Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

30 July 2014

Frontline on Iraq: Feeding Yankee Paranoia

[For a recent post on accurate weapons in Gaza, Syria and the so-called “Donyetsk Republic,” click here. For a short list of our utterly cretinous blunders in Iraq so far, click here.]

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” — Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Last night’s Frontline special on PBS, entitled “Losing Iraq,” gave us that show’s usual good video journalism. It documented assiduously, and then highlighted, our series of catastrophic blunders in Iraq, beginning with Dubya’s and Cheney’s misguided decision to invade that country, using 9/11 as a pretext.

But the show’s last two minutes were as abrupt a departure from clear thinking and common sense as was our decision to invade Iraq in 2003, without the slightest plan or strategy for occupying and pacifying it.

The last two minutes show former Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, with passion and worry, making the very same argument to extend the war—and the war in Afghanistan—that Dubya and Cheney made repeatedly. If we don’t save Iraq from itself, Crocker all but says, expect ISIS’ or Al Qaeda’s ninjas soon to be climbing over the transoms into your bedroom.

Perhaps I exaggerate. But not much. Noting that ISIS has “thousands” of jihadis with Western passports, Crocker implies that its survival, even for a while, will threaten our homeland and our national security.

To refute that call to paranoia, all you have to do is look at a map. ISIS is utterly hemmed in.

To the north are the Kurds, who have already proven quite capable of beating ISIS. That’s why Kirkuk and its oil fields are now in Kurdish hands.

To the northwest is Syria, in whose sparsely populated east ISIS has taken and now holds some territory. But further west are Assad’s strongholds and eventually Shiite Hezbollah, both of which have shown themselves capable of defeating Sunni extremists.

At the moment, there appears to be a tacit agreement in the West to let Assad and Hezbollah’s forces slaughter ISIS and its ilk in Syria with advanced, heavy weaponry supplied by Russia and Iran. So any strong push by ISIS into western Syria will encounter strong pushback.

To the northeast and east of ISIS are more Kurds and Iran, a powerful Shiite nation of some 70 million people. Iran has advanced technology, with presumptions to long-range missiles and nuclear weapons, plus millions of soldiers battle hardened in Iran’s 1980-1988 war with Saddam. To the south is Baghdad, a Shiite stronghold which Shiites, including Muqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army (not to mention Iran), will defend. In order to get to Kuwait, ISIS will have to go through Baghdad.

The only two neighboring nations possibly at risk from ISIS are Saudi Arabia and Jordan. With all its oil money and the heavy weapons it can buy, the House of Saud can take care of itself. And wouldn’t it be poetic justice if the the Saudi Princes, who started all the trouble by funding jihadis and the madrassas that breed them, have to shed some blood to save their thrones?

The only really innocent nation that might suffer is Jordan. But to get to Jordan, ISIS would have to go through Anbar province in Iraq, where the Sunni sheiks still rule. The sheikhs’ current alliance with ISIS is nothing more than a temporary marriage of convenience, borne of their terminal frustration with Al-Maliki’s ineptness and sectarian agenda.

In the unlikely event that the brutal self-proclaimed “Caliph” of ISIS proves a wise and effective leader, the Anbar sheikhs might accept him, for a while. More likely, they are using his crew’s brutality and fighting effectiveness as a bargaining chip in Iraqi politics, in a last-ditch attempt to save the chimera that is Iraq. Once they strike a bargain, or if Iraq falls apart in partition, you can expect the Sunni sheikhs to crush ISIS as throughly and quickly as a strong body’s immune system cures a cold.

The Sunni region across Iraq’s center holds some four to five million people. Its insurgent fighters nearly drove us Yanks from Iraq in 2005-2007. The only reasons we were able to stay in Iraq after the insurgency began was that they tired of Al Qaeda’s brutality, and we paid them to fight on our side. (As the Frontline special reveals, we paid them over $ 400 million.) You think these capable fighters from the folks who used to rule Iraq can take on a few thousand fanatics?

So no, Ambassador Crocker, ISIS is not coming for us anytime soon. Even if it survives in its present form, it will have its hands full just holding the territory it has already taken. And even if it can do that, it will have its hands full surviving in a region where every square inch of ground is spoken for, where its leaders and its troops are mostly foreigners and unwelcome, and where it tends to overstay its welcome, wherever it goes, with a nasty habit of slaughtering innocent Muslims in the name of “jihad.”

