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.

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11 Responses to Laissez-Surge

  1. withywindle says:

    I differ somewhat in estimation of both past and future. I do agree that maximizing information (with due caution paid for national security concerns) is the most useful thing the Democratic legislatures could do right now. It would be helpful if they framed it (both in inner truth and in public presentation) as “we are doing this to win the war” rather than “we are doing this to critique the management of the war,” but I suppose that’s not in the nature of the beast. In essence, I would like to have firm oversight by a legislature of McCains and Liebermans. As a second-best, I’d take information maximization by Clintons and Bidens.

    FYI, the current line from the NRO et al is 1) that Bush should have been more Lincolnesque, and should have ridden harder on his generals, not less; and 2) that the domestic political culture in general, rather than politicians in particular, has vetoed the use of more hard-eged military tactics. (Which does not mean Genghis Khan; a shift toward a harder edge, not a cowabunga leap.) (The second point I find descriptively accurate; normative judgments may vary.) And I suppose, yes, 3) would be sufficient will. You are, I gather, dubious of that thesis–though whether you narrowly dispute that will has been a crucial factor in this war, or broadly dispute that it has been a crucial factor in any war, is unclear.

    I wouldn’t mind a Democratic initiative to expand the size of the armed forces, though. It seems to me one could call for that without directly addressing management of the Iraq War. (Although obviously it has implications for the Iraq War.) You willing to go that far?

  2. This is an old argument — enough rope, etc. — but it would require a callousness which is much more fitting for the poker table than for our armed forces. I was more convinced two or three years ago by the argument that we needed to dramatically increase our committment to get the job done right (an argument that the administration never accepted, of course) than I am by the argument that pointless throwing of good resources and people down this particular rabbit hole would be politically healthy for us.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    They’re being thrown away as it stands, and have been thrown away for the last three years. Moreover, I think the President is committed to this course of action regardless–even if some of his funding was cut off. And all that cutting off funding of some kind would do is expose those troops that are there to greater harm.

    As far as Withywindle’s points go, as he knows full well, I think the idea that all is required is will is, bluntly, silly. I’m having a hard time thinking of a military or political conflict that was won largely through the application of unwavering will. Maybe Grant’s campaigns in the Civil War, but even there, the basic underlying condition of military success wasn’t the will to waste the lives of his troops, it was that he had troops to waste, that his tactics were fundamentally based on an asymmetrical distribution of resources between the two sides but also a political context in which it was possible to expend resources liberally in pursuit of conventional battlefield victories. It would be a mistake to look at the force capacity of the American military and the wealth of the American nation-state and conclude that there is a similar asymmetry in Iraq. The kinds of force that the United States can bring to bear in Iraq don’t scale to the business of imperial administration on a day-in, day-out basis. The wealth of the American nation-state is already committed to a host of other projects and commitments.

    As far as expanding the size of the military? Oh, now THAT’S something that President Bush is going to have to call for his own self if he deems it necessary. He’s the smart guy that heedlessly jumped into a situation that stretched the military paper-thin while arguing that there was no issue at all with resources. If he’d suddenly like to act like a grown-up leader, that’s his call.

  4. withywindle says:

    1. The argument is not will as the sole constituent of victory, but will as a necessary component of victory. (A cultural argument, in one sense.) Arguing against “the idea that all is required is will” is arguing against a straw man–against the Japanase Imperial General Staff in 1942, not against (for example) Victor Davis Hanson. I do think it is a much harder argument for you to make to say that will is a trivial factor.

    2. There are all sorts of interesting questions about force projection that follow up on that–and the particularly interesting question of what happens to the world’s security architecture if the US is perceived as incapable of sustained intervention in Iraq/perceived as unwilling to make such an attempt. But I’d like to focus on “The wealth of the American nation-state is already committed to a host of other projects and commitments.” So what are the priority commitments? And particularly, what are the priority *military* commitments?

