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."