WHAT IS TO BE DONE ? IRAQ, THE WAR ON TERROR AND HOW THE NEXT ADMINISTRATION CAN CUT THE GORDIAN KNOT
In the earlier preface I noted that in numerous quarters the call to do something about Iraq is rising and for many of these commenters -and the Kerry campaign given the implications of their criticism– the thing to do is to get out. Differences exist over whether we should leave in unseemly haste or only after a decent interval but mostly we are being offered the false dichotomy of staying the course with the existing strategy in Iraq or just bugging the hell out in a reprise of the fall of Saigon, complete with hapless locals clinging to departing American helicopters.
That’s a false choice. It doesn’t matter whether it comes from well-meaning myopia or a Z Magazine inspired hunger to relive the Sixties with an American defeat, it’s still a false choice. What the administration needs to do is regain their perspective, remember the strategy and be willing to make radical changes in tactics that align our reach with our grasp. An enemy slain by a thousand cuts is just as dead as one you have sent to the guillotine.
The Gordian Knot
The Bush administration’s decision to mount an invasion of Iraq generally struck the public in one of two ways – an eminently sensible and logical continuation of the war after smashing the Taliban or a grand folly of hubris, a distraction from fighting the real war with a grab for empire (or oil, or to help Israel) a misguided ” democratic imperialism”. The explanation for these viscerally different reactions is not political affiliation, after all we saw during the pre-war debate that America had liberal hawks and antiwar paleocons. The explanation lies primarily in the degree in which a person recognizes that the difficult strategic problems facing the United States – Radical Islamism, Terrorism, Rogue State dictatorships, WMD proliferation and Failed States – are an interrelated, interconnected, self-reinforcing Gordian Knot. If to you these threats are separate, highly compartmentalized, policy problems to be solved in their individual boxes unrelated to the context of everything else – which was our modus operandi during the Cold War to prevent escalation of a crisis to the unthinkable – then invading Iraq will look a little insane.
There is an internal logic to the anti-war position that is sound but it fails because it rests on the false premise that the old rules of the Cold War to keep WWIII from breaking out with the USSR make sense against an amorphous, nihilistic, irresponsible set of foes who wish to attack us sporadically, suicidally and apocalyptically. In reality, these problems are interconnected and cannot be solved in isolation. Pakistan forments Islamist extremism and trades in WMD with North Korea. The DPRK sells missile technology to Iran. Teheran, Saddam and Saudi Arabia , despite mutual loathing, all funded suicide bombers in the West Bank and Gaza and so on. Pulling on just one string of the knot creates freedom of action for a bad element elsewhere. Pressure must be applied everywhere at once ( if not to the same degree everywhere) and the Bush administration crafted a two pronged strategy of Preemption and Liberalization to change the calculus of our opponents by raising their potential costs.
Iraq in the Context of the War on Terror
The problem I have with the Bush administration is not their strategy but a haphazard execution that has allowed the conditions inside Iraq to increasingly determine our response and to magnify Iraq beyond it’s actual strategic importance in the context of everything else. Just as it would have been foolish to wait until Afghanistan resembled a central Asian Switzerland before moving to confront our other enemies, attempting to ” fix ” Iraq without allocating the correct resources is hampering our mobility and keeping us off-balance.
Richard Nixon, shortly before he ran for President in 1968 administered a shock to the liberal foreign policy establishment with an article in Foreign Affairs entitled ” Asia after Vietnam “, reminding them that Vietnam, while important, must not be allowed to tie America’s hands from pursuing her strategic interests elsewhere. It was good advice then and it remains so now. The Bush administration achieved a key strategic victory by emloying regime change against Saddam but democracy in Iraq has yet to follow. Democracy, and more importantly the values of liberalization, will have a transformative effect in the Mideast but the reality is that given competing claims for limited resources, the complexity of nation-building and urgent threats elsewhere, Iraqi democracy is going to grow more slowly than we might wish. We cannot be stalled everywhere by a lack of progress in one part of our strategy in one place. To win the war the United states must be able to take the initiative globally while holding Iraq. The Iraqis will come along in due time to join the civilized world if the forces of barbarism and Islamism go down to defeat and despair.
