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Who owns the war, now that Rumsfeld is gone?

A year ago [I was wondering] what effect Condi Rice would have on the Cheney-Rumsfeld alliance. A year later, we know. Frontline on PBS has produced an hour-long documentary entitled [Endgame] that details the unbelievably incompetent war strategies of the past 4 years and discloses Rice to be the principal sponsor of the “surge” — a strategy that finally vanquished Rumsfeld. As Colin Powell famously warned Rumsfeld during the manic run up to the war, “you break it, you own it.” Well now it appears that Rice has inherited ownership.

From the start, there was no strategy from the Pentagon for dealing with the possibility of an insurgency and the only real strategy (if it can be called that) was to exit Iraq as soon as possible. Repeatedly caught unaware, the Pentagon and White House lurched hither and yon, all the while ignoring what appeared to be an apparently successful strategy happening right under their noses. In May of 2004, acting on his own, outside the game plan from Washington, Col. H.R. McMaster had secured the city of Tal Afar through what he called “Clear-Hold-Build” — a strategy of using sufficient troops and force to clear insurgents from the city and then maintain troop levels to maintain security while rebuilding could take place. But more than a year would pass before this news would make its way back to the White House. Leading her own military reconnaissance — in a bold challenge to Rumsfeld’s power — Rice had Philip Zelikow scout Iraq in the fall of 2005. He reported back to her on McMaster’s apparent success and, in October of that year, she made an appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee where she promoted a new strategy of “Clear-Hold-Build” in a stunning repudiation of Rumsfeld’s leadership. It was the beginning of the surge and the beginning of the end of the Cheney-Rumsfeld lock on power.

Of course Rice acted with the support of the president. She would never have taken such a brusque public stance in opposition to Rumsfeld unless she knew her position was guaranteed. Which suggests a dynamic within the White House even more bizarre than the scenario of the dim puppet president taking direction from Cheney that has become a matter of common parlance. It suggests a president practically held hostage by a neo-con cabal in the White House and Pentagon who had to turn to a long time friend and adviser to break up the cabal and open the way to new options. Her book, when she writes it, should be a doozy.

One of the things most distressing about watching the documentary and reviewing the timeline of the war is the incredible inertia of the war planners. Months and even years go by before action is taken that might ameliorate problems, thereby decreasing the likelihood of success when action is finally taken. This inertia has surely been a boon to the insurgents. Even with evidence of what would be required to secure cities in Iraq, as late as last summer Bush was still “staying the course” and General Casey was planning for a drawdown of troops. No doubt, Rovian politics contributed to the delay in adjusting the war plan, hoping to prevent loss of Congress in the election.

Ironies abound. The Democrats are eager to withdraw troops, but the outcome of the elections sealed the fate of Rumsfeld — who from the start wanted the troops out of Iraq more than anyone. Lack of vision and planning for untoward outcomes led to a situation where they could not leave. The surge, happening 4 years too late, might succeed in the short term but may not be sustainable — Tal Afar declined into violence shortly after McMaster’s troops left. Which suggests something ominous: we may not be able to leave Iraq. One of the pundits in the Frontline piece worries that the end of our engagement in Iraq “will be messy” — hearkening back to the fall of Saigon. But the strategic importance of Iraq to the US far outweighs Viet Nam and some in the administration have already floated the idea of Iraq as a protectorate of the US.

It’s a long way from over.

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