The Foreigner's Gift: The Americans, the Arabs, and the Iraqis in Iraq
I arrived in Baghdad on April 14, 2003, as a news consultant to the ABC investigative team led by veteran correspondent Brian Ross. Before the war, Brian had broadcast a profile of Uday and one of his first stops in Baghdad was at Uday’s riverside residence. In the basement of the partially looted house, Bob Baer, another ABC news consultant, made an astounding discovery, the personnel files of the Saddam Fedayeen. We were amazed that the military had not inspected or secured such an obvious location and Ross made that point in his exclusive ABC news report. ABC had no further use for the files; but they had obvious value for the US military, containing as they did the names and addresses of the main resistance to the American occupation. I had thought Ross’s story would arouse some interest from the Pentagon but there was no reaction. I then called Paul Wolfowitz’s office to see if I could discreetly hand them over to the military. (I was still a professor at the National War College—and therefore an employee of the Defense Department—and wanted to help.) Although we were staying in the Ishtar Sheraton, a hotel guarded by US troops, the deputy secretary of defense could not arrange to pick up these documents before I had to leave the city.
In the three weeks that followed Baghdad’s fall, I was able to go unchallenged into sites of enormous intelligence value, including the Foreign Ministry, Uday’s house, and a wiretap center right across Firdos Square from the Sheraton. All three had many sensitive documents but even weeks after the takeover, the only people to take an interest in these document caches were looters, squatters (who burned wiretap transcripts for lighting), journalists, Baathists, Iraqi factions looking for dirt on political rivals, and (possibly) agents of countries hostile to the United States. Neither the Pentagon nor the CIA had a workable plan to safeguard and exploit the vast quantities of intelligence that were available for the taking in Iraq’s capital. That information might have provided insight into terrorism—the Foreign Ministry documents included names of jihadists who had come into Iraq before the war—and the incipient insurgency.
As we now know, Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon had no plan to secure any part of Baghdad. It allowed looters to destroy Iraq’s governmental infrastructure and to steal thousands of tons of high explosives, weapons, and radioactive materials. And it had no coherent plan for Iraq’s postwar governance. Gordon and Trainor retell very clearly the now familiar story (at least to readers of The New York Review) of the Bush administration’s cavalier approach to postwar issues, but they also provide stunning insights into one key aspect of the postwar failure: the decision to invade Iraq with too few troops.
In late 2001, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld convened a meeting in his Pentagon office to discuss the military campaign beyond Afghanistan. Lieutenant General Greg Newbold, the deputy for the Joint Chiefs of Staff responsible for operations, outlined OPLAN 1003-98, the contingency plan for invading Iraq. Gordon and Trainor describe what happened next:
As Newbold outlined the plan, which called for as many as 500,000 troops, it was clear that Rumsfeld was growing increasingly irritated. For Rumsfeld, the plan required too many troops and supplies and took far too long to execute. It was, Rumsfeld said, the product of old thinking and the embodiment of everything that was wrong with the military.
[The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard B.] Myers asked Rumsfeld how many troops he thought might be needed. The defense secretary said in exasperation that he did not see why more than 125,000 troops would be required and even that was probably too many. Rumsfeld’s reaction was dutifully passed to the United States Central Command.
Trainor and Gordon present a devastating picture of Rumsfeld as a bully. Convinced of his own brilliance, Rumsfeld freely substituted his often hastily formed opinions for the considered judgments of his military professionals. He placed in the most senior positions compliant yes-men, like Myers, and punished those who questioned his casually formed judgments. He enjoyed belittling his subordinates. The day before the September 11 attacks, Rumsfeld told a Pentagon meeting that the Defense Department bureaucracy “disrupts the defense of the United States and places the lives of men and women in uniform at risk.” His aides followed the same approach: Steve Cambone, Rumsfeld’s closest aide, “jested that Rumsfeld thought the Army’s problems could be solved by lining up fifty of its generals in the Pentagon and gunning them down.”
