Five years after the invasion, Frontline presents a documentary on the war in Iraq. This latest broadcast is an effort to sum up Frontline‘s investigations of the various phases and aspects of the war. Taken together, these reports make up an excellent archive for studying (and remembering) the war.
One important thing to remember, of course, is how the whole thing was set up: the shaping of Bush’s foreign policy doctrine along Neoconservative lines (championed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney); Rumsfeld’s civilian victory against and subordination of the military establishment (leading to the retirement of General Tommy Franks); Cheney’s co-optation of the intelligence community (costing the career of CIA Chief George Tenet, not to mention intelligence’s independence from policy (i.e. policy being based on intelligence rather than the other way around)); and Cheney’s successful efforts (evading legal buffers upheld by Justice Department’s John Ashcroft) to expand executive powers (which was, as it was intended, turned against regular tax-paying American citizens, i.e. curtailed civil rights). (All this was of course made possible in the first place by the installation of George W. Bush to the Presidency, thanks in part to Karl Rove‘s mobilization of the Conservative base through the Jesus factor.) This provided fertile ground to make and maintain the case for war in Iraq (substantiated for the most part by exiled opposition leader Ahmed Chalabi, who, with his own agenda, told his supporters what they wanted to hear) (and, let us not forget, later drumbeating on Iran).
Once set up, this impressive consolidation of power by the Neocons provided fertile ground for losing the war as well. Given virtually total control over the war, Rumsfeld (with no post-combat plan) stood over and lost the crucial first year of the invasion, committing (with Ambassador Paul Bremer) a number of strategic policy mistakes (not least the dismissal of Ba’athist party members and the dissolving of the Iraqi military (letting out thousands of jobless men (and their weapons) to the streets)), though not enough troops. Dubious military behavior (as in Haditha and the misconduct and outright abuse reported by the Winter Soldiers), the treatment of war detainees (likely not too different from the treatment of suspected Al Qaeda operatives), torture scandals (especially in Abu Ghraib), the slanted handing out of reconstruction contracts to American companies (mirroring the distribution of key government posts to Conservative cronies and loyalists), and the employment of (and greater pay to (i.e. compared to American soldiers)) private warriors–all this did nothing to quell the growing insurgency (at first Shi’ite (headed by Muqtada Al-Sadr) and then (after the Shi’ites were elected, thanks to Sunni boycott after the American offensive against Sunni fundamentalists (as opposed to the more secular Saddam Sunnis) in Fallujah) Sunni, later (manipulated by Al Qaeda(?) bombing in Samarra) turned into an open civil war between the two) (these cleavages are reflected somewhat in Iraq’s different regions), the rise of gangs, and the continued violence (in Fallujah, in Baghdad, in Basra . . .) confronted by what is a light American force, but did contribute to Al Qaeda recruitment in Iraq and the return of the Taliban in Pakistan.
Most of this is in the latest documentary. The thing that really strikes out in the summation, however, is just how extensive Rumsfeld(-Cheney)’s role was in all this. Part I traces how his superb (secretive, sidelining, bullying) political infighting skills gave Rumsfeld (against other equally able political heavyweights, notably Secretary of State Colin Powell) virtually total control over the whole thing: the unilateral decision to go to war (Should we do it?), its style, logistics, and execution (How should we go about it?), and postwar management (What should we do afterwards?). Part II then shows how–with Rumsfeld on top of the command chain (as the President, advised by the Vice President, followed the proposals of the Defense Secretary)–the war was actually executed, swift and successful in the initial offense, and afterwards a fiasco, a mess, a complete disaster–with policy (continually urged on by Rumsfeld, listened to by the President) nonetheless for five years ever firm and unchanging in its failure.
An argument stressed by Rumsfeld to the President for his exclusive aggrandized position as architect and manager of the war is that, by all means, give him 100% full accountability for the Iraq war–but first give him 100% full authority in it, to the dismissal of all other views/strategies, the exclusion of all other would-be sharers of power (notably Powell). Well, Rumsfeld had 100% full authority in the war. He had 100% control. And he failed. His (lightweight) plan flopped. It is just fitting then that he bear that 100% full accountability that he put forth as collateral for the power that he so wrongfully used. He must then take 100% full responsibility for the single most important event that precipitated American foreign policy, its standing in the world, and its leverage and relationship with other players in the world stage (especially but not only in the Middle East) getting into the current damaged, disarrayed, and unquestionably weakened state that it’s in, leaving America isolated, insulated, undermined, and insecure.
After Rumsfeld (was) finally (made to) resign(ed), cunning (working from behind the scenes, safe from sacking because holding what is essentially a “ceremonial” office) co-conspirator Cheney states that “Donald Rumsfeld is the best Secretary of Defense that the United States has ever had.” Rumsfeld was definitely the best of the power players (for the most part thanks to Bush’s ear on Cheney’s mouth) and for that he has grabbed the most power. In that sense, yes, perhaps he was the best. He was obviously smart.
But once in possession of power, Rumsfeld wielded it to turn what was a swift and successful (perhaps even impressive) military campaign into one of the biggest military fiascos in U.S. history. What kind of smart is that who so mishandles and (so quickly) squanders the power that he has gained? What kind of smart is that who formulates a new kind of warfare (the “light footprint” strategy) and, when it became evident that it wasn’t working, (especially considering that it was new, that it hasn’t been done before) wasn’t flexible enough to change strategy, to shift course, to adapt, to consider other options, to fall back on previous techniques perhaps, or, perhaps more simply, to listen to other people, not only to political rivals but to the experts (i.e. the military commanders, i.e. those who actually know what they’re doing, or at least have some hands-on experience), to perhaps learn? What kind of smart is that who only plans for and up to the initial military confrontation, making no plans at all for what happens afterwards? What kind of smart is that who misses a crucial component of all wars? What kind of smart is that who only formulates and could only conceive of (was fixated on) one plan? (This of course says nothing of the morality of the objectives to be pursued.)
Moreover, how is this public employee of the American populace “the best” when his decisions and actions only led America to a reduced and doubted position in the world? That cannot be good for the echelons of society that Rumsfeld works for and it certainly isn’t good for the American people in general (much less for the people of all of the “free world,” much less for the conquered people supposed to be liberated). If anything, we all end up paying a price for the actions of this “best Secretary of Defense of the United States.”
But we should not be too rash in attributing all responsibility (as he asks: “100% full accountability”) to Mr. Secretary. After all, everything that he forwarded, everything that he proposed–there was a final arbiter to all that. Rumsfeld was not the final decider. He was not the highest authority. There was someone else, someone more powerful, who could have stopped him. There was someone who could have chosen in the first place not to undertake what Rumsfeld wanted. But he did not, likely because he himself wanted it (“Let’s remember, folks. This is the same guy who threatened to kill my father!”). Wars may be planned and conducted by other men, but, after all, in the end, (just as the Frontline documentary title suggests) the war is the President’s. But the President cannot be made to take 100% full accountability either. He took the nation along with him.