Iraq: Two Bad Decisions and a Debilitating Metaphor
Ten years ago this week, in the middle of a horrendous sandstorm, the U.S. invasion of Iraq began. The objective of the invasion was to topple the brutal dictator Saddam Hussein and establish a democracy in the middle of the Arab world.
The report card is not good. But aside from the question of whether the whole enterprise was (stupid, wrongheaded, unrealistic... take your pick), it is hard not to come to the conclusion that the whole Iraq endeavor would have had a much better chance for success right off the bat except for two colossal mistakes and the prevailing fatal metaphor that pervaded the mindset of the Iraqi war/reconstruction effort. Is there a take-away?
To be fair, the fall of Baghdad left a fractured country in turmoil. Religious factions, tribal factions, and animosities made Iraq ungovernable in any simple sense of the term. Add to that a natural resentment of foreign troops occupying their land and that the CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority) had a cauldron of conflicting forces to deal with. Machiavelli's observation that a country that is hard to conquer is easy to rule and conversely that one that is easy to conquer is hard to rule certainly seems applicable here.
That said, two decisions made by CPA chief L. Paul Bremer or at least enacted by Bremer can only be said to have added fuel to the conflagration. His policies shut out huge numbers of Iraqis from participating in the restructuring and rebuilding of their own country. Many Iraqis then gravitated to the various factions intent on bringing down the CPA and simultaneously building up their own power base.
1) Bremer disbanded the professional army without pay.
2) Instead of giving contracts to Iraqi construction firms for the huge construction projects envisaged, Bremer gave the contracts to international construction firms including German and French -- creating a massive unemployment problem and tremendous resentment.
As regards (1), Bremer signed Coalition Provisional Authority Order Number 2 on May 23, 2003. It disbanded the Iraqi military, security, and intelligence infrastructure of President Saddam Hussein, in effect dissolving the entire former Iraqi army and putting 400,000 former Iraqi soldiers out of work. Bremer claims he was just following orders from Rumsfeld, but he certainly did not contest the wisdom of the plan. The controversy is discussed but unresolved in a Slate article in 2007.
It almost seemed to have happened in a vacuum. General Peter Pace, the first U.S. Marine to serve as Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were not consulted for advice or a recommendation with regard to the order. Secretary of State Colin Powell has also said he was never consulted on the matter, which he believes was a major mistake, and then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice was said to have been surprised by the decision.
As Bob Woodward reports in his book State of Denial, Lieutenant General Garner, Bush's first appointee to lead the Coalition Provisional Government, upon hearing of the order to disband the army, attempted to convince Bremer to rethink the dissolution. Bremer was reported as saying: "The plans have changed. The thought is we don't want the residuals of the old army. We want a new and fresh army." To this, Garner replied: "Jerry, you can get rid of an army in a day, but it takes years to build one."
Garner further asserted that none of the ministries would be able to function after this order, "If you put this out.... you will put 50,000 people on the street, underground, and mad at Americans, And these 50,000 [are] the most powerful, well-connected elites from all walks of life."
The reaction of our primary ally in the Iraq invasion, Britain, was equally negative. A 2004 report in The Guardian cited senior UK military and intelligence sources saying that British Admiral Michael Boyce told his commanders to negotiate with senior Iraqi army and Republican Guard officers to switch sides and operate under UK guidance to uphold law and order, but that CPA orders 1 and 2 effectively destroyed any chance to regroup the Iraqi forces for such a plan.
As regards (2) - Iraqi reconstruction, under Bremer, one of the CPA's most important tasks was the reconstruction of Iraq's infrastructure. Bremer had grandiose plans to rebuild Baghdad as a shining example of free enterprise and capitalism. As such he reasoned that top-flight international firms had to be the primary contractors.
Administration officials, including Bremer, have stressed that other countries and foreign donors, as well as foreign corporations, must be brought into the rebuilding effort. However, the officials have maintained that the U.S. government should continue to direct the project.
Firms like Halliburton and global construction and engineering firm Parsons Corp and, of course, Bechtel, the prime contractor, were engaged for the $680-million Iraqi capital construction project. Nearly 3,000 potential subcontractors showed up at two meetings hosted by Bechtel National Inc. on two continents to learn about construction opportunities in Iraq. Although the bidding process was ostensibly open to Iraqi firms, they were all but ignored. Only 2% of the reconstruction contracts in 2003 were awarded to Iraqi firms.
The net result of this was that the leaders of Iraqi's industrial and construction firms were left embittered and out of the money. Influential people who would have had reason to support the U.S. became resentful and distrustful of U.S. intentions. Not only that, the Iraqi labor force, out of work and money, became potential recruits for the Iraqi Insurgency. The insurgency festered and grew for several years and in the end seemed to be winning until the Bush surge -- a surge that turned the tide but which at its inception was roundly condemned by Obama and other luminaries of the Democratic party.
