Monday, November 28, 2005

The Long View

Seymour Hersh has written a long article for The New Yorker on the war in Iraq, and I am left with two impressions after reading it: that anyone who hopes for a swift and neat end to the war is going to be sorely disappointed, and the president is leading this war based not on realistic guidance from the sober judgement of military leaders but some divine mission. Both are, to be blunt, scary prospects.

To the first point, Hersh notes that once the ground campaign has run its course, it will be turned over to airpower.

A key element of the drawdown plans, not mentioned in the President’s public statements, is that the departing American troops will be replaced by American airpower. Quick, deadly strikes by U.S. warplanes are seen as a way to improve dramatically the combat capability of even the weakest Iraqi combat units. The danger, military experts have told me, is that, while the number of American casualties would decrease as ground troops are withdrawn, the over-all level of violence and the number of Iraqi fatalities would increase unless there are stringent controls over who bombs what.

“We’re not planning to diminish the war,” Patrick Clawson, the deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me. Clawson’s views often mirror the thinking of the men and women around Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. “We just want to change the mix of the forces doing the fighting—Iraqi infantry with American support and greater use of airpower. The rule now is to commit Iraqi forces into combat only in places where they are sure to win. The pace of commitment, and withdrawal, depends on their success in the battlefield.”

He continued, “We want to draw down our forces, but the President is prepared to tough this one out. There is a very deep feeling on his part that the issue of Iraq was settled by the American people at the polling places in 2004.” The war against the insurgency “may end up being a nasty and murderous civil war in Iraq, but we and our allies would still win,” he said. “As long as the Kurds and the Shiites stay on our side, we’re set to go. There’s no sense that the world is caving in. We’re in the middle of a seven-year slog in Iraq, and eighty per cent of the Iraqis are receptive to our message.”

One Pentagon adviser told me, “There are always contingency plans, but why withdraw and take a chance? I don’t think the President will go for it”—until the insurgency is broken. “He’s not going to back off. This is bigger than domestic politics.”

If you are old enough to remember the last years of the war in Vietnam, this plan will sound very familiar. As it became clear to the Americans in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s that winning the war on the ground was a losing proposition, especially after the Tet offensive in 1968, high-altitude bombing (“Rolling Thunder”) became the modus operandi. It was not very precise, but it had the impact (no pun intended) of making the war louder and more destructive for both the North Vietnamese and any civilians who happened to be within a couple of kilometers of the target. And it didn’t work. By the time the peace accords were signed in January 1973 the Vietcong pretty much had what they wanted and could wait us out, which they did until April 1975. There is no sign that the situation in Iraq will be any different other than instead of hiding in the jungles, the insurgents will wait us out in the deserts and small towns.

Within the military, the prospect of using airpower as a substitute for American troops on the ground has caused great unease. For one thing, Air Force commanders, in particular, have deep-seated objections to the possibility that Iraqis eventually will be responsible for target selection. “Will the Iraqis call in air strikes in order to snuff rivals, or other warlords, or to snuff members of your own sect and blame someone else?” another senior military planner now on assignment in the Pentagon asked. “Will some Iraqis be targeting on behalf of Al Qaeda, or the insurgency, or the Iranians?”

“It’s a serious business,” retired Air Force General Charles Horner, who was in charge of allied bombing during the 1991 Gulf War, said. “The Air Force has always had concerns about people ordering air strikes who are not Air Force forward air controllers. We need people on active duty to think it out, and they will. There has to be training to be sure that somebody is not trying to get even with somebody else.” (Asked for a comment, the Pentagon spokesman said there were plans in place for such training. He also noted that Iraq had no offensive airpower of its own, and thus would have to rely on the United States for some time.)

The American air war inside Iraq today is perhaps the most significant—and underreported—aspect of the fight against the insurgency. The military authorities in Baghdad and Washington do not provide the press with a daily accounting of missions that Air Force, Navy, and Marine units fly or of the tonnage they drop, as was routinely done during the Vietnam War. One insight into the scope of the bombing in Iraq was supplied by the Marine Corps during the height of the siege of Falluja in the fall of 2004. “With a massive Marine air and ground offensive under way,” a Marine press release said, “Marine close air support continues to put high-tech steel on target…. Flying missions day and night for weeks, the fixed wing aircraft of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing are ensuring battlefield success on the front line.” Since the beginning of the war, the press release said, the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing alone had dropped more than five hundred thousand tons of ordnance. “This number is likely to be much higher by the end of operations,” Major Mike Sexton said. In the battle for the city, more than seven hundred Americans were killed or wounded; U.S. officials did not release estimates of civilian dead, but press reports at the time told of women and children killed in the bombardments.

