The Iraq War — now ending its fifth bloody year — represents not only a human tragedy of enormous consequence and possibly the greatest strategic blunder in U.S. history but also a systemic failure of American political and journalistic institutions.
Instead of checking George W. Bush’s imperial impulse for the good of the Republic, the Congress — including Sen. Hillary Clinton and other prominent Democrats — and the national press corps tended to their careers and their political viability.
In recognition of this tragedy — and in honor of the thousands of American dead and the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead — we are publishing the first of two excerpts from Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush:
Iraq’s “Day of Liberation” — as George W. Bush called it — was supposed to begin with a bombardment consisting of 3,000 U.S. missiles delivered over 48 hours, 10 times the number of bombs dropped during the first two days of the Persian Gulf War in 1991.
Officials, who were briefed on the plans, said the goal was to so stun the Iraqis that they would simply submit to the overwhelming force demonstrated by the U.S. military. Administration officials dubbed the strategy “shock and awe.”
In his 2003 State of the Union speech, Bush had addressed the “brave and oppressed people of Iraq” with the reassuring message that “your enemy is not surrounding your country — your enemy is ruling your country.”
Bush promised that the day that Saddam Hussein and his regime “are removed from power will be the day of your liberation.”
But never before in history had a dominant world power planned to strike a much weaker nation in a preemptive war with such ferocity. It would be liberation through devastation.
Many projections expected the deaths of thousands of Iraqi non-combatants, no matter how targeted or precise the U.S. weapons. For those civilians, their end would come in the dark terror of crushing concrete or in the blinding flash of high explosives.
In the prelude to the invasion, the United Nations predicted possibly more than 500,000 civilians injured or killed during the war and its aftermath and nearly one million displaced from their homes.
The International Study Team, a Canadian non-governmental organization, raised similar alarms. The invasion of Iraq would cause a “grave humanitarian disaster,” with potential casualties among children in “the tens of thousands, and possibly in the hundreds of thousands,” the group said.
Assuming U.S. forces succeeded in eliminating Saddam Hussein and his army with relative speed, the post-war period still promised to be complicated and dangerous. The Bush administration outlined plans to occupy Iraq for at least 18 months, installing a military governor in the style of Gen. Douglas MacArthur in Japan after World War II.
But it was not clear how the United States would police a population that was certain to include anti-American militants ready to employ suicide bombings and other irregular tactics against an occupying force.
Bin Laden’s Message
There was the risk, too, that the U.S. invasion would play into the hands of Osama bin Laden, who circulated a message portraying himself as the defender of the Arab people.
“Anyone who tries to destroy our villages and cities, then we are going to destroy their villages and cities,” the al-Qaeda leader said. “Anyone who steals our fortunes, then we must destroy their economy. Anyone who kills our civilians, then we are going to kill their civilians.”
Some U.S. military strategists saw Bush’s war plan as the worst sort of wishful thinking.
What if the Iraqi army — instead of making itself an easy target for the U.S. missiles — melted into urban centers and began coordinating with an armed civilian population to resist a foreign invasion of their homeland? What if the Iraqi people chose to fight the American invaders, rather than shower them with rose petals?
Already, Saddam Hussein had begun concentrating his troops in urban centers and passing out AK-47s to Iraqis, young and old, men and women.
But Bush’s biggest gamble was whether the “shock and awe” bombardment from the air and the stunning American firepower during the ground invasion would intimidate the Iraqis into surrendering.
The relatively light invading force of a couple hundred thousand troops would be enough to take Baghdad, most military analysts believed, but significant resistance during the invasion would be an early sign that the Army’s chief of staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki, was right when he told Congress that the occupation could require “several hundred thousand troops.”
After that alarming estimate, Shinseki was pushed into early retirement and drew a public rebuke from Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who called Shinseki “wildly off the mark.”
A similar dispute erupted over the expected cost of the war. White House economic adviser Lawrence Lindsay had estimated a figure as high as one or two percent of the gross national product or about $100 billion to $200 billion.
