August 18, 2006

No More American Deaths Just To "Hang On and Hand Over"

I'm afraid we're going to have to do much, much better than congratulating ourselves over a "huge improvement" such as this, at least if we're trying to be serious about the scale of the challenge before us in Iraq, rather than making a Beltway navel-gazing mockery of ourselves. Our current war strategy in Iraq can only be described as a dismal failure. We are losing the war, as Iraq devolves into vicious sectarian chaos, Iran gains influence there daily, and given our continued inability to snuff out the Sunni insurgency.

We have three serious options now, I'd think: 1) the Barry Posen route (see also variants such as Les Gelb's or Peter Galbraith's, this last smacking of a good deal of Kurdophilia, incidentally, in my view), 2) a 'stay the course' route (sorry, "adapting to win", as the desperately lame word-smithing has it), or 3) a Fred Kagan style route significantly enhanced by special attention to Baghdad and very astute Krepinevich style 'oil-spotting' (albeit more focused in the author's so-called Red Zone than the Green Zone, in my view).

Option 2 above (as supplemented by troop rotations around Iraq so as to create totally insufficient 'surges' in Baghdad, and weakening counter-insurgency efforts in the areas the troops are rotated from) has become a total non-starter. It dishonors our men in uniform who are dying in Iraq daily. Why should one more of them die for a failed war strategy presided over by proven incompetents? Really, why? Rumsfeld must immediately be fired to inject fresh thinking into Iraq policy-making from a high-level strategic vantage point. We need a Secretary of Defense who understands counter-insurgency doctrine, and who actually cares about rather than dismisses nation-building. His continued presence basically begs a continuation of Option 2, which is simply no longer tolerable, despite Mehlman and Lowry's pathetic spin to the contrary.

Option 3 is my favored approach, but it means: 1) likely another 40,000-70,000 troops (needed immediately to 'surge' into Baghdad to convincingly control it, while avoiding simply rotating troops out of places like Anbar, Nineveh, and Salah ad Din, indeed supplementing troops there as well), 2) fewer U.S. soldiers stationed in large, remote bases with more of them instead actually forward deployed (indeed living in cities or very near areas of significant insurgent activity) in smaller bases, along with Iraqi Army units, to better observe and combat insurgents at closer hand (more on this in a subsequent post, but think of the Tall Afar precedent, which is, however, much harder to accomplish in larger towns like Ramadi and, of course, Baghdad), and 3) a region-wide approach involving more intensive consultations with each of Iraq's neighbors, particularly Iran (out-maneuvering us mightily at the present hour), Turkey (a Turkish incursion in Kurdistan becomes likelier with each passing month and continued PKK activity), and Syria (where we must prevail on Damascus to make the border less porous). Saudi Arabia and Jordan, particularly given rising Shi'a influence through the region, must be a key part of this dialogue too. The goal, however chimerical it may seem, would be to ultimately broker non-interference pacts with all these countries vis-a-vis Iraq, or at least understandings on certain 'red-lines' that cannot be crossed (I am thinking here, in particular, of Iran). In the course of all this, we must also give extremely serious thought on how to contain the specter of growing Shi'a radicalization and revanchism within Iraq proper (al Qaeda in Iraq's bombing campaigns, the Lebanese war, and Iran's massive interference in Iraq aren't helping, to say the least).

If we can't muster up such efforts, we either need to go the 'soft' partition route (we can try to preserve a 'loose' central government), or we need to just pick up and leave. This is because today we still don't have the number of troops and strategic leadership to win, despite the noble efforts of commanders and troops on the ground. Today, whether it's 'adapting to win' or 'stay the course' or whatever other tired bromides, the reality is that we are playing 'whack-a-mole' and 'hang on and hand over'. I, for one, cannot support the continued death of American servicemen and women fighting a failed war strategy. Either we get closer to 200,000 troops in theater to make a real go of it, or move towards a partition scenario, or let's draw down and get out. It has come to this, and I think people (including, yes, even presidential aspirants like John McCain) need to start saying this rather more loudly, more aggressively, and more plainly, or else their credibility will begin to diminish as well. We've now lost approximately as many American and Coalition troops in Iraq than died on 9/11, after all, and the loss of Iraqi lives has been almost unfathomable. Unless we convincingly embark upon a new strategy, future deaths will be deaths in vain. Barry Posen, in the piece linked above, writes:

It has been argued that the United States has an ethical obligation to prevent Iraq from falling more deeply into civil conflict because it removed Saddam Hussein, who at least kept order. In a civil war, many fighters and civilians would be killed—perhaps even more than are dying now. The ethical questions for Americans are these: Do we owe Iraq an open-ended peace-enforcement mission that necessarily includes a bloody, costly, and seemingly counterproductive counterinsurgency campaign? Do we owe Iraq the certain erosion of the U.S. Army? Does a stalemated counterinsurgency bring Iraq closer to an internal political settlement than would a civil war for which the three Iraqi factions would bear both the political responsibility and the costs?

