What should we do in Iraq?
December 9, 2006
Have we been defeated in Iraq?
To some, defeat implies a victor. North Vietnam and its allies in the South defeated us thirty years ago. Nothing like that has occurred in Iraq. The collapse of Iraq has no obvious victors. Even Iran might suffer if the instability spreads across the Middle East’s porous borders.
But there are other ways to lose. We’ve found one.
Where’s the evidence that we have lost in Iraq?
Neither of these is a significant indicator that we’ve lost.
Instead, look to the total disconnect between our tactics and strategy. Our daily actions in Iraq have not and cannot produce a good long-term outcome. Worse, the war’s proponents have no new ideas as to how we can achieve victory. None, that is, that appears likely to work.
In February we can read Martin van Creveld's new book and learn what happened and why in Iraq: The Changing Face of War: Lessons of Combat, from the Marne to Iraq. 4/ Until then, defeat can serve to describe the War’s result as well as any other label. We have paid much and achieved nothing in Iraq that any rational person considers of value.
This is the Iraq War today…
This describes a punitive raid, sending troops to kill and destroy civilian targets in hope of influencing their leaders to fear and obey us. Worse, it meets the textbook definition of terrorism. I doubt any expert on Iraq believes that the Iraq Government, as currently configured, can disassemble the militias – or that such strikes advance any rational goal.
Strategy must drive tactics. Now we must develop both a new strategy and some reasonable (and likely to succeed) means to implement it. 6/
Not an easy task, and one that few developed nations have achieved when fighting 4th generation wars. To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, conventional armies lose if they do not win – insurgents drive them out by not losing.
Developing a strategy starts with setting goals.
Our current goals – more modest than before, perhaps still beyond our reach? 7/
The Bush administration’s goals probably assume that the Iraq state allies with us. They would not consider it as a US victory if a stable Iraq were run, for example, by bin Laden or Muqtada al-Sadr.
Option 1: more force, perhaps send more troops
This option works best for those who believe running up a high “body count” means that the General need not read Clausewitz or John Boyd. With so many bombs, why do we need a strategy?
Vietnam, 1972 …
Iraq, 2006 …
We will hear more recommendations like this, to take the gloves off and do what works in counter-insurgency warfare. Hostages, torture, reprisals, and genocide. The basics.
We have done the first three in Iraq, on a small scale. This has not worked, hence, the calls to do more. That’s the logic of escalation. In Vietnam we saw how it works. The resulting damage to the US was severe, both internally and externally. Those advocating this path should explain why the outcome would be different this time.
A warning about escalation
It is the nature of escalation that each move passes the initiative to the other side. To the extent that the response to our move can be predicted, it is probably ineffective. Worse, the history of insurgencies shows that we seldom accurately anticipate the enemy’s response. Once on the tiger’s back we cannot be sure of picking the place to dismount. 13/
Option 2: to win in Iraq, adopt a bold and creative new strategy
Leaders of great powers, confident of their wisdom and strength, often respond to setbacks with bold moves. Today some people, although perhaps not senior military officers, suggest that the US respond to failure in Iraq with another set of bold strategies.
Can such gamesmanship snatch success from the current chaos in Iraq? Probably not.
First, why this enthusiasm to see the Kurds as a liberal, democratic people? Their history shows extraordinary tenacity and ferocity, but nobody yet knows what form of government will take hold in “Kurdistan.” Or what role it will play in the region.
Second, realpolitik requires alliances not with small, perpetually threatened weak states, but with the important ones: Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Alliances with the Kurds and Israel put us in serious opposition to all of these. Each of these states – more so their people – wishes to eliminate either the Jewish state or any Kurdish State – or both.
Third, we can ally with the Kurds but that does not make them friends. Not only are we infidels but worse, we are inherently opposed to their generations-long goal of unifying the Kurdish people in a Kurdish State. That is, unless we betray our alliance with fellow-NATO member Turkey.
Under these circumstances, a US-Kurd alliance will likely be weak and temporary – probably giving us more problems than benefits.
Just as success follows success for the wise, desperate gamblers double their stakes only to see failure follow failure. Our failures result from deep structural weaknesses in the US Government, hence the eerie similarities between the Vietnam and Iraq Wars. 15/ Until these are corrected, we should stick with simple, high probability of success strategies – as we’ve proven likely to screw-up implementation of any requiring subtlety of conception or execution.
