Tag: Iraq war (page 2 of 4)

The 2003 Iraq War will not be forgotten

The killing of Osama bin Laden allows political leaders to further disentangle Iraq, Afghanistan and the whole war on terror concept; to wind down some operations and refocus others; to bring some stories to light and push others aside, to be forgotten. But how do those who served in these wars feel about this? In today’s New York Times Captain Shannon P. Meehan, a US veteran of the 2003 Iraq War, published a powerful statement of alienation on this matter. Meehan felt no closure on hearing of bin Laden’s death. It only brought a sense of distance and disconnection. It reminded him he had been part of the bad war, the war whose meaning is already settled in what he calls the ‘shifting public memory of war’. And he must live with the severe injuries he suffered regardless. He writes: 


So, as much as I want to feel a part of this moment, to feel some sense that I contributed to it, I do not. As a veteran of the Iraq war, I do not feel entitled to any sort of meaningful connection to this achievement. Years of political and public criticism of the Iraq war has pushed me to believe that I did not fight terror, but rather a phantom.
With all the physical, mental and emotional pains I still have, I feel like a dying man who fought in a dying war, and that my body braces and hearing aids serve as a reminder that my greatest “achievement” in life will be remembered as a mistake.
This same week the last British male veteran of WW1 died. Claude Choules, who went on to spend most of his life in Australia, also seemed to remember his war with critical distance. In its public notice of Choules’ death, the UK Ministry of Defence noted, ‘Despite his impressive military career, Mr Choules became a pacifist. He was known to have disagreed with the celebration of Australia’s most important war memorial holiday, Anzac Day, and refused to march in the annual commemoration parades.’ Although WW1 is settled in public memory as the ‘Great War’, Choules resisted this interpretation. What is interesting, today, is that Meehan is publicly reflecting on such a settled narrative. His challenging article is in mainstream media and being spread through social media. Choules had no such opportunity in his day. The new media ecology seems to accelerate both the creation and the contestation of war memory.
But memory is not just about media. Meehan draws attention to his physical pain, to injuries that remind him daily of the Iraq War. In Diffused War Andrew Hoskins and I explored Jay Winter’s concept of ‘embodied memory’ as something that is shared by the body of the sufferer and the gaze of the onlooker. If we have an obligation to remember, we must also look at veterans’ bodies and not just war films, news photos and milblogs. War memory is inscribed on bodies, and there are a lot of bodies from Iraq.
The killing of bin Laden and drawing back from Iraq won’t make the Iraq War disappear. The US and its allies will have to decide how they want to remember it, what memorials will be built, and how to deal with the ambiguities and divisions within the shifting public memory of the war.
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Social Science and Bush Policy Towards Iraq

 I have already posted at the Duck and also at my blog on the spat between Tom Ricks and Peter Feaver.  Today, Feaver responded to Ricks.  I don’t want to get into the he said/he said debate.  I just want to raise one point and then develop it a bit:

Feaver is not really doing social science here.  He is seeking to explain why a particular decision happened, but he is missing a huge opportunity to develop a general understanding of Presidential behavior about the deployment of troops.  He is only focused on the surge, and his narrative suggests that Bush was making some good, tough decisions to push the surge even when some (not all) of the senior military leadership opposed it.  The problem here is that Feaver could have asked a slightly different question, which would have been more interesting and more relevant beyond who gets credit for the surge: what explains the variations in Bush behavior from genial, go along, let Rummy mismanage the war to the tough decider?  In the Feaver story, Bush is pretty sharp especially with the implicit comparison to the doofus who got the US into a land war in Asia (at least Obama is getting us into an air war in Africa–no wise aphorisms about that).  So what explains that?

Let me suggest a comparison across cases: Clinton in 1995, Bush in 2006/7, Obama in 2009: all three Presidents faced roughly the same decision: to expend significant political capital to pull out troops (European for Clinton, US for Bush, US and essentially NATO+ for Obama) in a questionable, somewhat failing war effort OR reinvest with additional Americans and effort.  Once Bill Clinton committed to his European pals that he would use US forces to extract them from Bosnia if necessary, the choice of using US troops to enforce a peace became much more palatable.  With Bush facing a huge defeat in Iraq, the choice to invest just a bit further with some new generals (Petraeus and Odierno) and a new SecDef Gates and more troops, the decision was easier.  Obama did not want to send more troops into Afghanistan, but ultimately chose to do so as a last chance to find some success.

What does this scream?  Prospect theory, baby.  Gambling to avoid losses is a basic tendency according to the cognitive psychologists.  We are more risk acceptant when it comes to avoiding losses and more risk averse when it comes to gambling for gains (Jack Levy has several good pieces on this stuff including this one).  I am no expert on psychological approaches to foreign policy and international relations (that’s Brian’s gig), but it seems to me that we have a fairly simple (dare I say parsimonious?) explanation of Presidents making decisions about the deployment of force that is consistent across continents, economic times (good or bad), uni- or multi-lateral efforts, and so on.

The key is to think about the variation within the Bush Administration (a most similar comparison) or perhaps the similarities across Administrations (most different, more or less).  The spat between Ricks and Feaver is on the details of one case, but we can learn far more by comparing.

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Libya: R2P or Regime Change?

On CNN this Saturday morning, the day after the United Nations Security Council voted for Resolution 1973 (2011) to authorize a “no-fly zone” in Libya, the debate has centered around whether or not the United States and its allies want regime change in Libya. After all, a few days ago President Obama said “It’s time for Qaddafi to go.” Similarly, British Prime Minister David Cameron has declared: “It is almost impossible to envisage a future for Libya that includes him. Gaddafi must go, he has no legitimacy.”

Yet, to me, this seems like a very odd and unhelpful framing of the situation.

Certainly, opponents of the no fly zone want to frame the debate around regime change in order to question the legitimacy of the intervention. For instance, Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies asserts that “it’s widely understood that a no-fly zone is most often the first step towards broader military engagement.” However, I would challenge that view. The U.S. for many years helped enforce a no-fly zone in Iraq that was eventually controversial and certainly was not the key stepping stone that legitimized war in Iraq. The Bush administration likely would have pursued war on Iraq even without a no fly zone. And much of the world opposed the war in Iraq precisely because it violated international norms about the use of force.

Bennis also worries about the authorization of “all necessary measures..to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.” She sees this as a virtual blank check for broader military intervention, though she overlooks the last clause. Contrast this provision to the much broader language in UNSC Resolution 678 (1990), which authorized the Persian Gulf war:

Authorizes Member States co-operating with the Government of Kuwait, unless Iraq on or before 15 January 1991 fully implements, as set forth in paragraph 1 above, the above-mentioned resolutions, to use all necessary means to uphold and implement resolution 660 (1990) and all subsequent relevant resolutions and to restore international peace and security in the area.

The more recent Resolution focuses narrowly on protecting civilians, not the far broader goal of restoring international peace and security. That goal seemingly required ground troops in Kuwait since that is where Saddam Hussein’s forces had gone.

Bennis blames the US for the inclusion of the “all necessary measures” language, as America worried that a simple no fly zone really would not protect civilians on the ground. She overlooks the fact that this is a completely valid point. The no fly zone in southern Iraq after the Persian Gulf war concluded did not stop Saddam Hussein from slaughtering civilians. In this case, simply keeping Libyan government planes out of the air might not protect any civilians. The new resolution authorizes air strikes against tanks or other government ground forces that would otherwise attack civilians.

