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Iraq Plan '03: Troops Home Christmas '04

By Robert Parry
December 24, 2004

According to George W. Bush’s original wishful thinking, the last U.S. Army brigade should be leaving Iraq now, heading home for happy holidays with families while leaving behind thankful Iraqis. A rose-strewn cakewalk in, a rose-strewn cakewalk out.

But a bitter lesson of Bush’s Iraq adventure has been the realization that wishful thinking in war gets good people killed, often many of them. Still, the U.S. Establishment that wouldn’t face reality in early 2003 still can’t or won’t look at realistic options for the future today. The only acceptable answer remains: see “the mission” through.

In part, that thinking can be traced to the fact that the politicians who started the war and the opinion leaders who cheered it on are the same ones now insisting that the only choice is to “stay the course.” These Washington insiders also may have learned that catastrophes for U.S. soldiers and for the Iraqi people aren’t nearly so bad for folks back in the safety of Washington, as they plan for holiday ski vacations or other fun events.

Bush, the person most responsible for the bloody disaster, is looking forward to an Inaugural gala and a second term after smashing the record vote total for any U.S. presidential election. On the media side, the same editors and columnists who didn’t ask the hard questions in 2002 and 2003 are still holding down their jobs today.

As in the run-up to the Iraq War, these opinion leaders are still making their arguments by using the phrase: “no one can deny that…” For a long time, the context was, “no one can deny that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction.” Then, it became “no one can deny that Iraq is better off without Saddam Hussein.” Now, the pundits say “no one can deny that ‘the mission’ must be completed.”

Brave Soldiers

Referring to an explosion in Mosul that killed 14 U.S. soldiers including members of a Virginia battalion, the Washington Post editors declared, “Those who struck (on Dec. 21) hope a spectacular and bloody attack will drive the United States out of Iraq, as it was driven from Lebanon and Somalia, and doom those Iraqis who now risk their lives for the elections. That’s why the only possible answer is that of those brave Virginia soldiers: to pick up the wounded, pray for the dead and return to the mission.” [Washington Post, Dec. 22, 2004]

Another form of this argument about pressing ahead whatever the prospects for success was articulated by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who said, “whatever people’s feelings or beliefs about the removal of Saddam Hussein and the wisdom of that, there surely is only one side to be on in what is now very clearly a battle between democracy and terror.”

New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who beat the drums of war loudly in 2002 and 2003, hailed Blair’s remarks while acknowledging that the U.S. operation may still fail because of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s incompetence and the lack of support from “most Europeans, having been made stupid by their own weakness.”

Friedman incorporates the requisite praise for “the troops” and their mission, even as he concedes they may be dying in a lost cause. “What is terrifying is that the noble sacrifice of our soldiers, while never in vain, may not be enough.” Friedman adds: “We may actually lose in Iraq. The vitally important may turn out to be the effectively impossible.” [NYT, Dec. 23, 2004]

Other neoconservative war supporters, such as William Kristol, also are pointing fingers at Rumsfeld and the Defense Department, blaming poor military planning and tactics for the debacle. Clearly, the neoconservatives, who won over Bush to their dream of violently remaking the Middle East and who dominated the pre-war debate, now want to distance themselves from the consequences of their own policy.

Instead of apologizing to the American people and especially to the soldiers put in harm’s way, these intellectual architects of the war – the likes of Thomas Friedman, William Kristol and the Washington Post editorial board – seem more interested now in protecting their careers and rationalizing their earlier misjudgments.

No Accountability

Indeed, if there were any serious accountability in Washington, these characters would either be expected to resign or be banished from their punditry perches. Given the abuse heaped on people who were right about Iraq, such as former arms inspector Scott Ritter, one has to wonder what would be the appropriate treatment for those who were wrong.

While Friedman may call the Europeans “stupid,” it should be remembered that the French and the Germans begged Bush for more time to let UN weapons inspectors finish their work in Iraq, a recommendation that might have averted this catastrophe altogether by demonstrating that Iraq possessed no WMD. Granted, Saddam Hussein and his secular dictatorship might still be in power, but the Iraq problem would almost certainly be more limited and contained than it is today.

The corruption of the U.S. political process – and the acceptance of lies as truth – also might not have advanced as far as it has. Though the Washington press corps took no note, Bush used his Dec. 21 news conference to repeat again the canard that Saddam Hussein had remained in defiance of UN disarmament demands.

In fact, Bush’s own weapons inspectors agree that Hussein had complied with UN demands that he destroy his WMD. Still, Bush continued to insist that “Diplomacy had failed for 13 years in Iraq. As you might remember, and I'm sure you do, all the UN resolutions that were passed out of the United Nations, totally ignored by Saddam Hussein.”

