Summary: A scathing, informative chronicle of the Bush administration’s failures in Iraq, yet one that speaks with compelling plausibility of all the missed opportunities to turn things around.
Former U.S. diplomat and ambassador Peter Galbraith has been deeply and personally involved with the affairs of Iraq for over twenty years. In his new book The End of Iraq, he writes of how the Bush administration’s incompetence and mismanagement of the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq has led to a bloody civil war within its borders. He argues that the only realistic solution to this problem is the partition of Iraq along ethnic and religious lines into three states, and furthermore, that this division has been a long time coming and might have positive dividends both for the U.S. and for other countries in the region.
The Bush administration’s catastrophic ineptitude has long been obvious to an observer of the news, and Galbraith leaves no stone unturned recounting their blunders, some of which are truly staggering. For example, despite Bush’s State of the Union claim (later shown to be false) about how Saddam Hussein had sought to buy uranium “yellowcake” from Africa suitable for reprocessing into a bomb, the fact is that Iraq actually had pre-existing stores of yellowcake – under International Atomic Energy Agency seal – which the Bush administration made no effort to protect in the aftermath of its invasion, and which was subsequently stolen by looters. Apparently, although the threat of Iraqi possession of yellowcake was so serious as to merit immediate war, the actual yellowcake which Iraq possessed did not justify military protection.
Another stunning example is the al-Qaqaa munitions facility, a complex of bunkers containing hundreds of tons of high explosive which, again, was left unguarded after the invasion and subsequently stolen. Much of this explosive no doubt ended up in the hands of insurgents, where it has been used ever since to fashion roadside bombs and other weapons of destruction to be used against both American troops and other Iraqis. Vials of infectious diseases like polio and HIV, some of which had the potential to be weaponized, were also stolen from Baghdad’s Public Health Laboratory. Despite Colin Powell’s frightening pre-war incantation of Iraq’s plans to create biological weapons, these stores went unguarded for over a week after the U.S. invasion before they were taken.
Other failures, though of less military significance, had enormous cultural significance – such as the U.S. failure to protect Iraq’s museums and libraries, which likewise fell prey to looters who smashed or stole some of the most ancient archaeological remnants of human civilization. Iraq’s National Library was burned down, literally erasing over a hundred years of the country’s history. The Ministry of Irrigation, which was looted and burned, lost the plans and blueprints for thousands of canals, dams and pumping stations delivering the water Iraqis need to live. Yet American troops were ordered to protect one Iraqi government compound, and a cynic could probably have guessed which one: the Oil Ministry, naturally.
The looting and chaos which followed the invasion, and which was not planned for or mitigated, was the first of the Bush administration’s great blunders. But the second part of this one-two punch ensuring the failure of the occupation was its subsequent ham-handed attempt to restore order, in the person of L. Paul Bremer, Coalition Provisional Authority administrator. Bremer was dispatched to oversee reconstruction and ended up ruling Iraq like a dictator for months, repeatedly preventing Iraqis from holding free elections because he feared the government they would elect would not be to George W. Bush’s liking. In the meantime, reconstruction was bungled and billions of dollars were squandered by Bremer’s untrained, unqualified political appointees (most of whom were chosen in preference to experienced diplomats because of their conservative political bona fides). The failure to restore even basic services like electricity for months on end cemented most Iraqis’ view of the U.S. as arrogant, incompetent occupiers.
All of these blunders and many others can be laid squarely at the feet of the Bush administration. The highly placed neoconservatives who ruled the White House had grandiose visions of rebuilding Iraq in their own image, as a secular, pro-American democracy. But their plans were conceived in dangerous ignorance of the actual political conditions in Iraq, coupled with hopelessly naive fantasies of how the Iraqis would eagerly welcome us (summed up by Dick Cheney’s comment that he expected them to greet American soldiers as “liberators”). The level of ignorance was astonishing: as recently as two months before the invasion, Galbraith recounts, President Bush not only did not know the difference between Sunnis and Shi’ites, but did not know what those words even meant. He was unaware that there were multiple sects within Islam. Similarly, Bremer was given only two weeks to prepare for overseeing Iraq, whereas even routine ambassadorial assignments usually involve months of study and preparation. Of such culpably willful ignorance were the seeds of subsequent failure planted.
