The “Year Zero” Strategy

The administration is failing in its goal of transforming Iraq into a client state of Washington.

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By Tom Engelhardt

Quote of the week: “A year ago, I did give the speech from the carrier, saying that we had achieved an important objective, that we’d accomplished a mission, which was the removal of Saddam Hussein. And as a result, there are no longer torture chambers or rape rooms or mass graves in Iraq.” (President Bush Welcomes Canadian Prime Minister Martin to White House, Friday, April 30, 2004)

It’s just a year and a couple of days since George Bush’s aircraft-carrier landing and Iraq is unraveling big time. I’ve quoted Vietnam War historian Marilyn Young before on this, but in the realm of analogies, we now do seem to be experiencing Iraq as, in her phrase, “Vietnam on crack cocaine.” It’s remarkable actually and, if human lives weren’t at stake and so much misery not being caused, it would certainly be comic. There has been much discussion of prewar and postwar Bush administration planning (or lack of it) for a future Iraq; but no one could have hoped to plan an occupation so precisely targeted when it came to alienating so many Iraqis, so fast, so deeply, and in so many ways — especially given the “act” we were following. Whatever the dark-side equivalent would be of having your ship come home, scoring a hole-in-one more than once, or winning the lottery repeatedly, that’s our occupation of Iraq. Saddam Hussein, brute that he was, should certainly have lent us at least a couple of years of imperial grace in our occupation; but no, not for the men (and woman) of the Bush administration whose arrogance, as the sole representatives of the Earth’s last great Empire, was — there’s no other word for it — o’erweening, and so, utterly blinding.

In the last week one of our tanks managed to blow a minaret off a mosque in Fallujah (snipers, it was claimed, were firing from it) and our Secretary of State defended the act, while photos of the utter degradation of naked Iraqi prisoners in the infamous jail of the former dictator were released to the world by the CBS TV’s 60 Minutes II. Only weeks ago, our Baghdad “administrator” (though that seems an odd term for him these days), L. Paul Bremer, compounded his many previous ill-timed acts by taking out after and shutting down the small if inflammatory newspaper of the radical cleric Mutaqa al Sadr and managed in the process to do the near impossible — single-handedly start a Shiite uprising against the occupation, while our airplanes (Vietnam anyone?) made “precision strikes” on the heavily inhabited Sunni city of Fallujah with 500 pound, laser-guided bombs, Hellfire missiles, and AC-130 gunships. In the meantime, our top military brass and their civilian counterparts (up to the President) swore we would never let the insurgents remain in Fallujah, that we would destroy them, that we would “kill or capture” the Shiite rebel cleric who had hunkered down in Najaf, and so on. Then, after hundreds and hundreds of Iraqi dead, the destabilization of the country, and soaring American casualties, the Marines withdrew from parts of Fallujah to allow a former Saddamist general (from his Republican Guard no less) to take care of things, while the various services and the Pentagon argued about what was happening — and then, while the insurgents were declaring victory, promptly threatened to remove the general… but need I go on?

Oh, and then, there was the flag fiasco. Let me see if I can even get this one straight. Our handpicked guys on the Iraqi Governing Council announced a “competition” to replace the Saddamist national flag, whose basic design turns out to have preceded Saddam, and the competition was miraculously “won” by Rifat Chadirij, an Iraqi artist living in London who just happened to be the brother of Nassir al-Chaderchi, “the chairman of the IGC committee charged with choosing a new flag for Iraq,” and whose design — “white with two parallel blue strips along the bottom representing the Tigris and Euphrates rivers with a yellow strip in between symbolizing the Kurds,” as well as a blue crescent to represent Islam — reminds many Iraqis of the Israeli flag. Thus, the insurgents now have free rein to wrap themselves nationalistically in the old red, black, and green flag. This is the sort of design coup d’etat you might expect of some comic-opera banana republic. (Patrick Cockburn and David Usborne, Burning with anger: Iraqis infuriated by new flag that was designed in London, the Independent)

Nothing these guys or their Iraqis touch turns to anything but dross.

