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August 2003

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Washington's Summer of Discontent

On May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush proclaimed that major military combat in Iraq was over. From that high point, matters went rapidly downhill. A month or so later, even as Bush met Middle Eastern leaders to launch an Arab-Israeli peace initiative called the "Road Map," American troops found themselves in guerrilla warfare around Baghdad. Then, as July began, the White House itself was bedeviled by a crisis over pre-war intelligence that pitted the National Security Advisor against the CIA. Will the August doldrums give the Bush team time to recover from these episodes? Perhaps, but the "summer of discontent" raises larger issues about the direction and cost of America's national security strategy.

When a beaming President congratulated American forces on the carrier Abraham Lincoln, the Bush Administration had reason to be satisfied. The U.S.-led coalition seized Iraq in only six weeks, with fewer losses than in the 1991 Gulf War. Civilians and urban facilities were left largely intact. The campaign seemed to justify advocates of a transformed military that used speed, precision, and superior firepower to overwhelm the enemy rather than the huge masses of armor and carpet-bombing of the past.

Yet, there was a cautionary note. The battle plan itself had to be altered precipitously when Turkey refused passage for one American division to open a Northern Front. At the outset, the war was no "cakewalk;" Saddam's irregulars unexpectedly attacked a 300-mile-long American logistics train; and bypassed cities did not rise spontaneously to evict the regime. A few bad incidents gave rise, as Vice President Cheney joked, to panic among "some retired military officers embedded in TV studios." But if the "cakewalkers" were mistaken so were the "urban stalkers," those who expected American forces to be sucked into desperate street fighting for the Iraqi capital. Baghdad 2003 was no Beirut 1982; the real "shock and awe" proved to be the speed with which the Ba'athist regime vanished after American forces entered the city.

This surprising endgame soon taught Washington the difference between a force configured to win a war and a force configured to secure the peace. Post-war planning seems to have been dominated by an easy belief among high-ranking Pentagon civilians that the surgical military strike would remove the head, leaving the body intact. Replace the "head" with an imported political force, such as the exile-dominated Iraqi National Congress and, presto, Iraq would function again.

The confluence of a force too small to run an occupation and a confidence too large about quickly reviving an Iraqi administration produced dire results. American commanders, perhaps suspicious of their success, kept their troops deployed for battle. In any event, very few had been prepared for police work or civic action; and almost all were totally unfamiliar with Iraq's complex tribal, clan, and religious conflicts. The electrical, water, and even oil pumping facilities spared by American bombs were looted and ruined by Iraqis, some of whom even looted national libraries and museums. The victors seemed paralyzed, without orders or purpose. Even Saddam, his sons, and their closest henchmen, if a captured bodyguard's testimony is to be believed, were able to move about fairly easily as they regrouped in the aftermath of sudden collapse.

Washington proved slow to apprehend the trouble. The Administration warned off Iran and Syria from interfering in Iraq while reciting the mantra of "liberation, no occupation." Some in the Pentagon thought that the four divisions in Iraq (the fourth having arrived too late for the fighting) might be reduced to 1 by autumn. Meanwhile, the President busied himself with the diplomacy of the "Road Map" for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Two weeks into May, however, the warning signs from Iraq jolted the White House into action. A newly vocal Iraqi populace demanded action on electricity, water, and public security. No political process was in sight. The vital oil industry, key to Iraq's economic revival, was hobbled by looting and sabotage. Gasoline and kerosene shortages afflicted an already disgruntled population wondering why the superpower had not transformed everything at once. General Garner, the Pentagon's "civilian" authority, had been prepared, as he told The Washington Post later (June 26), for crises that never occurred (famine, refugees, disease) and unready for those he faced (security, infrastructure). On May 12, he was replaced by a retired State Department veteran, L. Paul "Jerry" Bremer, who, among other achievements in a hard school, had administered for Secretaries of State Kissinger, Haig, and Shultz. He clarified very quickly that the United States and Britain were indeed "occupying powers" and dispensed with personnel who thought otherwise. The only question was whether the occupation would be effective, establishing order and preparing the way for Iraqi civilian government, or ineffective, compounding the chaos.

