A Strange and Troubling War


Three years after President Bush declared "mission accomplished" in Iraq, this strange and troubling war just got even stranger and more troubling. Strange, because it was fought from the beginning without an understanding of the country we were invading, without a strategic plan, and because, to this date, there has been no accountability or acknowledgment of failure. Troubling, because the deadly consequences of this debacle are growing and becoming more dangerous with each passing day.

Works by two journalists and a rare public spat between two Bush Administration officials brought all of this into sharp relief in recent weeks.

First, the spat.

In an effort to deflect anti-war protests that greeted her visit to the UK, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice admitted that the Administration had made "tactical errors, thousands of them" in Iraq. Further, suggesting that only those who were "brain dead" didn’t recognize errors and work to correct them, Rice went on to say that history would be the final judge as to whether or not the war was, in fact, strategically right.

A week later, Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense, questioned about Rice’s remarks said, "I don’t know what she was talking about" and went on to suggest that those who said mistakes were made "lack understanding…of what warfare of about."

As George Packer (author of "The Assassin’s Gate: American in Iraq") suggests in his recent article in The New Yorker, both Rice and Rumsfeld are wrong–”though Rumsfeld more so. The tactical mistakes of this war are many, but all of these sprung from the war’s "original sin"–”that it was based on a deeply flawed ideological vision, with no grounding in reality.

I have long referred to the "infantile fantasy" that guided the war’s architects–”"shock and awe," "a cake walk," "flowers in the streets," "Iraq as a beacon for Middle East democracy," etc.

Directed by this vision the Pentagon’s civilian leadership discounted and ridiculed calls for caution and greater troop strength, proceeded with a flawed "deba’athification" program, failed to provide services and security for Iraq’s civilian population, discounted the emergence of an indigenous insurgency, etc.

Packer contrasts the recent successful, though short-lived, performance of US forces in Tel Afar with the broader conduct of the war and concludes that it was too little, too late.

Though the Administration remains in denial (fearful of parallels with Vietnam and rejecting warnings of imminent civil war), Iraq is spinning out of control. Caught between domestic pressures to "draw down" and equally compelling pressures to "save face," they are floundering.

The path the Administration appears to be pursuing is to "dumb down" the definition of victory and find a way to reduce US exposure–”all the while maintaining a reduced military presence and a long-term political commitment to Iraq–”sounding more like a "Vietnam-like" debacle in the making.

While Packer makes no bones about the failures of the civilian leadership at the Pentagon and suggests that even the uniformed military’s top brass bear some responsibility for not being more challenging of this misguided effort, veteran journalist Helen Thomas points an accusing finger in another direction.

In a recent article in The Nation, "Lap Dogs of the Press," Thomas says that her colleagues in the media share blame for the war in Iraq. They did not challenge the Administration’s reasons for the war and instead joined in beating the war drums acting as a "gullible," "complicit," and "unquestioning" echo chamber for the Administration’s pronouncements.

Thomas concludes her piece saying, "if reporters had put the spotlight on the flaws in the Bush Administration’s war policies, they could have saved the country the heartache and the losses of American and Iraqi lives.

"It is past time for reporters to forget the party line, ask the tough questions and let the chips fall where they may."

And so here we are, three years after "mission accomplished," many dead and injured later, Iraq imploding, the US floundering, the public turning against the war they once supported, and fingers pointing all around.

All the while, Democrats, the opposition party, remain torn between their anti-war base and some opportunistic leaders who either believe the better course is to remain silent while the Administration stews in its own broth or fearful to provide a direct challenge, not wanting to be accused of being weak on defense issues.

As a result, the debate over this war is not as sharply focused as it should be, given its costs and consequences. But as Packer and Thomas suggest, an accounting for the strange and troubling war is coming.