Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Last year's news, today

So I just finished reading Cobra II. Yes, I'm behind the times. Lousy public library system. Moving on...

There were a few surprises for me in this book. Broadly, it's about the invasion of Iraq in March-April 2003. Given that it was a few years back, it was interesting to read how much of an adversary the Saddam Fedayeen - Baathist partisans, essentially - actually posed. (Short answer: More than you think.) I was also surprised that the book convinced me, at least in one case, that I'd been maybe too harsh on the Bush Administration. The authors make the argument that the collapse of the Iraqi government was far more complete than I'd read, and putting a functioning state back together was consequently more difficult.

Also interesting is that Trainor and Gordon seem to argue that the peace was lost by autumn of 2003, while I'd always thought Spring 2004 was when the insurgency really delegitimized the Americans. Odd that even I can be too optimistic about the Iraq War.

What the book makes clear, in it's last chapter, is that the men who bear the most responsibility for this disaster are Tommy Franks and Donald Rumsfeld. Franks never - for a moment - appreciated the real threat of the insurgency, even as the army was busy fighting the Fedayeen. Rumsfeld, for his part, refused to believe that the occupation would be as labor-intensive as it turned out to be. Paul Bremer also has his hands in this disaster - Trainor and Gordon are scathing in their descriptions of the de-Baathification program and the disbanding of the Army - but he was, more than anything, an instrument of Rumsfeld.

One heart-breaking story occurs after the war, when a town decides to elect their own mayor to replace the US-installed one. The Marines on the ground are very receptive, and begin a plan to register voters and build ballot boxes and everything. A day before registration was to begin, Bremer's office tells them to stop, there won't be any election. "Bremer was concerned that an unfriendly Islamic candidate would prevail." (p. 490) Well, so glad we dodged that bullet.

Broadly, this account seems to make it clear that the Iraqis a) actually did welcome the initial invasion, as I'd suspected, and b) quickly wanted to put their own country back together so the Americans could leave. Had they been allowed to do that, it's possible this war might have ended less tragically than it will now. But the book also makes clear that the Americans could not - to use Jim Henley's language - separate their own ideas of liberation and control. The Iraqis could not be so free that they might choose to elect an Islamist candidate, as the above example shows.

Moreover, the Iraqis did not appreciate the revolutionary nature of the Bush Administration's ambitions. It was not enough for these people to depose Saddam, if the Iraqi state more-or-less survived. The state had to be destroyed utterly, and rebuilt in the American conception of what Iraq should be. To call this Leninism would be too kind - Lenin imposed his vision on his own country at least, and didn't go halfway around the world to create the Soviet Republic of Brazil or some nonsense.

It's funny, because Gordon and Trainor aren't lefties or even seriously ideological - this book is a very clinical text. But they make it explicitly clear why we've gotten to where we are now.

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