Friday, April 25, 2008

Dana Milbank's excellent piece on neocon darling Doug Feith

IMHO, on-target assessment of the failings of the execrable Mr. Doug Feith. Frankly, I was disappointed when Georgetown gave him a faculty spot. It's somehow reassuring that they've chosen to dump him. He'll probably wind up making deals as a lobbyist - maybe for AIPAC? - or as a new "resident scholar" at the American Enterprise Institute.
Iraq War Is Everyone Else's Fault, Feith Explains

By Dana Milbank
Friday, April 25, 2008; A03

Mistakes were made. But not by him.

Doug Feith, the No. 3 man at the Pentagon before, during and after the invasion of Iraq, has come in for his share of blame for the failures there -- in large part because he led the Pentagon policy shop that badly misstated the case for war and bungled the planning for the aftermath. Gen. Tommy Franks called him "the dumbest [bad word] guy on the planet." George Tenet of the CIA called his work on Iraq "total crap." And Jay Garner, once the American administrator in Iraq, deduced that Feith is "incredibly dangerous" and, "He's a smart guy whose electrons aren't connected."

Now Feith, whatever the state of his electrons, is showing just how dangerous he can be. He's written a book designed to settle the score with his many opponents in the administration, and in a book-launch event last night at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, he pointed his finger every which way but inward.

He argued that former secretary of state Colin Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage, were the ones who failed to challenge the logic of going to war -- not him. He suggested that Powell, Armitage, Franks, former Iraq viceroy Jerry Bremer and even Feith's old boss, Donald Rumsfeld, should be blamed for the postwar chaos in Iraq -- not him. He blamed then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice for the way she operated ("fundamental differences were essentially papered over rather than resolved"). He accused the CIA of "improper" and unprofessional behavior. And he implicitly blamed President Bush for not cracking down on insubordinate behavior at the State Department.

Yet at the same time, Feith told the CSIS crowd that he disapproved of the "snide and shallow self-justification typical in memoirs of former officials," or what Feith cleverly called the " 'I-was-surrounded-by-idiots' school of memoir writing." Feith pointed out that he supported his account with 140 pages of notes and documents. And yet, in his hour-long panel discussion, Feith seemed to be of the impression that he had, in fact, been surrounded by idiots.

There was, for example, the question of the campaign waged by Feith and his section of the Pentagon against the CIA when the agency argued that there was no evidence of al-Qaeda having ties to Saddam Hussein. "The CIA and the intelligence community should not be shading intelligence," Feith lectured. But the self-justification missed the obvious point: The CIA was correct.

As he has promoted his book this month, Feith has continued to say things that suggest an ongoing electron disconnect. On "60 Minutes," he made the straight-faced claim that "I don't think we needed to" make weapons of mass destruction part of the case for war with Iraq.

And he assigns blame freely. Disbanding of the Iraqi army? He blames that on Bremer and Rumsfeld. "The first time I heard the idea, it came from Ambassador Bremer when he was on his way to Baghdad. I didn't sign off one way or the other."

His main regret, he told National Public Radio, was that Rumsfeld and Franks did not take seriously his wise and prescient memo warning about the need to preserve law and order in Iraq. He should have "pushed harder to get it onto General Franks's radar screen, to get it onto Secretary Rumsfeld's radar screen," he said.

Pointing so many fingers in so many directions, a man is bound to get confused -- as happened when Steve Kroft asked him on "60 Minutes" about his claim that the lack of troops contributed to looting in Baghdad. "I don't believe I raised the troop-level issue in that connection," Feith replied. Then Kroft presented him with the passage. "That's a fair point," Feith amended.

The title of Feith's book, "War and Decision," is printed across a blood-red cover. At last night's forum, moderator Ray DuBois of the CSIS pointed out that Feith, admirably, is donating all proceeds from the book to a foundation he's creating to help veterans and their families. Of course, money is not the object in this book; the 54-year-old son of a Holocaust survivor is eager to rebuild a reputation that continues to suffer for his role in starting the war. After his appointment to the Georgetown foreign-service school caused a ruckus among the faculty, the school decided not to renew his spot.

CSIS's Fred Ikle, one of the panelists, admired Feith's ability to point out, "honestly and delicately," that "this was not Rumsfeld's finest hour," and he praised the author's "subtle disclosure of the chronic insubordination in our government." But there was nothing subtle about Feith's blame-casting.

"The most serious analysis of the downside and risks of war was produced in the Pentagon by Rumsfeld and his top advisers, not by Colin Powell, Rich Armitage, George Tenet or other officials who are reputed to have been the voices of caution," Feith argued.

Then there was the "plan for political transition in post-Saddam Iraq" -- the lack of which caused the American occupation to unravel. "It was a plan that my office drafted, Powell and Armitage tried to delay, President Bush approved, Jay Garner began to implement and L. Paul Bremer buried."

