As U.S. withdraws from military action in Iraq, UCLA lecturer reflects
Russell Burgos, an 18-year U.S. Army and Army Reserve veteran, uses his experience in Iraq in his teaching and research.
Russell Burgos hands out supplies to Iraqi children during a 2004 school reconstruction visit (Courtesy of the U.S. Air Force. Photo by SSgt Aaron D. Allmon II)
With American troops now out of Iraq and making their way back to American soil for the holidays, the events of the past nine years are at the top of Russell Burgos’ thinking these days.
"I’m in a bit of a daze," said Burgos, who has been teaching courses in global studies as a UCLA lecturer since 2008. "In a way, it’s hard for me to think it’s been nearly nine years since I was recalled and sent over there because it has been a constant presence in my life."
An 18-year veteran of the U.S. Army and U.S. Army Reserve, Burgos, who holds a Ph.D. in international relations and a master’s degree in political science rom UCLA, as well as a master’s in national security studies from George Washington University, was just 21 when he enlisted during his sophomore year at Loyola University-Chicago.
Since then, the conflict there and the people it affected permeate his memory and fuel his scholarly pursuits.
As director of the Middle East Military-Security Program at the University of California’s Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation in San Diego, Burgos provided a forum for frank, high-level and off-the record discussions among military representatives from the Arab states, Israel and NATO on a variety of regional security challenges. He now teaches courses at UCLA on globalization, international conflict and security, and U.S. policy in the Middle East.
There are hard-earned lessons to be gleaned from the war, Burgos said. Among the most significant is a lesson on civilian control of the military. Early in the war, it became clear that "the Office of the Secretary of Defense under Secretary Rumsfeld really bullied the Pentagon," he said. "At a tactical and operational level, their willingness to invade with so few troops was really one of the reasons why the insurgency took hold as quickly as it did. There were simply too few of us." In retrospect, he said, "the generals and the civilian experts really need to be willing to fall on their swords for what they believe is right."
At a strategic level, Burgos said, the war also shows that policymakers need to have a fuller sense of the downside of military operations and their consequences. "There is a tendency in any presidential administration not to want hear bad news. I think it’s incumbent upon the media and voters that they insist that presidents do get the bad news. There is a great deal the Bush administration could have known about Iraq if it had taken time to listen."
Burgos said that his military experience and tour in Iraq have influenced both his research and his teaching. He was recalled to active duty during his Ph.D. studies and, after spending a year working with the local community in the Sunni triangle, reassessed many of his scholarly assumptions about conflict and war.
"I was sort of a combination of general contractor and public relations person," said Burgos, who worked to build goodwill toward America by providing funds to benefit Iraq’s reconstruction efforts.
"I don’t know whether we were especially successful in the macro sense, but I did what I could. In a larger sense, that reflects one of the challenges we never successfully got our heads around in Iraq and which we seem to have in Afghanistan," said Burgos. "We do a great deal of grassroots ‘hearts and mind’ campaigning, but we just don’t know either empirically or in scholarly terms whether it really adds up to anything at the level of the nation-state.
"I tried every day to be as positive … as I could be and to treat the Iraqis with dignity and respect, recognizing there could be a deep well of resentment among them, since we’d spent the previous 13 years blowing up various parts of their country."
Challenged by ethical questions that are not often taken into account in traditional theories of international relations, Burgos began reevaluating his scholarly understanding of war and of America’s role in international conflicts.
"After I got home, I found I couldn’t buy into a number of the scholarly concepts about war and conflict that I had formerly taken at face value," he said. Burgos decided to refocus his doctoral dissertation, choosing to look at what influenced the decision of American presidents to overthrow other governments.
His forthcoming book, "From the Potomac to the Tigris: The United States and Iraq from Wilson to Obama," which is scheduled to be released this spring, grew out of the changes he made in his dissertation and analyzes the historical evolution of the U.S.-Iraqi relationship.
Paraphrasing the famous question from Watergate, Burgos described his research as trying to determine what the president could have known about Iraq and when he could have known it.
To his frustration, he found in his archival research a "deep reservoir of information" that would have been relevant to the planning of the invasion, but he found no evidence that the Bush administration had even bothered to look at the files.
For example, as early as 1917, the American consul in Baghdad included observations about a Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict in a long telegraph about Britain’s occupation of the country. "That was our own government’s assessment — even before Iraq existed as a nation-state. But instead of giving things like this more serious consideration, the Bush administration’s media proxies were assuring Americans the idea of latent sectarian tension was just ‘pop psychology,’" he said.
Just before the war, Burgos said, the Army War College War and the State Department played the invasion out in a war game, and the result predicted there would be an insurgency. "As many critics of the war have observed, that report was put on a shelf and ignored. Policymakers don’t need to be historians or political scientists, but, from my point of view, it wouldn’t hurt for them to try developing a more sophisticated, more nuanced vision of what it is they would like to accomplish and of where they’re trying to do it," he said.
Instead of treating Iraq as a nation-state with its own interests and objectives, the administration had a very simplistic idea of what its aim was — toppling a ‘cartoon-like" target, he explained. "It was as if the Bush administration was writing a kind of ‘Dummy’s Guide to Invading Iraq,’ where the ‘problem’ wasn’t Iraq — it was Saddam. Solve the Saddam problem, and you solve your problem in the Persian Gulf, full stop. Unfortunately, there was a lot left out of that manuscript that would have been helpful to those of us on the ground."
Burgos said that his experience of working closely with Iraqis influenced his teaching, as well. "In class, one of my goals is to help students understand that, although we teach the decisions and policies taken at high levels of government in a rather abstract way as being in the name of the ‘nation-state,’ they do have direct and significant effects on ordinary people," he said. "From my point of view, the story is incomplete if it doesn’t include that connection."
Although Burgos is glad to see an end to this chapter in American foreign relations, and while he hopes that scholars and future policymakers will learn important lessons from it, he feels it is a chapter that should not have been written in the first place.
"From a domestic politics standpoint, I think the war was essentially inevitable. For example, one thing that was lost in all the pre-war political posturing — and something most Americans still don’t appreciate — was the large-scale movement of troops and resources to Kuwait in the summer of 2002," he said. "That’s not something you do ‘just in case.’ It’s too expensive and too big an undertaking. You could say the whole ‘debate’ about whether or not to go into Iraq in the fall of 2002 was largely a bit of political theater. For all intents and purposes, the war was coming regardless of the outcome of that debate."
In strategic terms, the war was a mistake, said Burgos, and did nothing to improve regional stability while expanding Iran’s influence and undermining America’s. "Whatever else we thought about Iraq’s possible weapons of mass destruction capability, the bottom line is that Iraq was not in a position to attack the United States, Israel, Kuwait or even Iran. The threat just wasn’t there," said Burgos.
Saddam’s refusal to admit that Iraq did not have an active weapons of mass destruction program was a gambit he devised to keep Iran at bay, Burgos said. "This is what I mean when I suggest policymakers take a more nuanced view of the situations they face; at a minimum, they should look at the interaction from their adversary’s point of view."
Burgos added, "Being Americans, we always assumed we were the most important game in town to Saddam, but we weren’t. Iran was a much more significant threat to him, in part, because he feared his own Shi’a population."
Saddam was gambling he could play one hand in two different games, Burgos said, one with Iran and one with the U.S. "He was wrong. Unfortunately, we all wound up having to pay the dealer."