The architects of Iraq

Tareq Y Ismael
18 September 2007

A potentially decisive season of hearings and discussions about the performance and future of United States forces in Iraq has come to a provisional conclusion with the Congressional testimony of the US's two leading players in Baghdad: military commander General David H Petraeus and ambassador Ryan Crocker. But any expectation that their or their predecessors' reports assessing the progress of the military "surge" and its accompanying political efforts has proved futile. Instead, Washington - and United States political discourse about Iraq more generally - sleepwalks (see Gideon Rachman, "Many contenders but just one voice", Financial Times, 18 September 2007).

This outcome suggests that the feverish predictions of a momentous opening of real debate about the consequences of the US invasion of Iraq were always grounded in fantasy. As with the frenzied anticipation that surrounded the Iraq Study Group report of December 2006, the real attention is better focused on the underlying character and dynamics of the US project than on official, establishment discourse, which tends to evade this key issue (see "The Iraq Study Group report: an assessment", 8 December 2006).

The immediate pre-history of the Petraeus and Crocker reports is a healthy corrective to the temptation - indulged by critics of the George W Bush administration too - to overestimate the chances of a new course in Iraq as long as the existing power-brokers in Washington are in charge.

The background of policy

Tareq Y Ismael is professor of political science at the University of Calgary, and editor of the International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies.

Among his many books are Middle East Politics Today: Government and Civil Society (University Press of Florida, 2001); (co-edited with William W Haddad) Iraq: The Human Cost of History (Pluto Press, 2003); and (with Jacqueline S Ismael), The Iraqi Predicament: People in the Quagmire of Power Politics (Pluto Press, 2004)

Also by Tareq Y Ismael in openDemocracy:

"The Iraq Study Group report: an assessment" (8 December 2006)

"The ghost of Saddam Hussein" (30 January 2007)

"Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the United States" (23 April 2007)

Most analysis and commentary on Petraeus's and Crocker's reports have been presented without due attention to the background of the men who wrote the reports, as well as outside the larger and relevant context of occupation and destruction. Many observers have focused attention on the minutiae of the so-called "Anbar model" - whose speciousness was in any case highlighted by the subsequent killing of Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, the chief Iraqi figure of the "Anbar Salvation Council". Few have sought clues to the reports' findings in the professional character of their putative authors; but they are there to be found.

General David H Petraeus is an ambitious, intelligent officer who holds a doctorate in international relations from Princeton University. His first combat mission was the Iraqi invasion in 2003, where he served as the commander of the 101st airborne division. In post-invasion Iraq, General Petraeus has been charged with three roles, each ending in debacle.

First, he was responsible for ensuring stability by recruiting and training the local police force in Mosul. After his efforts had been deemed successful, he left Mosul in February 2004. In November 2004, insurgents had captured most of the city; 7,000 police recruited by General Petraeus either changed sides or simply went home; thirty police stations were captured; 11,000 assault rifles and other military equipment worth $41 million disappeared; and Iraqi army units abandoned their bases (see Patrick Cockburn, "General Surge", Independent, 9 September 2007).

His second role, which began in May 2004, was training a new national Iraqi army, of which he wrote confidently four months later: "Training is on track and increasing in capacity. Infrastructure is being repaired. Command and control structures and institutions are being re-established" (see Patrick Cockburn, "President Petraeus?", Independent, 13 September, 2007). Three years later his trained Iraqi army is still inadequate and is affected by various levels of sectarianism and corruption.

Third, Petraeus was charged with being the executor and the public face of the "surge" policy, launched in February 2007 (see Tom Engelhardt, "Launching Brand Petraeus", TomDispatch, 9 September 2007). This reflected the narrowing of US strategic goals from those proclaimed by President Bush in November 2005, when he defined victory in Iraq according to a set of short, medium, and long-term goals (the short-term goals included "meeting political milestones; building democratic institutions; standing up robust security forces to gather intelligence, destroy terrorist networks, and maintain security; and tackling key economic reforms to lay the foundation for a sound economy" (see White House, National Strategy for Victory in Iraq, 30 November 2005).

When these eluded accomplishment, Bush was forced to lower the bar to the bare requirement of mission stability. Petraeus was picked to manage this objective in late January 2007, and the Senate confirmed the appointment in February, when the six-month US military “surge” commenced.

Ryan Crocker is a career foreign-service officer with long, high-level experience in the middle east and south Asia. He speaks good Arabic, and witnessed the marine withdrawal from Beirut after the suicide-attack that killed 241 of their number in 1983; a withdrawal that was equivalent, in his mind, to capitulation to terrorism. For a brief period in the summer of 2003, Crocker served as political advisor to occupation proconsul Paul Bremer (see Karen DeYoung, "The Iraq's Report Other Voice", Washington Post, 10 September 2007).

