US Air Power to Replace Infantry in Iraq;
Distant President Trapped in Utopianism
Veteran journalist Seymour Hersh is reporting in the New Yorker that the Bush administration has decided to draw down ground troops in Iraq. Knowledgeable observers strongly suspect that this step would produce a meltdown and possibly even civil war in Iraq (which could become a regional war). Bush’s strategy may be to try to control the situation using air power.
Readers and colleagues often ask me why a Shiite majority and the Kurdish Peshmergas couldn’t just take care of the largely Sunni Arab guerrillas. The answer is that the Sunni Arabs were the officer corps and military intelligence, and the more experienced NCOs, and they know how to do things that the Shiites and Kurds don’t know how to do. The Sunni Arabs were also the country’s elite and have enormous cultural capital and managerial know-how. Sunni Arab advantages will decline over time, but they are there for this generation, and no one should underestimate the guerrilla leadership. If the Americans weren’t around, all those 77 Hungarian T-72 tanks that the new Iraqi military now has would be in guerrilla hands so fast it would make your head spin.
Shiite leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim complained to the Washington Post that the US itself was holding back the Iraqi army (which seems to be mostly Kurds and Shiites) from going after the Sunni Arab guerrillas in a concerted way. But this prospect is the other reason that the Shiites and the Kurds can’t just take care of the Sunni Arabs. If one isn’t careful, it would turn into a hot civil war on ethnic grounds (I don’t mean 38 dead a day, I mean it would be ten times that). And if the Shiites and Kurds massacre Sunni Arabs in the course of fighting the guerrillas, the Saudi, Jordanian and Sunni Syrian publics are not going to take that lying down and volunteer fighters would flock to Iraq in real numbers.
This diary over at Daily Kos discusses both Hersh’s reporting on this military issue and what his sources are saying about Bush and the White House.
Hersh reports that US Air Force officers are alarmed by the implication that Iraqi targeters may be calling down air strikes using US warplanes. I remember that Iraqi troops (mainly Kurds) were allowed to call down airstrikes in Tal Afar last August, and if my recollection serves, the Tal Afar operation may even have been conceived as an opportunity for Iraqi troops to get practice in doing so. They levelled whole neighborhoods of the Sunni Turkmen (many of whom had thrown in with Saddam in the old days).
The Air Force officers are right to be alarmed. It has been obvious to me for some time that US air power will be used to try to keep the guerrillas from taking over Iraq as the ground troops depart. This is why last August I argued for keeping some US Special Operations forces embedded with the new Iraqi army, since I felt that the US military should remain in control of the use of American air power (i.e. the laser targetting should be done by Navy Seals and others, not by Iraqis).
Likewise, I argued that the US should only make this airstrike capability available for defensive operations. Say that the 1920 Revolution Brigades got up a militia force to march on Hilla from Mahmudiyah, and the brigade made short work of the Iraqi infantry sent against it. In such a situation, the US should use air power to stop the neo-Baathists and Salafis from massacring the Shiites of Hilla. But the US Air Force should not be a toy in the hands of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who will most likely be the most powerful politician in Iraq come Dec. 16. If one keeps some Special Ops forces in Iraq, it would require a continued ability by the US to rescue them if anything went wrong, which is one reason both I and Congressman Murtha envisaged a continued over-the-horizon US presence in the region for a while.
But Hersh’s sources in Washington strongly give the impression that George W. Bush is incapable of making coherent policy in Iraq, and is fixated on his legacy there 20 years down the line.
Even Bush allies such as former transitional Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, however, are already bringing his legacy into question. Allawi asserts that governmental abuse of human rights in Iraq today is even worse than in the time of Saddam. If yours truly had said something like that, Jeff Jarvis would have called me pond scum and Andrew Sullivan would have given me a Sontag award. Jarvis and Sullivan were big supporters of Allawi (who is alleged to have been involved in a terrorist attack in Baghdad in the 1990s that blew up a school bus full of children). So what do they have to say now that the bad news is coming from the secular, pro-American politicians and they aren’t playing pollyanna any more? By the way, President Jalal Talabani rejected Allawi’s charges, but then he heads the government that Allawi is critiquing.
Bush’s legacy as a builder of democracy and promoter of rights in Iraq, all he has left going for him, was dealt another black eye by the emergence of a video that appears to show private security guards in Iraq firing at civilian vehicles for sport out on the road to the airport.
Hersh appeared on Wolf Blitzer on Sunday, and Wolf read out this quote from the New Yorker piece by Hersh:
” ‘The president is more determined than ever to stay the course,’ the former defense official said. ‘He doesn’t feel any pain. Bush is a believer in the adage, “People may suffer and die, but the Church advances.” ‘ He said that the president had become more detached, leaving more issues to Karl Rove and Vice President Cheney. ‘They keep him in the gray world of religious idealism, where he wants to be anyway,’ the former defense official said.”
Hersh goes on to tell Blitzer that Bush disparages any information about Iraq that does not fit his preconceived notions, and that he feels he has a (perhaps divine) mission to bring democracy to the country. Hersh’s inside sources paint a president who is detached and in the grip of profound utopian delusions, which Hersh charitably characterizes as “idealistic.”
Congress really has to step in here. Senators and representatives should demand that Bush get the ground troops out without turning control of the US air force over to Shiite clerics like Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. Presidents cannot do anything without money, and Congress controls the money. The wiser and more knowledgeable heads on both sides of the aisle have to start telling Bush “No!” when he comes to them asking for another $100 billion so he can level another Sunni Arab city. He is counting on the public punishing “no” votes on military affairs. But the American public would at this point almost certainly be grateful for it. And apart from telling him “No!” they should put strict reporting requirements on how the money is used. For instance, only defensive operations should any longer be funded.
Let me finish with a word to W. As for your legacy two decades from now, George, let me clue you in on something–as a historian. In 20 years no Iraqis will have you on their minds one way or another. Do you think anyone in Egypt or Israel is still grateful to Jimmy Carter for helping bring to an end the cycle of Egyptian-Israeli wars? Jimmy Carter powerfully affected the destinies of all Egyptians and Israelis in that key way. Most people in both countries have probably never heard of him, and certainly no one talks about the first Camp David Accords anymore except as a dry historical subject. The US pro-Israel lobby is so ungrateful that they curse Carter roundly for all the help he gave Israel. Human beings don’t have good memories for these things, which is why we have to have professional historians, a handful of people who are obsessed with the subject. And I guarantee you, George, that historians are going to be unkind to you. You went into a major war over a non-existent nuclear weapons program. Presidents’ reputations don’t survive things like that. Historians are creatures of documents and precision. A wild exaggeration with serious consequences is against everything they stand for as a profession. So forget about history and destiny and the divine will. You are at the helm of the Exxon Valdez and it is headed for the shoals. You can’t afford to daydream about future decades.