September 4, 2006

Goodbye, Hasta La Vista, Iraq

By Simon and Schuster | By Peter W. Galbraith
torontosun com 

In his State of the Union address earlier this year, U.S. President George W. Bush had an answer for those critical of his performance in managing the war in Iraq.

"Hindsight is not wisdom and second-guessing is not strategy," he said, before insisting for the umpteenth time that America would stay the course no matter what.

Drawing attention away from past blunders may be the only coherent strategy the president has when it comes to the war in Iraq, according to author Peter W. Galbraith.

"Insurgency, civil war, Iranian strategic triumph, the breakup of Iraq, an independent Kurdistan, military quagmire. These are consequences of the American invasion of Iraq that the Bush administration failed to anticipate," he writes.

"It isn't that (Bush) failed to consider SOME possible adverse consequences of the war, but rather that he missed ALL of them ... The Bush administration's grand ambitions for Iraq were undone by arrogance, ignorance and political cowardice."

Galbraith, son of the late Canadian-born economist John Kenneth Galbraith, is a former U.S. Senate aide and diplomat who has over 20 years of experience dealing with the complex political, religious and ethnic minefield that is Iraq. In his new book he recounts America's regrettable history with Iraq, first as its ally, then as its enemy, and now as it struggles with its role as an occupying power.

It's not going to end well, he suggests, but he gives us a peek at the exit strategy the next U.S. president is probably going to buy.

Galbraith tells the story of a meeting in the Oval Office more than three years ago, between Bush and three Iraqi Americans, to discuss various scenarios for a post-Saddam Iraq. According to the author, it quickly became apparent that the president was unaware that there were two major sects of Islam -- Shiites and Sunnis -- and that their hatred for one another presented dangers for the would-be liberators of the country. The meeting turned into a freshman

Two months later we were watching CNN footage of bombs raining down on Baghdad. 

"He could not have anticipated U.S. troops being caught in the middle of a civil war between two religious sects he did not know existed. Even in 2006, with civil war well under way in Iraq, the president and his top advisers speak of an Iraqi people as if they were a single people akin to the French or even the American people," Galbraith writes.

Galbraith says the Bush administration assumed the transition from Saddam Hussein's brutal Sunni Arab dictatorship to a stable, U.S.-friendly democracy would be easy. But after the initial, heartening shower of flowers and statue topplings, America's authority slipped away as looters demolished Baghdad's public institutions. He says Iraqis saw the U.S. as either too incompetent to maintain order or intent on the country's physical destruction.

"It is not exaggerating to say that the United States may have lost the war on the very day it took Baghdad, April 9, 2003," he writes, adding Bush believed "Iraqi bureaucrats and police would show up for work the next day, reporting to their new American masters."

That debacle was followed with 14 months of indecision, with the White House unable to decide whether to turn power over to an interim Iraqi government or run the country as it did in occupying Germany and Japan following World War II.

Galbraith says the overthrow of Saddam was to kick off a renovation project that would remake the Middle East into secular, market-oriented democracies that would get this troubled region off the world's front pages. Ideologues in the White House, he adds, had decided Iraq would have a free-market economy, a flat tax, privatized industry and oil sector, a new educational system and a NATO-style military. The new, improved Iraq was to trigger a "domino effect," with Iran and Syria the next countries to embrace the Nintendo and Nike culture.

But it's not going to work out that way. Two weeks after L. Paul Bremer was sent to Baghdad to become Iraq's postwar administrator, he sealed the nation's fate as a unitary state with the stroke of a pen, signing an order dissolving Iraq's Sunni-controlled military, security services and the Ba'ath Party, the pillars that had kept the country together by force for 80 years. Like Yugoslavia before it, suppressed nationalism and tribalism have been unleashed. For better or worse, Galbraith says the country is going to stay broken.

Galbraith relates many of the now-familiar examples of American administrative ineptitude that underlined their ill-preparedness for directing and ruling the fractious country. Huge amounts of cash were allocated for reconstruction, with millions disappearing into thin air and billions more sitting unspent as inexperienced interns hold the pursestrings while unemployment soars in Iraq.

Five years after the attack on the Twin Towers, the Iraq War has failed to advance a single major U.S. foreign policy objective, Galbraith says.

"It has not made the U.S. safer; it has not advanced the war on terror; it has not made Iraq a stable state; it has not spread democracy to the Middle East; and it has not enhanced U.S. access to oil," he concludes.

Add to that the staggering cost. To date, more than 2,500 American troops have been killed, more than 40,000 have been wounded and $300 billion has been spent. Some economists project the true, total cost of the war could exceed $2 trillion. Galbraith submits that precious blood and hard-earned treasure will not bring America the peace, security and justice it insists the war is about.

"Looking back, the Iraq War has greatly increased the nuclear threat to the United States from two 'rogue' states, North Korea and Iran," Galbraith writes. "By sending U.S. forces into Iraq, Bush has, in effect, made them hostage to Iran and its Iraqi Shiite allies. As a result, the administration has no good military options to halt Iran's drive for nuclear weapons."

So, which way out? Galbraith says America should scrap its fantasy of building a unified Iraq and mediate a solution to the growing civil war. That, he insists, will lead to the inevitable breakup of the country into two or three pieces. Not a perfect solution, he readily agrees, but the best bet to bring security and order to a country in deep chaos.

Galbraith's "Three State Solution" is centred around granting the Kurds, situated in northern Iraq, their long cherished desire for a country of their own. The author's deep respect and affection for the Kurds, forged over years of contacts on the ground in northern Iraq, has led some to question his objectivity on this count. The Kurds have done their share in contributing to the instability in the region and Turkey would view such a development with alarm.

Critics point to the obvious dangers this plan presents -- the Shiite majority of Iraq owe a lot to their friends next door in Iran, which is next up on America's "axis of evil" to-do list. A future "Shiastan," breaking free of a fractured Iraq, could present new problems for the West. There's also the risk a Sunni heartland could fall into the hands of insurgents and terrorists, becoming the next Afghanistan.

But Galbraith's endorsement of nationhood for the Kurds makes strategic sense for America. The Kurds, who fought alongside American forces to defeat Saddam three years ago, could allow the U.S. to set up bases to keep a close eye on terrorist activity to the south while ensuring security for the new state.

While it's highly unlikely the Bush Administration would make such a course correction -- it doesn't meet the Republicans' "peace with honour" yardstick -- some senior Democrats are voicing interest in the plan. Count on hearing more about this in 2008.

Galbraith says where the realities of Iraq conflicted with the Bush Administration's hopes, the facts were ignored. He quotes Charles Freeman, who served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia under the first President Bush: "We invaded not Iraq but the Iraq of our dreams, a country that didn't exist, that we didn't understand ... the ignorant are always surprised."