Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq
by Michael R. Gordon and General Bernard E. Trainor
Optimism Goes to War
A review by David Rieff
Self-doubt, let alone pessimism, is generally not part of the mentality of people
who start wars, and certainly not of those who plan to unleash the most powerful
army in the history of the world against a third-rate ill-equipped military force
commanded by a man whom one Marine commander described as "dumb as a rock" and
his two psychopathic and hopelessly incompetent sons. Three years after our invasion
of Iraq, an elective war, we know that the optimism not only of the senior members
of the Bush administration, but also of the many liberal hawks who supported the
toppling of Saddam Hussein, was misplaced. But while the current Bush administration
rationale for why things did not go as anticipated in Iraq is just a hackneyed
military cliché -- that no war plan survives the first contact with the enemy -- the
salient question is whether the disappointments in the Iraq war are owed to the
illusions that attend all war planning (we might call it, with apologies to Clausewitz,
the fiction of war) or to illusions that were particular to this venture. Why
has the war gone so wrong?
Cobra II is the most serious attempt so far to answer this question. Its authors -- Michael Gordon, the chief military correspondent of The New York Times, and retired Marine Lieutenant-General Bernard Trainor, a distinguished military intellectual in what, contrary to stereotype, is now the most creative and intellectually rigorous branch of the Armed Services -- enjoyed unparalleled access to the officers who planned and executed the Iraq war. Even more importantly, they have seen the (still classified) transcripts of interrogations that the U.S. military conducted with the senior Iraqi military and political leadership. The Iraqi perspective is crucial. One of the most costly failures of the coverage of the campaign to overthrow Saddam Hussein and of the subsequent three years of insurgency has been that no reporters have been "embedded" with the insurgents or even the various Shiite factions. And although Gordon and Trainor have had to rely for their account of the Iraqi perspective on those views as refracted through the understanding of American interrogators, there seems little reason to doubt what they report.
The gist of it is that not only was Saddam Hussein as dumb as a rock, but, at least where the United States was concerned, he was mad as a hatter. It is not that he lacked shrewdness. (What long-reigning tyrant does?) But in Saddam's case, his cunning seemed to extend only to Iran, the state immediately outside his borders, and to the ever-present specter of revolt among the Shia and Kurds or from within the Baath Party itself. His strategic focus was pathologically narrow. Despite his defeat in 1991, and more than a decade of sanctions, and the frequent bombardment of his forces by American and British aircraft, Saddam seems to have assumed almost to the end that in the less-than-likely event of an American invasion, Iraq would prevail. As Gordon and Trainor describe it, he was more worried about a reprise of the Shia uprising of 1991 than about the fall of Baghdad to U.S. forces. They quote the director of Iraqi military intelligence telling American interrogators that Saddam and his inner circle believed that "there would be a few air strikes and maybe some operations in the south, then it would be over." According to Tariq Aziz, Saddam's deputy prime minister, "a few weeks before the attacks Saddam still thought the U.S. would not use ground forces."
The Iraqi dictator's mixture of myopia and self-regard was fueled by the extent to which he had thoroughly cowed his own general staff. Comparisons with Hitler are almost uniformly invidious, but an exception can plausibly be made in this case, because Saddam's generals lied to him about the actual military situation on the battlefield as American forces advanced toward Baghdad rather in the way that Hitler's generals were unable -- more precisely, afraid -- to tell him the truth about the unstoppable advance of the Red Army toward Berlin. Obviously, neither the Germans nor the Iraqis stood any chance of prevailing, but in both cases the dead hand of terror that Hitler and Saddam exercised over their military commanders sealed their fate. In the words of Raad Majid al-Hamdani, the Second Republican Guard corps commander and one of Iraq's most competent generals, Saddam's plan for the defense of Baghdad "was full of bad assumptions and lacked any basis in facts." And, al-Hamdani added, Iraqi commanders "were afraid to speak clearly."