As for Crocker himself, he’s a tragic figure. Nearly alone among the civilian blunderers that started and tried to manage this misbegotten war, he did his job and stayed smart. He offered good advice based on actual on-the-ground experience, which his superiors largely ignored. Having spent about a decade of his life—and no doubt risking it many times—trying to save Iraq, he has an understandable personal interest in that unviable chimera. But the rest of us are not so burdened.

Iraq’s dirty little secret is not that ISIS’ fighters are so wily, strong and courageous as to defeat ten or hundreds of times their numbers of Shiite soldiers in Iraq’s makeshift army. Iraq’s dirty little secret is that its now largely Shiite troops won’t fight to save Sunni territory, which they view as not their home and not their country. They will fight to save Baghdad, Basra and their families and homes.

“Iraq” is not really a country. It never has been, except maybe under Saddam’s brutal tyranny. It’s a fiction conceived by the British Foreign Office almost a century ago. We Yanks have tried futilely to preserve that fiction for over a decade, at enormous cost in blood, treasure and national prestige. According to Frontline’s own statistics, we Yanks already have sacrificed over 4,000 troops dead, over 30,000 wounded, and an estimated two trillion dollars.

We are so powerful we might actually have done it, had we accepted the good advice of Crocker and our few generals with actual on-the-ground experience. But we didn’t, and the window for doing so closed at least two years ago. Maybe it never really opened: the main reason why two successive administrations bet all on the inept and sectarian Maliki is that there didn’t seem to be any alternative. There still doesn’t. Enough is enough.

We lost 50,000 of our own in Vietnam, wasted countless billions of dollars, destroyed our own domestic politics and disabled our military for nearly a generation because of a brand of national paranoia called “the domino theory.” Let’s not have second thoughts about abandoning a misguided and horribly costly adventure because of a second stroke of national paranoia.

ISIS is not coming over our transoms into our bedrooms anytime soon. The territory known as “Iraq” belongs to Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis. It has for centuries. ISIS is an unwelcome newcomer. Eventually the three groups that own the land will absorb, co-opt, expel or crush it.

And even if they don’t, we know where ISIS lives. Our satellites can see every square meter of its activity through the clear desert sky. In the unlikely event that our superb intelligence fails to stop an ISIS attack on our homeland, we know where to find it. And we have the weapons and technology to exterminate its few thousand fighters utterly, if need be.

If ISIS has any sense at all, it’s not going to mess with us, at least not when it has so many tough things to do on the territory it only recently acquired. So let’s not crawl under our beds or waste yet more blood, attention, energy and substance continuing a war we never should have started.

A Closing Circle of Stupidity

Suppose neutral observers—perhaps from outer space—had reviewed our Yankee performance in World War II. Then suppose the same observers, being long lived, had observed our performance in the War in Iraq. Only one question would fester in their minds today: “These are the same Yanks?”

Following is a short list of the most serious of the many absolutely cretinous blunders we have made in Iraq, with the names of of those most responsible in parentheses after each, in rough order of responsibility:

    1. Invading Iraq to stop its nuclear weapons program, which didn’t exist (Cheney, Dubya, Rumsfeld);

    2. Invading Iraq because of 9/11, with which Iraq and Saddam had nothing to do (Dubya, Cheney);

    3. Ignoring, or not knowing about, the millennial Sunni/Shiite conflict, perhaps due to gaps in a two-week crash course by Saudi Prince Bandar, which taught Dubya most of what he knows about foreign affairs (Dubya, Cheney);

    4. Having no plan whatsoever to occupy the country and pacify its antagonistic sects, apparently believing that all would greet us with songs and flowers and join hands after centuries of enmity (Rumsfeld);

    5. Sending no more than half the troops (see 1 and 2) that our best generals (Shinseki of the Army and Zinni of the Marines) recommended to do the job (Rumsfeld). (In comparison, Colin Powell sent three times as many in Gulf I, when we didn’t invade Baghdad.)

    6. Having too few troops—and failing to deploy the troops we had—to keep order, to suppress looting, and to guard the huge mounds of unexploded ordnance that Saddam’s fleeing troops left behind (Rumsfeld). Where do you think all those IEDs that later killed us came from?

