Monday, December 12, 2005

Daniel Ellsberg on Exiting Iraq

The man who released the Pentagon Papers talks about the quagmire and why the Bush Administration won’t withdrawal our troops from Iraq.
By Brad Kennedy

Two obstacles stand in the way of the prompt and safe return of U.S. troops from Iraq, according to Daniel Ellsberg. First, a real “mission accomplished” is unlikely any time soon. Second, President Bush doesn’t want their prompt return.

Ellsberg disavows claim to expertise in Mid-Eastern affairs, but without question he has deep experience with wars of insurgency and with embattled American presidents. He incurred the ire of President Richard Nixon by making public the Department of Defense’s secret history of the Vietnam War, commonly known as the Pentagon Papers, which he helped compile. His firsthand knowledge of our Vietnam policy serves as his prism for viewing our involvement in Iraq, and it reveals disturbing parallels.

Ellsberg aired his views publicly several times in New Jersey, starting November 12, 2005 at a fund-raiser for New Jersey Peace Action and later at local colleges, and he sat for a 90-minute interview to round out his views for this article. His appearances are part of the promotion of his personal account, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers (New York: Penguin Books, 2003).

The Fatal Flaw

In Ellsberg’s view, the fatal flaw of the 2003 invasion of Iraq has always been that it made the U.S. an occupying power vulnerable to a war of insurgency. He’s hardly out of step when he asserts this. Military chroniclers since Julius Caesar have bemoaned the risks and hardships of occupation. Avoiding these very perils governed US policy during the first Gulf War, recalls General Brent Scowcroft. The president’s National Security Advisor at that time, Scowcroft said in a recent New Yorker interview that President Bush senior had no trouble grasping the risks of extending the war to Baghdad. Since World War II only one outside power, the British in Malaysia, has fought a successful counter-insurgency war. Whatever magic Sir Robert Thompson, the mastermind of that British effort, may have possessed failed to rub off on the U.S. effort in Vietnam during his separate stints advising both Presidents Kennedy and Nixon.

Ellsberg spent two years -- from 1965 to 1967 -- working for the State Department evaluating the U.S. pacification program in Vietnam, where he saw firsthand how being an occupier worked against the American efforts. Ellsberg explains that an occupier is seen as a foreigner, an invader, an outsider. Nobody likes an outsider telling them what to do. Nobody trusts an outsider to keep inside interests ahead of outside interests. When forced to choose between a fellow native or an outsider, most natives will choose another native. This closing of local ranks makes it near impossible to get advance intelligence of an ambush or Improvised Explosive Device (I.E.D.) attack.

“A lot of Americans lost their lives in Vietnam from American shells that didn’t go off when they hit the ground but were later command-detonated by the VC,” says Ellsberg. “And the French laid their earlier loss in Vietnam to ‘the ambush problem.’ ”

A Direct Backlash

The same suspicions and resentments against outsiders also make it difficult for outsiders to broker negotiations between competing Iraqi factions as part of rallying support for a coalition government, Ellsberg says. U.S. troop support determines who is the dominant faction and enables it to avoid negotiating necessary workable compromises. This leads the other factions to see U.S. presence as an obstacle to workable peace.

“The major Sunni violence is because we are there,” says Ellsberg. In other words, it is a direct backlash to our presence. But such a backlash also provides protective cover for those seeking to hijack any groups of true nationalistic resistance, be the hijackers communists as in Vietnam or Wahhabi extremists as in Iraq. These problems are inherent to any strategy of occupation, Ellsberg feels, and will lead to self-perpetuation of the occupation. That measured against the vast cost of the occupation to both Iraqis and Americans has led him to call for a shift in policy -- the immediate withdrawal of American troops on a fixed timetable.

Ellsberg readily acknowledges American troop withdrawal to be a painful solution but he says there are no good solutions. Great pain may accompany U.S. withdrawal, but that pain largely will be the inevitable consequence of the improper strategy of occupation at the outset, just as is the pain suffered on a daily basis in Iraq now. Withdrawal is the solution, not the problem. It is the only solution because “there isn’t going to be any improvement if the U.S. stays in Iraq.”

As both a participant in and a careful student of the Vietnam War, Ellsberg is no stranger to such pain. He understands the hardships and sacrifices American troops suffer every day trying to improve the lives of Iraqis and to make the world safer. He saw plenty of the same in Vietnam. He also saw what happens when you refuse to face the realities of the battlefield and execute a disorderly withdrawal, such as the pandemonium engulfing the evacuation of the American embassy in Saigon in 1975.

“That was a horrible way to leave and disgraceful. The idea that we would abandon our friends, the Vietnamese who worked with us, is dishonorable. I have personal friends who were left there, one of whom I’ll be seeing soon. As late as March '75, the U.S. could have arranged for an orderly departure, taking with us the Vietnamese who had worked closely with us that wanted to leave. The problem was Ambassador Graham Martin denied the gravity of the situation and so those steps weren’t taken.”

