Our vague, misguided mission in Iraq

In his book “The Assassin’s Gate,” George Packer describes a 45-minute meeting that occurred in late May 2003 among President Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, and Jay Garner.

The meeting was ostensibly a de-briefing for Garner, who had just returned from Iraq after serving as head of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, the Department of Defense agency cobbled together in January 2003 to administer Iraq immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Garner’s leadership of ORHA was undistinguished, but Packer pictures him as a victim of an inability at the highest levels of the Bush administration to imagine accurately post-war conditions in Iraq, of rivalries and lack of coordination among other post-war planning agencies, and of a vague, misguided mission for his own agency.

In any case, after American soldiers were not greeted as liberators, after the looting started, and after administrative chaos began to develop, Garner was replaced in late April by Paul Bremer, who immediately disbanded the Iraqi army and barred members of the Baath party from serving in government. Then things really fell apart.

So Packer presents the May meeting as more of an obligatory, back-slapping send-off for Garner than a real de-briefing. Garner says no one had any questions for him and that no one seemed to care much about what he had to say about Iraq.

However, as the meeting ended, Packer reports, the president asked Garner, “You want to do Iran for the next one?” Garner replied, “No, sir, me and the boys are holding out for Cuba.” So Garner ended his Iraq adventure with smiles and good-humored chuckling in the Oval Office.

Packer doesn’t attribute the president’s remark in an endnote, but he’s a serious and responsible journalist, and there’s little reason to doubt that the event actually occurred. The president was joking, of course. Nevertheless, in light of the unanticipated troubles in Iraq and the current heightened tensions with Iran, the joke has an uncomfortable, ominous overtone.

And perhaps it was only a half-joke. The meeting occurred shortly after the president’s ill-advised “Mission Accomplished” speech, and the administration and the country were still riding on the high tide of an apparently swift victory in Iraq. Certainly Garner had encountered a few bumps in the road, but Bremer would soon set those right. The neo-conservative dream of a friendly, stable democracy in the Middle East, atop an enormous oil reserve, was on the point of accomplishment. And as long as we’re in the neighborhood …

I know of no evidence that indicates that anyone in the administration was actually thinking seriously in terms that included Iran or Cuba as the next step after Iraq. On the other hand, only in retrospect in books like Packer’s or Bob Woodward’s “Plan of Attack” have we seen documented the neo-conservative designs on Iraq that pre-dated 9/11 by several years. Yes, the president was joking, engaging in some of the awkward, facetious machismo that we Texans are famous for. And it would take a petty and mean-spirited critic of the administration to begrudge Bush his attempt to use humor to relieve the tension of what had to have been an uncomfortable meeting with Garner.

Nevertheless, the president’s joke about Iran is worrisome. Freud isn’t taken as seriously as he used to be, but it’s interesting to note that he wrote an entire book about humor and wit; it’s not hard to imagine that the connection between the things that we joke about and the things that we desire isn’t a trivial one.

And Iran, of course, is no laughing matter. The threat there will have to be resolved, but it’s a dangerous and complicated situation. Congress _ and our citizenry _ must ensure that the administration approaches Iran with more caution, more deliberation, and more planning than it did Iraq.

Above all, the administration must abandon any unrealistic notions it may have about how easily Middle Eastern countries can be reshaped in ways that suit us.

(John M. Crisp is a professor in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail jcrisp(at)delmar.edu.)