Handing responsibility for Iraq from the Pentagon to the White House could end up inflaming the violence.
As the guerilla war has dragged on unabated in Iraq, the Bush administration desperately needed to ‘do something’. And that ‘something’ is the typical response to problems in Washington: a bureaucratic reorganisation that is unlikely to solve the problem.
Because the situation in Iraq could greatly affect President Bush’s re-election chances, the White House has now taken control of the postwar occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan from the Pentagon.
In what may be the understatement of the year, a senior administration official said of the Pentagon’s record in Iraq and the change of authority: ‘Don [Rumsfeld] recognises this is not what the Pentagon does best, and he is, in some ways, relieved to give up some of the authority here.’ Although, by this move, the White House is essentially admitting that the Pentagon has left postwar Iraq in shambles, the question remains whether the White House’s large National Security Council (NSC) staff – also sitting thousands of miles away in Washington – can do any better.
In response to crises, the government has a history of shuffling boxes on the organisational chart. In the bureaucratic world of Washington, redrawing the lines of authority has real meaning; it is likely to have much less meaning to those attacking American soldiers in Iraq.
Although in recent times the Pentagon has been ineffectual in fighting guerilla wars, the more politically oriented White House has done an even worse job. Remember the Johnson and Nixon administrations’ micromanagement of the Vietnam War, which contributed to the US defeat by politicising decisions that should have been made by the military? With an election in 2004, the danger exists that the White House’s attempt at damage control could inadvertently turn into damage escalation.
The White House could become so desperate to show progress in a chaotic Iraq by next year that it authorises the use of excessive force in an attempt to stamp out the guerrilla movement more quickly. Employing maximum firepower in a counterinsurgency, which inevitably leads to a spike in the deaths of civilians, can turn the local population against the army of occupation and toward the rebel forces.
In such conflicts, the support of the indigenous people, which can provide shelter and support to the insurgents, is vital to both sides in the conflict. The more political NSC staff is less likely than even military professionals to pay attention to such critical tactical issues. In Vietnam, the profligate use of American heavy firepower helped turn many South Vietnamese into supporters of the communists. The same could happen in Iraq, as the majority Shiites, already unhappy with the US occupation, could react to the excessive use of American force by turning to active opposition – an ominous development that could sink the USA deeper into the Iraqi quicksand.
Moreover, the last post-crisis bureaucratic restructuring in Washington could also provide some insight into the likely effectiveness of this one. After the 9/11 attacks, it was learned that pre-9/11 intelligence held in various parts of the federal government, if properly pieced together, might have allowed the hijacking plot to have been uncovered. But the CIA and FBI failed to coordinate adequately. As a result of that bureaucratic confusion coming to light, an embarrassed Bush administration reversed course and supported the creation of a new Department of Homeland Security.
But the problem was that the CIA and FBI were not included in that structure, and difficulties in interagency coordination will likely be made worse by adding bureaucratic layers and a new intelligence organisation within the nascent department. The creation of the homeland department was designed to shift attention away from government intelligence failures before 9/11 and to show that the Bush administration was ‘doing something’ about terrorism – but it did little to improve the security of the homeland.
Unfortunately for the Bush administration, putting the White House in charge of postwar Iraq will do little to distract attention from rising guerilla attacks on American forces and is an admission that the ‘something’ that the administration has been ‘doing’ in Iraq has not worked. By November 2004, the American people will want to see the Iraq problem solved and are not going to be satisfied with the palliative of another bureaucratic reorganisation.
The only way to solve the problem is to rapidly turn Iraq over to the Iraqis themselves. The running of Iraq by a despised superpower is what’s driving the violence in Iraq. If the Bush administration knows what is good for its electoral health, it will bury the hatchet with the rest of the world and accept international cooperation toward self-determination for Iraq’s postwar future.
Ivan Eland is senior fellow and director of the Center on Peace and Liberty at The Independent Institute in Oakland, CA, and author of the book Putting ‘Defense’ Back into US Defense Policy: Rethinking US Security in the Post-Cold War World(buy this book from Amazon UK or Amazon USA). This article was first published on the Independent Institute website.
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