The Blog

"Stuff Happens," Revisited

There's a direct line from Rumsfeld's indifference toleading to today's Iraq sliding into.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

It's been nearly three years since Donald Rumsfeld abandoned the Iraqis to chaos when he notoriously declared, "Stuff happens, and it's untidy, and freedom's untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things."

There's a direct line from that indifference to post-war planning and security leading to today's Iraq sliding into civil war. I've been reminded of this as I've been having the odd experience of following the spreading factionalism while at the same time reading the early sections of George Packer's excellent book,The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq. The sensation is a bit like watching a suspense thriller when the protagonist is about to enter a room where thugs are lurking, and we feel like crying out, "Don't open that door!" You can see the seeds of the unfolding disaster as Packer compiles example after example of the fecklessness, ideological blinders and irresponsibility of the war team around Rumsfeld and Cheney -- driven by a fantasy of an Iraq stabilized with a minimum of military force and turned over to a government led by con-artist Ahmad Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress exiles.

"Plan A was that the Iraqi government would be quickly decapitated, security would be turned over to remnants of the Iraqi policy and army, international troops would soon arrive, and most American forces would leave within a few months. There was no Plan B," Packer observes.

The Pentagon took over "planning" for post-war Iraq by ignoring the State Department's Future of Iraq Project and freezing out many of the government's leading experts on Iraq as too moderate, then setting up their own inter-agency shop, the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), headed by an out-of-touch Jay Garner, that was also largely ignored and starved for funds.

One key reason for this willful refusal to plan for reconstruction or security was that an honest assessment of risks and costs would, they believed, undermine the case for going to war. That's why Pentagon and White House officials pushed out General Eric Shinseki for saying that postwar Iraq would need "several hundred thousands soldiers" and Bush's economic adviser Lawrence Lindsay for predicting that the war could cast as much as $200 billion ( a figure that turned out to be low) - even as the Office of Management of Budget asked in April 2003 for only $2.5 billion in postwar reconstruction.

Dissent - or any expressions of common-sense as we headed towards war - led to career suicide. The top officials didn't want to spend money for sufficient troops, policing or reconstruction because it would challenge what Packer calls their "rosy financial predictions" - and their fantasy vision of remaking the Mideast on the cheap. As a result, after the invasion, the Pentagons' teams for re-establishing Iraqi ministries "had just twenty-five thousand dollars to resurrect the devastated Iraqi administration," Packer reports. "Even this wasn't cash - the funds required grant applications that took several weeks for approval."

In the invasion's early days, as Packer illustrates, the Pentagon's criminal negligence of the need to secure and rebuild the basic services of Iraq became glaringly obvious. Rumsfeld's chief spokesman, Larry Di Rita , met with ORHA's senior officials for a briefing, and when a USAID planner for reconstruction told him about the need to provide early benefits to the Iraqi people, Di Rita slammed his fist down on the table. "We don't owe the people of Iraq anything," Di Rita said. "We're giving them their freedom. That's enough," according to Packer. The U.S. wouldn't get bogged down in Iraq, Di Rita later told war planners at a major meeting: "We're going to stand up an interim Iraqi government, hand power over to them, and get out of there in three to four months," Di Rita said, speaking for Rumsfeld.

This addled view of reality was compounded by a complete indifference to any effort to provide security after Saddam's regime toppled. Packer writes:

The military-police and civil-affairs units were far behind and extremely thin on the ground. On the second day of the war, a young contractor with USAID named Albert Cevallos was standing with a group of [Pentagon] civil-affairs officers at the Iraqi-Kuwait border, when one of the officers turned to him and asked, "Albert, what's the plan for policing?"

Cevallo's job was in the field of human rights. "I thought you knew the plan," he said.

"No, we thought you knew."

"Haven't you talked to ORHA?"

"No, no one talked to us."

Similarly, when some OHRA officials, including the State Department's Drew Erdmann, put together a list of 16 key sites around Baghdad that should be secured after the city fell, nothing was done. The list was sent to military commanders at Camp Doha, an hour away in Kuwait near the Iraq border. Number two on the list was the National Museum, later the site of widespread looting that symbolized the collapse of American commitment to restoring order. Along with the dismantling and firing of nearly a half-million Iraqi troops without salaries, that looting spurred the spread of violence and the insurgency that's still felt today as Iraq plunges towards civil war. Packer reports what happened to those elementary security requests:

A few weeks later, as Baghdad fell and intense looting got under way, Erdmann and the others went to Camp Doha to find out what had happened to their list of sites. They met with a young British lieutenant colonel, sitting on a stool in desert camouflage, who said, "Well, you know, I just yesterday became aware of this big stack of stuff that you ORHA guys had done."

The officer held his hand up a few inches from his face. "You must understand. We've been focused like this on fighting the war. Now we can begin looking at what you sent." The list had fallen somewhere into the bureaucratic gap between ORHA and the military, and now it was too late - Erdmann was watching the sites being looted and burned on television.

These days, the Pentagon still insists there won't be a full-scale civil war -- with the same optimism that it predicted that most of the troops could be home a few months after the invasion. And with American troops pulling back to avoid being trapped in a civil war that could inflame the entire region, the seemingly reasonable case for our troops staying longer to "stabilize" Iraq and train Iraqi troops becomes more dubious.

But, why worry? Stuff happens.

UPDATE: Chaos blamed on poor planning, according to new inspector general's report.

ADDED UPDATE: Since this article was posted, some solid reporting and analsyis on the slide into chaos and civil war has been published. The stabilizing Iraq side in The New Republic has offered some of the best reporting (subscription may be required) on the collapsing situation there, such as Lawrence Kaplan's "The Case For Staying in Iraq." Their accounts and analysis are so grim, however, that they could build support for those seeking a quick pullout. The horror of what's unfolding is explored in last week's issue of Time Magazine: "An Eye for an Eye: As the violence in Iraq grows more shocking and brutal, TIME explores the roots of the murderous rage -- and why the U.S. may be powerless to stop it.

Larry Diamon in the latest New Republic explores the elements of a civil war, and how we have a shrinking window of opportunity to try to bring in international brokering through the UN and the European Union.

Before You Go

Popular in the Community