'Ah! But It's Not Working?'

Over the years (years?!?! it has been that long?), the Bush administration has given many reasons for the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

There were all those weapons Iraq was supposed to have been hiding (Iraq did, for the longest time, appear to be hiding something) that could possibly wind up in the hands of terrorists — the same terrorists, Bush said over and over and over again, that had attacked us without warning and pity that clear, blue September morning. When those nuclear, chemical and biological weapons didn’t materialize, those stockpiles became “programs” and then disappeared from speeches entirely, replaced by the noble calling of bloody dictator removal and democracy spreading. True believers suddenly found themselves knee-deep in spreadsheets detailing the number of schools rebuilt, clinics opened, miles of powerlines strung, potholes patched and sacks of garbage collected. Like so many old-time Radio Moscow five-year plan updates.

Administration officials, despite semi-coerced public statements of the fact that there were no operational, ideological or financial connections between Iraq’s secular Ba’ath Party dictatorship and the religious revolutionaries of al Qaeda (or its affiliates, associates and franchisees), always did a very good job in speeches of linking the two, coagulating America’s enemies in a way that made some kind of emotive sense to a great many people people. But absolutely no rational sense to the rest of us.

Aside from the neoconservative rhetoric of world revolution (it’s hard to tell, really, just how influential the evil geniuses of the American Enterprise Institute actually were), none of the reasons have ever struck me as making much sense, or at least much rational sense. And yet, it was clear by this time in 2002 that Team Bush had decided, come hell or high water, that war was the answer.

The only answer. To all the various problems and enemies the United States faced.

Three years ago, I had just started a job as the Saudi Press Agency’s defense correspondent here in Washington. It was less impressive than it sounds. SPA is the mouthpiece for the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which pretends to be a real nation state but is really more a patch of land governed by a reasonably savvy organized crime family. Its primary job is to communicate the really boring facts of the day, such as:

Riyadh, Aug. 2, SPA — The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud has sent reply cables to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin; Switzerland’s President Samuel Schmid; Thailand’s Premier Thaksin Chinnawat; the Secretary General of Organization of Islamic Conference Prof. Akmaluddin Ihsan Oglu and the Secretary General of Muslim World League Dr. Abdullah bin Abdulmohsin Al-Turki.

In his cables, the Monarch expressed his appreciation and thanks to them for offering their deepest condolences on the death of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques late King Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud.

When kings aren’t busy dying, often times the news releases involve the "discussion of matters of mutual interest and bilateral relations." SPA also publishes wonderful “attaboy” photos of ribbon cuttings, official visits, and various poses royal family members looking concerned or meeting with various and sundry foreign leaders, religious leaders, Saudi businesspeople and whatnot.

SPA’s Saudi employees do not call it the “Sleepy People’s Association” for nothing. It is not the world’s least interesting news service — Emirates News Agency (WAM) can probably honestly claim that title. But it comes very close to it.

At least I never had to write about “bilateral relations and matters of mutual concern.” Though whenever Bush, or anyone else in his administration “lauded” the Saudis (it happened more often then you think), we were right there, scribbling away. Lauding, lauding, lauding.

(Hey, it was a job, I needed a job, and it did not require a security clearance, which was the only kind of work someone like me was going to find in Washington in 2002. I do not want, and probably could not get, a security clearance, for reasons that ought to be obvious to anyone who has read me over the last year or so. Also, if you think that it paid gloriously, the Saudis tend to pay “the help” very poorly, and at SPA, I was one of the help. The job paid about $2,700 per month, a pittance in DC, and to top it off, I was considered self-employed for tax purposes. There are some journalists in this town — cough, cough — for whom $2,700 would hardly cover their monthly bar tabs.)