In some Orwellian fashion, the quiescent White House reporters presumably did “remember” what wasn’t true, since they have heard this claim over and over again. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Reality on the Ballot.”]

Predictable Disaster

What may be even more absurd is that the same clique of pundits and policymakers who helped send more than 1,300 U.S. soldiers off to their deaths would have any standing to preach about what should happen next in Iraq. After all, there were plenty of people who warned about the dangers of invading Iraq.

The Iraq disaster was both predictable and predicted. The problem was that the skeptics were largely excluded from the debate. When millions of Americans protested the impending war through massive street demonstrations, for instance, Bush brushed them aside as something akin to a “focus group” that wouldn’t influence his thinking.

Administration insiders, such as Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill and counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke, pleaded with their colleagues not to plunge off toward Iraq, but they were attacked for lacking loyalty. Other Iraq War skeptics came from President George H.W. Bush’s administration, such as retired Gen. Brent Scowcroft. All were ignored, dismissed or muzzled.

While most major American newspapers promoted the administration’s WMD case and the Iraq invasion, some Internet sites, like our own Consortiumnews.com, noted both the dubious case for war and the virtual impossibility of pacifying Iraq, which resembled a California-sized Gaza Strip. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Misleading the Nation to War” and “Bay of Pigs Meets Black Hawk Down.”]

Early in the conflict, I was speaking with a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who had just returned from Iraq. The senator told me the U.S. occupation would last 30 years. I presumed I had misheard the comment.

“Do you mean three years?” I asked.

“Thirty years,” the senator repeated. “It will take a generation.”

While stunning at the time, the senator’s observation doesn’t seem quite so strange today. The Bush administration has effectively admitted that there is no clear exit strategy. At the Dec. 21 press conference, Bush acknowledged that little progress has been made in building an effective Iraqi army to protect the U.S.-backed Iraqi government.

A Washington Post chart reinforced this point by comparing the Bush administration’s initial projection of U.S. troop levels with later changes. The original projection in April 2003 showed an expected decline in U.S. Army brigades from 16 to zero by December 2004. In other words, all large-scale Army units would have been home this Christmas.

That projection was changed in July 2003 to show a more gradual phase-out of mainline U.S. forces. Under the July 2003 projection, the number of Army brigades should have been cut in half by now, down to eight, with the last brigade due home Christmas 2005.

In reality, however, about 17 Army brigades remain in Iraq, with that level expected to continue well into 2006. Only slight declines are expected through 2007. No final Christmas homecoming is in sight for American GIs. [Washington Post, Dec. 22, 2004]

What to Do?

So what should be done now about Iraq?

--First, there must be political space allowed for a full and fair airing of opinions about Iraq. Until now, the pro-war side has engaged more in baiting than debating, silencing skeptics with ridicule and personal attacks rather than listening to thoughtful critiques of Bush’s policies.

--Second, realism must replace these receding mirages of success. The toppling of Hussein’s statue was the first mirage of victory, followed by Bush’s May 1 “Mission Accomplished” performance, the killing of Hussein’s sons, the capture of Hussein, the transfer of “sovereignty,” and now the Jan. 30, 2005, elections. False hope is no substitute for hardheaded geopolitical strategy.

--Third, Americans must recognize that the best remaining possible outcomes may require swallowing American pride and accepting some unpleasant realities. Stubbornness will only delay the inevitable and indeed may make the inevitable worse.

--Fourth, the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq appears to have been more a destabilizing factor than a stabilizing one, while also breeding anti-Americanism throughout the Middle East and elsewhere in the world. That means that an indefinite U.S. occupation of Iraq may be part of a worsening problem, not part of a realistic solution.

--Fifth, if American troops are to be saved, Bush must admit his own errors and live up to his campaign promise in 2000 of a “humble” foreign policy. Though John Kerry might have been a more plausible supplicant, a chastened Bush may have no choice but to go hat in hand to seek the world’s help.

The best remaining option for U.S. policy in Iraq may be to arrange a phased withdrawal of American troops, replaced temporarily by forces from Europe or Asia. Ultimately, there may be no heading off the likelihood of an Iraqi civil war or some de facto partitioning of the country.

Without doubt, Iraq faces many bloody years ahead with the end result possibly another dictatorship or an Iranian-style theocratic regime. If Bush had listened to wiser counsel two years ago or if the U.S. news media had permitted a more vigorous debate, this catastrophe might have been averted.

In a normal world, one might expect a leader who was responsible for such gross misjudgments to resign or to be voted out of office. But the U.S. political system is not functioning in what might be termed a “normal” way.

Nevertheless, more flag-waving and more cloying tributes to the troops are not the answer to a wretched, life-and-death predicament. In the end, another costly lesson from Iraq may be to teach U.S. leaders to follow the Hippocratic rule that is taught to doctors when they assess a sick patient: “First, do no harm.”


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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