Less than a month after the 9/11 attacks, Crocker (then deputy assistant of state for near-eastern affairs), was heavily involved in planning post-Saddam Iraq in what came to be known as the "future of Iraq" project, which produced 1,200 pages of documents covering each facet of Iraqi society and state. As an advisor to Bremer, Crocker shared responsibility for the dissolution of the Iraqi army, implementing the recommendations of the "defense policy and institutions working group", to the effect of depoliticising the Iraqi army in order to restructure along a positive unifying role (see Farrah Hassan, National Security Archive - Electronic Briefing Book, No 198 [1 September 2006]).

The disaster that followed the disbanding of the army later provided the base of the Sunni insurgency and drove spiralling violence in Iraq; the thinking and approach showed a remarkable ignorance of the indispensable role of the army in Iraqi state and society. Yet, Crocker went on to be appointed the man charged with effecting national reconciliation, economic revival and a re-building of Iraqi infrastructure, all under the shadow of an unpopular occupation.

Crocker is, moreover, an architect of the denationalisation of Iraq's oil industry, which was a priority among the eighteen benchmarks; this has come to be known as the "oil law" - an opening of Iraq's national industry to the control of foreign entities. The "oil law" is highly unpopular among huge numbers of Iraqis committed to their own country's national interests; it is certain to drive fragmentation rather than reconciliation.

The ethos of power

It is now no secret that the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq was based on intelligence that was spurious if not downright deceptive; and that the project owes much to longer-term American strategic objectives towards Iraq and the region.

Throughout the 1990s, US strategic concerns were dominated by a constantly growing domestic need for oil articulated by rising power-centres within the economy. In 1999, as CEO of Halliburton, the future vice-president Dick Cheney gave a speech to the Institute of Petroleum which highlighted his own vision of the absolute priority of oil in US grand strategy:

" ... by 2010 we will need on the order of an additional fifty million barrels a day ... the Middle East with two thirds of the world's oil and the lowest cost, is still where the prize ultimately lies ... governments and the national oil companies are obviously controlling about ninety per cent of the assets. Oil remains fundamentally a government business" (see Energy Bulletin, 8 June 2004).

Among openDemocracy's recent articles on United States strategy in Iraq:

Paul Rogers, "Iraq: the dissonance effect" (30 August 2007)

Paul Rogers, "Baghdad spin, Tehran war" (6 September 2007)

Anita Sharma & Brian Katulis, "Refugees: the missing Iraq benchmark" (7 September 2007)

Volker Perthes, "Iraq in 2012: four scenarios" (11 September 2007)

Sidney Blumenthal, "The American politics of Iraqi war" (17 September 2007)

When Cheney entered the Bush administration, he developed the formula that those who control Iraq will control its vast oil reserves as well as the oil capacities of the larger region.

Today, the paramount role of oil in US grand strategy has become more widely acknowledged, even by establishment figures such as ex-chair of the federal reserve, Alan Greenspan (whose autobiography expresses sadness "that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil".)

The wider regional and international context of US policy towards Iraq, against the background of the professional and personal profiles of Petraeus and Crocker, makes the political and public-relations aspect of their reports to Congress all the more evident. The heart of the matter was hollow: a campaign to salvage the eroding credibility of a lame-duck president.

The hollowness extends even to the provenance of the respective reports, in light of the close cooperation with the White House involved in generating them:

"Despite Bush's repeated statements that the report will reflect examinations by Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, administration officials said it would actually be written by the White House, with inputs from officials throughout the government. And though Petraeus and Crocker presented their recommendations on Capitol Hill, legislation passed by Congress leaves it to the president to decide how to interpret the report's data" (see Julian E Barnes & Peter Spiegel, "Top general may propose pullbacks", Los Angeles Times, 15 August 2007).

The soft and collusive character of the Petraeus proceedings - with the session effectively framed by sympathetic Republican members ready pre-emptively to pillory those who would question the general's credibility and/or independence - ensured that such critical questions as there were touched only on details of the general's report, rather than on the fundamentals of the surge policy and the larger context of occupation (see Leila Fadel, "Security in Iraq still elusive", McClatchy newspapers, 9 September 2007).

Even earlier "insider" assessments had offered a far bleaker view of US performance - including the government accountability office (GAO) report presented by General David Walker (see Karen DeYoung & Thomas E Ricks, "Report Finds Little Progress On Iraq Goals", Washington Post, 30 August 2007) and the Independent Commission on the Security Forces of Iraq, chaired by retired General James L Jones (see William H McMichael, "New Iraq war report echoes previous analysis", AirForce Times, 18 September 2007).

The mismatch between the fantasies of US progress in Iraq and the realities on the ground suggests that the mindset ruling the strategy is impervious indeed. It recalls a remark directed at General Petraeus by his superior, Admiral William Fallon (commander of Centcom) in their final meeting in Baghdad, in March 2007 - "an ass-kissing little chicken-shit" (see Gareth Porter, "US-Iraq: Fallon Derided Petraeus, Opposed the Surge", Interpress Service, 12 September 2007). It is in these unguarded soldiering words that the most unvarnished assessment of the ethos that animates Washington's latest pronouncements on Iraq may lie.

Note: The author would like to thank his postgraduate research assistant, Chris Langille, who provided editorial suggestions and helpful comments

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData