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Issue No. 81 (January 1, 2006) -- Mark Satin, Editor

The radical middle take
on Iraq

Probably the most difficult political issue of our time was how to respond to the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. You could even say that the moral and practical worth of a political philosophy can be measured by how well it came to grips with Iraq.

By that measure, the traditional left and right have had their day. The left was perfectly willing to leave Saddam in control so long as he didn’t demonstrably threaten us with weapons of mass destruction. The right attempted regime change on the cheap, with disastrous and all too predictable consequences.

Neither left nor right appeared to care overmuch about ordinary Iraqis.

As I see it, the radical middle position on Iraq is less self-centered. It is rooted in the emerging idea that protection of the basic humanity of all the world’s peoples trumps national sovereignty (see RE:SOURCES section at the end of this article).

Accept that premise and you too would be committed to helping eliminate a tyrant who’d killed or tortured hundreds of thousands of Iraqis over 30 years, had nearly the entire population living in fear, and had his psychotic sons waiting in the wings.

In addition, you’d be committed to seeking self-rule (aka democracy) in Iraq -- partly because self-rule is an aspect of being fully human, partly because the example of self-rule in Iraq might stir and embolden other peoples in the region.


Suppose you share those commitments. In other words, suppose you think the invasion of Iraq was justified or justifiable (however much you may have deplored Bush’s rationale, timing, and methods). Suppose you are what New Yorker war correspondent George Packer calls himself -- an “ambivalently prowar liberal” -- or simply a radical middle global citizen.

Now that the war is in its third year, what would you have done differently? Could it have been fought more responsibly and -- therefore -- more successfully? Could it have provided Iraqis with regime change, physical and economic security, and a chance for genuine self-rule?

According to Packer in his beautifully written and carefully nuanced new book, The Assassins’ Gate: America In Iraq (2005) (winner of Radical Middle Newsletter’s Political Book Award for 2005), the answer is a qualified “yes.”

We’d have had to make the right moves up and down the line.

More than any book I know, Packer’s lays those moves out for all to see. Because it does, it is a virtual blueprint for radical middle engagement with Iraq (and by extension, with other global hotspots).

If you want to learn to act as a robust and responsible global citizen, you can do worse than go through Packer with a fine-tooth comb and list all the major points he made.

Here is my list:

1. Saddam was really, really, really bad. To leave him in control and call that “peace” was obscene. It was nothing any genuine peace movement should have wanted to do.

Packer confirms that Iraqi exile Kanan Makiya’s 1989 book title -- “Republic of Fear” -- was entirely accurate. And he gets admirably, chillingly specific. For example, he describes the plight of one doctor who was ordered to cut off the ears of Iraqi dissidents.

Time and again, Packer contrasts the actual situation of ordinary Iraqis with the precious assumptions of the peace movement in the U.S. For example:

The [New York City antiwar] protesters saw themselves as defending Iraqis from the terrible fate that the United States was preparing to inflict on them. Why would Iraqis want war? The movement’s assumptions were based on moral innocence -- on an inability to imagine the horror in which Iraqis lived, and a desire for all good things to go together, for total vindication. War is evil; therefore, the prevention of war must be good.

2. “Weapons of mass destruction” was never the only, or even the primary, reason we invaded Iraq. It was the lowest-common-denominator reason.

Packer quotes Wolfowitz as follows: “The truth is that for reasons that have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy, we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on, which was weapons of mass destruction.”

Packer notes that Wolfowitz had all along suggested he had bigger ideas, e.g. democratizing Iraq and cleansing the region of tyrannies, but was afraid such ideas would have been too “complex” and “abstract” to sell to the public. Do you find that as outrageous as I do? And as big a miscalculation?

3. The Administration’s most committed war supporters were not bad people. They were, however, dangerously caught up in abstractions.

Packer spends a great deal of time humanizing people like Wolfowitz, Feith and Perle -- we even learn whose daughter Perle was at one time dating.

But Packer also shows us how cut off from Iraqi reality they were. The infatuation with elitist philosophers like Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom, the related hankering for a “revolution from above,” the obsession with “totalitarianism” rather than pursuit of a deep understanding of Islam -- it is all here.

4. They can also be faulted for their lack of creativity and imagination.

This newsletter has been filled with reports on national and global debates about humanitarian military intervention, international standards, democracy promotion. According to Packer, Bush’s top officials simply sat those debates out. Too Clintonesque, they felt. Too far out of the box.

