by Alexander Cockburn
December 16, 2002
Napoleon would sketch out in an afternoon the new constitution and legal arrangements for one of France's imperial conquests. In Washington today, there's no such panache, no Jacques-Louis David limning Bush in imperial drapery and resplendent crown (though surely Josephine's heart beats beneath Laura's delicious bosom). All over town, lights blaze far into the night as staffers at the Pentagon, State Dept. and National Security Council pore over blueprints for invasion and the possible lineaments of a post-Saddam Iraq. You'd have to go back to Kennedy-era nation-building to find equivalent hubris and expectancy.
But as the war planners irritably deride Iraq's 12,000-page chronicle, detailing its abandonment of weapons of mass destruction, a briefer memo sets forth with sarcastic glee all the reasons that even now Bush and his inner circle should think again and perhaps shrink back, even as George Bush Sr. did, from seeking to install an American mandate in Baghdad.
On Washington's carousel, Anthony Cordesman is a prominent fixture, currently headquartered in the Center for Strategic and International Studies, prime Republican think tank on K Street, where an elevator ride can confront you with museum pieces stretching all the way back to Reagan's first NSC adviser, Richard Allen. Cordesman has held down big jobs in the Defense and Energy departments, has served as Senator John McCain's national security assistant and strides confidently before the cameras whenever ABC News summons him for analysis and commentary.
Unusually, given this sort of curriculum vitae, Cordesman is a pretty smart fellow. We must ask, therefore, why he felt impelled, from all his dignity as the Arleigh Burke Chair at CSIS, to issue a "rough draft" memo, dated December 3 and now sparking its way around town, that derides Operation Oust Saddam as the recipe for a bloody mess. So? Bloody Mess has been a standing item on the American imperial menu for more than a century. It's a specialty of the house. Maybe Cordesman wants an "I told you so" on record. Maybe he's irked at a setback in his private political agenda. Whatever his motives, he paints with deft strokes an unflattering record of all those blueprints now being staffed out in Washington's drafting studios.
Political etiquette requires Cordesman to couch his criticisms in "Here's how we should plan it better" mode, but it's clear he sees no such possibility in the offing, as he prods through the plans with his scalpel.
Title of paper: "Planning for a Self-Inflicted Wound: US Policy to Shape a Post-Saddam Iraq". Theme: Operation Oust Saddam is an "uncoordinated and faltering effort." We should "admit our level of ignorance." "Far too many internal 'experts'" have scant working knowledge of Iraq, writes Cordesman, who actually knows a lot about the place.
The sales job for Operation Oust Saddam has been lousy: "We face an Arab world where many see us as going to war to seize Iraq's oil, barter deals with the Russians and French, create a new military base to dominate the region, and/or serve Israel's interest. Our lack of clear policy statements has encouraged virtually every negative conspiracy theory possible." Rather unconvincingly, Cordesman adds that we must "prove we are not a 'neo-imperialist' or 'occupier.'" Stigmatizing what he calls "the US as Liberator Syndrome" Cordesman warns that "we may or may not be perceived as liberators. We may well face a much more hostile population than in Afghanistan. We badly need to consider the Lebanon model: Hero to enemy in less than a year."
He notes "an unpredictable but inevitable level of collateral damage and civilian casualties" and deplores the arrogance among planners for gaming out a "best-case war." To the contrary, Cordesman warns, "we may have to sharply escalate and inflict serious collateral damage."
Given the shape Iraq is in after the Gulf War and a decade of sanctions, one can easily envisage what that means. Riffling through the nation- and democracy-building game plans, Cordesman bleakly declares them "mindlessly stupid." In words that should hang on the wall of every liberal interventionist, he says fiercely that "Iraq cannot be treated as an intellectual playground for political scientists or ideologues, and must not be treated as if its people were a collection of white rats that could be pushed through a democratic maze by a bunch of benevolent US soldiers and NGOs."
Forget the carny lingo about building democracy. America's priorities are already "non-democratic," since "we virtually must enforce territorial integrity, and limit Kurdish autonomy." There are, Cordesman maintains, already US war plans that call for an early US military presence in Kirkuk to insure the Kurds do not attempt to seize it. Long-term efforts to establish some kind of Kurdish autonomy may go the same way as those early in the last century, which ended with British planes seeking to enforce the League of Nations mandate by poison gas. The Iraqi National Congress, he sneers, is far stronger inside the Washington Beltway than in Iraq.
As for the Shiites in the south, Cordesman seems to imply, no autonomist momentum should be allowed to develop, nor civil society permitted to flourish far beyond the existing supervision of the police and armed forces, which, after necessary purging at the top, should remain in place. Most of the existing structure of the Iraqi government is "vital." Iraq "is not going to become a model government or democracy for years."
What kind of economy would the US proconsul be supervising? Cordesman offers a reality check. Even before the Gulf War and sanctions, Iraq was plummeting from its peak at the start of the 1980s, when per capita oil wealth stood at $6,000, as against $700 now. Only twenty-four out of seventy-three oilfields are working, and anywhere from 20 percent to 40 percent of the wells are at risk. These days, with a population expected to reach 37 million by 2020 (up from 9 million in 1970), unemployment stands at more than 25 percent, with 40 percent of the population under 15.
It doesn't take long to run through Cordesman's eleven pages, and the momentum of the argument is clear enough, as clear as the same arguments were to Bush the Elder and his advisers back in 1991: Why get deeper into this mess? Let Saddam keep his security forces intact and butcher the Shiites. Offer protection to the Kurds and let the place stew under the weight of sanctions.
Only in one respect does Cordesman part company with reality. He predicts that "everything we do from bombing to the first ground contact with Iraqis will be conducted in a media fishbowl." Now, just as it knows how to create Bloody Messes, Empire knows how to ignore them later.
So will the Bloody Mess in Iraq get bloodier still? I'd say at this point the odds are even.
Alexander Cockburn is the author The Golden Age is In Us (Verso, 1995) and 5 Days That Shook the World: Seattle and Beyond (Verso, 2000) with Jeffrey St. Clair. Cockburn and St. Clair are the editors of CounterPunch, the nationís best political newsletter, where this article first appeared.