THE STRONGEST TRIBE
War, Politics, and the Endgame in Iraq
By Bing West
Random House, $28, 417 pp.
"The war I witnessed for more than five years in Iraq is over."
— Bing West
My business partner’s son recently returned from his second tour of duty in Iraq. His e-mails in 2005, during his first tour, showed a mixture of Marine pride in the work they were doing and frustration about the work no one was doing.
Toward the end of his second tour this year, Justin's letters to his very relieved dad were mostly complaints about boredom. The work was done.
While President-elect Barack Obama effectively demagogued the war in the Democratic primaries against Sen. Hillary Clinton, the issue basically disappeared from the discussion in the general election race. The Democrats — and, thus, the mainstream media — no longer were interested in the war in Iraq.
Why? While the young Marine was bored because of a lack of terrorist targets. the Democrats and their allies, the MSM, became bored with the war because of a lack of American victims.
Justin’s take on what has become known as The Surge? "The extra troops were fine; but we won the war because everyone started doing what Marines had been doing all along."
In Bing West's third superb book on the Iraq War, The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics, and the Endgame in Iraq, he doesn’t put it quite that simply. But he does point out that the so-called Anbar Awakening happened before Gen. David Petraeus took command of all forces in Iraq, thanks largely to Marines Maj. Gen. James "Mad Dog" Mattis, who had already been encouraging effective counterinsurgency tactics.
The Strongest Tribe is, quite simply, the best one-volume treatment of the Iraq War we have — and it's the best we are likely to get.
West, a retired Marine infantry officer and former assistant secretary of Defense under President Reagan, has written several highly regarded accounts of military history, Not the least of which is The Village, a book widely regarded as the classic on the Vietnamese counterinsurgency.
But while West is a clear thinker and a compelling narrator, what puts him above other authors is that he's still a Marine grunt at heart. West remains a legend among gyrenes for "Operation Stingray" in Vietnam, when his five-man recon team wreaked havoc behind enemy lines after being cut off from home.
In The Strongest Tribe, West never lets his focus wander far from the real story of the Iraq War. The American troops won this war by being, as an Iraqi officer put it to West after witnessing Marines in Fallujah, the "strongest tribe" in Iraq.
That strength lay not only in military prowess but also by being the face of justice and freedom in the midst of corruption and cruelty.
This focus makes The Strongest Tribe not just an informative, provocative and historically important book — it makes it a thrilling one as well.
The Partisans of Defeat
While West recounts in unsparing detail the mistakes of generals, high government officials and President Bush in creating a needless muddle for at least two years in Iraq, he finds no constructive merit in the statements of liberal politicians in their reflexive sniping.
West writes: "Our domestic politics became ever more divisive and impervious to progress on the battlefield. Our soldiers deserved better."
The slander of Marines as cold-blooded murderers in Haditha by U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., provokes West’s wrath (though he condemns the tactics that led to the incident as "a disgrace to the Marine Corps" and the result of "execrable leadership.")
West fillets Murtha’s low character in general and the false nature of the Haditha massacre charges in particular. He details how Murtha’s service in Vietnam was used as a cover for everyone from Obama to Newsweek magazine to deprive American troops of the moral high ground.
West pointedly contrasts Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s outrageous declaration of defeat in Iraq and Obama’s insistence -- even in the face of overwhelming evidence -- that no progress was being made in Iraq with Sen. John McCain’s honest and politically risky criticism that was offered in order to promote victory on the battlefield.
But while Obama’s statements moderated during the campaign, his foreign policy guru Joe Biden -- who, of course is much more qualified than Washington Gov. Sara Palin to be president -- auditioned for his "Saturday Night Live" caricature.
It wasn’t bad enough that Biden went on the Charlie Rose PBS television show after Petraeus’ testimony for Congress and declared The Surge dead, with "zero" chance to succeed. No, Biden took his show on the road.
