Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Iraq War and Daydream Believers

Fred Kaplan in his 2008 book Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power recalls the assumptions, events and interpretations of those events that led to the disaster known as the Iraq War, the 10th anniversary of whose formal start fell this week.

He looks at the assumption of quick-and-easy war promised by the "revolutionary in military affairs" which occupied military thinkers like Andrew Marshall, excited hardcore militarists like Dick Cheney and seduced neocon ideologues like Paul Wolfowitz, an assumption that was really another version of the perennial "boys with toys" phenomenon. A new weapon, a new technology, a new approach to military strategy, will upend the basic realities of war and even of history, so the thinking goes. Just during the Obama Administration, we've seen the blossoming of drone warfare as promising quick-and-easy military interventions and the cycle now seems to be passing into a phase in which the limitations and problems associated with the technology are more widely recognized. Not that it means the new technology goes away. The latest obsession with "cyberwar" shows symptoms of this problem.

In the case of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, the notion centered around concepts that became popularly known as "shock and awe." Go into a country like Iraq with our American superweapons, wipe the floor with the comparatively less prepared enemy force, knock out the leadership, and freedom and democracy will bloom. At least that's the form it had taken in the delusional daydreams that the Cheney-Bush Administration mistook for reality and that lead them to invade underestimating the real risks and bungling the intervention after the invasion very badly.

Kaplan has a real talent for understanding how military theories get translated into eventual policy. In Daydream Believers, he traces the notion of quick-and-easy victory through shock-and-awe from the end of the Cold War and the triumphalist attitude it generated in the US, through the Gulf War and the Kosovo War and into the initial phases of the Afghanistan War. A fatal problem with the faith in shock-and-awe was that it was conceived and gamed out in terms of the early phases of conventional military conflict, and in practice badly neglected the next phase, which in the theory's expectations would be postwar.

Mix these over-optimistic ideas about war with the arrogance and irresponsibility of the leading figures in the Bush Administration - the President himself, Rummy, Cheney, Colin Powell, Condi-Condi Rice, Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith and the rest of the rouges' gallery that became so familiar to the public and the world in 2002-3, and you get the fiascos that the Iraq War and the Afghanistan War became. Kaplan looks at how the arrogance and superficial assumptions of that team lead them to draw wildly unrealistic expectations of their influence on a country like North Korea. And he relates the sad story of the Cheney-Bush Administration's bumbling, fumbling handling of North Korea's nuclear proliferation issues.

And no account of the Iraq War should forgo the influence of our old friend, the scamster Ahmad Chalabi, and Kapland doesn't disappoint on that score.

Much of the story of the Iraq War he relates covers familiar ground, but he does so from the helpful perspective of theories of strategy and statecraft that had consequence far beyond the classroom. He describes, for instance, the influence of the conservative Russian-Israeli Natan Sharansky and simplistic ideas of good and evil in international affairs and the ease with which democracy would spring up in states of the Middle East liberated from oppressive regimes on the fundamentalist-minded Bush and his court. He quotes Sharansky, "I am convinced that all peoples desire to be free. I am convinced that freedom anywhere will make the world safer everywhere. And I am convinced that dmeocratic nations, led by the United States, have a critical role to play in expanding freedom around the globe."

One of the most important aspect of this book is Kaplan's attention to the Star Wars "missile defense" program, which the Cheney-Bush Administration promoted and spent far more money on that any Administration before. It also ran on the infamous wishful thinking of the Bush's national security team, in this case helped along enormously by the satisfaction it brought to the contractors building the giant boondoggle:

"Spending on missile defense continued soaring, to $10 billion a year and beyond, an amount much larger than the budget for any other single weapons program It remained a great boon for contractors. And Bush still believed in the idea," Kaplan writes, despite the repeatedly demonstrated fact in tests that it didn't work. "To cut back would be to admit that the idea was wrong, that the money spent so far - over $100 billion since Ronald Reagan sparked its revival nearly twenty years earlier - had been a waste. Maybe it would work one day. Some enemies might think it works now." That was the attitude the Administration adopted. When one reason for spending bizillions on the boondoggle didn't work, another excuse could be dreamed up.

In the end, moralistic arrogance and utopian schemes about remaking the world caused a lot more harm than good. "What was abandoned in the subsequent pursuit of absolute power and universal values," Kaplan concludes, "was the concept of statecraft - the art of conducing the affairs of state." The Administration's famous contempt for the need of allies showed how willing the Cheney crew were to dispense with elementary principles of international relations. As Kaplan puts it:

It's one thing to be a visionary, another to have visions. At serendipitous moments, a particularly powerful nation can try to reshape an agenda. But it can't toss away maps or ignore laws of physics just because they impose unpleasant restrictions. Those limits have to be taken into account, even if doing so means setting aside a great dream. Whatever their ultimate hopes, the leaders of nations have to survive and thrive among the common elements. They have to deal with the world as it is.
In a recent article, Kaplan recalls some of the The Coming Collapse of the Middle East? Slate 03/11/2013, Kaplan recalls an incident that showed the frivolity with which our Glorious Leader George W. Bush approved the invasion of Iraq:

Bush had been warned. Two months before the invasion, during Super Bowl weekend, three prominent Iraqi exiles paid a visit to the Oval Office. They were grateful and excited about the coming military campaign, but at one point in the meeting they stressed that U.S. forces would have to tamp down the sectarian tensions that would certainly reignite between Sunnis and Shiites in the wake of Saddam’s toppling. Bush looked at the exiles as if they were speaking Martian. They spent much of their remaining time, explaining to him that Iraq had two kinds of Arabs, whose quarrels dated back centuries. Clearly, he’d never heard about this before.

Many of Bush’s advisers did know something about this, but not as much as anyone launching a war in Iraq, and thus overhauling the country’s entire political order, should have known.

It wasn't rocket science; it was basic history. [my emphasis]
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