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Close to two years ago, the author, a retired senior Foreign Service officer, wrote for this journal an article supportive of the U. S. incursion into Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Now, expressing reservations and doubts, he has a changed opinion—Ed.

Have We Gone to Iraq and Ruin? A Personal Inquiry

by David T. Jones

“There is no question that U.S. government intelligence
failed its policy makers.”

Awash in information about the U.S. government’s commitment in Iraq, we struggle to find the truth. Even after the January 30 election, one constantly feels caught between the “dismal defeat is the only option” from much of the media brigade and the “it’s a bright sunny morning in Baghdad” releases provided by the Armed Forces Information Service. Recent conversations with friends and colleagues just back from (but returning to) Iraq suggest judgments somewhere in between.

No Easy Out.
It is not just the “pottery barn” rule of “you broke it, you bought it” ilk, but the grim recognition that if we are going to do the job, it will take a generation to do it. Doing it, whatever “it” becomes, will be expensive and bloody. Those who want a timetable for military departure really want to give the insurgents something of a “wait them out” date. If we decide to stay past the President’s “four more years,” Iraq will absorb U.S. military forces as far as the eye can see. Iraqis can and will, in time, do more; but building a military can take decades. When one U. S. army chief of staff was asked what was the army’s longest “lead time” item, he responded, “It takes me twenty years to grow a general officer.”

Thus, in the future, in the middle of the twenty-first century, just as remains the case for the UK in Northern Ireland after decades, we can imagine coalition soldiers in occasional skirmishes, with Iraqi units as trainers, intelligence liaison, and custodians of quick reaction air strikes. It is not that we have been unable to meet comparable challenges: U.S. troops have been stationed in Europe since D-Day in 1944 and in Korea since 1950. As a society, however, we have yet to determine whether the cost of Iraq is worth the expenditure.

Perhaps most invidious is the manner in which our domestic divisions have caused a split our foreign policy — and the manner in which our foreign policy choices have exacerbated our domestic divisions. Since John Kerry remains the junior senator from Massachusetts, his supporters (who did not for an instant believe his stay-the-course campaign rhetoric) know that the likelihood of “four more years” of the same policy outlook is greater than not. So there is a tendency for “blue state” voters to say to their political opponents, “It’s your war,” one which they as U.S. citizens have opted out of, believing it to be a moral error of incalculable dimensions and one in which they have no stake. Implicitly, to prove the correctness of their logic, they hope the U.S. effort leads to failure, and each U.S. death in Iraq is an “I told you so” exclamation point.

The President’s inaugural address accentuated this confrontation. Somehow “freedom” and “liberty” now seem to be pronounced with a sneer in certain quarters (perhaps too much of a good thing?). Other opponents of the war suggest that the words “freedom and democracy” should be employed by their initials: “fad.”

The Iraqi Election.
Ink-stained finger of an Iraqi voter.
The Iraq election was useful but not defining; it was a mobilization exercise. We have held elections in war zones in the past (old hands will recall such exercises in Vietnam and El Salvador). With a combination of saturation security, preemptive strikes, and virtual urban lockdowns, we were able to provide an atmosphere in which it was not only the “suicide voter” who ventured forth. It did, however, take a special courage that Americans have never been forced to demonstrate to stand in line waiting to express your opinion, while hoping that you will not die for so doing. Whether it will provide Iraqis with a greater stake in their society is the baseline question. All the election has done really is to provide a chance for democracy; Iraq will not be the first nation that “never misses a chance to miss a chance.” Nor is it likely that the messy process of forming a workable government will convince U.S. doubters of its viability. Although one former ambassador told me rather ruefully after hearing the election participation results that he “might have to rethink his views,” he will surely be able to find indications in the months to come that he need not do any rethinking. Indeed, it is always possible that in the end, Sunni terror will convince Kurds and Shiites that a comprehensive Sunni cleansing is the well-merited solution. It is not holy writ that requires Iraq to exist as a unity; as a country Iraq is a relatively short-lived political construct.

Intelligence Failure Is a Given.
There is no question that U.S. government intelligence failed its policy makers. We can argue until doomsday whether policy makers and/or intelligence officials were mendacious or were misled. There are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; whether they never existed, were moved to Syria or eventually will be discovered by Rovers on Mars is irrelevant. Every significant element of Secretary of State Powell’s defining and authoritative February 2003 UN briefing was in error. Consequently, the house cleaning at CIA is more than appropriate. Under a totalitarian regime, there would be a graveyard crammed with deceased intelligence officials; here they write books about how they are misunderstood and not respected.

To predict the future is to be wrong — sooner or later. As a one-time intelligence analyst and having been wrong in judgments, I remain aware of the spectrum of weasel words designed to shield analysts from blame. A worst-case judgment is always safer than a best-case call. For example, since the 1954 Korean armistice, analysts have repeatedly predicted another North Korean attack. They have been wrong every time, but who hears when they are wrong? Or who even knows that they made such a prediction?

You Can Win Hearts and Minds and Still Be Killed.
This happens when you just haven’t won every heart and mind. And most of those who want to kill us in the immediate future have already made up their minds on the subject. Where do all the suicide bombers come from? Some come out of total conviction that the USA is the Great Satan and they are not into devil worship. Some arise from social/financial pressures (the “weak” fourth of five sons in impoverished circumstances). Money is the mother’s milk of everything in peace and war, and $200 will buy you a group willing to fire a few mortar rounds from the back of a truck and zip away. We should not be surprised at the number of the deaths. In World War II, there were, as a rough estimate, over 4,000 Japanese kamikaze pilots (and they had to be smart enough to fly a plane as well). No more than we were able to persuade the Japanese to land elsewhere will we be able to persuade Iraqi suicide bombers to drive quietly away. All we can hope to do is to develop more effective technical and procedural tactics to stop them at a distance or kill them first.

