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The Costs of the Iraq War Shock the US Public

by Philip Golub Friday, Aug. 20, 2004 at 1:39 PM

"If Bush wins again, the attack is the best defense delusion threatens and the realiza-tion of the self-fulfilling prophecy of the American rightwing that sees a coming clash of civilizations between Islam and the West."


Sharp Criticism and Little Time

By Philip S. Golub

[This article originally published in: Le Monde diplomatique, June 11, 2004 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,,a0065.idx,19. Philip S. Golub is a journalist and lecturer at the University of Paris.]

The longer the American occupation in Iraq continues, the stronger are the parallels to the Vietnam War. The blatant failures – daily bomb attacks on civilians, soldiers and politicians in Baghdad’s streets – have become domestically and politically explosive since the disclosures about Abu Ghraib. Criticism is becoming louder and louder. People find courage for self-criticism. The editors of the “New York Times” apologized to its readers on May 25, 2004 for its incorrect reporting on Iraq based chiefly on government sources and promised improvement. The Bush administration has not done that.

In August 1964 Washington plunged into a senseless war with disastrous consequences that cost the lives of tens of thousands of Americans and millions of Vietnamese. The Vietnam War was motivated more by fear of losing credibility than by the anxiety of the United States about a “contagious communist danger” in eastern Asia, the domino effect.

The war lasted almost ten years and divided American society. Far-sighted persons in the US administration knew already in 1967 that the war was lost. However like his predecessor Lyndon B. Johnson, Nixon who took office in 1968 was resolved not “to be the first American president to lose a war”. Six years later, he withdrew the US armed forces from Vietnam and left the government in Saigon to its fate. Previously he forced his stamp on the country by “burying this little hell-country North Vietnam” under bombs. As Stanley Karnow wrote, the war showed the whole “hubris, short-sightedness and ambiguity” of the American elites. [1]

The specter of Vietnam goes about once again in the United States forty years later. Gaining power in 2000 and determined to revive the “will to victory”, as the leading neoconservative thinker Richard Perle said, the coalition of the radical right in the Bush administration entangled the country in a war with unforeseeable consequences. History seems to repeat itself. Toward the end of the 1960s, vast parts of the American population were convinced “the establishment had lost its mind”. [2]

A year after the Iraq invasion, the society appears split again and torn by doubts. A sudden change in public opinion seems in the air. The revelations about the tortures in Iraqi prisons undermine the authority of the state and support the judgment that the war increased and did not diminish the terrorist threat. [3]

As emerged from two recent investigations, demoralization among the ground troops who manage the everyday occupation is very strong. A study commissioned by the army itself reveals the demoralization of the regular troops. Every second soldier admits: “The morale is bad”. [4] The second investigation underscores the despair of relatives considering the protracted war that could expand to other countries.

This could negatively influence the reinforcements of recruits, the study continues. This is hardly surprising since very few become professional soldiers out of pure conviction. The majority enlists in the army for other reasons, above all on account of the retraining chances and advantages in social and vocational life. [5] Therefore the sinking of the troops’ credibility seems likely. Many experts criticize that the army has too many irons in the fire and threatens to fall into an “institutional crisis”.

The meaning or goal of this war is also questioned in high military circles. High-ranking officers including members of the general staff are privately expressing strong criticism. In a December 2003 Institute publication, Jeffrey Record, professor at the US War College in Pennsylvania, wrote that the government made an enormous strategic mistake when it lumped together al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein. From that came a preventive war against a country that could have been immobilized or neutralized through deterrence. A new front for Islamic terrorism has been created in the Middle East and resources are squandered. [6]

The declared strategic goals of a “global combating of terrorism” are “unrealistic and condemn the United States to a hopeless striving for absolute security”. Appealing to an internal army report written before the invasion that foresaw “momentous problems in Iraq” for the case of a protracted occupation without international support, Record believed that the United States “will soon have to reduce its ambitions in Iraq” given the strained budgetary situation and the fading support in the population. [7]

This “realistic” criticism gains intensity when the objections of former high-ranking officers of the intelligence service are added. For example, Richard Clarke who served the system for thirty years is convinced: “The president of the United States undermined the war against terrorism through the invasion of Iraq.” [8] Other retired CIA officers have made similar statements. In November 2003, Milt Bearden said the United States could “underrate an enemy that it hardly knows” [9] and fall into a situation not unlike the situation of the Soviet troops in Afghanistan.

Ray Close, the former head of the CIA in Saudi Arabia, goes a step further: “The overall strategy in Iraq based on predictions and recommendations of neoconservative delusionists in Washington turns out to be a disaster, a disaster that informed observers saw coming from the start.” [10] That the Baghdad CIA headquarters had three different bosses in the course of a year is a sign of internal differences. The second change occurred when the office correctly reported about the fighting strength of the rebels.