The weakness of our adversaries makes a good deal of Cobra II read somewhat curiously. The book is an amalgam, combining a detailed you-are-there narrative of the military campaign with an analysis of the failures of the American plan that facilitated the subsequent insurgency. It is part yarn, part polemic. Both aspects are brilliantly done, but they never really mesh. The problem, I think, is that there is something dissonant and disturbing about the yarn. I do not mean that there are inaccuracies or falsehoods here. Gordon and Trainor establish beyond a doubt the incompetence and the hopelessness of the Iraqi forces, and they evoke with great conviction the dash and the creativity of American officers and enlisted personnel (their criticism is largely reserved for senior generals and civilian officials at the Pentagon). The implausibility of their story is owed, rather, to a fundamental defect in the military plot: our forces were not exactly fighting the Wehrmacht or the Red Army as they advanced toward Baghdad. General David McKiernan, who devised Operation Cobra II (the battle plan for the campaign), chose the name because it evoked Operation Cobra, General Patton's plan for the liberation of France in 1944; but this was a grandiose bit of title inflation.
Was Operation Cobra II bravely and ably executed, regardless of the strategic errors that Gordon and Trainor identify? Absolutely. But in a time when it is acceptable to criticize the Bush administration's handling of the war but somehow illicit to say anything negative about the uniformed military, one must ask whether a victory against so woebegone a foe is really cause for such self-congratulation. After all, there was never any question of the Iraqis defeating us.
In the more sober and analytical parts of their book, Gordon and Trainor tacitly concede the point, above all by emphasizing in heretofore unknown detail that the real challenge facing American planners -- a challenge that they show the Pentagon largely bungled -- was how to secure a lasting victory, or, to use the military term of art, the "desired end state." That end state was not, of course, only a military one. But Gordon and Trainor remain imprisoned in an almost exclusively military analysis of what went wrong. Had there been more troops, better planning, a senior staff that could have stood up to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and so on, things in Iraq might not have gone so badly wrong. This may well be true. But a purely military approach unintentionally underplays the essential problem in Iraq -- the problem of politics.
Gordon and Trainor's fundamental contention is that had the Pentagon committed more forces from the outset, and taken more seriously the so-called post-conflict security and stabilization operations, and not begun planning for a draw-down of American forces before the campaign had even gotten under way, then the insurgency, while probably inevitable, would in all likelihood not have become nearly so virulent. Having interviewed most of them, Gordon and Trainor argue that "the U.S. military commanders who battled their way to Baghdad and endured the long, hot summer of 2003 believe that there was a window of opportunity in the early weeks and months of the invasion, which was allowed to close. Though some degree of opposition was unavoidable, the virulent insurgency that followed was not inevitable but was aided by military and political blunders in Washington."
The Bush administration and its defenders often rebut criticism of the conduct of the war in Iraq by saying that the press and the critics of the policy show a lack of historical understanding. As one official at the Pentagon put it to me in 2004, if the current press system had existed in 1942 and 1943, when U.S. forces were floundering in North Africa, "Eisenhower would have been lucky to have gotten a training command in North Dakota" and "George Marshall would have been lucky to have survived." He said this at a time when Rumsfeld was still denying there was an insurgency at all, insisting that the enemies of post-Saddam Iraq were only a few Baathist dead-enders and foreign terrorists -- so, by current Pentagon standards, I suppose it constituted an admission of sorts.
Such apologias do not survive either the scrutiny Gordon and Trainor bring to bear or the testimony from senior leaders in the Pentagon who were willing, often for the first time, to describe to them in great detail how awfully things went wrong, from the initial planning stages on. The institutional power play that put responsibility not just for the military campaign itself but also for postwar Iraq in the hands of the Pentagon is well known by now. What has been less remarked upon, but on which Gordon and Trainor rightly put a great deal of emphasis, was Rumsfeld's determination not to commit to "nation-building" in postwar Iraq. In a speech in New York on February 14, 2003, less than two months before the commencement of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Rumsfeld gave a speech called "Beyond Nation-Building." In it, he offered the Balkans not as a model of how to intervene, but as a paradigm for an intervention gone wrong. The prolonged presence of American and other NATO peacekeepers in Kosovo, he declared, had created a "culture of dependency." Were the United States to invade Iraq, Rumsfeld said (the Bush administration was even then continuing the pretense that the decision to go to war had not yet been made), America would instead help Iraqis rebuild their country for themselves. As Gordon and Trainor put it, Rumsfeld was presenting a vision of a post-Saddam Iraq that would be virtually cost-free to the United States once the shooting had stopped. America could "oust a dictator, usher in a new era in Iraq, shift the balance of power in the Middle East in the United States's favor, all without America's committing itself to the lengthy, costly, and arduous peacekeeping and nation-building, which the Clinton administration had undertaken in Bosnia and Kosovo."
