Paul Wolfowitz’s admission that he and others were “clueless on counterinsurgency” at the Hudson Institute’s symposium on Douglas Feith’s “War and Decision” last week was certainly the lede as Eli Lake reported it in the New York Sun reported last week, but overlooked were the remarks on the same panel by Dan Senor who demolished — albeit very politely — just about everything Feith and Wolfowitz had to say.
I’m never been a fan of Senor — he has been a spokesman for Freedom’s Watch — and he was, of course, spokesman and a top adviser to Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) chief L. Paul (“Jerry”) Bremer to whom he obviously retains some sense of loyalty. But his responses to the most basic point made by Feith in his book and Wolfowitz during the symposium — that things went bad when the U.S. declared an “occupation” instead of turning over the government to and empowering an Iraqi authority dominated by “externals” like Ahmed Chalabi and other members of the so-called “London Group” — were clear and irrefutable (at least by Feith and Wolfowitz) and also served to point up once again how completely ignorant the administration’s leading hawks were both about Iraqi society and the likely impact on it of the U.S. invasion.
The symposium, which Hudson has made available in both transcript and video forms on its website, was important, if only because it marked the first time that I know of that Wolfowitz, who was Feith’s nominal superior at the Pentagon, has spoken publicly at length about the Iraq War since he left the administration in 2005 to take over the World Bank (from which he was forced to step down last June). His contribution to the panel, which also included former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Peter Rodman, consisted mostly of quoting passages from Feith’s book and agreeing with them.
In particular, he quoted Feith’s central argument: “The chief mistake [by the U.S. government] was maintaining an occupation government in Iraq for over a year, even though the dangers of occupation had been recognized throughout the Bush administration and even though the president’s policy had called for the early creation of an Iraqi interim authority. The central task of liberation was to bring about political transition in Iraq, but this was impeded beginning months before Saddam’s overthrow by the self-induced anxieties at State and CIA [always the bad guys for the neo-cons – ed’s note] about the presumed lack of legitimacy of the Iraqi opposition.” According to Feith and Wolfowitz (and Richard Perle, for that matter), it was this decision that at least fueled — if it didn’t create — the insurgency.
But to Senor, the decision to declare and sustain a legal occupation was “irrelevant” given the basic fact that the “occupation” was a fact of life for the vast majority of Iraqis.
“To them, occupation was the fact that virtually every interaction they had with any official providing them a government service, whether it was the dispensing of basic essential services like electricity and water and gasoline, or providing basic security in those early months, was conducted by American men and women in uniform and our coalition forces. that is the fact. To them, that was occupation. For most Iraqis, occupation existed in their daily lives when they walked out their front door and there was a Humvee sitting around the corner and they had to drive through checkpoints that were manned by American military. Anywhere they need to go, those checkpoints were clogging up Baghdad. That to them is occupation.
“…And the idea that we could be tinkering with position papers and memos about how we define occupation and that would somehow change the perception of Iraqis’ sense of occupation day to day, I think, is somewhat disconnected from reality.”
Moreover, the assumption by Feith and Wolfowitz that transferring power to the “externals” favored by the Pentagon civilians would have prevented or “tamped down” — rather than intensified — the resistance, particularly within the Sunni population, was simply unfounded, according to Senor. Indeed, …[i]f you simply look at some of the actions they did take take when …we handed authority [for] de-Ba’athification over to the Iraqi Governing Council, they took [its] implementation …in a far more extreme direction than anybody envisioned.” Indeed, Senor said, transferring authority to that group would have created “a sovereign government …dominated by Shiite Islamists.”
Aside from the omnipresence of American soldiers, the basic problem faced by the U.S. in Iraq from the outset was the perceived disenfranchisement of the Sunni population, Senor stressed. “You have a community that represented some 20 percent of the population that for the entire modern life of Iraq, at least its modern-state life, had been in control of the country …in very possible way. …And the notion that we were going to go into Iraq, in a society that had deep and visceral inter-communal tensions and dislocate or disenfranchise or at least take this community and have their influence represent their proportionate representation in the population. And for that not to be the problem is something [that] at best we may not have seen coming…”
Feith and Wolfowitz admit that also they did not see it coming (although they tend to see the “Sunni” problem as an all-controlling “Ba’athist” conspiracy), but then they insist that no agency in the U.S. government foresaw it. In his presentation, Wolfowitz quoted approvingly again from Feith’s book:
“What was not anticipated by any office, as far as I know, was the Iraqi regime’s ability to conduct a sustained campaign against coalition forces after it was overthrown. When the CIA in August, 2002, analyzed how Saddam might attack, surprise, or otherwise foil us in a war, its analysis dealt only with actions Saddam might take while still in power. I never saw a CIA assessment of the Ba’athist after their ouster would be able to organize, recruit for, finance, supply, command, and control an insurgency, let alone an alliance with foreign Jihadists.”
Wolfowitz noted that he, too, had never seen any such study.
Yet, we now know that two such studies did exist, although they were undertaken on the initiative of the National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, Paul Pillar, of the National Intelligence Council and officially commissioned by the State Department’s Policy Planning Office. And they were theoretically available to all relevant policymakers, including Wolfowitz and Feith, well before the invasion. They were declassified by the Senate Intelligence Committee in May, 2006.
Here’s how Pillar summarized their findings in a Foreign Affairs article just before their declassification:
“Before the war, on its own initiative, the intelligence community considered the principal challenges that any post-invasion authority in Iraq would be likely to face. It presented a picture of a political culture that would not provide fertile ground for democracy and foretold a long, difficult, and turbulent transition. It projected that a Marshall Plan-type effort would be required to restore the Iraqi economy, despite Iraq’s abundant oil resources. It forecast that in a deeply divided Iraqi society, with Sunnis resentful over the loss of their dominant position and Shiites seeking power commensurate with their majority status, there was a significant chance that the groups would engage in violent conflict unless an occupying power prevented it. And it anticipated that a foreign occupying force would itself be the target of resentment and attacks — including by guerrilla warfare — unless it established security and put Iraq on the road to prosperity in the first few weeks or months after the fall of Saddam.
“…[W]ar and occupation would boost political Islam and increase sympathy for terrorists’ objectives — and Iraq would become a magnet for extremists from elsewhere in the Middle East.[Emphasis added]
Of course, the fact that these studies originated with the CIA and the State Department no doubt reduced their credibility for hawks like Wolfowitz and Feith who were so determined to go to war that they never bothered to check out what the National Intelligence Council or the State Department’s Policy Planning Office (which Wolfowitz at one time headed!) was producing. They much preferred the reassuring predictions they were getting from the exiles in the London Group, the same ones who, at least Senor now recognizes, either led them down the garden path or who, like Wolfowitz himself, had no clue about the Iraq to which the Pentagon was about to return them.
In any event, the Hudson transcript (or video) is certainly worth reviewing for the ease with which Senor takes apart virtually every point made by Wolfowitz and Feith and the apparent inability of Wolfowitz or Feith to rebut him. While Senor never suggests that he thinks the original decision to invade Iraq was a mistake, it’s pretty clear that he thought the decision was not very well thought out by its principal advocates at the Pentagon.
What we witnessed at the Hudson panel discussion was a disagreement on details between various actors in the Iraq tragedy. What the parties had to say is largely irrelevant in the context of the situation that exists today. The real question is: why does the U.S. continue to maintain forces in over 100 countries and intervene in far-off places? This, sad to say, is ignored in mainstream policy and political debate.
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