Robert Parry / Consortium News – 2006-10-22 09:03:03
(October 6, 2006) — On March 30, 2003 — three years ago and only 10 days after the US invasion of Iraq — I solicited assessments from a few trusted military analysts and wrote that “whatever happens in the weeks ahead, George W. Bush has ‘lost’ the war in Iraq. The only question now is how big a price America will pay, both in terms of battlefield casualties and political hatred swelling around the world.”
The article, entitled “Bay of Pigs Meets Black Hawk Down,” argued that one of Bush’s most egregious miscalculations was his assumption that the Iraqis wouldn’t fight a foreign invader. Like the wishful thinking in the Bay of Pigs disaster (Cuba, 1961), US policymakers assumed an invasion would be welcomed, not opposed.
And, like the Black Hawk Down fiasco (Somalia, 1993), Washington misunderstood the cultural dimension of a foreign conflict, relying too heavily on “leadership decapitation.” In Iraq, capturing Saddam Hussein and killing his two sons didn’t stop the insurgency; instead, it may have cleared the way for more effective anti-US leadership.
Our March 30, 2003, article said, “Without doubt, the Bush administration misjudged the biggest question of the war: ‘Would the Iraqis fight?’ Happy visions of rose petals and cheers have given way to a grim reality of ambushes and suicide bombs.”
The article added: “But the Bush pattern of miscalculation continues unabated. Bush seems to have cut himself off from internal dissent at the CIA and the Pentagon, where intelligence analysts and field generals warned against the wishful thinking that is proving lethal on the Iraqi battlefield.
“Instead of recognizing their initial errors and rethinking their war strategy, Bush and his team are pressing forward confidently into what looks like a dreamscape of their own propaganda,” refusing to turn back “no matter how bloody or ghastly their future course might be.”
The article — though unpopular amid the heady war fever of March 2003 — looks almost prescient three years later. Indeed, in the wake of recent bleak US intelligence estimates on the Iraq War and Bob Woodward’s book, State of Denial, our dire analysis may even have become Washington’s “conventional wisdom.”
But the enduring tragedy of Bush’s “mother of all presidential miscalculations” is that his underlying theory for addressing the problem of Islamic militancy hasn’t changed. It is still a strategy of “kill, kill, kill” — get revenge for 9/11 even against Muslims who had nothing to do it — and that is likely to continue, if not expand, after the Nov. 7 elections.
And, just as the Iraq War debacle was predictable 10 days into the fighting, so too is the end result of Bush’s vision of waging “World War III” against Islamic militants amid the one billion Muslims spread around the globe.
The deeply troubling prospect is this: If Washington follows the “kill, kill, kill” strategy in what Bush’s neoconservative advisers like to call the “clash of civilizations,” the United States will lose.
America will bleed itself dry of available troops; it will spend itself into bankruptcy; it will transform itself into a grotesque caricature of what the United States once was. It will strip its citizens of their constitutional rights; it will imprison suspected “terrorists” and “sympathizers” without trial; it will spread death and destruction around the globe.
Yet even after sacrificing the very freedoms and respect for human rights that Bush claims are despised by al-Qaeda terrorists, the deformed United States will still lose the war. Bush’s strategy of “kill, kill, kill” will even accelerate the process, much as the Iraq War ignited more Islamic militancy.
Bush is leading the American people into a chasm of almost unbelievable depth, a Dante-like descent into the nine circles of hell. There are literally no issues more pressing than forcing the US government to rethink this course of action, because it will make addressing all other pressing issues — such as global warming, budget deficits, the economy, health care, etc. — impossible.
Yet, even though official Washington has finally begun to regret its earlier enthusiasm for invading Iraq, it still has not come to grips with this larger reality. Many prominent pundits and politicians are still testing out tough talk about bombing Iran or boasting about punishing militants in Palestine, Lebanon and Syria.
While the bellicose rhetoric may play well politically with many Americans wanting payback for 9/11, it actually plays into the hands of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, exactly the people who committed the 9/11 atrocity.
Recently disclosed internal al-Qaeda communiqués make clear that bin Laden’s terrorist band is counting on a long-term US occupation of Iraq as crucial for its plans to build its movement.
In a letter, dated Dec. 11, 2005, a senior al-Qaeda operative known as “Atiyah” lectured the then-leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, on the necessity of taking a long view and building ties with elements of the Sunni-led Iraqi insurgency who have little in common with al-Qaeda except hatred of the Americans.
