No End In Sight

Today is the sixth anniversary of 9/11. I’m spending it in New York.

The former World Trade Center was the site of my most successful book signing to date with more than 300 in attendance, so I’ll always remember those massive towers fondly.

I wrote an article in November 2001 from which this is taken:

Little did we know when President Bush cautioned that the war on terrorism would take years that it would be due to ineptitude. We are off to an embarrassing start that makes me think this might end as stupidly as the Gulf War ended.

Shortly after September 11, the media rallied around America’s leaders and crowed about how we had the right people in power. Colin Powell led the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Gulf War and is widely admired for an accomplished military career. Dick Cheney was Secretary of Defense under the first President Bush and oversaw the military activity of the Gulf War. President George W. Bush comes from a family line that has in its history governed not just the country, but also the CIA, among other presumably qualifying political duties.

Yet, if this lineup performed so well in the Gulf War, why are we right back where we started? . . . Now, we’re being told, the right people are in power. Really? They’re largely the same people we had last time and we seem headed toward the same result. . . . a long-term war indeed. In fact, it will go on forever.

Six years, 3,700 U.S. soldiers, and a fortune later, it’s worth looking again at the War On Terror, specifically the Iraq war. It redirected resources needed in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

Alan Abelson wrote in last weekend’s Barron’s: “Ironically, from the looks of things, the evil Osama will remain, in that memorable phrase uttered in Dubya’s sassy days, ‘wanted, dead or alive’ longer than Mr. Bush will remain president.”

I have a film suggestion for you: “No End in Sight”

It’s political scientist Charles Ferguson’s documentary on what went wrong in the planning stages of the Iraq war. Mr. Ferguson was initially behind the invasion, but later changed his mind as events unfolded. He spent $2 million of his own dot-com fortune to make this film, and it’s garnered top reviews.

I saw it at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas Saturday night. I felt the zeitgeist of dropping poll numbers among the frustrated sighs and other reactions of the Manhattan audience.

Regardless of where you stand on the war, you’ll find plenty of cogent analysis in this collection of observations from people in the Pentagon, the National Intelligence Council, the Army, the Marines, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and elsewhere in the effort.

The cover of last Sunday’s New York Times ran a story on unmet goals in Baghdad, focusing on the Mahdi Army’s control of whole sections of the city. The void that enabled the Mahdi Army to rise to power is a focal point of the film.

As investors, it’s important for us to understand geopolitical situations because they happen repeatedly and are usually mis-reported in the media. An engaging film on a current event is a good way to become a better investor. This one is hype-free and well-researched.

For more on the film, read Michael Phillips’s review of “No End in Sight” in the Chicago Tribune.

I’ve received notes from U.S. soldiers in Baghdad telling me that my stock book is helping them have hope for a better future when they return to the states. Some are on their third tour of duty.

When I go home to Colorado periodically, I see bumper stickers that read “I Support Our Troops”. Once, I had a chance to talk with a man who drove a truck sporting such a sticker. I pointed out that I, too, supported our troops, but I wondered what the phrase itself meant to him.

He said he felt the fight against terrorism was bound to be drawn out, and he wanted everybody to know that he believed in the cause and had the highest regard for the men and women fighting to see it through.

I’m pretty sure everybody feels that way. Have you ever met somebody who says they don’t support our troops? The question becomes, “As they do what?” Our troops are barricaded behind blast walls in the capital city of a country that we are nowhere near controlling, much less shepherding toward Democracy. That lofty goal, mind you, was appended only after weapons of mass destruction failed to turn up.

What “No End In Sight” makes clear is that the Iraq war was poorly planned from the get-go, and has never recovered from that. The U.S. itself allowed this situation to get out of control when it dismissed half a million Iraqi soldiers who were eager to help in the reconstruction effort. They were the troop surge we needed, but we fired all of them.

Smart move, putting half a million armed men on the streets, unemployed with no semblance of an economy in place. Small wonder that Baghdad disintegrated into sections of warring factions competing for leadership in a country that had none.

From behind the barricades, Americans had no idea what ordinary Iraqis felt or wanted. No Americans in charge spoke Arabic. Nobody had any knowledge of Iraqi culture. Yet, we were bringing Democracy — after the weapons mission fell flat.

I submit that the best way to support our troops is to keep them out of harm’s way unless absolutely necessary, and then only if the mission is clear, thoroughly planned, and managed by people who know what they’re doing.

As is, history is repeating in more ways than one. It’s obvious that we’re no better in the Middle East than we were in the first Gulf War. We can go back even farther than that, though. In addition to seeing the film, you should read The Ugly American. It’ll show that we’re not even better than we were in Southeast Asia.

As a Marine in “No End In Sight” said in the film, America can do better. We have in the past. The U.S. spent more than two years planning the reconstruction of Japan after World War II. Look at the result there. You know how long the Bush Administration spent planning the reconstruction of Iraq? Two months.

Finally, lest we all forget, it’s ironic to spend so much time looking at the Iraq war on Sept. 11, because it implies a connection between the two. Surely by now you know that there isn’t one. Iraq did not attack the World Trade Center six years ago. A group of terrorists did, and most of them were from Saudi Arabia.

The only connection between 9/11 and the Iraq war is that the former set the stage for the latter.

We should remember 9/11, and we should look carefully at what’s happened since. America will soon face a Brazil, China, India, and Russia that are operating on roughly equal international footing. Our country has been able to remain lazy as the undisputed world leader, but we won’t be undisputed for long.

It’s time to get our act together and begin functioning in a way overseas that shows a level of understanding beyond “bring ’em on” and other sad mile markers along this road. While we’ve put soldiers in hostile enemy fire and created a spending requirement that’s approaching $1.8 trillion, China has been establishing oil concessions with key countries.

We’re making permanent enemies. They’re making strategic friends.

That Ma
rine is right. America can do better.

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