Friday, December 01, 2006

Messianic Antinomianism in Iraq

Americans used to know how to do stuff.

Not that I’m taking away anything from the Young Repubs hired out of the Heritage Foundation who are putting in long hours in Baghdad’s isolated Green Zone trying to fix Iraq. I’m sure they’re working their hearts out, but I’ve seen this kind of frantic late-night flailing being done by young consultants in the corporate world too.

At the beginning of World War II, the undersized US Army was training with wooden cut-outs of rifles and tanks. At the end of World War II, America was the arsenal of democracy, with the world’s largest and best built flotilla of ships and hangars full of planes. The transition took place in less time than, oh, let’s see… the amount of time that we’ve been in Iraq. Even though there might not be enough body armor for all of the troops in Iraq yet, they are likely to tell you that the various contractors have made sure that the military cafeterias in Mosul have all of the ice cream they could possibly ever need.

I’m currently in the midst of reading George Packer’s The Assassins’ Gate. America in Iraq. One of the things that has really struck me about the fiasco in Iraq is how similar it is to the devolution of corporate and government performance here in America itself over the past couple of decades.

If you put people in government who believe that government can’t do anything right, you have a sure-fire recipe for a self-fulfilling prophecy. It bemuses me why people who hold that view want to go into public service to begin with. “Vote for me, and I’ll make sure we don’t do anything”. This is why you wind up with hacks everywhere. This is why we see union-busters heading the Department of Labor. This why we see oil industry apologists who deny global warming working for this administration. This is why you have a guy who wants to dissolve the United Nations representing the US at the United Nations. This is why you get a guy who ran Arabian horse shows in charge of FEMA. I can’t say that the American venture in Iraq ever could have “worked” under any circumstances, but the incompetent and woeful federal response to Hurricane Katrina and the catalogue of errors in Iraq seem to me to be different manifestations of the same syndrome.

During World War II, the effort was led by brilliant, brilliant men like George Marshall who knew how to create, lead, and work within vertical beauracracies with great efficiency. From the prosecution of the war effort through the implementation of the Marshall Plan, American logistics worked hand-in-hand with enlightened government policy to achieve outstanding success. FDR’s team believed in government and what it could do. All was accomplished without a single computer, too. Typing pools, carbon copies, and filing cabinets. Amazing. Truth be told, from the Civil War onward, the enemies of the US Army never particularly feared the fighting skills of our citizen soldiers. What made us unstoppable was our unmatched skill at mass-production and logistics. We could always bring the most men and material to bear where they were needed most. Even during the Viet Nam War, I don’t ever remember hearing that there was no electricity in Saigon. Something has changed in the way we do things. I believe George Marshall would have been shocked, considering the size of our military budget, how many private contractors we use for various things in Iraq today, including security (actually, in that case, they should be called mercenaries, not contractors). After all, he had an Army Corps of Engineers to work with. Do we really even have an Army Corps of Engineers anymore? Do our universities even churn out American-born civil engineers in any noteworthy numbers, or are they all from somewhere else?

I don’t agree with the European/Arab critique that the United States was motivated to go into Iraq to “steal” their oil. That's not quite on the mark. It is nothing so sinister as that. It was all in the best of intentions. The neo-con set that has dominated the Republican Party since the Reagan era doesn’t want to steal oilfields. What they want, because they believe this as an article of faith in an almost religiously dogmatic way, is for everything in the world to be privatized. I’m convinced that if the war in Iraq had gone the way that George Bush expected it too, he’d be asking today for fast track authority to sign an Iraqi-American Free Trade Agreement.

In Packer’s book, you can read about the arrival of Paul Bremer in Iraq as the new head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, replacing the outgoing Jay Garner, wearing his Brooks Brothers suit and combat boots. Within a matter of days, and with very little consultation, Bremer made a series of fateful decisions (that almost everyone agrees in hindsight) fueled the insurgency and made the American mission in Iraq almost impossible to achieve. He extended the de-Baathification program down to much lower levels than had been done previously, he disbanded the Iraqi Army, and dismissed the interim government. In effect, he threw hundreds of thousands of people out of work overnight.

From what I can gather, Bremer was the kind of hard-charging CEO-type that is worshipped by a lot of people these days. A take-charge, “sense of urgency” kind of guy.