Atiyah told Zarqawi that “the most important thing is that the jihad continues with steadfastness and firm rooting, and that it grows in terms of supporters, strength, clarity of justification, and visible proof each day. Indeed, prolonging the war is in our interest.”
Atiyah’s assessment that “prolonging the war is in our interest” flies in the face of Bush’s claim that a prompt US military withdrawal would amount to a victory for al-Qaeda.
Instead, the “Atiyah letter” — like a previously intercepted message attributed to al-Qaeda’s second-in-command Ayman Zawahiri — suggests that a US military pullout in 2005 or earlier would have been disastrous for al-Qaeda’s militants in Iraq, which are estimated at only about 5 to 10 percent of the anti-US fighters.
Without the US military presence to serve as a rallying cry and a unifying force, the al-Qaeda contingent faced disintegration from desertions and attacks from Iraqi insurgents who resented the wanton bloodshed committed by Zarqawi’s non-Iraqi terrorists.
The “Zawahiri letter,” which was dated July 9, 2005, said a rapid American military withdrawal could have caused the foreign jihadists, who had flocked to Iraq to battle the Americans, to simply give up the fight and go home.
“The mujahaddin must not have their mission end with the expulsion of the Americans from Iraq, and then lay down their weapons, and silence the fighting zeal,” said the “Zawahiri letter,” according to a text released by the US Director of National Intelligence.
The “Atiyah letter,” which was discovered by US authorities at the time of Zarqawi’s death on June 7, 2006, and was translated by the US military’s Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, also stressed the vulnerability of al-Qaeda’s position in Iraq and the need to mend fences.
“Know that we, like all mujahaddin, are still weak,” Atiyah told Zarqawi. “We have not yet reached a level of stability. We have no alternative but to not squander any element of the foundations of strength or any helper or supporter.” [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Al-Qaeda’s Fragile Foothold.”]
Bin Laden’s Helper
Looking back over the past five years, it may seem strange to some, but President Bush often has served as al-Qaeda’s most important strategic ally.
Not only did he fail to finish off bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders in the battle of Tora Bora in December 2001, but Bush’s decision to shift the American focus to the secular government of Iraq allowed al-Qaeda to regroup, recover and reorganize.
The invasion of Iraq then served as a major recruiting tool for Islamic radicals, what the April 2006 National Intelligence Estimate called the “cause celebre” for spreading militancy throughout the Muslim world.
There is even evidence that bin Laden took an extraordinary personal risk, breaking nearly a year of silence in late October 2004 to release a videotape that superficially denounced Bush but was interpreted by CIA analysts as a backdoor way of helping Bush win a second term.
After the videotape appeared, senior CIA analysts concluded that ensuring a second term for Bush was precisely what bin Laden wanted.
“Bin Laden certainly did a nice favor today for the President,” said deputy CIA director John McLaughlin in opening a meeting to review secret “strategic analysis” after the videotape had dominated the day’s news, according to Ron Suskind’s The One Percent Doctrine, which draws heavily from CIA insiders.
Suskind wrote that CIA analysts had spent years “parsing each expressed word of the al-Qaeda leader and his deputy, Zawahiri. What they’d learned over nearly a decade is that bin Laden speaks only for strategic reasons…. Today’s conclusion: bin Laden’s message was clearly designed to assist the President’s reelection.”
Jami Miscik, CIA deputy associate director for intelligence, expressed the consensus view that bin Laden recognized how Bush’s heavy-handed policies — such as the Guantanamo prison camp, the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal and the war in Iraq — were serving al-Qaeda’s strategic goals for recruiting a new generation of jihadists.
“Certainly,” Miscik said, “he would want Bush to keep doing what he’s doing for a few more years.”
As their internal assessment sank in, the CIA analysts were troubled by the implications of their own conclusions. “An ocean of hard truths before them — such as what did it say about US policies that bin Laden would want Bush reelected — remained untouched,” Suskind wrote.
Bush’s campaign backers, however, took bin Laden’s videotape at face value, calling it proof the terrorist leader feared Bush and favored Democrat John Kerry.
