and Iran. As Matt Yglesias pointed out, there is a resurgence of the Green Lantern theory of military engagement - with Vietnam as its backbone. To our peril I would add. A tweak in the historical record thus paves the way for a re-casting of the present history unfolding in the wake of the Bush administration's Middle East agenda. This allows for recurring errors.

Therefore, if we want to enable history to become an effective tutor, one that can guide us away from the doom of repeated mistakes, we must first secure the impartiality and truthfulness of the curriculum.

That is why it is important to resist efforts by ABC to rewrite events in the Clinton administration. That is why we must trumpet and broadcast the fact that the Senate Intelligence Committee has come to the conclusion that there were no ties between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. Every aspect of this narrative, from WMD to ties to terrorism, must be preserved intact.

Even if many of us are familiar with the basic truth of these matters - with eyes glazing over at the repetition - many Americans, if not most, are still operating under false impressions about WMD, Saddam-Qaeda links and other duplicity fostered by history's insurgents. The mission, so to speak, is far from accomplished. It behooves us all to tolerate the repetition and redundancy. It has a value.

And even if the champions of empiricism are able to make gains and turn the tide of American opinion in the near term, history's insurgents will not concede defeat. They will simply hammer away at the truth from the minority position until they can fog up events to suit their purposes at some point down the road. Revisionists are by nature a patient lot. As a bulwark, we must catalogue and defend every facet of the larger picture, every shred of credible evidence.

With this in mind, the story discussed by Kevin Drum yesterday and today deserves a fuller airing. The details are actually quite astounding. The article cited by Drum contains an interview with retiring Brigadier General Mark Scheid, who was commander of the Army Transportation Corps and was involved in the planning for the war in Iraq. Not only involved in a perfunctory role, Scheid was one of "five or six" upper level planners involved in the process, so his version of events is deserving of attention. And what a version it is.

Shockingly, according to Scheid, Rumsfeld forcefully forbade his military men from planning for the post-invasion landscape. He wasn't merely negligent in his oversight, or over-confident to a fault. He would not even allow a discussion of the invasion's aftermath.

Months before the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld forbade military strategists from developing plans for securing a post-war Iraq, the retiring commander of the Army Transportation Corps said Thursday.

"The secretary of defense continued to push on us ... that everything we write in our plan has to be the idea that we are going to go in, we're going to take out the regime, and then we're going to leave," Scheid said. "We won't stay."

Scheid said the planners continued to try "to write what was called Phase 4," or the piece of the plan that included post-invasion operations like occupation.

Even if the troops didn't stay, "at least we have to plan for it," Scheid said.

"I remember the secretary of defense saying that he would fire the next person that said that," Scheid said. "We would not do planning for Phase 4 operations, which would require all those additional troops that people talk about today.

"He said we will not do that because the American public will not back us if they think we are going over there for a long war."

...."In his own mind he thought we could go in and fight and take out the regime and come out. But a lot of us planners were having a real hard time with it because we were also thinking we can't do this. Once you tear up a country you have to stay and rebuild it. It was very challenging."

Rumsfeld actually threatened to fire the next person that raised the issue of post-invasion planning. Jaw, meet floor. Let that sink in for a moment. Kevin Drum takes the next logical step:

And this also means that all of Bush's talk about democracy was nothing but hot air. If you're serious about planting democracy after a war, you don't plan to simply topple a government and then leave.

So: the lack of postwar planning wasn't merely the result of incompetence. It was deliberate policy. There was never any intention of rebuilding Iraq and there was never any intention of wasting time on democracy promotion. That was merely a post hoc explanation after we failed to find the promised WMD. Either that or BG Scheid is lying.

Another plausible explanation would be that there was an intention to stay longer, but there was fear of losing public support if such designs were made public (as alluded to by Scheid and considered by Drum). But that seems like a bit of a stretch to me. Couldn't a Phase 4 plan have been drafted as a "just in case" contingency measure - and explained away to the American public in such a manner while maintaining the feel-good assurances of ease as promulgated by Wolfowitz, et al?

I don't remember there being any significant pushback in public opinion at the time regardless, much to my consternation. The cynical exploitation of the fears and raw nerves resulting from 9/11 had served its purpose: the American people were on board the Baghdad express, and a little talk about worst-case-scenario Phase 4 planning (if leaked) wasn't going to derail it. Therefore, demanding such willful neglect of Phase 4 planning from top generals would have been beyond overkill.

This discussion reminds me of George Packer's treatment, in the Assassin's Gate, of Jay Garner's team that was initially pegged to run the occupation immediately after the invasion. According to Packer, Garner and his sparsely populated team had no clear direction from Rumsfeld et al, no real power in terms of making decisions, they were, generally speaking, out of their league regardless and thus more or less stumbled around in those crucial weeks wondering what, exactly, their task was and how to accomplish it. That wasn't the type of team to put together if long term occupation and massive societal transformation was on the agenda.

If the Bush administration were really trying to conceal their democracy promoting, long-term agenda in Iraq from the American people, they went to rather extraordinary lengths to perfect the subterfuge. I would say too clever by half, but that looks like the whole enchilada. It was either the most astounding level of incompetence in the history of American foreign policy planning, or a dishonest justification clung to when the earlier rationales vanished. Take your pick.

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