Today, Iraq is a bloody patchwork of fiefdoms, with Sunni-Shi’ite civil war raging in the streets and a gridlocked government unable to agree on many fundamental aspects of how power will be shared. Ironically, the biggest beneficiary has been Iran, which for twenty years trained and funded the Shi’ite politicians who now hold the majority in Iraq’s government and are steadily moving the country toward an Iranian-style theocracy. For all Bush’s bellicose rhetoric about the “axis of evil”, he has succeeded only in substantially empowering the one member of that group that probably poses America the greatest direct threat.
Galbraith meticulously details all this and more. And yet, in a way, his book is truly fair and balanced. Bizarre though it sounds, even to me, his book has made me aware of the good which the invasion of Iraq has accomplished.
I’m not speaking of absurdly trumpeted reports about how many schools we have painted, nor about how Baghdad’s security has improved because powerful American senators now need only a hundred armed guards and five attack helicopters to stroll through it. No, I’m speaking of Iraq’s oft-forgotten third ethnic group, the Kurds.
The Kurds are the largest single ethnic group in the world with aspirations of creating their own state, which after reading Galbraith’s passionate account (he is a close personal friend of many leading Kurds, including Iraq’s current president, Jalal Talabani), I strongly believe they deserve. The Kurds have been denied their own state since World War I, and have suffered brutally at the hands of many rulers – especially Saddam Hussein, who initiated the genocidal Anfal campaign against them that made extensive use of poison gas. (Galbraith personally played a decisive role in bringing Hussein’s atrocities against the Kurds to light in the 1980s.) They have been repeatedly betrayed by many Western leaders, including both Ronald Reagan, who knew of but overlooked Hussein’s atrocities because at the time he was our ally in the Iran-Iraq war, and George W. Bush Sr., who promised American aid to the Kurds if they would rise up to overthrow Saddam and then failed to deliver, leaving them to be slaughtered by Saddam in retaliation. Even before the war the Kurds were independent in all but name, thanks to the protection of the American no-fly zone. But since the war concluded, they have made little effort to keep up even a pretense of being part of Iraq, and now rule their own territory in apparent peace and security far removed from the chaos prevailing in the rest of the country.
More so, Galbraith’s book convinced me – perhaps unintentionally – that the American invasion did not have to be a disaster. Despite the lies about Iraqi WMD put forth to scare Americans into supporting war, the Bush administration could have succeeded in the aftermath, if only they had planned for it with some marginal degree of realism. They could have rebuilt Iraq, probably not into the pro-American secular client state the neocons wanted, but perhaps a stable and peaceful state governed by power-sharing agreements similar to the ones enacted in Kosovo and Northern Ireland. Galbraith identifies several key points where an image of American competence could have set Iraq on this course, most notably in the first few days after Baghdad’s fall, when the failure to quickly provide security permitted the city to dissolve into a chaos of looting. If we had instead acted swiftly to preserve order and maintain Iraq’s existing government as much as possible, this war might have had a very different conclusion. In truth, it was the Bush administration’s hubris, its incurious and self-satisfied faith in the most wildly optimistic scenarios, that led them to plan for no other outcome and ultimately resulted in the bloody, costly occupation in which we have now become enmeshed.
In its closing chapters, The End of Iraq makes the case that partition of Iraq is now the only feasible option. In truth, I got the strong impression that it was inevitable all along, and that the American invasion only accelerated it. Iraq has never been a unified country with a national identity, such as Japan and Germany were. From the beginning, it was a state created on paper by far-removed imperialists, who drew its boundaries without regard for the mutually hostile and distrustful religious and ethnic groups they had penned in together. Only the ruthless use of force by Saddam Hussein and his predecessors held Iraq together this long. It is into this quagmire, fueled by hundreds of years of rivalry and enmities going back for generations, that America has unwittingly stepped. By pulling out now, we will substantially weaken our position in the region, but that damage was done from the beginning and staying would only make things even worse. The sooner we come to terms with the reality of the situation in Iraq and cast aside the ludicrous dreams of empire which the neocons cling to even now, the sooner we can begin crafting a solution that will prevent the senseless loss of more American and Iraqi lives and that may actually work in the long run.