America's handling of the occupation of Iraq came in for scathing criticism yesterday, with government officials accused of living in a 'fantasyland' and failing to learn from mistakes made in Vietnam.
A report issued by the independent Centre for Strategic and International Studies charged that the occupation had been handled by 'ideologues' in the Bush administration who consistently underestimated the scale of the problems they were facing and this had contributed to a culture in which facts were wilfully misrepresented.
The report lists a litany of errors on the part of the US. 'Their strategic assessments of Iraq were wrong,' it says. 'They were fundamentally wrong about how the Iraqi people would view the United States invasion. They were wrong about the problems in establishing effective governance, and they underestimated the difficulties in creating a new government that was legitimate in Iraqi eyes.
'They greatly exaggerated the relevance and influence of Iraqi exiles, and greatly underestimated the scale of Iraq's economic, ethnic, and demographic problems.'
The report lays responsibility for these errors with the policymakers in Washington.
'The problem with dealing with the Iraqi army and security forces was handled largely by ideologues who had a totally unrealistic grand strategy for transforming Iraq and the Middle East,' the report says.
Under the heading 'Denial as a method of counter-insurgency warfare', it notes that the US 'failed to honestly assess the facts on the ground in a manner reminiscent of Vietnam'.
But there was a rare attempt at honesty in the Pentagon yesterday when the defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, said he was 'truly saddened' that anybody might think he did not care about US soldiers. 'Their grief,' he said, 'is something I feel to my core.'
The full report (large PDF) is, if anything, more damning than The Guardian's description. I'm still reading but I was really struck by:
To date, and at every stage, the transition process has failed to deliver anticipated results. The Interim Governing Council was not a representative body; the current government has not been in a position to exercise actual sovereignty since June 2004; and Iraq's security forces will not be capable of ensuring security by January 2005. Politically, whatever grace period Prime Minister Allawi once enjoyed seems a thing of the past. Too tough for some, insufficiently so for others, and overly dependent on the U.S. for most, he is bereft of genuine political backing, social basis or functioning institutions. Worthy as it was, the attempt to broaden political participation through a national conference was taken over by the formerly exiled opposition, depriving it of credibility and longterm relevance.
Yet, while the political timetable bears little relation to reality, it has become essentially unalterable: given the huge mistrust developed since April 2003, any significant modification, however sensible, would probably be viewed as a U.S. attempt to perpetuate the occupation.29 Given the de facto equation of a successful transition process with adherence to a formal calendar, moreover, any such alteration also would be viewed as a major setback. Delaying the transfer of sovereignty until such time as it could actually be exercised, or postponing elections until they could be truly inclusive,30 carry such high political costs because of the worsening situation -- in other words, for the precise reason that delay and postponement would make sense.
It strikes me that the real weakness in almost everything the Bush administration does is impunity. They practice impunity at every turn from authorising torture and then denying they've authorised it to defying the UN charter to misleading the American people about progress. Not one US official has everbeen dismissed or even criticised for the conduct of this quagmire. The ultimate price of that is going to be terrible for the American people, but incalculably worse for the Iraqis who have been conscripted as bit-players in a US political drama.