“Two thousand and three was the worst year for significant terror attacks since 1982,” said Peter Bergen, author of Holy War, Inc., and the forthcoming The Osama bin Laden I Know. “In 2004, that number tripled. Donald Rumsfeld asks: ‘What are the metrics for winning the War on Terror?’ Well, I’d offer terrorism figures as a pretty good metric.”
There are precious few metrics tilting in the Bush administration’s favor these days. For one, there’s a better-armed Iraqi insurgency, growing in its strength to disrupt reconstruction efforts and its ability to destroy U.S. military targets. And closer to home, there’s an increasingly disenchanted mood among the D.C. intelligence hands who closely monitor the war’s progress.
George W. Bush’s policy retinue will return from the August vacation to an early Washington autumn in which their credibility—and the war effort they’ve staked it on—are the objects of greater and greater public suspicion.
The Bush team, like many global adventurers in administrations past, is ill equipped for the moments when facts on the ground stray from the diagrams in the ideological playbook. Even as they affix their thumbprints in far-off corners of the world, Dick Cheney, Douglas Feith, Paul Wolfowitz et al. hold at deliberate arm’s length the simple truth that faraway lands and human events don’t admit themselves to easy control, no matter how messianic or stoically determined that bid for control may be.
They lack, in other words, a sense of historical tragedy.
“The word ‘tragedy’ in American political discourse is often interpreted as ‘bad for our side,’” said American University communications professor Christopher Simpson, a specialist on wartime propaganda. “What you see happening is the President and his advisors telling everyone else, ‘Don’t worry, it’s going to work out.’ And frankly, that’s what I think they’ve been telling themselves. We’ve seen this behavior before in the precedent of Vietnam. Bob McNamara was Secretary of Defense, the second-most-powerful man in the United States—arguably the second-most-powerful man in the world, certainly the second-most-powerful man in the United States government. Yet we now know from the guy’s memoir that he could not tell the President what he knew to be true: that the Vietnam War could not be won. And why couldn’t he tell the President? Because saying something like that is seen as an act of betrayal.”
The Bush White House has managed one successful pullout: the traditional flight from Washington and its notoriously liquefying August heat to the dusty refuge of Crawford, Tex. Along the way, all the winter’s giddy talk of the freedom-loving mini-sized U.S.-style civil societies emerging from watershed events like the Iraqi elections and Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution has melted.
The most graphic of the post-vacation challenges will likely be a fresh crop of Abu Ghraib documents and photos, whose release has been provisionally delayed by a sealed government motion filed in Manhattan’s U.S. District Court. These images and reports are said to depict detainee abuse at least as brutal as that seen in the first round of disclosures in April 2004. And the ongoing news from Baghdad won’t help, either. As Jason Vest notes in this month’s Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, bad occupation planning still has a majority of Iraq’s population with no reliable electrical supply; in central Baghdad, some neighborhoods are living amid raw sewage.
This backward-spooling departure from the pre-approved administration script is a reflection of the go-it-alone mentality that has colored the Iraqi engagement all along—and the effort, so vividly brought to the fore in the lingering Valerie Plame scandal, to force America’s imperial errand in Iraq to march in lockstep with the War on Terror. Few D.C. insiders have noted this dynamic with greater clarity, and greater exasperation, than the professional intelligence community.
What’s more, career intelligence analysts and the advice they’ve delivered to Bush policymakers have been shunted aside throughout the course of the war and occupation.
“One of the things you learn early on in strategic intelligence,” said retired Col. W. Patrick Lang, the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Middle Eastern division, “is that nothing you tell decision makers will change their minds once a decision has been made. You end up trying to influence them before the decision-making.”
And now the funk that has long gripped the Washington intelligence community seems to be spreading to the country at large. Even amid better-than-expected economic news for July, only 42 percent of Americans approve of the President’s performance in office. (That number matches his previous all-time low.) Some 61 percent—an all-time high—say the Iraq war is going badly, according to a Newsweek poll released this week. Last month, a Wall Street Journal–NBC poll showed for the first time a plurality of Americans were not buying the President as “being honest and straightforward.”