Option 2b – The not so bold and half-smart solution: retreat to our desert bases
Stratfor has long recommended that we abandon Iraq’s urban areas (returning only to bomb them as needed) and relocate our forces into massive desert bases. From these we can achieve what they see as our original and primary goal of the invasion: secure bases from which to project military power throughout the Middle East.
Like the invasion itself, this seems poorly conceived, perhaps absurd. Let’s withdraw from the urban battle zones and watch the ethnic and religious groups fight to a conclusion. This might be fast or quick – who knows? The only certainty is that the winners then owe us nothing, and will likely order us out. Just like our previous plans: failure guaranteed in advance – brought to you by the best and the brightest of the American governing class.
Option 3 – Vietnamization
Unfortunately, there is no longer an Iraqi polity, no political structure holding the allegiance of Iraq army and police. There are only regional, ethnic, and/or religious leaders.
The Green Zone placeholders pretending to be a government are mostly either representatives of these groups or colonial satraps. We pretend that there is an Iraqi government so that we have something through which to implement our policies. But it does not control territory, levy and collect taxes, or control its borders, or command troops – the key attributes of a government. 18/19/
The US can give al-Maliki air power, but not what he most needs: legitimacy in the eyes of the Iraq people.
There may no longer even be either an Iraq State or Nation, just a brightly colored space on our maps. The failure of the Iraq Study Group to realize this dooms their recommendations to irrelevance.
Reassembling its shards is a task for Iraq’s people; doing so is beyond our power and ability. Hoping for Iraq to reappear is a dream, not a strategy.
Something else is taking form in the area formerly known as Iraq. The major force impeding its development appears to be the US military. For more on this see:
A common element of plans for victory: a false vision of the light at the end of the tunnel
For 52 more such quotations, see my Situation Report on the Expedition to Iraq.
False Reason #1 to stay and continue fighting in Iraq
Victor Davis Hanson explains that we have “A Lot at Stake in Iraq.”
Perhaps all these things and perhaps worse will happen following our defeat. 25/ More importantly, can these outcomes be avoided? If not, then we have already been defeated.
“Staying the course” is no magic talisman to avoid defeat. In fact, this matches the layman’s definition of insanity – mindless repetition of action, hoping for a different outcome. It’s like pasting feathers together and hoping for a duck. 26/
How sad that to avoid this disaster we need only have follow the ancient military maxim "Feed Success, Starve Failure."
False Reason #2: to preserve our credibility.
Like the Vietnam War, the original goals of the Iraq War are almost forgotten, superseded by new and even more foolish ones. Such as demonstrating unlimited willingness to persevere in a lost cause, to demonstrate our resolve and build credibility.
At some point the belief that American willpower can achieve victory in any conflict becomes the Green Lantern theory of geopolitics, where the only limit to our power is the strength of our will. This seems idiotic, for good reason. It can be suicidal as it provides no clear signal when to stop, before ruinous disaster becomes inevitable.
The US electorate regularly elects fools to high office, and on occasion acts unwisely – but we usually recognize and correct mistakes. Our inability to build credibility through sustained idiocy is our strength – not a weakness.
False Reason #3: stabilizing the Gap and bringing democracy to the Middle East.
Losing these delusional and arrogant goals – which lured us into Iraq – is a necessary part of our recovery process. We are not heroes authorized by God to kill Iraq’s women and children in order to bring about a better world.
It was obvious even before the invasion that we lacked the necessary wisdom. Now it is obvious that we lack the necessary power.
Rulers often pursue the unworkable at the expense of the possible. This is the most common of government follies. 33/
What about the sacrifices made by our troops!
We owe a debt to those who suffered and to those who died, both to American troops and those of other Coalition nations who followed us to Iraq.
We can repay this debt and honor their sacrifice by learning something from the experience. Our soldiers paid dearly for our education. Losing for even higher stakes, getting even more of our troops wounded and killed, is to consider them as expendables – like poker chips – spent to maintain our arrogance and hubris.
On a deeper level, their heroism and sacrifice does not depend on our wisdom in waging this war. The nation called; they went. Many paid with all they had to give.