“Ability to defeat he enemy means taking the offensive” – Sun Tzu
Much opportunity was wasted politically in Iraq that cannot be now brought back, at least not easily. Likewise while it would be nice to have an army of 3 million men, the United states does not have one and would not have one for years even if we began creating one tomorrow. We must work with the tools we have and deal with things as they are, not as we might wish them to be. There are a number of things we could do right now to change the dynamic:
Be the Point of the Spear: This is what our armed forces really excel at, being Tom Barnett’s scary, stealthy, overwhelming Leviathan force. It’s what our military personnel are superbly trained to do and right now they are spread much too thin over too many square miles facing too many Iraqis who see everything our troops do. As Colonel David Hackworth pointed out in his Playboy article, long logistical lines of support for a conventional army facing an insurgency is a terrible position to put our troops in, it degrades our effectiveness and raises casualties. Since we really don’t control Iraq we might well admit it and pull back to create zones we really do control, safe havens to properly train the Iraqi army and National Guard and close off the border with Syria. The Iraqi government will actually have territory that it can effectively administrate and then expand from there as Iraqi forces become more reliable. We can then, with better rested troops and shorter internal supply lines, zap the bad guys at times of our own choosing with mobile strike forces.
Recognize the Strong Horse: We are trying to build up Allawi, something that may work or not, following Daniel Pipes idea of a “democratically minded strogman”. While Allawi is tough minded and ruthless the fact is he does not yet have an army that works. Who has real power ? The Kurds with 50,000 combat seasoned peshmerga. Ayatollah Sistani has a different type of power in Iraq, more diffuse but no less real. No, neither the Kurds nor Sistani’s followers will want concessions that are completely to our liking but they are the only viable basis to get genuine cooperation from significant numbers of Iraqis. Our arms-length posture has to end and we need to treat the Kurds and Sistani’s shiites as allies or win them over to that kind of relationship, even if this irritates Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
The Right Commanders for the Right War: Excuse me from cribbing from David Hackworth once again but since the insurgents aren’t fielding a Panzer army, perhaps our top generals should be counterinsurgency and special operations experts and not tank commanders ? Perhaps Secretary Rumsfeld could set aside seniority to bring up gifted general officers who best fit the foe we face in Iraq rather than those slated for the tour of duty ? George Marshall began WWII by cashiering those elderly colonels and brigadiers whose experiences were ill-suited to command troops in a global war. I’m not suggesting something quite that drastic but getting the best men for the job is more important than interservice rivalries.
Stop the Jihadis where they Begin: Jihadis are made not born. There is a flow of money that supports, for example, 14,000 extremist madrassas in Indonesia, seeking to radicalize that nation’s gentle and syncretic vision of Islam. Money can be interdicted. Schools for zealots can be closed. Secular or moderate alternatives can be offered. Fundraisers for terror and preachers of Jihad and issuers of terrorist fatwas can be killed or captured and tried before military tribunals. There is no reason why sheiks, emirs and mullahs should be exempt from the fate suffered by gauleiters and reichsmarshals.
Lastly, there’s something else longer term. Iraq and the CPA is an experience that demonstrates we need a separate armed force that specializes in nation-building during ” small wars” – we need Dr. Barnett’s System Administrators to guard, provide humanitarian relief, build, police and connect while a shattered society like Iraq recovers it’s sense of normalcy under an umbrella of protection. It’s a different set of skills than what a Leviathan force requires but they are no less important. It’s hard to imagine the insurgency in Iraq would enjoy much popularity right now if the lights were on, kids were going to school, hospitals were functioning and thugs were being jailed.
The war is ours to lose not the enemy’s to win. Much like the during the Civil War as it took time for the North to find the right men and the best tactics to bring her enormous power to bear on the Confederacy, it will take America time to throttle our enemies globally. We have a good strategy, we’ll find the right tactics, we have the best men…
If we persevere, we will win.
LINK: I would like to add this excellent observation on the interconnectedness of our strategic problems by T.M. Lutas.