Getting Out

“If we will not make things better by staying,” Ellsberg says, we must “set a definite timetable for getting out, three or six months and we’re totally out. I would make averting civil war a secondary objective, but to think that can be done only by an American occupation is hogwash. We should get out of Iraq the way Gorbachev got out of Afghanistan, the way De Gaulle got out of Algeria, and the way Mendes-France got the French out of Indochina. Getting out doesn’t mean we don’t use diplomacy to try and moderate the situation and that we don’t contribute to the rebuilding of Iraq. Contributing $150 billion for rebuilding Iraq would be far cheaper than where we are headed now.” The Congressional Budget Office has estimated the U.S. costs of war in Iraq at current rates will pile up fast enough to reach $600 billion by the year 2010, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

Once again, Ellsberg appears less out of step than out front by advocating withdrawal of the 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq as the December elections approach there. Clearly, there is no more “cut and run” in Ellsberg, a former Marine officer, than there is in John Murtha, a decorated Vietnam vet who retired as a colonel in the Marine Reserves. The ranking Democrat on the House Defense Appropriations Sub-committee, Murtha called on the floor of Congress on November 17th for an immediate redeployment of U.S. forces in Iraq and cited a British poll that 80% of Iraqis are strongly opposed to the presence of coalition forces and about 45% believe attacks against American troops are justified. He went on to report that General George W. Casey, Jr., Multinational Force-Iraq Commander, said at a September 2005 House committee hearing that the perception of occupation in Iraq is a major driving force behind the insurgency. Murtha also cited General John Abizaid, Commander, U.S. Central Command, as stating in the same hearing that reducing the visibility of the coalition forces in Iraq is a part of our counterinsurgency strategy.”

At the Iraqi reconciliation conference on November 21st in Cairo, sponsored by the Arab League, the Iraqi factions memorialized the one point upon which they could agree: “a withdrawal of foreign troops on a specified timetable, dependent on an immediate national program for rebuilding the security forces.” So, the Army, the Iraqis, Ellsberg, and Murtha agree that withdrawal of some sort is necessary, with the latter two holding that withdrawal should be immediate and independent of events controlled by the Iraqis.

Why Bush Won’t Budge

Where Ellsberg stands apart is by asserting that President Bush and his advisors are the obstacle to a timely, safe return of U.S. troops. “The problem is that the President wants to stay. You have to want to get out, and he’s not remotely interested in hearing about it.”

When and how the President wants to get out of Iraq has to do with why he went in. But that isn’t so easy to figure given the failure to find WMDs, the failure to provide border security, basic services, and economic renewal, and the failure to free the Iraqi people from a life of terror. The President’s strategy document released November 30th reads like his letter to Santa in that it wishes for the best of everything without concern for what it costs others. Nonetheless, it does make plain his intention to stay in Iraq until all good things come to pass, short of hell freezing over. Thus, it vindicates Ellsberg from any charge of overstatement. The President does want to stay.

It may be tempting to think that President Bush is ashamed to admit a mistake. The Bush policy ignored each one of the lessons canonized as the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine by the Reagan Administration, and the American nation is paying dearly for it, none more so than the military -- except for the Iraqis. Perhaps the greatest of his mistakes was the President’s embarkation for Iraq without the enlightened consent of the American people. How could the people’s consent be enlightened if they were misled?

Forget the cherry-picking of intelligence regarding the WMD’s for now because, whether it was honest error or deceit, it was never central to why Bush has insisted on a US force in Iraq. The White House’s Iraq Group, the “cabal” headed by the Vice-President that pushed for war, asserted that taking down Saddam was a key to effectively fighting the War on Terror. To make that case, it invoked the WMD threat and vastly exaggerated the tenuous connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam, even going so far as to imply Saddam played a vital role in 9/11. The Bush Administration won a lot of support on that basis, but as the facts emerged that support has slipped away. Like the WMD’s, though, the allegations against Saddam -- true or false -- never were central to Bush’s doctrinaire belief that Iraq was a key to fighting global terrorism.

The White House Iraq Group’s doctrine, in a nutshell, has ample evidence that the Saudis, including the royal family, are up to their eyeballs in financing Wahhabi extremism, and this includes Al Qaeda. The royal family has financed terrorist operations for years, both directly and indirectly, particularly through their funding of the madrassas, the local Islamic schools that recruit for the terror organizations. The royals do so, at least in part, to buy protection from Al Qaeda attacks, who have it in for the Saudi government, because they have allowed American troops to garrison on Saudi soil since the first Gulf war. On the third anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the Port of NY and NJ Authority, a US government agency, joined a $7 billion lawsuit started by Cantor Fitzgerald investment group, which sued the Saudi government and many Saudi corporations for funding Al Qaeda. A group of 9/11 families has upped the ante to $116 trillion in its own suit, naming also the Saudi Bin Laden Construction Co. and The Sudan, according to the Law Center, an online journalistic library of high profile law cases.

