coverIn this week’s (Nov.24) New Yorker, author George Packer attempts valiantly to portray post-war Iraq accurately and moderately, so that both sides can realize what must urgently be done and hopefully draw together to stave off what he sees as impending disaster. But what emerges is not a moderate picture. What Packer reveals is the absolutely staggering ignorance of the decision-makers in Washington: about Iraqi culture, about geography, about history, about global politics, about what is really going on in Iraq. Because ‘the war after the war’ is being run with an iron hand by a handful of ideologues in Washington who do not know or seemingly care about the facts, not only is the world’s only superpower acting in a grossly incompetent manner in ‘reconstructing’ Iraq, but those in Iraq now perceive their ‘liberators’, through no fault of the brave troops and volunteers on the ground, as complete idiots, horrendously under-resourced, unwilling to spend any money on even basic infrastructure, extravagant in rewarding their own higher-up stalwarts, insensitive and indifferent to the suffering of the people, and utterly disorganized. To the troops and volunteers, the perception is only marginally better: the internal dissension between the ideologues and the more competent military and humanitarian leaders is palpable, disruptive, confusing, counter-productive and demoralizing. It is now clear that, with mind-boggling naÔvetÈ, Bush went to war in Iraq with absolutely no plan for post-war reconstruction, expecting not only that Iraq would somehow be able to manage this enormous task themselves, but would be able to do it with their own money. It is clear that there still is no plan for reconstruction, and the inadequate and uncoordinated team on the ground in Iraq has no idea what to do first, does not have the skills or resources to do the things that most urgently need to be done, and is essentially making it up as they go along. The war in Iraq is clearly going to go down in history as one of the most colossal political and military blunders of all time.

occupationThe consequence of all this is a country largely in limbo, ungoverned, chaotic, with people living in constant and abject fear. Without authority, without resources for reconstruction, the country is degenerating quickly into anarchy, despair, lawlessness, and civil war. With a monstrous live grenade about to go off in its face, there is no wonder that Bush has suddenly decided the US has to make a hasty retreat before next year’s elections, to hell with the consequences. As so many of us said before the war was launched, the US has neither the stomach nor the bankroll to lead Iraq through at least a generation of necessary rebuilding that will cost at least a trillion dollars in US taxpayers’ money, and involve inevitable setbacks, violence and loss of American lives. It’s still hard to conceive that Bush’s cloister of advisors were too stupid to realize this.

The article itself is very long, and although you can get an interesting Flash presentation of some of Packer’s comments and the accompanying photos by Gilles Peress (in ironic black and white) on the New Yorker site, the full text is not online, so you owe it to yourself to buy this issue and read the article in its entirety. The cover to look for, reproduced above, features a stark illustration entitled The Occupation by Anthony Russo. Although I’d never attempt to summarize the whole article, here are some noteworthy excerpts:

One of [acting Iraq Education Minister Andrew] Erdmann’s fundamental conclusions was that long term success depended on international support. In the short run, he explained to me one evening, “the foundation of everything is security”, which partly depends on having sufficient numbers of troops. “You don’t have to look too far to see that isn’t the case here…The question is, why weren’t more people put in? That was the concern of [the long research memo that led to my appointment] – were we prepared to do what it took in the postwar phase?” … Powell circulated Erdmann’s memo to [Cheney, Rumsfeld & Rice]. “Maybe it wasn’t read”, Erdmann said.

“There was a desire by some in [Cheney’s] office and the Pentagon to cut and run from Iraq and leave it up to Chalabi to run it”, a senior Administration official told me…”The planning was so wishful that it bordered on self-deception. It isn’t pragmatism, it isn’t Realpolitik, it isn’t conservatism, it isn’t liberalism…It’s theology.”

Two days [after the Army chief of staff said several hundred thousand troops would be needed for reconstruction and the President’s chief economic advisor said it would cost $200B], Wolfowitz appeared before the House Budget Committee and said that so high an estimate was “wildly off the mark”. He explained “It’s hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself and to secure the surrender of Saddam’s security forces and his Army. Hard to imagine.”

Erdmann said “I had a particular historical perspective. I felt this [the Iraq War] was a defining event which, good or bad, would have an impact for the next decade. If it went badly, the consequences would be worse than Vietnam. And second, the postwar phase was going to be the most important.”

