IN 9 A.D. THE ROMAN GOVERNOR OF GERMANIA, Publius Quinctilius Varus, led three legions deep into a Rhine River forest to put down an uprising of German tribes. In a classic tale of hubris and overreaching, Varus’s 15,000 soldiers and 15,000 camp followers were slaughtered by Teutonic irregulars they had underestimated and misunderstood. The only trace to be found of the three legions emerged years later: the cast metal eagles legionnaires carried when they marched in formation. Varus’s severed head was sent on to Rome, a reminder of the limits of imperial power.
When word of the defeat reached Augustus, it was recorded that the emperor tore off his clothing and beat his own head against a door, lamenting: “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!”
The massacre in Teutoburg Forest has often been used as a cautionary tale. Edward Gibbon wrote about it in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, describing legionnaires tortured and burned alive by the Germans. Cullen Murphy retells the story in Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America. Retired Air Force General Jim Smith used it as a prelude to his panel discussion on the misuse of military force, at the Conference on World Affairs in mid-April in Boulder, Colorado.
Publius Quinctilius Varus had the integrity to fall on his sword. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who suggested that his staff and generals read about the Roman Empire, is writing his own book. If he was paying attention to the hearings held on Capitol Hill during the first two weeks in April, Rumsfeld might have regretted that he didn’t recommend reading Gibbon. Their war in Iraq is lost. What’s left is to decide how we organize our retreat, how we get our legions back home.
Former Assistant Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “I think that the next president will have three fundamental options: unconditional engagement, unconditional disengagement, or conditional engagement.” As the hearing developed, it became evident that because the Army and Marine Corps are so overextended and exhausted, George Bush’s unconditional engagement is no longer an option. The conditional engagement Flournoy recommended to the committee might also be described as a slow retreat. Unconditional disengagement, retreat at double-time pace, remains a possibility.
TIME TO FACE FACTS—The most critical foreign policy decisions the next president will make will deal with an exit strategy from Iraq. The U.S. Army—as a retired general who worked closely with Dick Cheney when Cheney was Secretary of Defense told me—”is broke.”
We’re out of good options.
Not everyone participating in the Senate and House hearings in April has come to terms with the reality in Iraq. Republican dead enders like Lindsey Graham in the Senate and Joe Wilson in the House, both South Carolinians, are still trying to stay in the game. (They’re not alone; Connecticut Independent Joe Lieberman would have American forces move into Iran.)
In an exchange with General David Petraeus, America’s top commander in Iraq, at the Armed Services Committee hearing on April 8, Senator Graham promoted Bush’s “surge,” and argued that the U.S. has thought, and fought, its way out of the quagmire in Iraq.
SEN. GRAHAM: The reason it was a corrective action is between the fall of Baghdad and January 2007, all of the trend lines were going in the wrong way: economic stagnation, political stagnation, increased proliferation of violence. Therefore, something had to be done, and that something was called a surge.And I will just ask the American people and my colleagues to evaluate fairly from January 2007 to July 2008 and see what’s happened. The challenges are real, but there are things that have happened in that period of time, that need to be understood as being beneficial to this country, that came at a heavy price, and Al Qaeda cannot stand the surge.
If you put a list of people who wanted us to leave, the number-one group would be Al Qaeda, because you’ve been kicking them all over Iraq.
Now, the reason they came to Iraq is why, General Petraeus?
GEN. PETRAEUS: That Al Qaeda came to Iraq, sir?
SEN. GRAHAM: Yes.
GEN. PETRAEUS: To establish a base in the heart of the Arab world, in the heart of the Mideast.
SEN. GRAHAM: Are they closer to their goal after the surge or further away?
GEN. PETRAEUS: Further away, Senator.
What the general and senator omitted is the fact that Al Qaeda in Iraq was much “further away” from establishing a base in the heart of the Arab world before the U.S. invaded Iraq in the first place. Al Qaeda came to Iraq because the U.S. created a vacuum by destroying the Iraqi military. There was no “AQI” before the American invasion.
Congressman Wilson dusted off the “domino theory,” which justified the sacrifice of American troops in Vietnam and the killing of thousands of Vietnamese long after that war was lost.