That the Bush administration was convinced that the war in Iraq was going to be cheap is well documented. Whether it was Paul Wolfowitz testifying before Congress that Iraqi oil revenues would almost certainly pay for the country's reconstruction, or Rumsfeld answering with an indignant "Baloney" George Stephanopoulos's query about whether a $300 billion price tag on the war might not be closer to the mark than the $50 or $60 billion the administration was forecasting, examples are legion of the Bush administration's refusal to budge from its most optimistic scenarios for postwar Iraq. Gordon and Trainor document the same cult of the best-case scenario at the operational level: during the run-up to the war, military planners who thought that more troops would be needed for occupation duties were told no, and that forces from other countries would take care of this, and that American forces would be substantially reduced within a few months of Saddam's fall. The planners were told to make plans for these draw-downs even as planning for the war itself was still going on.
Despite its failure to put together a real coalition to invade Iraq, as President George H.W. Bush had done before the Gulf War of 1991, the Bush administration appears to have launched the war convinced that once Saddam Hussein had been removed, security in a postwar Iraq would be largely guaranteed by existing Iraqi police and military formations denuded of their Baathist senior commanders and buttressed, where necessary, by foreign constabulary forces from Italy, Denmark, Portugal, South Korea, Singapore, and elsewhere. As Gordon and Trainor note, "There was no fallback plan." They describe an administration impervious to the possibility of things going wrong once the initial military mission had been "accomplished," to use George W. Bush's unfortunate word when he addressed the nation from that aircraft carrier on April 26, 2003. "Few of the potential contributors [to this constabulary force]," they write, "had been wholehearted supporters of the war, but the administration assumed they would be willing to help keep peace in a relatively benign Iraq, which controlled some of the world's largest oil reserves and which would be ruled by a new enlightened government."
But when things did not go according to plan, the Bush administration failed to reconsider its postwar strategy. As Gordon and Trainor put it, President Bush and his team "failed to adapt to developments on the ground and remained wedded to their prewar analysis of Iraq even after Iraqis showed their penchant for guerrilla tactics in the first days of the war." This point is significant. Gordon and Trainor believe that the irregular Iraqi forces known collectively as the Fedayeen Saddam constituted the embryonic form of the subsequent insurgency. And they add that "the first Marine to be killed in action [in the war] died at the hands of an Iraqi dressed in civilian clothes who fired from a pickup truck, not a tank."
Gordon and Trainor argue that American troops on the ground understood that the nature of their enemy was different from the one anticipated in the war plan. But Rumsfeld and General Tommy Franks, they write, remained unconvinced, and adamantly refused to adjust their plan significantly. Instead they continued to believe that "their victory would be sealed with the seizure of Baghdad, which was identified as Iraq's 'center of gravity.'" They never seem to have understood that "from the first day of the invasion the United States was not fighting a purely conventional war, one that would suddenly be brought to an end when the regime's ministries were seized and its leader toppled." Instead, victory depended on bringing the Sunni regions of Iraq and the population centers of Iraq, above all Baghdad itself, under control. But Gordon and Trainor demonstrate conclusively that, given the administration's pre-existing convictions about what a post-Saddam Iraq would look like, and Rumsfeld's dogmatic insistence that large numbers of American troops would not be needed in Iraq after Baghdad fell, there was never any real thought given to altering the pre-existing strategy. Perhaps the most depressing of all Gordon and Trainor's depressing observations is that "Rumsfeld and his aides viewed the building of a new Iraq as a relatively undemanding pursuit."
