Tuesday, September 9, 2008

All The President’s Stooges, or ‘The War Within: A Secret White House History 2006-2008,’ by Bob Woodward

(left, all his friends call him 'Larry')

This is not a book review of a book I have not read. This is a review of the author of a book I have not read. On September 7, 2008, Bob Woodward descended from heaven to make an appearance on 60 Minutes, to obliquely discuss his newest book: ‘What I Did on my Summer Vacation at the White House,’ or something like that.

This is Mr. Woodward’s fourth book on the Bush White House, brought to you by and for Mr. Woodward’s unusual access to the Bush White House. Through it all, I doubt I am alone in suggesting that Mr. Woodward has both gotten too close to President Bush, and second, allowed all that special access go to Mr. Woodward’s special head. But we digress.

During his 60 Minutes interview, Mr. Woodward roughly detailed three main points. First, in 2006, the Iraq war was close to being lost—yet President Bush insisted that we were winning. Second, President Bush stood alone against Congress, the Pentagon, the American People, the Mole People—you get the idea—insisting the surge would win. And finally, Mr. Woodward bragged about some new technology against Al Qaida that was as successful as the surge in putting down ‘terrorists.’

Going point by point:

A. Man Bites Dog! Also in the news: President Bush Lies

I find less than earth shattering the fact that when President Bush repeatedly insisted how we were ‘turning the corner’ in Iraq, he knew we weren’t. This is the same President whose administration told a documented 935 lies (as well as destroying Colin Powell’s integrity) to win support for the March 2003 invasion. After the invasion, the White House went so far as to manufacture a letter claiming that 9/11 mastermind Mohammed Atta was connected to Saddam Hussein’s Intelligence agency—and oh yeah! Iraq was importing yellow cake uranium for a nuclear weapons program as well (See ‘The Way of the World’ by Ron Suskind), when the Administration had proof of the contrary on both points.

In short, President Bush is a liar, with his most despicable lie being ‘we don’t torture.’

But Bob Woodward goes further, suggesting that President Bush had to stand tall and lie, otherwise the ‘American People’ would lose faith in the war, and the war would be lost. For the greater good, President Bush needed to keep a brave face on a bad situation. Now THAT’S leadership, Woodward appears of say. But is it?

From the Neo-Conservative perspective, what could have happened if President Bush had told the truth? The ‘smart people’ (ie folks who tow the neo-conservative party line) would have said ‘Don’t worry. Democracy, we know, is messy and needs tidying up a bit when we don’t like the results (cough cough). Stay the course.’ So, the worry about telling the truth is not about smart people; it’s what the ‘dumb people’ will say and do. Dumb people will want to cut and run, without looking at the bigger picture.

I will argue the bigger picture next, but Presidents (and governors, mayors, teachers, captains of high school sports teams, the cool kids in pre-school, etc) do us a disservice when they ‘protect’ Americans by not telling us the truth. Ask anyone outside of the US what they think about Americans. The response will be that as individuals, Americans really are nice, pleasant people. However, we’re all dumber than dirt; we know nothing. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that everyone thinks that of Americans—notwithstanding a significant portion of Americans STILL believe that Saddam Hussein was connected to the 9/11 attacks, that Iraq supported al Qaida, and the Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and an active nuclear program in March 2003. But again, we digress.

I’m not saying that Americans are morons because President Bush is a moron (we were dopes before, and we’ll still be dopes when he’s long gone). But as they said in Animal House: ‘Being fat, drunk and stupid—while actively feeding your people disinformation—is no way to go through life.

Informed people, making informed decisions, need to be first and foremost….well, you know. So no, the fact President Bush kept a brave face in a bad situation while lying out his keyster is not ‘leadership.’ Sorry Bob.

(Only Bob Woodward gets to call him 'Moe,' right)

B. Bush qua Martin Luther: I cannot and will not recant anything . . . Here I stand; I can do no other.

Doesn’t President Bush deserve credit—maybe even a little—for the ‘surge’? Woodward seems to think so. Bush doesn’t.