Put differently, this is more like Kosovo 1998 than Iraq 2003. In that successful application of military force, NATO intervened with air power, but the UNSC did not pass a supporting resolution. Presumably, UN cooperation this time will help assure limits on enforcement actions. That’s hardly a blank check.

Indeed, as CNN analysts pointed out, the U.S., France and NATO partners know that the Arab partners in the military intervention — reportedly Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Jordan — likely do not support external intervention to pursue regime change in Libya. Likewise, the 1991 enforcement action against Iraq did not include regime change exactly because the Arab member-states would have opposed it.

Moreover, President Obama himself has already said that U.S. intervention in Libya will be quite limited, which likely makes any regime change something that will be left up to competing forces within Libya.

I also want to be clear about what we will not be doing. The United States is not going to deploy ground troops into Libya. And we are not going to use force to go beyond a well-defined goal — specifically, the protection of civilians in Libya.

Could that be any clearer?

In the discussion I heard, some CNN announcers strongly implied that French President Sarkozy supports regime change. For evidence of this, they offered Sarkozy’s call for fairly direct intervention in support of the Libyan rebels:

“Our air force will oppose any aggression by Colonel Gadhafi against the population of Benghazi,” said French President Nicolas Sarkozy, speaking after an international, top-level meeting in Paris over the Libyan crisis.

“As of now, our aircraft are preventing planes from attacking the town,” he said. “As of now, our aircraft are prepared to intervene against tanks.”

Yet, this framing completely distorts the facts. Sarkozy explicitly does not advocate regime change:

“We are determined to take all necessary action, including military consistent with UN Security Council resolution 1973 to ensure compliance with all its requirements, ” Mr Sarkozy said.

He said the aim of intervention was not regime change but to “allow the Libyan people to choose their own destiny”.

“We are protecting the population from the murderous madness of the regime.”

That too seems fairly clear.

I think this entire discussion would be more useful if the U.S. and international media framed the debate around the Responsibility to Protect. UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon certainly used this framework:

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon also said on Thursday that the justification for the use of force was based on humanitarian grounds, and referred to the principle known as Responsibility to Protect (R2P), “a new international security and human rights norm to address the international community’s failure to prevent and stop genocides, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”

“Resolution 1973 affirms, clearly and unequivocally, the international community’s determination to fulfill its responsibility to protect civilians from violence perpetrated upon them by their own government,” he said.

Though Obama did not use the R2P phrase, his speech about the latest UN action also largely used this frame.

Our decisions have been driven by Qaddafi’s refusal to respect the rights of his people, and the potential for mass murder of innocent civilians. It is not an action that we will pursue alone. Indeed, our British and French allies, and members of the Arab League, have already committed to take a leadership role in the enforcement of this resolution, just as they were instrumental in pursuing it. We are coordinating closely with them. And this is precisely how the international community should work, as more nations bear both the responsibility and the cost of enforcing international law.

The problem critics share, I suspect, is that the Bush administration often used humanitarian claims to justify its intervention in Iraq. R2P was not completely undermined by their rhetoric, but the recent experience does make some members of the the international community and many policy analysts skeptical of great power claims about R2P or humanitarian intervention.

Ultimately, I think some skepticism is healthy and will help assure the limits of the authorized intervention. Perhaps this would be a good time to recall the Blair Doctrine, if that is still helpful post-Iraq. UK PM Tony Blair specifically argued that this kind of international intervention might occasionally be necessary — but it should be strictly limited by something like just war principles.

First, are we sure of our case? War is an imperfect instrument for righting humanitarian distress; but armed force is sometimes the only means of dealing with dictators. Second, have we exhausted all diplomatic options? We should always give peace every chance, as we have in the case of Kosovo. Third, on the basis of a practical assessment of the situation, are there military operations we can sensibly and prudently undertake? Fourth, are we prepared for the long term? In the past we talked too much of exit strategies. But having made a commitment we cannot simply walk away once the fight is over; better to stay with moderate numbers of troops than return for repeat performances with large numbers. And finally, do we have national interests involved? The mass expulsion of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo demanded the notice of the rest of the world. But it does make a difference that this is taking place in such a combustible part of Europe.

Blair was calling for workable international action. “If we want a world ruled by law and by international co-operation,” he argued, “then we have to support the UN as its central pillar.”

I think that’s the case here. It would have been better if the states could have crafted a truly unanimous resolution, rather than one that led some key states to abstain. Nonetheless, the UNSC has authorized a limited form of humanitarian intervention into Libya in hopes of preventing government slaughter of civilians.

Similar timely action in Rwanda might have saved at least 100,000 lives — if not several times that many.

If the operational aims broaden or the implementation is bungled, then reluctant supporters like me are certainly free to demand fealty to promised limits.

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A Truth Commission for Iraq

Back in 2003, the name Ricardo Sanchez appeared in several posts on my personal blog. At the time, the now-retired General was “the top U.S. military official in Iraq.”

Over the years, Sanchez provided honest and forthright assessments of the Iraq war. Even though I didn’t always agree with his analysis of what should be done, I respected his contributions to the political debate. Lately, he’s been pushing a “truth commission” for Iraq and I think that the U.S. should pursue something like that to document the course of the Iraq war.

Sanchez’s evolving views of the Iraq war are worth outlining.

In October 2003, Sanchez pointed out that violence in Iraq was increasing, despite political figures at home bragging about improved life without Saddam Hussein. In November of that year, Sanchez used the word “war” to describe the post-“mission accomplished” environment in Iraq.

In October 2007, Sanchez gave a fairly prominent speech that was very critical of the Bush administration’s prosecution of the Iraq war.

From a catastrophically flawed, unrealistically optimistic war plan to the Administration’s latest surge strategy, this Administration has failed to employ and — and synchronize its political, economic, and military power. The latest revised strategy is a desperate attempt by the Administration that has not accepted the political and economic realities of this war and they have definitely not been able to communicate effectively that reality to the American people.

He continued by adding, “There has been a glaring, unfortunate, display of incompetent strategic leadership within our national leaders.” In his view, too many decisions about the war reflected partisanship rather than the needed cooperation and bipartisanship needed to achieve success.

He criticized, for instance, “inept coalition management” and all-around “failure” by the National Security Council. The speech was a little short on detail, but Sanchez clearly thought that there was plenty of blame to go around. The “greatest failures in this war can be linked to America’s lack of commitment, priority, and moral courage in this war effort.” Specifically, “America must hold all national agencies accountable for developing and executing the political and economic initiatives that will bring about stability, security, political, and economic hope for all Iraqis.”

In his memoir, published a few years ago, Sanchez said that the Bush administration “led America into a strategic blunder of historic proportions.”

Most recently, Sanchez has been calling for a “truth commission” to investigate the torture and other abuses that occurred in Iraq. “If we do not find out what happened,” he says “then we are doomed to repeat it.”

I’ve been thinking about Sanchez’s “truth commission” a great deal lately because of the fact that the Obama administration, pro-war Republicans (not the Ron Paul wing, small as it is) and the Army have together embraced a narrative crediting “the surge” with making Iraq a success story after all. Obama’s own “surge” in Afghanistan commits his administration to the Iraq example. Republicans get to pretend that the Iraq war wasn’t a horrible mistake from the planning stages and the Army saves face and avoids a Vietnam-like diminution of its relevance and credibility.