Gordon and Trainor seem to have decided not to pursue in depth the question of why this was the case. There is little mention in the book of the influence of Iraqi exiles such as Ahmed Chalabi on the administration's thinking. Instead, they focus on military mistakes and on the disjunction between what they call "the bold and extraordinarily ambitious" political goals of the war and the quality of the actual planning. For Gordon and Trainor, five errors stand out -- the failure to understand the question of tribalism in Iraq; the overuse of technology in warfighting; the failure to adapt to changing conditions on the ground; the failure to listen to different (and more pessimistic) military and political perspectives; and the failure to take into account the lessons of nation-building in the Balkans between 1995 and 2002.
We may never know much more about what went wrong in Iraq than what is to be found in the pages of this volume. The memoirs of today's politicians tend to be as shifty and obscure as the press conferences they give while in office. But the problem is far deeper than loyalty to the president, or careerism, or staying on message. In Washington these days, it is customary to speak of someone who rigidly follows the Bush administration party line as having "swallowed the Kool-Aid." It is not a very accurate way of grasping the realities of presidential policy-making -- except with regard to Iraq. Even today, it often seems as if the reality in Iraq has not yet sunk in. There is much talk about how American tactics and patience, so misrepresented by the mainstream media, are finally paying off and the Iraqi army is being "stood up," as they say in the military English in which Bush increasingly tries to take refuge. And administration officials continue to insist that, taken as a whole, the news from Iraq is good. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, recently declared that on balance, and despite some setbacks, things were going "very, very well."
"This is either self-deception or the deception of others."
This is either self-deception or the deception of others. Judging from Gordon and Trainor's account, self-deception seems the likelier explanation. Then as now, the belief that we were winning was more theological than empirical. From my own experience, during the period when I was going back and forth to and from Iraq in 2003 and 2004, administration officials still broadly believed that they were winning and felt genuinely aggrieved that, unlike our colleagues from Fox News, upon whom the military and the Coalition Provisional Authority increasingly relied, we in the "mainstream media" could not accept the fact that, on balance, the news from Iraq was more good than bad. It is a view that persists to this day.
The question is why. Gordon and Trainor offer no opinion on the subject, but in my view it is probably unfair to focus exclusively, as they do, on the neo-conservatives, or even on the Bush administration as a whole. Rumsfeld, after all, is about as far from being a believer in democracy-building as it is possible to be -- a major reason why he always emphasized to military commandeers his preference for strategies that would allow U.S. forces to withdraw quickly. More broadly, the Iraq mess cannot be separated from the problematic question of America's official ideology. I do not mean capitalism or Christianity. I mean optimism.
The problem of optimism lies at the heart of what went wrong both in the planning stages for the war and subsequently on the ground in Iraq. Recently, the U.S. Army journal Military Review published an essay by Brigadier Nigel Aylwin-Foster, a British officer who had served in Iraq alongside U.S. forces. His criticism was sharp, and for the most part it concerned strictly military matters. But he, too, came back again and again to this question of what he called "damaging optimism" -- the refusal of American commanders to accept the possibility that things might go wrong. And lest this seem simply like the usual British sour grapes about America (Greece to their Rome and all that jazz), the worry about overly optimistic thinking is one of the key recommendations of a recent Department of Defense study cautioning that the tendency of U.S. officers to take their wishes for reality has created huge problems for the American effort in Iraq.
Aylwin-Foster wrote that "self-belief and resilient optimism are recognized necessities for successful command, and all professional forces strive for a strong can-do ethos. However, it is unhelpful if it discourages junior commandeers from reporting unwelcome news up the chain of command. Force commanders and political masters need to know the true state of affairs if they are to reach timely decisions to change plans: arguably, they [the Americans] did not always do so." In a somewhat more discreet echo of Gordon and Trainor's blunt talk about "the dysfunction of American military structures," Aylwin-Foster described the American military establishment in Iraq as seeming to be "weighted down by bureaucracy, a stiflingly hierarchical outlook, a predisposition to offensive operations, and a sense that duty required all issues to be confronted head-on." In other words, a military admirably configured to mount a lightning campaign against an inferior foe, but not a military (let alone a political leadership!) prepared to fight a prolonged semi-guerrilla war, particularly in a context of mounting sectarian violence in which the United States can obviously take no side.
