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True lies and arrogance

These two engrossing books reveal how and why America?s occupation of Iraq turned into a disaster, tells Manoj Joshi.

india Updated: Nov 13, 2006 19:35 IST

Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq

Author: Thomas E. Ricks
Publisher: Penguin
Price: $ 27.95 482 pp

State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III

Author: Bob Woodward
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Price: $ 30 560 pp

A Number of seemingly parallel lines seemed to intersect over the past few days. Blame it on hubris, a higher power that oversees the working of our universe, or plain coincidence, but history does seem to have taken one of those quirky turns it is wont to. Saddam Hussein was sentenced to death; Donald Rumsfeld, the arrogant architect of the US military strategy in Iraq, was sacked; and the Republican party got a historic drubbing in the off-year election mainly because of the profligate manner that President George W. Bush has handled Iraq. In Iraq itself, the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki decided — never mind that it was too late — to permit former Baath party members to take up government jobs.

If you want to find the path to this knotty intersection, you could do worse than to get hold of these two highly readable books. They lay bare all that has gone wrong and led to the disaster of the occupation — the lies, the incompetence and the arrogance that aided the process. A train of events has been set off, whose end is even now impossible to predict. Woodward takes us through the familiar terrain, some described in his earlier books, Bush at War(2002), Plan of Attack (2004).

The Woodward style is familiar — that of the ever-present narrator, speaking in the present tense and in dialogue form. Yet, this does not detract from the authenticity of the book and it is evident in its passages that he remains a meticulous chronicler of the confidences of the powerful. Ricks, a respected defence correspondent, adopts an orthodox style, yet his story of how America’s military leadership virtually brought on the insurgency on itself is no less gripping. As he points out, military disasters do not happen just because one or two things go wrong, “but when three or four go wrong at once”.

What went wrong with America was that it had a president who was inexperienced and full of certitude, and, unlike Ronald Reagan, a poor judge of character of his subordinates. Between them, Vice-President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld marginalised the experienced Colin Powell and ran circles around the untried National Security Adviser, Condi Rice. Ideologues like Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith worked with dubious characters like Ahmad Chalabi to push the US to take out Saddam, and then proved to be thoroughly inept in fulfilling their own part of the job.

Woodward reveals in excruciating detail how American viceroys on the spot, Jay Garner and then L. Paul Bremer, were merely instruments of the control-freak Rumsfeld. Ricks shows how the very premise of the Rumsfeld doctrine of victory through small, mobile forces was deeply flawed in the Iraqi context. The US and its officials had no idea how Iraq had been run, but their engineering solution was to clear the rubble of the past by decreeing the abolition of the army and barring former Baath party members from government jobs. At one stroke, all teachers, police personnel and administrators, who could have helped put the country back on rails were thrown out into the streets and the arms of the insurgency. What is amazing is the extent to which America’s vaunted political and national security institutions failed the country. Neither the Congress, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Security Council or the Central Intelligence Agency provided any check or balance to the headlong drift to what is now clearly an epochal disaster for the US.

The books take you through the distinct phases of the war — the run-up based on the false premise that Saddam had not destroyed his stocks of banned weapons, the military victory, the unravelling of the process, and the rise of the Sunni insurgency and, more recently, the onset of the civil war. In these years, the US has worked on the belief that democracy would be the balm needed to overcome the Saddam trauma. But that has not happened despite two elections. The downside of democracy, the tendency to polarise people, has arguably widened the sectarian and ethnic divide in Iraq.

While the Shias stayed out of the 2003-2005 insurgency, there were periodic bouts of trouble with cleric Moktada al-Sadr. But since February of this year, following the destruction of the Askariya shrine in Samarra, Shias have retaliated against Sunni violence and the result is a daily bloodbath, in parts of Iraq where people of both communities live. With the Kurds staying out of the way in the north-eastern part of Iraq where they are dominant, the country seems headed for a trifurcation, a sorry ending for an event that was supposed to make the world safe from weapons of mass destruction and inaugurate the democratic revolution in the Arab and Islamic world.


First Published: Nov 13, 2006 19:09 IST