When I watched the last U.S. combat battalions leave Iraq on Wednesday night, I couldn’t help but recall the scene when the last Soviet troops departed Afghanistan on Feb. 15, 1989. In both cases, the two governments soft-pedaled the hard truth about the strategic defeats that the withdrawals represented.
Official Washington, in particular, has been eager to spin the Iraq withdrawal as a success, a prelude to a bright Iraqi future in which the United States can begin recouping its $1 trillion-plus investment over the past seven years (not to mention, get something back for the 4,416 American soldiers who died [and the one million extra civilians who died] during the adventure).
But the prospects for long-term U.S. domination of Iraq appear dim. Once the 50,000 American military “advisers” are gone, scheduled to depart by the end of 2011, the United States will have to rely on a small army of State Department security contractors to protect a network of diplomatic offices, including a giant embassy in Baghdad and consulates in Erbil, Kurdistan, and in Basra in the south.
Meanwhile, any residual U.S. military presence, however it’s packaged, remains unpopular with an Iraqi society that has resented the bloody U.S. occupation that has left hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead and millions injured, unemployed, sweltering in the heat, and homeless.
For instance, supporters of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr have vowed to take up arms again if the U.S. withdrawal is not completed on schedule. In the Shiite holy city of Najaf, a two-acre section of Martyrs' cemetery has been set aside for a renewed uprising if the U.S. forces remain after the withdrawal deadline, the Washington Post reported on Aug. 18.
"If the Americans leave, which we don't think they will, we'll make it a burial site for our parents," said cemetery supervisor Abu Mohammed. "If their exit is delayed, we will fight and give our blood.”
Already, 4,250 Sadrist fighters and supporters are buried in the cemetery, victims of violent clashes with occupation forces. The threat of a renewed uprising also is a reminder that Sadr’s unilateral cease-fire in 2007 was a key factor in tamping down the violence that had been ripping Iraq apart.
Likewise, Sunni militants, many of whom were bought off by U.S. payments to change sides starting in 2006, also have been showing their discontent with how the Iraqi government has been treating them. In recent weeks, Sunni militants have attacked with bombs, mortars and rockets inside Baghdad.
As the violence again spikes up, Iraq's government remains deadlocked over how to apportion power after an inconclusive election last March. The likelihood that U.S.-favored officials can continue to protect American interests – or even want to – grows dimmer.
However, back in Washington, everyone seems to have a motive for looking on the bright side.
President Barack Obama wants to continue the military drawdown without getting blamed for what history may record as a humiliating U.S. defeat; the influential neocons want to pretend that their recommended “surge” in 2007 worked and that their original idea to invade in 2003 was the right call; Republicans don’t want to remind the voters about President George W. Bush’s WMD lies; and the major U.S. media hopes an aura of “success” in Iraq will obscure its own role in the debacle.
Even among critics of the war, there seems to be more relief that the war is finally coming to an end than a willingness to comment on the American failure. There is also some suspicion on the Left that the U.S. military occupation will simply continue under some new subterfuge.
Yet, without hard-hitting assessments of the failure, Official Washington gets yet another reprieve on any accountability.
That’s especially good news for the neocons who manipulated the U.S. political/media process to get their war of choice in Iraq seven years ago and have survived the war more deeply entrenched within Washington’s policy and opinion circles than before.
The neocons have paid little or no price for their “stove-piped” intelligence on Iraq’s WMDs, nor for the mythical “cake walk,” nor for the premature “Mission Accomplished” celebrations, nor for the horrible death tolls, the maimed soldiers and the damage done to America’s image in the Middle East and around the world.
Rather than being punished, neocon ideologues have advanced, spreading out from their traditional base within think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies to take influential positions at more mainstream and even liberal bastions, such as the Council on Foreign Relations, the Brookings Institution and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Neocon writers also have come to dominate key media platforms, such as the Washington Post’s op-ed page. Meanwhile, neocon critics, like “realist” diplomat Chas Freeman and many ex-CIA analysts, have been pushed further to the margins of Washington thought.