It must have been very difficult being Doug Feith: correct all the time, and surrounded by idiots.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

More birth pangs, Condi?

Tomorrow's NY Times quotes Condi Rice and Ryan Crocker with remarks that I'd find ludicrous, even comical, if their deceptiveness weren't masking with happy-talk the ramping-up violence in Iraq, specifically in Baghdad and Basra - and quite probably, as the LA Times indicates, Najaf. Ms. Rice is chirping up in a manner that has me afraid she's going to start making remarks a la her famous "birth pangs of a new Middle East" comment during the Israeli demolition of much of Lebanon's infrastructure (and hundreds of its people) when it went after Hezbollah there in summer of 2006. Specifically, she quotes Iraqi PM al-Maliki as referring to the heightening violence in Baghdad's Sadr City as a "political spring." She perhaps is channeling her putative expertise as a Sovietologist (by any academic standard, she was a very minor one) to associate what's happening in Baghdad with the famous "Prague Spring" of 1968. That, some of us remember, was a short-lived political liberalizing in Czechoslovakia that ended tragically when the USSR invaded the country. Or perhaps she sees US troops about to do the same thing if the Iraqi Shia nationalist Muqtada al-Sadr calls up his Mahdi Army forces to resist the US forces and the "Iraqi army" on the streets of Sadr City. Muqtada, by the way, now threatens full-out war. Condi, when so informed, said that she wasn't sure whether to take him seriously. This is the same Condi, of course, who was taken completely by surprise when democratic elections in the Palestinian territories brought Hamas to power in 2006.

My use of quotation marks around "Iraqi army" is deliberate, if you hadn't already guessed - and this is where I take issue with ambassador Crocker, whom the NYT also quotes as saying that to be a serious political player like the ISCI party, Muqtada needs to forswear his Mahdi army militia. After all, says Crocker, ISCI's Badr Force militia have largely joined up with the supposedly nationalist, sect-unaffiliated Iraqi Army - which in Crocker's eyes (or at least for public consumption for the compliant mainstream media, not to mention his bosses in the White House) seems to mean that, but, of course, they've renounced any ties to the leadership and agenda of ISCI.

I want to scream, "Who do you think you're kidding?!!" Unfortunately, thousands of Americans who are too pre-occupied with keeping their houses and/or their jobs, or maintaining their Facebook pages, will take some comfort from Rice's and Crocker's public optimism - and Sen. McCain will likely seize on their comments to bolster his candidacy.

I fear, though, that the bottom may be about to fall out, and I fear that thousands of Iraqis - and a lot of US troops - are going to pay the price. But if the bottom is indeed about to fall out, how fitting that it happen on Mr. Bush's watch.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Iraq troops in control of Basra?

So says the NY Times, which reports that Muqtada al-Sadr has ordered his Mahdi Army forces to withdraw following attacks by Iraq army troops (remember, many of them are members of the Badr Force militia of Sadr's rival Abdul-aziz al-Hakim) and pounding by US and British artillery and air forces. In fact, the headline in the London Times is "British Guns Pound Basra". When I first spotted it I wondered if they were running one of those "On this date 91 years ago" kind of stories.

Meanwhile, US and Iraqi troops are savaging Sadr City in Baghdad, and Muqtada is threatening an all-out campaign if Iraqi PM Nuri al-Maliki doesn't rein in his forces. Very noteworthy here is the Iranian official reaction, which sides with Maliki vs. Muqtada, even though Iran has been providing support to the militias of both sides. However, Muqtada is - much more than al-Hakim - an Iraqi nationalist who wants to see a strong central government in Baghdad, which makes him a greater threat down the line to the Iranian regime's hopes of maintaining a strong influence over Iraq affairs. al-Hakim is much more interested in a loosely federated Iraq with a Shia super-state in the south that would have very close ties to Iran's mullahs.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Bush says no more troop cuts in Iraq

Mr Bush and his “legacy”
By John Robertson, War in Context, April 6, 2008

According to Britain’s Daily Telegraph our war-hero “Decider” president has decided that he will pull no more troops out of Iraq. According to the report, which cites Pentagon sources, he feels that showing such “resolve” will cement his legacy - which, he obviously assumes, is going to be an honorable one that will burn his glorious presidency indelibly into the pages of our national memory. A major contributor to his decision, moreover, seems to have been a report from another of our war-hero stalwarts, Fred Kagan, American Enterprise Institute all-star and an “intellectual” godfather of the “Surge.” Kagan is also a frequent contributor to William Kristol’s Weekly Standard (required reading for the - one would have hoped by now - discredited neocon faithful), where right up to the recent Basra humiliation he was serving up self-congratulatory pieces about the success of the Surge and declaring Iraq’s civil war to be “over.” Sorry, Fred, but most of the real experts (people like Juan Cole, Nir Rosen, and Patrick Cockburn - that is, people who know the country intimately, have lived there, and can read its newspapers) who’ve been reading the tea leaves suggest that, in the inimitable words of an American showman whose name I can’t recall, we “ain’t see nuthin yet.”