    3. You seem to assume that the only reason to expand the military is the Iraq War. Assuming there are other reasons in the post 9-11 world to do so, then it seems to me a different moral calculus should weigh on the Democrats. And then there is the question of attending to the interests of the country. I am dubious that the proper response to dissatisfaction with the President is I’m-going-to-go-sit-in-a-corner-until-January-2009. This is grown up?

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    This is politics. The President wanted a free hand, and he didn’t want to make coalitions that were in any respect genuine. So give him a free hand, save to do things which are truly intolerable. Don’t join coalitions with people who spit on the idea of coalition: I don’t think it makes any sense to cheerfully agree to be the losing schmuck in Prisoner’s Dilemma on a permanent basis. If the current executive team wants to make coalitions, to unite rather than divide (and this goes double for their political constituencies), it’s up to them to start showing a major change in their modes of operation.

    On priority commitments, military and otherwise, the point is that there is very little flexibility in the current federal budget (as there are in most institutional budgets). And every one of those dollars is going to something that matters to somebody, to commitments which shore up some aspect or another of the general welfare, economic livelihood, safety and security and so on of the United States and the world at large. The budget of the American nation-state is not quite a zero-sum game, but proposing massive new expenditures in some project abroad (or at home) requires eventually deciding to give up some other major commitment, or to obtaining significant new revenues through taxation (which has its own costs). *Part* of being better off and more powerful than other nations has to do with the kinds of existing commitments to health, welfare, and security that the US government has made. You can have “hegemony on a shoestring” if you don’t want too much out of your hegemony. If you want to engage in truly expensive efforts at massive imperial transformation, that’s going to take a seismic shift of funds and resources which will inevitably impoverish some important existing commitment in the metropolitan core.

    This is a major reason why being an empire is not a sustainable enterprise, the starry-eyed fantasies of Robert Kaplan and Niall Ferguson notwithstanding. It’s a structural problem that isn’t open to some clever policy initiative: an empire is going to be drawn into a spiralling drainage of its resources out to its frontiers if it commits to much more than the occasional kicking over of sandcastles at the boundaries of its hegemony.

  6. Endie says:

    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.

    That bit of what you wrote really surprises me. That is, as I think Jonathan is suggesting, some pretty cold Realpolitik. If the Democrats think getting elected is the greatest good, then by all means they should make that play. If they believe that they have any policy that can improve the situation, then they should use the fact that they control the legislature to implement that policy, particularly if they think that both the lives of their soldiers and the international standing, influence and ultimately the prosperity of their nation is the stake.

    If, of course, they do not believe that they have any policy capable of bringing about improvement on Bush’s strategy, or if they believe that controlling the legislature does not yield sufficient power to bring the requisite pressure upon the executive, then perhaps they should find new careers.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    That pretty much is exactly my view here: there is no better strategy. The whole thing is pretty well a disaster no matter what we do next. Withdrawing is going to be bad, staying is going to be bad. Surging is going to be bad, sitting pat is going to be bad. This is a war that could not have turned out well, but that had a chance to be less bad in its early going, when there was some plasticity to the situation. Under a bigger fig leaf of multilateralism, with more of a genuine acknowledgement of international norms, with far more resources put into securing the situation at the outset, with far more guidance from regional experts, with far less neoconservative happy juice and all its attendant illusions about how people in general work and how specific cultures work–it wouldn’t have been pretty, but it would have been far less ugly and the options for exit would be more palatable by far. But the plasticity was all in the first six months of the occupation. The structures of the conflict are now beyond any remediation or reconstruction.

    So under those circumstances, the ONLY good I see is that the American people learn some important lessons about the way the world works, about the limits to American power, about the importance of process in their own government, and about how to pay attention when the stakes are high. The focus has to be on reform in the process of political decision-making here at home: the war is a lost cause whatever we do. Getting caught up in the business of trying to make it turn out right is a waste of precious political energy. Is that cold? I guess so. On balance, I’d favor preserving the lives of American soldiers, so better to begin some kind of phased withdrawal than to surge. But it’s clear the President isn’t going to go for that, so let him have his way, as he will anyway. In fact, to some extent, he ought to: it’s actually one of his legitimate powers as opposed to all the illegitimate prerogatives he’s tried to claim in the past six years.