Biden all but crashed a party set up to celebrate the success in Anbar province and the cooperation of the Sunni sheiks. To the bewilderment of the attendees, he delivered a wildly inappropriate message for the benefit of the cameras and the Democrat base, intoning that "America can’t want peace more than the Iraqi people," and if political cooperation was not complete, "we can say goodbye now."
Of course, with a media that had done little reporting on the success in Iraq, Biden was let off the hook or even applauded for his baffoonish behavior.
Creating an Insurgency
Perhaps the most disturbing fact in The Strongest Tribe is that the Anbar Awakening — the turning of Sunni sheiks once allied with Al Qaeda to fighting alongside the United States — was a result of the third attempt the sheiks made to ally with the U.S. This could and should have happened immediately after major combat operations ceased.
West relates that the same Sunni sheiks had made overtures to Ambassador Paul Bremer, Bush’s appointed viceroy in Iraq, The sheiks, however, did not fit with Bremer’s notions of how he wanted Iraq governed, and they were all but forced to cooperate with Al Qaeda to survive.
West’s chapter on Bremer's disastrous takeover of Iraq policy is called "How to Create a Mess." While Kenneth Timmerman, in his excellent Shadow Warriors, attributes this to deliberate sabotage by anti-administration elements in the State Department, West does not go that far; he merely makes the point that if one set out to create an insurgency by design, no one could have done a more thorough job than Bremer.
Bremer snubbed the Anbar sheiks, disbanded the Iraqi army and dismissed government workers with ties to Saddam’s ruling Baathist Party, canceled local elections scheduled by military commanders that would have established ground-up government and devised a top-down rule by parliament in which people were elected to represent ethnic groups rather than territory. This ensured that the military would have to deal with three regimes in three years, all with the reputed aim of "establishing stability."
Bremer took all these steps in a land where AK-47s are more plentiful than indoor toilets. The day Bremer fired the Iraqi army, a Marine lieutenant asked Gen. Mattis when the insurgency would begin. It wasn’t long.
Bush allowed a divided command with Bremer reporting directly to him, but the viceroy also was able to direct some military operations (even though he was not in the chain of command). This had disastrous effects more than once in Fallujah.
West contends Bremer was instrumental in pulling troops back from the threshhold of victory in Fallujah despite advocating the all-out combat the Marines said would be counterproductive. All the while, Bremer played games with anti-American radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, provoking his followers to violence while the military was concentrating on Fallujah.
It didn’t help that the troops were commanded by the hapless Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who didn’t believe in a military solution for Iraq in any case.
(In the second battle for Fallujah after Gen. George Casey assumed command, Bremer again meddled. Comparing himself to Lincoln commanding Operation Anaconda and saying he was squeezing al-Sadr like Grant squeezed the South, he then allowed al-Sadr to escape to wreak havoc in the years ahead. As West points out, in this case, "al-Sadr was the snake.")
The Media's Drive-by Shootings
The mainstream media’s open opposition to the war began in April 2004, when the reporters adopted al-Jazeera's line that the battle for Fallujah resulted in the slaughter of civilians (In reality, almost all civilians had fled the city -- including Al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was dressed as a woman -- leaving a few thousand terrorists and insurgents to fight).
Soon, however, the humiliation of Iraqi inmates at Abu Ghraib prison became the media’s No. 1 focus in Iraq. Sanchez had been investigating charges of prisoner abuse, but he prepared no one stateside for the story. When the infamous pictures were leaked, it looked like a coverup.
Althouh West believes Donald Rumsfeld's resignation as defense secretary would not have been an overreaction to "the criminal abuses committed by one motley squad… of misfits [who] lacked basic training basic morality and basic leadership," he faults the press and Democrat politicians for blowing the issue out of proportion.
"The Iraqi prisoners were degraded, not killed. In World War Two, prisoners were frequently killed," West states, pointing out no court-martial was convened over the alleged abuse.
Still, the MSM and liberals used Abu Ghraib and Fallujah as excuses to attack the Bush administration’s claim to both moral high ground and success and Iraq.
