One of the strangest things that people say about wars like Vietnam or Iraq is that they are lost by the meddling of politicians in military decisions, by the intrusion of politics into war, by concern for political outcomes over military ones.
It’s a strange thing to say because these wars are nothing but political wars, nothing but the use of military power as a tool to produce political outcomes. I know, I know, get your Clausewitz out, that’s all war. These wars are different, however, from the total wars of the 20th Century, where military decisions made on conventional battlefields had ultimately political outcomes (such as the unconditional surrender of sovereign states whose populations had been mobilized for total war). You can’t separate out the “politics” of a war like Vietnam or Iraq from strategic or tactical thinking about military matters.
I say this because I’m becoming certain that the same dreary tropes about Vietnam that haunted Americans for two decades are being premobilized for use in the aftermath of Iraq, that the Vietnam War was all but won if only the politicians hadn’t gotten involved. If only the generals had been free to act without restraint, if only we’d had sufficient will.
For this reason, and no other, I favor the Democrats letting Bush have free rein to “surge” away. Because surge as much as he likes, nothing’s really going to change. If there was a time when more troops and more money for reconstruction could have made the difference, it was back at the start of this whole thing. Now this is nothing more than a gambler hopelessly in the hole relentlessly doubling his bet, hoping somehow to avoid getting called on his losses. (John Quiggin pointed this out at Crooked Timber last week; I’ve noted the same thing before in terms of poker analogies.)
So if I think a surge is useless, why not try to prevent it? Because it’s true that the consequences of any action (or inaction) at this point are going to be ugly at best, catastrophic at worst. So really, the only thing that matters to me at this point is that we remain completely clear about whose leadership and policies have produced those consequences, that we not feed the tropes. The more the Democrats attempt to exert leadership in the war, the easier it becomes for supporters to claim that the surge was going to be the thing that won it all until the liberals got involved and screwed it up.
There’s really only one thing that can begin to fix the whole situation, and that’s a new presidential administration. Whomever the next U.S. President is, he or she is going to have to find the most face-saving way they can to walk away from the whole thing. In the interim, I think the major job of the opposition is holding the current administration accountable, making all information about the entire debacle available to the public, and being steadfast in their critique of the management of the war. There are political fights that need to be won now, certainly, which includes the rolling back of the administration’s domestic intrusions on civil liberties and its use of torture abroad. But as far as direct management of the war itself? Let the President do what he wants, so that there’s no confusion about whose war this was, and where the buck stopped.