Moreover, “They had little to say about the new, borderless security threats -- failed states, ethnic conflict, poverty, ‘loose nukes’ . . . and global terrorism. [Wolfowitz’s] worldview left even him unprepared to deal with or even to acknowledge a stateless organization with an ideology of global jihad.”

4a. Not to mention arrogance.

You’d think these good, intelligent souls would have been quick to mend their ways. But, no. They had developed what Packer deftly calls a “theology of confidence.” Time and again, where it “could have made a difference, the advice of experts was unwelcome.”

5. Bureaucratic maneuvering and infighting helped cripple our war effort.

If you read Samantha Power’s extraordinary book about America in the age of genocide, “A Problem from Hell” (2002) -- a book that traced many of our worst (and best!) decisions on genocide back to petty bureaucratic battles -- then you’ll be prepared for Packer’s dismaying findings.

Time and again, the Administration’s most uncompromising war proponents “circumvent[ed] the normal interagency process, in which the unconverted would have been among the participants.” Time and again, you had situations like the one where “Bremer and Sanchez, the senior civilian and the senior soldier in Iraq, ‘literally hated each other,’ an official in Washington said.”

It makes you wish you could force every top government official to read Dan Goleman’s path-breaking book Emotional Intelligence (1995), or -- better yet -- take the Emotional Competence Training course Goleman recently developed.

6. Our effort also suffered from lack of a “thoughtful opposition” that would hold the Administration accountable to the needs of the Iraqi people.

The idea of moving the politics of the Middle East toward democracy was around from the start (see #2 above). But for the most part, the war’s critics steadfastly refused to acknowledge it. “They turned the subject back to the missing weapons, or they scoffed at the administration’s sincerity, or they muttered about the dangers of utopianism, or they said nothing.”

And that was a tragedy. For “what Iraqis and democracy needed more than anything in this country was a thoughtful opposition that could hold the Bush administration” to its best self -- “not in a game of gotcha, but in a real effort to make Iraq a success.”

7. We launched the war (and the inextricably linked post-invasion peacekeeping process) with too few troops by far.

In early 2003, a member of the National Security Council staff drafted a memo stating that, if Kosovo were used as a model, half a million troops would be required to secure Iraq. Condoleezza Rice saw the memo but it had no effect on military or peacekeeping planning.

Also in 2003, General Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, told Congress that postwar Iraq would require “something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers.” Wolfowitz immediately pronounced General Shinseki’s estimate “wildly off the mark.”

General Tommy Franks’s predecessor, Anthony Zinni, proposed an invasion force of half a million troops -- partly because Zinni knew the responsibility for postwar would fall on the military. Franks passed Zinni’s estimate on to Rumsfeld, who promptly cut it by two-thirds.

Bush, Rice, and Rumsfeld chose to invade Iraq but weren’t willing to pay the political price of calling out enough troops to secure the peace. Could anything be more morally culpable?

Not that a Democratic Administration would have demonstrated any more political courage.  (By contrast, a Radical Middle Administration might have instituted a draft that would have required every young American to choose among military service, homeland defense, and community service; see HERE or Point #10 HERE.)

8. We should have had a plan for keeping the peace in Iraq -- yes, a “nation-building plan.”

Actually, several plans were drawn up by different parts of the national security bureaucracy. They were all quashed -- in large part, Packer says, because Rumsfeld abhorred “nation building” and wanted to use Iraq to inaugurate a new, “minimalist” approach to peacekeeping.

General Zinni’s postwar plan, admirably realistic and detailed, was shunned for another reason as well: its assumptions were thought to be “too negative.”

9. We should have brought all the Iraqi opposition groups together before the invasion, and made them work together.

Any U.S. community organizer could have told our leaders this! But the national security bureaucracy was close to only certain Iraqi exiles (the slippery and corrupt Ahmad Chalabi, the haplessly idealistic Kanan Makiya), and had virtually no contact with the internal Iraqi opposition.

One of the saddest passages in Packer’s book comes when he reports “how bitterly most Iraqi ‘internals,’ as they were called, spoke about the exiles.”

10. We lacked sufficient intelligence to build a secure peace in Iraq.

“The key military tool in counterinsurgency is intelligence,” Packer writes. “[T]his was exactly what the United States lacked in Iraq.”

