Want to understand the latest American intervention in the Middle East? A military expert offers a primer.
At the conclusion of Operation Desert Storm on Feb. 28, 1991, General H. Norman Schwarzkopf provided a colorful, triumphalist account of the campaign just coming to an end. It appeared that his troops had won a decisive victory. That turned out not to be the case. It appeared that the Iraq War was about over. In fact, it was just beginning. Schwarzkopf's briefing provides a vivid remainder of the illusions that have permeated this conflict from the very outset.
Watch: Schwarzkopf's briefing
This 1999 film by director David O. Russell, satirizing the campaign over which Schwarzkopf had presided, didn't make much of an impression at the box office. It's easy to understand why. At the time, Americans preferred to view the war with Iraq in terms of good guys (us) versus bad guys (Saddam Hussein and his henchmen). Russell had the temerity to complicate that view. In that regard it was an astonishingly prescient interpretation. Excellent performances by George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, and a manic Spike Jonze.
Created to promote neoconservative foreign policies, PNAC has since — thankfully — departed the scene. This artifact from 1998 remains — a letter signed by luminaries such as Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and John Bolton, among others, urging President Clinton to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Get rid of Saddam, they insisted, and all would be well. Substitute "ISIS" for "Saddam," and that's pretty much where we are today. A testament to the naivete of ostensibly sophisticated people.
Eight months before the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003 invasion, senior British officials just back from consulting their counterparts in Washington, met in London to brief Prime Minister Tony Blair on what they had learned. George W. Bush had already decided on war, they reported — a tidbit Bush had not yet shared with the American people. With that decision having been made, "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." One more thing: "There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action" — an oversight, to put it mildly.
For soldiers, the war doesn't end just because they leave the war zone. Recognition of this sad fact has produced a very considerable literature in recent years, both fiction and nonfiction. This wrenching 2013 account by a Washington Post correspondent who covered the Iraq War and then followed up on the troops he had encountered there ranks among the very best. Not for the fainthearted.
Excerpted from a forthcoming book by Daniel Bolger, a recently retired US Army three-star general, this essay from earlier this month is notably refreshing on two counts. First, it forthrightly acknowledges that the United States has failed militarily in each of its two major 9/11 wars. Second, it recognizes that senior military leaders own a large piece of the responsibility for those failures. You can't blame it all on Bush and Obama.
For several years now, scholars at Brown University have maintained a running tally of the human, economic, social, political consequences of Iraq and America’s other post-9/11 conflicts. Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Bolton probably don’t consult it. But anyone willing to confront the magnitude of American folly ought to.
Andrew J. Bacevich is currently a fellow at Columbia University. His online course on America's "War for the Greater Middle East" launches this week on edx.org.