Still Clueless in Baghdad

Woodward has written a searing indictment against the Bush administration's catastrophic failures in Iraq.

"State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III" by Bob Woodward, Simon and Schuster, 576 pages.

In Iraq, an average of 100 people are killed every day in acts of terror: booby-trapped cars, roadside bombs and assassinations by various militias. Most of the victims are neither American nor Iraqi soldiers, but rather civilians killed by their own people. The violence in Iraq stopped being "resistance to occupation" long ago; it has become a civil war in which Sunnis, the chief losers in the fall of Saddam Hussein, are using exceptionally violent means to keep the Shi'ite majority from maintaining their newly-won to power. On the other side of the divide, Shi'ite militias take revenge on the Sunni population. At the same time, Sunnis are being driven out of Shi'ite districts and vice versa, in an intensive "ethnic cleansing" campaign. An increasing number of mixed Sunni-Shi'ite neighborhoods are becoming either one or the other.

There is no one in control here - neither the Americans nor the Iraqi government. Recently, Sunni terrorists managed to explode a bomb in the parliament building, which is located inside the protected Green Zone. The only region with almost no violence is the autonomous Kurdish region in the north, where the local government has introduced several impressive development programs.

This picture is clear to the whole world, with two exceptions: the Arab League, which has been silent in the face of the daily killings of dozens, if not hundreds, of innocent Arab civilians by other Arabs; and the administration in Washington, of course. Even after firing def ense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, President George W. Bush continues to believe that the use of force will stabilize Iraq. His solution is to send in another 25,000 soldiers, in addition to the 120,000 U.S. troops already stationed there.

Obviously, the U.S. administration has no understanding of what is happening in Iraq, although to be fair, the Democrats, who view Bush's failure in Iraq as a ticket to the White House in 2008, have no real solution either. Like Bush, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama continue to believe there is a way to "stabilize" Iraq. The trouble is that Iraq no longer exists.

How did the stunning victory of American technology in the war in 2003 turn into such a stinging defeat in 2007? Bob Woodward supplies some of the answers in his new book, "State of Denial," the third in his "Bush at War" trilogy. The first volume explored the war in Afghanistan and the second, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Both were paeans to the lead ership of George W. Bush (to the point where Woodward was dubbed Bush's "court poet"), but in this book, Woodward comes down hard on the Bush administration.

Assertive journalism Bob Woodward first shot to fame with "All the President's Men," which he co-authored with Carl Bernstein. It probed the web of lies and deceptions that accompanied the Watergate scandal and led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974. As young reporters for The Washington Post, Woodward and Bernstein received information from an anonymous source ("Deep Throat"), whose identity remained unknown until recently. Their reports, subsequently collected and published in book form, were hailed as a masterpiece of investigative reporting, and largely laid the foundations for the type of assertive, if not aggressive, journalism that is feared by public officeholders in all democratic countries. What cub reporter, in the United States or Israel, wouldn't want to follow in their footsteps and bring down a president or prime minister?

But early fame was not a blessing for Woodward. After Watergate, he was considered one of the most important and influential journalists in Washington. It seemed as if nothing could escape his eagle eye. Every policymaker in town confided in him, if only to avoid becoming the victim of his barbs. But the consequence of this over the years was that he became the unofficial spokesman of the administration, and even of the CIA.

After September 11, when public opinion and the press stood solidly behind Bush and his declared war on terror, the White House opened its doors to Woodward. Indeed, in the first two books of the trilogy, which were based on in-depth interviews with those at the top, he praised Bush's leadership and his success in putting together an international coalition to topple the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Even if Woodward knew that some of the American claims (such as the existence of nonconventional weapons in Iraq) were false (if not misleading), he still believed that the danger posed by Saddam was sufficient to justify a military showdown.

"State of Denial" is written in a completely different tone than that of the first two volumes. Woodward continues to argue, quite convincingly, that Saddam's behavior - in particular, his repressive rule, his use of poison gas against Iran and the Kurds and his earlier nuclear development plans - justified bringing him down by force. But he also argues that what happened in Iraq afterward was a miserable failure for the U.S. because the dazzling display of force against a weak Iraq was not preceded by proper planning for the post-Saddam era.

Woodward is not particularly knowledgeable about Iraq's social structure or history, and what escaped the eye of U.S. policymakers there also escaped his. The book is packed with details gleaned from memos, meetings, hallway conversations and telephone calls, but there is not a single comprehensive analysis of Iraqi society or history. Woodward, like those he criticizes, is imprisoned in the bureaucratic minutiae of the "inside the Beltway" Washington, which, powerful as it may be, is cut off from the "outside" world.