Remember when American officials were claiming that American casualties and the insurgency by “Baathist deadenders” (later “foreign fighters,” later…) was restricted to the “Sunni Triangle” (not, by the way, especially triangular, just one of these Vietnam-era images that leaped so readily to the minds of our leaders, even as they were vehemently claiming that there was nothing whatsoever Vietnamish about what was going on and that it was nothing short of disloyal to think so). Though only bare months ago, already it seems like ancient history. Sunday, for instance, the American casualty count of eleven dead extended from Kirkuk in the north (one American soldier killed, a bomb and small arms fire) to Ramadi, 60 miles west of Baghdad and “Sunni Triangle” territory (6 dead and 30 wounded, a mortar attack), to northwest of Baghdad where two more Americans died (no details given), as did two in the southern city of Amarrah, where a convoy was attacked by Shiite rebels with rocket-propelled grenades and small arms (“Through the night and into Sunday morning, Iraqis set fire to the long line of abandoned vehicles, jumping on the hoods and beating them with sticks,” reported the Associated Press.)

Civil war among Iraqis has long been predicted if American troops withdraw. Civil war among various parts of the American military and the civilians running the Pentagon may be the result if we stay — charges are flying between reservists and the regular military over those hideous prison photos; between the Marines and the Army over the recent battles in Iraq; between the military men who seem to have negotiated the Fallujah withdrawal deal on the ground and the Pentagon civilians who were evidently caught quite off guard by it; and I think it’s fair to assume that, within the military high command, feelings toward this administration and the Pentagon neocons aren’t exactly on the warm and fuzzy side right now, given the ridiculous — and unbearably dangerous — situation our troops have been maneuvered into.

There is no greater sign of the delamination underway — that crack-cocaine effect — than the sudden popping up of calls for withdrawal from all over the lot, after so many weeks of uniform stay-the-course-ism in official Washington and in the media. Senator Robert Byrd, until recently a lone voice in the wilderness, spoke of withdrawal indirectly but eloquently on the Senate floor (“How long will America continue to pay the price in blood and treasure of this President’s war? How long must the best of our nation’s military men and women be taken from their homes to fight this unnecessary war in Iraq?”); as did Howard Zinn, quite directly, in a moving essay, “What Do We Do Now?” in the Progressive magazine (“There is a history of dire forecasts for what will happen if we desist from deadly force… Truth is, no one knows what will happen if the United States withdraws. We face a choice between the certainty of mayhem if we stay and the uncertainty of what will follow.”), as did Stephen R. Shalom in Where Do We Go From Here?, a thoughtful exploration of possibilities, difficulties, problems and positions on the issue of withdrawal at the ZNET website.

But it wasn’t only among the usual suspects that such calls were heard. On Sunday, in the lead article of the (admittedly liberal) San Francisco Chronicle were paragraphs I thought I might never live to see on the front page of a mainstream newspaper. The piece written by Robert Collier, who has delivered consistently fine Iraqi news coverage to the Chronicle, led with the following:

“As the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq stumbles from one problem to the next, suddenly everything seems to be up for grabs, and an administration that once seemed sure of its goals and its strategy now appears to be trying anything that might work.

“Having long resisted calls for United Nations involvement, the White House is now embracing it, expecting the world body to come up with a political solution that has evaded the United States. But with the chaotic surge in fighting and the growing discontent of ordinary Iraqis, even staunch supporters of the United Nations say it may not have the capacity to stop Iraq’s meltdown. And as the U.S. occupation prepares to hand over sovereignty to the Iraqis on June 30, calls are increasing for what until now has been widely viewed as unthinkable — a full-scale American troop withdrawal.”

But note as well the hawkish Robert Kagan’s recent Washington Post column, ‘Lowering Our Sights.’ He’s not especially in favor of withdrawal, but he certainly catches the mood of the moment in his own world:

“I find even the administration’s strongest supporters, including fervent advocates of the war a year ago and even some who could be labeled ‘neoconservatives,’ now despairing and looking for an exit… So get ready for the coming national debate over withdrawal. The unthinkable is becoming thinkable. And it isn’t hard to understand why. All but the most blindly devoted Bush supporters can see that Bush administration officials have no clue about what to do in Iraq tomorrow, much less a month from now.”