If the demands of occupation seemed to mystify the Americans, two other puzzles soon became critical. One was the whereabouts of Saddam Hussein, his sons, and the rudiments of their party organization. On May 8, the same day a sniper killed an American soldier directing traffic in Baghdad, an audiotape surfaced with Saddam's call for resistance. A more organized campaign began on May 26, when two well-organized attacks caught an American convoy. Thereafter, hardly a day passed without American troops being injured or killed until by mid-August, sixty had lost their lives.

On July 1, Bush warned the American people that they faced "a massive and long-term undertaking in Iraq." General Franks' successor at Central Command, General Abizaid, gave the immediate troubles a name, announcing that American forces were confronting "a classic guerrilla-type campaign against us." To deal with it, more troops might be needed; tours, especially of the heavily used Third Division, would be extended; and casualties could be expected to increase.

There was an unnerving similarity between a reviving Iraqi resistance and increasing violence in Afghanistan. In both cases, U.S.-led or -supported forces had quickly swept aside formal military resistance. In neither case had the enemy leader been eliminated. The Bush Administration confronted a nasty fact: war against the likes of bin Laden or Saddam could not be ended with their mere defeat; they had to be killed and they had not yet been killed. Hence, the reconstruction of Iraq could hardly begin if the people, newly aware of the mass graves of Saddam's earlier victims, still feared the dictator's return.

The puzzle of Saddam's survival and his residual strength compounded yet another mystery: where were his weapons of mass destruction, so much a part of the justification for the war? While American units had discovered protective uniforms and VX gas antidotes stored at several military sites, no weapons were found nor even the inventories unaccounted for by the U.N. teams. Special task forces using the CIA's pre-war intelligence scoured various locations to no effect. Meanwhile, Iraqi insiders, whose tips were critically important to U.N. discoveries of WMD programs in the 1990's, might not be very forthcoming if they feared Saddam's retaliation.

In late June, time began to run out on the mystery of the weapons of mass destruction. On June 29, the British government was forced to admit that some of its public dossiers on the subject had been sloppy. Former officials who broke with Prime Minister Blair over the war began an unrelenting assault on his truthfulness that, in the absence of evidence from Iraq, seriously undermined his standing among Britons willing to give him the benefit of the doubt in the wake of military success.

At first, Bush seemed immune to this virus. Polls showed that most Americans would still support the war even if WMD were never found. But already in May the media had raised questions about Bush's claim in his State of the Union Address on January 28, 2003, that Saddam had sought to buy uranium from Africa for nuclear weapons development. The charge had surfaced earlier in a British report issued on September 24, 2002. The CIA doubted this allegation: Bush omitted it in later speeches and Secretary of State Powell did not use it in his U.N. presentation. Two investigations of the Niger connection, one by the IAEA, the other by Joseph Wilson, a former U.S. Ambassador to Gabon, sustained the State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research's (INR) judgment of October 16, 2002: "Highly dubious." Yet somehow, the President had been allowed to say: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

By mid-June, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the press were hot on the trail of a most sensational charge, namely that Bush, like Blair, had been guilty, to use the BBC's phrase, of "sexing up" the intelligence. Wilson raised the issue of whether the United States went to war "under false pretenses" in a New York Times op-ed on July 6. The next day, the House of Commons committee investigating the use of pre-war intelligence cleared the Blair Government of the "sexing up" charge but refuted the uranium claim. If this were unfit for British consumption then why had Bush served it up to the American people?

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer promptly admitted that the sixteen words should not have been included. He then excused the inclusion on the grounds that the Niger story had been discredited only after the State of the Union address. This was not so, as Wilson had declared, and the CIA soon admitted. Over the next three weeks, a classic summer storm invested Washington. NSC Advisor Rice said that the CIA had cleared the speech; Tenet admitted that he had cleared the speech but had not read it, and, besides, the issue had been flagged earlier; and no one knew why the story had remained in the National Intelligence Estimates issued October 2002. As fingers pointed and wagged, the Administration seemed to be risking its reputation for competence and honesty over a statement that was incontestably true on its face: the British government had indeed stated that Saddam had been seeking uranium in Africa. "Technically correct," the White House insisted but, of course, embarrassingly at odds with U.S. intelligence, both at CIA and State.