  8. withywindle says:

    1. I do wish you had answered the question I asked a while back, about whether there were any American military interventions you had favored at the time, and continue to favor. (I assumed Afghanistan 2001 made your list.) Since a number of your theoretical statements command universal assent, the devil is obviously in the details–and one wants to get a sense if you have exhibited Orgon-like complaisance in the past, or a more hard-edged attitude.

    2. You do, I think, conflate empire, hegemon, and world policeman. We are not, after all, trying to send our legions in to loot Macedon, or even to provide a captive market for our cotton manufactures, but rather to do in the Middle East now what we did in Western Europe and Japan after the war. (Set up independent, self-policing democratic allies.) The world policeman role–what Ferguson and Kaplan advocate in practice, happy historic parallels aside–is far more limited, and presumably far more sustainable. And of course there is the argument that our prosperity (and the world’s) *depends* upon our acting as world policeman.

    3. Practically, I rather think the US could afford to kick it’s military budget up by 50%, since that would get us back (on a proportionate level) to what we were spending in the 1980s. I would be on board for significant shifts of resources–whether cutting spending elsewhere or raising taxes–to pay for that. Since you leave “priority” so vague, it does leave open the possibility that you think of school lunches for tots as a priority over national defense–which is not universally self-evident.

    4. I have a rather different estimation of what was on tap with “multilateralism” and “bipartisanship.” Not going to war in the first place would seem to be the obvious answer, which has some logical tension with your conception of a better-funded and more broadly supported war. But–see below–this is probably not worth arguing about.

    5. I do of course see the downside of withdrawal rather more bleakly than you do–not least with a weather-eye to Iran. (Are you categorically against a unilateral pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities? This is, after all, the next great choice approaching. I fancy you’ll have a post up on the subject at some point.) Are you in point of fact resigned to millions dead in a civil war in Iraq, Iranian pretensions of nuclear hegemony, a possible millenarian nuclear strike against Israel followed by a nuclear counter-strike, etc.? And quite sure no US military action can affect this course of events? Or do you define “disaster” more rosily?

    6. I continue to think it would be worthwhile to get a sense from you of the US’ military priorities, essential interests, red lines, etc. I think you may have discussed this a few years back, but not recently. It would provide helpful context. (After all, our own commitment of resources to Iraq has been heavily constrained by our sense of competing military priorities and interests. It would be interesting to see how much overlap there is between your judgment and the Pentagon’s.)

    7. In all these queries, I am attempting to avoid the judgment-of-facts about Iraq where we are, I believe, in irreconcilable (and dull) disagreement. These queries, therefore, are somewhat peripheral to the central point of your post, but not (I hope) entirely irrelevant. Anyway, I’m interested in your answers.

  9. hestal says:

    I agree with Herr Burke. In the context he defined he is right. And this argument will flourish for decades. Historians will be able to write many books about this war — in fact the number of books is a function of the number of discrete sets of source documents that will be found. I believe that the forumula is 2.8n where n is the number of sources.

    But after Vietnam, and after Nixon, and now after Bush another thing will repeat itself. That is the absence of any plan to redesign our Constitution to keep this sort of thing from happening again. As a computer systems guy, it was routine for me to change a system when it contained errors. And the bigger the error the more urgent the effort to correct it. That is why your payroll checks usually are on time and correct.

    But here we have a system error of the highest magnitude and nobody proposes that we correct it.

    If we don’t correct the errors of history we will — well, you know.

  10. Cobb says:

    .aah.. no pings. therefore i unburden…

    The assumption that we know exactly what failure or success in this war portends depends upon a wide varieties of political goals which are demonstrably affected by events on the ground. I don’t question that war is a means to a political end, in fact I’d extend the metaphor. War is a means and and excuse for all political ends. It is the greatest practical thing humans do, war is. There are infinite lessons attributable, and that is why we will continue to study history for the rest of human existence.