It didn’t help that Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, set the stage for the monotonously happy-talk tone the Bush administration took throughout the war, no matter what the situation, saying, "Fallujah is a symptom of the success we’re having here in Iraq." He also denied there was any kind of popular uprising, putting even good reporters in a who-are-you-going-to-believe-me-or-your-lying-eyes situation. "Myers was a superb pilot," West quips dryly.
After the Iraqi elections, Bremer stealthily left Baghdad to return home, declare victory and write a self-congratulatory book. This left Casey, who had replaced Sanchez, in charge. This was an improvement, but Casey never thought Bush never charged him with achieving a military victory but merely buy time for the Iraqis to take over. Casey would fight the war with purely conventional means for the next two years.
Those years of "catch and release" of terrorists and insurgents, fighting between Sunni and Shia and slow political progress meant the U.S. was again on the brink of defeat. Although the troops had never been bested in the field of battle, the American public grew weary of the conflict and started to swallow liberal politicians' self fulfilling prophecies that a defeat was imminent.
Cheerleader in Chief
"No nation ever fought a more restrained or honorable war," West declares, despite the fact that counterinsurgency is historically the dirtiest war there is to fight. George W. Bush deserves enormous credit for that-- and for the ultimate victory-- no matter how flawed the processes he presided over to manage it turned out to be.
When Bush announced promotion of Petraeus and the change in strategy that would be over-simplified as "The Surge," a Republican office holder complained to me that the president had given little preparation that change was even necessary.
"We’ve been bashing Democrats for saying the war isn’t going well, while the president assures us there is great progress," my friend said. "Then he announces a big change to counter the fact that we aren’t winning. Who is going to believe him now?"
This nicely summarizes the Bush’s second term. Even when he did something right, he got little credit, to some extent because he had sacrificed his own credibility in the run-up.
West expresses great frustration on this point:
"The bully pulpit provides the president with a powerful tool to persuade the public, Bush took pride in being inarticulate. The president’s first duty as commander in chief was to persuade the American people to support the war. Bush failed to do so."
The American people tuned out Bush after he gave two years of stock answers in which anything he said about Iraq could have been interchanged with happy-talk answers given at any other time. Whether he felt that was how to deal with the Democrats' equally monotonous pessimism or really believed it hardly mattered.
Loyal to a Fault
"The president, advised by his National Security Council, determines war policy and approves strategy. In this war, President Bush presided more than decided, acting like the chairman of the board, more than the chief executive. He waited for his staff to produced consensus options. Once he selected an option, he considered his job done."
There has been no president who has been subject to as much armchair psychoanalyzing as George W. Bush, and West resists the temptation to do anything other than grade the president’s actions.
But President Bush’s reluctance to deal with problems publicly, whether rhetorically or by enforcing his will by replacing those who did not carry it out, created huge problems for his credibility with the public. From "good job Brownie," to giving a Medal for Freedom to CIA Director George Tenant after bungling 9/11, to allowing Scott McClellan to be even less articulate than himself in explaining policy, George W. Bush tended to pick someone for a job, placed his faith in them, and gave them his full support sometimes long after the circumstances merited. (Let's hope his faith in Henry Paulson is well-placed.)
The President kept on a Secretary of Defense who resisted nation building even after that was what the job had become, and promoted a National Security Advisor to Secretary of State after she made a hash of the National Security Council process. In Iraq, General Casey never felt his mandate from the President was to win the war, though that was the President's goal, and he consistently declared that progress was being made toward victory.
Learning the Wrong Lesson of Vietnam
West writes: "Bush, who criticized President Lyndon Johnson for meddling in military matters, believed a president should remain above the details of military strategy. But when a war becomes of prime importance to the nation, a president must understand the details."
From Lincoln to FDR, successful commanders-in-chief have mastered such details—and this enabled them to make changes in the commanders necessary in a timely fashion.