I’ve blogged about the flaws in this logic previously. Additionally, Andrew Bacevich’s latest book deftly explains why this narrative is inaccurate — though he acknowledges its prominence.

What could correct the narrative? Maybe only Sanchez’s imagined truth commission. Unfortunately, while the UK conducted a war inquiry, I do not expect to see anything like it in the USA.

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Memories of willow witching


So, this is it — Tunisia is vindication of the Iraq War. Here’s Jennifer Rubin’s great insight:

Recall when President George W. Bush talked about democracy taking hold in Iraq and then the region? Now Bush’s vision seems very prescient.

…One question that deserves further consideration: How much did the emergence of a democratic Iraq have to do with this popular revolt in Tunisia?

This is similar to a point Max Boot made recently at Amherst College in a debate with Andrew Bacevich. Boot argued that it was too early to tell if the Iraq war was a success or failure, because as he put it, the effects possibly might not be known for decades. (Bacevich countered by noting that, given Boot’s logic, with the economic developments and recent steps toward political liberalization in Vietnam, perhaps we will soon be on the verge of being able to call the Vietnam War a success.)

The arguments of Rubin and Boot remind me of the hot summer when I was a kid growing up in western North Dakota and our well went dry. Rather than spend money on “big city” hydrogeologists, my dad decided to use the ancient dowsing method of willow-witching to look for water. Each morning, he picked up his willow branches and walked around until he found the “right spot.” My brother and I then dutifully dug and drilled holes — that turned up dry — day after day. But alas, nearly seven weeks and some three dozen dry holes later, we finally hit water and tapped a new well. For the past forty years, my dad has told all who will listen about the wonders of willow witching and how he found water that summer.

Yep, keep searching and you’re bound to find something….

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Wikileaks “Document Dumps” vs. Government Secrecy Dumps

The Wikileaks releases are political dynamite not just because of the specific issues they discuss.  Also, and more importantly, they challenge a dominant mode of foreign policymaking in the U.S. and many other countries:  government secrecy dumps—routinely stamping vast amounts of information “top secret,” thereby placing it beyond the eyes of all us “untrustworthy” citizens.  For this reason alone, the Wikileaks releases are important—and important for us to continue discussing on this blog.

To take a minor issue first, pooh-poohing the releases as “nothing new” is misplaced.  This is obvious from the facts that the releases have dominated headlines worldwide for days, that authoritarian governments have tried to keep their publics from seeing any of them, and that democracies like our own seem to be trying to do the same.  (Recently, for instance, I could not access Wikileaks from its U.S. site, although it was easy enough to do so from a European one.)  At a minimum, we are getting a detailed look at diplomats’ interpretations of events and relationships that most of us knew about only in broadest stroke.  That is very worthwhile—and in any case, there is in fact lots that really is new too.

What about the alleged harm to America’s security and diplomacy that the Wikileaks releases will supposedly cause?  I am doubtful about this assertion, as I’ve written before.  This is not just because even government officials–with the most interest in claiming harms–have admitted that there have not been any (even while darkly intimating that they are coming).  It is primarily because I believe far too much of our foreign policy–as well as too much of our domestic policy–is now conducted behind veils of secrecy that make it difficult if not impossible for citizens to know what is being done in our names.

Sure, it may be true that more information does not necessarily lead to better decisions or outcomes.  But less information, strategically released by one side to an issue (the government), is far worse.  A basic fact about organizations is that they work to expand their powers and to protect themselves, fervently covering up their own uncertainties, embarrassments, mistakes, and corruption.  This is of course true of governments too.  In an admittedly small way, Wikileaks challenges that tendency—and provides information that citizens, and hopefully at least some of their elected leaders, can use to upend it.  In that regard, kudos to Rep. Ron Paul for being one of the few politicians, Democrat or Republican, to make that point publicly!

In light of the huge and concrete harms that have actually occurred in significant part because of government secrecy, Wikileaks’ releases offer a helpful alternative, with so far only abstract and possible harms.  If recent decades of U.S. foreign policy teach us anything, it is that the government and the military sometimes tell the truth–but also sometimes color the facts for their own purposes—sometimes make stupid mistakes–and sometimes lie to the American populace.  Those errors and lies cost huge amounts in money and lives.  The Tonkin Gulf incident, the build-up to the Iraq War, continuing incidents in Afghanistan—these are only the more egregious and costly cases of numerous others in recent decades.

In other words, the current regime of government secrecy dumps has not worked.  In that circumstance, I am open to trying a regime of substantially greater transparency–and think it would likely result in better decisionmaking.  Unsurprisingly, our politicians are unwilling to take such an approach.  They benefit too much from the lack of accountability it permits.  On the contrary, in recent years, they have vastly enlarged Top Secret America and hugely expanded their surveillance of ordinary Americans, all in the name of “security.”

In that circumstance, we are left with the press–some of which has remained skeptical and objective, but much of which has adopted cozy relationships with power—and has often cheer-leaded government policy and even secrecy.  That leaves us with various NGOs that try to improve government transparency, like the National Security Archive and Wikileaks.

The Wikileaks releases contain information that I as a U.S. citizen have a right to know.  After all, this is the government I support through my tax dollars and vote for in elections.   The cables document the extent to which current policies have failed, in ways that the government seldom admits to its own people.  To take just two examples: our “allies” in the Middle East failing to stop funding for terrorists, as today’s New York Times reports; and the despair of ground-level American officials about the epidemic corruption in our ally, Afghanistan.

Why should I have to wait for some government bureaucrat to perhaps declassify these materials decades from now—or possibly never?  Why is it wrong for me to know in detail about the ways in which my tax dollars and my government are operating?  Why should we not have more complete and accurate information, allowing us to check claims of government officials, before we spend trillions of dollars and take hundreds of thousands of lives in our wars?

The argument that we should wait 10 or 20 or 50 years so that serious academics can give us a full explanation of today’s events elevates scholarship over policy.  It also naively assumes we can trust our officials to release an objective account of events, even decades later.  I seriously doubt that.  

Of course, there is a need for secrecy in some cases.  The classic one:  troop movements in the midst of a war—or delicate diplomatic negotiations in real time.  The interesting thing, however, is the extent to which government officials strategically use leaks themselves to advance their positions in many situations.  Exhibit A:  the buildup to the Iraq War.  And again, those who should provide some check on the politicians, instead often act as mouthpieces for government positions.  Exhibit B:  Judith Miller of the New York Times.

The argument that most Americans don’t pay attention to foreign policy issues may be true.  But so what?  Even if true, and only a small foreign policy elite in government, academia, and the media pays attention most of the time, I think it is worthwhile to have Wikileaks-style material available, if only for them—so that they can more easily awaken the American public to the folly of so many of our policies.  More generally, if we had less secrecy about the trillions of dollars being wasted in places like Iraq and Afghanistan vs. the actual risks posed to us there, many more Americans might become interested—and disgusted enough to mobilize against our security policy rat-hole.

As for the claim that Wikileaks is engaging in a deplorable “document dump,” the reality is that this release is being done slowly, in coordination with major media around the globe.  And Wikileaks has improved its ways of doing so, in particular redacting names.  I’m all in favor of targeted releases of information on specific instances of hidden criminality or waste, of course.  But the reality is that there is a wealth of other matters that governments do that are not “criminal” or “corrupt”–but that citizens should know about to gain a fuller picture of what their politicians, bureaucrats, and soldiers are doing in our names and with our money.  In that respect, even if Wikileaks were simply “dumping” large numbers of documents, this would pale by comparison to the government’s security dumps.