War Fought in U.S. Living Rooms.
The protracted conflict in Vietnam taught every student of U.S. political sociology that our commitments are profoundly transient. It is irrelevant if your military forces never lose a battle when your population has determined that any price is too high. Truth may be a casualty of war, but perspective is also. Quickly now, what does 1,177 bring to mind? The number of combat casualties in Iraq? Or the number of dead on the USS Arizona? In 82 days of battle in the seas surrounding Okinawa in the spring of 1945, 3,500 kamikazes destroyed over thirty U.S. warships and killed more than 5,000 naval personnel. Think for a moment on those losses in blood and treasure in less than three months in one sub sector of the global combat theater, this in comparison with the losses in Iraq.

There is an aphorism that one death is a tragedy and 10,000 deaths are a statistic. The question throughout our lifetimes has less and less been whether U.S. forces can be defeated militarily, but rather whether they can be defeated politically. Never has that reality been more pointed in Iraq where pure military defeat is impossible, but casualties that might be considered trivial in some circumstances are played in the media in apocryphal terms. There is no quagmire in Iraq; there is no jungle; there is no combat ready North Vietnam poised to invade. Post-Vietnam what U.S. armed forces now demand is that their society not abandon them — and then on top of that declare that it was the military’s responsibility that objectives weren’t reached. An all-volunteer force is less subject to media manipulation, but it is not immune.

The Force Is Not Broken.
We are hearing of predictions that U.S. army and reserve/national guard forces are over extended. At the same time, some demand that more forces be sent. Again, there is more than an element of politicized self-interest in these contradictory statements. Those who want a return to the draft have no interest in improved U.S. combat power; they oppose the war and hope that a draft would generate greater domestic opposition. And in a prosperous economy, those automatically interested in a military career are always fewer, and incentives are necessary. Those concerned about the state of the reserves are correct to the extent that an individual whose intellectual commitment to his or her military service was one weekend per month and two weeks during the summer will be less likely to “re-up” when anticipating a second or third extended involuntary active duty tour. But the reality is also that national guard/reserve leadership is using the problem to leverage greater commitments for spending on equipment, training, etc. That may be good short-term military fiscal politics, but not a particular good illustration of discipline.

Again, perspective is in order. During World War II, a family friend in the Pennsylvania National Guard was called up in 1939; he returned home to Luzerne County in 1946. Yes, close to seven years. If the next contingent of units deployed to Iraq were to serve an eighteen- to twenty-four-month tour (and all of these forces are volunteers who accepted unlimited liability with their commitment), the over-commitment argument would be vitiated, along with a significant portion of the “price of ignorance” lessons absorbed by frequent unit rotation. To make this suggestion is not to imply by any means that such deployments would be walk-in-the-park fun, but they are not World War I trenches either.

State Is Struggling to Find Its Role.
The American embassy in Baghdad is gigantic and afflicted with turnover problems when assignments of a year or less are punctuated by rest & recreation travel. Even ambassadors are spinning through like revolving doors. The fiefdoms within the embassy and the presence of every other U.S. government agency makes for a “country team” that wants to spell “team” with multiple “I’s.” The suggestion that those who serve there will be advantaged in future assignments is creating a “punch the ticket” syndrome; with so many assigned, clearly the rewards are not going to be there for all

Those assigned as advisors to Iraqi ministries have the frustrations associated with advising but not directing. It takes a special skill to allow others to make mistakes, hoping that they will profit therefrom, while the entire bureaucratic process proceeds in slow motion to U.S. eyes.

Moreover, it is hard to get past the likelihood that more State Department personnel are going to die. The pre-election attack on the Embassy was lost in the election hoopla. A generation ago, FSOs went rather blithely into Vietnam, attached to regional and provincial administrations in Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) roles. The C Street memorial plaque now holds thirty-six names from that era. Plus others from elsewhere in Southeast Asia, names that were unannounced for years for dubious reasons. Today, the almost ritualized bombings in Baghdad give daily doses of indiscriminate death that are hard to ignore.

The reverse of the coin is omnipresent security. The usual State official in Iraq goes nowhere but remains embedded in Baghdad’s Green Zone; even the most trivial meeting outside the Zone takes endless preparation to arrange. Thus the type of dash-about meeting schedule with foreign officials that would be the norm elsewhere is impossible; delay and defer rather than “decide” is the standard. Nor is security convincing; much of it looks haphazard, designed perhaps by someone on a whim without thought given to living long-term under the conditions.

And expensive! One estimate that I have heard suggests the astonishing total costs of $600-$700,000 for a State employee for one year. Whether precisely accurate or not, we had better hope that Secretary Rice has a direct pipeline to the Treasury or the rest of the Department will find itself on starvation rations.

We are not in a quagmire, but there are certainly more alligators in the swamp than we anticipated.

David T. Jones
David T. Jones


David T. Jones earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees and pursued further graduate studies, all at the University of Pennsylvania. Since retirement from the U. S. Foreign Service, he has written extensively over the years for Canadian and U. S. publications, including this journal.


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