Another issue that Woodward seems not to grasp is that Iraq's structural problems go back to the days after World War I, when the country was crudely stitched together by British Arabists. They were motivated mainly by imperialist interests when they combined three different Ottoman provinces - Mosul, with a Kurdish majority; Baghdad, with a Sunni majority; and Basra, with a Shi'ite majority - and installed a Sunni king from the Hashemite dynasty. That is how the Sunni minority came to rule a country with a large Shi'ite majority, consolidating its power through brutal tactics that turned Iraq into the most repressive of all Arab countries.

Ever since, Iraq has been plagued by uprisings by the Shi'ites, the Kurds and even the small Assyrian Christian minority. From this perspective, Saddam's cruel regime was not essentially different from its post-World War I predecessors.

The idea of deposing him and establishing democratic rule, in which the Shi'ite majority would respect the rights of the Sunni minority that had persecuted it for so many years was a pipe dream from the start. Only a mixture of naivete and arrogance could have prompted Rumsfeld's deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, to declare that Iraqi democracy would be "a beacon of freedom for other nations in the region."

Because those who leaked information (including highly classified data) are fairly clueless in this sphere, and they cannot pass on what they do not know themselves, none of this gets into the book. Like his informants, Woodward's knowledge of the Middle East and Iraq is amazingly superficial. On the other hand, he can tell us how in-house squabbling in Washington prevented the consolidation of American policy in post-occupation Iraq and how, after the news about organized Iraqi resistance broke, most U.S. policymakers went into a state of pathological denial (hence the book's title).

Woodward writes that when Steve Hadley, after replacing Condoleezza Rice as national security advisor, submitted a memo to her in which he described Iraq as a "failed state," this assessment did not reach the president and was not discussed seriously. Similarly, when one of Rumsfeld's former advisors, Kenneth Adelman, told the defense secretary in 2005 that Washington's belief that it could introduce order in Iraq was based on inaccurate data, Rumsfeld ignored him.

Woodward rightly points out that things went from bad to worse on February 22, 2006, when Sunnis blew up the Shi'ite mosque in Samarra. In response, Shi'ite militias went on a rampage on the outskirts of Baghdad. It has been clear ever since that Iraq is in the grips of an ethnic civil war, but the U.S. administration still refuses to admit it. Washington's corridors are filled with the sounds of sophistry as experts debate when exactly inter-ethnic violence becomes actual civil war, illustrating their arguments with graphs that have no basis in reality.

One of the more pathetic quotes in Woodward's book is Bush's lament, in response to the ineptitude of the government led by Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari: "Where's the leader? Where's George Washington? Where's Thomas Jefferson? Where's John Adams, for crying out loud?" One doesn't know whether to laugh or cry.

In spring 2006 the Department of Defense approved spending $3.3 billion dollars (!) for bulletproofing U.S. vehicles in Iraq, which are being increasingly exposed to homemade roadside bombs. Clearly, many more U.S. soldiers will die before the job is done. The U.S. simply went to war without considering that after the military victory a political solution would be needed that was based on reality in Iraq, not on some ideological dream.

Detachment and delusions The extent of Bush's detachment from reality is evident in his hollow rhetoric. Even after then prime minister Iyad Allawi, in a radio address to the Iraqi nation on March 18, 2006, decried the fact that 50 to 60 Iraqi civilians were being killed every day, Bush continued to make such deluded remarks as: "In less than three years, the Iraqi people have gone from living under the boot of a brutal tyrant to liberation, to sovereignty, to free elections, to a constitutional referendum, and last December, to elections for a fully constitutional government."

In the past three years between two and three million Iraqis have fled their country to escape the anarchy, daily violence and civil war. The fact that there have been six elections and referenda in this period has done little to enhance security, stability or legitimacy. The troop reinforcements that Bush announced earlier this year (after Woodward finished his book) has not improved matters in the slightest.

Iraq no longer functions as a state, and it is difficult to see how the artificial hybrid created by British Arabists can be resurrected. The real question, which even Woodward cannot answer, is how the United States can withdraw from Iraq without doing even more damage to its international prestige and influence than it has already done by foolishly allowing its military victory to go to waste. As long as the U.S. administration continues to deny its failures, it will never climb out of the hole it has dug for itself.

Prof. Avineri participated in a research team at the Brookings Institution, studying humanitarian intervention.