Some have written that they fear these releases will simply drive more governmental communications into oral form, resulting in worse decisionmaking and less information in real time.  This is of course speculative—so let me add my own speculation.  The instinct to “cover your ass” is one of the most common in any organization.  I am confident that, up and down the chain of command, government functionaries will be reluctant to take questionable actions without written authorization, if for no other reason than CYA.  

The “torture memorandums” in the Bush administration offer a prime example.  One reason for their preparation and approval at the highest levels was to reassure government officials who would actually do the dirty work that they would not be prosecuted.  Without such written support, the possibility of prosecution would probably have deterred many from taking such dubious actions.

Will foreign officials be more reluctant to speak to American diplomats off the record—or, worse yet, stop inviting them to their cocktail parties and weddings?   Again, I doubt it.  Those officials invariably have ulterior motives for speaking or socializing with a superpower.   To think that they will cut us off in the future is shortsighted.  To think that they have always been candid with our diplomats in the past is naïve.  To continue with the secrecy that has enveloped these kinds of contacts in the past is perverse.   

If anything, we need more openness to avoid the costly missteps that crafty foreign leaders have manipulated us into in the past, due in part to our own misjudgment and credulity.  The possibility of disclosures could in fact make our diplomats think twice about what they are seeing and being told overseas.  If anything, we need more of that, given the gullibility and group-think of military and governmental officialdom.  Exhibit C:  Iraqi National Congress leader, Ahmed Chalabi; Exhibit D: Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, the “Taliban leader” with whom we “negotiated” this year, to the tune of untold American dollars—before discovering him to be a fraud.

Will the State Department instruct employees to be less blunt in their assessments of democratic  leaders, for fear of offending their tender sensibilities, if the info ever came out?  Please.  These are all adults engaged in politics, not children in a pre-school class.  Democratic leaders are used to being called names by their own countrymen.  If they don’t have thick skins, they have no business being in their offices.

As for hurting the feelings of various despots around the world, some of them admittedly “our” despots, I say, Good.  In any case, someone like Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh, or anyone savvy enough to get the world’s only superpower to do his bidding, is not going to be fooled into thinking that a diplomat’s smile and handshake represent his real feelings.  Nor is he going to be shocked to find himself described in frank terms to American officials.

All that said, I have little doubt that “patriotic” government officials are already scrambling to come up with new ways to secure their vast secrecy dumps from (horrors!) the American people.  Joe Lieberman is already demonstrating the bluntest and most questionable ways in which our “public servants” are doing that.  But I am doubtful that the secrecy regime can be much more severe than it is today—and hopeful that the Internet, combined with the occasional conscience-stricken government official, will keep things at least as open as they are now.

Who knows?  Unlikely as it seems, the disclosures and the debate might prompt more Americans to question our secrecy dumps.  That might even move some brave politicians to change current policies toward real transparency.

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(Head of) State Secrets

As I’ve already noted, former President George W. Bush is apparently settling some scores in his new memoir. In Europe, his passages about former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder are attracting a good deal of attention.

According to press reports, Bush says Schroder was for the Iraq war before it was against it. Because of his own electoral problems, Bush implies, Schroeder flip-flopped.

The former president writes that when he said he was considering the use of force in Iraq, Schroder said, “‘What is true of Afghanistan is true of Iraq. Nations that sponsor terror must face consequences. If you make it fast and make it decisive, I will be with you.'”

Mr. Bush writes that he “took that as a statement of support. But when the German election arrived later that year, Schroder had a different take. He denounced the possibility of force against Iraq.”

…Mr. Bush writes in “Decision Points” that though he continued to work with the German leader on some issues, “as someone who valued personal diplomacy, I put a high premium on trust. Once that trust was violated, it was hard to have a constructive relationship again.”

Unlike Bush’s former domestic ally Mitch McConnell, who has remained mum about Bush’s similar accusations, Schroeder says Bush is lying:

Schroder said Tuesday that former President George W. Bush “is not telling the truth” in his new memoir “Decision Points,” according to the German magazine Der Spiegel.

…Schroder says Mr. Bush’s description of the exchange is false. He said in that meeting and in others he told Mr. Bush that Germany would stand by the United States if Iraq is shown “to have provided protection and hospitality to al-Qaida fighters.” He added, however, that it became clear in 2002 that the alleged connection between Iraq and al-Qaida “was false and constructed.”

Obviously, one of these former leaders has the facts wrong.

Throughout Europe, if press reports are accurate, most people side with Schroeder.

Bush skeptics certainly have history on their side. The most hawkish supporters of the Iraq-war simply did not countenance conditional support — and have often accused political opponents of simple and hypocritical “flip flops” when something more complicated was at work. I’ve pointed this out before in regard to the “pro-war” votes in the Congress and UN Security Council in fall 2002. Lots of people labeled “war supporters” were simply trying to give the U.S. enough leverage to force Iraq to yield to weapons inspections and assure disarmament.

In this case, Schroeder’s support was contingent upon the evidence of a link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda:

“Schroeder’s support (for the invasion of Iraq) was conditional on evidence being found of terrorists being harbored in Iraq, so when there was no evidence delivered, he withdrew his support,” LSE professor [Dr. Henning] Meyer told Deutsche Welle. “Bush is attempting to polish his own picture of this situation with the Germans by saying that the breakdown in relations was not his fault and that it was Schroeder who turned opinion against him.”

As RFE/RL reviewer Christian Caryl notes, Bush’s memoir “passes over in silence…how his administration’s repeated declarations of a link between Al-Qaeda and Hussein’s regime warped the work of the intelligence agencies, who had been told all too clearly what their masters wanted to hear.”

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Bush: McConnell plays politics with national security

In his new memoir, former President George W. Bush says that Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) let electoral politics influence his advice about the Iraq war in 2006. Cincinnati’s CityBeat has the exchange from Bush’s memoir:

“In September 2006, with the midterm elections approaching, my friend Mitch McConnell came to the Oval Office. The senior senator from Kentucky and Republican whip had asked to see me alone. Mitch has a sharp political nose, and he smelled trouble.

‘Mr. President,’ he said, ‘your unpopularity is going to cost us control of the Congress’ …

‘Well, Mitch,’ I asked, ‘what do you want me to do about it?’ ‘Mr. President,’ he said, ‘bring some troops home from Iraq.'”

The Louisville Courier-Journal, November 9 quotes Bush as replying that he would “set troop levels to achieve victory in Iraq, not victory at the polls.”

Ouch.

My local paper (and McConnell’s) lets Michael Desch, a realist IR theorist and chair of political science at Notre Dame, explain the Senator’s problem:

“Because he [McConnell] had been a cheerleader for the president in the war, it makes him look like a bit of a hypocrite,” Desch said of McConnell. “It also makes him look bad because he seems to be trimming his sails in response to electoral politics, which doesn’t look very statesmanlike.”

Indeed, in an op-ed on November 11, the C-J detailed McConnell’s hypocrisy:

At the time that Sen. McConnell was privately advising Mr. Bush to reduce troop levels in Iraq, he was elsewhere excoriating congressional Democrats who had urged the same thing. “The Democrat[ic] leadership finally agrees on something — unfortunately it’s retreat,” Sen. McConnell had said in a statement on Sept. 5, 2006, about a Democratic letter to Mr. Bush appealing for cuts in troop levels. Sen. McConnell, who publicly was a stout defender of the war and Mr. Bush’s conduct of the conflict, accused the Democrats of advocating a position that would endanger Americans and leave Iraqis at the mercy of al-Qaida.

