It was the summer of 2002. The Bush administration's top officials knew that they were going into Iraq in a big way. They were then in planning mode, but waiting until fall to launch their full-throttle campaign to persuade Congress and the American people to back them. As White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, who oversaw the selling of the invasion, put it at the time, "From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August."
For them, it was a complete no-brainer. The U.S. military against Saddam Hussein's rickety army? It would be, as a neocon supporter put it, a "cakewalk." In fact, they were already thinking about where to turn next. As the insider quip of the pre-invasion months had it, "Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran." One key figure, however, had his doubts. According to the Washington Post's Bob Woodward, Secretary of State Colin Powell offered this warning to the president: "You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people. You will own all their hopes, aspirations, and problems. You'll own it all." Woodward noted as well that "privately, Powell and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage called this the Pottery Barn rule: You break it, you own it."
In fact, Pottery Barn had no such rule, but what might be thought of as the Powell rule turned out to be on the mark in ways even he couldn't have imagined. Once things began to go desperately wrong, there was, of course, no way to roll back the invasion and "ownership" of Iraq would prove to be inheritable. The next president, who came to power in part by opposing the war and swore that, once in the Oval Office, he'd end it and get the U.S. military out for good, is now the less-than-proud owner of Iraq War 3.0. And if ever there was a nation that was broken, it's Iraq.
In the end, the Powell rule turned out to apply to every country the U.S. military touched in those years, including Afghanistan, Yemen, and Libya. In each instance, hopes in Washington ran soaringly high. In each instance, the country was broken. In each instance, the U.S. ended up "owning" it in some increasingly horrific way. Worst of all, in no instance could Washington bring itself to stop fighting in one fashion or another, whether with Special Forces, drones, or in the case of Iraq all of the above and thousands of new trainers dispatched to stand up a broken army created by the Bush administration and into which Washington had sunk $25 billion. Failure across the board would be the story of Washington's twenty-first century in the Greater Middle East and northern Africa, and yet somehow the only lesson that seemed to be learned was that, militarily, more -- never less -- had to be done.
Retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel and TomDispatch regular William Astore suggests that, were the U.S. an individual, we would immediately recognize what such behavior was -- addiction -- and act accordingly. Tom
America's Got War
Poverty, Drugs, Afghanistan, Iraq, Terror, or How to Make War on Everything
By William J. Astore
War on drugs. War on poverty. War in Afghanistan. War in Iraq. War on terror. The biggest mistake in American policy, foreign and domestic, is looking at everything as war. When a war mentality takes over, it chooses the weapons and tactics for you. It limits the terms of debate before you even begin. It answers questions before they're even asked.- Advertisement -
When you define something as war, it dictates the use of the military (or militarized police forces, prisons, and other forms of coercion) as the primary instruments of policy. Violence becomes the means of decision, total victory the goal. Anyone who suggests otherwise is labeled a dreamer, an appeaser, or even a traitor.
War, in short, is the great simplifier -- and it may even work when you're fighting existential military threats (as in World War II). But it doesn't work when you define every problem as an existential one and then make war on complex societal problems (crime, poverty, drugs) or ideas and religious beliefs (radical Islam).
America's Omnipresent War Ethos
Consider the Afghan War -- not the one in the 1980s when Washington funneled money and arms to the fundamentalist Mujahideen to inflict on the Soviet Union a Vietnam-style quagmire, but the more recent phase that began soon after 9/11. Keep in mind that what launched it were those attacks by 19 hijackers (15 of whom were Saudi nationals) representing a modest-sized organization lacking the slightest resemblance to a nation, state, or government. There was as well, of course, the fundamentalist Taliban movement that then controlled much of Afghanistan. It had emerged from the rubble of our previous war there and had provided support and sanctuary, though somewhat grudgingly, to Osama bin Laden.
With images of those collapsing towers in New York burned into America's collective consciousness, the idea that the U.S. might respond with an international "policing" action aimed at taking criminals off the global streets was instantly banished from discussion. What arose in the minds of the Bush administration's top officials instead was vengeance via a full-scale, global, and generational "war on terror." Its thoroughly militarized goal was not just to eliminate al-Qaeda but any terror outfits anywhere on Earth, even as the U.S. embarked on a full-fledged experiment in violent nation building in Afghanistan. More than 13 dismal years later, that Afghan War-cum-experiment is ongoing at staggering expense and with the most disappointing of results.
While the mindset of global war was gaining traction, the Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq. The most technologically advanced military on Earth, one that the president termed "the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known," was set loose to bring "democracy" and a Pax Americana to the Middle East. Washington had, of course, been in conflict with Iraq since Operation Desert Storm in 1990-1991, but what began as the equivalent of a military coup (aka a "decapitation" operation) by an outside power, an attempt to overthrow Saddam Hussein and eliminate his armed forces and party, soon morphed into a prolonged occupation and another political and social experiment in violent nation-building. As with Afghanistan, the Iraq experiment with war is still ongoing at enormous expense and with even more disastrous results.- Advertisement -
Radical Islam has drawn strength from these American-led "wars." Indeed, radical Islamists cite the intrusive and apparently permanent presence of American troops and bases in the Middle East and Central Asia as confirmation of their belief that U.S. forces are leading a crusade against them -- and by extension against Islam itself. (And in a revealing slip of the tongue, President Bush did indeed once call his war on terror a "crusade.") Considered in these terms, such a war is by definition a losing effort because each "success" only strengthens the narrative of Washington's enemies. There's simply no way to win such a war except by stopping it. Yet that course of action is never on the proverbial "table" of options from which officials in Washington are said to choose their strategies. To do so, in the context of war thinking, would mean to admit defeat (even though true defeat arrived the very instant the problem was first defined as war).
Our leaders persist in such violent folly at least in part because they fear the admission of defeat above all else. After all, nothing is more pejorative in American politics or culture than to be labeled a loser in war, someone who "cuts and runs."
In the 1960s, despite his own serious misgivings about the ongoing conflict in Vietnam, President Lyndon B. Johnson set the gold standard in his determination not to be the first American president to lose a war, especially in a "damn little pissant country" like Vietnam. So he persisted -- and the conflict turned him into a loser anyway and destroyed his presidency.