To head off American worries about this high cost, Bush’s budget director Mitch Daniels slapped down Lindsay’s estimate as “very, very high,” pegging it instead at between $50 billion and $60 billion. As for reconstruction costs, Wolfowitz and other administration officials suggested that Iraq’s oil revenues would pay for nearly all of that.
Lindsay was soon headed for the door, fired in December 2002 along with Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, an even more outspoken Iraq War critic.
There is the old clichÃ© about war, that its first casualty is truth. But — as U.S. forces began the invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003, still the evening of March 19 in Washington — an even more immediate casualty was the journalistic principle of objectivity.
Many U.S. news outlets dropped even the pretense of trying to stay neutral and just report the facts. TV anchors were soon opining about what strategies “we” should follow in prosecuting the Iraq War.
“One of the things that we don’t want to do is to destroy the infrastructure of Iraq because in a few days we’re going to own that country,” NBC’s Tom Brokaw explained as he sat among a panel of retired generals on the opening night of “Operation Iraqi Freedom.”
There was little sensitivity to the sensibilities of the region. U.S. networks used large floor maps of Iraq so American analysts could stride across the country to point out troop movements. They looked like giants towering over the Middle East.
When American troops faced resistance from Iraqi paramilitary fighters, Fox termed them “Saddam’s goons.” When Iraqi forces surrendered, they were paraded before U.S. cameras as “proof” that Iraqi resistance was crumbling.
Some of the scenes showed Iraqi POWs forced at gunpoint to kneel down with their hands behind their heads as they were patted down by U.S. soldiers. Network executives apparently felt no sense of irony when they ran these images over the words, “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” the title for the coverage and the code name for the invasion.
Showing these degrading images of captured Iraqi soldiers generated not even the mildest concern. Neither the Bush administration nor a single U.S. reporter covering the war for the news networks observed that these scenes might violate the Geneva Conventions on treatment of prisoners of war.
But several days into the invasion, five American soldiers were captured in the southern city of Nasiriyah. When their images were broadcast on Iraqi TV, Bush administration officials immediately denounced the brief televised interviews as a violation of the Geneva Conventions, a charge that was repeated over and over by outraged U.S. television networks.
“It’s illegal to do things to POWs that are humiliating to those prisoners,” said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
In their collective outrage over Iraq’s alleged violation of international law, the U.S. networks seemed to forget the earlier scenes of the Iraqi POWs. They also left out how President Bush had stripped POWs captured in Afghanistan of their rights under the Geneva Conventions.
Prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, were shaved bald and forced to kneel down with their eyes, ears and mouths covered to deprive them of their senses. Their humiliation was broadcast widely for the world to see.
There also had been leaks to the news media that terrorist suspects were being subjected to “stress and duress” tactics, which in some cases could be considered forms of torture. U.S. officials admitted to the use of sleep deprivation in their interrogations of prisoners.
But senior U.S. officials defended these tactics, with one official telling The Washington Post, “If you don’t violate someone’s human rights some of the time, you probably aren’t doing your job.”
Virtually confirming the new U.S. policy of using forms of torture, Cofer Black, former head of the CIA Counterterrorist Center, told a joint hearing of the House and Senate intelligence committees that there was a new “operational flexibility” in dealing with suspected terrorists.
“There was a before 9/11, and there was an after 9/11,” Black said. “After 9/11 the gloves come off.”
This background left many in the world shaking their heads over the U.S. outrage when Iraqi TV broadcast the videotapes of American POWs. The Bush administration — and the major American media — seemed to prefer their international law a la carte, picking and choosing when the rules should apply and when they shouldn’t.
As the invasion — or “liberation” — proceeded, Fox News and MSNBC competed in the sweepstakes to be the network that demonstrated the greatest pro-war patriotism.
Both Fox and MSNBC broadcast Madison Avenue-style montages of heroic American soldiers at war, amid thankful Iraqis and stirring background music. Fox News used a harmonica soundtrack of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
MSNBC brought even higher production values to its images of U.S. troops moving through Iraq. One segment ended with an American boy surrounded by yellow ribbons for his father at war, and the concluding slogan, “Home of the Brave.”