11. Our failure to establish security early on was unforgivable.

As Packer makes painfully clear, Iraqis’ first experience of “freedom” was of chaos and violence -- and of our own incompetence. We were so unprepared to keep the peace that one young Coalition Provisional Authority employee, beautifully profiled by Packer, drew up a list of sites to protect around Baghdad using a Lonely Planet guidebook.

Rumsfeld wanted minimalism, and he got it.

If the Americans had established security early on, one former U.S. AID official told Packer, “reconstruction could have taken hold. It’s been impossible since then.”

12. The sweeping “de-Baathification” order and the subsequent dissolution of the Iraqi army cemented our role as occupiers, not liberators.

“Anyone who’s done postconflict work says do not get rid of the military,” Colonel Paul Hughes told Packer. “You’ve got to control them -- if you don’t control them, you don’t know what they’re going to do. [Moreover,] from the Iraqi viewpoint, [dissolution of the army] took away the one symbol of sovereignty the Iraqi people still had.”

13. The media outlets we established in Iraq were a joke.

We should have concentrated on appearing on Arab networks.

14. We failed to understand that 30 years of Saddam had made many Iraqis passive, dependent, and fatalistic.

15. Any three-state or three-autonomous-region solution for Iraq would only reinforce the brutal logic of ethnic politics. Besides, most Iraqis do see themselves as Iraqis.

16. Beyond United Nations control and U.S. control of postwar Iraq, there was a third option, never taken: Early formation of an interim Iraqi government by a national conference under international supervision.


I could have listed many more points -- Packer’s text is incredibly rich (and 450 pages long) -- but those are among his most important.

Absorb them and you’re ready for his penultimate chapter, “Memorial Day,” simply the most powerful piece of reporting I’ve read in years.

It’s about young Kurt Frosheiser, from a little town in Iowa, who dies in his tank in Iraq. Even more, it’s about his father, Chris, who not only experiences excruciating pain in the aftermath of Kurt’s death, but goes deeper and deeper -- psychologically, spiritually, and even politically.

Toward the end, you’ll find him rifling through The New Republic (centrist), In These Times (left), and American Enterprise (right), desperately trying to piece together truths from all sides . . . the essential radical middle act.

And you’ll find him writing in his tortured email, “Can something be achieved that is worthy of the sacrifice? . . . For us to turn Iraq over to civil war would be hard to take.”

Packer contrasts Frosheiser’s hard-won insights with the glib answers of people like Michael Moore on the left and Fred Barnes on the right.

Packer concludes -- as Frosheiser surely would also conclude -- that “those in positions of highest responsibility for Iraq showed a carelessness about human life that amounted to criminal negligence.”

But he also concludes that “The Iraq war was always winnable; it still is.”

It still is? Maybe if we’re suddenly blessed with a Radical Middle Administration.

But whether or not Iraq is salvageable, we can surely use the lessons learned -- and painstakingly recounted throughout Packer’s book -- to respond less “recklessly” (Packer’s word) and more intelligently next time.

For there will always be a next time. And in the 21st century, there is no escaping our responsibilities -- to other suffering peoples and to our own best selves.


Other books that take a broadly radical-middle approach to Iraq include Thomas Cushman, ed., A Matter of Principle: Humanitarian Arguments for War in Iraq (2005); Larry Diamond, Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq (2005); Noah Feldman, What We Owe Iraq: War and the Ethics of Nation Building (2004); and George Packer, ed., The Fight Is for Democracy (2003).

Two indispensible articles are James Fallows, Blind Into Baghdad,” The Atlantic Monthly (January-February 2004), and Jacob Weisberg et al., Liberal Hawks Reconsider the Iraq War,” Slate Magazine (16 January 2004).

For an introduction to the “emerging idea that protection of the basic humanity of all the world’s peoples trumps national sovereignty,” see Mark Satin, “Humanitarian Military Intervention: The ‘Peace Movement’ of the ‘00s?,” Radical Middle Newsletter (January-February 2001), revised and expanded in ibid., Radical Middle: The Politics We Need Now (2004), chap. 14.  See also the Responsibility to Protect website, a real treasure-trove.


For a response to this article by Chris Frosheiser -- father of Kurt Frosheiser, the dead soldier discussed in our last section above -- click HERE and look under "August 1, 2006."


Although I deeply admire all the books we've discussed from the year 2005, the 2005 Radical Middle Political Book Award -- the 26th annual book award we've given out (going all the way back to Renewal and New Options newsletters) -- goes to George Packer's The Assassins' Gate, reviewed above.


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