Anyway, as I said, being SPA’s defense correspondent was not very interesting. There was very little original reporting involved, mostly rewrites of the US press, news conferences, anything remotely related to Saudi Arabia, that kind of thing. There was little incentive to do original work, since Riyahd appeared to judge us on the volume of work we produced, rather than on the quality. (Ahh, government metrics!) And most of what I wrote never went onto the wire service anyway, but instead probably got translated and sent straight into the Saudi government’s daily briefing packet. Someone was reading my stuff. It just wasn’t being published in any Saudi newspapers.

Or they paid me for nothing. Which, now that I think about it and given the nature of the government I worked for, is just as likely.

(The only real fun I got out of the whole thing was a couple chauffeured trips to Pentagon press briefings in cars with Saudi diplomatic plates, probably part of whatever bulging permanent record the US government has compiled on me. Well, that, and I got to meet Richard Perle.)

Anyway, in August of 2002, I stumbled across a Stratfor analysis on Middle East Newsline that appeared to have the most cogent and rational explanation for the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq. Stratfor has never been my favorite organization (FULL DISCLOSURE: I think I applied for a job there once, and got no farther than “thanks, but no thanks”), and I believe their president some months ago on the Diane Rehm Show said that in invading Iraq, George W. Bush had made “the right decision for the wrong reason” and that Iraq was a battlefield in the war on terror in the same way the Solomon Islands were a battlefield in the US campaign to defeat Japan — we don’t mean to kill Iraqis, he said, but it cannot be helped as we move toward the greater goal. I’m not sure how anyone can reasonably make that argument, but rather than comment on it here, I’ll simply reprint the entire SPA writeup I did on the original analysis, because they are, I think, the same issue.

White House Seeks War With Iraq to Demonstrate U.S. Power

S.P.A. Washington

The Bush administration has decided to topple the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein despite the fact that the war against al Qaeda is unfinished because the White House has concluded that a successful campaign against Iraq would "shatter the psychological advantage within the Islamist movement and demonstrate U.S. power," according to an analysis published earlier this week by Texas-based Strategic Forecasting (Stratfor).

According to the Stratfor analysis, the Bush administration has concluded that the international Islamist movement sees its victory against the U.S. as "inevitable" and believes that only by demonstrating that the U.S. is "as patient, as persevering and much more powerful than the Islamist movement" will the "psychological structure of the Islamic world" that fosters violence against the U.S. be changed.

"The center of gravity of Washington’s problem [with Islamist militants] is psychological. There is no certain military or covert means to destroy al Qaeda or any of its murky allied organizations. They can be harassed, they can be defeated, they can be disrupted, but there is no clear and certain way to destroy them," the Stratfor report said.

But by attacking and toppling the Iraqi government, the U.S. could "undermine [the] psychological foundations" of Islamic opposition to the West. "If the sense of manifest destiny can destroyed, then the foundations of the movement can be disrupted," Stratfor concluded.

The report says that Islamists see the 1973 oil embargo, defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, the "perceived defeat" of the U.S. in Somalia in the early 1990s, the success of the September 11 attacks, and the continuing survival of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as examples of Muslim strength in the battle with the West.

Stratfor said that the White House has concluded that Saddam Hussein "is one of the pillars of the psychology aspect because his ability to survive American power in 1991 … . [He] is emblematic of the ability of Arabs and Muslims to resist and overcome American power."

Defeating Iraq will show that U.S. power is "overwhelming and irresistible," and would aim at shattering Islamist confidence in victory, Stratfor said. As well, battle against a nation-state and army is "something the United States does very well." Fighting a "highly dispersed global network" like al Qaeda "is something nobody does well."

The Stratfor analysis said the White House has concluded that the anti-Americanism "permeating the Islamic world" is due to both U.S. support for Israel and the continuing U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia. Creating a Palestinian state "would not defuse anti-American sentiment," and would probably signal the start of Palestinian military operation on pre-1967 Israel, Stratfor said.

Stratfor also reports that the Bush administration has concluded that the troubled U.S. relations with the Arab and Islamic world are "unsolvable." Since the Middle East’s oil reserves are "a foundation of the Western economic system," completely withdrawing from the region is simply not an option for the U.S., Stratfor said.

