June 1990 seems so long ago. It was June at West Point and the graduation ceremonies were impressive. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Colin Powell, gave the commencement address:
General Powell, President Bush’s chief military adviser, called on the new officers to maintain pride, quality and strength in “an Army that will be smaller” because of a reduced threat of war with the Soviet Union.
”Let the old General Powell worry about the defense budgets, peace dividends and geopolitical trends,” the 53-year-old commencement speaker said. ”You go and do what West Point second lieutenants have been doing. Lead your soldiers. Keep them fit and hardy, trained and ready. Keep them proud.”
Then the caps were thrown in the air and that was that. The family flew back here to California.
But that wasn’t that. Iraq decided Kuwait was really part of Iraq and seized it, and that first President Bush rallied the major powers of the West to go in and stop that nonsense. Our graduate found himself in the desert, commanding a platoon of Abrams tanks – in actual combat, as mismatched as that turned out to be. Colin Powell didn’t foresee any of that. No one did.
But our graduate stepped up, and the stories were cool – meeting the colorful General Schwarzkopf, odd tales of his British and French counterparts (and the rations they got to eat and actually seemed to like), chasing a car full of happy but careless reporters from Libération off the battlefield, and all sorts of things. And then that was over and it was language training at Ord, and having mastered Turkish, to add to his French, a year in Istanbul dealing with our odder allies, then back to the 1st Armored Division, stateside. The Albanian cognac he brought back was awful. We drank it anyway.
Higher up, the first Bush was soon gone and we had eight years of Clinton, and no wars, then came the second Bush and 9/11 and all the rest. War again – and Colin Powell was back, this time as Secretary of State. And our graduate, now a Major, found himself in Iraq again – two tours this time. But now he was part of the command structure. Now and then he’d add something to this site – see Chatting with Baghdad and Letter from Baghdad from 2005, and his comments pop up in other items – but the best material was February 2005, his election photographs from Mosul. He was, in fact, in charge of organizing the administration of the elections in that province, and making sure they went as planned. This was far beyond combat, but what had normally been the province of State had been handed to Defense. Rumsfeld ran it all, and Powell had been marginalized, and was then dismissed.
Yes, we asked a lot of our military – more than they bargained for. But you do what needs to be done, even if it’s the civilian/administrative/diplomatic stuff. That happens when you effectively abolish the State Department, or, in this case, decide it’s a somewhat secondary public relations organization, useful for issuing statements and not much more. Policy was decided in the Office of the Vice President (Cheney) and at the Pentagon (Rumsfeld). The Department of State was their PR operation – State distributed those policy positions, and not much else. Think of Powell speaking at the UN. He was not a happy camper – “I’m not reading this. This is bullshit.” But he did read it.
And the years rolled on. Powell supported Obama and now Rush Limbaugh and Karl Rove want him drummed out of the Republican Party – Rove’s notion seems to be that Limbaugh has the finer military and diplomatic mind, that Limbaugh knows far more about the military and geopolitics than Powell ever will. That may seem absurd, but the years do roll on and things change – maybe next June, Limbaugh will address the cadets graduating from West Point. You never know. And the Major from Mosel and Baghdad, after a stint overseeing portions of desert warfare training out in the California desert, is now a Lieutenant Colonel with brigade command – 5th Brigade, 1st Armored Division (Army Evaluation Task Force). Yes, the Army is adapting to the new world of constant low-level asymmetrical warfare. You need to figure out what you’ll need, and what works, and if it works as planned – think systems folks with combat experience.
But it’s what didn’t change that seems so odd. Look again at those photographs from Iraq – scroll down and check out Saddam Hussein’s magnificent palaces, ours now, and quite useful. We occupy them now – they’re well-built and solid and secure. It’s a matter of efficiency – and sometimes you get a duck.
The most interesting thing about the whole endeavor for me was the very fact that the U.S. had chosen to occupy Saddam’s palaces in the first place. If you’re trying to convince a population that you have liberated them from a terrible dictator, why would you then sit in his throne? A savvier place to station the garrison would have been a place free from associations with Saddam, and the terror and injustices that the occupying forces were convinced they’d done away with. Instead, they made the mistake of repeating history. This is why I’ve titled this body of work Breach. “Breach” is a military maneuver in which the walls of a fortification (or palace) are broken through. But breach also carries the sense of replacement – as in, stepping into the breach. The U.S. stepped into the breach that it had created, replacing the very thing that it sought to destroy.
Just look at the pictures:
It was extraordinary how some of the palace interiors had been transformed to accommodate the soldiers. Troops scurried beneath vaulted ceilings and glittering faux-crystal chandeliers. Lofty marble columns towered over rat runs between hastily constructed chipboard cubicles. Obama’s face beamed out of televisions overlooking the freezers and microwaves of provisional canteen spaces.
It seems we didn’t think this through. And there’s a new neologism for this – the optics are all wrong. What the locals see every single day is our folks in charge, in Saddam’s place – in all the ways you can use that word. The message is clear. Nothing changes.
And Obama is not any different at all:
The White House has asked Congress for – and seems likely to receive – $736 million to build a new U.S. embassy in Islamabad, along with permanent housing for U.S. government civilians and new office space in the Pakistani capital. The scale of the projects rivals the giant U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, which was completed last year after construction delays at a cost of $740 million.
Stephen M. Walt, the Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Relations at Harvard University, is not happy:
I’m all for providing U.S. officials with adequate facilities, but this idea merely underscores the inherent contradictions in the current U.S. approach.
One of America’s main problems in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan is the widespread popular belief that it is now addicted to interfering in these societies, usually in a heavy-handed and counter-productive way. … And oh yes, we also drop bombs and fire missiles into their territory, which we would regard as an act of war if anyone did it to us. Even when well-intentioned, these activities inevitably lend themselves to various conspiracy theories about America’s “real” motives, and reinforce negative impressions of the United States. As of last year, only 19 percent of Pakistan’s population had a favorable view of the United States.
We seem to be sleepwalking into something very odd – being the imperialist war-mongers of the tired old slogans no one believed anyway. How did that happen? People used to shout that crap just to piss us off. Now there’s this, and our reuse of Saddam’s fancy digs. Did we want to prove them inadvertently right? The Army Evaluation Task Force can test and perfect all the gizmos and real-time intelligence, command and control, and targeting systems it likes – but what people see day in and day out cuts the other way. When the remote combat robots roll in people will shrug and say, yep, we expected that – saw it in Star Wars. How did we find ourselves the bad guys from those movies?
Walt says this:
Building a costly new embassy – which will undoubtedly resemble a giant fortress – is not going to help win “hearts and minds” there, or allay concerns about our ambitions in that part of the world. And if we need a facility like that in order to execute our overall strategy, doesn’t that cast some doubt on the merits of the strategy itself?
Well, that is the question, isn’t it?
And think back to that sunny afternoon in 1990 – West Point, on the bluff high above the Hudson, north of New York City, and Colin Powell – “Let the old General Powell worry about the defense budgets, peace dividends and geopolitical trends.” The Cold War was over. It was time to step back and get some other things done, and all the smaller military had to do was to stand ready, just in case. How did we get here – managing an empire – from there?