Another MSNBC montage showed happy Iraqis welcoming U.S. troops as liberators over the slogan, “Let Freedom Ring.”
Left out of these “news” montages — and much of the American news coverage — were images of death and destruction.
Rather than troubling Americans with gruesome pictures of mangled and dismembered Iraqi bodies, including many children, the cable networks, in particular, edited the war in ways that helped avoid negativity, boost ratings and give advertisers the feel-good content that plays best around their products.
Fox News may have pioneered the concept of casting the war in the gauzy light of heroic imagery, but the other U.S. networks weren’t far behind.
Not to be completely out-foxed, CNN offered startlingly different war coverage to Americans on domestic CNN than what other viewers saw on CNN International.
While domestic CNN focused on happy stories of American courage and appreciative Iraqis, CNNI carried more scenes of wounded civilians overflowing Iraqi hospitals.
“During the Gulf War in 1991, [CNN] presented a uniform global feed that showed the war largely through American eyes,” the Wall Street Journal reported. “Since then, CNN has developed several overseas networks that increasingly cater their programming to regional audiences and advertisers.”
Left unsaid by the Journal’s formulation of how CNN’s overseas affiliates “cater” to foreign audiences was the flip side of that coin, that domestic CNN was freer to shape a version of the news that was more satisfying to Americans.
Still, CNN — and MSNBC — lagged behind Fox in pulling in the viewers with super-patriotic war coverage, albeit not for lack of trying.
The U.S. networks fell over themselves to tell the glorious story of Pfc. Jessica Lynch, who was captured during the invasion’s early days. Her rescue was filmed by the U.S. military in the fuzzy green of night-vision equipment and played over and over again.
Only later was it revealed that the Lynch story had been embroidered for propaganda effect. The Iraqi doctors who had cared for Lynch said the rescue was staged, a kind of made-for-TV movie before it was destined to become a made-for-TV movie.
“They made a big show,” said Haitham Gizzy, a doctor who treated Lynch. “It was just a drama” filmed after Iraqi fighters had fled the scene and with only doctors manning the hospital.
While Americans were fed a steady diet of cheerleading journalism, the stronger-than-expected resistance from Iraqi forces on the ground in the war’s early days raised warning signs about trouble ahead.
Robert Parry tracked down some of his longtime military and intelligence sources who painted for him a much grimmer picture than was appearing in the major U.S. news media.
With the war less than two weeks old, he described their portents of disaster in a Consortiumnews.com article entitled “Bay of Pigs Meets Black Hawk Down.” It read:
“Whatever happens in the weeks ahead, George W. Bush has ‘lost’ the war in Iraq. The only question now is how big a price America will pay, both in terms of battlefield casualties and political hatred swelling around the world.
“That is the view slowly dawning on U.S. military analysts, who privately are asking whether the cost of ousting Saddam Hussein has grown so large that ‘victory’ will constitute a strategic defeat of historic proportions.
“At best, even assuming Saddam’s ouster, the Bush administration may be looking at an indefinite period of governing something akin to a California-size Gaza Strip.
“The chilling realization is spreading in Washington that Bush’s Iraqi debacle may be the mother of all presidential miscalculations — an extraordinary blend of Bay of Pigs-style wishful thinking with a ‘Black Hawk Down’ reliance on special operations to wipe out enemy leaders as a short-cut to victory.
“But the magnitude of the Iraq disaster could be far worse than either the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba in 1961 or the bloody miscalculations in Somalia in 1993. In both those cases, the U.S. government showed the tactical flexibility to extricate itself from military misjudgments without grave strategic damage.
“The CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion left a small army of Cuban exiles in the lurch when the rosy predictions of popular uprisings against Fidel Castro failed to materialize. To the nation’s advantage, however, President John Kennedy applied what he learned from the Bay of Pigs — that he shouldn’t blindly trust his military advisers — to navigate the far more dangerous Cuban missile crisis in 1962.
