After writing several hundred “op-eds” on a wide range of national security issues, we confess this one writes itself — mainly because hindsight is always 20-20. Bottom line: Despite spending trillions of mostly borrowed dollars, the U.S. has not done well in the post-Cold War environment, as reflected by our diminished worldwide standing and influence.
All “Cold Warriors” should take a bow — led by Ronald Reagan, albeit in spirit. He was a truly great President with profound insights into the personalities and fundamental national security issues of his times. We haven’t had his quality of leadership since – Republican or Democrat.
We hadn’t learned much about Mikhail Gorbachev in March 1985, when he was first named General Secretary of the Soviet Union after Konstantin Chernenko died, and as we began the Nuclear and Space Talks (NST) in Geneva. The Soviets had walked out of all arms control talks after Mr. Reagan introduced strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) in March 1983 — and initiated a global propaganda campaign to defeat Mr. Reagan’s November 1984 re-election.
After that failure, the Soviets sought to block SDI in resuming these “new” arms-control talks, in which we participated. In effect, it was SDI that brought the soviets “back to the table.” Mr. Gorbachev clearly admired Mr. Reagan and wanted to be like him—Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher told Mr. Reagan, “We can do business with him.” This was reinforced when Mr. Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev met one-on-one in Geneva in November 1985.
Mr. Gorbachev introduced “Perestroika” (Russian for political restructuring) and “Glasnost” (Russian for Openness) in 1985 and early 1986, exposing all the warts and scars of the failed and totally corrupt Soviet socialist system. But he was also a“true believer” in Marx and Lenin and didn’t think “openness” was a threat to the Soviet Union [this per Max Kampelman, then our chief NST negotiator, after first meeting Gorbachev].
Then following Mr. Reagan’s October 1986 refusal to give up SDI in Reykjavik and his June 1987 “Tear down this wall!” challenge in Berlin, our talks progressed markedly. Mr. Reagan knew Mr. Gorbachev was wrong; thus:
- We achieved the first-ever verifiable arms-control treaties to reduce nuclear arms;
- The Soviet Union crumbled in 1991;
- The Cold War ended;
- Soviet Chief of Soviet Armed Forces, Marshall Sergei Akhromeyev, who was Mr. Gorbachev’s most senior advisors, shot himself in the head.
For Mr. Gorbachev, the war was over - and lost—but for a 39-year-old KGB Officer, Vladimir Putin, a new war was just beginning.
What followed for us was a lengthy period of “head in the sand” national security policy, as we generally ignored the threat from radical Islam, despite obvious reasons to take it very seriously — e.g., the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole. And now a likely replay after the recent Afghanistan debacle.
Post 9/11, we wasted trillions on invading Iraq in 2003, following a colossal intelligence failure that concluded (as a “slam dunk” in the words of our then-CIA Director) that Iraq was producing a threatening nuclear capability. And this is despite Iraq having nothing to do with the 9/11 attack.
Several who were much closer to the G.W. Bush Administration than we were have indicated Mr. Bush was actively considering going into Iraq before 9/11 — most likely because of influence from the late Ahmed Chalabi and his organization.
Per Mr. Chalabi’s 2015 obituary in the New York Times: “His group, the Iraqi National Congress, would get more than $100 million from the CIA and other agencies between its founding in 1992 and the start of the war….Mr. Chalabi’s contention, shared by United States intelligence agencies, was that Mr. Hussein possessed weapons of mass-destruction….A 2006 report by the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded that ‘false information’ from sources affiliated with the Iraqi National Congress ‘was used to support key intelligence community assessments on Iraq and was widely distributed in intelligence products prior to the war.’”
However, and as the obituary notes, broad support for Mr. Chalabi also came from Congress and President Bill Clinton: “In 1998, he helped persuade Congress to pass the Iraq Liberation Act, which was signed by Mr. Clinton and declared it the policy of the United States to replace Mr. Hussein’s government with a democratic one.”
In fact, one could not have had any senior national security policy job in Washington D.C. during this period without having seen Mr. Chalabi at work - on our congress, the NSC, the State and Defense Departments, and especially the intelligence community. Mr. Chalabi was prolific, very well-funded and very effective. However, some of our allies thought that the Shiite Chalabi was likely an Iranian agent.
Whatever Mr. Chalabi’s connections, he certainly shared responsibility for the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, depose Mr. Saddam’s regime and begin a decade-long involvement in Iraq at the cost of trillions of US dollars. Just how many trillions depends on what activities and operations are included – low numbers are two trillion, higher numbers are several times that.
Whatever the cost, the 2003 Iraq war was a massive policy and operational failure, primarily of the George W. Bush Administration, but also of the Congress, and with policy support from the Clinton Administration and continuation of many programs by the Obama Administration.
So why has no one been “held responsible” for such a massive failure — nor is it likely anyone will ever be?
As Donald Trump learned when he criticized the Iraq war, the “establishment” GOP, especially many so-called “NEOCONs,” came out against him. Many former senior officials joined the fray, including former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who had made an impassioned pitch to the UN about Iraq’s WMD programs in 2003 - primarily based on false intelligence and likely “cooked” by Mr. Chalabi and his many advocates.
Most Washington Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives alike (especially in Congress that funded it) “bought” the Chalabi-inspired Iraq “WMD” ruse, and Mr. Powell “sold” it to the UN. Thus, there are far too many “people in the boat” for there ever to be anyone, or any group, held responsible for the catastrophic failure. “Safety in numbers” is the rule for Iraq and always will be, as Mr. Trump learned the hard way.
However, Trump’s election in 2016 changed these dynamics, despite his unpopularity with most of “traditional Washington.” Voters were as tired of the Iraq catastrophe as Mr. Trump - and that was likely one of the main reasons he was elected. Our leverage in international negotiations changed for the better.
So, can we recover from our costly obsession with Iraq and our negligent ignorance of Russia and China for the past 30 years — and the growing threats from North Korea and Iran? We hope so, but we are not optimistic — especially until Joe Biden’s term is over.
• Both Henry Cooper and Dan Gallington served in a series of senior national security positions and were senior members of the Nuclear and Space Talks delegation under President Reagan.