“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist”(farewell address by President Dwight Eisenhower, January 17, 1961).
As most of America would admit, we now find ourselves on the tail end of an exuberance which began at Normandy, had an unprecedented run for about 70 years, splurged awfully since the advent of the new millennium, and now finds itself licking its wounds. A significant part of that exuberance was reflected in our foreign interventions. One is hard pressed to find American citizens who can connect the sacrifices made for Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan and any resultant increase in American security. Most would say our security was diminished.
The military's recipe for victory during these episodes was "clear, hold and build". And while we could certainly "clear", we never held much beyond the perimeters in which we were enclosed. Very little of what was built was sustained beyond the "cutting of the ribbon". In the end, no people accept foreign uniforms on their land for very long. Liberation, if you will, turns to occupation in the blink of an eye. How and why our policy makers at the highest level choose to ignore that reality reveals something quite sinister in our body politic.
I knew that reality (as did other troops) the day I arrived in Vietnam as a young Infantry officer, and was warned not to tell my counterparts in the Republic of Vietnam's Army "anything important'' since they could not be trusted. And I knew (as did thousands of humanitarian workers) in late 2003, as we watched the United States government construct a triple perimeter concrete and razor wire enclosures for their representatives.
Below is a snapshot of our awful miscalculation in Iraq. The intent here is that America can put this tragic negligence (or worse) behind it, and steer a more sensible course in the century ahead.
Amman, Jordan: March 2003
And though, if you thought about it, you might read something into it. It was really just a fluke. I mean, me being booked into a place called "Best Western". In the 5th circle of Amman.
It took some courage on my part. It was miserable outside. Snow, slush and cold wind and all I had was a thin coat and some old dress shoes. One of which with a hole in the leather sole, which of course, got my sock soaked as soon as I stepped out on my several forays.
I kept a smile on, but I could tell that while the local citizens might be pleasant enough to me, they didn't like what I represented. I mean this time the king was for it – with equivocation, of course, given the Palestinian population around him and the uncertainty of the venture. And the taxi drivers would chat to me, but the few folks left in the hotel would grow silent when I had come down for breakfast. And I remember getting stalled in traffic outside a mosque on Friday and thinking I better shrink down in the cab as the faithful were leaving in large numbers, agitated it seemed.
I had some cash donations with me – not much – just enough for something symbolic. And a couple of Christian contacts I had made helped me out around town.
Snow, ice in the streets, all the foreigners gone. And yes, in Florida, one could imagine CentCom and its preparations for war. Its panels of terminals, the forest of dishes and antennas. The huge heave up of the massive logistics involved. Yes, in March 2003, we all felt the tremors of a massive and righteous army. The greatest amalgam of machines and commo ever known – smarter yet than that assembled for Desert Storm 12 years earlier.
And then, we could also imagine a somewhat less capable group in Washington, in the White House, at the DOD (Department of Defense) or State driving the larger stratagems for transformation in the Middle East – setting forth from America with unprecedented idealism. And prevarication.
And so, my friend, a shop-keeper with scant revenue these days, picked me up in his rattletrap. We slowly filled a couple of rented trucks with relief supplies and had tarps painted with our relief identity, and negotiated with drivers for a convoy into Baghdad. We watched the price go higher each day with the increasing imminence of war.
And then I would go back to my room and watch CNN and the BBC, and report on progress to the HQ on my T-Mobile.
That first week in March there was still hope. Talks were attempted, some vigils for peace had sprung up, no trigger had yet been pulled. But if one took time to think on it, one knew that George was surely intent and that Saddam was surely willing to sacrifice Iraqis.
And so, equally, these were days of uncertainty for relief organizations. Nearly all of them expected large refugee flows to the surrounding countries, similar to 1991. Most outfits were doing their assessments – tents, wat/san, food, non-food, health, vulnerables. And a few of them who were looking to make a statement, or to be a witness, or to do a reconnaissance, looked to get into Baghdad as well — to be there with their small supplies or to transmit the symbols of solidarity home. Or to huddle with those in the way of that American army, and the terrible uncertainties of how someone as mad as Saddam would handle his defeat.
I laid on my bed. The heat had gone on the blink and then one day the toilet started leaking — so now it was dismal inside as well. I kept my coat on under the covers, read text messages from HQ and watched the news. The trucks were ready for the next day. No refugees had appeared. Bush and Chirac were trading insults; England was steadfast on principle; and some other lesser countries were lining up. Turkey was reluctant and Russia upset. Germany said "No".
Gloomy, cold, alone. My HQ — like most HQs — made decisions based on the info you gave them. Getting the presence, the position — whether the trigger got pulled or not — had implications in an NGO world where to be relevant and get noticed meant survival. Advocacy and new programs are built on presence.
