Eric Rauchway: Iraq, Bush and the Mess We're in

Roundup: Historians' Take

Eric Rauchway, in Altercation (April 14, 2004):

My heart sank when the President said ,"I'm sure something will pop into my head here in the midst of this press conference, with all the pressure of trying to come up with [an] answer, but it hadn't yet."  Has ever a President uttered more demoralizing words in the course of seeking to reassure Americans and the world?  ("I am not a crook," maybe.)  I wish the President to stand by our troops now in peril on foreign shores.  I wish the President to protect us from terrorist attacks at home.  I wish the President to preside wisely over a vigorous and free economy and society. I wish the President were able to stand up to the pressures of those jobs.  But the President cannot even come up with an answer to a question he said, mere seconds before, he has"oftentimes [thought] about" over the last couple of years: "You've looked back before 9-11 for what mistakes might have been made.  After 9-11, what would your biggest mistake be, would you say, and what lessons have learned from it?"  The President replied,"I wish you'd have given me this written question ahead of time so I could plan for it."  And then he then explained about the pressure of press conferences.

Honestly, I was truly astonished to feel so saddened at that moment.  I hadn't supposed any appreciable confidence in the President's ability remained in me.  But it turns out I am enough of a Pollyanna to have held out some secret hope, at least till then.  There are more worldly people out there; apparently a Sky News reporter drily remarked of the President's answer to this question,"By his standards this was a relatively assured performance."

On that cheery note, we might move to the lighter question of what to do.  We know the generals want more troops in Iraq; we know they wanted more troops before they went in.  Fareed Zakaria says there should be more troops and that the RAND Corp. estimates there should be maybe 20 soldiers per 1000 inhabitants, or about 500,000.  Which is more than we can provide, more perhaps than we and any coalition, however willing, can presently offer.

Is this a question merely of quantity, or are there qualitative concerns -- i.e., is it a question of more or of different?  Niall Ferguson has something approaching an apoplectic fit when he realizes the architects of this occupation did not study the previous occupation:"What happened in Iraq last week so closely resembles the events of 1920 that only a historical ignoramus could be surprised."  The British had taken Iraq fairly handily with the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force, hailing themselves as liberators.  Then, to their dismay, the disparate ethnicities of the country united to oppose them: "Contrary to British expectations, Sunnis, Shi'ites and even Kurds acted together."  Rather than learn the lessons of the mandate era, though, the administration has relied instead on"superficial economics" to predict a happy translation to Iraqi democracy.

Ferguson is not as surprised as he is angry; he knows it is typical of Americans to imagine wars, once won, will take care of themselves.  Consider a few of our occupations, successful and otherwise.  After mustering unprecedented manpower and technology to win a grueling war, the United States stinted on the subsequent occupation and reconstruction in the 1860s and 1870s:  the U.S. dissolved a million-man army within a year, leaving only about 20,000 soldiers in the South, a number which had dwindled by 1870 to 8,700 (which at a quick estimate looks to me like not quite one per 1000 inhabitants of the eleven states of the former Confederacy, if the RAND Corp. is looking).  The terrorist insurgents of the Ku Klux Klan were sufficiently active and a threat to democracy to draw Congressional ire and special legislation in the early 1870s -- but not to draw more troops.

The U.S. waged what one of its principal historians, Brian Linn, calls"the most successful counterinsurgency campaign in U.S. history" on the cheap, as far as manpower was concerned:  at its peak the American force occupying the Philippines in the early 1900s amounted to only about 70,000 soldiers (again, back-of-the-envelope, maybe 10 per thousand Filipinos, with an eye again on the RAND ratio); for most of the 1899-1902 war it was closer to half that.  However ultimately successful as a military counterinsurgency effort, the war was marred by atrocities, news of which deterred even Theodore Roosevelt -- a president never at a loss for words or action -- from pursuing it wholeheartedly.

Indeed the conventional argument has been that the American unwillingness to commit substantial numbers of troops for lengthy occupation and pacification has produced lengthier and more violent insurgencies; generals on the Western plains -- whose army was, Phil Sheridan complained,"obliged, in some places, to protect white people from Indians, while in other places it is protecting Indians in their persons and property from the whites" -- thought that more soldiers would make the West less wild.  But no such reinforcements came; the President reflects a long tradition of American insistence when he says,"We're not an imperial power."

Ferguson scoffs slightly at the idea of greater UN involvement:  the 1920 Iraq revolt"began in May, just after the announcement that Iraq would henceforth be a League of Nations 'mandate' under British trusteeship.  (Nota bene, if you think a handover to the UN would solve everything.)"  But:  the United Nations in 2004 has at least slightly greater legitimacy than the League of Nations in 1920 -- and the United States has a greater role in the UN than in the League.

Are there powder-blue berets lurking behind the President's suspense-building previews?

"Q:  And, Mr. President, who will you be handing the Iraqi government over to on June 30th?

THE PRESIDENT: We will find that out soon."

Stay tuned.

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