I still believe we owe the Iraqis a serious effort to stabilize their polity, and I think a full-blown civil war will be so terrible, and so very difficult to calibrate per Posen's 'stalemate' scenario, that I obviously lean towards a Kagan-plus policy option. But Iraq's middle class is fleeing, and historical furies have been unleashed between Shi'a and Sunni that so few US policymakers even begin to comprehend, and we are not dealing with Iraq's neighbors intelligently (or at all), and we are prosecuting a counterinsurgency campaign (belatedly) that remains essentially stunted by a lack of effective resources and strategic leadership.

So, what do do? I think, if we don't see a new Secretary of Defense and significant troop increases soon, we'll have to conclude that this White House lacks the will (I speak here of real will, not Bush's piteous faith-based variety, as in his glib, empty "just wait" to Vladimir Putin) to be serious about winning in Iraq, and so B.D. will have to support a partition strategy. And if this White House can't persuasively orchestrate such a complex partition end-game either, having failed to effectively preserve a truly unitary Iraqi state, one is all but forced to conclude a hugely discreditable withdrawal will be needed to spare more American lives being lost for little to no purpose.

While I believe America owes Iraq much more than such a prospective devastating abdication of responsibility, given not least the massive bloodshed Rumsfeld's chaos has unleashed, at the end of the day I am an American, and I must recommend what I think is in America's best national interest, despite my moral disgust for what could prove our abject failure to deliver to Iraqis what we promised to them. An over-the-horizon force to ensure that Anbar (and Sunni parts of Baghdad) don't become al-Qaeda sanctuaries should eventually become our policy aim if we are simply incapable of pursuing a coherent war strategy. As for containing Iran (not least in the context of their stoking something of a Hezbollah-zation of Iraq, if you will) color me unconvinced the current national security team can pursue an intelligent strategy there either, certainly if the fiasco (to use a word in vogue) of our effort to date in Iraq is any indication, or indeed the recent happenings in Lebanon.

Posted by Gregory at August 18, 2006 04:53 AM

Lives lost on 9/11 - 2973

Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan as of today - 2935

We're just an average month away from havng lost more troops than their were people killed on 9/11...can we go home yet?

I don't see why an immediate and complete pullout from Iraq and Afghanistan isn't a serious option.

China runs Asia now...losing more lives and money to maintain the fantasy that America isn't irrelevant to Asia's future is...almost criminal.

Actually, it is criminal.

We're number two now...let's just admit it.

Posted by: monkyboy at August 20, 2006 11:51 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Greg, congrats at finally getting beyond "This war isn't working, we need to make it work". Which is better than "This war is going swell!" But no more effective, and making a (fairly strong, actually) attempt to broaden your range of options.

I might be willing to support 3) if I thought it would work. By itself, I simply don't believe it will make a difference. I don't see an extra 70,000 troops as making a dent anymore than I see Bush's 5000 doing so. A very, very large part of the problem lies in the fact that the Iraqi government is incoherent, with the well-intentioned chunks being passive and helpless and the effective chunks being one or another form of, essentially, thugs. I don't see adding US troops as fixing this. I don't think we have a solution at all. And I don't see the situation in Iraq getting better until it changes.

Secondly, I don't think that more US troops will be able to eliminate the Sunni insurgency that started the death spiral. Suppress, maybe, eliminate, no. The only chance is a negotiated settlement between Iran/Shiite militias on one side and Sunni leaders/Sunni states on the other, and the carrot of US withdrawal is the only way to get the relevant Sunni folks to the table. They have said so themselves.

With Shiite Iran on the west border, the Sunni dictatorship Club on the East, and US troops in the middle, the situation is way too volatile for good government and minimal bloodshed. The US must end offensive military operations in Iraq and cut way back on its political strongarming of the Iraqi government, so it can sink and learn to swim on its own. In that order.

Are we letting down the Iraqi people? I don't know. We tried hard. Stupid, but hard. We operate within constraints, including a domestic political scene that has, not too throw this at you too harshly, given up.