“The botched ‘Black Hawk Down’ raid in Mogadishu cost the lives of 18 U.S. soldiers, but President Bill Clinton then cut U.S. losses by recognizing the hopelessness of the leadership-decapitation strategy and withdrawing American troops from Somalia.
“Similarly, President Ronald Reagan pulled out U.S. forces from Lebanon in 1983 after a suicide bomber killed 241 Marines who were part of a force that had entered Beirut as peace-keepers but found itself drawn into the middle of a brutal civil war.”
Robert Parry continued: “Few analysts today, however, believe that George W. Bush and his senior advisers, including Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, have the common sense to swallow the short-term bitter medicine of a cease-fire or a U.S. withdrawal.
“Rather than face the political music for admitting to the gross error of ordering an invasion in defiance of the United Nations and then misjudging the enemy, these U.S. leaders are expected to push forward no matter how bloody or ghastly their future course might be.
“Without doubt, the Bush administration misjudged the biggest question of the war: ‘Would the Iraqis fight?’ Happy visions of rose petals and cheers have given way to a grim reality of ambushes and suicide bombs.
“But the Bush pattern of miscalculation continues unabated. Bush seems to have cut himself off from internal dissent at the CIA and the Pentagon, where intelligence analysts and field generals warned against the wishful thinking that is proving lethal on the Iraqi battlefields. …
“Instead of recognizing their initial errors and rethinking their war strategy, Bush and his team are pressing forward confidently into what looks like a dreamscape of their own propaganda. …
“While the Bush administration once talked about administering Iraq for a couple of years after victory, that timetable was based on the pre-war assumptions that the war would be a ‘cakewalk’ and that the Iraqi population would welcome U.S. troops with open arms.
“After that easy victory, a U.S. proconsul administration would weed out Saddam loyalists and build a ‘representative’ government, apparently meaning that the U.S. would pick leaders from among Iraq’s various ethnic groups and tribes.
“However, now, with civilian casualties rising and a U.S. ‘victory’ possibly requiring a blood bath, the timeline for the post-war ‘reconstruction’ may need lengthening. Instead of a couple of years, the process could prove open-ended with fewer Iraqis willing to collaborate and more Iraqis determined to resist.
“A long occupation would be another grim prospect for American soldiers. Given what’s happened in the past 11 days, U.S. occupation troops and Iraqi collaborators can expect an extended period of scattered fighting that might well involve assassinations and bombings.
“U.S. troops, inexperienced with Iraqi culture and ignorant of the Arabic language, will be put in the predicament of making split-second decisions about whether to shoot some 14-year-old boy with a backpack or some 70-year-old woman in a chador. …
“Once the ‘shock and awe’ bombing failed to crack the regime and Iraqis showed they were willing to fight in southern Iraqi cities — such as Umm Qasr, Basra and Nasiriyah — where Saddam’s support was considered weak, Bush’s initial war strategy was shown to be a grave mistake.
“The supposedly decisive ‘shock and awe’ bombing in the war’s opening days amounted to TV pyrotechnics that did little more than blow up empty government buildings, including Saddam’s tackily decorated palaces. The U.S. had so telegraphed the punch that the buildings had been evacuated. …
“Unwittingly, Bush may be applying all the wrong lessons from America’s worst military disasters of the past 40-plus years. He’s mixing risky military tactics with a heavy reliance on propaganda and a large dose of wishful thinking.
“Bush also has guessed wrong on the one crucial ingredient that would separate meaningful victory from the political defeat that is now looming. He completely miscalculated the reaction of the Iraqi people to an invasion.
“More and more, Bush appears to be heading toward that ultimate lesson of U.S. military futility. He’s committed himself — and the nation — to destroying Iraq in order to save it.”
Part Two: Stiffer-Than-Expected Resistance
Robert Parry, who broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek, wrote Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, with two of his sons, Sam and Nat. It can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. Or go to Amazon.com.