Those figures have to be at least as worrisome to Bush’s crack team of pols as the more grimly predictable body counts in Baghdad. Support for the war is unexpectedly shaky in traditional Bush strongholds: the Midwestern and Sun Belt exurbs where Mr. Bush planted the flag convincingly in the 2004 election. Indeed, Mr. Bush owes the allegiance of these all-important burghers of the outlying interstates largely to his feverishly touted reputation as a teller of hard truths—as opposed to that double-talking, French-looking preppy Senator from Massachusetts.
So where can the administration turn for a bracing, mind-cure style dose of confidence? D.C. cynics might expect a new ramping-up of summer terror alerts, much like those the Department of Homeland Security issued last year. Yet it’s unlikely that the War on Terror—recently rechristened, in another acknowledgment of the unwieldy shape of new political realities, as the Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism—will be putting the war planners back in the pink anytime soon.
Indeed, as veteran intelligence hands now note, the Iraq conflict is nearly a free-fire zone for international jihadists. “I was looking at an insurgents’ video just after the killing of one of the Marines last week,” said Larry C. Johnson, who did insurgency work in the State Department and the C.I.A. In it, “the insurgents are moving around the [Marine’s] body very deliberately, not as though they’re fearing ‘we have to get out of here now or we’re going to get caught.’ They laid out the equipment and gear they had captured—the sniper rifles.
“The essence of counterinsurgency,” Mr. Johnson said, “is control of the battlefield, and you can’t control the battlefield without sufficient troops—which we don’t have. The other option is to use coalition forces, but of course the coalition we had in Iraq is now largely going the other way.”
According to Mr. Johnson, who works with the D.C.-based consultants’ group BERG Associates, these conditions make little impression on the dominant mindset of policymakers in the Bush White House, which he describes as “religious.” Raising points of dissent, or suggesting that invasion and occupation may be something less than the quickest path to democratic self-rule in the region, “is like arguing the Virgin Birth. This is something these people believe in their soul of souls,” Mr. Johnson said.
From the early days of the Bush administration, Mr. Johnson recalled, “you had this war with the intelligence community. The neocons insist that the intelligence community missed all these things, be it 9/11 or nuclear-weapons capabilities, that it was a simple matter of Bush and his advisors coming on board and fighting the good fight. When you run across this mindset, it’s frightening how bizarre it is.”
As a more practical matter, Mr. Johnson said, the ideological fervor of the administration’s senior neocons has placed the country “in a Catch-22: As long as we’re in Iraq, the occupation will continue to serve as a draw and incentive for foreign jihadists to go to Iraq to fight the infidel. We’re going to be feeding recruits to the jihadi movement, just like the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the early 80’s did. We are equipping the next generation of jihadi.”
This is less a matter of tragedy, intelligence experts say, than irony—an outcome of the occupation’s blind drive to westernize the Iraqi government in far-from-propitious conditions. “The Bush administration is trying to build a new state in Iraq,” said Colonel Lang. “And its structure is entirely Western.”
In promoting a one-person, one-vote political structure, U.S. policymakers are “bringing into being a Shia-dominated, religiously oriented government that will enshrine its values in its constitution. I certainly support that we should not want to see that happen. And that’s why you had the [U.S.] ambassador, [Zalmay] Khalilzad, telling the Iraqis, ‘No, you will not do that.’ I think that guy’s got the hardest job on Earth.”
Mr. Johnson agreed: He cautioned that the Shia-dominated clerical government of Iran is poised to reap the greatest benefit, and that it will soon loom large the region’s major power. What’s more, Mr. Johnson claimed, contingency plans for a military operation in Iran are already in the works.
“A friend directly involved in these conversations says there’s enormous pressure coming from the DoD,” he said. “They’re saying the moderates in Iran will be greeting us with open arms. They absolutely have not learned anything.”
Chris Lehmann is an editor at CQ Weekly.