Posted by: glasnost at August 20, 2006 11:54 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

We would be letting Exxon/Mobil, Chevron, Shell and BP down, but the Iraqi people? Ha!

Posted by: Jesus Reyes at August 21, 2006 12:36 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I'd fell much worse about all this if I have been stupid enough to vote for the clowns in charge. Twice. How about you?

Always thought 3,000 would be the magic number.

Posted by: Richard Bottoms at August 21, 2006 02:00 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


Fixing Iraq will not work with Republicans in power in America, simply because, as the evidence shows, they are more concerned with winning elections and establishing what DeLay called a Republican dominance of American politics for good. That's what they care about. The evidence is clear that Republicans have never been interested in peace in the Middle East, especially as they've gone further into a religious fever. Peace in the Middle East means a delay in the advent of the Second Coming. War in the Middle East means a quickening of the advent of the Second Coming. All actions in the Middle East by Republicans are done in self-interest and self-preservation, not in the betterment of others. I'm debating with a Republican on his blog who calls terrorists "cockroaches," as if to prove just how little Republicans recall their history (Rwanda and Nazism).

Basically, what I am saying is that as long as Republicans stay in power in America, there will never be peace in the Middle East.

Posted by: Daniel at August 21, 2006 12:07 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

It seems pretty clear that all factions in Iraq can be compared to the extropian view of the internet and censorship: they interpret the occupation as damage and route around it. All factions have figured out how to carry on their own violent campaigns for whatever amount of power and/or local security they think they can manage despite the presence of US troops. We've managed to make 130K in military personnel irrelevant.

Would 200K be less relevant? I don't think so.

Tall Afar is a happy bedtime story, but it's also a city of a quarter-million at full population, and them mostly Kurds and Turkmen if Wikipedia is to be believed. Baghdad has one hundred times the people.

Posted by: Jim Henley at August 21, 2006 04:32 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Greg, I think you have hit the proverbial nail with the "current national security team" remark: this seems to be the crux of the problem. Most of the foreign-policy fiascoes of the G. W. Bush Adminstration have been the work of the same crew of ideologues and insider/loyalists who have been in charge from 1/21/01 - and who, almost unanimously, seem constitutionally incapable of even admitting to the existence of "fiascoes", still less trying to rectify them (and even less taking responsibility).

As Daniel points out above, maintenance of domestic political superiority is the overriding priority for the Bush regime (and this gang is far more of a "regime" than an "administration"), and when they have founded so many of their electoral hopes on the presentation to the American public of a positive spin on the war in Iraq, it is folly to think that they will ever make any admission of any error whatsoever (especially in an election year).

Especially when there is so much traction (perceived) to be gained by expoiting a win-win-win, "support the troops" mentality among voters, and, concurrently demonizing the "Opposition's" suggestions that there might be anything wrong with current policy as "cut-and-run defeatism", or whatever.

Posted by: Jay C at August 21, 2006 06:50 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

To get to the conclusion he states in the last two paragraphs here, Greg takes the scenic route, steering clear of the phrase "one mid-sized Arab country" and its implications for a global power, and avoiding the problem of how the war is being financed altogether.

It's a little like trying to drive from St. Louis to Kansas City without going near I-70. Certainly you can do it, but it will take a lot longer, and if you have any passengers they will wonder if you really know where you are going.

Posted by: Zathras at August 21, 2006 06:56 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Here is Gregory's rather bellicose statement regarding the war on February 14, 2003:

“It remains manifestly clear that the Iraqi regime is in material breach of Resolution 1441. The U.S. and U.K. must begin to draft a resolution so declaring that reminds the international community that "serious consequences" are in the offing. Saddam must be given an ultimatum, say March 1st, by which he would need to perform a total about face and reveal the full scope of his WMD capability and begin to convincingly lead inspectors to all relevant sites so the WMD can be dismantled and destroyed. If, as expected, he does not change his policy of obstruction the U.S. must lead a coalition to forcefully disarm him--with or without a second resolution. He leaves us no choice.”

One could find similar statements in the archives of a host of public intellectuals who are now wringing their hands and proclaiming the end times in Iraq in like manner to the author of this blog. Andrew Sullivan and the editors of “The New Republic” come to mind. One gets the impression that they would very much like to go back and expunge their archives of such evidences of their former martial attitudes, and, in the style of “1984,” drop them down the memory hole. That can’t be done, so, instead, most of them insist that they were right all along, but simply had no way of foreseeing the incredible, mind-boggling, unbelievable “incompetence” of the Bush administration, with Rumsfeld as the mother of all “incompetents.” Oddly, as grossly “incompetent” as they were in prosecuting the war in retrospect, Rumsfeld and company, in spite of their long public records, seem to have spent their entire careers cleverly hiding any evidence of their “incompetence” from these people. For example, on February 8, 2003 we read on this blog, “Don't get me wrong, much that emanates from Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon I heartily agree with.”