I’ve been in the corporate world for 25 years, and I’ve seen a lot of changes in the way people work. When I started out, there was a high premium on competence, earning respect, paying your dues, loyalty, and knowing your craft. People stayed at companies for a long time, moving up the ranks, so accountability was something everyone was aware of. You built a rep, a track record, and people had long memories. As the years went on, people started moving from company to company much more frequently. We went into the age of “get funded, work hard, screw up, get bought out, get rich.” A high premium was put on working long hours and slapping things together quickly and cheaply. A lot of executives dropped the paternalistic style, and earned their bonuses by slashing costs and demanding of their employees that they deliver better customer service regardless. If your employees didn’t respond positively, that was OK, you could just move on. You weren’t planning on staying there long anyway. You don’t have friends at work, just temporary associates. “So, I laid off a 25-year employee with a bunch of college tuitions to pay? That deadwood was old enough to be my father, he should have been doing something more challenging if he was any good at all. If he didn’t keep up his skills to get another job, that’s his problem, not mine. F___ him.” About ten years ago I noticed that a bunch of executives at the company where I worked were reading "Chainsaw" Al Dunlap’s Mean Business: How I Save Bad Companies and Make Good Companies Great as if it was sacred scripture. They wound up selling out friends and colleagues they’d been working with for decades. Of course, this was before Dunlap was indicted for shadily mis-reporting revenues on Sunbeam’s books.

Where am I going in a roundabout way? In a country where all institutions of authority had vanished, where the infrastructure was badly damaged by war and looting, where there was no industry, and where there was no security, Bremer made a series of “F___ you” decisions without seeming to reflect on the possible consequences. Did he reflect on the fact that in a country awash in weapons, that angry people might decide to rise up against us for it? A country psychologically demoralized from decades of totalitarianism and brutality? A country rife with conspiracy theories? Did his “sense of urgency” style preclude that? It wasn’t like laying off 52-year-old Americans.

The neo-con, libertarian Republican believes in the power of unfettered, laissez faire economics as a matter of unassailable truth. It is, in fact, their real religion no matter what other religion they claim to hold... It is a theology as much as it is a science for them. In addition to that is their firm conviction that everyone in the world really wants to be an American. Inside every one of these foreigners is an American struggling to get out. This conviction wasn’t limited to them in the past, of course. In the book Backfire: A History of How American Culture Led Us into Vietnam and Made Us Fight the Way We Did, written back in the eighties, it was argued that American arrogance and hubris – this messianic belief that we can force freedom on the peoples of the world before they are ready for it, contributed to our downfall in Viet Nam.

In Packer’s book, I was struck by a reference to Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous Henny Penny speech that underlined the neo-con’s antinomian mentality and goes to the very heart of the problem with this administration’s whole policy regarding Iraq from day one.

From the Pentagon, flush with the success of his war plan, Rumsfeld regarded the rising chaos in Baghdad with equanimity. "Stuff happens," the official in charge of postwar Iraq said, "and it's untidy, and freedom's untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things."

Rumsfeld's words, which soon became notorious, implied a whole political philosophy. The defense secretary looked upon anarchy and saw the early stages of democracy. In his view and that of others in the administration, but above all the president, freedom was the absence of constraint. Freedom existed in divinely endowed human nature, not in man-made institutions and laws. Remove a thirty-five-year-old tyranny and democracy will grow in its place, because people everywhere want to be free. There was no contingency for psychological demolition. What had been left out of the planning were the Iraqis themselves.

For Rumsfeld, this view was a matter of convenience more than anything else, since nothing in his career suggested that he had given the subject any thought. For others, including those working under him at the Pentagon, it was something like an article of faith, and when their critics used the word "theology" - as they often did – to describe the neoconservative approach to spreading democracy in the region, they weren't completely wrong. This faith defied both history and the live evidence on CNN. It led directly to the gutting and burning of all the key institutions of the Iraqi state…
…But the administration's failures in the weeks following the fall of Baghdad, which set Iraq's course after Saddam and continue to haunt the American effort today, were not entirely the result of constraints and mistakes. In a sense they were deliberate. If there was never a coherent postwar plan, it was because the people in Washington who mattered never intended to stay in Iraq. "Rummy and Wolfowitz and Feith did not believe the U.S. would need to run postconflict Iraq," said a Defense Department official. "Their plan was turn it over to these exiles very quickly and let them deal with the messes that came up. Garner was a fall guy for a bad strategy. He was doing exactly what Rummy wanted him to do. It was the strategy that failed."


RoseCovered Glasses said...

