Focus: Secret memos fuel US doubt on Iraq,00.html

June 26, 2005

He’s vowed to complete his mission in Iraq, but President Bush faces growing disillusion as leaked documents reveal the hidden path to war and the mood changes in America

You can sometimes tell when a political conversation is at a turning point because the rhetoric goes nuclear. With respect to the Iraq war, that is what is beginning to happen in America.

Last week saw Dick Durbin, a leading Democratic senator, compare an account of detainee treatment at Guantanamo Bay with prisoner abuse in totalitarian regimes. It also saw Karl Rove, the president’s most powerful political aide, essentially call all “liberals” a danger to their country for their response to 9/11 and the Iraq war.

Chuck Hagel, a leading Republican senator, called the White House “completely disconnected from reality. It’s like they’re just making it up as they go along”. The internet blogs and the op-eds were full of similarly calm discourse.

It’s not that the Bush administration policy is likely to change any time soon. It’s that the American people have reached a point of no return with the president and his constant and unpersuasive assertions that everything is just peachy in Mesopotamia.

A poll that showed 60% of Americans want to start removing troops from Iraq merely confirmed the obvious: Bush’s war policy can no longer be sustained by the kind of “trust us” condescension that he has previously employed.

The doubts have increased markedly since America woke up to the secret Downing Street memos that shatter illusions about the build-up to war. The memos — first revealed in The Sunday Times by Michael Smith on May 1 — have since stormed through American websites and made headlines in the mainstream US media.

Last weekend the Associated Press agency moved a special package of six articles on the memos to its media subscribers throughout America.

The memos reveal that Tony Blair agreed to support President George W Bush’s plans for regime change as early as April 2002 — a year before the war started. They also show that the head of MI6 reported back from America to Blair that the “intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy”.

They describe American efforts to find a cause for war as “frankly unconvincing”. And, perhaps most damningly in US eyes, the memos reveal that little effort was made to plan for the aftermath of invasion — which is still costing hundreds of American and Iraqi lives — despite warnings that it could be messy.

“A post-war occupation of Iraq could lead to a protracted and costly nation-building exercise,” warned one memo in July 2002. “The US military plans are virtually silent on this point.”

THE debate on the war has polarised yet again — and the poles are further apart than ever. On the one extreme are those in the Bush camp who argue that the war is all but over and that we have already won. On the other are those who opposed the war in the first place and seem to take a perverse pleasure in every discouraging news report. In between are various shades of hope and disappointment, despair and grim resolution.

In all of these positions there is a new intensity. That intensity suggests that the long period of acquiescence in a policy barely explained and riddled with inconsistency is coming to a close. Some kind of tipping point is approaching — either for or against the entire venture.

The Bush boosters engage in several arguments. The first is that the mainstream media have deliberately ignored the good news from the country. Much of Iraq, they argue, is peaceful; the economy, after a nosedive, is recovering; the elections proved that the Iraqis want democracy; there are signs that the Sunni minority is beginning to accept a bigger role in the constitutional and political process.

Instead of focusing on the daily suicide bombings, the Bush defenders point to shards of evidence that there is a split within the insurgency between the Sunni nationalists and foreign jihadists.

They say that they have gained good intelligence from the detainees “interrogated” under the new exceptions to bans on “cruel and inhumane” treatment approved by Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary. They cite slowly growing numbers of trained Iraqi military units fighting alongside and sometimes even independently of US forces.

They argue that this is a long process, that setting up a democracy in a country recovering from dictatorship and war requires patience.

In an innovative logical move, Dick Cheney, the vice-president, has argued that the increased intensity of insurgent attacks is a sign that they are losing, not evidence that they have not been marginalised or contained.

How? Because the desperation of the attacks on Iraqi civilians, the brutal mass murders of Iraqi recruits and the deployment of suicide bombers are the last resorts of the militarily defeated.

Last month Cheney said that the insurgency was in its “last throes”. He did not, however, say how long those last throes might last. Even the fact that large numbers of jihadist terrorists seem to be pouring over the unsecured Syrian border has not fazed many Bush supporters.

David Warren, a columnist, recently wrote: “All ground indications are that large numbers of Islamist terrorists who would otherwise remain dangerously under cover, not only across the region but elsewhere, are irresistibly drawn towards these theatres of action, where they sooner or later get themselves killed.”

As for the poor or non-existent post-war planning, easily the most damning aspect of the Downing Street memos, Bush’s supporters argue that it was all deliberate. Too many troops would have alienated the Iraqis by appearing to be an occupation force.

By allowing mayhem, murder and looting, the Americans were able to show the malign motives of the Ba’athists and jihadists, and avoid the taint of imperialism. It was a deft ploy to expose the insurgents as murderous extremists, force the Iraqis themselves to oppose them and so build a consensus for a new democratic government.

The only problem with this defence of the conduct of the war is that an alternative scenario is just as plausible. It is worth recalling that the war plans anticipated only about 30,000 US troops remaining in Iraq by now. I knew of nobody in the pro-war camp before the invasion who anticipated a full-scale guerrilla war being waged for the duration of two presidential terms, as now seems likely.

