'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Dirty Little Big War 

It's become apparent that the Bush administration is planning a partial withdrawal of the American forces currently occupying Iraq. The nature of this withdrawal is still an open question with most commentators on the left speculating that we should expect a token redeployment designed to bolster the chances of Republicans in the 2006 elections. Many read Seymour Hersh's latest missive as supporting this position. While I don't doubt that electoral concerns are a powerful background factor informing all major policy decisions -- and, in particular, this policy decision -- I am skeptical that viewing recent developments in such a manner captures the complexity of the current situation.

The corporate press and other mainstream commentators tend to view all policy decisions as part of an unfolding story in which Republicans battle Democrats for poll numbers and election victories. It is easy to forget that the United States often does what it does for reasons that have nothing to with the popularity of its actions among American voters. One reason for the invasion of Iraq was, indeed, to paint a man viewed as simple-minded and incompetent as a valorous war president -- this was the reason the Karl Roves and Andrew Cards of the world were interested in ousting Saddam Hussein; however, it was not the primary reason why Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, Eliott Abrams, Paul Wolfowitz, et al., obsessed over the idea for more than a decade. Many believe that the agenda of those seeking Republican dominance of American politics and the agenda of the neoconservatives were strongly aligned for the early part of this decade but that recently the alliance has become tattered. This conflict among the various factions within the conservative world is real and is not an altogether new phenomenon: we already witnessed manifestations of it in, for instance, Bill Kristol's call for Rumsfeld's resignation last year and in Karl Rove's ill-fated election year mantra "No War in '04'". However, I am not as convinced as other commentators that these rumors of withdrawal should be interpreted strictly as another example of this hypothesized break. If there were two sorts of reasons for starting the Iraq project, are there not two sorts of reasons for ending it? The subtitle of Hersh's piece is "Where is the Iraq war headed next?" We know how Karl Rove would like to answer that question -- it is headed towards a state that can be spun to look like a victory and that's not mentioned much by the media -- but where would Richard Perle like the Iraq War to be headed next?

The answer to that last question requires an honest consideration of the way in which the war hawks expected the Iraq War to unfold. It is often said that there was no plan of any kind for post-Hussein Iraq. I disagree with this statement. I think among those who dreamt of this war through all the long years of the Democrat-infested White House -- who wrote letters to Clinton pleading for it, who built the network of bogus intelligence assets based on whose lies the thing was eventually sold -- there was a plan for conquered Iraq so obvious that it didn't even need to be expressed: replace the deposed tyrant with an American puppet and use the country as a gigantic military base situated in the heart of a region of the world of tremendous strategic importance. Such a plan was, of course, optimistic to the point of idiocy given the cultural and political complexity of Iraq -- not to mention its sheer size -- but it's not hard to imagine where such a plan might have come from. Critics of the war like to compare the debacle to the Vietnam conflict and Seymour Hersh's revelations about the coming reliance on massive bombing campaigns certainly support such a comparison. But it is perhaps more illuminating to compare the Iraq project to successful American colonial wars rather than to the king of the failures; after all, successful projects are probably the models the planners of the Iraq war had in mind.

El Salvador, Nicaragua, Granada, Panama, dirty little wars fought either directly or with hired thugs and vicious client states, have much to teach us about the nature of the Iraq conflict -- and, of the four, the relevance of Panama stands out. There are many parallels between the invasion of Iraq and the invasion of Panama in 1989. Like Saddam Hussein, Manuel Noriega was a brutal dictator whose record of human rights violations was ignored for literally decades while he was a favored ally of the United States and, in fact, working for the CIA. Noriega became a monster in the mid-eighties because he began to less enthusiastically support the US's project of overthrowing by proxy the Sandinista government in Nicaragua and was no longer necessary for propping up a murderous terror-state in El Salvador. Like Hussein, Noriega was also the dictator of a country of considerable strategic importance to the US: the Carter-Torrijos treaties were set to expire in 1999 at which time the Panama Canal and the Canal Zone would revert to full Panamanian control. The US invaded to replace Noriega with a puppet, Guillermo Endara, who would acquiesce to American interests regarding its sovereignty over the canal.

