Thomas Friedman: Mistakes in Iraq

Friedman’s changing his tune fast. He always used to see a “window of possibility” when it came to Iraq. Reading this, you can only conclude he now sees that window as nailed shut. All because of our arrogance in going in without a strategy for keeping Iraq functional after the fall of Saddam.

Condi and Rummy
By Thomas L. Friedman

It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry when you read about the spat between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld over whether the U.S. committed any “tactical” errors in the Iraq war.

In case you missed it, Secretary Rice told reporters in Britain last Friday that “I know we’ve made tactical errors, thousands of them I’m sure,” but that the big strategic decision to take down Saddam Hussein will be seen by future historians as correct.

During a radio interview on WDAY in Fargo, N.D., on Tuesday, Mr. Rumsfeld responded: “I don’t know what she was talking about, to be perfectly honest.” Then Mr. Rumsfeld elaborated with a blast of incoherent nonsense about how you always need to change tactics in war: “If you had a static situation and you made a mistake in how you addressed the static situation, that would be one thing. What you have here is not a static situation, you have a dynamic situation with an enemy that thinks, uses their brain, constantly adjusts, and therefore our commanders have to constantly make tactical adjustments.”

Where does one even begin? First of all, Secretary Rice is wrong that the Bush team’s mistakes in Iraq were purely tactical. Under Mr. Rumsfeld’s direction, it made a monumental strategic error in not deploying enough troops to control Iraq’s borders and fill the security vacuum we created by bringing down Saddam — a vacuum that has since been filled by looters and scores of head-chopping sectarian militias and gangs.

Here is the brutal truth of where we are in Iraq today: After three years, more than $300 billion and thousands of U.S. and Iraqi casualties, we still do not have an Iraqi government or army that could hold together, without U.S. help. There is still no self-sustaining, democratizing Iraq. And even if we eventually get a national unity government there, it is not clear it will be able to reverse Iraq’s slide into sectarianism and militias. No one even knows anymore whether Iraqis in uniform work for the state or a militia.

The other day, the Iraqi blogger Riverbend, who writes for, told of watching Iraqi TV when an Arabic message scrolled across the screen: “The Ministry of Defense requests that civilians do not comply with the orders of the army or police on nightly patrols unless they are accompanied by [U.S.] coalition forces working in that area.” Riverbend’s translation: Many Iraqi security forces “are actually militias allied to religious and political parties.”

As someone who believes in the importance of building a progressive politics in Iraq, in the heart of the Arab world, it pains me to say this, but we are in real trouble there.

Some critics dismiss the Iraq invasion as being all about oil. They are so wrong. It is so much crazier — and nobler — than that. This region has known only top-down monologues: colonial powers, then kings and dictators, always talking down to their people, backed by iron fists.

What we have been trying to bring about in Iraq is something unprecedented — the first ever bottom-up, horizontal dialogue between the constituent communities of an Arab state. What you are seeing in Iraq today is that horizontal dialogue, between Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis — communities who have never been allowed to forge their own social contract — so they wouldn’t have to be ruled from the top down, with an iron fist.

If the Iraqi Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds can forge their own social contract, democracy is possible in this part of the world. If they can’t, then it’s kings and dictators as far as the eye can see. And since it was decades of that sort of politics that produced the pathologies that produced 9/11, that would be very unfortunate.

Our job was to do one thing right: provide a secure environment so that Iraqis could have a reasonably rational, peaceful horizontal dialogue, which is difficult enough given their legacy of fear from the Saddam years. We failed to do that, largely because Mr. Rumsfeld, who was warned otherwise, refused to deploy sufficient forces. Mr. Rumsfeld made that decision because — if you read “Cobra II,” the Michael Gordon-Bernard Trainor history of the Iraq war — he was more interested in transforming the Pentagon than in transforming Iraq. He was never ready to devote the unprecedented military resources to match the unprecedented Iraq mission. President Bush, Condi Rice, Dick Cheney all went along with him for the ride.

They tried to make history on the cheap. But you can’t will the ends without willing the means. That is Strategic Theory 101, and ignoring it is not just some “tactical error.”

The Discussion: 5 Comments

I thought “we” went to Iraq to get rid of those WMD? Democracy, what exactly is that anyway, and if its so great then why is American politics so corrupt and that country always at War?

Sometimes when things are not going so well in the homeland; recession, inflation, tax cuts to the rich, job losses and so on; then an external distraction can make all the difference. Iraq was a perfect distraction, 10 years of sanctions, decrepet military, population in poverty…an easy victory and a great distraction.

It also happens to be in the middle of a bunch of Oil rich nations who I am sure got “the message”, do as your told or your next.

Not about Oil, sure Mr. Friedmann, and the World is flat.