Please forgive me if I sound callous or flip by putting it that way, but by now it ought to be clear that the unfortunate people of Iraq have a long road to travel - and probably many years of suffering ahead - before they will be able to enjoy an existence graced by any consistency of peace, prosperity, and security. Surge notwithstanding, the Sunni Arabs of Anbar and elsewhere are no closer to being included in the governing of the Iraqi state than they were during the proconsulship of L. Paul Bremer, who marginalized them from the outset of the American occupation. The much-touted Sunni sahwa (”Sunni Awakening”) - to which the Bush-Petraeus “Surge” owed so much of its putative success - now seems, at best, to be hitting its collective snooze alarm while the US tries to keep these new militias, which are completely outside the control of the central government, paid off. Despite its ongoing entreaties, the Bush administration has been unable to convince the Shia-dominated Maliki government to incorporate them into the Iraqi army. Nor is that government making any appreciable effort to find them jobs to divert their attention and secure them some livelihood, and paychecks. It is likely only a matter of time before they bug out altogether and turn their newly obtained arms, equipment, and training on the people against whom so many of them were originally most intent on fighting in the first place: the US occupation forces and their Shia Badr Force allies.

Meanwhile, the sun seems to be setting on the hope-filled halcyon days of the Kurds’ autonomy in Iraq’s northeast, in which they were able to bask only because (after years of being sheltered and nurtured under a US-enforced no-fly zone) they supported the US invasion right down the line, while the US could point to them as Iraq’s model of stability and potential. But now the US has shown itself all too willing to sell them out when a stronger, more potentially useful ally, Turkey, put its marker down in this new “great game.” Notwithstanding the protests of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Turkish forces only recently completed major incursions into Iraqi Kurdistan to go after the PKK; only days ago, for the umpteenth time, Turkish warplanes flew bombing sorties into the region; and the Turkish republic’s leaders have reserved the right to violate the sovereignty of the KRG (and, by the standards of anybody’s interpretation of international law, the sovereignty of the state of Iraq) when and if they deem it necessary (which, given the current turmoil in the Turkish government, also translates to “politically expedient”). And as if the threat from Turkey weren’t enough, the future stability of Kurdistan faces what is perhaps an even direr threat: the possibility of civil war among Kurds, Arabs, and Turks over the ultimate control of the city and region of Kirkuk.

And speaking of civil war, it’s pretty safe to say that the violence of late March in Basra and Baghdad was only a taste of what might be in store for Iraq’s largely Shia south and center, where the scions of the powerful and prestigious al-Hakim and al-Sadr clerical lineages (along with smaller groups like the Fadhila party in Basra) are vying for political control (and in Basra, control of Iraq’s vital oil exports) as provincial elections, scheduled for October, approach. Their respective leaders - Abdulaziz al-Hakim and Muqtada al-Sadr - control well-armed and inspired militias (respectively, the Badr Forces and the Jaish al-Mahdi, or “Mahdi Army”) that fought each other viciously in the holy city of Karbala only a few months ago, and in Basra and Baghdad only recently. Thanks largely to the intervention of Iran (which was spearheaded by a “terrorist” Revolutionary Guard general), Muqtada agreed to a truce, not to be mistaken for a peace treaty. Simply put, the two militias hate each other. Add then to this very combustible mix that Muqtada is the leader of a huge popular political movement that claims the support of hundreds of thousands of the poor Shia of teeming slums like Sadr City in Baghdad, and of hundreds of thousands more in Iraq’s second largest city, Basra. He has called upon his followers - and other Iraqis who want the US occupation out of Iraq - to come together next week for a million-man march. That march was originally set for the holy city of Najaf, a stronghold of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), the Shia political movement led by Abdulaziz al-Hakim. Now, however, Muqtada has decided to stage the march in Baghdad.

Keeping a lid on the tensions that will be bubbling in Baghdad next week will be the job of the Maliki “government.” This is, of course, the same Maliki government that was recently humbled by its failure in Basra and that appears ever more dysfunctional, hunkered down in the “Green Zone” (beyond which it exercises little real control) and confronted with a divided, often absentee parliament. The army Maliki commands has proved itself largely unreliable and ineffective, often including members of the Badr militia whose loyalties to the state are suspect or forced to rely on Kurdish peshmerga who are loath to be involved in inter-Arab conflicts. But it’s this army with which Maliki is entrusted with keeping a damper on the situation as Muqtada’s march approaches. Can we really believe they’re up to it?