    I don’t want to go too far afield in drawing conclusions or lessons from this war, but I do have a few. My perception of the actual success or failure of this war depends on what I think are more geopolitically realistic assessments than those of the politics expressed in most of the conversations domestically. Ironicly, I percieve that such considerations are almost exclusively attributed to anti-American foreigners, whereas Americans who support the war in Iraq are considered mindless zombies in lockstep to phrases uttered by the Commander in Chief. The consequence of this is that the biggest lesson I think I’ve learned, or that most Americans can learn, is that our politicians and media are engaged in a conspiracy to influence us which has little to do with geopolitical reality. We have spent so much time as a nation focused on ourselves and our own opinion of our political selves that we have really devalued our actual ability to know what war is or what war does. The War in Iraq has played domestically in the exact same way as the Trial of the Century.

    I don’t see how it escapes anyone’s notice that the PNAC whose empowered principals in the Bush Administration could hold anything but antipathy for an Arab Socialist party who was armed by Russia. So in many ways it was inevitable that Iraq would be an enemy of the American state. How ‘oil’ became a subtext for an unspoken ulterior motive for this war and not that basic ideological conflict is a testament to the subset of lessons Americans wish to teach each other, rather than the state of political conflict in the world.

    Burke asserts a foregone conclusion that the ‘surge’, the increase and redeployment and change of rule of engagement will not change the war from failure to victory. My reaction to that assertion is somewhat typical of neocons. It seems to me that if the only lesson to be learned is how ‘failure’ is inevitable in American military matters, the implication is that discretion is not the better part but the only part of valor, and that there is nothing to be learned by costly boldness except that man’s reach always exceeds his grasp. I dissent from this in both principle and in light of what has happened in Iraq, and there are several dimensions of triumph that I believe are unassailable.

    First of all there is, no matter what one views as the ultimate cost, the absolute certainty that a tyrant has been forcibly removed from power. The destruction of Saddam and the Baath Party was absolute and unequivocal. There are those who continue to argue that our fundamental military ability has been destroyed by the ‘adventure’ in Iraq. They think we broke it by using it. Ask such people if they believe the American military is capable of removing Kim Jong Il in North Korea or Ahmadinejad in Iran and you will hear echoes of the same pessimism which doubted we could ever take Baghdad. I always had complete confidence in our ability to take control of Iraq and can recall bragging about how Saddam would be forgotten after some period. Just like Manuel Noriega, he would sit helpless and defeated under arrest in America, and so he did. So there is a Vietnam like spite in dismissing our military capability that has a dog in the fight of destroying the credibility of the Pentagon which seeks to find vindication in its definitions of defeat. They would have us believe that the fundamental nature of warfare has changed and that the destruction of the Baath Party and Saddam Hussein is relatively worthless and meaningless. I find this completely at odds with reality. The reality is that the capitol has been captured and turned over to a new government. That is a victory.

    Secondly, no matter what the outcome of the insurgency, there will be no weapons of mass destruction deployed by either Iraqis or terrorists finding aid and comfort to any post Saddam Iraq for the next ten years at least. I count that as pure victory. Again, it takes an extreme kind of denial of material reality to suggest this has little or no meaning and is not a clear victory for the stated purposes of invasion.

    Thirdly, and very importantly, the ‘Baby Bin Laden Theory’ has been completely discredited. By taking the battle to AQ and terrorists who would desire to fight America, we have routed the Al Qaeda organization and many smaller ones. The proliferation of enemies of America is not indeed a reality.

    The great failure of this war, in my view, is a failure of nation building, and ultimately a failure of diplomacy. In every respect, to the extent that significant aspects of the strategic objectives of this war were to leave a regime in place which resembled a Western democracy, America has failed. We are incapable of construction with the efficiency promised, expected and delivered. It is the unexpected consequences of this failure which has put ‘extra’ lives at risk. I put extra in quotes because I’m not sure that I believe in a ‘small’ war. Despite the fact that Iraqis did not vote, nor Afghans, to war against the US and its allies, they have always had the freedom to lay down arms and not be targets of our war machine.