It was not an atmosphere that encouraged dissent. But to their everlasting discredit, America’s most senior generals did not stand up to Rumsfeld as he and his ideologues went forward with a plan they knew would not work—at least not until after they had retired and the consequences of Rumsfeld’s careless approach were blindingly obvious. Greg Newbold, who later joined the revolt of the generals, told Gordon and Trainor of his reaction to Rumsfeld’s 125,000-troop figure:
My only regret is that at the time I did not say “Mr. Secretary, if you try to put a number on a mission like this you may cause enormous mistakes…. Give the military what you would like to see them do, and then let them come up with it. I was the junior guy in the room, but I regret not saying it.”
Men who had put their lives on the line in combat were mostly unwilling to put their careers on the line to speak out against a plan based on numbers pulled out of the air by a cranky sixty-nine-year-old.
Fortunately for the US troops who had to invade Iraq, they were initially up against an adversary who was also convinced of his own military genius. Saddam Hussein knew it made no strategic sense for the US to invade Iraq and therefore he assumed it wouldn’t happen. He had maintained ambiguity about whether he had WMDs not because he had something to hide but to intimidate the two enemies about whom he really was worried, the Iranians and Iraq’s Shiite majority.
Even after the invasion began, according to Gordon and Trainor, Saddam could not quite believe the United States intended to go all the way to Baghdad. He did not want to destroy bridges that might have slowed the American advance (since they would be needed to move troops to put down an expected Shiite uprising) and he devised his own plan of concentric circles for the defense of the capital. Iraqi Lieutenant General Raad Majid al-Hamdani identified the Karbala Gap—an agricultural area between Milh Lake and the city of Karbala—as a critical bottleneck for the undermanned American invasion force and sought to redeploy two Republican Guard divisions to take on the enemy. Qusay Hussein, Saddam’s more sober son, explained that the plan for the defense of the capital had been decided and Hamdani’s job was to carry it out. Thus the two opposing armies had plans dictated by armchair strategists both of whom made the mistake of assuming the enemy would think as they would.
Saddam could not imagine that the United States would see an advantage in replacing him with a pro-Iranian, Shiite-dominated regime. Knowing very little about American politics, he could not grasp the ideological fervor of the Pentagon neoconservatives who believed Iraq’s democratic transformation would revolutionize the Middle East. Rumsfeld and the neoconservatives could not imagine that Iraqis would not embrace liberation and pro-Western democracy and they assumed that both the invasion and occupation to follow would be easy. For the American generals, to challenge the petty tyrant on the Potomac could have ended their careers; for their Iraqi counterparts, taking on the tyrant on the Tigris could have ended their lives.
In Losing Iraq: Inside the Postwar Reconstruction Fiasco, David L. Phillips puts forward the thesis, now widely accepted among the war’s critics, that the State Department had a plan for postwar Iraq which Rumsfeld’s Pentagon ignored. Phillips was a part-time special adviser to the State Department who worked on the Future of Iraq Project, a $5 million State Department effort, initiated in March 2002, to involve Iraqi exiles (and the Kurds) in deliberations about the country’s future. The project ultimately produced thirteen reports running to more than two thousand pages on a variety of postwar issues from oil to security. The most contentious, however, related to Iraq’s political future. Phillips provides a clearly written account of the contest between Ahmad Chalabi, who wanted an interim government to be selected from among the exiles before the invasion, and the State Department, which wanted Iraqis both to commit themselves to a unified state and also to accept that most of the detailed arrangements for postwar governance would be left for the future.
Phillips argues that the State Department project provided a coherent strategy for postwar Iraq that the Pentagon neoconservatives recklessly rejected without providing any alternative plan of their own. That is debatable. Many in the State Department saw the project as a make-work exercise intended to keep Iraqi exiles busy. The Kurds thought it irrelevant, and thus allowed the political project to go forward without reference to their core demand for continued de facto independence. And Ryan Crocker, the State Department official directly responsible for the project, later told Jerry Bremer, the US administrator for Iraq, that “it was never intended as a postwar plan.”