Staying in Iraq means more crosses in Arlington, monuments to our stupidity.
Send questions, comments, and accolades to .
Coming soon – Part Three: The simple but not easy US exit path from Iraq!
Next look for Part Four: Bitter tears, or What comes after the Iraq War?
1/ Letter to President Kennedy from John Kenneth Galbraith, dated March 2, 1962, printed in Galbraith’s Ambassador's Journal (1969)
2/ Memo dated November 6, 2006. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/03/world/middleeast/03mtext.html?_r=1&oref=slogin&pagewanted=print
3/ Official Iraq war costs don't tell the whole story”, San Jose Mercury News, December 5, 2006
4/ So clearly does van Creveld see things that “The Transformation of War” reads like a history of the Iraq War, despite being published in 1991.
5/ Stratfor, “Iraq Update: November 15, 2006”
6/ I first recommended this in “Scorecard #2: an Iraq Update,” October 31, 2003
7/ These goals are far more modest than their two previous sets of goals. First there was, according to Bob Woodward, a top-secret National Security Presidential Directive signed August 29, 2002 entitled "Iraq: Goals, Objectives and Strategy.” Second there was the “National Strategy for Victory in Iraq” announced by President Bush on November 30, 2005. http://www.whitehouse.gov/infocus/iraq/iraq_strategy_nov2005.html
8/ Interview in Time Magazine, October 30,2006
9/ Press Conference on November 8, 2006
10/ Halberstam, D. (1972). The Best and the Brightest. New York: Random House.
11/ Ralph Peters, NY Post, October 26, 2006
12/ Ralph Peters, NY Post, November 15, 2006
13/ A paraphrase of an October 1964 memo from George Ball, Undersecretary of State, to Secretary Defense McNamara and National Security Advisor MacGeorge Bundy.
14/ Posted on the blog “Coming Anarchy,” November 1, 2006
15/ For more on this see my Lessons Learned from the American Expedition to Iraq
16/ Ralph Peters, NY Post, November 1, 2006
17/ Bevin Alexander. Posted on bevinalexander.com, September 25, 2005
18/ Note that the Kurdish government in the North does all these things. Their insurgency against the Iraq state has succeeded.
19/ But the US does not control its southern border! True. Mr. and Ms America, meet Prof van Creveld – welcome to the Decline of the State. It’s a long road, but we’ve taken the first steps.
20/ Interview with Reuters on October 26, 2006.
21/ Halberstam, p. 611.
22/ Halberstam, p. 663.
23/ Interview with Reuters on October 26, 2006.
24/ “A Lot at Stake in Iraq” posted at National Review Online’s “the Corner” by Victor Davis Hanson on November 14, 2006. http://corner.nationalreview.com
25/ Although similar predictions of doom if we lost in Vietnam – the dominos falling across Asia – proved false.
26/ John Holbo, posted on Crooked Timer, September 26, 2006.
27/ Tuchman, B. (1984). The March of Folly. New York: Ballantine Books, page 125. Describes how the Renaissance Popes provoked the Protestant Secession.
28/ ibid, p. 335.
29/ December 4, 2006 interview with Fox News’ Bret Hume on the show “Special Report.” Transcript at The Hotline: http://hotlineblog.nationaljournal.com/archives/2006/12/hotline_after_d_126.html Video at Fox News: http://www.foxnews.com/specialreport/index.html
30/ Speech to the British Parliament on April 19, 1774, discussing the taxation of tea imported into the American colonies – like the Iraq War, a measure who’s cost far exceeded its benefits. From Tuchman, page 198.
31/ Daniel Davies, posted on Crooked Timer, November 29, 2006.
32/ Hume interview, December 4, 2006.
33/ Paraphrase of Tuchman, page 128.
About this series of articles on grand strategy.
There are few comprehensive proposals for a grand strategy for America in the literature of either the "Revolution in Military Affairs" or of 4th Generation War. This series presents an alternative to Thomas P.M. Barnett's "Pax Americana" vision. It is based on, and in a sense starts from, William Lind’s “Strategic Defense Initiative” originally published in The American Conservative, November 22, 2004.
Link to Lind’s article: http://d-n-i.net/lind/lind_strategic_defense.htm
Watch DNI for the new few chapters proposing A Grand Strategy for America.
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