“We were incompetent as far as they [the Iraqi people] were concerned”, [NYU law professor and constitutional advisor Noah] Feldman said. “The key to it all was the looting. That was when it was clear that there was no order. There’s an Arab proverb: Better 40 years of oppression than one day of anarchy.” He added, “That also told them they could fight against us — that we were not a serious force.”

One of the most hierarchical, top-down state systems on earth had been wiped out almost overnight, and no new system had taken its place…[As a result] confused, frustrated Iraqis turn to the Americans, who seem to have all the power and money; the Americans, who don’t see themselves as occupiers, try to force the Iraqis to work within their own institutions, but those institutions have been largely dismantled.

At that moment [following a series of bungled nighttime raids in search of Baathists], Iraq did feel like Vietnam. The Americans were moving half blind in the alien landscape, missing their quarry and leaving behind frightened women and boys with memories.

[Twenty-nine year old Captain John] Prior wants to make a career in the Army, but many other junior officers plan to quit after their current tour. Alcohol use, which is illegal for soldiers stationed in Iraq, has become widespread, and there have been three suicides in other battalions at the base…All the soldiers suffer from the stress of heat, long days, lack of sleep, homesickness, the constant threat of attack, and the simple fact that there are nowhere near enough of them to do the tasks they’ve been given.

“The ayatollah is hooking the international community by using prisoners’ tales,” [warned Elahe Sharifpour-Hicks, a human rights officer working at the UN offices in Baghdad]. “No one should underestimate these ayatollahs, and I’m afraid the Americans are doing this”. [The ayatollahs tell stories repeatedly about their brutal imprisonment at the hands of Saddam as a means of whipping up frenzy in support, sometimes, of their own political aspirations in Iraq, for an Iran-style extreme Islamist state].

As with so many other aspects of the occupation, the origins of the problem [the Iraq Media Network runs music videos most of the day, instead of real news or educational programming] lie in Washington. The insipid programming reflects the Pentagon’s desire to proclaim freedom in Iraq without doing the harder, riskier work of helping Iraqis create the necessary institutions. The intellectual failures of planning continue to haunt the occupation.

[Paul Bremer:] “Your mentality, if you’re an Iraqi, still is: It’s the government that fixes things. The government fixed everything before, for better and for worse — they did everything. And now here comes a government that can throw out our much-vaunted army in three weeks, so why can’t they fix the electricity in three weeks?”

[Describing a good-will visit by Bremer to a hospital, where infant mortality is soaring due to lack of supplies and non-existent distribution infrastructure] In one room, a skeletal baby lay in its mother’s arms. On a nearby bed, a toddler lolled against its mother’s body, mouth open. This was sickness, maybe even the approach of death, not childbirth. The smile died on Bremer’s face. “I don’t like seeing this at all”, he said, and asked the photographer to stop taking pictures.

[Dr. Jean-Bernard Bouvier, medical charity worker, whose WHO-supported emergency distribution plan for drugs was rejected by the Coalition:] “They don’t see the fragility of the system. It’s not that children are starving yet, but it’s a structure that’s slowly crumbling. You can degrade a society bit by bit, but then you reach a point where you just crash.”

Bremer’s decision to abolish the Iraqi Army and purge high-level Baathists from the civil administration only added to the tumult in Iraq. As Jay Garner put it, the immediate result of the May 16th order was the creation of “four hundred thousand new enemies”. Even some of Bremer’s advisors now acknowledge that cutting loose an army without guns and without pay was a serious mistake.

[Ghassan Salame, political advisor to Sergio Vieira de Mello, UN special representative in Iraq]: “When I listen to Mr. Wolfowitz, I feel that he mistakes Baghdad for Berlin in 1945. He doesn’t know the place…This country does not need at all the kind of sweeping privatization that these guys back in Washington are looking for.” [de Mello died in the August 19th UN building bomb blast]

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  1. O RLY YA RLY says:

    Move along please. Nothing to see here.

  2. dustin says:

    The use of the internet in the 2004 US campaign is just one more step of the technology revolution. I want to help this revolution grow, and to that end yesterday I set up as a place where Canadians can put forth their views on Canada’s political future. Unlike Dean’s online presence this isn’t controlled by any political party. It’s for the people themselves.

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