In a pro-Bush book entitled Strategery: How George W. Bush Is Defeating Terrorists, Outwitting Democrats and Confounding the Mainstream Media, right-wing journalist Bill Sammon devoted several pages to bin Laden’s videotape, portraying it as an attempt by the terrorist leader to persuade Americans to vote for Kerry. “Bin Laden stopped short of overtly endorsing Kerry,” Sammon wrote, “but the terrorist offered a polemic against reelecting Bush.”
Sammon and other right-wing pundits didn’t weigh the obvious possibility that the crafty bin Laden might have understood that his “endorsement” of Kerry would achieve the opposite effect with the American people.
Bush himself recognized this fact. “I thought it was going to help,” Bush said in a post-election interview with Sammon about bin Laden’s videotape. “I thought it would help remind people that if bin Laden doesn’t want Bush to be the President, something must be right with Bush.”
In Strategery, Sammon also quotes Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman as agreeing that bin Laden’s videotape helped Bush. “It reminded people of the stakes,” Mehlman said. “It reinforced an issue on which Bush had a big lead over Kerry.”
But bin Laden, a student of American politics, surely understood that, too.
Now, two years later, Bush seems determined to expand the war in the Middle East to other countries. Last summer, he quietly backed the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon and reportedly urged Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to attack Syria.
The Israelis balked at Bush’s recommendation, with one source saying they considered Bush’s idea “nuts.” Eventually, Israel agreed to a cease-fire in Lebanon after what was widely regarded as a disastrous military campaign.
Bush, however, did not appear deterred. In a Sept. 5, 2006, speech, Bush declared that the United States must broaden the “war on terror” beyond al-Qaeda-inspired terrorists and the Sunni-dominated Iraqi insurgency.
“As we continue to fight al-Qaeda and these Sunni extremists inspired by their radical ideology, we also face the threat posed by Shia extremists, who are learning from al-Qaeda, increasing their assertiveness and stepping up their threats,” Bush said.
“This Shia strain of Islamic radicalism is just as dangerous, and just as hostile to America, and just as determined to establish its brand of hegemony across the broader Middle East,” Bush continued. “And the Shia extremists have achieved something that al-Qaeda has so far failed to do: In 1979, they took control of a major power, the nation of Iran, subjugating its proud people to a regime of tyranny, and using that nation’s resources to fund the spread of terror and pursue their radical agenda.”
Bush also cited his determination to defeat Hezbollah, a Shiite movement in Lebanon that is now a prominent part of the elected Lebanese government and broadly popular because its militia battled the Israeli army when it invaded Lebanon in July.
Bush referred to Hezbollah’s leader as “the terrorist Nasrallah,” suggesting the United States has joined Israel in its determination to kill Sheikh Sayyad Hassan Nasrallah who was rated the most respected leader in the Middle East by an August 2006 opinion poll in Egypt, which is considered one of Washington’s staunchest regional allies.
Ranked second in that Egyptian poll was Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, another target of the Bush administration. By contrast, Egypt’s pro-American president Hosni Mubarak wasn’t even in the top 10, coming in 11th. Polls across the Middle East also have shown almost universal disapproval of the Bush administration and its policies.
So, Bush has set the United States on course to battle not only the stateless terrorists of al-Qaeda and the stubborn insurgents in Iraq but Islamic political leaders who have broad popular support among the Muslim masses.
Bush’s virtual declaration of war on the Islamic world ranks as possibly the most ambitious military plan in American history — and without doubt the most reckless. This so-called “long war,” which Bush’s followers hail as “World War III,” would mean fighting large portions of a religious movement that has the allegiance of about one-sixth of the planet’s population.
Muslims are concentrated in nations from northern Africa to East Asia, but also include large numbers in Europe and North America.
Nevertheless, in his Sept. 5 speech, Bush talked bravely about how confident he is that the United States will win this war. “America will not bow down to tyrants,” he declared to applause.
By calling himself the “war president” and asserting “plenary” — or unlimited — powers as Commander in Chief, Bush also has turned this conflict to his political advantage.
Skillfully exploiting American memories of 9/11 and residual fears of al-Qaeda, Bush has achieved a one-party Republican government since 2002. Citing the terrorism threat, he also has engineered an unprecedented rollback of US constitutional liberties.
In September 2006, the Republican-controlled Congress granted Bush the authority to ignore habeas corpus — a right to a trial by jury dating back to the Magna Carta of 1215 and one of the few rights expressly written into the body of the US Constitution.