The invasion itself should be pretty familiar to anyone who was watching CNN in March of 2003. The Panama Invasion was an early use of a couple of military techniques that are currently in vogue and strongly associated with the Bush White House and the Rumsfeld Pentagon: the doctrine of "Shock and Awe" and its superset, the doctrine of "Rapid Dominance". According to its inventors, the "Rapid Dominance" strategy attempts to "affect the will, perception, and understanding of the adversary to fit … strategic policy ends through imposing a regime of Shock and Awe" and to "paralyze or so overload an adversary's perceptions and understanding of events that the enemy [is] incapable of resistance at the tactical and strategic levels"-- where "Shock and Awe", of course, refers to the spectacular display of power and destruction, the brutal and asymmetric use of overwhelming firepower against a relatively defenseless enemy. It is ironic that the official explication of the doctrine of rapid dominance sounds a lot like what al-Qaeda-style international terrorists must have in mind regarding their favored method of political action -- affecting the will and understanding of a hated enemy through the indiscriminant use of mass destruction.

Tiny Panama, a third-world country basically without an air force, was the first grave threat to America to find itself on the receiving end of an assault featuring Stealth bombers and Apache attack helicopters. According FAIR, after the initial attack, the barrio of Panama City, El Chorrillo, became known to locals as "Little Hiroshima". In a June 18th, 1990, Times op-ed piece Tom Wicker described Little Hiroshima as follows:

Not only were Apaches used in the assault; so was the new Stealth bomber, though organized resistance was so feeble that only about 50 Panamanian military personnel were killed. At least 202 civilians died, by U.S. admission, though many estimates - including those of the Catholic and Episcopal Churches - put the toll substantially higher, some in the thousands.

A total of 422 bombs fell on Panama City in 13 hours - something like a bomb every two minutes. In Chorrillo, a barrio of wooden structures, where U.S. tanks rolled through the streets, ''the invasion hit like a little Hiroshima,'' Raul Leis wrote in the April issue of Report on the Americas, a publication of the North American Congress on Latin America.

''There were no shelters, no civil defense . . . The invading troops were concerned only with minimizing their own losses,'' Mr. Leis, the director of the Panamanian Center for Research and Social Action, reported. He said the total of civilian deaths would be hard to establish because ''bodies were buried in alleys and patios, and information has been intentionally withheld.''

Apaches and Stealth bombers weren't the only firsts of the assault, the Panama Invasion was the first large-scale American military operation to be undertaken in the post-Cold War era. The specter of creeping communists couldn't be used to justify it and ward off the horrible malady known as "the Vietnam Syndrome". This factor explains more than anything else the use of Shock and Awe tactics: win quickly and absolutely before the public has time to react. Such thinking has characterized every major American military operation since. Cheney, who was the Secretary of Defense presiding over the Noriega ouster, explicitly stated the forthcoming Persian Gulf War would bear a strong resemblance to Panama, "I think that in terms of how this administration [Bush I] would use U.S. military force [in Iraq War I], should that be required in this instance, I think the best guide is to look at how we undertook the Panama operation last December." A family resemblance, of course, can be seen in more recent wars as well, which shouldn't be surprising given that the military strategists who designed in 2001 the original plan for what became the 2003 invasion of Iraq were major players in the dirty little wars of the 80's and in particular Panama. A Post article in December of 2001 introduced Gen. Wayne A. Downing who became fond of a certain Ahmed Chalabi and designed a military strategy, characterized chiefly by the extremely small number of American troops it required, for overthrowing Saddam Hussein. The article noted in its lead paragraph that given the current events of the time the Downing Plan had a "familiar ring" to it: the plan had just been enacted to the letter in Afghanistan:

Lending military respectability to Chalabi's ideas was Downing, a retired four-star general who played a key role in overthrowing Panama's Manuel Noriega in 1989 and ran insurgency operations in Iraq in 1991 as the head of the Joint Special Operations Command. In the words of an INC official, Downing agreed to put Chalabi's ideas into "Pentagonese."

Downing was assisted by a former CIA agent, Duane "Dewey" Clarridge, who ran the U.S.-backed contras who fought the leftist Sandanista regime in Nicaragua during the Reagan administration. Together, the two men drew up a plan to train some 200 Iraqi National Congress fighters, who would train another 5,000 men to be inserted into southern Iraq from Kuwait, where they would seize a deserted air base near the city of Basra. According to Clarridge, the logistical support operation for Chalabi's fighters would have been "outsourced" to mercenaries, including retired U.S. Special Forces members.