Internal Bush administration assessments of the war have been nothing like as optimistic as the White House’s public arguments. The CIA’s recent report on the insurgency argued that, just as American forces have learnt a great deal from fighting the terrorists and insurgents in a difficult urban terrain, so have the jihadists.

THERE has been a major influx of Islamo-fascists into Iraq, especially from Saudi Arabia, through the porous Syrian border. Their training in urban warfare, the CIA worries, could soon spill over into other Arab states. The under-manned occupation of Iraq, in other words, might have created another version of Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s, a training ground for terror.

The insurgents are also adapting fast in a terrain they know better than any foreign army and have developed lethality against US armed convoys and Humvees. The rate of American casualties has spiked this month and the toll on Iraqi civilians continues to climb.

Last week the top commander in Iraq said the insurgents’ “overall strength is about the same” as it was six months ago. This requires an indefinite retention of the 130,000 or so American troops, a level that has already strained the US military to its limits. Many of the soldiers over there are reservists who never expected to be sent into a war zone, let alone for lengthy consecutive stays. Retention has become difficult and recruitment has shown signs of collapse.

The Bush administration always doubted that it could carry the public into a war as long and as difficult as Iraq was bound to be, so it fatally understated the risks and minimised the troop commitment. It never believed in nation-building, so it walked backwards into the task with insufficient resources. Forgivable early mistakes, such as disbanding the Iraqi army, made matters much worse.

By these early errors and half-measures, it actually made the war harder and longer. And because it never fully levelled with the public in the first place, it cannot ramp up commitment now.

I received a telling e-mail from a military official in Baghdad last week who explained his worries in very stark terms: “The lack of US troops in Iraq has been a disconcerting topic for many of us here. I still believe that we can defeat the insurgency with the current troop level . . . yet at what costs?” What if the American public balks at those costs? Last week Lindsey Graham, the always thoughtful Republican senator, told Rumsfeld: “We will lose this war if we leave too soon, and what is likely to make us leave too soon? The public going south. That is happening and it worries me greatly.”

The signs are all there that the administration now realises this and is also deeply worried. The president will, we are told, be launching a series of speeches to rally the country. His less scrupulous allies are preparing to accuse all critics of undermining the troops and aiding the enemy.

Hence Rove’s attack on Durbin for his comments about interrogation tactics at Guantanamo. “Let me put this in fairly simple terms,” he said. “Al-Jazeera now broadcasts to the region the words of Senator Durbin, certainly putting America’s men and women in uniform in greater danger. No more needs to be said about the motives of liberals.”

When the most influential man in the administration is dealing cards that low in the deck, you know he’s rattled.

Which scenario is the most persuasive: has the Iraq war been a brilliant piece of tactical planning or a screw-up of massive proportions? Are we still “misunderestimating” Bush? Or have we overestimated his capacity for strategic judgment and political skill? I tend to share the assessment of David Brooks, the New York Times columnist: “Since we don’t have the evidence upon which to pass judgment on the overall trajectory of this war, it’s important we don’t pass judgment prematurely. It’s too soon to accept the defeatism that seems to have gripped so many.

“If governments surrendered to insurgencies after just a couple of years, then insurgents would win every time. But they don’t because insurgencies have weaknesses, exposed over time, especially when they oppose the will of the majority.”

The key is the capacity of the Iraqis to construct a national army capable of defending a genuinely sovereign state. No serious observer believes that they can defeat the insurgency on their own over the next two years, which is the only foreseeable political schedule for the Bush presidency.

Does the American public have the stomach to lose another couple of thousand troops for such an uncertain goal over such an extended period of time? Before this war started, the Bush administration apparently did not believe so.

Moreover, the president has yet to demonstrate the ability to confess to great difficulty, to explain mistakes, to take responsibility for error, to ask for help. His strength can be both brutal and brittle. He is much better at declaring “mission accomplished” than at actually accomplishing the mission.

THE signals from the White House suggest that Bush will not attempt to level with the public and try to unite the country around persevering. He will instead insist that everything is on track and more time and resources are all that are necessary.

He will rightly argue that American security depends on winning the war in Iraq and that democracy can prevail. He will say that we have no choice but to carry on. He will attack much criticism as unpatriotic and disloyal to the troops. He will press ahead because it is all he knows.

This may not be stupid, although the toxic effect on America’s national identity and unity will linger for a long time. Part of winning wars is projecting complete determination and obstinacy.

The fact that the insurgents have no real alternative to offer the Iraqi people except mayhem and tyranny will count in Bush’s favour. His strategic case for the democratisation of the Middle East is the only real solution to the threat exposed by 9/11.

Maybe the political process in Iraq will speed up and lead to some kind of breakthrough. Maybe the split between the jihadists and nationalists will deepen and provide the opportunity for a lasting victory against the Islamists in the Arab world. Maybe it will prove an inspired decision to launch a war for the future of democracy in the cradle of civilisation.

That is certainly the scenario I wish for. Criticising this administration’s arrogance and intermittent incompetence does not mean hoping that it fails. For the security of all of us, it has to succeed.

The process of disillusionment has been a brutal one for me and many others. But it does not bar us from having hope, even as it prevents us having much confidence. That, at least, is the nagging sense of things in America today where so much, for all of us, still hangs precariously in the balance.