The Bush administration, however, used the Future of Iraq Project to deceive an anxious Congress into believing that it had a plan for the postwar period. At a February 11, 2003, Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the future of Iraq, Under Secretary of State Marc Grossman told the committee that “last March the Bush administration announced and has stepped out on what we call a Future of Iraq Project…not to have an academic discussion but to consider thoughts and plans for what can be done immediately.” The project was, said Grossman, a roadmap for Iraq’s political future: “One of the reasons that we have spent so much time and so much effort on these Future of Iraq Projects, so that we have a way forward, we have an idea for a constitution, we have an idea for laws.” Douglas Feith, the Pentagon’s number three and the administration’s point man for postwar planning in Iraq, seconded Grossman’s endorsement of the project.
Three months later, Jerry Bremer arrived in Baghdad to be Iraq’s postwar administrator. The Bush administration never told him the Future of Iraq Project existed; by his own account, he learned about it in the press much later. Fortunately for President Bush, members of Congress have short memories and no one has called his officials to task for grossly misrepresenting a project they themselves never took seriously.
Right-wing reviewers savaged Losing Iraq on the grounds that Phillips had not traveled to Iraq during the reconstruction period about which he writes and that much of the book is drawn from press accounts. In fact, the first 120 pages (out of 224 pages of text) are largely based on the author’s personal observations of a dysfunctional administration, which is why his book makes conservatives so angry. Phillips, a longtime human rights advocate for Iraq’s Kurds, made two trips to Iraqi Kurdistan before the war (in 1992 and 2002). The Pentagon-sponsored tours favored by so many experts—which Phillips is accused of avoiding—take place within a cocoon so removed from the realities of Iraq as to be worse than worthless.
Phillips makes an unconscionable number of factual mistakes, averaging as many as one per page. He has, for example, the wrong dates for such easily verified events as congressional hearings, the Algiers Accord, Saddam’s accession to power, and the latest Turkish elections. He asserts that a proposed US aid package would have amounted to $97,000 per Turk when the actual figure was around $300. Nor did the Iran–Iraq War begin with the invasion of the Shatt al-Arab, which is a river. Some of the errors are hard to explain. In December 2002 Phillips attended a conference of the Iraqi opposition in London. He quotes a speech he says was given by Bakr al-Hakim, Iraq’s most prominent Shiite political leader. Bakr al-Hakim, however, was not at the London conference. His brother Abdul Aziz al-Hakim was there, but to confuse the two is analogous to thinking one was listening to the President when in fact the speaker was the governor of Florida.
Fouad Ajami, a professor at SAIS, the Johns Hopkins international study center in Washington, has traveled in postwar Iraq both on Pentagon tours and with Iraqis. Born into a Lebanese Shiite family, Ajami is a harsh critic of the Middle East’s fossilized Sunni Arab regimes; his book The Foreigner’s Gift: The Americans, the Arabs, and the Iraqis in Iraq is full of justified outrage at their unthinking bias against Iraq’s new Shiite-dominated order. Ajami and I share many friends in Iraq among the secular liberals who have dreamed for decades of the country’s deliverance from Saddam Hussein and have devoted their lives to making this possible. Today a few of these men, such as Iraq’s Kurdish Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, are working to build an inclusive multiethnic and democratic culture in Iraq.
But I am far more pessimistic than Ajami about their prospects for success, a conclusion that sadly seems confirmed by the appalling violence that continues in Baghdad and elsewhere. My book on the subject is called The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End.
* Ajami’s title reflects his belief that Saddam’s ouster was an American gift to Iraq; unfortunately, he fails to consider the full costs to the United States, not only the lost lives and the money spent but the administration’s paralysis in the face of much more serious threats from Iran and North Korea, as well as America’s increasing isolation in the world. But he has contributed to public debate by emphasizing that there were Iraqis who seriously wanted a democratic change of regime, and that they should not be confused with the Pentagon’s neoconservatives who, without comprehending the difficulties, imagined they could transform the Middle East.