Ouch again.

The op-ed notes that McConnell has three choices: call Bush a liar, admit that he was lying publicly at the time, or “explain why the fortunes of the Republican Party are of greater importance than the safety of the United States.”

In the original piece, University of Virginia’s election savant Professor Larry Sabato says that this revelation signals that George W. Bush is out of politics and that he’s settling some scores.

Virtually everyone quoted in the story agrees that McConnell was right — Bush’s war in Iraq did cost the Republicans the Congress in 2006.

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Coalition of the Unwilling: Final Edition?

For many years on my personal blog, I monitored the disintegration of the “coalition of the willing” in Iraq. My last post on this topic was apparently in December 2008, when the United Kingdom announced that it was soon withdrawing its final troops from Iraq.

Prior posts had documented the exits of Australia (2007), Denmark, Latvia, Lithuania, Georgia (2007), Japan (2006), Italy (2006), Poland, the Netherlands, Thailand, Hungary, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, New Zealand, Norway (2005), Ukraine (2005), the Philippines, Spain, and Honduras (2004).

Now, the U.S. has withdrawn its last combat troops from Iraq. Officially, combat operations end on August 31.

And, according to the latest public opinion poll, the American public is aligned with President Obama. Neither the public nor President is willing to support the combat mission in Iraq. In this latest survey, nearly 70% of Americans opposed the war in Iraq, an all-time high.

The “good” war in Afghanistan is not faring much better in the public’s view.

Unpopularity with the war in Afghanistan also reached an all-time high in CNN polling with 62 percent saying they oppose it.

According to the survey, the public does not think much of the Afghani government.

Despite this view, U.S. commander David Petraeus is not planning a quick withdrawal from Afghanistan:

“I didn’t come out here to carry out a graceful exit or something like that,” Petraeus said

Obama has consistently claimed that U.S. combat troops will exit that war next summer.

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Identifying Groupthink

Many of the Journolist critics have expressed concerns that the listserv’s membership — you had to be political “center to left” to join — fomented groupthink.

Andrew Sullivan’s critique is succinct, but he’s hardly alone in leveling the charge: “It is this tendency to groupthink and exclusivity that concerns me.”

Reihan Salam, who was generally sympathetic to Journolist in an on-line piece he wrote last week, has recalibrated his argument to criticize J-list about the alleged groupthink problem:

What I meant to say, and evidently didn’t say very effectively, is that JList is inevitable. So the best we can do is criticize pernicious groupthink, which is where the tendency of “like-minded people become friends and start to think even more alike and help each other out” goes badly wrong.

The irony, of course, is that this widely embraced criticism (and a few others) — emanating mostly from opinion writers on the right, but resonating throughout the right-wing blogosphere and other media outlets — actually reflects the kind of pack journalism the critics purport to be criticizing.

Of course, critics have lept to this conclusion without any real evidence. Only a tiny fraction of the more than 10,000 Journolist emails have been reproduced publicly and no one has demonstrated that the listmembers (like me) unthinkingly mimiced any kind of ideological line in their public writing.

There is actually another important example of hypocrisy embedded in Salam’s latest piece as well, as the young writer reveals his early days in journalism:

I did work at The New Republic as an intern in 2001, and I spent most of my time there, and as a freelancer the year after, beating the drum for the invasion of Iraq.

Political scientists argued as early as the 2002 buildup to war that the Iraq war drums reflected groupthink. First impressions were apparently accurate — and the media played along with the dominant narrative.

As one final point, keep in mind that “groupthink” worrywart Andrew Sullivan embraced the Iraq war like my sister once embraced David Cassidy.

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The Hurt Locker, again

Duck of Minerva bloggers have already written quite a bit about “The Hurt Locker,” which won the Best Picture prize at this week’s Academy Awards ceremony. I saw the movie on DVD a few weeks ago and have been digesting some of the reactions to the film.

Like many critics of this film, Michael Kamber of the NY Times offers a list of serious errors in “The Hurt Locker.” Viewers see the bomb disposal team leave on missions without much other military support. The team members clear buildings by themselves, become skilled snipers and spotters when they stumble upon some British mercenaries, and operate alone in the desert for no apparent reason. He concludes that these are much more than minor technical mistakes:

The film is a collection of scenes that are completely implausible — wrong in almost every respect…it’s not just minor details that are wrong.

Perhaps most inexplicably and implausibly, Staff Sgt. William James, the lead character portrayed as a reckless showboat, has supposedly managed to disarm hundreds of bombs without killing himself! In one key scene, he runs around Baghdad alone at night without suffering injury. His unbelievable exploits are emphasized and reemphasized throughout the film.

So, why did I like “The Hurt Locker” and find it a viable candidate for the canon of IR-related films?

As I read the film, the story of Sgt. James is a metaphor for the story of post-cold war U.S. military intervention — primarily in Iraq, but elsewhere as well.

For James, the war in Iraq is a narcotic. He thrives on the adrenaline-inducing experience, even though he cannot talk to his wife on the telephone, nor really endure his ordinary post-war experience at home with wife and child. His bomb disposal techniques are so disturbing that his fellow team members talk of killing him. He returns to Iraq because his participation in that war has become an integral part of his identity. Sure, he’s been incredibly lucky in the past, but his personal image is embedded in his wartime experience.

As some critics point out, this film has been lauded because domestic audiences appreciate its apparent wartime “realism,” even though the storyline and characters seem completely unrealistic to experts who give them serious thought.

The U.S. too has a long and mostly successful military record — and it too has been incredibly lucky. Like James, the U.S. returned to Iraq after a successful first effort in 1990-91, though many of its friends decided to sit this war out — and some worked actively to try to stop it. Most IR experts found the rationale for U.S. participation in Iraq fairly implausible back in 2003, though I suppose the mass public supported a certain rationale at the time it was originally offered.

To its critics, the U.S. too is a reckless showboat, willing to take incredible risks with other peoples’ lives, even as it claims to be “saving” them. As Vikash has argued at the Duck, the film makes very little effort to explore the perspective of the Iraqis in the film. “The Hurt Locker” is a narrow portrayal of one small unit’s experiences with death and destruction.

This too could be read as an important element of the film. In political debates, Americans focus on U.S. forces, casualties, and experiences. Foreign policy experts debate the meaning of the Iraq war for preventive war doctrines, counterinsurgency tactics, present and future budgeting, etc. Few consider the implications for Iraqis and the wider Middle East.

At times, their technology and ability make the bomb disposal team members seem like Supermen, saviors of the world. However, the film makes no effort to argue that these super-human efforts are actually doing any greater good — or even improving the security of the United States. The film was set in 2004, which means that the U.S. had not yet officially given up on the search for WMDs, the Downing Street Memos had not been disclosed, the Samarra mosque had not been bombed, etc. “Shock and awe” had not prevailed, however, proving that America’s technological prowess didn’t lead to the type of victory many war proponents predicted in advance of the conflict.

In other words, the bad news was bad…but it got worse.

In sum, while the storyline of “The Hurt Locker” often seems detached from realistic war-time experience, that FUBAR narrative works pretty well to explain the actual U.S. experience in Iraq. The lead character’s addiction to war, recklessness, luck, inexplicable behavior, and need to “save the day” reflect an unsavory, but nonetheless viable, portrayal of American identity.