    7. Disbanding Saddam’s army without even vetting individual officers, leaving over 100,000 experienced, battle-hardened soldiers with a grudge, no income, and nothing to do (Paul Bremer, Rumsfeld).

    8. Purging all Baathists categorically from Iraq’s government, without even vetting them, depriving Iraq of its entire class of experienced government and administrative officials, and leaving them, too, with grudges, no income, and nothing to do (Paul Bremer, Rumsfeld).

    9. When the Sunni insurgency began, hunkering down in our bases and preparing to leave Iraq, as quickly as possible, slowing only for “optics” in our 2006 midterm elections (Dubya, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rove). (Petraeus later reversed this policy during the “surge,” with considerable success.)

    10. Sticking with Al-Maliki’s inept and sectarian rule, based on Dubya’s “gut” and personal loyalty, despite public and private advice from virtually all his on-the-ground advisers and independent Republicans like Senator Dick Lugar (then R., Ind.), as early as seven years ago! (Dubya).

    11. Despite ever-mounting evidence to the contrary, continuing the self-delusion that an army composed primarily of Shiites, from which most (if not all) experienced Sunni and Baathist officers had been purged, would fight to hold Sunni territory for their millennial enemies (virtually everyone involved in the war on our side since 2006, including Obama).

    12. Giving huge caches of modern weapons, vehicles and ammunition to this Shiite army, which has just fled Sunni territory, leaving the caches in ISIS’ hands.
* * *

Reviewing even this short list of absolutely cretinous blunders, our neutral observers from outer space would conclude we are just not the same Yanks that had invented synthetic rubber and atomic weapons, deceived the Japanese to anticipate their attack at Midway, deceived the Nazis to make them think we would land at Calais, not Normandy, helped the still-Enlightened part of the world win World War II from a standing start in isolation and disarmament, and then rebuilt it afterward, smartly and quickly, with our Marshall Plan. They would conclude that we had instead become the Keystone Kops.

There is irony upon irony. Now our so-called “pundits” quake in fear at all those modern weapons (Blunder 12) in ISIS’ hands. But ISIS’ primitive jihadis have never had such weapons before. Few, if any, of them know how to use them, and anyway they are far too few to take advantage of all the weapons, unless each jihadi holds an automatic weapon, or drives an armored vehicle, with every finger and toe.

Who does know how to use them, although their skills may be a bit rusty and the weapon models a bit newer? All those Sunnis and Baathists that we purged from armed and government service in Blunders 7 and 8. With their numbers, as well as their experience with heavy weapons, the dominant Sunnis will make short work of the jihadis when the time is right.

What are the morals of this tale of utter and continuing stupidity? There are four.

First, don’t go to war unless you really mean it and intend to do and sacrifice everything as necessary to win. Second, when you do go to war, put the job in the hands of experienced military people who know how to wage it, and give them everything they say they need. Third, keep civilian control of the military by limiting civilian oversight to general policies, goals and objectives, leaving planning, strategy and tactics to the experts. Finally, elect (or in the Supreme Court’s case, appoint) a president who doesn’t try to make his “own reality” with his “gut,” PR and propaganda, but knows something about the reality that exists and has a habit of consulting experts who know more.



  • At Wednesday, July 30, 2014 at 10:23:00 AM EDT, Blogger John Robertson said…

    Very well said. I had similar reaction to Ryan Crocker's "terrorists-are-coming" nonsense at program's end - and was bothered by the preponderance of former Bush-admin officials among the talking-heads.

  • At Wednesday, July 30, 2014 at 1:40:00 PM EDT, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Thanks for the support.

    As for the Bush-admin talking heads, I was glad to see so many of them. They are responsible for this debacle, and the Frontline program made that clear to anyone who can think. Unfortunately, this war has gone on so long now that many young people have come of age without seeing firsthand how utterly incompetent these amateur soldiers were, from Dubya, Cheney and Rumsfeld on down.

    The program did err, in my view, in seeming to blame Obama for “telegraphing” our exit two years in advance, without explaining his strategic reasons for doing so. It put pressure on the Iraqi army to shape up, and on Maliki to become more inclusive. Unfortunately, neither has happened.

    But Obama is not a president who tries to make his own reality with his gut. He tries to understand the reality that exists and deal with it, thoughtfully and intelligently. Thank God for that!




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