Editorial Column: There is No Victory in Iraq

Huffington Post

February 5, 2009 – It is hard to read stories like  this one from the New York Times, and to not be heartened, if nothing else than on a purely human level:

    BAGHDAD — Iraqis voted on Saturday for local representatives, on an almost violence-free election day aimed at creating provincial councils that more closely represent Iraq’s ethnic, sectarian and tribal balance. By nightfall, there were no confirmed deaths, and children played soccer on closed-off streets in a generally joyous atmosphere…”I just voted, and I’m very happy,” Mukhalad Waleed, 35, said in the city of Ramadi, in Anbar. “We could not do the same thing the last time because of the insurgency.”

The subtext of this article is clear: a democracy has taken root in Iraq. Implicit in this is the idea that the United States has proven victorious in achieving a major aim, i.e. the replacement of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship with a new democratic ally in the Middle East.

A second narrative is also well on its way to being established as part of the official story of the war: that the United States is leaving Iraq, and leaving behind a sovereign nation in charge of its own destiny. Again, from the NY Times:

    BAGHDAD — Iraqis across the country voted Saturday in provincial elections that will help shape their future, but regardless of the outcome it is clear that the Americans are already drifting offstage — and that most Iraqis are ready to see them go…The signs of mutual disengagement are everywhere. In the days leading up to the elections, it was possible to drive safely from near the Turkish border in the north to Baghdad and on south to Basra, just a few miles from the Persian Gulf — without seeing an American convoy. In the Green Zone — once host to the American occupation government, and now the seat of the Iraqi government — the primary PX is set to close, and the Americans have retreated to their vast, garrisoned new embassy compound. Iraqi soldiers now handle all Green Zone checkpoints.

To seek a downside to these stories can seem perverse, the product not of reasoned analysis but of a pathological desire to at all cost disprove the potential benefits of, and hence the necessity for, the Iraq war. But that need not be the case. For even if we believe the central assertions of the above stories to be true – that Iraq is now a democracy, and will soon be a sovereign nation – we must still ask ourselves if the ends justified, or can even be logically separated from, the means. And again, that is assuming the stories to be true, which is largely a leap of faith.

Donald Rumsfeld, responding to critiques of US operations in Iraq years ago, told the nation that it had gone to war “with the army you have, not the army you might wish to have at a later time.” Early on in 2003, he dismissed reports of looting and violence as a natural and expected occurrence. “Stuff happens,” he said. “Democracy is messy.” While both of these statements are true in and of themselves, they ignore one of the central realities of the Iraq war: it was a war of choice. Rumsfeld sought in his statements to differentiate the (ever changing) ends of the Iraq war and the means by which they would be attained. But such a distinction cannot so easily be made with a war of choice. In such a situation, the war must be viewed in a total sense, with day one holding as much significance as day 1,000. The ends become the means, rather than being separate from them.

We must, therefore, ask two basic questions: First, are the duel narratives of emerging democracy and independence in Iraq true? And secondly, if they are, was the war worth the cost? Asking those questions now, during the times when “success” seems closest at hand, is especially important. Firstly, it is at times like this when our inherent desire to fall into an “all’s well that end’s well” mentality can obscure the intolerable decisions and acts which came to pass. Secondly, as renewed military hostilities in and around Afghanistan take form, the mistakes of the past must be remembered and learned from if they are to be avoided in the future.

And finally, a basic sense of justice requires an honest accounting of what the Iraq war has meant for Americans and Iraqis alike. There will never be an American Truth and Reconciliation Commission focused on the conflict. But the impact of such an effort can be approximated and placed in the historical record by the press – and hopefully from there, into the minds of the American people. Our claim to being a nation of morals, and laws, and of principals requires no less.

A brief accounting of the cost – in blood, not treasure.