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Selling the Afghan Surge

As you might expect, I’ve had a number of conversations with friends and colleagues about the prospects for the so-called “Afghan surge.” Boosters like to point to the alleged success of the Iraq surge, but many of them ignore some salient points.

For example, the U.S. also changed its military tactics in Iraq even as it implemented the surge. The military embraced counterinsurgency tactics, something it had been reluctant to do since Vietnam.

Moreover, the surge coincided with the so-called Anbar awakening. Sunni tribal sheikhs split from al Qaeda and ended up working with the U.S. military instead of against it. A lot of money apparently changed hands to grease this process.

Matt Yglesias had a fine post Monday noting that the Iraqi national security advisor at the time is not willing to credit the surge with success in his country. Plus, as Yglesias notes, Afghanistan was falling apart even as Iraq was gaining some stability:

Iraq is definitely in better shape than it was three years ago and Afghanistan is definitely in worse shape. It’s not clear that that’s a net strategic gain for the United States nor is it clear that our dispatch of troops to Iraq was really decisive in leading to the improvements.

So, can the surge in Afghanistan work, coupled with COIN tactics?

As I’ve blogged previously, there’s no guarantee that anything like the Anbar Awakening can occur in Afghanistan. Plenty of anecdotal evidence suggests that American troops are not popular in Afghanistan. The drone attacks in Pakistan are extremely unpopular there. Thus, we cannot be assured that either a simple surge in troops or a change in military tactics can work in the Af-Pak context.

Yglesias suggests that the biggest success of the Iraq surge has been in PR — proponents created a narrative that allowed for the forthcoming U.S. exit. Perhaps that’s the best we can hope for in Afghanistan as well.

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The legitimacy of America’s wars

Last night, over a good meal, two Department colleagues and I talked with several out-of-town guests for quite some time about the prolonged war in Afghanistan. Eventually, I happened to make a point that a fellow blogger said seemed novel and interesting — certainly worthy of a blog post.

Let’s see if anyone agrees.

As many experts note, the war in Afghanistan is prolonged in large part because too much of the local population sees the U.S.-NATO intervention as illegitimate. Regardless of good intentions, Americans are seen as unwanted foreign invaders. Moreover, even U.S. Generals concede that the Karzai regime lacks legitimacy within much of Afghanistan.

In contrast, of course, the war in Afghanistan is widely seen as legitimate by the international community of states. There’s plenty of evidence: the September 2001 UN Security Council Resolution, NATO support, etc.

Is the reverse true in regard to the Iraq war? Is the Afghan war a mirror-image legitimacy problem? Is there anything novel about such a claim?

Internationally, the world clearly refused to grant legitimacy to the American invasion in 2003 — and continued to be skeptical of the war for many years.

Did Iraqis view the war and occupation as legitimate? Obviously, Iraqis who have used violence against U.S. troops see the invasion and/or occupation as illegitimate. However, Iraq’s Kurds have long appreciated America’s assistance in holding off Saddam Hussein’s government and providing them a measure of autonomous rule. Iraq’s Shia may not have supported war, but they have been big winners in terms of political clout within Iraq. Many Shia politicians have actively cooperated with the USA and most would likely applaud the toppling of Saddam. The minority Sunni — bigger losers in Iraq’s internal power struggle — have certainly not been pro-American, but many have been pacified since the Anbar Awakening and are perhaps willing to take their chances with domestic politics. Additionally, the Status of Forces Agreement arguably legitimizes the current US position within Iraq.

By making this argument last night, I was trying to point out that America’s task of securing and stabilizing Afghanistan will likely be even more difficult than was the comparable task in Iraq. I know, I know. That may seem obvious given the length of the Afghan war — nearly 8 years now! However, many critics of U.S. policy have argued that the problem in Afghanistan was a simple lack of attention and resources. Once U.S. attention turns from Iraq, the U.S. can get down to business.

I say no.

The lack of international legitimacy meant that the U.S. had to pay almost all of the costs in Iraq (compared, say, to the 1991 Persian Gulf War). Those costs have been very painful, but once America devoted substantial resources it achieved a measure of success in Iraq — and agreed to a way out with an Iraqi government that has a measure of legitimacy.

On the other hand, the lack of legitimacy within Afghanistan means that America’s COIN strategy faces an enormous uphill battle. Almost regardless of international assistance, the US and NATO will not be able to defeat insurgent forces in Afghanistan unless the domestic government is viewed as legitimate (and likely autonomous) and the western forces are NOT viewed as foreign invaders.

Rather than problematically increasing the size of the US military presence in Afghanistan, it might be better to do the difficult social and political work to “appreciate the dynamics in local communities” and understand “how the insurgency, corruption, incompetent officials, power-brokers, and criminality all combine to affect the Afghan population.”

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If You Haven’t Seen This Movie, You Probably Should.


Eric Randolph tells us why at Complex Terrain Lab in a post entitled “A New Kind of War Movie” :

“The Hurt Locker has already garnered the epithet of ‘first great Iraq war movie’ since its US release back in June, but that might actually be an underestimation. For a start, it has an intensity that will leave your bowels twisted and your nails bleeding; and it’s made a star of a nobody in James Renner. But, more importantly, by side-stepping the question of the war’s founding morality and justification, director Kathryn Bigelow has achieved something quite new for the war genre. Her resolute focus on the daily activities of a small cog in the military machine – namely, a bomb disposal unit in 2004 Baghdad – results in a film that is neither anti-war polemic nor gung-ho propaganda piece. Rather, she simply seeks to represent the unadorned and bleak reality of daily routine, with the caveat that the daily routine in question happens to be a horrifically dangerous nightmare.

As an exercise in compulsive tension, it is obviously a great subject for a filmmaker, and one that Bigelow and writer Mark Boal have expertly realised. But more than that, it is also a rare look at the process of war-fighting. Cinema has often treated soldiers as metaphors for the grand existential struggles of mankind, or as the tortured pawns of some inherent evil in the world. By contrast, the soldiers of The Hurt Locker are simply employees doing a particular bizarre job. The action is episodic, occurring in a series of fairly independent set pieces that bring home the monotony of work far more than any quest for glory. Although Bigelow tries to inject some concluding “what does it all mean?”-style remarks towards the end, these moments sit uncomfortably in a film that avoids melodrama, sweeping rationalisations or any over-arching narrative.”

I withhold judgment until after I have a chance to rent and watch, which on Randolph’s tantalizing recommendation I shall do this weekend. But based on his description I think this genre (nuts and bolts of work in and around wars, sans grand narrative) was actually pioneered earlier in the decade – with films about the First Gulf War. Jarhead and Three Kings (possibly, though maybe it was in a genre all its own) come to mind. It’s true that you haven’t seen a film of this type about the Iraq war, so that’s new. I wonder if there is some generalizable lag in films about particular wars that renders this type of movie politically acceptable a certain amount of time after the onset of hostilities.

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Desertification between the rivers

The Iraqi people have suffered tremendously this decade — and are apparently suffering even more this summer. The LA Times is reporting today that Iraq’s latest calamity is an “environmental catastrophe.”

Decades of war and mismanagement, compounded by two years of drought, are wreaking havoc on Iraq’s ecosystem, drying up riverbeds and marshes, turning arable land into desert, killing trees and plants, and generally transforming what was once the region’s most fertile area into a wasteland.

