The Legacy of Obama’s ‘Worst Mistake’

The Libya intervention marked the third time in a decade that Washington embraced regime change and then failed to plan for the consequences. In 2001, the United States toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan but gave little thought about how to stabilize the country. In a memo to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld early in that campaign, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith argued that Washington “should not allow concerns about stability to paralyze U.S. efforts to oust the Taliban leadership. … Nation-building is not our key strategic goal.”

.. Symbolizing the lack of concern for rebuilding the country, Bush’s pick for Garner’s successor was L. Paul Bremer—a man Bush had never met, who wasn’t an expert on Iraq or post-conflict reconstruction, and didn’t speak Arabic.

.. It was a cheap war for the United States at just $1.1 billion. But these days, it seems, a billion dollars buys you a shit show. Libya could end up looking like, in the wordsof British special envoy Jonathan Powell, “Somalia on the Mediterranean.”

.. We might be able to explain a one-off failure in terms of allies screwing up. But three times in a decade suggests a deeper pattern in the American way of war.

.. In the American mind, there are good wars: campaigns to overthrow a despot, with the model being World War II. And there are bad wars: nation-building missions to stabilize a foreign country, including peacekeeping and counterinsurgency. For example, the U.S. military has traditionally seen its core mission as fighting conventional wars against foreign dictators, and dismissed stabilization missions as “military operations other than war,” or Mootwa. Back in the 1990s, the chairman of the joint chiefs reportedly said, “Real men don’t do Mootwa.” At the public level, wars against foreign dictators are consistently far more popular than nation-building operations.

.. When I researched my book How We Fight, I found that Americans embraced wars for regime change but hated dealing with the messy consequences going back as far as the Civil War and southern reconstruction.

.. But many Europeans, Canadians, Japanese, and Australians see peacekeeping as a core military task. Japan will only send its forces outside the homeland for peacekeeping missions in places like Cambodia and Mozambique. In a poll in 1995, Canadians said their country’s top contribution to the world was peacekeeping

.. So why do Americans fight this way? The practice partly reflects the country’s success at winning interstate wars versus its struggles at nation-building and counterinsurgency. People naturally want to stick to what they’re good at.

.. Americans often believe that malevolent actors repress a freedom-living people: Get rid of the evildoers and liberty can reign.

.. And so America goes to war with an extremely short-term mindset, quickly toppling the bad guys but failing to prepare for the later challenges to come. All eyes are on smiting the oppressor because this is the kind of war people want to fight. The problem is that societies like Libya, Iraq, or Afghanistan are deeply traumatized by years of dictatorship, sectarian division, or civil war. Thomas Jefferson is not going to suddenly pop up when the wicked rulers are dispatched.

Where did ISIS come from? The story starts here.

Although Bremer was a former ambassador, he spoke no Arabic, had no experience with postwar reconstruction or with running a large organization, had never served in the military or the Arab world, and had never even visited Iraq. Those shortcomings did not hinder his candidacy. Perversely, as I would learn from Bremer, they enhanced it.

.. It’s been more than five years since US combat troops left Iraq. It took about that long after Vietnam for the nation to begin wrestling honestly with the forces that had led us into that mistaken war. It’s time we start doing the same with Iraq. And the case of L. Paul Bremer — at once well intentioned, infuriating, and tragic — is the ideal place to anchor this kind of reexamination.

.. Why had Bremer’s lack of expertise in the Middle East made him more attractive to the neoconservatives in the Bush administration?

Wolfowitz, a former academic dean, believed too many of the “Arabist” regional specialists in the State Department had concluded that democracy wasn’t possible in the Middle East. Bremer says Wolfowitz had wanted to make sure he hadn’t been “infected” by that kind of defeatist thinking.

.. Cheney owed his remarkable rise almost entirely to one man, Donald Rumsfeld. He had tapped Cheney to be his replacement when Rumsfeld departed the position to become Ford’s secretary of defense.

.. The shock was over a superpower’s impotence to stop the ransacking of a nation by desperate civilians and brazen thugs.

.. it’s clear the war could also serve as a demonstration project for their own animating philosophies.

For Cheney, it was the importance of untrammeled executive authority.

.. For Rumsfeld, Iraq would give him the chance to make the Pentagon’s generals, whom he saw as trapped in outdated Cold War thinking, see the wisdom of his plan to modernize the military with a smaller, faster, more technologically advanced fighting force.

.. For Wolfowitz, it was the belief that only a bold, military-initiated experiment in democracy could free the Middle East from its decades-long paralysis of despotism and anti-Semitism. Toppling Saddam, the brutal dictator who had gassed his own people, would allow a new democratic Iraq to emerge, one that would be gratefully pro-American, would dutifully make peace with Israel, and would promptly unleash the spread of democracy across the Middle East.

.. During World War II, planning for postwar Germany had begun more than two years before the end of fighting. For the Iraq War, the administration launched General Garner’s postwar planning operation slightly more than two months before the end of combat. For Bremer, the time between his appointment to replace Garner and his arrival in Baghdad had been just two weeks.

“The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan gave us the Taliban. The American occupation of Saudi Arabia gave us bin Laden and Al Qaeda. The Israeli occupation of Lebanon gave us Hezbollah. Let us see what the American occupation of Iraq is going to give us.”

The suspense is over. We now know that the American occupation of Iraq gave us ISIS.

.. AbuKhalil, a professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus, argues all occupations are fated to fail in the modern era. But he suggests the tipping point for this one came with the selection of Bremer. “They chose the best man to do the worst job,” he says. “They chose a very arrogant person with a very colonial attitude.”

.. After a couple of days of the too-small contingent of US troops in Baghdad idly watching as Iraqi marauders ransacked every ministry building and museum, destroying priceless Mesopotamian artifacts up to 7,000 years old, Donald Rumsfeld held a news conference. He jokily dismissed criticisms about the Pentagon’s planning failures as “henny penny” overreactions and concluded, “Stuff happens.” To proud Iraqis looking for clues about whether the American leaders respected their cradle-of-civilization past and were invested in their future, Rumsfeld’s snickering spoke volumes.

.. While most critics fault Bremer for his orders de-Baathifying the government and disbanding the army, the Pentagon’s war architects blame him for handing over sovereignty near the end of his tenure rather than closer to the start.

.. Bremer says that the darling of the neocons, the brilliant but slippery businessman and Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi, was clearly not the right man for the job. This wasn’t just because he had provided intelligence on Saddam’s alleged WMD program that turned out to be dead wrong. Chalabi hadn’t lived in Iraq for decades and had no domestic base of support.

.. Although Bremer has come to be regarded as the sole author of this decree to root out Saddam loyalists from the Iraqi government, that is simply not true. Drafts of the order had been circulating around the Pentagon long before Bremer’s appointment.

.. saying Bremer issued that order practically “before he’d met his first Kurd.”

.. In the end, the deBaathification order is believed to have hoovered up 85,000 to 100,000 Iraqis, including thousands of teachers and mid-level technocrats who were summarily shut out of Iraq’s public sector future.

.. This was a dramatic departure from Jay Garner’s plans to keep the bulk of the Iraqi military intact, putting it to work on reconstruction efforts around the country.

.. At one point, he recalls, White House chief of staff Andy Card took him aside and warned him about maneuvering at the Pentagon: “They’re gaming you. They’re trying to blame you for this whole thing.”

.. “We screwed up,” he says. “The biggest screw-up was Bush took too long to fire Rumsfeld and change the strategy.” Only after the post-Rumsfeld surge in troop strength did things begin to improve. But when I ask him if the war was a mistake, he vigorously shakes his head no.