The Saudi Solution

Effective prosecution of the War on Terror must include taking a hard line against the Saudis, the neo-con doctrine goes, but no U.S. executive branch has felt it could without jeopardizing the US’s lifeline to a stable national oil supply. The neo-cons believe that sponsoring a client state in oil-rich Iraq will guarantee the U.S. stable oil imports enabling it to deal from strength when confronting Saudi Arabia about terror and the need for continuity of Saudi oil flow to the US at a time of increasing world demand. This strategy has been stated and written about many times, including in the Weekly Standard and in Commentary. Thomas E. Ricks summarized this view in his August 6, 2002 Washington Post report on a July 10th briefing of the Defense Policy Board by Laurent Murawiec, a Rand Corporation analyst. Another Rand Corporation analyst -- a former one -- Daniel Ellsberg, summed up where he thought this would lead: “We are going to be in Iraq far longer than we were in Vietnam, because there was no oil in Vietnam.”

Not that this is just about oil, it is about anti-terrorism, too. The essence of the Bush policy is a meld of plentiful oil and anti-terrorism. Right or wrong, the White House Iraq Group believes we cannot confront the bankers of Bin Laden, because they are also our local filling station. We will only be free to stand up to the Saudis when we are less dependent on their gas pumps. This must have put the Bush family’s personal relationship with the royal Saudi family to the test.

There is a larger problem, though. The pipeline Iraq can offer the U.S. will be secure only as long as it is secured, and that means US military bases, perhaps “over-the horizon,” as Murtha suggests, but bases for the foreseeable future nonetheless.
Ellsberg could be sure of the White House’s intent to stay because these bases are well under construction. Author Chalmers Johnson was once a CIA analyst; Director Richard Helms recruited him for his expertise in peasant nationalism and revolutionary war. Johnson lists five military bases being constructed apparently for the long haul:
• a part of Baghdad International Airport
• Tallil air base to the south
• one on the western frontier with Syria
• Bashur air field to the north
• the Anaconda operating base currently in use

These should be seen, Johnson says, in conjunction with the “1,600 square miles out of Kuwait's 6,900 square miles” the U.S. plans to keep “that we now use to resupply our Iraq legions and as a place for Green Zone bureaucrats to relax.”

A Matter of Means

The strategy of permanent or enduring bases, for all its tactical advantages, is but a variant of occupation, subject to the various hazards and risks intrinsic to occupation. As time passes and construction on these bases progresses, the intent of the US will be less a matter of words and more a matter of fact verifiable by the Islamic eye. About the same time the U.S. mission in Iraq will emerge from the shadows into the light of day and the American people will have a fundamental choice to make. Americans will finally see that choice as not about the ends or purposes of the Iraq mission, but about the means used to achieve them. Everyone can applaud plentiful oil and effective anti-terrorism, but it is the means that will determine if the US achieves those goals and at what cost.

Chalmers Johnson, now retired from his endowed chairs at the University of California, is best known to the reading public for his book Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (New York: Henry Holt, 2000), which after 9/11 became an unexpected bestseller reprinted eight times in less than two months. In his new introduction for the post-9/11 world, Johnson explains that “blowback” is a CIA term for the unintended consequences of covert operations, first appearing in print in an after-action report on the CIA’s secret overthrow of the Iranian government of Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953. Veterans of close-quarter combat may recognize this as a metaphoric extension of the term sometimes used to describe the unexpected dose of blood sprayed in their faces when they had to shoot someone in the head at too close range. And that’s exactly what happened to America on 9/11, according to Johnson.

Johnson goes on to detail the sordid tale of America’s role in provoking the Soviet attack on Afghanistan, the CIA’s recruitment, training and arming of Osama Bin Laden and his mujahedeen during the Afghan resistance there, and its ultimate abandonment of Bin Laden after the Soviet Union collapsed. An angry Bin Laden made his way home to Saudi Arabia where he was outraged to find the American infidel ensconced on his doorstep. Thus did Bin Laden decide to use what the US had taught him, this time to counter US foreign policy.

All that is in the past now. But what unintended consequences will America’s future actions bring? It is the future about which Daniel Ellsberg worries. “I’m afraid we are looking at a widening of the war right now to Iran and Syria.”

Actions have consequences. Sometimes the consequences are unintended. Sometimes even the actions are unintended. Either way Americans at home may live or die by those consequences as they did on 9/11 and as American soldiers now do every day in faraway lands.

Brad Kennedy is the author of the forthcoming novel BLOOD AND COUNTRY: A Soldier’s Call, based on his service with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in Vietnam in 1966-67. He can be reached at: RBradKennedy@Optonline.Net

Posted Monday, December 12, 2005


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