I always felt uncomfortable with the phrase “blood and treasure,” because it implies an equatability between the two, when in fact the opposite is the case. The greatest treasure can never approximate the value of even a single human life taken or harmed unjustly. So let us speak of blood, and blood alone. To look at simple numbers will never convey a full picture, but it gives us a place to start.

As of November, 2008, just four months ago, 2.8 million Iraqis remained displaced within their own country. The estimate of those who had become refugees outside of Iraq as of 2008 was 1.5 million. A total, therefore, of 4.3 million men, women, and children had lost their homes and their way of life since 2003, out of a total population of just over 28.2 million.

And what of those who have died? This number will never be known in a complete way, but the British medical journal The Lancet developed a methodology whereby morgues in Iraq were surveyed in a statistically significant fashion. In October of 2006, it issued a report claiming that extrapolations from these surveys revealed that an estimated 655,000 civilians had died as a result of the war, either directly as a consequence of fighting, or indirectly through the anarchy, crime, and terrorism which ensued. A more conservative estimate from the independent organization  iraqbodycount.org places the number of civilian deaths at between 90,000 and 98,000, though this is only officially reported deaths. There is no official count of Iraqi civilians killed under the three decades of the murderous Hussein regime, but the number is likely in the hundreds of thousands – most likely less, therefore, than the number killed in the nearly six years since March of 2003.

On the American side, at least 4,237 US troops have lost their lives as of this writing. According to the Brookings Institute, 31,000 soldiers have been wounded severely. This does not include Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. A May, 2008 article in Reuters stated that nearly 40,000 US troops had been diagnosed with PTSD. Other  studies have reported PTSD rates as high as 15 or 20 percent among Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.

It was also  recently reported that 128 service members took their own lives in 2008 alone, the highest number of military suicides since record taking began in 1980. And in February of 2008, it was revealed that at least some VA officials tried to hide the fact that nearly 1,000 monthly suicide attempts amongst veterans were being reported.

Simply put, the number of American families changed forever by this war is in the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands.

Democracy and independence?

Before talk of promoting a free and democratic Iraq became the prime justification for the continuation of the war, enhancing the security of the United States and our allies around the world was the central goal. Available  statistics indicate indicate that in the years after the war commenced, deaths at the hands of organizations considered to be terrorist in nature increased dramatically, the opposite of the intended affect. A National Intelligence Estimate sent to President Bush in 2006 even reported that the US-led war had greatly helped terrorist groups with recruitment. It remains to be seen whether trends like these will die down as violence in Iraq contracts, or whether they are self-sustaining.

But setting aside from the security issues, we must ask ourselves if Iraq is today democratic and free from unwanted outside influence. The number of political parties operating in the country and candidates on the ballot, as well as testimonials from Iraqis themselves, indicate that at least somewhat democratic elections are taking place. There are also indications that Iraqi politicians are backing down US demands more directly than many would have thought possible. There is, for example, evidence that Iraqi political officials rejected the initial terms of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that the US sought to put in place. And the final version of that deal does appear to contain clear limitations on the future US military presence in the country.

I was even surprised to hear the following analysis of the SOFA and the elections on a recent broadcast of Amy Goodman’s program Democracy Now!, a show whose guests have provided consistent opposition to the war:

    RICK ROWLEY: It is remarkable. Dawa was a minor party. Dawa–I mean, Maliki was chosen as a compromise prime minister, because all of the major Shiite factions couldn’t decide on who they wanted to have in power. He was seen by many as a puppet of ISCI, the Islamists who were the major power brokers in the last elections.

    But because of pressure from the Sadrists, both political pressure inside parliament and also a constant military pressure as an armed resistance outside, he was forced to take a very strong line in negotiating with the Americans and pass–get a SOFA agreed to, status of forces agreement, that was signed in December that is remarkable, that basically appears on paper to be an end to the occupation. All of the US bases will be removed. The US can never use Iraq as a platform from which to launch attacks on other parts of the region. They don’t get the oil. They don’t get immunity for their contractors.

