Litany of mistakes

March 21, 2006|By TRUDY RUBIN

PHILADELPHIA -- Three years after we invaded Iraq, President Bush is trying to rally the U.S. public around a war gone sour. His pep talks are painful to watch because so many of Iraq's troubles are the consequence of U.S. actions. They stem from the administration's failure to produce, or conduct, a coherent strategy for the postwar.

Bush officials are belatedly trying to rectify some of their worst errors, though they rarely admit they made any.

The time is right to review the key mistakes that helped land Iraq where it is today and to identify the officials who made them.

Mistake No. 1: An embrace of transformational theory over obvious reality. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had a theory about a new lean, mean, swiftly moving military. Generals who warned that postwar stability would require more troops were dismissed out of hand.

Former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz had a theory that postwar Iraq would resemble "post-liberation France." If you believe that Iraq is like France, you should be writing fantasy novels, not overseeing military operations.

Mr. Wolfowitz is gone, but Mr. Rumsfeld remains. Do we know if reality trumps dreams in today's Pentagon?

Mistake No. 2: The failure to establish order in Baghdad after taking the city. When massive looting followed the U.S. entry, Mr. Rumsfeld dismissed it as the untidiness of freedom. Every Iraqi I knew was on the phone asking me why the Americans didn't institute a curfew.

In several visits to Iraq during the last three years, I've been told by Iraqi officials that the unchecked looting gave the green light to would-be insurgents and Arab terrorists by indicating that Americans couldn't control Baghdad. Much early looting was organized by Baathists to create havoc in hopes they would be welcomed back to power. That's still their strategy; Iraq is still suffering from this mistake.

Mistake No. 3: Abolishing the Iraqi army without severance or pensions. Tens of thousands of Iraqi officers with guns who had followed U.S. orders not to fight were suddenly jobless. Many told me in interviews that they were furious; I'm sure some joined the insurgents.

Mistake No. 4: A misconceived plan for training Iraqi security forces. U.S. officials focused on police training for the first year because the police are the first line of defense in a "normal" country. But Iraq was hardly normal; it needed an army to fight the insurgency. Yet we didn't start serious training of an Iraqi army until June 2004.

Mistake No. 5: No Sunni strategy. In the fall of 2003, many Sunni tribal leaders were waiting to be wooed by U.S. officials. But there was no coherent Pentagon strategy to win hearts and minds (Mr. Rumsfeld was seriously uninterested in nation-building). Sunni leaders in restive Anbar Province were often alienated by raids on their homes, dismissive treatment and arrests of women.

U.S. officials are now trying to persuade these same Sunni leaders to turn against the insurgents, but now it is a far more difficult sell.

Mistake No. 6: A strange belief that once Saddam Hussein fell, Iraq would morph into a democracy. Mr. Wolfowitz confused Iraq with France; other U.S. officials made a comparison with Eastern Europe. None recognized that Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds would vote almost exclusively for their own religious and ethnic parties and have great difficulty sharing power. And Iraqi security forces were bound to split along the same lines.

Mistake No. 7: A failure to understand that Iran would be a key power broker in Iraq because a majority of Iraqis belonged to the same Shiite sect of Islam as Iranians and needed Tehran as an ally against the Sunnis. Mr. Bush couldn't call for regime change in Iran and not expect Tehran to make trouble for America in Iraq.

In recent months, the administration has had to confront its mistakes. It is trying to pull together Iraqi politicians, retrain the Iraqi army, woo the Sunnis and even talk to Iran. But the Bush team's mistakes haunt U.S. efforts.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is

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