Had reality not intervened Ahmed Chalabi was to be the Guillermo Endara of Iraq, but Chalabi played another role as well: he was deeply involved in selling the second Iraq War in the first place. Chalabi's organization the Iraqi National Congress provided the stream of pretend experts on Hussein's non-existent WMD program that were the basis for Judy Miller's fairy tales in the New York Times. In a fascinating recent Rolling Stone piece, we learn that Chalabi's success as a propagandist wasn't solely due to his political genius; he had a lot of help from the piece's titular "Man Who Sold the War", a so-called "perception management" specialist named John Rendon. Rendon sold Chalabi in Iraq and sold the Iraq War in the US, a job with which he had much experience -- he had performed the same role for Guillermo Endara and for the Panama invasion:

Thomas Twetten, the CIA's former deputy of operations, credits Rendon with virtually creating the INC. "The INC was clueless," he once observed. "They needed a lot of help and didn't know where to start. That is why Rendon was brought in." Acting as the group's senior adviser and aided by truckloads of CIA dollars, Rendon pulled together a wide spectrum of Iraqi dissidents and sponsored a conference in Vienna to organize them into an umbrella organization, which he dubbed the Iraqi National Congress. Then, as in Panama, his assignment was to help oust a brutal dictator and replace him with someone chosen by the CIA. "The reason they got the contract was because of what they had done in Panama -- so they were known," recalls Whitley Bruner, former chief of the CIA's station in Baghdad. This time the target was Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the agency's successor of choice was Ahmad Chalabi, a crafty, avuncular Iraqi exile beloved by Washington's neoconservatives.

Rather than looking at Iraq as a big war like Vietnam one should try to see it as the little war that it actually is, a little war that ballooned into something that its original boosters never anticipated. Such a perspective explains a lot. It explains the current talk of Latin American-style Shiite death squads roaming the land and torturing and murdering their Sunni rivals, implying that the so-called "Salvador Option" actually was adopted by Iraq's conquerors as Newsweek claimed it would be -- such techniques are, after all, the hallmarks of dirty little wars. It explains the bizarre belief that Tommy Franks, a general with no experience in nation building or Middle Eastern culture or politics, was going to slap together a new government and bring the invading army home in a matter of months. It explains Richard Perle's favorite talking point, that the only mistake made in Iraq is that we didn't turn it over to Iraqis quickly enough, the Iraqis in question, of course, being Ahmed Chalabi's INC And such a perspective explains why even neoconservatives might like to leave now.

The war hawks don't care about the quality of life in Iraq or in spreading democracy or the possibility of a bloodbath of a civil war upon withdrawal. They're also not particularly interested in our armed forces -- their favorite instrument of diplomacy -- remaining bogged down in a quagmire. According to the neoconservatives themselves, according to one of the seminal documents of the Project for a New American Century, September of 2000's "Rebuilding America's Defenses", the pre-911 but post-Desert Storm number of American troops in the "Persian Gulf and the surrounding region" hovered around 20,000. Now they have 150,000 in Iraq and were able to withdraw completely from Saudi Arabia. So imagine the troops are cut down to, say, 100 or 80,000 and that they stop taking offensive action on the ground -- no more city to city house sweeps, which were a completely ineffective policy anyway -- and are tucked away safely in the well-fortified Green Zone and in the fourteen permanent military bases everyone knows we are constructing, such a turn of events wouldn't be a pretend victory for those who planned this war. Such a turn of events would be a real victory as long as our puppet government is not overthrown, which is why, as Seymour Hersh tells us, the token withdrawal will be supported by a massive Vietnam-style air war:

A key element of the drawdown plans, not mentioned in the President’s public statements, is that the departing American troops will be replaced by American airpower. Quick, deadly strikes by U.S. warplanes are seen as a way to improve dramatically the combat capability of even the weakest Iraqi combat units. The danger, military experts have told me, is that, while the number of American casualties would decrease as ground troops are withdrawn, the over-all level of violence and the number of Iraqi fatalities would increase unless there are stringent controls over who bombs what.

The only real question here is how the American people will deal with a situation in which American troops are deployed in a foreign theater in which the only significant casualties being taken are not Americans but in which the scale of those casualties is massive.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?