I can’t speak from a military standpoint, but from the view of winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, this sounds like not such a good idea. And this also leads to another element in chasing down the insurgency; following them across the border to neighboring states.

Meanwhile, as the debate over troop reductions continues, the covert war in Iraq has expanded in recent months to Syria. A composite American Special Forces team, known as an S.M.U., for “special-mission unit,” has been ordered, under stringent cover, to target suspected supporters of the Iraqi insurgency across the border. (The Pentagon had no comment.) “It’s a powder keg,” the Pentagon consultant said of the tactic. “But, if we hit an insurgent network in Iraq without hitting the guys in Syria who are part of it, the guys in Syria would get away. When you’re fighting an insurgency, you have to strike everywhere—and at once.”

That has a familiar ring back to Vietnam as well; invading Syria is parallel to the incursions into Cambodia and Laos in 1970, and we all know how successful those were both in accomplishing their military goal and in encouraging support from the citizenry at home.

The second element of this article is perhaps the more disturbing; that of a president who believes he is on a mission in both senses of the word.

Bush’s closest advisers have long been aware of the religious nature of his policy commitments. In recent interviews, one former senior official, who served in Bush’s first term, spoke extensively about the connection between the President’s religious faith and his view of the war in Iraq. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the former official said, he was told that Bush felt that “God put me here” to deal with the war on terror. The President’s belief was fortified by the Republican sweep in the 2002 congressional elections; Bush saw the victory as a purposeful message from God that “he’s the man,” the former official said. Publicly, Bush depicted his reëlection as a referendum on the war; privately, he spoke of it as another manifestation of divine purpose.

The former senior official said that after the election he made a lengthy inspection visit to Iraq and reported his findings to Bush in the White House: “I said to the President, ‘We’re not winning the war.’ And he asked, ‘Are we losing?’ I said, ‘Not yet.’ ” The President, he said, “appeared displeased” with that answer.

“I tried to tell him,” the former senior official said. “And he couldn’t hear it.”


“The President is more determined than ever to stay the course,” the former defense official said. “He doesn’t feel any pain. Bush is a believer in the adage ‘People may suffer and die, but the Church advances.’ ” He said that the President had become more detached, leaving more issues to Karl Rove and Vice-President Cheney. “They keep him in the gray world of religious idealism, where he wants to be anyway,” the former defense official said. Bush’s public appearances, for example, are generally scheduled in front of friendly audiences, most often at military bases. Four decades ago, President Lyndon Johnson, who was also confronted with an increasingly unpopular war, was limited to similar public forums. “Johnson knew he was a prisoner in the White House,” the former official said, “but Bush has no idea.”

It is one thing to believe that you are right and have the determination to follow what you believe is the correct course in executing a policy. We expect that from our leaders; we trust them to make wise decisions in the name of the country, its interests, and its citizens. It is, however, another thing when you seem to believe that you are on a holy mission and that the hand of God is guiding you. As John Lennon said, “Whatever gets you through the night,” and I’m fine with it if President Bush prays and seeks help from his higher power to guide him through this war, even if he started it himself, which should put him in dire straights with that higher power in the first place. But when you tell your advisors and just about anyone who will listen that God put you here to do His work, and don’t suffer bad news well, it doesn’t exactly radiate confidence in both your leadership capability or, frankly, your mental state. We’re getting into dangerous territory when a president thinks he is the only one empowered to lead the people and he receives his guidance exclusively from above.

So while the House and Senate may debate at length whether or not to withdraw and under what timetable or demand quarterly reports on the progress of the war, it would seem to be only so much sailboat fuel; this administration, either intentionally or otherwise, has set us on a long course for a war that will not end with the drama of a surrender on the deck of the USS Missouri or a signing ceremony in Paris. The lessons of Vietnam — the last American war fought for political reasons — have not been learned because the people who are running this war either refused to pay attention the last time or thought they were smarter than the last guy. Perhaps Mr. Bush should remember another lesson from the Bible; Proverbs, to be exact: “Pride goeth before a fall.”