First and foremost, why have a ‘surge’ anyway? How about because in planning the initial invasion, Donald Rumsfeld, Tommy Franks, and Donald Wolfowitz seriously screwed up? Maybe if on February 28 2003, Wolfowitz did not say that General Shinseki’s estimate that several hundred thousand troops for postwar Iraq was ‘wildly off the mark’ (the Pentagon actually request 100,000), post-invasion Iraq civil society would not have collapsed, creating a frenzy that looted an entire nation. Five years after you blow it, you don’t get any credit for trying to fix it without saying 1. ‘Wow. I really screwed the pooch,’ and 2. ‘Sorry I took so long to pull my head out of my butt.’ I’m still waiting on the White House, and the National Security Counsel, to issue that press release (I’m even holding my breath).

Second, what was the ‘Surge’? Well, is was NOT just sending more Americans into Iraq. Thomas Ricks, in his book ‘Fiasco,’ detailed two separate strategies by American commanders in Iraq. The predominant school of thought was keeping American troops in large bases. Troops would then go out on the proverbial search & destroy missions, using lots of helicopters and howitzers, and then return to the base and watch movies or something. General Petreus took a minority view, and instead operated from the Army’s Counterinsurgency Manual (available at fine bookstores everywhere). Instead of large bases, Petreus set up several smaller posts throughout the cities, and had troops engage in street patrols—walking the beat—as opposed to kicking in doors and shipping everyone to Abu Gharib. General Petreus switched American troops from ‘soldiers’ to largely ‘peace officers.’ If the ‘surge’ was simply sending in more troops to build more large bases, and blowing up more neighborhoods (as the Americans had been doing for four years), Iraq would be worse today. So first and foremost, Iraq is better off (clearly a relative measurement), because of a decision to not stay the course, and fight the insurgency with fundamental counterinsurgency (as opposed to ‘military’) tactics. (See also ‘Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam’ by John Nagl).

But what if President Bush had folded like an umbrella? What if he listened to all those Dr. Dooms? Wouldn’t Iraq be worse off today? I would argue no; Iraq would not be worse off, and might even be better. At the time the surge was ordered, what was the consensus opinion of the cognoscenti? Reduce American troop involvement. Why? Because everyone supporting troop reductions were all chickens who cut and run? No. The Iraq Study Group Report, as well as every observer who took the time to look at Iraq, came to the same conclusion: the biggest problem facing Iraq was the then Prime Minister Allawi, now Maliki, and the Iraqi Parliament were not stepping up. After Congress fought like a tiger with the White House to set SOME benchmarks to measure political ‘success’ in Iraq, the Iraqi government went on to accomplish what a fat boy ought to have for lunch.

In fighting an insurgency, what is the most important step? Make sure you’re assigned to the Texas Air National Guard. I mean after that. The first step is political: remove the issues driving the population to support an insurgency. I don’t care how much money you throw at the problem, or how brilliant (or bloody) you manage your counterinsurgency, if the government you’re supporting is headed by Nguyen Cao Ky or Nguyen Van Thieu, you’re going to lose. Were Allawi and Maliki going to be Ky and Thieu? Before committing more troops and money to the Iraq government, the majority view was Iraq needed to get its own house in order. With a seemingly limitless supply of troops and dollars (from the Iraqi Parliament’s perspective), there was no reason to address problems.

General Petreus, on the other hand, again took a contrary view. He wanted the US needed to send more troops to support his new strategy, in order to calm the streets and allow the government to extend its authority. That was a minority view, because the Iraqi government hadn’t done anything to suggest they would step forward and begin governing. The Iraq Study Group (and apparently, most of the Pentagon according to Woodward) wanted to reduce US troops to give the Iraqi Parliament no choice but to start governing in a responsible manner.

Now that the summer of surge is seemingly over, America is reducing its troop commitment in Iraq, and the Iraqis are (ostensively) ‘taking over’ for those Americans. Will the Iraqi Parliament begin acting responsibly? That’s the theory. We’ll see. But while I’m holding my breath on a White House apology for not sending enough troops in the initial invasion, I’m not holding my breath waiting for the Iraqi George Washington, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton.