While the Stratfor analysis said the administration’s approach to "weaken al Qaeda’s soul" and alter the outlook of the Muslim world "might just work," the approach raises the psychological aspect of warfare to the forefront and also risks a response from al Qaeda that might be something other than capitulation.

"The psychological consequences are never predictable," the Stratfor report said. "Who knows how the Islamists will react in the end?"

In short — we don’t know what to do, and don’t think we can beat the terrorists, so we’ll beat up on someone else and hope real hard that scares everyone involved.

The Stratfor piece was, near as I can tell, spot-on about Team Bush motivations, the regime’s thinking about Iraq, and especially about what Bush administration officials thought about the “link” between the Islamic revolutionaries and Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. It was not a real link, but an emotional one, and assuming this was an accurate portrayal of Bush administration feeling, a savvy conclusion on the White House’s part. Islamic revolutionaries, even as they vilified the Iraqi dictator as a non-Muslim (they did), took a great deal of vicarious pleasure in Saddam Hussein’s continued persistence during the 1990s gave to the Islamic revolutionary movement.

The piece also, I believe, accurately understands the Islamist world view. They believe God is on their side, and that with faith in God and effort firmly grounded in faith, they will win.

I would even go so far as to agree that solving the Palestinian “problem” would not lessen anti-American feeling much or even dampen the appeal Revolutionary Islam has for some Muslims. Cutting the Palestinians loose from the Israelis is a good aim in its own right, but US policy makers needed to “solve” this issue 30 years ago in order for that to have any measurable effect today.

However, if this analysis is correct, there are several significant flaws with it.

First, the US government simply overstated how invested Muslim revolutionaries were in Saddam’s nose-thumbing of Uncle Sam. It was a vicarious pleasure that showed that Washington could be defied, yes, but the revolutionaries were not heavily invested in Saddam’s survival. He was just another “jack Muslim” (my phrase) dictator whose death or deposition would result in few tears. Saddam, who was no more doing God’s work than Bill Clinton or George W. Bush, was as doomed for the dustbin of history as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics — or the United States of America.

They were — and are — much more interested in the success of their movement than anything else.

Second, do these planners really think — I mean honestly think — that a whiff of grape and the barbarians will flee in terror? Exactly what planet have these people been living on? This reminds me of the Kennedy-Johnson view that enough pressure, in the form of bombing, on North Vietnam will eventually force the North Vietnamese to see reality and end their support for the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam. I think the assumption was that opponents would wilt in the face of our resolve, of American resources and resolve.

But they didn’t. And they don’t. The North Vietnamese acted as we would act when faced with “superior” power — they fought harder, they dug in and increased their support for their allies. That is the logical response, the response anyone should expect from nearly any human community, voluntary or involuntary, that has been attacked. But Washington policy makers, in their self-centered world, assume that America is different: we would fight back if attacked, and increase our commitment if the attacks continue. But somehow we believe these rules don’t apply if we are doing the attacking. And despite repeated proof this view is wrong, we continue to act as if somehow the sight of the Marines will terrify any enemy into submission.

Al Qaeda’s response is logical and simple: take the blows, reorganize as needed, look for whatever advantages they can find, and strike back when and to the extent that they can.

Is fighting a completely voluntary organization, that neither drafts nor taxes, that has no real chain-of-command or organizational structure, proving difficult for the government of a nation state that knows how to do nothing but tax, command and coerce? Absolutely. But wandering off to beat up another non-voluntary nation-state in hopes that will prove suitably frightening is not the way to take down that voluntary organization.

It’s also the kind of response the Israelis would take. It makes sense that our Israel-obsessed policy elites, enthralled as they are with the efficacy and righteousness of the Israeli Defense Forces, would opt for a show of force similar to, say, Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which was primarily designed to convince the Palestinians of the futility of resistance to continued Israeli rule and control over the West Bank and Gaza. Yes, this strategy of massive retaliation worked in the 1950s against the largely secular and state-backed Palestinian fedayeen. But when, exactly, was the last time this really worked for the Israelis? Especially against non-state actors like the PLO and the Islamist groups such as Hizbullah and Hamas?

