Fox News Channel is considered by many to be pro-Bush, pro-war, and pro-occupation. Yet one of the harsher critics in the media of the Bush administration’s postwar actions has been retired Major Bob Bevelacqua, a Fox News military analyst. “Major Bob,” as he is called on air, served thirteen years in the Army Special Forces, which included a nation-building stint in Haiti. He also put in three years at the Pentagon. Fox enlisted him as a commentator eight days after 9/11. When not deconstructing developments in Iraq for Fox viewers, he works with William Cowan, another former military officer who is a Fox analyst, in a company trying to provide security assistance to the U.S. occupation authority and private enterprises in Iraq. Bevelacqua, who supported going to war on the grounds that Saddam Hussein was a brutal tyrant and a threat to stability in the region but not a direct threat to the United States, is clearly unhappy with the whole contracting process under way in Iraq–which certainly colors his opinions, as does his time in the Special Forces. After hearing him challenge the administration’s handling of the occupation on the air and in the corridors of the Fox News Washington bureau–I, too, am a Fox News contributor–I asked Bevelacqua to spell out his objections and talk about what he saw in Iraq during a recent month-long visit there.
What’s going wrong in Iraq?
We didn’t make the transition from a conventional war to an unconventional war. That occurred when President Bush said the major combat is over and now we focus on the rebuilding. We were still fighting in a conventional mindset–war done, move on to the postwar–when we needed to be fighting in an unconventional mindset against what was now an unconventional enemy.
Was it unforeseen that the invasion of Iraq would lead to a vicious insurgency? Was there no plan for that?
It was unforeseen by the politicos, but it was foreseen by the guys who had worked in and around the military. Some were looking down the road and thinkin [bad text] tion Provisional Authority (CPA) would look like and who some of the key players would be. They took questions, and I asked two questions. First, what are you going to do with the military? Then what are you going to do with the police? There was no answer. I got a shoulder shrug: “We don’t know.” So I got on my soap box for 30 seconds and went over what happened in Haiti and the lessons learned. We got the military to become police there. We changed their uniforms and changed their appearances. We gave them classes on human rights. We did not collapse them. The reaction was silence, “Thank you very much, next question.” A few of us looked at each other and raised our eyebrows. After the meeting some of us huddled up in the hallway and said, “We don’t have a plan.” In the small circle that I run within, the Special. Forces, this way of doing business is known as a “guided discovery.”
What does that mean?
Go over there and make it up as you go along. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, we’ll try something else. That’s fine if you’re making chocolate bars. In this context in the Middle East, it is a recipe for failure–which is what we have at the moment, though that can be changed.
It really was avoidable. Every administration does the exact same thing. You bring in your connected friends and allies, and you give them jobs, appoint them as Cabinet secretaries and other officials. Some do a good job. Some have no skills to do the job. As a prime example I would use [national security adviser] Condoleezza Rice. What does she have in her past experience to allow her to advise the president on all this? She’s a Soviet Union expert.
There are a lot of smart guys in the Pentagon, and the ones with the ability to come up with a realistic plan are not going to be heard–especially if they challenge the ideology of the guys in charge. Now I think what we see in Iraq is a classic mission for the Army Special Forces–a mission heavy with civil affairs and psychological operations. It is all about working with the indigenous population of Iraq, period. The Army has doctrine on how to conduct these types of affairs. And it has flat-out been ignored.
If the military–particularly Special Forces–has the experience to do nation-building in conjunction with counterinsurgency, why haven’t things gone better?
We put civilians in charge–the CAP–and that was because the Pentagon and White House wanted to control the war without having to go through the military. Now that we are in the phase when large amounts of money are being let out in contracts and private industry has to be brought in, that all has to be controlled by the White House. Is it a coincidence that one of the largest companies that was awarded a contract in Iraq is aligned with Dick Cheney?
I recently spent a month in Iraq, and I did a lot of listening and not much talking, which is not characteristic for me. The way the Iraqis see it–and they call it very accurately–is that there is a lot of corruption in how the CPA has been handling contracts with Halliburton, Bechtel, and the subcontractors. It upsets Iraqis to see subcontractors brought in from South Africa, Germany, England, India and elsewhere to do simple contracts that are not high-tech. They feel those opportunities for work should go to the Iraqi people. It is their nation; they should probably be involved in rebuilding it.