Falling agricultural production means that Iraq, once a food exporter, will this year have to import nearly 80% of its food, spending money that is urgently needed for reconstruction projects.

“We’re talking about something that’s making the breadbasket of Iraq look like the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma in the early part of the 20th century,” said Adam L. Silverman, a social scientist with the U.S. military who served south of Baghdad in 2008.

While most Americans probably think of Iraq as a desert, much of Iraq was previously known as Mesopotamia, which literally means “land between the rivers.”

Indeed, the Iraqi area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers used to feed much of the Middle East. No more.

[Iraq’s] Agriculture Ministry estimates that 90% of the land is either desert or suffering from severe desertification, and that the remaining arable land is being eroded at the rate of 5% a year, said Fadhil Faraji, director-general of the ministry’s Department for Combating Desertification.

Some of the environmental damage to Iraq was the fault of Saddam Hussein, and much of the damage has accrued over a 10 to 20 year period. That doesn’t make the damage to Iraq’s marshes, for example, any less devastating:

“We’re talking about an area about the size of Lake Ontario that has been reduced to about a tenth of its original size,” says Dr. [Barry] Warner [of University of Waterloo]. “So, if you can imagine Lake Ontario disappearing, that’s essentially what has happened to the marshes in southern Iraq.”

Nor does this history of mismanagement relieve the U.S. of its responsibilities here.

In IR, much of the research on ecology and security has focused on the possibility that “environmental scarcities” contribute to the outbreak of violent conflict. It would appear as if additional research should focus on the environmental harm of war itself — and the difficulty of making critical green choices in a war context.

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Cheney: The Most Dangerous Veep Ever?

In the June 15 dead-tree version of The Nation (online since May 27), Jonathan Schell writes that the Iraq war was produced by torture. Everyone knows that the “war on terror” and the Iraq war produced torture, but few have focused on the reversed causal arrow. And we are still learning details of the prominent and apparently unprecedented role Vice President Dick Cheney played in approving torture and promoting war.

To document his charge, Schell references a remarkable blog post at The Washington Note penned by Col. Lawrence B. Wilkerson, former chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell:

what I have learned is that as the administration authorized harsh interrogation in April and May of 2002–well before the Justice Department had rendered any legal opinion–its principal priority for intelligence was not aimed at pre-empting another terrorist attack on the U.S. but discovering a smoking gun linking Iraq and al-Qa’ida.

So furious was this effort that on one particular detainee, even when the interrogation team had reported to [Vice President Dick] Cheney’s office that their detainee “was compliant” (meaning the team recommended no more torture), the VP’s office ordered them to continue the enhanced methods. The detainee had not revealed any al-Qa’ida-Baghdad contacts yet. This ceased only after Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, under waterboarding in Egypt, “revealed” such contacts. Of course later we learned that al-Libi revealed these contacts only to get the torture to stop.

There in fact were no such contacts.

Wilkerson says that the intelligence agencies stopped all forms of torture after the Abu Ghraib photos. “No torture or harsh techniques were employed by any U.S. interrogator. Period. People were too frightened by what might happen to them if they continued.”

Transparency works!

Schell also quotes Major Paul Burney, a former Army psychiatrist with the Army’s 85th Medical Detachment Behavioral Science Consultation team, whose April 2006 testimony appears in the Final Report of the Senate Armed Services Committee (p. 41), declassified this past April:

“[T]his is my opinion, even though they [captives] were giving information and some of it was useful, while we were there a large part of the time we were focused on trying to establish a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq and we were not being successful in establishing a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq. The more frustrated people got in not being able to establish this link … there was more and more pressure to resort to measures that might produce more immediate results.”

The full title of that report is Inquiry Into The Treatment of Detainees In U.S. Custody,” dated November 20, 2008.

I know much of this information has appeared previously in the blogosphere, often in response to Dick Cheney’s outrageous claims about the successes of harsh techniques during the Bush years, but I wanted to note the key quotes here with original sources noted.

That same issue of The Nation includes a lengthy and disturbing review of reporter Barton Gellman’s book on Cheney (The Angler) written by NYU law professor Stephen Holmes. According to Holmes, “Gellman lavishes most of his attention on the fabrications Cheney used to enable the executive branch to circumvent constitutional checks and balances.” Again, however, it is clear that Cheney was pushing very hard to justify war against Iraq regardless of the costs or consequences. Here’s an example of how he fabricated truth to the House Majority leader in 2002:

Cheney’s “major role in bringing war to Iraq” likewise required a strategic twisting of the truth. Gellman details a private briefing in late September 2002 that Cheney provided to Republican Congressman Dick Armey, then majority leader of the House. Armey opposed an invasion of Iraq on the reasonable grounds that the United States should not attack a country that had not attacked it. Usually hawkish, Armey presented an embarrassing hurdle to the war party in the administration. As Gellman says, “If Armey could oppose the war, he gave cover to every doubter in waiting,” making him “the center of gravity of the political opposition.” Something had to be done, and Cheney did it. According to Gellman, Cheney, brandishing top-secret satellite photos, made statements about Saddam Hussein’s nuclear arsenal and ties to Al Qaeda that he knew to be erroneous: “In the privacy of his office, for this one crucial vote, Cheney leveled claims he had not made before and did not make again.” Some of these claims “crossed so far beyond the known universe of fact that they were simply without foundation.” Gellman concludes that Cheney deliberately told Armey “things he knew to be untrue,” bamboozling a Congressional leader of his own party just long enough to extract a go-ahead vote. Having been preapproved on false pretenses by a gullible or complicit Congress, the misbegotten invasion was launched six months later.

Read the entire review.

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Iraq: The Undead and the Dead

For some time, the media has been losing interest in America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Portland at the International Affairs symposium I previously mentioned, Washington Post journalist Thomas Ricks named a handful of news agencies covering Iraq — and then claimed that no others remained in-country. He named his own paper, the New York Times, CNN, and McClatchey. He may have mentioned one or two more that I’ve forgotten, and he may have overlooked an outlet or two, but Iraq is clearly not receiving all that much coverage in the American media.

The blogosphere has largely followed suit and I’m as guilty as anyone. From September 2003, I’d estimate that three-fourths of my posts during my first two years of blogging dealt with the Iraq war and/or the wider “war on terrorism.” These days, the wars are more remote from the political debate — and I’m certainly not blogging about them very often.

This means that government statements about the U.S. wars are likely not scrutinized as closely as they should be. In my recent sojourn at Lewis & Clark, for example, I heard a claim about Iraq that I simply didn’t believe — but could not contest at the time. A U.S. military officer told a group of students that PTSD was not a major problem for the troops and that the military was certainly taking care of its soldiers’ mental health.

So I came home and did a little searching on the internet.

Last year about this time RAND released a very troubling study about the lasting effects of these wars:

Nearly 20 percent of military service members who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan — 300,000 in all — report symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder or major depression, yet only slightly more than half have sought treatment, according to a new RAND Corporation study.

In addition, researchers found about 19 percent of returning service members report that they experienced a possible traumatic brain injury while deployed, with 7 percent reporting both a probable brain injury and current PTSD or major depression.

Many service members said they do not seek treatment for psychological illnesses because they fear it will harm their careers. But even among those who do seek help for PTSD or major depression, only about half receive treatment that researchers consider “minimally adequate” for their illnesses.