In the two national elections held in 2005, Iraqis voted according to their ethnic and religious identities and not for political programs. This has sidelined the Shiite liberals, including Ahmad Chalabi, who failed to win enough votes for a single seat in Iraq’s Council of Representatives. Well before he was rejected by Iraqis, Chalabi had become a pariah not just to the war’s critics—who blamed him for duping the administration into war with false intelligence, including claims about WMDs, and promises of a friendly welcome for the American forces—but also to his one-time patrons in the Bush administration. Ajami attributes the hostility of the Bush administration, correctly in my view, to Chalabi’s refusal to kowtow to administration policy on issues ranging from de-Baathification to the investigation of corruption in the UN oil-for-food program. But the breaking point came with the bizarre accusation by the Bush administration that Chalabi was leaking sensitive intelligence to Iran.
On June 2, 2004, James Risen reported in The New York Times that the US had intercepted an Iranian diplomatic cable in which the Iranian intelligence chief in Baghdad said that Chalabi told him the US had cracked the Iranian codes and was monitoring their messages. Chalabi became a villain, and Condoleezza Rice, then national security adviser, said he would be investigated. It seems to me unlikely that Chalabi knew for a fact that the US was monitoring Iranian communications; but, being a clever man, he may have guessed that this was so and cautioned the Iranians not to report their conversations through diplomatic channels. The Iranians couldn’t really be sure their codes were compromised until the Bush administration leaked the intercepted cable along with other sensitive information from the Iranian cable traffic. Thus the compromise to US national security came from Risen’s source in the US government, not Chalabi. Risen knew this, as did every intelligence professional. Butthe New York Times readers were kept in the dark.
The incident says more about intelligence reporting than it does about Chalabi. Reporters, like Risen, who cover the intelligence agencies depend on their sources in a way other reporters do not. As a result, they are often at the mercy of their source’s political agenda, which they cannot afford to question or disclose, lest the leaks dry up. I learned this the hard way when, in December 1996, the Los Angeles Times published a story by Risen (then a reporter for that paper) that was highly critical of Clinton administration policy in Bosnia. It cited “hundreds of pages of classified documents” and compromised intelligence sources in a way that potentially jeopardized the safety of the embassy in Zagreb where I was US ambassador.
The “hundreds of pages” were in fact a highly partisan, classified report by the Republicans on a House subcommittee headed by Congressman Henry Hyde to which there was an unclassified Democratic rebuttal. Risen never told his readers this, and in fact wrote his story in a way that would have readers believe the documents were something different from the Republican report. I called Doyle McManus, the Los Angeles Times Washington bureau chief, to complain. Risen, he explained, had gotten the documents from the Republicans on Hyde’s committee and had promised to disguise the source, which also meant he couldn’t mention the rebuttal. As McManus admitted, only the Los Angeles Times readers were in the dark since both the Clinton administration and subcommittee Democrats knew exactly what had been leaked (both had been given the GOP report). Several of the top Republican staff on the Hyde subcommittee came from the House Intelligence Committee, then chaired by Porter Goss, and I was told later that the FBI, in tracing the leak, considered one of them a prime suspect. (Like most leak investigations, this one was inconclusive; the other suspect was a Republican congressman, according to a press report.) Goss, whose disastrously incompetent tenure at the CIA’s helm was chiefly distinguished by rants against leakers, was silent about this loss of sensitive intelligence. It came from his fellow Republicans and served their shared partisan purpose.
In 2004, Chalabi became a victim of the same mentality, one that is prepared to sacrifice intelligence sources and methods for partisan purposes. He had personally estranged Bush by cavalierly dismissing the false intelligence about WMDs (“We are heroes in error,” Chalabi told the Sunday Telegraph. “The tyrant Saddam is gone and the Americans are in Baghdad. What was said before is not important.”) The administration’s ties with him were increasingly seen as a political liability.