In fact, the Bush effort more resembles the dreaded and particularly stupid Kennedy-Johnson concept of war “as a form of communication,” that we are at war in the first place because our opponents doubted our willingness to fight and our resolve. If we can prove both to our opponents, they will eventually give way in the face of our superior firepower and resources.

And certainly, the supposed lack of American resolve is part of al Qaeda’s narrative. That is one of the lessons the Islamists supposedly learned from Mogadishu. But it’s important to note — their view is that our lack of resolve also stems from our lack of faith and our lack of devotion to God’s cause. It is, in their eyes, not a character trait we can correct. Rather, it is part of our essence, of our very nature because we are unbelievers. Only the resolve of those fighting in the path of God (fi sabil li’lah) is really rewarded, both here and in the hereafter.

There is no way to communicate our resolve so that our opponents will “get the message.” We can only show we are as "patient, as persevering and much more powerful than the Islamist movement” by actually being all of those things.

Invading and occupying Iraq does not get us there.

While the Stratfor piece suggests there was some uncertainty in Team Bush about what would happen if this did not work, I don’t think there were many doubts. The echo chamber that was the neoconservative and militarist-nationalist brains trust was, I think, pretty convinced that all of this, from the toppling of Saddam Hussein in a reckless display of power to the spread of democracy and defeat of al Qaeda, would happen pretty quickly. In a matter of months, maybe. Certainly by now.

And yet the appeal of revolutionary Islam, because of the occupation of Iraq, remains as strong as ever, with governments across the region (especially Saudi Arabia) facing a potentially serious security crisis when all the jihadi veterans come home. Team Bush gambled and lost. Al Qaeda is not broken “psychologically,” while American power hardly appears “overwhelming and irresistible” today in the way it seemed in April, 2003.

As silly as it is, the fact that the Bush administration has “rebranded” the Global War on Terror the (equally stupid sounding) Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism is a strangely positive sign that they may — finally! — understand there is no “I’ll hit him until you give up.” Whether they’re smart enough to craft a proper alternative is another thing. But at least they seem to grasp that the original strategy has failed miserably and spectacularly.

Sadly, it reminds me a lot of “Mr. Neutron” episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Mr. Neutron, “clearly the most dangerous man in the world” (and played by Graham Chapman), has just walked out of his hotel room and taken a plane to London, where he putters around in gardens. The US government, however does not know where he is, and the Supreme Commander of Land, Sea and Air Forces (played by a body odor-obsessed Michael Palin) orders "a full-scale Red Alert throughout the world" and has the US military "surround everyone with everything we’ve got."

In a following scene, Captain Carpenter (played by Eric Idle) gives the Supreme Commander an update:

Voice: Carpenter here, sir. We’ve been on red alert now for three days, sir, and still no sign of Mr. Neutron.

Commander: Have we bombed anywhere? Have we shown ’em we got teeth? [Italics in transcript]

Voice: Oh yes, sir. We’ve bombed a lot of places flat, sir.

Commander: Good. Good. We don’t want anyone to think we’re chicken.

Voice: Oh no! They don’t think that, sir. Everyone’s really scared of us, sir.

Commander: Of us?

Voice: Yes, sir.

Commander (pleased): Of our power?

Voice: Oh yes, sir! They’re really scared when they see those big planes come over.

Commander: Wow! I bet they are. I bet they are. I bet they’re really scared.

Voice: Oh they are, sir.

Commander: Do we have any figures on how scared they are?

Voice: No … no figures, sir. But they sure were scared.

Commander: Ah! But it’s not working?

Voice: No sir.

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing in energy, the Middle East, and Islam. He lives with his wife Jennifer in Alexandria, Virginia.