April 8, 2006 @ 3:32 am | Comment

Iraq was not about oil, Friedman is right about that. Iraq was about creating a system perturbation in the Middle East, similar to the one bin Laden tried to create through the September 11 attacks. While it is true that the administration wanted to take Saddam out even before 9/11, it wasn’t for oil contracts but rather because Hussein represented many things they would rather not have. First, he was a threat to Israel, who financed suicide bombers and encouraged attacks against Israeli targets as a means of building up his lost legitimacy in the eyes of the arab world. He was also the biggest example of Bush I’s failed post-Gulf war policy. At the time, Bush I thought that Hussein would likely fall or be contained through the mechanisms of the “New world Order” meaning the UN Security council and sanctions. Unfortunately, although contained militarily, Iraq suffered tremendously (not Hussein or the Baath, mind you) but the population. The cost was huge, and even turned Hussein’s Iraq from the pariah of the arab world into the new Palestinians. Bin Laden was able to appeal to Iraqi suffering as a means of legitimizing his terror campaigns against us, just as much as he used the Palestinians. Additionally, although the idiotic Bush II administration overstated its case for WMDs in Iraq, the general belief in the world was that we really didn’t know because although Hussein claimed that he no longer had, and had destroyed his WMDs, the records of these were destroyed leaving unanswered questions about his true capabilities. Furthermore as recent articles have pointed out, in many ways the war also resulted from alot of misperception, that is, Hussein sent out orders to the military and baath to destroy or hide any information or materials, to clean all warehouses, laboratories etc. that had ever housed WMDs or nuclear research (from a decade ago) to ensure that the US did not have a pretext for war. What ended up happening was that the intelligence community interpreted these moves, as an attempt to hide existing weapon’s programs. Given the fact that this Bush admin was itching for Hussein, the perception became solidified. Well so much for the WMD, war for oil argument…

Now, you are correct that our invading Baghdad was meant to send a message, but it wasn’t to oil producers. Rather, we meant the invasion to accomplish two different aims. First, establishing a democratic or representative government in Iraq (friedman’s horizontal dialogue) was meant to send ripples through a region long held under the sway of dictatorships, autocracies, kingdoms, fiefdoms, etc. Bush II made this clear, when he stated that for too long the US had supported dictatorships in the region based solely on realist, balance of power considerations, but that 9/11 had demonstrated the failure of that policy and the need for change. That is why the administration saw the stirring in Egypt, Lebanon, even Saudi and Syria as positive signs of its strategy. Whether it will work or not, that is a different matter. After all we have seen that what little democratic tendencies displayed have usually brought anti-american or islamist forces to power. But that is a different argument.

The second thing, the strategy was meant to accomplish, was to signal to Tehran that we were ready to deal with their “rogue regime.” After 9/11 we invaded Afghanistan, and invaded Iraq, leaving American forces to Iran’s east and west (that is part of the reason why they’re reaching for the bomb). This was supposed to signal to the regime that they were in our sights (so you were partially correct but not for the reasons you stated). The mullahs got the message and acted accordingly. Now, of course we ahve to deal with Ahmedinejad and his people (who are also opposed by Khameini, Khatami and Rafsanjani). Whether this strategy will succeed remains to be seen. I for one, think it has failed because it only cornered Iran and allowed the rise of people more radical and hardline than Rafsanjani and Khameini to power.

My point in this long rant is, that if you are going to disagree with the administration, or make a statement about the strategy being pursued in the Middle East at least know a bit about what you are talking about. “War for oil” slogans are a big part of the reason why the democrats can’t seem to benefit given the weakness in the GOP, to take back the white house we need to discard such idiotic conpiracy theories and mentality look at strategies and tactics for what they are, and not allow our judgement to be clouded by your hatred for the current administration.

April 8, 2006 @ 12:05 pm | Comment

Here’s an interesting, scary article…

April 8, 2006 @ 8:30 pm | Comment

“war for oil” sells better, imagine Michael Moron expound on these arguments a la Friedman, he would only succeed in turning away his audience with his grossness as well as the content of his subjects. No Hollywoodesque magic there in complex geopolitical rationale and schemetics.

And besides most of the dems are content with just the hate, taking back anything is merely incidental.

April 9, 2006 @ 3:33 am | Comment

I know, war for oil sounds so corney, but look at the last 50 years in these countries and you see US meddling. From the creation of Isral, the support of Sadam, the indifference to Sadam when he invaded Kuait, the oppression of sadam, the support of Bin Laden, the hunt for Bin Laden…it just goes on and on all the way back to the end of the second world war.

What they are doing is just an extension of the past 50 years, it so far has gone a lot better than in the 70’s when OPEC played tough and the Western world had a recession. Oh, but several nations have decided that Nuclear weapons are the only protection against a Nation that is out of control, waging wars of agression, an empire doing the last tango. So its good for the economy but not so great for global stability.

There were/are not doing this for fun, they were/are trying to keep it together so the Oil could flow. So yeah the war was about Oil, the problem is the history of meddling is long and complicated, something the general population would not want to understand – remember the US supported Sadam AND Bin Laden at one time or another!

WMD or spreading democracy is a much easier sell. And War for Oil does not rub anyone because its too complicated and gets too close to the foundation of US power…which is the US Dollar, reserve currency to the world, which really makes it all possible (since the US just prints money to pay for its wars).

I don’t really care about the democrats or republicans, they are both part of the same system and either would have done the same thing…its the nature of empire…the problem for them is Bin Laden knew that when he attacked. His strategy was to draw the US into arabia and then bankrupt them with long futile wars.

So far I think he is having more success than most people realise, he is fighting a war on a different time frame to us, and now that he has lit the fuse he can hide out in the caves for a few decades while the US destroys itself in the sands of arabia.

The funny thing is, if the US pulled out of arabia I think we would find that they need us as customers for oil more than we need them as suppliers. I think you would see the whole situation resolve itself rather quickly and neatly.

There was a time when the US did not involve itself in the business of other countries.

April 9, 2006 @ 2:57 pm | Comment

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