Unilateralism Disgraced

Ivo H. Daalder and
Ivo H. Daalder, President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Ivo H. Daalder Former Brookings Expert, President - Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO
James M. Lindsay

October 1, 2003

George W. Bush’s decision to go to war against Iraq was based on three fundamental assumptions: Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction posed an imminent threat to the United States; turning Iraq into a stable and viable self-governing state would be far easier than previous nation-building efforts; and, once weapons were found and postwar normality returned, even those countries opposed to the war would want to contribute to Iraq’s reconstruction.

Unfortunately for Bush, Iraq and the world, every one of these assumptions has proven wrong. No weapons of mass destruction have been found—nor, as yet, is there evidence of an illicit weapons program. Chaos reigns in many parts of Iraq. Widespread looting was followed by general lawlessness; guerilla-style attacks against U.S. forces; growing sabotage of electricity, water and oil distribution networks; and terrorist attacks on major soft targets that killed scores and wounded hundreds. The United States, meanwhile, continues to bear the burdens of international involvement in Iraq virtually on its own. Of the 200,000 troops in and around Iraq at the end of August, 90 percent were American. Of the remaining 10 percent, Britain provided more than half, with the remainder consisting of a motley crew composed of 26 countries’ troops, each providing only token contributions.

America’s current approach to Iraq has all the makings of a national disaster. A fundamental reassessment is needed—one that abandons the unilateral course in favor of a much greater internationalization of the reconstruction effort and a rethinking of Bush’s doctrine of how to exercise influence in the world.

Bush went to war against Iraq assuming that America’s unrivaled power made it, in effect, omnipotent. The United States could crush any foe, quickly and at little cost. Because its motives were unquestionably pure, America could launch a preemptive, unilateral attack on Iraq that everyone would regard as a war of liberation rather than of conquest. Once the United States led, others would surely follow. “The fact of the matter is for most of the others,” Vice President Dick Cheney explained days before the war began, “they don’t have the capability to do anything about it anyway.” Once Hussein was ousted, though, “a good part of the world, especially our allies, will come around to our way of thinking.”

So the United States launched a war with barely a third of the force it had used during Desert Storm to push Iraq out of Kuwait a decade earlier. Despite all the warnings before the war and the hand-wringing by retired generals during its initial stages, it took a mere 125,000 troops just 21 days to take Baghdad. America’s victory was achieved with significant assistance only from Great Britain, which contributed one-fifth of the ground force, and key Persian Gulf states, which provided bases from which to launch the attacks. The remainder of what Bush touted as a grand “coalition” was made up by such powerhouses as Albania, Macedonia, Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau.

The ability to overthrow a brutal dictatorship with a relatively small ground force appeared to vindicate those who had predicted a cakewalk. It also bolstered Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s conviction that the future of the U.S. armed forces requires a military transformation that emphasizes small, agile units backed by precision power capable of delivering a knockout blow from great distance. The decision to keep the number of invading troops small was “strategic and goes far beyond Iraq,” Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith confirmed in July. “It’s an old way of thinking to say that the United States should not do anything without hundreds of thousands of troops.”

Feith’s statement was a direct slap at those military officers, including Gen. Eric Shinseki, the outgoing chief of the Army staff, who before the war had warned that it would take at least 200,000 troops to stabilize postwar Iraq. To sustain such a deployment for anything more than a few months would require a significant contribution of forces from other countries—hence the insistence of many that Washington should go to war only if it had secured commitments by others to participate in the postwar phase. America might win the war largely on its own, they argued, but it would require the support of others to win the peace.

Bush and his advisers would have none of it. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz dismissed Shinseki’s estimate as “way off the mark.” He also told Congress in late February that it was “hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in a post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself.” In any case, much of the postwar stabilization effort would, in fact, be done by others. “I would expect that even countries like France will have a strong interest in assisting Iraq in reconstruction,” Wolfowitz explained. And, of course, the Iraqis themselves would help out. “We are training free Iraqi forces to perform functions of that kind,” Wolfowitz said, “including command of Iraqi units, once those units have been purged of their Baathist leadership.” The American postwar contribution would be small. By the fall, according to Pentagon plans, the U.S. military presence in Iraq was expected to be less than two divisions—about 30,000 troops.

