Thursday, November 30, 2006

Overactive Imagination

There's literally so much valuable commentary in Mark Danner's piece in the New York Review of Books (a tripartite review of Suskind's One Percent Doctrine, Woodward's State of Denial and James Risen's State of War) that I've been putting off commenting on it by virtue of how daunting the task of summarizing this work has seemed. I still don't know how to do it justice other than to say that it is quite simply must read material. Do yourself a favor.

For me, Danner's piece fills in many of the blanks, and provides explanations to many of the nagging inconsistencies in the overall narrative - stubborn loose ends that have stuck out like the untied shoelaces of closure.

Chief among them, Danner examines the cleavages in the White House that formed around the notion of what should be the ultimate purpose of the war: for some (Rumsfeld, Cheney), invading Iraq in a lightning quick, in-out, operation was a means of reasserting America's might in a part of the world that was in desperate need of a reminder. This passage from Woodward's book quoting Henry Kissinger captures this thinking well:

"Because Afghanistan wasn't enough," Kissinger answered. In the conflict with radical Islam, he said, they want to humiliate us. "And we need to humiliate them." The American response to 9/11 had essentially to be more than proportionate-on a larger scale than simply invading Afghanistan and overthrowing the Taliban. Something else was essential. The Iraq war was essential to send a larger message, "in order to make a point that we're not going to live in this world that they want for us."

For others (Bush, Wolfowitz) there was a more ideological, if misguided, belief that we should dedicate time, resources and manpower to a nation-building, transformative effort that would send democratic dominoes tumbling outward from Iraq with all their supposed terrorism-eradicating characteristics.

While the revelation of the existence of these disparate objectives, even so high up the chain of command, might not be new, Danner is able to cull his sources in order to show how this tension caused some of the most obvious, and regrettable, mistakes of the occupation. It doesn't take much to see how the two opposing missions would require vastly different means, tactics, strategies and associated planning. Unfortunately, the leaders in charge never did come to a consensus or settle on one version, and the result was a schizophrenic approach that in the end guaranteed failure for all.

One such result was the lack of a postwar plan for governance. Risen's book, as excerpted by Danner, has some of the relevant details:

the Pentagon believed it had the silver bullet it needed to avoid messy nation building-a provisional government in exile, built around Chalabi, could be established and then brought in to Baghdad after the invasion.

This so-called "turnkey operation" seems to have appeared to be the perfect compromise plan: Chalabi was Shiite, as were most Iraqis, but he was also a secularist who had lived in the West for nearly fifty years and was close to many of the Pentagon civilians. Alas, there was one problem: the confirmed idealist in the White House "was adamant that the United States not be seen as putting its thumb on the scales" of the nascent Iraqi democracy. Chalabi, for all his immense popularity in the Pentagon and in the Vice President's office, would not be installed as president of Iraq.

Though "Bush's commitment to democracy was laudable," as Risen observes, his awkward intervention "was not really the answer to the question of postwar planning." He goes on:

Once Bush quashed the Pentagon's plans, the administration failed to develop any acceptable alternative.... Instead, once the Pentagon realized the president wasn't going to let them install Chalabi, the Pentagon leadership did virtually nothing. After Chalabi, there was no Plan B.

An unnamed White House official describes to Risen the Laurel-and-Hardy consequences within the government of the President's attachment to the idea of democratic elections in Iraq:

Part of the reason the planning for post-Saddam Iraq was so nonexistent was that the State Department had been saying if you invade, you have to plan for the postwar. And DOD said, no you don't. You can set up a provisional government in exile around Chalabi. DOD had a stupid plan, but they had a plan. But if you don't do that plan, and you don't make the Pentagon work with State to develop something else, then you go to war with no plan.

In addition, Danner's review provides an explanation for the decision to send in Jay Garner with only a skeleton crew of advisors, with limited resources and mandate, to oversee the entire reconstruction effort (Rumsfeld remained opposed to nation building up through the invasion and the aftermath itself, and DOD was calling the shots with the White House cut out of the loop in many respects). This bit from Woodward's book is a frightening look at just how out of the loop the White House was, to the extent that they didn't even realize it:

There are two chains of command, Powell told the president. Garner reports to Rumsfeld and Franks reports to Rumsfeld.

The president looked surprised.

"That's not right," Rice said. "That's not right."

Powell thought Rice could at times be pretty sure of herself, but he was pretty sure he was right. "Yes, it is," Powell insisted.

"Wait a minute," Bush interrupted, taking Rice's side. "That doesn't sound right."

Rice got up and went to her office to check. When she came back, Powell thought she looked a little sheepish. "That's right," she said.

Then, of course, come the fateful decisions to disband the Iraqi army and undertake a policy of far-reaching de-Baathification (policies that came out of the blue, alarmed many involved in the process, yet whose ultimate authorship was denied and passed around so frequently, no opponent knew where to direct the complaints).

The chain of command, as we know, goes through Rumsfeld, and Garner gets on the phone and appeals to the secretary of defense, who tells him- and this will be a leitmotif in Woodward's book-that the matter is out of his hands:

"This is not coming from this building," [Rumsfeld] replied. "That came from somewhere else."

Garner presumed that meant the White House, NSC or Cheney. According to other participants, however, the de-Baathification order was purely a Pentagon creation. Telling Garner it came from somewhere else, though, had the advantage for Rumsfeld of ending the argument.

That is just a taste, however. The main course is much more satisfying. Danner's is a careful anatomy of a catastrophe, finally bringing together under one roof much of what is probably known to many, and much of what is not, in a finely woven narrative. Again, go read.

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