Quagmire quotient

April 13, 2004|By Gordon Adams

WASHINGTON -- The current turmoil in Iraq has led the press and policy-makers to make the Vietnam analogy. Senator Edward M. Kennedy has called it a "quagmire." It may be, but it is a quagmire of the Bush administration's own making. The analogy to Vietnam is not so much the situation in Iraq as it is the situation in Washington.

The Washington quagmire has existed ever since the neo-conservatives in the administration decided that the United States would be welcomed as a liberator and that the United States could make Iraq a beacon of democracy in the Middle East, a view solidly in place before we went to war last year.

How like Vietnam!

The administration started with an ideological view of its objective: The world would be a safer place if the United States ensured global superiority through a dominant military presence; terrorists would be deterred by a massive military response, and that response was best aimed not at the terrorists, but at the forcible removal of Saddam Hussein, to be succeeded by a democratic government that would be a beacon of hope in the Middle East. This farsighted view of Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, and others became administration policy.

The policy sycophants around the leaders reinforced this view, convincing the president that his prestige was on the line in Iraq. They insisted on acting without strong international support, sprinkled in some British and called it a coalition. They had no post-war reconstruction plan, because they didn't like nation-building and, in any case, the Iraqi people were certain to welcome us as liberators.

They had the president announce "Mission Accomplished" prematurely May 1. As the end of the tunnel grew darker, they broke out the klieg lights and shone them on those parts they were proud of, while the sand shifted under their feet in Baghdad.

They sent L. Paul Bremer III to be in charge in Baghdad, made him report to the Pentagon, not the State Department, and provided him with a Potemkin government, the Governing Council. They chose the men (and few women) who would represent the Iraqi people on that council.

There was no plan for local security, which fell apart right after the rush to Baghdad. In fact, the administration disbanded the Iraqi army and threw out those Iraqis who had Baathist associations. Then they discovered that this left uniformed Americans as the only forces of order, with a bulls-eye on each back and more dead since the mission was "accomplished" than while it was under way. Hurriedly, the Coalition Provisional Authority began to re-create the forces of order they had disbanded.

As the U.S. military was sent out to do the job local security was destined to take over, Iraq began to become the haven for terrorists the administration said its original invasion was designed to prevent.

As the security situation grew worse, Mr. Wolfowitz decided to go after Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr even though Gen. John P. Abizaid, the chief of U.S. Central Command, was worried that might lend him more credence.Mr. Bremer decided to shut down Mr. Al-Sadr's newspaper even though the United States stood for freedom of the press. The Coalition Provisional Authority decided Mr. Al-Sadr only had 6,000 in his militia, one heck of a miscalculation.

And when the policy-makers' mistakes and misreading of Iraqi history began to play out in Fallujah, the American sheriff made his presence known. The military called it "pacification," a word redolent of 35 years ago. And pacify, we did, inflaming the very opposition the pacification was meant to squash, and bringing Sunnis and Shiites together for the first time in the occupation.

The evolution of the U.S. military presence in Iraq begins to sound familiar. From the 30,000 that were supposed to be left last summer, we are well over 130,000 today, and General Abizaid is now calling for more.

Through it all, the Washington grease pencils and lipstick have been out in force trying to beautify the yawning gap between rhetoric and reality. The Defense Department stumbles through a nation-building responsibility it had rejected in 2001. The State Department paints airy pictures of success on the wall, framed alongside the shameful testimony Secretary of State Colin L. Powell provided the U.N. Security Council. And the White House is starting to look suspiciously like a bunker, where policy-makers try to keep up with a news cycle that is 24 hours ahead of them.

The Vietnam analogy lies not in the events in Iraq. In the end, some form of government may arrive that will allow the United States to silently slip away and hope for the best. The analogy is in the lies the administration is telling itself, which can only lead to more mistakes. The result will not be American hegemony but only an endless series of "I told you so" memoirs that will make comfortable retirement for failed policy-makers.

Gordon Adams is director of Security Policy Studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs, The George Washington University. He was senior White House budget official for national security from 1993 to 1997.

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