You make many good points in your article. I would like to supplement them with some information:

I am a 2 tour Vietnam Veteran who recently retired after 36 years of working in the Defense Industrial Complex on many of the weapons systems being used by our forces as we speak.

If you are interested in a view of the inside of the Pentagon procurement process from Vietnam to Iraq please check the posting at my blog entitled, “Odyssey of Armements”

The Pentagon is a giant,incredibly complex establishment,budgeted in excess of $500B per year. The Rumsfelds, the Adminisitrations and the Congressmen come and go but the real machinery of policy and procurement keeps grinding away, presenting the politicos who arrive with detail and alternatives slanted to perpetuate itself.

How can any newcomer, be he a President, a Congressman or even the Sec. Def. to be - Mr. Gates- understand such complexity, particulary if heretofore he has not had the clearance to get the full details?

Answer- he can’t. Therefor he accepts the alternatives provided by the career establishment that never goes away and he hopes he makes the right choices. Or he is influenced by a lobbyist or two representing companies in his district or special interest groups.

From a practical standpoint, policy and war decisions are made far below the levels of the talking heads who take the heat or the credit for the results.

This situation is unfortunate but it is ablsolute fact. Take it from one who has been to war and worked in the establishment.

This giant policy making and war machine will eventually come apart and have to be put back together to operate smaller, leaner and on less fuel. But that won’t happen unitil it hits a brick wall at high speed.

We will then have to run a Volkswagon instead of a Caddy and get along somehow. We better start practicing now and get off our high horse. Our golden aura in the world is beginning to dull from arrogance.

Jeff said...

Hi Ken,

Thank you for visiting. I'm glad that you made it home from Viet Nam, and I'm sorry for much of what you have had to go through since. I'm hoping that what we are learning now about treating Iraq War veterans for PTSD might be useful in treating Viet Nam War veterans as well.

Your Odyssey of Armamants article was interesting and very informative. I know about this only in a very limited sense from a close friend who used to work in procurement for Raytheon years ago. What he told me echoes much of what you said.

I suppose all systems suffer from entropy over time and inevitably start to break down. Also, we were warned by some of the architects of this system, like Dwight D. Eisenhower himself, about the dangers of the military-industrial complex. It is certainly evident that the Pentagon continued to push for weapons systems to be used against a Cold War threat in Central Europe long after it was necessary.

Putting aside for the moment whether this war was even moral, legal, or necessary....

Most of my criticism in my post was levelled more at the civilian leadership in the Defense Department and the administration itself more than the military brass. Are you saying that the generals are more to blame? It seemed to me that Rumsfeld rode roughshod over objections from several of his generals until he found one who was willing to go along with his scaled-back plan to do this on the cheap. As one of your correpsondents pointed out, General Zinni advocated Desert Crossing with a force of 400,000 men. BTW, I think what Franks did was terrible - to lead that lean force push to Baghdad, then retire, collect his Presidential Freedom Award, and write a book while the divisions he led were left behind, with some of these men still out there on their third tour now.

I'm planning on reading Tom Ricks' book Fiasco about the military mistakes that may have been made, but it seems to me that this whole thing was much more of a political, ideological, and policy blunder, prompted by arrogance...

As for the Pentagon, I've no doubt that what you say is true, but at its best, I'm still amazed at what the American military can accomplish logistically. In the response to the Tsunami and to various earthquakes around the world, they've shown that they can still move material more quickly and efficiently than anyone else.

Something about the way things are organized in Iraq, though, are seriously awry. In some cases we have infantry officers running civilian affairs projects like building schools and sewage systems - work for which they are not trained - while "contractors" are providing "security", often in a heavy-handed way that antagonizes Iraqis. Very strange.

Steve Bogner said...

Jeff, this is a great post! I've been consulting companies for 10 years now, and prior to that worked in corporate accounting/HR functions. You describe very well the decline of corporate America. I've seen the decline first-hand, all over the spectrum from large to small, private secotr & public sector. It really is disheartening to see how people get treated, and it's sad to see management quality traded for a quick buck.

Jeff said...

Hi Steve,

Yeah, it seems that the nature of all relationships in our culture is designed to be temporary, and that has crept into the workplace as well.

Sometimes I wonder if we've come to rely too much on technology. There is too much information flying around for it all to be processed. It makes it hard to think clearly. I wonder if all of this technology has stunted our thinking... Have we forgotten how to do real work?

Liam said...

This is a great post, Jeff. I wish I had more time so I could comment on it further, but c'est la vie...