No. Which is why US troops, air power, and special forces will be on the scene aplenty next week - and why, Mr. Bush has now decided, and why Gen. Petraeus will insist next week, they will need to be there for the foreseeable future. And it’s also why Mr. Bush will feel it justifiable and necessary to hand off the Iraq tinderbox to his successor. Given the current mood of US citizenry (of whom, a new poll indicates, more than 80 percent believe that the country is headed in the wrong direction), that successor will likely not be a member of Mr. Bush’s political party. But with a level of military effort no longer sustainable (as almost all of the top brass have insisted), and with the national economy swirling the bowl, that successor will most certainly have to begin to disengage the US from Iraq - and be left to hold the bag for the hubris, incompetence, and catastrophe of his predecessor.

Because, as US forces pull out, Iraq will most certainly fall apart even more, its misery and violence ratcheting up by several notches. With much more justification than Mr. Bush did last week, many across the world will proclaim it a “defining moment.” Some will proclaim that the American behemoth has been vanquished once and for all. Others, perhaps more reflectively, and dishearteningly, may surmise that whatever fires America might have lit for insisting on goodness and justice on the planet lie in cinders, if not altogether doused.

But Mr. Bush’s glorious page in our national memory will be completely up in smoke, wisps on the wind of history.

John Robertson is a professor of Middle East history at Central Michigan University and has his own blog, Chippshots.

Friday, April 4, 2008

About that "defining moment" in Iraq

Mr. Bush's claim last week that Iraqi PM al-Maliki's decision to take on the Mahdi army in Basra was a "defining moment" is coming back to haunt him. First, Maliki's own party, without his knowledge, undercuts him by sending emissaries to an Iranian Revolutionary Guard general (and evidently a "terrorist" as defined by the US) in Qom to arrange a truce with Muqtada al-Sadr. Then, even though by all accounts his army did not do well against the Mahdi army, Maliki vows to keep going after them. Now, today, Maliki is telling his army to stand down.
A defining moment indeed.

Basra's aftermath

Very revealing story in today's Financial Times about the performance of the Iraqi army during the recent fight against the Mahdi army in Basra. It seems that as many as 1000 officers and men refused to fight, and now Mr. al-Maliki is threatening to prosecute and/or discipline them all. Meanwhile, he is now signing up Shia tribesmen by the dozen to enlist in the Iraqi army. US ambassador Ryan Crocker sees this as a measure of Maliki's strong leadership, and as evidence that the Shia tribesmen are moving to support his government in what Crocker seems to view as some major shift in the tide. Fortunately, the reporter (so unlike so many of his colleagues in the US mainstream media) does not restrict his reporting to stenography for US military and diplomatic spokesmen, but inquires into other possible reasons for this shift, to learn that a - perhaps the - major incentive here is a job, and a paycheck.

Meanwhile, the Sunni sahwa ("Awakening") forces, who've been demanding that they be incorporated into the Iraqi army, remain out in the cold - and they aren't happy about it. That, of course, spells even more trouble for Mr. Maliki, who seems determined to keep Sunni Arab elements from acquiring any significant influence in either the government or the military. Given the long years of Sunni domination and abuse of the Shia in Mesopotamia/Iraq, especially under the Baathist regime of Saddam, his reluctance in this regard is to be expected. But without some measure of significant Sunni inclusion, Iraq's current state cannot improve for more than the few months that band-aid solutions such as the "Surge" made possible.

And Mr. Muqtada al-Sadr still plans to have his million-man march on Najaf next week . . . .

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Muqtada's million-person march

Reports today that Muqtada al-Sadr is calling for a million people to march on the Shiite holy city of Najaf next week, both as a show of political force and as a demonstration against the US occupation. The US-sponsored Maliki government is saying that it is more or less OK with it (even as its forces continue to surround Sadrist neighborhoods in Baghdad and US warplanes bomb Sadrist neighborhoods in Basra). But I fear that this proposed march has the potential to be the flashpoint that sets off the tinderbox. Najaf is controlled mostly by the forces of ISCI (Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq, led by Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim) and its militia, the Badr Force, which are extremely hostile to the Sadrists. Only a few months ago they came to blows in the other shrine city, Karbala, and the recent battles in Basra pitted the Mahdi Army of the Sadrists against the Iraqi army (with US ground and air support), many of whom were also members of the Badr militia. We can expect the feelings between the Sadrists and ISCI to be very raw when the march takes place.

And add to that the fact that the Sunni al-Qaeda forces will likely be planning attacks against the Shiite marchers . . . and that US forces will likely be nearby, on alert . . .


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