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The Hubris of the Neocons | The Nation

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Capital Games

 Washington: a city of denials, spin, and political calculations. The Nation's former DC editor David Corn spent 2002-2007 blogging on the policies, personalities and lies that spew out of the nation's capital. The complete archive appears below. Corn is now the DC editor at Mother Jones.

The Hubris of the Neocons

It took US policymakers and the American public many years, perhaps decades, to realize that hubris--arrogant and uninformed self-confidence--had played a crucial and negative role in the Vietnam tragedy. As Richard Helms, the CIA director for much of the Vietnam War, said in 1981, "We were dealing with a complicated cultural and ethnic problem which we never came to understand. In other words, it was our ignorance or innocence, if you will, which led us to misassess, not comprehend, and make a lot of wrong decisions, which one way or another helped to affect the outcome." This time out, the nation is more fortunate: the perils of hubris have become evident within days of the first attack.

The year-long run-up to the war allowed for much debate: why it was needed (or why not), what it would take to win, how the Iraqis and the rest of the world would react. Most advocates of war argued that it would not be a difficult endeavor and that the Iraqis would be grateful for a US invasion and welcome what American war-backers called "liberation."

Neither of those propositions has panned out. Yes, it's early. But the point was that the collapse of the Iraqi forces and the dancing in the streets would happen early. Shortly before the war was launched, Vice President Dick Cheney predicted Saddam Hussein's troops would "step aside" and that victory would take "weeks rather than months." His remarks reflected the argument that war advocates--led by Washington's neoconservatives--had been pushing for over a year.

Immediately after September 11, according to Bob Woodward's book Bush at War, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz tried to convince President Bush to attack Iraq rather than Afghanistan, maintaining that Hussein's government was a brittle regime that could crumble easily, that Iraq was a pushover and Afghanistan was not. In February 2002, Kenneth Adelman, an assistant to Donald Rumsfeld in the 1970s and now a leading neoconservative defense intellectual, wrote, "demolishing Hussein's military power and liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk." He predicted that Saddam Hussein would quickly fall if the US military attacked his "headquarters, communications, air defenses and fixed military facilities through precision bombing."

In his book, The Right Man, neocon David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter, suggests that the war in Afghanistan demonstrated that Iraq could be taken with "ten thousand men and a few hundred planes." Throughout the previous year, I often spoke with TV generals in favor of the war, and most were claiming the war would be short and sweet. Their scenarios usually began this way: Day One, we take Basra. (That, of course, didn't happen.) Then, within days, the US forces would be outside of Baghdad and controlling most of the rest of the country. What about Baghdad? I asked repeatedly. The answer was always some variant of, that will take care of itself. In other words, the regime will collapse, an anti-Hussein coup will occur, the dictator will flee, or something will happen to make the invasion of the city unnecessary. This jibed with what a prominent Pentagon correspondent told me late last year: the military had a wonderful five-day plan for the war, a plan that ended with US forces ringing Baghdad. Then there was no plan.

And last May, Richard Perle, then the chairman of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board and the godfather of Washington's hawks, told me it would not be necessary to amass a force of 250,000 troops to solve the Hussein problem. What was the Perle plan? To use 40,000 troops to grab control of the north and the south, particularly where the oil fields are located. Cut off Hussein's oil, Perle said, and he would tumble. What surprised me was not his belief that Iraq could be conquered so easily, but his disdain for the leaders of the military services. As he described his take-Baghdad-by-Tuesday scheme, his voice dripped with contempt for the wimpy generals and admirals who insisted on deploying hundreds of thousands. His lack of confidence in overly-cautious military commanders might have been warranted, but if Perle's attitude was at all representative of the civilian leadership of the Pentagon, it was clear trouble was brewing. It would be hard for the military to prosecute a war if the civilians and the brass were at war with one another. It's true that Perle's proposal has not been put to the test, but after the first week-and-a-half of fighting, it does appear safe and fair to say that he was utterly out of touch with reality, that a smaller and lighter force would not have done better and achieved a "cakewalk" success.

