Light at the End of the Tunnel?

In the midst of one piece of bad news after another coming out of Iraq, the first indication that someone has actually done something smart is most welcome. A few days ago, U.S. Marines were coiled outside the city of Fallujah, prepared to drive and clean out the motley gang of *#8220;Saddamite dead-enders, foreign terrorists, and religious fanatics*#8221; to quote administration spokesmen. Then we suddenly hear the news that the Marine commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, has negotiated a deal with a senior Iraqi General, Jassim Muhammad Salih, to take over Fallujah with a brigade of Iraqi troops. To add to the surprise, the press informs us that Lieutenant General Salih is a former division commander in Saddam*#8217;s Republican Guards. Now, a few days ago Salih has been replaced by another Iraqi Lieutenant General, Mohammad Latif, but my central question is the same: Whatever has happened?

Readers will remember that a little less than a year ago, the Administrator for Iraq, Ambassador *#8220;Jerry*#8221; Bremer, replacing the ill-starred General *#8220;Jay*#8221; Garner, opened his reign by sweeping clear all the apparatus of the former Iraqi regime. Specifically, Ambassador Bremer disbanded the Iraqi Armed Forces, abolished the Ba*#8217;ath Party, and fired almost every Iraqi civil servant. In one fell swoop, the American Pro-Consul converted the most modern and administratively efficient state in the Arab world into a governance vacuum. Ambassador Bremer, an otherwise intelligent man who lacked any previous experience in the Middle East or managing a large enterprise of any sort, fell victim to the arrogant, but ignorant, theories propounded by the neoconservatives who own the Defense Department and the White House. They believe that Iraq can be converted into a modern, democratic, but toothless state which will support the agenda of the neoconservatives without any need to involve Iraqis in the process.

At best, their ideas smacked of arrogant cultural imperialism; at worst, they screamed subjugation and plunder.

Immediately after Bremer*#8217;s surprise announcement, everyone who knew anything about Iraq and almost all Iraqis whom I know denounced his decree as destructive to Iraqi and American interests. American Generals pointed out that retaining the Iraqi armed forces *#8211; under U.S. control *#8211; was the centerpiece of U.S. military planning for the occupation. The only prominent Iraqi who supported the decision was Mr. Ahmad Cahaba, a convicted felon, who now enjoys the political and financial support of the American taxpayer thanks to the power of his neoconservative partners. Mr. Cahaba secured, apparently, a promise that he would be made Iraq*#8217;s Quisling President in return for providing the false intelligence about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and mythical connections to al-Qaida, that enabled the neocons and their captive President to hoodwink the American people.

Those who knew Iraq and its political dynamics urged remobilization of the Iraqi armed forces and a reconstitution of the bureaucracy and Iraqi Ministries. After rejecting any role for the Middle East, experts in the State Department, the neocons and their proconsul Ambassador Bremer put Mr. Cahaba in charge of purging Iraq of his political opponents (i.e., whomever he chose to call the Ba*#8217;ath) and rewarded his business partners and family with *#8220;reconstruction contracts*#8221; numbering in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

What followed, unfortunately, was inevitable. U.S. forces, woefully insufficient in numbers, were unable to cow the Iraqi population. Does anyone remember the former Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, General Eric Shinseki, who was humiliated by his civilian leadership for suggesting that we needed more troops? Soon, the unavoidable friction of a foreign occupation bred resentment and violent reaction, compounded by our failure to make headway on reconstruction, our reckless refusal to accept any outside help or advice, and our continued deferral to Mr. Cahaba produced what appears to be the beginning of an open revolt with which we are ill-prepared to cope.

But, as Bismarck is reported to have said, *#8220;God loves drunks, little children and the United States of America.*#8221; At least he has given us a chance. Although numerous revelations about Mr. Chalabi*#8217;s pernicious influence over the neocons and their mind-boggling incompetence in Iraq has failed to impress the American electorate, the Administration has one big worry: the first Tuesday in November. Clearly, U.S. forces must not be taking casualties in Iraq during the hottest part of the election campaign. Equally clearly, the events in Fallujah and in Najaf threaten to bring down the whole house of cards so carefully constructed by the Administration.

The Marines to the rescue. In my own experience, the modern American Armed Forces are superb. Most senior American Generals and Admirals have support staff significantly superior in skills and quality to most civilian staff in Washington whether on the Hill or in the Administration. (From what has happened to the Enrons and Adelphias, I suspect that corporate management in America is equally incompetent.)

Yet, among the military I have found that senior Marine officers on average demonstrate an intellectual grasp of the world environment far superior to that of their colleagues in other services. They also demonstrate a willingness to speak up courageously when they see their bosses go astray. Given the reputation of the Marine Corps as a hardheaded over-the-top frontal assault knuckle-dragging organization, the Marine Generals seem counterintuitive. One friend has told me that my observation is correct for a very simple reason. Planning an amphibious assault is the most difficult operation in military art; leading the first wave requires the jug-headed knuckle draggers.

Pardon the digression. General Conway manifests clearly the superb Marine tradition which I cite above. He recognized that sending 2,200 Marines, no matter how brave, skillful and well armed, into a city of 300,000 defended by probably twice that number of well armed, dedicated and apparently well-trained insurgents, would cost the Marines greatly, would probably rouse the entire Iraqi population into revolt, and actually could fail.

Again, General Shinseki spoke the truth. Instead, Conway negotiated a deal with the local Iraqis that included bringing back an Iraqi General to put together a force drawn from the old Iraqi Army to pacify Fallujah. Neocon supporters continue to try to undercut General Conway by expressing doubts that this can be done. They cite the inability of the Iraqi police and civil defense units to fight other Iraqis under our command. Conveniently, they do not tell the public that these failed Iraqi units were recruited from unemployed teenagers, trained by commercial companies concerned more about the bottom line rather than the quality of troops who will fight alongside Americans and unmotivated to fight Iraqis on behalf of an open-ended American occupation.

The second bit of very good news is the appointment of John Negroponte as our Ambassador to Iraq. This is not an attempt to build up a fellow Chiote. Negroponte is, by experience, character and bureaucratic skill, ideally suited to fight off the nascent neoconservative attempts to emasculate the State Department and its future Ambassador. If anyone can fight the first battle, which is to separate the neoconservatives from the disaster they caused in Iraq, Negroponte fits the bill.

I also suspect that Karl Rove, President Bush*#8217;s campaign mentor, must also see the handwriting on the wall. For Bush to escape the burden of Iraq in November, he must either distance himself from those who put America into the Iraqi debacle or find a scapegoat. The neoconservatives in the White House, the Vice President*#8217;s Office and the Defense Department fit the bill perfectly.