So there I was, listening to a few of the major "architects" of the war in Iraq -- Paul Wolfowitz, formerly No. 2 man at the Pentagon under Donald Rumsfeld; Douglas J. Feith, formerly No. 3 man at the Pentagon under Rumsfeld; Peter Rodman, another former senior adviser to Rumsfeld; and Dan Senor, former senior adviser to Paul Bremer of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). They had assembled at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., for a discussion of Feith's new book, "War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terrorism," but what they were drawn to discuss was what went wrong with the war in Iraq.
A rather large topic. Would it cover, perhaps, such grand themes as the multicultural Big Lie that insists Western ways may be grafted -- presto! -- onto Islamic cultures? Or maybe the difficulties inherent in the Western-style, humane projection of power against seventh-century terrorist barbarians?
The main discussion I heard turned more or less on one extremely narrow point of historic contention. It concerned the CPA rule of Iraq, which came to an end almost exactly four years ago. Wolfowitz and Feith, and Rodman to a less explicit degree, agreed that this period of American governance -- that is, the interlude before Iraq officially became sovereign -- was the fatal flaw, the fly in the ointment, the monkey wrench, the skunk at the garden party, the bad penny and overall cause of all of America's troubles in Iraq. It wasn't the overweening Bush administration plan for Jeffersonizing the Fertile Crescent, or our leaders' misreading of the "democratic ally" potential therein. It was the 14-month-reign of the CPA that caused all our woes. The CPA, the argument goes, in effect created the Sunni insurgency, which later gave rise to the Sunni-Shiite wars, and which ultimately required the added infusion of American troops known as the surge.
If I'm following this theory correctly, there is absolutely nothing in Iraqi history, politics, religion, sectarianism or culture that manifested itself in the bloody insurgency that followed the removal of Saddam Hussein. According to Feith & Co., it was only the American face on (and muscle behind) initial efforts to bring order, civil society and air conditioning to Iraq that made the newly ejected-from-power Sunnis (and others) organize, shoot, stab, blow up, maim and make violence a fact of Iraqi life to this day, four years into Iraqi sovereignty.
This sounds a bit like the asinine theory that tells us U.S. foreign policy made 19 jihadists attack us on 9/11. But isn't there also something a little goofy about the notion that if only the United States hadn't run an occupation government for a year, everything in Iraq would be hunky-dory? Not surprisingly, the CPA's Senor didn't agree with the Feithian proposition, arguing that the lack of a U.S. counterinsurgency strategy was a bigger problem. He didn't get much argument that this was a problem; indeed, Wolfowitz agreed the United States was, as he put it a trifle breezily, "pretty much clueless on counterinsurgency."
The classic clueless moment, however, came later in answer to a question from the floor: Did the administration ever tell Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia to bar combatants from crossing their borders into Iraq -- or else? And if not ("not" is clearly the answer since these borders have been Grand Central Station for jihadists), why not? Wolfowitz owned up that the United States had said something or other at some point, but, overall, the consensus on the dais came down to a big, shrugging non-answer.
I got one of those answers myself, at least from Feith. I asked: What did these gentlemen think the United States would ultimately get out of Iraq in exchange for our massive investment of blood and treasure? And had they learned anything to make them doubt the president's often-repeated promise that Iraq would become an "ally" in the "war on terror"? Shrug. Not interested in answering.
Looking back, there was a narrowness in the scope of discussion that time constraints alone can't explain. It was as though the men believed every clue to heartbreak in Iraq could be found in the chain of events as they had already occurred -- in papers already generated, debates already argued, rounds of infighting already waged, decisions already executed. In other words, to these men, there would seem to be nothing new worth pondering -- like, for instance, the havoc Islamic ways wreak on Western-style nation-building.