REP. WILSON: I believe the enemy have a clear plan. And I really refer— Zawahiri, the Al Qaeda spokesman for Osama bin Laden, on July the 9th, 2005, came up with the plan. The first stage, expel the Americans from Iraq. The second stage, establish authority in Iraq. The third stage, extend the jihad wave to the secular countries neighboring Iraq. That would mean Saudi Arabia. It would mean Turkey. It would mean Egypt. It would be the Persian Gulf states of Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait, UAE, Dubai. And then fourth stage, the clash with Israel. That is, the extermination of the people of Israel. Now, if Al Qaeda achieves their goals, it is my view that they would—after the extermination of the people of Israel, after the conquest of the region, will they attack America again, or will they be satisfied with the fruits of what they have stolen?
Listening to Congressman Wilson, one sensed that after he got Al Qaeda into Israel, the next target for them would be Manhattan or Washington.
Not all Republicans are following their lame-duck president over a cliff. David Vitter, the Louisiana senator recently self-caricatured as a family-values Christian who spends his weekends in New Orleans whorehouses, is rarely mentioned among the Senate’s critical thinkers. Yet Vitter’s ten-second summary of the American war in Iraq was spot-on:
SEN. VITTER: [T]his is essentially the fifth war in Iraq that we’re now involved in; the first was against Saddam Hussein and his supposed weapons of mass destruction. Then we had the second, the insurgency that Dick Cheney told us, nearly two years ago, was in its last throes. Then there was the fight against Al Qaeda terrorists, and the administration said it’s better to fight over there than fight over here. Then there was the Sunni-Shi’a civil war that exploded after the bombing of the Samara mosque. And now, as we’ve seen, in Basra, and as we hear even in your descriptions, Generals, what may ensue with respect to the Kurds and the difficulties in the North but also what we saw in Basra, you have the teeming part of sectarianism that has never been addressed, beginning to boil over again, and it stares us in the face in any option that we have.
Perhaps more Republican senators should spend their weekends in New Orleans brothels.
PRESIDENT BETRAY US?—There actually were two rounds of Iraq War hearings during the first two weeks of April. General David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker testified at length before Senate and House committees, making the case for a substantial troop presence through the summer and probably until December 2008—although 20,000 “surge” troops will be coming home by summer. Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress points out that the 20,000 returning troops are at the end of their fifteen-month deployment and cannot stay in country any longer.
After the last of the 20,000 “surge” troops leave Iraq in July, there will be a “forty-five-day period of consolidation and examination.” Then, recommendations and policy adjustments. But the 10,000 logistical troops supporting the surge won’t be coming home; so when reassessment begins in July, there will be more troops in Iraq than were there before the war was escalated by 30,000. And American combat forces are now augmented by a pro-American militia: the 90,000 Sons of Iraq irregulars, paid $18 million a month by the U.S. Treasury to do a job that neither the American nor the Iraqi army has thus far managed to master.
The last time General Petraeus testified on Capitol Hill, in September 2007, members of Congress who intended to use the hearings to question the failed Iraq policy were overwhelmed by the manufactured controversy swirling around MoveOn.org’s New York Times ad that asked if General Petraeus had become “General Betray Us?”
This time the dynamics were different. Petraeus wasn’t the only Iraq show in town this April. Joe Biden (D-DE), who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, scheduled a preliminary hearing that was far less pro forma than the Petraeus/Crocker presentations. Public testimony from Retired Generals Barry McCaffrey, William Odom, and Robert Scales, Jr., and former Assistant Secretary of Defense Flournoy, preceded the Petraeus hearings.
With MoveOn.org holding its peace, Biden created his own context, drawing on the unimpeachable credentials of the former generals and Defense Department official. By the time Petraeus arrived, he was working at a disadvantage. Some Republican members offered up softball questions and served as cheerleaders. But they were cheering for a losing team. And the coaches, Petraeus and Crocker, were theoretical and hypothetical and got little traction when confronted by cold actuarial facts.