I knew the road ahead. The very early departure from Amman when nothing is stirring and then the truck's headlights appear in the dark. You drain the last of your beloved coffee and light, the equally beloved smoke. And then you pull yourself up into the cab with a man you just met that afternoon — a man from whom you will get no second chances if he deceives you or fails you. I mean, you like his smile. His hands are strong and so it's off, feeling absolutely vulnerable at any time, should a BMW race out from behind a berm and take you, or an F-I6 swoop down and take you out.
No, it's just you and him in the cab. And he, by culture and religion is much more prepared to "shuffle off that mortal coil" than you.
I knew that stretch — very lonely, as I said, until you hit the Euphrates.
And so I laid there in the Best Western waiting for a text message and really figuring that the only justification I could give myself was not a “platform for program” or a great resonant advocacy. But rather that I felt I probably needed to be brave in order to be able to live the way I had wanted but had often failed henceforth.
This time however, the text came back “The Board says ‘No’” and I felt simultaneously both off the hook, but also deprived for the reasons mentioned.
A few days later Tommy Frank's army crossed in from Kuwait heading for Baghdad. US Special Forces joined the Kurdish Pesh Merga and headed south to Kirkuk and Khanaqin.
So now, I would wait out the war and watch the show as I had in 1991 — that unforgettable moment in history where Peter Arnett had broadcasted from the roof of Ar-Rasheed amidst the pyrotechnical bursts over Baghdad.
This time it was billed as “shock and awe” and that it did, with different interpretations depending on your perspective.
“A long way from Leatherstocking,” I was thinking. From war paint and buckskins. Now everyone was wired or wireless, uploading and downloading from satellites. All connected in a vast electronic net. This was the mother of all arcades. And now, instead of Arnett on the roof, we had live feed from embeds.
I think everyone could have guessed the results. For most Americans there was a satisfaction — a settling into their easy chair with a drink and some snacks.
With those from Rumsfeld’s “Old Europe”, there was an empty sense of irrelevance — a bitter reaction from those not listened to.
For Arabs it was devastating. For them it had little to do with Saddam; it was rather their worst fears realized. A global disgrace. Arabs and Islam as a laughingstock, with the West as terribly swift, daring, a force from another future century. It lay the Arabs bare; nude to their hapless, helpless state.
The war's full significance was not fathomed by the West. There it was, from the Pentagon, the arrows on the charts, the overhead displays of the unrelenting army of Tommy Franks, north and up the Tigris and Euphrates, while special-op units came down from Kurdistan with the Pesh Merga. Inexorable the advance. Three weeks until the Americans were sitting in Baghdad, dismantling the statue of Saddam in Firdus Square. The Republican Guard in disarray. The leadership fleeing and a comic mouthpiece left chatting senselessly to CNN.
Soon after the advance had begun, I had called up a Jordanian businessman recommended by my headquarters and was invited to visit him at his office. It was one of those spacious affairs reflecting the vanities of the position with leather couches and chairs at one end, a large brass coffee table and a console with several TVs on and all tuned to different channels — Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, CNN and BBC.
There were other Arab businessmen there when I arrived, some in exile from Iraq. All fiddling with the remotes for more or less volume between sips of tea. I sensed I was there to provide "the American commentary" of sorts — though all of those men had either studied or had done business in the United States or London.
By any standard they were rich and cosmopolitan. Yet, as we gathered there over the next couple of weeks, I saw all too clearly that as much as they had hated Saddam, they hated this public humiliation at America’s hand much worse. They said foolish things — about how the first week was just a plan to draw the invaders into some sort of cul-de-sac. And on another occasion, how surely Saddam would defeat them at the Gates of Baghdad in some sort of rough approximation of the siege of Leningrad.
And as each of these fantasies dissolved, they spoke less to me, averted their eyes, discussed other issues in Arabic and at the end it was almost as if the war was inconsequential. Finally, I remember, when the statue got pulled down, they had stood up, one by one, and left. My host felt awkward with just the two of us sitting there. He turned off all the channels except CNN, and went over to his fancy desk and made some calls, came back and apologized. He had to go. As I stood up, he looked at me and shrugged — as if to say "such is life".
Looking Back 9-Years Later
There they were — the London School of Economics, Michigan State, victims of Saddam, exiles, and yet in the foolish gestures and in their resignation at the end, lay the whole issue before us. A great civilization once; the center of the world once; and now, since oil, spiraling down to insignificance on the world stage. Worse, exposed to the world as laughingstocks.
It was that, more than anything, that the Americans miscalculated. It was "that", which with time would trump the gift of liberation they had handed to the Shi'a and Kurds, as well as the presumed and actual jump start for the introduction of "open and pluralism" in the Arab world.
At the heart of it was Arab pride — all the more so because they had nothing those days to be proud of.
With time it allowed for Zarqawi; it produced the Sunni insurgency; and it spawned the rebirth of Muqtada al-Sadr.
Could it have served as cold water to the face of Arab complacency? Perhaps. An incentive for them for Renaissance? Maybe. But only if the visible aspects of the historic humiliation could vanish quickly and even then the West will pay for some time to come, in-terms of terrorist attacks and more grievously from the deterioration of its own civil liberties.
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