Meanwhile, on NBC’s Today show, General William E. Odom, former director of the National Security Agency, said, “”We have already failed. Staying in longer makes us fail worse … I think we’ve passed the chances not to fail. And now we are in the situation where we have to limit the damage.” In the Wall Street Journal he called directly for withdrawal. “The only question is how long we’re going to wait to leave and what price we’re going to have to pay if we try to stay.”

Official Washington, the President possibly excepted, is finally panicking. Too late, of course. As Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service points out (and no one has done better day-in, day-out reporting on the neocons), the U.S. “appears to be teetering on the brink of strategic defeat in its Mesopotamian adventure,” and he speaks directly for the first time of “the defeat of the neocons”:

“Indeed, over the past two weeks, the administration appears to have almost entirely jettisoned the neo-conservative vision of an ardently pro-US Iraq led by Iraqi National Congress (INC) chief Ahmed Chalabi, opened wide to US and western capital, and eager to serve as a convenient base for destabilizing Syria, Iran and even Saudi Arabia if it gets out of line.”

Chaos not just in Iraq, but in Washington. It’s a perfect moment then to look back over the last year and make some sense of the mess we’re in — but looking back only makes sense if you get your language right. In the piece that follows, Dilip Hiro, an expert on the Gulf region and author most recently of Secrets and Lies: Operation ‘Iraqi Freedom’ and After, discusses what’s worked and (mostly) what hasn’t for the Bush administration and why. In the process, he puts his finger on the main failure — which is to transform Iraq into a “client state.” In the last year, you can search our media for such a phrase or such an analysis — in vain; and that tells you the world about where we’ve been and where we are.

The “Year Zero” Strategy:

Bush’s Mission in Iraq Remains Unaccomplished
By Dilip Hiro

The post-war problems of the Anglo-American occupiers of Iraq stem from what they did — or did not — do during the run up to the invasion in March 2003 and during the subsequent fighting. The Bush administration focused almost totally on overthrowing the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in the shortest possible time and paid scant attention to the arduous task of tackling the post-invasion aftermath — an essential step to realizing its goal of transforming post-Saddam Iraq into a client state of Washington.

For instance, in their unseemly haste to reach Baghdad, the advancing American troops did not even pause to cordon off the arms dumps they came across, leaving the task for later. But when they returned to these sites, almost all the weapons and ammunition had been looted by nearby Iraqis who buried them in their fields, gardens, and backyards; so Iraq today is awash with small arms, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and even surface-to-air missiles.

The failure to prepare adequately for post-war Iraq stemmed from several sources. The most important was the impatience of President Bush and Vice President Cheney, intent as they were on attacking Iraq at the earliest possible moment after 9/11. Following a National Security Council (NSC) meeting at Camp David on September 15, 2001, Bush privately asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to prepare a contingency plan for military strikes on Iraq. This led Rumsfeld to examine the top secret Op Plan 1003, devised to overthrow the Iraqi regime, approved in 1996, and updated two years later, but not signed by his predecessor William Cohen.

In his latest book, Plan of Attack, the Washington Post‘s Bob Woodward reveals that even before U.S. forces had captured the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar on December 7, 2001, Bush turned his attention to overthrowing Saddam. On November 21, during a one-on-one meeting with Rumsfeld in a cubbyhole office next to the White House Situation Room, Bush asked what kind of Iraq war plan Rumsfeld had prepared. When the secretary of defense replied that it was “outdated” — meaning traditional and troop heavy – the President told him to work on a new one immediately. When the order to prepare a new plan within a week reached Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of the U.S. Central Command, then in the midst of conducting the Afghanistan campaign, he reportedly said, “Goddamn, what the fuck are they talking about.”

The second important reason for rushing into the Iraq war was the rising opposition to it at home in early 2003, with 37% of the American public against the invasion. Lastly, there was the Bush team’s uncritical acceptance of the rosy scenarios painted by Iraqi defectors like Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress (INC) as communicated through the Office of Special Plans (OSP) established by Rumsfeld to make an informational end-run around the CIA.

In tandem with the establishment of the OSP went Cheney’s and Rumsfeld’s strategy of ignoring even official documents that deviated from the overoptimistic scenario that neoconservative hardliners had concocted. In that category fell wide-ranging studies of a post-Saddam Iraq by 17 committees, appointed by the State Department, and summarized in the seventeen-volume Future of Iraq. These laid bare many of the snares and snags that would indeed be encountered in post-war Iraq.

