Thursday, February 01, 2007

Odom: Congressional testimony - What Can Be Done in Iraq?

Strategic Errors of Monumental Proportions: Gen Odom has emerged as one of the more interesting senior US military commentators on the war, which he memorably described early in the piece as "the greatest strategic blunder in the history of the US". As Zeese points out, Odom "Supports the US Empire, But Opposes the War", and objects that "The biggest threat to the U.S. empire is incompetent U.S. leadership."

There is a lot of discussions along these lines, that it is the incompetence of Bush that angers people, rather than war or imperialism or militarism itself, as if the problem could be fixed by the appointment of a competent imperial manager such as Clinton in place of Bush/Cheney.

Gordon Craig wrote a fine work on the Prussian Officer corps which contained a devastating exposure of the essential conceit of the corps, that it was a 'guardian' of Germany and would act to protect her. But in the face of the greatest need (Hitler), it proved incapable of acting at all, and thereby condemned itself to liquidation (along with much of Germany and Europe) at the hands of Hitler himself following the unsuccesful plot of July 20. Craig argues that Hitler's complete liquidation of the corps and its tradition was a positive outcome, although of course at monstrous cost.

As Albright said to Powell in one or her memorable indiscretions, what is the use of the fine military if you dont use it? (Or in the blunter and more cynical words of Kissinger: military men are dumb animals etc) Powell was reportedly apoplectic, but the question is inevitable. And at the fringes of power will be all manner of Alexander-types who dream of conquest, plunder, glory and empire. It is inevitable that at some point in space or time mad or reckless but ambitious people will succeed in gaining control of the military. As WEB DuBois said plainly, "the cause of war is preparation for war". Therefore, nothing can be done with the General Staff or the Pentagon system except to dismantle it, hopefully before a disastrous war rather than after it as in the case of the German General Staff and Prussian militaristic tradition.

The US spends more on defence than the rest of the world combined, an appalling and intrinsically dangerous state of affairs. It spends over $500b pa whereas Russia and China spend $50bpa each.

US 'defence' spending must be slashed by at least 90%, which would only bring it down towards the level of its rivals, already too much. Until such time as that is done, the US military is a standing threat to the Republic at home and a danger to the entire world.

Back to some of Odom's testimony:

The war has served primarily the interests of Iran and al Qaeda, not American interests. We cannot reverse this outcome by more use of military force in Iraq. To try to do so would require siding with Sunni leaders and the Baathist insurgents against pro-Iranian Shiite groups. The Baathist insurgents constitute the forces most strongly opposed to Iraqi cooperation with Iran. At the same time, our democratization policy has installed Shiite majorities and pro-Iranians groups in power in Baghdad, especially in the ministries of interior and defense. Moreover, our counterinsurgency operations are, as unintended (but easily foreseeable) consequences, first, greater Shiite openness to Iranian influence and second, al Qaeda's entry into Iraq and rooting itself in some elements of Iraqi society.

This doesnt strike me as exactly the strongest argument against 'siding with the Sunnis'. We are touching here on what Cutler describes as an intense Washington factional fight between what he calls 'Right Zionist' and 'Right Arabist' groupings. The goal is the same - domination of the Gulf - but the means are different. The 'Zionist' (also neocon) group seeks to use Israel, a 'democratic' Shia Iraq and insurgent Shias in Iran as the key allies (the Saudis are enemies); while the 'Arabists' (James Baker etc) hope to use Saudi and Iraqi Sunnis as the clients, to some extent discounting the value of Israel as a strategic asset and declining to enter into over-ambitious plans for 'regime-change' in Iran. The 'Zionists', however, appear to be winning the factional fight and might end up driving Bush into war with Iran with the aid of 'democratic' Iraqi Shias and a popular rebellion in Iran against the mullahs. Doesnt seem very realistic....

As long as US forces remained engaged Iraq, not only will the military costs go up, but also the incentives will decline for other states to cooperate with Washington to find a constructive outcome. This includes not only countries contiguous to Iraq but also Russia and key American allies in Europe. In their view, we deserve the pain we are suffering for our arrogance and unilateralism....

Overthrowing the Iraqi regime in 2003 insured that the country would fragment into at least three groups; Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. In other words, the invasion made it inevitable that a civil war would be required to create a new central government able to control all of Iraq. Yet a civil war does not insure it. No faction may win the struggle. A lengthy stalemate, or a permanent breakup of the country is possible. The invasion also insured that outside countries and groups would become involve. Al Qaeda and Iran are the most conspicuous participants so far, Turkey and Syria less so. If some of the wealthy oil-producing countries on the Arabian Peninsula are not already involved, they are most likely to support with resources any force in Iraq that opposes Iranian influence....

Many critics argue that, had the invasion been done "right," such as sending in much larger forces for re-establishing security and government services, the war would have been a success. This argument is not convincing. Such actions might have delayed a civil war but could not have prevented it....

I know of no historical precedent to suggest that any of [the proposals] will succeed. The problem is not the competency of Iraqi forces. It is political consolidation and gaining the troops' loyalties to the government and their commanders as opposed to their loyalties to sectarian leaders, clans, families, and relatives....