Jeff said...

Thanks, Liam. I know you're up to your eyeballs in Alfonso's charters. Thanks for stopping in.

Joe said...

Great post once again Jeff! By January my time will become somewhat more of "my own" and hope to drop in more regularly. But its always a joy to come back here...
I'd have to go along with nearly everything you've (brilliantly) written. My only doubt and where I might take exception would be about the good intentions of going into Iraq in the first place. (I'm certainly not referring to the brave men and women who are convinced of their mission and who are making tremendous sacrifices there, much in the same way our dads did in WWII and Korea.) In fact I'm not even referring to the specific intentions of Bush or Rummy. Like all major conflicts, I sense Iraq too was largely interest-driven, then dressed appropriately with motivational phrases like WMD, Sadaam a ruthless tyrant*, to ensure the buy in of the muscle required to carry out the battle. I guess its a pretty harsh view, but as I get older it becomes more and more clear to me. I get more impatient with what seems to be selective understanding on the part of too many good intentioned people. Reminds me of a NY Times headline my dad showed me many, many years ago that simply said: "WAKE UP AMERICA!"
Keep up what you're doing Jeff. You're amazing!
un abrazo fuerte,

*(this is surely the truth, though its interesting to see the evolution of his relationship (partnership?) with the West / US while it was in our interest.)

Jeff said...

Hi Joe!

Welcome back as always. Your post reminds me that I still need to check out The History of Oil as you suggested to me previously.

I hear what you're saying. I guess I know that the Bush family is in tight with the Saudis, and that the whole administration is in tight with the oil industry, and Halliburton was lined up for sweetheart deals, etc... Do the conspirators need to consciously know that the conspiracy is in play for the "conspiracy" to be real? I don't know. I suppose it's true that a lot of these guys are up to their chins in oil; they've got it flowing through their veins for crying out loud...

Just the same, though, I honestly don't think that it is anything quite so craven. There is a long paper trail on the history of the thinkers and movers and shakers of this neo-con set. They'd been thinking about this for a long time, and it really is a messianic ideological bent of theirs, hard though it may be to believe. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, this was a group of quite philosophical thinkers who believed that the power of the free market and the American Project had been resoundingly vindicated, and that it was America's duty to lead, because the rest of the western world was too comfortable and feckless to do so in the face new challnges that would inevitably come. They firmly believed that America's power and ascendancy and hegemony must be protected at all costs, and that no one should be allowed to challenge us, economically or militarily. Hence, the doctrine of pre-emptive war. Their views concerning economics and globalization dovetail exactly with what we have increasingly seen in the executive class over the last couple of decades, as you have well seen yourself, having traveled in those circles.

One thing for sure at any rate, and here is a quote from the book that could become an alternate title-box phrase on just about any blog:

...the Iraq War, like every war - just or unjust, won or lost - became a conspiracy of the old and powerful against the young and dutiful.

Great post my friend. Please come by more often if you can.

cowboyangel said...


Excellent post. You should be sending your work - including this post - out to publishers.

Much to comment on - I don't even know where to begin. I already spoke a bit about Assassin's Gate in one of our previous exchanges.

Great point about Marshall and WWII.

I do fear sometimes that the U.S. is moving from a "can do" society to a nation of people whose primary skill is selling hamburgers.

Look at the amazing amount of infrastructure we built in the first half of this century - dams, bridges, an interstate highway system, etc. Now, we have the Big Dig and Katrina.

I had never heard of Backfire. Will look into that. Along the same lines, I would suggest Halberstam's _The Best and the Brightest_, on how the brilliant geniuses of the Kennedy administration - and later Johnsons - got us into Vietnam. A great book on how the political system works.

Oh, hard to write about these things.

You saw that the Irag Study Group is pushing for Iraq to change its oil law, privatizing the national oil industry and opening it up to foreign investment. (Hmm, I wonder who that would be? James Baker doesn't have oil connections, does he?)

Oof. All anyone had to do was read about the Brits in Iraq in the 1920s and the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. "It's one thing to take Kabul. It's another thing to rule it."

Jeff said...

Hi William,

Well, that McDonaldization of the American skill-set might have an up-side. As we get surpassed in technical know-how by other nations (because we've outsourced it all), maybe we'll need to learn how to do some real hard diplomacy instead of resorting to dropping smart-bombs on people, because at some point we are going to lose the ability to do so, as Ken has pointed out.