    If the letter of this agreement is actually, you know, put in place, it will mean what the Sadrists and all of the more militant wings on the outside have called for anyway. So whereas the Americans used to say, or said in 2005, every vote is a vote in favor of the American presence and for the occupation, in this case the insurgency has managed to change the frame so much inside of internal Iraqi politics that a vote for Maliki looks like a vote against the occupation and a vote for the Americans to get out as quickly as they can.

The point made above about oil is worth noting as well. In June of 2008, it seemed as though Iraq’s parliament was headed towards approving a deal which would open up oil and natural gas resources to a consortium of mainly US companies, such as Shell, BP, Exxon Mobil, Chevron and Total. But that deal fell through in September. And while Shell has secured a deal to harvest natural gas from the south of the country, other nations, such as China, have also put in successful bids for access to Iraq’s oil. Without justifying the environmental impact such deals will have, and without knowing what future impact they will have for Iraqi politics, they at least seem to indicate a degree of independence not previously thought possible.

But if such an analysis sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Voting does not equal democracy. The question, of course, is whether the United States would intervene, as has so often been the case throughout the history of US foreign relations, to influence the outcome of Iraqi elections. One of the Iraqi testimonials linked to above contained the following observation: “Many people I spoke to had no faith in the credibility of the elections, thinking that the winners were already decided.”

This fear is not unfounded. In September of 2004, Time Magazine printed the  following report:

    The Bush administration has been forced to scale back a plan proposing a covert CIA operation to aid candidates, favored by Washington, in the Iraq elections after lawmakers raised questions about the idea when it was sent to Capitol Hill.” It’s happened before. Why shouldn’t it happen again?

Besides the recent history of US involvement in Iraqi politics, there is also the glaring existence of the US embassy in Baghdad, officially opened on January 5th of this year. Here is how the Associated Press described it::

    After much delay the United States opened its new $700 million embassy in Iraq on Monday, inaugurating the largest — and most expensive — embassy ever built.

    The 104-acre compound, bigger than the Vatican and about the size of 80 football fields, boasts 21 buildings, a commissary, cinema, retail and shopping areas, restaurants, schools, a fire station, power and water treatment plants, as well as telecommunications and wastewater treatment facilities.

    The compound is six times larger than the United Nations compound in New York, and two-thirds the size of the National Mall in Washington. It has space for 1,000 employees with six apartment blocks and is 10 times larger than any other U.S. embassy.

    “The presence of a massive U.S. embassy — by far the largest in the world — co-located in the Green Zone with the Iraqi government is seen by Iraqis as an indication of who actually exercises power in their country,” the International Crisis Group, a European-based research group, said in 2006.

    “The idea of an embassy this huge, this costly, and this isolated from events taking place outside its walls is not necessarily a cause for celebration,” architectural historian Jane Loeffler wrote in Foreign Affairs in 2007.

    “Traditionally, at least, embassies were designed to further interaction with the community in which they were built,” she wrote. “Although the U.S. Government regularly proclaims confidence in Iraq’s democratic future, the U.S. has designed an embassy that conveys no confidence in Iraqis and little hope for their future. Instead, the U.S. has built a fortress capable of sustaining a massive, long-term presence in the face of continued violence.”

It is hard to imagine what such a structure and the bureaucracy it supports will be doing besides dictating the outlines, if not the specifics, of Iraqi politics.

Some critics would note that such an analysis singles out US political influence for criticism while ignoring other influences, chief among them those emanating from Iran. To be sure, such Iranian activity has been active for years. But there is a fundamental difference between political (and not necessarily military through the guise of the insurgency) influence of this sort, coming from a neighboring country that at least to some degree shares religious and cultural values with elements of the Iraqi population, and influence at the hands of a foreign power which launched a war from 9,000 miles away. I am not justifying anything like an Iranian take-over of Iraq, or the covert arming of groups which have taken the lives of numerous US forces. I am simply pointing out that to cite Iranian influence as a threat to Iraqi independence, but to ignore US influence, is hypocrisy, and that in my opinion, Iranians living next door have more of a justification for influencing what happens in Iraq than do Americans.