Those numbers, by a relatively conservative source, suggest that PTSD is a substantial problem and that the military may not be addressing the problem all that effectively. The study’s co-leader, Terri Tanielian, called this “a major health crisis.”

Indeed, the wider political implications are also clear. Part of the reason the war is off the front pages is that Americans now believe Iraq is going “somewhat well.” Many of my students certainly believe that Iraq is substantially more stable post-surge and that fewer American troops are dying in the conflict. “All is well.” Right?

The U.S. death toll in Iraq is “only” about 4300, but many more soldiers and family members may be dying or otherwise suffering significant harm as a result of the trauma of war long after the soldiers leave the war zone.

Slowly, for instance, some suicide data is trickling into the public sphere. ABC News, May 2008:

During interrogation by [House Veterans] committee members, [Dr. Ira] Katz [a VA mental health officer] was asked why he questioned a CBS claim that 6,200 veterans had committed suicide in 2005.

Then, three days later, he wrote in an e-mail that there were about 18 suicides a day, or about 6,570 per year, among America’s veterans.

Does 18 suicides per day sound normal?

The active-duty suicide rate is much lower, but the military’s top brass is clearly worried:

“We must find ways to relieve some of this stress,” said Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, vice chief of staff of the Army, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee.

“I think it is the cumulative effect of deployments from 12 to 15 months,” he said, adding that the longer deployments are scheduled to continue until June.

He cited long deployments, lengthy separations from family and the perceived stigma associated with seeking help as factors contributing to the suicides.

Adm. Patrick M. Walsh, vice chief of naval operations, said suicides are the third leading cause of death in the Navy.

“We must eliminate the perceived stigma, shame and dishonor of asking for help,” he said.

Data also suggest that returning veterans are committing significant acts of violence against their family members.

I fear that these war-related issues are receiving even less attention than the ongoing wars.

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Iraq: the light at the end of the tunnel

We’re just a few weeks from the 6th anniversary of the Iraq war — but the end is now clearly in sight. President Obama, earlier today:

Let me say this as plainly as I can: by August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end.

Even better, as Obama told U.S. troops: “mission [kinda] accomplished.”

We sent our troops to Iraq to do away with Saddam Hussein’s regime – and you got the job done. We kept our troops in Iraq to help establish a sovereign government – and you got the job done. And we will leave the Iraqi people with a hard-earned opportunity to live a better life – that is your achievement; that is the prospect that you have made possible.

In other portions of the speech, Obama described the circumstances that would justify the use of American military power in the future.

He didn’t acknowledge being limited by an “Iraq syndrome,” but he did suggest relative restraint:

as long as I am your Commander-in-Chief, I promise you that I will only send you into harm’s way when it is absolutely necessary, and provide you with the equipment and support you need to get the job done.

Right now, the White House reportedly says that the US will leave 35 to 50,000 troops in Iraq after combat troops are removed. I haven’t heard just how many private military forces will remain.

Another ambiguity: Obama has not fully renounced the Bush Doctrine.

If he had been elected president, Joe Biden apparently would have made his opposition quite clear. But Obama perhaps wishes to benefit from ambiguity (a threat that leaves something to chance?) — and that may well be the pragmatic route.

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Will Afghanistan be Obama’s Iraq?

Last night, at a couple of gatherings with family and friends, some people were speculating that Afghanistan could become Barack Obama’s Vietnam — or Iraq. A blogger at the socialist Monthly Review made this precise charge last summer.

Should we reasonably fear this possibility?

First, events since election day seem to assure that Obama’s campaign promise about Iraq withdrawal will be fulfilled.

Since I posted about “Obama’s exit strategy?” just 10 days ago, Iraq’s Parliament has approved a Status of Forces Agreement with the US establishing a formal timetable for the withdrawal of US troops. American troops must be out of Iraq by December 2011. To win Sunni support for the SOFA, the Iraq government promised to hold a public referendum on the deal no later than July.

President Bush used to dismiss the idea of a timetable, but has now concluded one! As Spencer Ackerman explains, if Iraq rejects the SOFA in the public referendum, the US would have to withdraw from Iraq even sooner — potentially by May 2010 (roughly 16 months after Barack Obama is inaugurated as US President).

What about Afghanistan?

In the past week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has called for a timetable for international troop withdrawal from his country.

Failing to achieve that, Karzai dropped another hint that conflict could end via negotiation:

“If there is no deadline, we have the right to find another solution for peace and security, which is negotiations,” Karzai was quoted as saying in a statement from his office.

Additionally, some prominent foreign policy analysts are also calling for negotiated settlement. Moreover, the Obama team is reportedly NOT planning to borrow from the Bush Iraq strategy. Indeed, the new Afghan strategy will include a healthy measure of diplomacy and negotiation:

The incoming Obama administration plans to explore a more regional strategy to the war in Afghanistan — including possible talks with Iran — and looks favorably on the nascent dialogue between the Afghan government and “reconcilable” elements of the Taliban, according to Obama national security advisers.

Incidentally, as for implementation of the new policies, prepare to be pleased this week (and in the near future) when Obama announces key members of his foreign policy team.

I’m planning to keep a running count of former CDI interns placed in prominent positions. Lee Feinstein, Michèle Flournoy and Sarah Sewall would appear to be locks. As a 1985 intern myself, I can tell you that no one at CDI in the mid-1980s ever really thought they’d be running American foreign or defense policy within 25 years.

Even public officials somewhat more hawkish than Obama — like Hillary Rodham Clinton — should be welcomed into top jobs so long as they sign on to his foreign policy approach.

Will Republicans be able to blame Democrats for losing Iraq if one of their own is Secretary of Defense?

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Kahl et al. on US Strategy in Iraq

Colin H. Kahl, John A. Nagl and Shawn Brimley argue, in Foreign Policy, that despite much progress, the political situation in Iraq remains fragile. The United States, they contend, should shift from a policy of unconditional support (“the US will remain there as long as it has to”) to conditioning US military security upon political progress.

… Iraq remains a dangerous place—and a number of significant attacks did take place out of earshot during our trip. But overall violence against Iraqi civilians and U.S. and Iraqi forces has fallen to levels not seen since early 2004. And as U.S. forces have stepped down from the surge, Iraqi security forces have started to find their feet. In recent months, the Iraqi Army has conducted successful operations in Amara, Basra, Mosul, and Sadr City (and they are currently engaged in operations in Diyala province). Iraqi security forces now control most of the country. In Basra, a southern metropolis infested with Shiite militias a few short months ago, we were able to tour the entire city in an Iraqi Army convoy accompanied by only a handful of coalition advisors.

Up north, al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is still deadly. Half of all attacks now occur in and around Mosul, where AQI remnants continue to find sanctuary. U.S. military commanders and intelligence analysts, however, now believe the group has been strategically defeated. AQI remains capable of intimidation, assassination, and periodic spectacular bombings, but it no longer poses a threat to the viability of the Iraqi state. The same goes for Iranian-backed “special groups,” which have been substantially degraded by recent offensives.

Despite the improved security environment, no one in Baghdad, including Gen. David Petraeus, is doing a victory dance (even as a rising number of commentators in Washington do just that). Those on the ground know that because none of the fundamental political grievances underlying Iraq’s ethnosectarian conflict have been resolved, the security gains remain fragile and reversible.

Read the rest of the article. Definitely food for thought, as the saying goes.

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