In October 2006 -- three months before the president's new strategy was unveiled -- Obama said, "It is clear at this point that we cannot, through putting in more troops or maintaining the presence that we have, expect that somehow the situation is going to improve, and we have to do something significant to break the pattern that we've been in right now."
Whatever incentive for cooperation Iraqi leaders and citizens may have had for cooperation with the CPA was squandered and the reconstruction process dragged on for years costing American lives and emboldening America's detractors and enemies. Add to that that the decisions made under Bremer's leadership of the CPA were just that -- decisions. They didn't have to be. The exact opposite decisions could have been made -- involve a realigned Iraqi army and give the reconstruction projects to Iraqi firms (they built Baghdad in the first place) -- decisions that even at the time seemed to most senior officials of the Bush administration to be the path of wisdom.
And the fatal metaphor?
The Iraqi reconstruction operated under the general metaphor that policies should be shaped under the goal of winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqis. It is as if the reconstruction process was some sort of Dale Carnegie enterprise to win friends and influence people. The H&M metaphor also presumes that there is some sort of common denominator to the Iraqi hearts and minds. The will to power and survival is certainly a common denominator but that is hardly a make nice H&M denominator. Undoubtedly, if the British occupying forces in the war of 1812 had just been nicer and handed out tea and crumpets to the colonials the whole resistance would have wilted? Whose hearts and minds? The Sunni hearts and minds? The Shia? The Sadrists? The tribal? The process was to be some sort of courtship? We were out to win their hearts and minds? How about their pocket books and skins? The one common denominator of governance in the Muslim world seem to be respect for power.
Ralph Peters, Fox news analyst, New York Post editorial writer and retired military officer (and favorite leftist bogeyman) had this to say about H&M:
Our current hearts-and-minds approach that seeks to avoid "unnecessary" combat gets it exactly wrong: Religious warriors can't be bought with new roads, wells and vaccinations. On the contrary, over two millennia of religious revolts tells us that fanatic uprisings can only be subdued by killing the true believers.
He points out further that the H&M metaphor presumes incorrectly that Islam is not the driving force of the militant insurgency but some sort of convenient ideological rationale for their actions:
This leads Western analysts to insist that the Taliban merely exploits religion as a tool. And there we stop, failing to ask why the tool is so effective. If Islam galvanizes support for the Taliban, how can it be irrelevant? As for Taliban hypocrisy, if hypocrisy disarmed religious fervor, no faith would long survive.
Subtract Islam from the equation, and the Taliban (or al Qaeda) wouldn't exist as we know it (the name itself comes from "Talib," a student of Islam). Subtract Pashtun ethnicity, and you wouldn't have the Taliban we face. Fighting an insurgency fueled by faith and blood, we explain it away in politically correct terms of economic underdevelopment.
"The metaphor is perhaps one of man's most fruitful potentialities. Its efficacy verges on magic, and it seems a tool for creation which God forgot inside one of His creatures when He made him." -- Ortega Y Gasset
Stupid decisions will always be with us. If we can learn from history then, hopefully, they won't be the same. Similarly our minds will always be under the sway, consciously or unconsciously, of accumulated constellations of metaphors. We have to simplify and structure raw reality. The problem is that the power of metaphors to govern our policies, plans and decisions is not recognized. We "filter" reality through our metaphors. Metaphors like 'jump start the economy', 'the human family', 'mother earth', 'lame duck', 'cornered rat', etc. suggests ways to deal with problems and predict actions. Seeing our current economic problem in automotive terms has led to various "stimulus" packages.
Yet metaphors are usually treated merely as ways of explaining policies that have been previously arrived at through some sort of rational scientific procedure. Metaphors are seen as sort of a quaint rubric used to explain policies and problem solving strategies when actually the metaphors serve rather to structure or define the problem that policies are then devised to address. The lesson, then, is to take our metaphors seriously and subject them to the same critical analysis to which we subject the subsequent solutions. Had the hearts and minds metaphor been subject to scrutiny it would have been seen as a tempering metaphor rather than an overarching metaphor. A metaphor which, as argued by Ralph Peters, was in potential conflict with the precondition to all other goals, namely defeating the insurgency.
Moreover, lumping hearts and minds together is at best dubious. How do you win a mind? The same way you win a heart? A dubious combination. Moreover, like happiness, it is an attendant state which may or may not accompany certain actions and achieved states. A dubious way to define a primary objective. Dubious three times over.