The mood fluctuates between depression, bewilderment and anger in the State Department that hasn’t had much to say since the shifting of weight in favor of the Pentagon after September 11, 2001. Chief of staff Larry Wilkerson publically expressed the consensus in his house when he decried the “utopianists”, Richard Perle, the most important advisor of Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Rumsfeld’s representative Paul Wolfowitz were meant. They “never served in war but unscrupulously send men and women to their deaths”. [11]

Criticism increases more and more since the occupation is becoming more difficult and complicated than expected. According to Anthony Cordesman from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) [12], “the United States and its coalition drastically and intentionally underestimated the costs of the operational missions”, played down the losses of the allies and “systematically concealed the Iraqi losses”. 700 US soldiers were killed up to April 17, 2004 and 2,449 were seriously wounded up to March 31.

The total number of the wounded is far higher. Thus colonel Allan DeLane, commander of the Andrews military base that cares for the wounded in the United States said on National Public Radio on July 28, 2003: “I can’t give you exact numbers because this is secret information. However I can say that we have had over 4,000 since the beginning of the war and this number must be doubled to include the persons at the Walter Reed and Bethesda hospitals.” The casualties among the Iraqi civilian population estimated between 9,000 and 11,000 persons are almost never mentioned in public statements.

Concerning the financial costs, Cordesman has enormous doubts in the to 0 billion that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated for the time period 2004 to 2007. These numbers are very far removed from the actual costs for building a new economy that can satisfy the needs of the people. The Budget Office underestimates the financing need even assuming the “war and sabotage will not drive up the costs”. The costs for reconstruction and installation of a functioning government could be between and 0 billion. In comparison, the oil revenues will probably be below billion.

The US government is losing its ideological support in the population. As the author Gary Phillips formulated, the White House trusted in the “war enthusiasm of Americans” to build the new planned strategic weapon systems and win the coming election. The government also relies on the fear that proliferated after September 11 and on the arising anger to gather the society behind the national security state, to weld the elites together and smooth the contradictions within American democracy. With its simple interpretation of the “terrorist challenge”, the Bush administration sought – successfully at first – to unite the land behind a president who has little support in the population.

The fabricated fear of weapons of mass destruction made possible an extraordinary concentration of power in the executive, the weakening of the other branches, state arbitrariness and violations against the constitution. Soon a nationalist frenzy developed that was also fomented by the executive branch. This madness was also directed against everyone at home or abroad who dares oppose the US.

This “patriotic hysteria” – Anatol Lieven from the Carnegie Foundation compared it with the frame of mind of Europeans on the eve of the First World War = played down the goals of the imperial presidency. Its power hid behind alleged secrets, muzzled dissidents and prepared the American public for the war. This power orchestrated a dis-information campaign against the UN inspectors, floated the rumor coming from the Pentagon that Saddam Hussein was jointly responsible for the attacks of September 11. A national consensus was actually produced. Three-fourths of the American population approved the military intervention.

However this national consensus is now crumbling in the mountains of Afghanistan and the cities of Iraq. The war on Iraq “has deflated the imperial project”. The national harmony was founded on the state’s capacity to keep the society in a state of permanent mobilization. At the time of the Cold War, antagonistic social forces were focused in a collective effort and directed to a global enemy. The casualties demanded of the population were relatively light except for the Vietnam War. The Keynesian state provided the people with “guns and butter”.

With the end of the Cold War, permanent mobilization had a hard time “creating a new cultural constellation for political objectives and inventing a new all-powerful enemy abroad”. (13) Although radical Islamism replaced the USSR as a global danger, the perspective of an endless war with astronomically high costs now splits society again.

A year ago the republican coalition anchored in the South and West of the US was firmly in the saddle. No one regarded George W. Bush’s defeat in this year’s presidential election as possible. Entangled in internal disputes and silenced by a war that it largely supported itself, the Democratic Party seemed practically counted out. This has now changed since the party base expresses its anger, a base that had to experience four years ago how it lost victory on account of antiquated procedures. The indirect election of the president occurred through an electoral college composed according to victories in the states, not proportionally according to votes.

What will come out of the imperial project of the Bush administration depends entirely on the coming presidential election. In the case of a democratic election victory, a “resolute return to cooperation and a new issue of transatlantic relations”, a more realistic foreign policy aiming at consensus cannot be excluded. Anthony Blinken, foreign policy advisor of the democrats in the Senate, makes this argument. This does not mean any return to the status quo ante of the Clinton era but the prevention of an expansion of the crisis.

On the other hand, if Bush wins again, the attack is the best defense delusion threatens and the realization of the self-fulfilling prophecy of the American rightwing that sees a coming “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West. This will be a crucial test of strength for the system of international cooperation. The outcome is completely open.

The United States fluctuates between democratic renewal and totalitarian regression. The imperial temptation is presently weakened but hardly excised. Thus vice-president Dick Cheney proudly declared before the Los Angeles World Affairs Council on January 14 that “dramatic and far-reaching changes – in the structure of our armed forces, in our national security strategy and in the way we use our armed forces since the Second World War – are part of the legacy of this administration”. The path is also clear for Richard Perle. The Iranian and North Korean regimes “represent an intolerable threat for American security. We must advance with all our power against them and against all sponsors of terrorism – Syria, Libya and Saudi Arabia. Little time is left to us.” (14)

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