The eclipse of Chalabi and his fellow secular Shiites has left the religious parties in full command of Iraq’s governing Shiite alliance. Ajami, who is reverential in his descriptions of Iraq’s senior ayatollah, Ali al-Sistani, is convinced Iraq’s Shiite clerics do not want an Iranian-style religious state and he challenges the claims of those (including me) who assert that the war has resulted in an enormous strategic gain for Iran. Personally, I believe that Iraq’s long-oppressed Shiite majority is entitled to set up the kind of state that it democratically chooses. But the evidence from two national elections, the Shiite constitutional program, and the Islamic rule already in place in the south of Iraq makes it clear that they want a theocracy, with many features borrowed from the Iranian model.
Michael Goldfarb’s Ahmad’s War, Ahmad’s Peace: Surviving Under Saddam, Dying in the New Iraq should be read by anyone who wants to understand the bitter disappointment felt by liberal Iraqis as the hope for a better future after Saddam vanished, thanks both to American incompetence and the indigenous forces unleashed by the invasion. Goldfarb, a London-based reporter for NPR, arrived in Iraqi Kurdistan on March 18, 2003, the day before the war began, hoping to find someone who had suffered under Saddam Hussein and then report on his liberation. Ahmad Shawkat, his fifty-two-year-old interpreter, turned out to be just such a person.
Shawkat was a Shabak, ethnically Kurdish but Shiite by religion while most Iraqi Kurds are Sunni. The Shabaks do not live in the separate Kurdistan region, and most of them do not share the Kurds’ desire for independence. Shawkat was born in Mosul to a family that had recently arrived from a nearby village and were becoming part of Iraq’s middle class. Amid the turmoil that followed the overthrow of the monarchy in 1958, Shawkat’s father, a butcher, died and the family was forced to return to their dirt-poor village. A year later, they returned to Mosul and Shawkat eventually enrolled in the university there. A promising career seemed open to him, but politics soon intervened. Shawkat had been active in the pan-Arab Nasserite movement of the 1960s but because he was not himself an Arab, he was excluded from any position of leadership.
Under Saddam Hussein, Shawkat was arrested, tortured, and conscripted into the army in the Iran–Iraq War. He fled to Kurdistan after a safe haven was created there following the first Iraq war. He tried to escape to Jordan and was arrested at the border carrying an anti-Saddam article he had written. He was imprisoned and certain he would be executed. Instead, he was released in the October 2002 amnesty, after being brought personally before Saddam to make an apology (the distracted dictator forgot to ask for the apology which Shawkat then didn’t offer). He went back to Kurdistan and eventually met up with Goldfarb.
His story reflects the experience of a generation that emerged from poverty with Iraq’s new-found oil wealth and then was destroyed by Saddam Hussein’s wars and cruelty. Unlike so many other Iraqis, Shawkat engaged in numerous acts of defiance—some large and some small—that preserved his dignity but only at great cost to himself. Goldfarb’s account brilliantly captures the turmoil of Iraqi history since the fall of the monarchy and he gives an accurate sense of the different religious and ethnic components of northern Iraq.
Shawkat returned to Mosul after the liberation only to see Major General David Petraeus install a Baathist as mayor while keeping in power many officials of the old regime. It has become conventional wisdom that Petraeus was right when he worked with the old regime while Bremer was wrong when he barred the Baathists from power. But we have to ask what message was being conveyed when those who heroically resisted Saddam Hussein were ignored while those responsible for atrocities—either directly or by their complicity—continued to rule. In the end, Petraeus’s strategy failed in Mosul. He inadvertently armed the insurgents, and Mosul remains one of Iraq’s most dangerous cities. Shawkat founded a newspaper that used Iraq’s new press freedoms to protest against this new form of the old order. He was murdered after ignoring a succession of death threats.