Now, under a new counter-terrorism law, Bush will have the power to jail indefinitely a person deemed an “enemy combatant” or an individual “who has purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States” or its military allies.
Since 9/11, Bush also has used the terrorist threat to discredit political opponents in the eyes of many Americans. In 2002 and 2004, Bush challenged the anti-terror credentials of Democrats, paving the way to Republican victories.
With Election 2006 a month away, Bush has fired up the terror rhetoric again, saying Democratic criticism of the Iraq War has proved that “the party of FDR and the party of Harry Truman has become the party of cut and run.”
But Bush has offered no coherent strategy for winning what amounts to a global counterinsurgency war against Islamic militants. Beyond vowing to stay on “the offensive” in Iraq and elsewhere, Bush has promulgated a dubious theory that widespread anti-Americanism can be overcome by imposing “democracy,” through force if needed.
But this “democracy” theory has run aground on the hard reality that Muslim hatred of Bush is so intense that almost whenever citizens get to vote they either act on behalf of narrow sectarian interests (as in Iraq) or they vote for people who have earned popular support by standing up to the United States (as in Iran, Palestine and Lebanon).
That means that the only “reliable” US allies are still the “moderate” autocrats, such as the Saudi royal family, the Jordanian monarchy, or the dictators of Egypt and Pakistan. If the popular will in those countries were respected, the likelihood is that the elected governments would join the “coalition of the hostile” against the United States.
In other words, Bush has no real plan short of conducting a bloodbath against large segments of the world’s one billion Muslims, a global version of the carnage on display in Iraq since 2003 and in Lebanon during the Israeli war against Hezbollah last summer.
Yet, even a “kill, kill, kill” strategy along the lines of the Iraq War is certain to fail. As the US intelligence community has recognized, the Iraq War has become a case study in how not to conduct counterinsurgency warfare — as well as an example of how wishful thinking and incompetent military strategies can make a bad situation worse.
The widening circles of violence will provoke more attacks on Western targets and then more retaliatory strikes by the United States against a multiplying Islamic enemy. This future of endless war and expanding repression represents Bush’s grim vision.
But the countervailing question is this: Is there a realistic alternative?
The answer is “yes, but.” There are still routes that might lead to a more peaceful world that isolates, marginalizes and eventually eradicates terrorist ideologues, like bin Laden. But these strategies would require bravery, wisdom, patience and tolerance.
Most importantly, Israel and the West would need to reach out to the Muslim world with generosity and understanding, despite the certainty of occasional terrorist outrages that would cry out for revenge.
This alternative strategy would seek to reduce — not escalate — tensions with Muslims. It would address their legitimate grievances. It might include apologies for past Western wrongdoing. It would try to build positive economic, commercial and political bonds. It would seek to reduce Western dependency on Middle Eastern oil.
Also, given the Bush administration’s strategic intransigence, new international players — such as the European Union or Russia — might have to fill the leadership void in the region. Israel’s Kadima leadership would have to reverse course from its crackdown in Gaza and its bombardment of Lebanon, and start pursuing innovative peace initiatives.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whose political star has fallen since the disastrous war in Lebanon, would need to rise to the occasion despite strong opposition from the Israeli right wing.
Olmert might start by seeking a peace treaty with Syria that gives back the Golan Heights; make an overture to Iran offering economic cooperation; and begin unconditional talks with the elected Hamas leadership in the Palestinian territories.
Though a permanent resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would take time, Israel and international parties could, in the meantime, improve the living conditions of the Palestinian people, thus lancing one of the festering boils of animosity in the Middle East.
Another important step back from World War III would come with a phased American withdrawal from Iraq.
Though Iraq would surely continue to suffer civil strife, a US military departure would remove the “cause celebre” for the worldwide jihadist movement and potentially set in motion the eradication of the foreign al-Qaeda operatives in Iraq.
Given Bush’s personality, however, it seems unthinkable that he would ever admit that he had made a mistake invading Iraq or that he would withdraw the troops. Nor is he likely to cooperate with peace initiatives by other nations that involve real compromise.
The only real hope for stopping Bush would have to come from an electoral intervention by the American people. They would have to vote in a way that puts the brakes on Bush’s “kill, kill, kill” strategy and starts looking for a pathway toward a more peaceful future.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com along with his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth.’
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