The neocons in the Pentagon even suppressed Reconstructing Iraq, a monograph written by the Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute because it forecast in detail “possible severe security difficulties” and conflicts among Iraqis that the US forces could “barely comprehend.”

Moreover, when the predicted Iraqi welcome of the Anglo-American forces as liberators, and the switching of loyalties by the Iraqi military and police from Saddam to the Pentagon failed to materialize, the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld trio did not critically reexamine the basic assumptions on which they had built their post-war scenario.

But then the trio could not have done so: They had already invested too heavily and too publicly in their version of the New Iraq. This comes through clearly in former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill’s description (in Ron Suskind’s book The Price of Loyalty) of an NSC meeting that took place on February 1, 2001. When Secretary of State Colin Powell initiated the debate on Iraq by explaining the “targeted sanctions” against Baghdad he was proposing, Rumsfeld interrupted him. “What we really want to think about is going after Saddam,” he said.

The secretary of defence then launched into an assessment of broader American goals. “Imagine what the region would look like without Saddam and with a regime that’s aligned with US interests. It would change everything in the region and beyond. It would demonstrate what US policy is all about.” He discussed post-Saddam Iraq, the Kurds in the north, the country’s oilfields, and the reconstruction of its economy. Later the Defence Intelligence Agency would circulate among NSC members a document entitled Foreign Suitors for Iraqi Oilfield Contracts, showing the nine blocks into which the largely undeveloped southwest of Iraq was divided.

Little wonder that the Bush team pressed ahead with its preconceived plans, endorsed strongly by Chalabi, to dissolve the Iraqi military, police, and security agencies as well as the Baath Party, and to bar Baathists from jobs in the public sector and government. In other words, it created a “Year Zero” scenario with its concomitant total political-administrative vacuum. This was contrary to what the United Nations had done in Bosnia where it applied a gradualist approach to dismantling the old regime.

These actions had catastrophic economic consequences. Under the old regime, one-third of all wage earners had been dependent on the government. With the looting and physical destruction of all the administrative ministries in Baghdad — except the Oil Ministry — and the disbandment of the military and police, unemployment quickly soared to 60-75%, with many of the jobless now being former soldiers and policemen.

The Bush team thus sowed the seeds of insurgency, which would sprout soon after.

The Neocon’s Set the Agenda

Such behavior points to an obsession that is both irrational and longstanding. The prime mover behind this policy was Vice President Cheney, appointed by President-elect Bush in December 2000 to select his top team for administering foreign and defense policies after he himself had chosen Colin Powell as his secretary of state and Condoleezza Rice as his national security adviser.

In the words of O’Neill in The Price of Loyalty, “Cheney would offer oversight and protection. Rumsfeld would be the point man. Paul Wolfowitz will back Rumsfeld from inside the Pentagon. From the outside, Richard Perle, heading the civilian Defense Policy Advisory Group, would counsel the Pentagon, the White House and the CIA.”

It was Perle who had coached Bush on Middle Eastern affairs during the election campaign. “The first time I met Bush 43… two things became clear,” Perle later said publicly. “One, he didn’t know very much. The other was that he had the confidence to ask questions that revealed that he didn’t know very much.” Given such a clean slate, Perle imprinted on it his strong Likudnik views.

By then, Perle had shared in the authorship of A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm — the “realm” being Israel — produced in July 1996. As a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a leading neocon think-tank, Perle led the team that authored the above document for the newly elected Likud Party Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel.

It advised Netanyahu to “make a clean break from the peace process” — that is, to abrogate the 1993 Oslo Accords and “reassert Israel’s claim to its land by rejecting ‘land for peace’ as the basis of peace.” This meant that Israel should treat all of the former British mandate Palestine as “its land,” strengthen Israel’s defenses to better confront Syria and Iraq, and forge a new and stronger relationship with the United States based on self-reliance and mutual interest.