Goldfarb contrasts the casualness with which the Americans approached the occupation with the deadly consequences for his friend. His prose reflects his understandable outrage when he writes about how the Coalition Provisional Authority
had been turned into an extension of the Bush-Cheney ’04 reelection campaign. Other nations’ professional foreign-service officers found it shocking that senior CPA figures attended meetings with their Bush-Cheney lapel pins on…. Didn’t they know they were representing all Americans, not just the president’s supporters?
Goldfarb describes a young Republican, sent by the Bush administration to instruct the Iraqis on democracy, who explained to a gathering of tribal and community leaders assembled at the Baghdad Hunt Club that “a political party exists to channel power…. Once you have political power, then you can create, you can do what you want with government, right?” Goldfarb comments:
To people who had survived the Ba’ath, a political party that really knew how to channel power, the lecture must have seemed ridiculous…. By now I was full of slow-burning anger. My friend Ahmad had died for this? So some kid could stand inside a privately guarded compound, explaining that “a political party exists to channel power” on a street guarded by American soldiers in a city where, one year after the overthrow of Saddam, the original meeting site [at a Baghdad Hotel] was so insecure that local police could not defend it? This was bringing freedom and democracy to Iraq? The most powerful nation in history had rendered itself utterly powerless here.
Goldfarb delivers a final devastating verdict on Iraq: “In a better world, I would have written a book with Ahmad rather than about him…. The book would have been about the hopes the Bush administration’s overthrow of Saddam brewed up and how they were dashed through partisan carelessness and—Lord, help us all—sheer laziness.”
While I was in Iraq in June, American forces killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and, on the same day, Iraq formed its government of national unity. President Bush greeted these developments with unusual restraint and announced he was convening a two-day Camp David summit to review his Iraq strategy. Any hopes that there would be a serious rethinking of Iraq policy were dashed when it turned out that the summit was really a ruse so that Bush could fake out his own cabinet by appearing on a videoconference from Baghdad when they expected to see him at the presidential retreat for breakfast. The President was so impressed with his own stunt that he had the White House press office put out the word that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had only five minutes’ notice of his arrival, not understanding that this undercut both Maliki and Bush.
On his return, Bush held a press conference during which, it seemed, he could barely contain his enthusiasm. In response to a question about progress in providing electricity, producing oil, and controlling violence, he swerved into a discussion of his encounter with the speaker of Iraq’s parliament, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani. The President didn’t seem to recall his name but readily remembered his religion:
The Sunni—I was impressed, by the way, by the Speaker—Denny Hastert told me I’d like him; Denny met with him. And I was impressed by him. He’s a fellow that had been put in prison by Saddam and, interestingly enough, put in prison by us. And he made a decision to participate in the government. And he was an articulate person. He talked about running the parliament. It was interesting to see a person that could have been really bitter talk about the skills he’s going to need to bring people together to run the parliament. And I found him to be a hopeful person.
They tell me that he wouldn’t have taken my phone call a year ago—I think I might have shared this with you at one point in time—and there I was, sitting next to the guy. And I think he enjoyed it as much as I did. It was a refreshing moment.
The incurious White House press corps never asked the obvious question: Why had the United States jailed al-Mashhadani? According to Sunnis and Shiites at the top levels of government in Iraq, al-Mashhadani was a member of, or closely associated with, two al-Qaeda-linked terrorists groups, Ansar Islam and Ansar al-Sunna. The first operated until 2003 in a no man’s land high in the mountains between Iraqi Kurdistan and Iran while the second has been responsible for some of the worse terrorist attacks on Iraq’s Shiites and Kurds. The Iraqis say they gave the Americans specific intelligence on al-Mashhadani’s affiliations with those groups and his actions in support of terrorists.
None of this seems to have mattered to a president who is as casual in his approach to national security as his defense secretary. At the same press conference Bush repeated that “the American people have got to understand that Iraq is a part of the war on terror.”
—July 12, 2006
Simon and Schuster, 2006. ↩