What did the President know and when did he know it? On July 18, it turned out that the President knew what the speechwriters put before him and the speechwriters knew . . . well, they knew and then they forgot CIA memos from October 5 and 6 that questioned the uranium claim. Rice's Deputy, Stephen Hadley, stood forward to take the blame. Bush refused his resignation and on July 30, strongly reaffirmed his confidence in NSC Advisor Rice after declaring, "I take personal responsibility for everything I say." The sixteen-word crisis left in its wake continued suspicions about the real state of U.S. intelligence. A heretofore tightly-run White House turned out to have a few loose ends. (The Pentagon offered its own footnote to the summer's distress when Deputy Secretary Defense Wolfowitz allowed on July 24 that sometimes "we do stupid things." Five days later, a Pentagon idea to run a futures market in terrorism surfaced to substantiate his point.) Already reeling from these episodes, Bush was battered by yet another squall that same week when the Congressional investigation of 9/11 issued a report with the section on foreign government involvement (specifically Saudi Arabia) heavily censored. The Saudis took offense but the President refused to publish the full details leading to another "leak-a-thon" in the media.

Despite the "summer of discontent," the Bush team regained a semblance of balance by early August. Once convinced that resistance was organized and that Saddam's survival was a growing danger, the Administration moved decisively to squelch far more potent political challenges than those offered by the sixteen-word crisis. The first was the spreading conviction that the Americans did not know what to do in Iraq and that Bush lacked a "Plan B" to deal with unexpected dangers, especially the continued American casualties. A dimension of this danger was the lack of a rotation scheme that left the Third Division in limbo. Its brigades had fought the war, taken over the more difficult of the occupation zones and had been deployed nearly a year. They were tired and some were vocal. Their families were increasingly upset.

In mid- and late-July, the Bush Administration took action on both fronts. Bremer put a "Plan B" into place by convincing a disparate group of exiles and local opposition, notably the major Shiite organization, to join a Governing Council that would help to run Iraq, pending a constitution and elections. Significant Iraqi political forces thus decided that America's work in Iraq could help them after all. Meanwhile, the anti-Saddam campaign achieved a notable success. On July 22, American forces, acting on a tip (worth a $30 million reward) cornered and killed Saddam's sons, Uday and Qusay, in Tikrit, the clan's hometown. This did not immediately diminish attacks on coalition forces but it did call forth another flood of intelligence on both Ba'ath operations and Saddam's whereabouts. Almost simultaneously, Bremer formally unveiled a strategy in Iraq that envisaged elections sooner rather than later. And on
July 23, another piece fell into place when the Pentagon announced a new rotation plan that would bring the Third Division home by October.

The long hot summer of discontent thus ended in a partial recovery. On the plus side, the occupation had begun to take hold with every prospect of killing Saddam soon; the Pentagon was adjusting its plan to avoid excessive stress on its forces; and, with improved security, Iraqi recovery and international aid might move forward. The American enterprise had also begun to attract more allied support, signified by German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer's healing visit in mid-July.

Still, the costs of miscalculation had been high. A vital month was lost because the United States lacked sufficient forces to establish an occupation. Indeed, the whole initial concept of the "occupation" had been fatally defective with nothing to replace it. That, in turn, had vastly increased the costs of rehabilitation: looting and vandalism, some clearly organized, wrecked the infrastructure spared by the military while greatly retarding the recovery of the oil industry. This reduced the money available for jobs and kept international oil prices higher than they might have been. More forces had to spend more time in more combat operations, wrecking the Pentagon's projections and increasing casualties. The American people had to shoulder most of these bills.

On top of it all, confidence in U.S. intelligence and leadership had been shaken by the sixteen-word crisis. It was in itself a minor issue (Bush, after all, never alleged that Saddam had nuclear weapons) swollen many times its size by bureaucratic bungling and predatory politicians. Yet, beneath it lurked important questions about the quality of a U.S. intelligence establishment that missed 9/11, could neither locate Saddam's weaponry nor explain its absence and left both Saddam and bin Laden at large.

In a larger sense, Washington and indeed the American people, were beginning to come to grips with the War on Terrorism. The United States had taken on the transformation of two states (Afghanistan and Iraq); the creation of another (Palestine); and a continuous campaign against terrorist states and organizations around the world. In this protracted conflict, like the Cold War, the costs would not come and go; they would come and stay, burdening the United States and its allies until the enemy was eliminated. America's national security policy needed reexamination in a way not seen since the Truman Administration invented containment fifty-three years ago.

Republished by permission of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (www.fpri.org), 1528 Walnut Street, Suite 610, Philadelphia, PA 19102-3684.

Harvey Sicherman, Ph.D., is president of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a former aide to three U.S. secretaries of state

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