As a military planner working on the pacification programs in 1970-71 in Vietnam, I had the chance to judge the results of training both regular South Vietnamese forces and so-called "regional" and "popular" forces. Some were technically proficient, but that did not ensure that they would always fight for the government in Saigon. Nor were they always loyal to their commanders. And they occasionally fought each other when bribed by Viet Cong agents to do so. The "popular forces" at the village level often failed to protect their villages. The reasons varied, but in several cases it was the result of how their salaries were funded. Local tax money was not the source of their pay; rather it was US-supplied funds....

US military assistance training in El Salvador is often cited as a successful case. In fact, this effort amounted to letting the old elites, who used death squads to impose order, come back to power in different guises. And death squads are again active there. The real cause of the defeat of the Salvadoran insurgency was Gorbachev's decision to cut off supplies to it, as he promised President George H. Bush at the Malta summit meeting. Thus denied their resource base, and having failed to create a self-supporting tax regime in the countryside as the Viet Cong did in Vietnam, they could not survive for long....

These are interesting remarks and one wonders to what extent they might be true. More comments on the taxation issue:

Such [countersinsurgency] wars are about "who will rule," and who will rule depends on "who can tax" and build an effective state apparatus down to the village level.

The taxation issue is not even on the agenda of US programs for Iraq.

In the sense he is talking about Odom is right of course, but in another sense he is quite wrong. The 'taxation issue' or (neo-liberal market fundamentalist economics) is at the heart of the Iraq adventure and the core of much of its problems. There is no direct taxation by choice and not even much in the way of income taxation, in addition to privatisation, deregulation etc. Its a case where the neoconservative and neoliberal ideology is so far out of touch with reality that it meets violent popular rebellion. The ideological crisis for the US is that in many cases people 'believe' in this ideology and dont see it for what it is, a massive and corrupt failure, serving only the interests of a narrow elite (if even them). This makes imperial managers blind to reality and unable to predict, recognise or respond to the development of events. Only a nutjob ideological fanatic would start a World War and invade the Soviet Union, so, logically, said nutjob is head of the German government. Something the same with Bush/Cheney....

Nor was it a central focus in Vietnam, El Salvador, the Philippines, and most other cases of US-backed governments embroiled in internal wars. Where US funding has been amply provided to those governments, the recipient regime has treated those monies as its tax base while failing to create an indigenous tax base. In my own study of three counterinsurgency cases, and from my experience in Vietnam, I discovered that the regimes that received the least US direct fiscal support had the most success against the insurgents. Providing funding and forces to give an embattled regime more "time" to gain adequate strength is like asking a drunk to drink more whiskey in order to sober up.

Saddam's regime lived mostly on revenues from oil exports. Thus it never had to create an effective apparatus to collect direct taxes. Were US forces and counterinsurgency efforts to succeed in imposing order for a time, the issue of who will control the oil in Iraq would become the focus of conflict for competing factions. The time would not be spent creating the administrative capacity to keep order and to collect sufficient taxes to administer the country. At best, the war over who will eventually rule country would only be postponed.

This is the crux of the dilemma facing all such internal wars. I make this assertion not only based on my own study, but also in light of considerable literature that demonstrates that the single best index of the strength of any state is its ability to collect direct taxes, not export-import tax or indirect taxes. The latter two are relatively easy to collect by comparison, requiring much weaker state institutions.

By 'direct' taxation Odom presumably means land or property taxation, and it is a most interesting suggestion that this is the key to victory. Is this occurring in Iraq now? Militias could do it: it would be similar to a kind of 'protection'. Gunmen would go door to door and collect the 'tax'. If this system was fairly and non-corruptly administered, then it could indeed be the basis of local and eventually state government.

This analyis resolves imperialist or guerilla wars to class actions with taxation as the key. The imperialist or oligarchist naturally seeks to acquire property by conquest and throw off all taxes; but the people benefit from direct taxation through safe access to land and government which serves them rather than absentee or overseas landlords.

The neocon error:

The Bush Administration has broken with this strategy by invading Iraq and also by threatening the existence of the regime in Iran. It presumed that establishing a liberal democracy in Iraq would lead to regional stability. In fact, the policy of spreading democracy by forces of arms has become the main source of regional instability.

This not only postponed any near-term chance of better relations with Iran, but also has moved the United States closer to losing its footing in the Arab camp as well. That, of course, increases greatly the threats to Israel's security, the very thing it was supposed to improve, not to mention that it makes the military costs rise dramatically, exceeding what we can prudently bear, especially without the support of our European allies and others.

Odom closes with the argument for withdrawal:

Several critics of the administration show an appreciation of the requirement to regain our allies and others' support, but they do not recognize that withdrawal of US forces from Iraq is the sine qua non for achieving their cooperation. It will be forthcoming once that withdrawal begins and looks irreversible. They will then realize that they can no longer sit on the sidelines. The aftermath will be worse for them than for the United States, and they know that without US participation and leadership, they alone cannot restore regional stability. Until we understand this critical point, we cannot design a strategy that can achieve what we can legitimately call a victory.

Any new strategy that does realistically promise to achieve regional stability at a cost we can prudently bear, and does not regain the confidence and support of our allies, is doomed to failure. To date, I have seen no awareness that any political leader in this country has gone beyond tactical proposals to offer a different strategic approach to limiting the damage in a war that is turning out to be the greatest strategic disaster in our history.

This testimony is a stinging rebuke to the neocons/neoliberals and their deluded ideas, which still seem to be right in the driving seat as Bush/Cheney prepare for war with Iran.