    I take this opportunity to remind skeptics that at no time has any international organization pointed to our war in Iraq and suggest that we have precipitated a humanitarian crisis. By that standard alone, we have victory, because clearly Saddam Hussein was guilty of genocide. I continue to call opponents of this war on that standard, and still anti-war activists deny the Anfal holocaust.

    There remain a number of areas which I feel are historical lessons of war which one cannot call failures or triumphs. They are simply the inevitable consequences of being involved in warfare. They are lessons of warriors. I think it will be seen in retrospect that the decision to put General Petraeus in charge of Iraq showed the wisdom of GWBush in recognizing the difference between a war of occupation and that of counter-insurgency. Petraeus is our best man for that job and it has been evident to me since Thomas Ricks’ book. We fought the last war with todays army and were unready for the war we needed to fight. We learned the war we needed to fight and now going forward with Petraeus we will fight it.

    That is too little to late to save the grand neoconservative dreams of rebuilding Iraq into a strong Western democracy. And despite the fact that Iran and Syria have been emboldened we have contained the conflict to that country. I see the regional politics at work and I know that the complete solution needs to involve the entire region. We will see somewhere in the future what a semi-starved Iraq will do to contribute to regional instability – but I think given what we have learned about the difference between Israelis trust in Westphalian diplomacy and the vagaries of Arab politics that our current form of diplomacy is inadequate to keep armies bottled up indefinitely.

    If GWBush had years of irrational optimism for the prospects of an orderly transfer of power from a dictatorship to a democracy, it was an irrational optimism I shared. I don’t think that illustrates that our armies are incapable of defeating our enemies, but that they are incapable of creating the space and time needed to grow a new political class while guaranteeing the function of civil society. Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor can Iraq be rebuilt in five years to American satisfaction. Loss.

    What will be satisfactory to the Iraqis themselves is left to be seen, but we know they reject Al Qaeda. We know they reject Saddam Hussein. We know they have no WMDs, and we know no opportunities to clash with Israel were taken. Win.

    Today the head of the UN Oil for Food Program was indicted for fraud and conspiracy. I believe that the 23 plus factions in Iraq are fighting over oil claims too. I know that the kings of the world of oil will continue to be the kings no matter who rules Iraq and anyone’s ability anywhere in the world to profit from oil necessitates negotiation with the West. Does oil wealth corrupt? That depends upon how corrupt you think Shell is. You have Saddam’s regime for comparison as well as the example of the UN. That lesson is a draw as far as I’m concerned.

    There are those playing in the media spotlight of domestic dissent who will claim that Abu Ghraib was a great embarrassment to America as a symbol of human rights. But I find it difficult to believe such an opportunistic sentiment in light of what we know occurs in American prisons all the time. I recognize the failure of Abu Ghraib, but I have little respect for the moral outrage. In the annals of war, there is nothing so horrible there or at Camp XRay, and those with a true sense of history know this.

    I would like to end with two observations. The first underscores our failure at diplomacy but.. How is it that we have not felt the sting of sanctions against the US from ‘Old Europe’ and those who failed the Coalition of the Willing? Where is the diplomatic price we have paid? If it exists, the fact that it is obscure to us underscores not only our failure to pay closer attention to diplomacy but to pay attention to the acts of foreign governments in response to our failures. All we know is that gas costs more, but oil is about $56 a barrel today, down from over $80 last year.

    The second observation is that somehow we have avoided any new domestic terror attacks in spite of those carried out in the UK, Spain and elsewhere. We have outed Hezbollah and we have killed much of AQ. We could probably get many more in Pakistan were the diplomacy right. We are not safe, but we are not so vulnerable either. I know why despite others’ pleading complete ignorance our defense’s ultimate purposes.

    Our soldiers will come home, and I will understand something of their true victory, and recognize their continued importance to our nation’s defense. Others may try to unwind that carpet from under them for domestic political points, but I’m facing the world.

  11. withywindle says:

    A not unrelated article by Nick Cohen:,,1995096,00.html

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