Tactics vs. philosophy

One of the implicit narratives in the coverage of the Iraq war dictates that after several years of mistakes, the US finally got it right. This approach accomplishes two goals: first, it buries the question of whether or not the war should have been fought to begin with, and second, it promotes the idea that the problems that have appeared since 2003 were tactical ones, subject to correction by wiser civilian and military leaders, chief among them, Gen. David Petraeus who implemented the “surge” strategy starting in February of 2007.

That mistakes have occurred is overwhelmingly obvious. In fact, many of the self-inflicted wounds endured by Iraqi civilians and US troops alike had nothing to do with military strategy. Instead, they were the product of waste and corruption at the hands of US contractors and the members of the White House and Congress who supported them. Stuart W. Bowen, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, has documented a seemingly endless number of cases of incompetence and criminal negligence. To cite one recent report:

    (CBS/AP) Poor planning, weak oversight and greed combined to soak U.S. taxpayers and undermine American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, government watchdogs tell a new commission examining waste and corruption in wartime contracts.

    Since 2003, the Pentagon, State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development have paid contractors more than $100 billion for goods and services to support war operations and rebuilding.

    There are 154 open criminal investigations into allegations of bribery, conflicts of interest, defective products, bid rigging, and theft stemming from the wars, according to Thomas Gimble, the Pentagon’s principal deputy inspector general.

Yet another recently revealed example of the consequences of this horrific mismanagement was publishd in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (link)::

    U.S. troops in Iraq suffered electrical shocks about every three days in a two-year period surrounding the electrocution death of a Shaler Green Beret, according to an internal Defense Contract Management Agency report obtained by the Tribune-Review.

    The 45-page document — a high-level request for corrective action generated last fall — found that Texas-based military contractor KBR Inc. failed to properly ground and bond its electrical systems, which contributed to soldiers “receiving shocks in KBR-maintained facilities on average once every three days since data was available in Sept. 2006.”

    The agency determined that KBR “failed to meet basic requirements to identify life-threatening conditions on tanks, water pumps, electrical outlets and electrical panels.”

This revelation comes on top of the fact that at least 18 US soldiers have been killed since 2003 following such electrocutions.

And what of the idea that a new military strategy effectively quelled violence in the country? While it is indeed likely that different military tactics helped to eliminate some of the fighting, the situation is far more complex, with many factors contributing, some of which were entirely outside of US control. Just to provide a few examples of this complexity, here is how two different analysts assessed the situation:

    Juan Cole
    Richard P. Mitchell Distinguished University Professor of History, University of Michigan

    Decline of violence causes:

    1. Dulaim tribesmen in Anbar developed a feud with Salafi Jihadis, who were hitting Dulaim young men who tried to join police; Dulaim took money from the United States to fight jihadis.

    2. Shiite militias ethnically cleansed hundreds of thousands of Sunnis from Baghdad and environs, leaving few mixed neighborhoods and less opportunity for neighborhood killings. (Baghdad went from 65 percent Shiite in Jan. 2007 to 75 percent Shiite by late last summer.)

    3. Extra oil income strengthened Iraqi security forces.

    4. Badr Corps paramilitary of Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq won out in South over Sadr’s movement, with help of Iraqi police and army and U.S. air support (e.g. Diwaniya, Karbala).

    5. Sunnis left in West Baghdad took money from United States to form anti-jihadi militias.

    6. Extra U.S. troops in Baghdad put in blast walls, no-drive markets, bridge and other checkpoints — which may have had some impact in capital, though ethnic cleansing of the Sunnis was more important.