But even today it often seems as if this lesson has not yet sunk in. Though the U.S. military does understand that the solution to the Iraqi quagmire is principally political, neither they nor their civilian leaders have any real idea of what that political solution might look like. Perhaps this is why, increasingly, those who still defend the war do so in default terms, arguing that the United States has to stay in Iraq because otherwise we will have granted a victory to the terrorists. This is eleventh-hour talk, the language of damage limitation. We have to stay because we cannot go. At best, the old Scottish verdict "Not Proven" might be invoked here.
It is a commonplace that wars always surprise, and that hindsight is 20/20, and so on. But Iraq was never the mystery that administration apologists and other supporters of the war now insist that it was. To the contrary, what Saddam wrought in almost thirty years of rule was abundantly clear to anyone who cared to look. He had destroyed the communists and long ago sent the liberals into exile -- so much so that they did not recognize Iraq when they returned; so much so that, with the exception of some exemplary figures such as Kanan Makiya, who has largely fled politics, many have left again. The exiles were away too long. And what was left in this increasingly pious and re-tribalized Iraq? Sciri, the Dawa Party: in other words, the groups that have captured the overwhelming majority of the majority Shia vote; the former protégés of Tehran. Did one have to be the second coming of Clausewitz to figure this out? No, one simply had to be willing to examine some preconceived notions.
These realities are obviously not the subject of this splendid book, nor should they have been. But without this larger historical and political context, and without any explanation of why Bush and his team were so sanguine about postwar Iraq, the book sometimes can read like a joke without a punch line. The distinguished Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld was doubtless being hyperbolic when he argued last year that the invasion of Iraq was "the most foolish war since Emperor Augustus in 9 B.C. sent his legions into Germany and lost them," but he, like most critics of the war and the postwar, is only an informed outsider. Gordon and Trainor are insiders. With Cobra II, they have performed an invaluable service by cutting through the nonsense that the Bush administration and its echo chamber on Fox, the columns of the New York Post, and blogs such as Powerline and Hugh Hewitt continue to peddle about Iraq.
But those wanting a more vivid and credible sense of what is taking place in Iraq today might heed the blogger Zeyad, a Baghdadi dentist who welcomed the American overthrow of Saddam, and whose blog, Healing Iraq, was once one of the preferred sources for many boosterish conservative bloggers in the United States. Here is how Zeyad describes Baghdad today:
Please don't ask me whether I believe Iraq is on the verge of civil war yet or not. I have never experienced a civil war before, only regular ones. All I see is that both sides are engaged in tit-for-tat lynchings and summary executions. I see governmental forces openly taking sides or stepping aside. I see an occupation force that is clueless about what is going on in the country. I see politicians that distrust each other and continue to flame the situation for their own personal interests. I see Islamic clerics delivering fiery sermons against each other, then smile and hug each other at the end of the day in staged PR stunts. I see the country breaking into pieces. The frontlines between different districts of Baghdad are already clearly demarked and ready for the battle. I was stopped in my own neighbourhood yesterday by a watch team and questioned where I live and what I was doing in that area. I see other people curiously staring in each other's faces on the street. I see hundreds of people disappearing in the middle of the night and their corpses surfacing next day with electric drill holes in them. I see people blown up to smithereens because a brainwashed virgin seeker targeted a crowded market or café. I see all that and more.
Don't you dare chastise me for what I write about my country.
On the home page of Healing Iraq, there is an epigraph from Swift: "It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of what he was never reasoned into." Gordon and Trainor establish in extraordinary detail that the same could be said about the Bush administration. Throughout military history, from Alcibiades's Sicilian expedition to the "bridge too far" at Arnhem in World War II, nations and individuals have paid a terrible price for the decisions of commanders in whom daring and determination were married to delusion, self-regard, and a fatal disrespect for their adversaries. Whatever the outcome in Iraq, Gordon and Trainor have definitively entered Operation Iraqi Freedom on that sorry roster.
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