In large part, the neocons’ consolidation of power – despite all the false claims about Iraq – resulted from their success in defining the Iraq War troop “surge” in 2007 as the key factor in reducing civil violence.
Thus, they were able to extricate themselves from the Iraq War lies and turn the tables on the critics and “surge” doubters, including Sen. Barack Obama when he was the Democratic presidential candidate.
When Obama argued that the reasons for the dip in violence were more complicated than simply “the surge worked,” he was hectored by media questioners, including CBS anchor Katie Couric and ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, demanding to know why he wouldn’t just admit that Sen. John McCain had been “right” about the surge.
Finally, Obama chose to retreat in the face of this Washington conventional wisdom, regardless of how misguided it was. Finally, he admitted to Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly that the surge "succeeded beyond our wildest dreams."
Obama’s cave-in then allowed the neocons and their sympathizers to further ridicule anyone who wouldn’t go along. The reversal also was an early sign that Obama would rather finesse than fight over issues of fact, even an important question regarding national security.
Still, many military analysts believed Bush’s “surge” of about 30,000 U.S. troops was at best a minor factor in improving Iraq’s security climate. For his book, The War Within, the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward interviewed a number of military officials and concluded:
“In Washington, conventional wisdom translated these events into a simple view: The surge had worked. But the full story was more complicated. At least three other factors were as important as, or even more important than, the surge.”
Woodward reported that the Sunni rejection of al-Qaeda extremists in Anbar province (which preceded the surge) and the surprise decision of radical Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr to order a unilateral cease-fire by his militia were two important factors.
A third factor, which Woodward argued may have been the most significant, was the use of new highly classified U.S. intelligence tactics that allowed for rapid targeting and killing of insurgent leaders. Woodward agreed to withhold details of these secret techniques from his book so as not to undercut their continued success.
Other brutal factors further explained the decline in violence:
However, by controlling the “successful surge” debate, the neocons rehabilitated themselves. And, not surprisingly, they then used their stronger position to push Obama into another “surge” – for Afghanistan. Down the road, the neocons also have kept alive the possibility of even one more “regime change” war – with Iran.
Significantly, too, the neocons have built powerful alliances with key commanders, such as Gen. David Petraeus, who sought the counsel of prominent neocon, Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations. Petraeus was nervous about some mild criticism of Israel that had been included in his prepared testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
As Petraeus hastened to stomp on any thought that he might be critical of Israel, he e-mailed Boot about how this contretemps could be managed. Earlier, Petraeus had invited Boot and fellow neocon think-tanker Frederick Kagan to tour the Afghan War zone, a trip that ended with a not-surprising recommendation for a “surge.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Neocons, Likud Conquer DC, Again.”]
In a recent New York Times article about Petraeus voicing his opposition to any early Afghan withdrawal, the newspaper reported that the general “has imported some hands from his Iraq days to help him. ... Frederick W. Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute — one of the fathers of the surge and more recently a critic of the Afghan government — has come to help.”
If the Iraq War “surge,” which saw about 1,000 U.S. troops killed (roughly one-quarter of the total), had not been regarded as a success, the Afghan War “surge” would have been a harder sell -- and it wouldn't be likely that neocons like Kagan would be getting the honor of being “imported” to Afghanistan.
Indeed, if the Iraq War were perceived as the strategic blunder that many critics consider it to be, then the entire neocon brain trust of Washington would have had trouble remaining the toast of the town, getting lucrative think tank jobs and being rewarded with prized op-ed space.
If the Iraq War were viewed as comparable to the Soviet miscalculation in Afghanistan – a largely self-inflicted wound by a superpower – there might even be some choice space in Washington power circles for those brave few who dared question the neocon wisdom during the Bush-43 administration.
Instead, the early history of the Iraq War is being written by the neocons and their allies – perhaps not the victors in Iraq but surely the victors in Official Washington.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on August 20, 2010.