"Turning Point" in the War in Iraq: But Which Way Is It Turning?

As Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top U.S. general in Iraq, unleashed a more aggressive plan to pulverize the intensifying insurgency, he declared that the war was at a turning point and was breaking America’s way. The divergence of that statement from reality is much like a blind man with an assault rifle insisting that he has killed all the gophers under his lawn.

Sanchez and the administration he serves are blind both literally and figuratively. American intelligence is so limited in Iraq that U.S. forces aren’t even sure who they are fighting and how organized they are. Sun Tzu, one of history’s most respected authorities on war, going back to the 5th Century B.C., believed that accurate intelligence on the enemy was the key to victory in any war. By ratcheting up the level of violence without having good intelligence, the Bush administration is making a horrendous mistake and is playing into the hands of the insurgents. Frequently, in guerrilla war, the insurgents attempt to provoke the stronger party into an excessively violent overreaction, thus shifting all-important popular opinion in the conflict zone from the occupiers to the guerrillas. The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong successfully pursued that strategy in the Vietnam War and the warlord Muhammad Aidid did so during the U.S. intervention in Somalia in the early 1990s. In the latter case, after an instance in which the U.S. military used excessive force, Somali public opinion rapidly turned from supporting the United States to supporting Aidid. Similarly, in Iraq, more aggressive U.S. tactics without good intelligence will likely lead to a surge in Iraqi civilian deaths and thus could rapidly exacerbate hostility in an Iraqi population already disgruntled with the American occupation.

Recent polls in Iraq, including a secret poll done by the U.S. State Department, ominously show that most Iraqis regard U.S. forces as occupiers rather than liberators. That unsettling fact contributed to a gloomy CIA assessment of the situation in Iraq that was endorsed by Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III, the administration’s top civilian in Iraq. According to press reports, the top-secret CIA analysis suggests that the war in Iraq is at a turning point, but reaches the opposite conclusion from the one reached publicly by Lt. Gen. Sanchez. The dismal CIA estimate reportedly notes that Iraqis are losing faith in the U.S. occupation forces and the U.S. hand picked Iraqi Governing Council.

Thus, the blindness of the administration is figurative, as well as literal. Lt. Gen. Sanchez and other administration officials, including Ambassador Bremer, have been excessively upbeat in public statements about the situation in Iraq, while the reality seems to be heading in the opposite direction. Senator John McCain, a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War and normally supportive of the administration’s invasion and occupation of Iraq, recently compared the divergence between the reality on the ground and the administration’s public pronouncements with the credibility gap in Vietnam. The administration is blind to the potentially catastrophic effects of lying to the American people about the conduct of a war. U.S. public opinion turned against the Vietnam War after a major offensive by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese in 1968 destroyed the credibility of the Johnson administration’s rosy assessments that the tide had turned and the United States was winning the war.

The situation in Iraq is so bad that one U.S. government official was quoted in the press as saying, “The trend lines are in the wrong direction. I haven’t seen anything in any of the intelligence reports that offers a hard and fast recipe for how to turn things around.” The administration has had no success in recruiting foreign forces to help in Iraq, cannot throw more U.S. forces into the fray without committing political suicide, and has no hope of creating competent and loyal Iraqi security forces anytime soon. So it has resorted to brute force. Already, the CIA notes the danger of the majority Shiite Muslim population joining with the minority Sunni Muslims in attacking U.S. forces. A U.S. escalation of violence and concomitant civilian casualties can only increase the probability that this catastrophic development could occur.

The Bush administration has painted itself into a corner and now has no good options. Believe it or not, the least odious alternative, both for America and for President Bush politically, is to withdraw U.S. forces, turn over Iraq to the Iraqis, take the criticism and move on. Ultimately, U.S. “credibility” will be greater under that scenario than if the administration lets the body bags pile up and waits until an election year before drawing down U.S. forces. Experts in investing say that investors often cannot admit to themselves psychologically that they made a mistake by investing in a poorly performing stock. They hold onto it too long, hoping that the price will go back up. Instead, they should sell the stock, cut their losses and invest their resources in something more profitable. In Iraq, President Bush would be wise to follow similar advice–cut his losses, bring the troops home before things get worse and let the Iraqis run their own country.