    Matthew Duss
    Research Associate, Center for American Progress

    It’s difficult to disentangle the various elements that contributed to the decrease in violence in Iraq over the last months, but I think it’s generally understood that the decrease is related to four main factors:

    1. The Awakenings movement (Sahwas) and the new U.S. counterinsurgency approach which this involved, in which Sunni militias allied with U.S. forces against al-Qaeda in Iraq.

    2. The decision by Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to “freeze” his Jaysh al-Mahdi militia in the wake of violent clashes in the shrine city of Karbala in late August 2007.

    3. The separation of Sunni and Shia Iraqis into protected enclaves as a result of the 2006-2007 campaign of sectarian cleansing by Sunni and Shia militias in Baghdad, and the construction of concrete barriers around these enclaves.

    4. The troop surge. In my view, the addition of some 30,000 more U.S. troops to Iraq encouraged, supported and consolidated each of these other phenomena, but very likely could not have succeeded without them.

The resulting picture, therefore, does not support the idea that insurgent violence can be eliminated simply by implementing the correct military policies.
Taken together, all of this point to both tactical and philosophical failures. The tactical side is obvious: companies with poor track records that should have never been involved in reconstruction activities received no-bid, cost-plus contracts with disastrous results. Furthermore, errant military approaches, including the decision to send far too few troops into the country, proved enormously destructive.

But the real question is a different one. Again, if we look at the Iraq war in a holistic sense, we have to ask if these errors could have been avoided, or were the inevitable result of the fundamental nature of war, specifically, a pre-emptive, largely unilateral strike without international support and run by ideologues in the US government who believed that American corporations doing well for themselves would also meen that the US was doing good for the people of Iraq. With pre-conditions such as these having been established, it’s hard to imagine a pretty outcome. The entire venture was in many ways doomed from the beginning.

This isn’t just an academic argument to be had. It’s also a deeply practical one. Years ago, Matthew Yglesias and Sam Rosenfeld of the American Prospect argued against the creeping notion that if only the war had been fought better, everything would have turned out alright. They labled such flawed reasoning as “the incompetence dodge.” As they  wrote in October of 2005:

    Most liberal hawks are willing to admit only that they made a mistake in trusting the president and his team to administer the invasion and occupation competently…The corollary of these complaints is that the invasion and occupation could have been successful had they been planned and administered by different people. This position may have its own internal logical coherence, but in the real world, it’s wrong. Though defending the competence of the Bush administration is a fool’s endeavor, administrative bungling is simply not the root source of America’s failure in Iraq. The alternative scenarios liberal hawks retrospectively envision for a successful administration of the war reflect blithe assumptions — about the capabilities of the U.S. military and the prospects for nation building in polities wracked by civil conflict — that would be shattered by a few minutes of Googling. The incompetence critique is, in short, a dodge — a way for liberal hawks to acknowledge the obviously grim reality of the war without rethinking any of the premises that led them to support it in the first place. In part, the dodge helps protect its exponents from personal embarrassment. But it also serves a more important, and dangerous, function: Liberal hawks see themselves as defenders of the legitimacy of humanitarian intervention — such as the Clinton-era military campaigns in Haiti and the Balkans — and as advocates for the role of idealism and values in foreign policy. The dodgers believe that to reject the idea of the Iraq War is, necessarily, to embrace either isolationism or, even worse in their worldview, realism — the notion, introduced to America by Hans Morgenthau and epitomized (not for the better) by the statecraft of Henry Kissinger, that U.S. foreign policy should concern itself exclusively with the national interest and exclude consideration of human rights and liberal values. Liberal hawk John Lloyd of the Financial Times has gone so far as to equate attacks on his support for the war with doing damage to “the idea, and ideal, of freedom itself.”

    It sounds alluring. But it’s backward: An honest reckoning with this war’s failure does not threaten the future of liberal interventionism. Instead, it is liberal interventionism’s only hope. By erecting a false dichotomy between support for the current bad war and a Kissingerian amoralism, the dodgers run the risk of merely driving ever-larger numbers of liberals into the realist camp. Left-of-center opinion neither will nor should follow a group of people who continue to insist that the march to Baghdad was, in principle, the height of moral policy thinking. If interventionism is to be saved, it must first be saved from the interventionists.