Instead of listening to the advice of seasoned military officers or those with experience in past nation-building efforts, the Pentagon civilians relied on the reassurances of a small group of Iraqi exiles that all would be well once Hussein was gone. Iraqis would greet American soldiers as liberators. A war of precision would leave much of the bureaucratic and physical infrastructure in place. Remove the Baathist top layer, replace it with trusted (read: exiled) Iraqis, and the government and economy would quickly be up and running again. Iraq’s oil wealth, meanwhile, would soon provide the revenue to pay for it all.

The Pentagon planned for possible humanitarian crises and environmental damage brought about by oil fires. What it didn’t prepare for was the collapse of Iraqi society, the destruction of its infrastructure through looting and sabotage, and the decision to fight the occupiers indirectly through ambushes and terrorism. “Some important assumptions turned out to underestimate the problem,” admitted Wolfowitz upon returning from a five-day visit to Iraq in July. “Some conditions were worse than we anticipated, particularly in the security area.” He mentioned three: “No Army units, at least none of significant size, came over to our side so that we could use them as Iraqi forces with us today. Second, the police turned out to require a massive overhaul. Third, and worst of all, it was difficult to imagine before the war that the criminal gang of sadists and gangsters who have run Iraq for 35 years would continue fighting.”

Wolfowitz’s observations were right on the mark. What was astonishing was that these conditions came as a surprise. Defeated armies do not usually switch sides. Police in totalitarian societies are hardly versed in the intricacies of community policing and civil liberties. And sadists and gangsters are precisely the kind of people who keep fighting—especially fighting dirty.

And so Bush was forced to change course. Instead of 30,000 troops, five times as many are now in Iraq. Another 34,000 American troops support the effort from Kuwait. That is 180,000 troops in all—at a cost of $1 billion a week. And, by all accounts, we will need that many troops there for at least another year or two.

What about the much-vaunted coalition? Where are the allies that were sure to come? Britain has reduced its initial contribution of 45,000 troops to the war effort to a little over 11,000. It may add some more, but not enough to fill the gap. A Polish-led division of slightly more than 9,000 troops is replacing a U.S. Marine division in southeastern Iraq. It is composed of forces from more than 20 countries, including Spain, Latvia, the Ukraine and Honduras. And Uncle Sam is picking up a major part of the tab for the force—$240 million in all—which gives a whole new meaning to burden sharing.

Some other countries may add their token contributions in the months ahead. But the major military powers—France, Germany, India, Turkey and Russia—say they won’t join a U.S.-led occupation force. Washington has made it “quite clear that the responsibility on the ground is in the hands of the coalition,” German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer declared. “We are not part of the coalition.” Only if power and responsibility were transferred to the United Nations would these countries feel obliged to contribute troops, civilians for the reconstruction effort and significant financial resources.

Here is the true cost of Bush’s unilateralism. Militarily, more than half the U.S. Army is deployed in Iraq, with no exit date in sight. American soldiers are on one-year rotations, and many face the prospect of returning to Iraq within a year of going home. Morale, recruitment and retention are bound to suffer. We may soon have a broken Army. Our ability to address more pressing national-security challenges will suffer, too.

Without allies, we also incur mounting economic costs. If, as Gen. Tommy Franks said days before his retirement, we need to keep the current level of forces for at least two more years, the cost would be $100 billion. That is $100 billion not spent on modernizing the military, beefing up security at home, fighting AIDS and other infectious diseases, or helping to rebuild societies ravaged by failed states—not to mention the many needs of Americans at home.

These are the true costs of unilateralism. Every one of us will have to pay for them.