Congressman John Spratt (D-SC), for example, showed up at a House Armed Services Committee hearing with Congressional Budget Office numbers on the estimated cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars from 2009 through 2018. Spratt started with a table that tracked the “steady, relentless increase in the cost of the war” from its inception five years ago to the current $608 billion tab. His second chart projected war costs from 2009–2018 at $1.6 trillion—assuming a drawdown to a total of 75,000 troops in both theaters, far below what now seems possible. And as all the money to pay for the war has thus far been borrowed, when interest is included, the total is greater than $2 trillion. Spratt told Petraeus that he took the CBO numbers to the Pentagon and asked for their figures. They did not respond. Senator George Voinovich (R-OH) confronted Petraeus with the same figures at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.
President Bush’s surge, which promised to bring stability and political progress to Iraq, is winding down while mortar attacks occur daily in Baghdad’s secure Green Zone and American air power is required to slow the rocketing.
“STARTING TO UNRAVEL”—As a committee witness, General McCaffrey used statistics and anecdotes to describe an exhausted military in which young kids are on their fourth combat tours, mid-career NCOs and captains who make up the backbone of the combat force are refusing to re-enlist, and parents are fighting to keep their sons and daughters out of an Army and Marine Corps that use an eight-year, post-discharge stop-loss program to involuntary re-enlist soldiers and Marines long after they have completed their terms or service.
“Your Army is starting to unravel,” said General McCaffrey, a West Point professor and retired four-star who once was head of the U.S. Southern Command. “Our Air Force is starting to come apart. The Navy is the smallest since pre-World-War II.”
To listen to or read the hours of Iraq War-related testimony is an exhausting exercise in frustration that leads to the inevitable conclusion that this war is over. It is also a sad reminder that a great power has destroyed a smaller country and is now unable to put the pieces back together.
When it was his turn to speak, as a Senate Foreign Relations Committee member, Barack Obama suggested where we are heading, no matter which of the three candidates is elected to replace George W. Bush.
“The problem I have is, if the definition of success is so high: no traces of Al Qaeda and no possibility of reconstitution, a highly effective Iraqi government, a Democratic multiethnic, multi-sectarian functioning democracy, no Iranian influence, at least not of the kind that we don’t like, then that portends the possibility of us staying for twenty or thirty years.
“If, on the other hand, our criteria is a messy, sloppy status quo but there’s not, you know, huge outbreaks of violence, there’s still corruption, but the country is struggling along, but it’s not a threat to its neighbors and it’s not an Al Qaeda base, that seems to me an achievable goal within a measurable time frame, and that, I think, is what everybody here on this committee has been trying to drive at.”
In short, we will redefine success and leave the Iraqis to save themselves.
On the same day Obama lectured him, Senator Clinton confronted General Petraeus at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing: “I just want to respond to some of the statements and suggestions that have been made leading up to this hearing, and even during it, that it is irresponsible or demonstrates a lack of leadership to advocate withdrawing troops from Iraq in a responsible and carefully planned withdrawal. I fundamentally disagree. Rather, I think it could be fair to say that it might well be irresponsible to continue the policy that has not produced the results that have been promised time and time again, at such tremendous cost to our national security and to the men and women who wear the uniform of the United States military. . . .
“I think it’s time to begin an orderly process of withdrawing our troops, start rebuilding our military and focusing on the challenges posed by Afghanistan, the global terrorist groups and other problems that confront America.”
Of the three presidential candidates in the Senate, only John McCain tried to put a positive spin on the war. Speaking ahead of Clinton at the Armed Services hearing, McCain tried to draw a line between the “four years of mismanaged war” and the successes that followed the 30,000-soldier surge. McCain argued that American troops have turned the corner in Iraq and that recent news is far better that what was coming out of Iraq in years past, even as a poorly planned Iraqi Army assault on Basra had failed as 1,000 Iraqi troops walked away from the battle.
Absent from the two-week run of hearings and news conferences in the House and Senate was the president. George W. Bush still doesn’t seem to grasp the immensity of his failure and what he has cost the country. It’s probably too late for him to lament, “Give me back my legions.”