As you know, there’s been some debate here about the media coverage of security in Iraq, with the White House and its supporters claiming that the media has played up stories about the security problems in Iraq. What did you see there?
The security situation as a whole is nonexistent. In certain areas and sectors, it is pretty good. But the first day I got there in October somebody parked a car bomb outside the gates of the compound where our offices are in Baghdad. That first night, mortar attacks were fired from the area I lived in, which is only a kilometer or so from where the 82nd Airborne is based. If they could get that close to the Americans and fire mortars, I don’t know how anyone can argue that security is good.
The enemy has the ability to fire when and where they like. That’s because the civilian population is allowing them to do that. And that’s because we have not embraced that civilian population. We have isolated ourselves in Saddam castle behind concrete barriers. Think of the irony of this. We put ourselves in the castles from where he dominated and repressed that country. Who do we look like? The members of the interim council had to be searched before they would be allowed to enter their offices. It was a slap in the face, and they could see foreign subcontractors coming and going into the CAP offices just by flashing an ID card. This is totally unacceptable.
Three days before I left, an explosive charge was placed underneath the generator for our office. The blast took out the generator and blew out a portion of the glass in the office. We feel we were attacked because we were advertising what we were trying to do–that is, use Iraqis to develop information and intelligence that can be used to provide security. None of our guys were hurt. But when the attack came, the security guards we had at our offices disappeared right before the explosion. And the Iraqi who was providing us these security guards–a prominent sheik from Mosul–is working for the U.S. military, too.
Does the Bush administration have a good bead on who–and what–it is fighting in Iraq?
I’ve seen lists of insurgent forces they have developed, and they’re missing one category: disenfranchised and disillusioned Iraqis. They don’t recognize that as a potential group these people can create havoc. They think they’re onlookers. But these people don’t have any jobs. So when they are approached by people in the insurgency with a handful of money and asked to shoot at Americans or plant a bomb, they say, sure, we’ll do it. They think there is still a chance that Saddam Hussein will come back to power and then it will have been a smart move to have helped the insurgency.
How angry should the American public be, if at all?
The public deserves to know the truth. There is so much cheerleading on TV. They’re not getting the truth. Most pundits care about getting Bush in or out of office. Its politics at its worst. The White House is doing what all White Houses do–spinning. They give their take, which most of the time I find to be inaccurate. I’m an advocate for the soldier. I love my country, not necessarily the government.
A lot of the Democratic presidential candidates talk about turning over the occupation to the U.N. and bringing in troops from other nations. Do you think that’s a feasible military option? It looks as if few other countries are eager to dispatch their troops into a counterinsurgency situation, which, as you know, is much different than a peacekeeping mission.
The Iraqis don’t want to see anyone else send in troops. We have to use the Iraqi people, use their police force, win hearts and minds. It has to be peace through prosperity. We have to give them jobs. The large contracts may have to go to places like Halliburton and Bechtel, but there should be a law that they only can subcontract to an Iraqi company. Let these Iraqi firms team up with foreign companies if they have to, but Iraqi companies should be making the biggest gains from rebuilding their countries. I spoke to a German who got the contract to restring power lines from Baghdad to Jordan. He said he was going to use Indians, not Iraqis, to restring the lines. He was then told by a prominent Iraqi that the Iraqi people would not stand for this, that Iraqis would be shooting the Indians down from the towers. He had to reconsider. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what is needed. We need to use cross-cultural communication skills to understand the environment and create peace through prosperity. We need the Iraqis to do their own intelligence network, their own security, their own rebuilding.
Why don’t they share your view at the White House and the Pentagon?
Ignorance–they just don’t know how unconventional war is fought. And arrogance–an inability to listen to the suggestions from others. And there is some professional jealousy. The civilians in the Pentagon don’t want to see the Special Forces guys handed another mission.
I thought going to war in Iraq was a good thing. But we are screwing it up. If we change our policies and truly work with the Iraqi people, things can change. If they do not change, we will have another Beirut, another Somalia. We will end up leaving, and it will implode. And that will give us negative PR in the eyes of 1.6 billion Muslims. This is the Super Bowl. Look, we trained and advised the Afghanistan mujaheddin [who battled the Soviet Union in the 1980s] and some of them managed to fight against us later. Our ability to screw things up is immense.
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