We are left, then, with several conclusions to be drawn.

The first is that even assuming the best of intentions – that creating a self-governing and democratic Iraq were America’s only goals there, a far fetched notion to be sure – then the standard of success being trumpeted in the wake of events such as this week’s elections has hardly been met. Iraq no longer lives under the yoke of Saddam Hussein, but it remaines to be seen how heavy the yoke of the United States will be, even after American troops leave.

The second point is that wars in general – but especially wars of choice – must be viewed as a totality. As such, any potentially positive outcome must be weighed against the costs. Every new school established or election held will be checked by the eternally present consequence of lives needlessly lost. And when we realize that even through the rosiest of glasses the outcome of the war has been deeply problematic at best, the cost becomes entirely unjustifiable.

And finally, we must dispense with the simple notion that “the surge worked,” and therefore the United States is, indeed, capable of accomplishing any political/military task so long as it is equipped with the right military strategy.

If we accept ideas such as these, then one final conclusion presents itself: there is no “victory” to be had in Iraq, neither now nor in the future. There was simply the transitioning of one nightmare (the Hussein regime) into a new nightmare (the war, occupation, and insurgency) and finally, the emergence of a deeply troubled stasis which may or may not hold, and may or may not come to embody any of the principals of democracy, freedom, and opportunity generally accepted by the world community. Indeed, in many ways, the war has impeded the emergence of such a reality, rather than encouraged it. The situation might improve in the future, but that is not in and of itself a justification for what has come to pass. It is entirely possible that the same results, or much better results, could have been produced using entirely different means, means which would have had a much less deleterious impact on the Iraqi people and the families of US military members. History will not vindicate President Bush. The damage has already been done, and its justification disproved, rendering future vindication impossible. Mr. Bush began an unjustifiable war, and fought it poorly with horrific consequences for all involved. The names of the dead and wounded provide all the testimony needed to find him guilty of such a charge.

It is perhaps fitting that the idea of victory in Iraq was dismissed by Gen. Petraeus himself not long ago. “This is not the sort of struggle where you take a hill, plant the flag and go home to a victory parade… it’s not war with a simple slogan,” he said last September. The sloganeering must stop.


And finally, we must look back in order to better see what may come to pass in the future. Operations in Afghanistan are ratcheting up. Many Afghani civilians have been killed by US forces since 2001, increasing anger within the Karzai government. Violence in the country has taken the lives of many more – 2,100 last year alone. And while the justificaiton for actions in Afghanistan is far clearer than was the case with Iraq, the future outcome of a new phase in the war there is far more opaque. Not two days ago, the Associated Press reported the following story:

    WASHINGTON (AP) — A classified Pentagon report urges President Barack Obama to shift U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan, de-emphasizing democracy-building and concentrating more on targeting Taliban and al-Qaida sanctuaries inside Pakistan with the aid of Pakistani military forces.

    Defense Secretary Robert Gates has seen the report prepared by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but it has not yet been presented to the White House, officials said Tuesday. The recommendations are one element of a broad policy reassessment under way along with recommendations to be considered by the White House from the commander of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus, and other military leaders.

    A senior defense official said Tuesday that it will likely take several weeks before the Obama administration rolls out its long-term strategy for Afghanistan…

    …”Afghanistan is the fourth or fifth poorest country in the world, and if we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of Central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose,” Gates said, a mythology reference to heaven.

    The U.S. is considering doubling its troop presence in Afghanistan this year to roughly 60,000, in response to growing strength by the Islamic militant Taliban, fed by safe havens they and al-Qaida have developed in an increasingly unstable Pakistan.

Without banishing the remaining myths concerning the war Iraq, we run the risk of arriving at a similar fate in a new nation, one which once again can ill afford more tragedy.

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