Nevertheless, what would have happened if there hadn’t been a surge? Would Iraq still be the shooting gallery it was in 2006? I’ll say no for three reasons.

First, a key reason for the success of the surge was the number of Iraqi sheiks who left what Americans called the ‘al Qaida’ forces, and decided to work with the Americans. Why? A strategic failure on al Qaida’s part. Four years of a strategy of ‘Sunnis blow up Shiites—and Americans, when you get the chance’ begins to wear on a population. After awhile, the Rodney King rule starts to take effect (‘Can’t we all just get along?’). Surge or no, al Qaida and the forces opposed to the American invasion played their hand poorly, and would have lost support of key segments of the Iraqi population, regardless of American action.

The other two reasons have to do with the sheer magnitude of five years of American effort. To their undying shame, both the US and Iraqi governments have refused to take any efforts towards a population census, to document the extent of Iraqis killed or dislocated because of this invasion. One of the few people who have done ‘on the ground’ studies are the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. In October, 2006, their study concluded that between May 2003 and July 2006, 645, 965 Iraqis died—above and beyond the expected number of 143,000 deaths per year. 91.8 percent of the deaths were caused by violence. Other estimates, extrapolating from the Johns Hopkins study, media reports (Iraq Body Count, for example), and surveys by the British polling agency ORB, place the current number at 1,220,580 Iraqi deaths.

Now, the CIA World Factbook estimates the Iraqi population at 28,221,180 (July 2008). Using that population number as a base, since the March 2003 invasion, between 2.3% and 4.3% of Iraqis have died. By way of comparison, the CIA World Factbook lists the population of the US at 303,824,640 (July 2008). In other words, for the United States to suffer a proportional number of deaths, that would mean roughly an additional seven to thirteen million Americans would be killed over a five year period.

Look at the national trauma we suffered in the 9/11 attacks—and there only 2,819 people died. Imagine seven million Americans dead from a foreign invasion.

Moreover, I’m not even taking into account the numbers of people who have fled Iraq, or are internally displaced refugees. Just by the sheer numbers of those killed, the population must be exhausted.

Finally, if the number of deaths weren’t enough, look at the dollar amounts the US has dumped into Iraq. The National Priorities Project gives a conservative estimate of money spent on the war (not including money for permanent military bases or the US Embassy, for example) at $552.5 billion USD, which also doesn’t include money spent by America’s ‘Coalition’ partners. Using the CIA’s July 2008 estimate of Iraq’s population, that breaks down to over $19,500 per Iraqi. That amount of money, as well as five years of constant war, will beat down any population after awhile.

All of that said, despite the gleeful assertions of the GOP convention, Bill O’Reilly, what Neil Diamond would call ‘The Brother John & Sarah Love’s Traveling Salvation Show’ (Pack up the babies! Grab the old ladies! Everyone goes!), and hosannas from the proverbial usual gang of idiots to the contrary, General Petreus is pointedly not saying the surge is a success. To say the least, the General is very guarded: the situation in Iraq could continue to improve, or get worse. ‘Worse,’ in this context, is the Iraqi government continues to be the poster child of incompetence and nonfeasance, or the Iraqi government moves much closer to being an Islamic Republic. As it is, the Iraqi Constitution places Sharia law as the supreme law of the land.

There are two other potential problems with the surge. First, there were other options that could have been taken in Iraq, besides sending in more troops. Had those additional troops not been sent to Iraq, they could have gone to that OTHER war in Afghanistan. Even if conditions improve in Iraq, from the perspective of the US, that won’t mean much if the Taliban and al Qaida control large parts of the country, opium trafficking war lord bandits run the rest, leaving Hamid Karzai a ten square block in downtown Kabul.

Second, in my opinion, the human cost on the individual soldiers, sailors, and marines have not been taken into account. Too many members of our military are doing too many tours of duty, and not receiving enough support when they come home. The callous and offhand manner this administration treats our veterans is a national disgrace. How many more families will be irreparably harmed, because of extra tours as part of this surge?

In conclusion, contrary to Bob Woodward’s suggestion, I am arguing it is far too early to give President Bush credit for surge success.