And what of the war of liberation? President Bush termed it so, as did Rumsfeld. Many pro-war commentators practically promised the troops would be met by garlands and gushing Iraqis. To date, that has not happened. A question: is it a war of liberation if the "liberated" ones don't consider it so? When John Donvan, an unembedded ABC reporter visited "liberated" Safwan, a Southern border town, he found the residents there more resentful than appreciative. "They saw the US-led invasion as a takeover, not liberation," he recounted. Toward the end of the first week of war, there were news reports that thousands Iraqi exiles in Jordan, some of whom had previously fled Iraq to escape Hussein's repression, were heading back to Iraq (or considering doing so) to join the fight--not against Hussein, but against the United States. It wasn't that they were rushing to defend Hussein. They wanted to protect their homeland from a US invasion. To these people, this is not a war of liberation. And the Iranian-based leader of the Shi'ite opposition in the South issued a statement urging his followers in Iraq not to rise up, not to support the American invasion of Iraq (and not to fight for Hussein either).

On March 31, the London Times reported that refugees outside Basra were throwing stones at British forces. "British soldiers sitting on their Warrior vehicle," the story noted, "looked stunned when a couple of packets of sweets that they had thrown to children were hurled back by their fathers." Several thousand refugees fleeing the city have been forced to pass single-file through a checkpoint. The Brits did not bother to have translators present who could explain why they were making people faint with heat and dehydration wait. Nor did they have water or medical assistance for these Iraqis. One refugee, who shook his fist at the British, told a reporter, "I have no love for Saddam, but tell me how are we better off today when there is no power, no water. There are dead bodies lying on our streets, and my children are scared to go to bed because of the shelling."

It may well be that if the US and British forces achieve military success, a wary Iraqi public might express gratitude. Memories are long, and Iraqis remember that they were urged in 1991 by the United States to rebel against Hussein and that those who heeded the call were slaughtered. Some US commentators who asserted the Iraqis would respond positively to a war of liberation have lately been saying, patience, patience. But timing may not be everything in this regard. As Judith Kipper, director of the Middle East Forum, notes, Iraqi resentment may be deep-rooted: "They're losing their sovereignty. That's not something a very proud, fierce, nationalist people will accept very easily….Iraqis will be happy Saddam Hussein is gone. But they will not be happy to be occupied."

From a comfortable office in a Washington think tank--or the People's House?-- it probably was easy to gaze at Iraq and "the long-suffering Iraqi people" (as Bush put it) and see the obvious. Why wouldn't they welcome being freed from a brutal, murderous tyrant who reportedly fed opponents into a wood-chipper? It was also easy to dismiss the Iraqi military. Why would anyone fight for such a regime, particularly when the outcome was so obvious? Yet the people have not mounted uprisings and embraced Bush's war, and the Iraqi soldiers and paramilitary squads have fought back. They must be fighting for something. Or against something.

Perhaps the soldiers and thugs--threatened or intimidated by Hussein's regime or not-- are only resisting out of self-preservation. Whatever the motivation, their ability to defy the US military seems to have caught our leaders and war advocates by surprise. Bush and his supporters often compare the struggle against Iraq to the battle against fascism. But did the people of Germany rebel against the Nazi dictatorship? Did the German military roll over? It was the people of France, occupied by a foreign power, who were glad to see the Yanks--not the Germans, who, like the Iraqis of today, lived under a brutal homegrown regime. What reasons did US policymakers and the pundits have for believing events in Iraq would follow their expectations? Was it too inconvenient for them to factor in Iraqi nationalism or resentment? Or were they unaware such sentiments might become sand in the gears? Their hubris came in projecting American assumptions (or wishes) upon the realities of Iraq.

Maybe the optimistic predictions will still come to pass--the Iraqi regime and military falls apart and Iraqis celebrate their liberation and then work with the postwar occupation to establish a democratic and prosperous Iraq. But if hubris helped pave the way to as-of-yet-untaken Basra, such countermeasures as humility and understanding ought to be introduced into the US arsenal as postwar plans are drafted. Let's hope the United States is soon in a position to use them.

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