In cooperation with Turkey and Jordan, the document suggested, Israel could weaken, contain, or even roll back Syria. “This effort can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq — an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right,” recommended the authors. (For the full text, visit

The following year, Perle was a key player in the founding of the Project for the New American Century, a pressure group of neocons chaired by William Kristol. On the eve of President Bill Clinton’s State of the Union speech in January 1998, these neocons addressed an open latter to him, stating that Saddam’s removal from power “needs to become the aim of the American foreign policy.”

They then lobbied Congress, an endeavor in which Cheney and Rumsefld — both of them with illustrious records as leading Republican congressmen — joined enthusiastically. The result was the passing of the Iraq Liberation Act in October 1998. It empowered Clinton to spend up to $97 million in military aid to train, equip, and finance an Iraqi opposition army, and authorized the Pentagon to train the insurgents.

The next year Perle, followed by Wolfowitz, then dean of the Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, embraced the thesis in Laurie Mylroie’s book, The War Against America: Saddam Hussein and the World Trade Center Attacks: A Study of Revenge, published by AEI, that Saddam was behind the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City.

After 9/11, Wolfowitz dispatched James Woolsey, a former CIA director and a Mylroie fan, to Britain to gather additional evidence to support Mylroie’s assertion and to link hijacker Muhammad Atta as an Iraqi intelligence agent. The Woolsey mission, that infuriated not only Powell but also CIA Director George Tenet, failed.

“No, no to Saddam; No, no to America”

Overall, if there is one bright spot in this Iraq saga for the Bush team, it is the actual conduct of the war. True, the Anglo-American invaders encountered more resistance, offered more resolutely, than they had expected. But the key, highly original element for the Pentagon planners — “Let us do things that Saddam does not expect us to do” — worked.

Central to that strategy was a plan to get Iraqi generals to stop doing their jobs. This undeclared non-cooperation was to be won primarily with bribes, and fostered by communications breakdowns between the Iraqi central command and its regional commands, achieved by the Pentagon’s hi-tech weaponry — all combined with relentless propaganda and psychological pressure put on loyal military officers.

Saddam’s plan was to overcome the expected communications breakdowns by using a messenger service as he had done during the 1991 Gulf War. What he did not envisage was that many of his generals would go on an undeclared strike in the wake of relentless, ferocious bombing by the world’s most powerful and technologically advanced military machine, which impressed on them the hopelessness of trying to defend Baghdad without any air support.

The reason why Saddam did not visualize the “betrayal” scenario was that the first and foremost requirement for promotion in the military was total loyalty to him. Before any Iraqi was considered for a military commission, he was vetted by the Baath Party’s security bureau, chaired by Saddam, for his loyalty to the Leader and the Party. To ensure the loyalty of his officers to him, he established Military Security in 1992 with a mandate to maintain internal security within the armed forces. It served him well. Over the next decade, it aborted half a dozen military coup attempts against him.

The collapse of Saddam’s regime — founded on domestic terror, political cunning, and a gargantuan personality cult — brought immense relief to most Iraqis. But the fact that this release from Saddam and his security-intelligence apparatus was carried out by the United States left them confused. They were suspicious of Washington. After all, it was the U.S. that was primarily responsible for the United Nations sanctions which pauperized them. They also irrevocably linked America with Israel, which had taken away the Palestinian’s land and occupied the rump Palestine for 36 years. Many of them were aware, too, that the United States was fast running out of its own oil deposits, which Iraq had in abundance.

This ambivalence, prevalent among Iraqis, at being simultaneously “liberated” and occupied by a superpower they distrusted deeply — encapsulated in the slogan, “No, no to Saddam; No, no to America” — has shaped the post-invasion history of Iraq, with the rise of Sunni insurgency followed by an uprising by the partisans of Shia cleric Muqtada al Sadr. And it is this phenomenon that has thwarted the Bush team’s overarching mission of transforming post-Saddam Iraq into an American client state.

Dilip Hiro is the author of Iraq: In the Eye of the Storm (Nation Books). His latest book is Secrets and Lies: Operation ‘Iraqi Freedom’ and After, (Nation Books).

This piece will appear in print in the Middle East International (London & Arlington).

Copyright C2004 Dilip Hiro

Additional dispatches from Tom Engelhardt can be read throughout the week at, a web log of The Nation Institute.


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