(Everyone calls him 'Darth Curly,' and he has the greatest James Earl Jones impression ever)

C. Bob Woodward Presents: Marvin the Martian & his Fabulous Death Ray!

At the conclusion of the interview, Bob Woodward couldn’t contain himself: America has a new weapon that is tippy top secret. But Bob knows ALL about it! Wowsers! No, Bob said, he can’t talk about it; IT IS SECRET! But he knows the secret. What a smart guy Bob is.

But Bob can say this: this new SECRET SECRET will change the nature of war—like the tank did. Like the machine gun did. This weapon—did he mention it’s a big secret?—if only the al Qaida bad guys knew about it (but they don’t, because the weapon is SECRET), then they’d get out of Dodge (Woodward may even have said ‘they’d get out of Dodge’).

Mr. Woodard is supposed to be a reporter. Call me old fashioned, but that means you ‘report,’ or you ‘shut the hell up.’ I couldn’t care less what you know (because you and The Supreme Being play golf every other Wednesday), if you’re not going to tell me what you know. You want to show off, because you know something I don’t? Then stop being coy. Settle this once and for all: just whip ‘em out & grab a ruler. Otherwise, see supra re ‘shut up.’

But what could this new weapon be? Here’s what I think. I’m guessing ‘super weapons’ break down into two general areas: bigger booms (tanks and machine guns, for example), or better finding, such as radar. In Iraq, we don’t need bigger and better bombs: we’ve already leveled a disproportionate amount of their buildings. So, I’m guessing this new ‘weapon´ better allows Americans to single out the bad guys.

How do you do that? I think the military is using some form of either a portable MRI or thermal imaging camera, that can see inside buildings. The camera would be able to distinguish between individuals, maybe individual body ‘signatures.’ Moreover, the military in Iraq would have sophisticated computer technology, to the point that individuals would be identified, and associated with an area. For example, say there are one thousand specific people who have been identified and associated with one Baghdad neighborhood. Subsequent scans show an additional fifty men congregating in a few houses—and there go the Army guys, hitting those houses. Or the military receives intelligence identifying a certain individual, with this ‘body print,’ believed to be in one of the neighborhoods in this area. Helicopters (or street soldiers or satellites—whatever) begins sweeping the area, until a fix is placed on the person with that body print. Once placed & identified, a missile, a bomb, or a unit of soldiers is off to level the area where the bad guy is.

I wish I could say I’m making this up, but I’m not. During the Vietnam War, the US and South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) initiated a program called ‘Operation Phoenix.’ If you asked an American what was the purpose of ‘Phoenix,’ he (usually ‘he’) would tell you the program was to identify and isolate members of the Vietcong or North Vietnamese cadre (or soldiers) who were working in villages in the South, organizing support for the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). In reality, Operation Phoenix was what we call in South America ‘death squads:’ individuals—usually civilians--would be identified by some process, and soldiers would be sent out to kill them. Not arrested, not detained—just killed. Sometimes tortured first, but still killed. It’s a war crime by the way, a crime against humanity.

So that’s my guess as to Bob Woodward’s SECRET SECRET weapon, that will change the face of war: an imaging system that can identify individuals, no matter where they are, making death squads more efficient. It makes one proud to be an Amerikan (sic).


Judging by his interview, Bob Woodward is just a little too proud of being a tool. Not only that, I think he’s too proud of being the fly on the wall, and can’t help but accentuate the importance of where he is & what he sees. As we said in my econometrics classes: Artists and economists tend to fall in love with their models. Bob’s in love as well. Will I spend $32 USD retail to read all about how close Bob Woodward has his nose to the wheels (and I do not really mean ‘wheels’) of power?

So—President Bush lied, which as I argued about Mr. Woodward may excuse, but I cannot. The ‘surge’ was really much more than a surge—but was it successful? Anyone who insists that it was, they need to spend some time talking to General Petreus and looking at Afghanistan. Finally, Mr. Woodward suggests (at least to me) that American Death Squads are alive and well and doing better than ever.

No wonder President Bush made such a point of keeping the US out of jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court: we’d clog up all the dockets, defending our war crimes.

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