While George W. Bush should get huge credit for finally selecting General David Petraeus as commander in Iraq—and giving him the tools and discretion to win the war in spite of little political or popular support—it was something he could and should have done years earlier.
Misreading the military
In President Bush’s defense, his high regard for the military was a contributing factor in his slow recognition of the absence of progress on the ground in Iraq. West writes that Bush mistook the "can do" attitude of the military for realistic assessment of the situation.
The inheritors of the mantle of Omaha Beach were damned unlikely to tell a Commander-in-Chief that they could not win a game of "Whack-a-Mole" with a rag tag bunch of thugs with bad marksmanship who could never hope to defeat them in the field, that the situation was grave.
Bush and Rumsfeld were not wrong to point out that it was a sign of desperation for Al Qaeda to attack the Iraqi people. Ultimately, the contrast between Al Qaeda and the American military turned Iraqi opinion.
On the other hand, while more could have been done, the two years were not a complete waste. While the chain of command was divided and the goals confused, the military on the ground was learning, adapting their tactics and forging relationships with the Iraqi people. That was what enabled the surge to succeed so quickly.
Petraeus’s strategy took the reins off soldiers on the ground, and provided enough bodies to secure Baghdad while the troops took it to Al Qaeda. Catch and release gave way to clear and hold; and "clear" meant kill, not capture, though those who insisted on surrendering were still taken prisoner. In Baghdad, militia groups joined forces with American soldiers to drive out Al Qaeda, much as the sheiks in Anbar had done.
There is one important story left to be told in the fight for Iraq. In both Michael Yon’s "Moment of Truth in Iraq" and "The Strongest Tribe" this is dealt with in short and deliberately vague passage. Both Yon and West point out that Special Forces units did most of the killing and capturing of terrorists in the 2007 campaign, but give no other obviously still classified details.
Obama’s to Lose
Just like the recent election campaign, Iraq is Barack Obama’s to lose. And White House staff briefing is not the only way the now fully engaged George W. Bush is preparing the way for his successor.
Working toward a favorable—and strategically important-- Status of Forces Agreement, along with (finally) taking out key terrorist camps across the Syrian border, and a full court press on the few remaining Al Qaeda pockets means that the next President can all but coast to victory in Iraq. The heavy lifting is done, and most of the dollar costs have been borne.
"Believing Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction," West writes, "a majority in Congress authorized the president to use force. While that intelligence proved incorrect, America owes no apology for removing a murderous tyrant… But you can’t undo the past. As we look forward, the question is whether America quits in Iraq."
Home of the Sensitive?
Beyond Iraq, West worries if America will retain the martial values to win future wars, which he frets have deteriorated in the last 60 years.
"In World War Two, our nation highlighted courage and accepted mistakes. Today, we highlight mistakes and quietly accept valor… American society takes courage for granted and the press ignores it," West laments.
Our enemies, however, get plenty of sympathy. "Instead of praising our troops, we focused concern on how we treated our enemies… There were 400,000 prisoners of war in World War Two. Had they not been wearing uniforms, their cases would still be pending in state and civilian courts. An enemy who wears a uniform while fighting Americans is foolish."
While liberal and the media worried about how our enemies fared in custody, West sounds a personal note of outrage at the way our friends have fared at the hands of the State Department. Iraqi interpreters who tried to immigrate when things became too dangerous for them and their families were treated like lepers by the State Department, and many paid a very high cost indeed while their military sponsors tried frantically to remove bureacratic roadblocks.
"No nation ever fought a more restrained or honorable war," West declares. And George W. Bush deserves credit for that, no matter how flawed the processes he presided over to fight it turned out to be.
The fighting men of our armed forces are our Strongest Tribe. This book honors them in the manner they deserve, and is an invaluable and gripping historical document as well. Reading this book is as vital to understanding the big picture of the Iraq War as The Looming Tower was to understanding Al Qaeda, and every bit as fascinating. It is essential reading.