I think most of the readers of this blog are astute enough to realize that the situation in Iraq is grim. There is, however, no basis for the conclusion that it is hopeless unless we pump in “40,000 to 70,000” additional troops, and set up a hotline between Djerejian and the generals so he can explain to them how they should fight the war from day to day. History certainly doesn’t support that conclusion, unless, perhaps, one factors in the well-known propensity of the US to “cut and run” when the chips are down. The wheel of Nemesis rolls up and down in war, and victory is more likely to favor the tenacious than the chronically panic-stricken. The idea that the solution is to send in more troops is certainly not unequivocally supported by historical precedent, and flies in the face of the thought of some of the brightest young military minds around. Gregory does not take note of this thought, nor attempt to address the relevant arguments. Instead, he spends most of his time wringing his hands and proclaiming defeat. He does this, apparently, without the slightest inkling that such proclamations can turn into self-fulfilling prophecies, and that such defeatism can have a negative effect on the morale, and, as a result, the effectiveness, of the troops who must carry the fight. I do have an inkling that this is the case, because I’ve been there, in Vietnam.

Well, we must learn what we can from this sad story. Intellectuals like Greg Djerejian and Andrew Sullivan are very bright people. They are also public spirited, and understand that the condoning of torture and dismantling of human rights are not only wrong, they are, in the end, self-defeating. Still, they were disastrously wrong in egging us on to invade Iraq. Once the bad news from Iraq started coming in, they turned defeatist, proclaiming the incompetence of our leaders. Let us assume for the sake of argument that our leaders are every bit as incompetent and the situation in Iraq every bit as disastrous as Djerejian and the rest portray it. Do such loud, strident and constant defeatist proclamations really help? What could they accomplish? The dismissal of Rumsfeld? So what? Bush can’t be dismissed so easily, and it will be up to him to appoint a new Secretary of Defense. Given the fact that, according to Djerejian, Bush is just as incompetent as Rumsfeld, it hardly seems likely that he would appoint anyone significantly better. Will the defeatism of our intellectuals and their proposed nostrums for victory affect the strategy or tactics of our generals? Not bloody likely. Defeatism does, however, have a very negative effect on the morale of our troops and the population at large. Defeatism is self-defeating.

Wars are among the most complex of human endeavors. Their outcome can never be predicted with perfect accuracy. In this case, I think even Djerejian would now agree that the conclusion that “we had no choice” but to invade Iraq was wrong. I am no pacifist or Kossite. I was entirely in favor of defeating Saddam’s aggression in the first Gulf War. I opposed the second Gulf War because it was a war of aggression, and such wars should never be started in a world full of nuclear weapons. It was also unnecessary. Saddam could never have inflicted any serious harm on us with chemical and biological weapons, even if he had possessed them. The only WMD’s we really needed to fear were nuclear weapons, and there was no way he was so close to getting them and developing a means of delivering them that an invasion was justified. As for the saving of lives, we could have done that much more effectively by spending the money we have wasted in Iraq more wisely.

Well, the milk has been spilt. I suspect that Djerejian, Sullivan, the editors of TNR and the rest won’t be so quick to conclude that “we have no choice” but to go to war the next time around. If they do, I suggest we be very circumspect about accepting their advice, and keep in mind the fact that, if we do accept it, we will have to contend with their panic-stricken defeatism as well as the enemy when the chips are down.

Posted by: Helian at August 22, 2006 10:49 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

What happens in Iraq if the US does pull out?

Posted by: anon at August 22, 2006 06:50 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Helian, what are you proposing?

I see what you're proposing about Greg, Sullivan, etc, you're saying they were wrong before so everybody should ignore them. But beyond that?

I agree with you that it was a stupid mistake to invade iraq in the first place.

Now it sounds like you're saying we can win easy with fewer soldiers. What's your positioii on the issues, as opposed to the guys who were wrong before?

Bush NEEDS routine drug testing. You know he has to be on crack.

For that matter, shouldn't the whole Congress be subject to regular drug tests? What they do is more important than an airline pilot.

Posted by: J Thomas at August 23, 2006 03:27 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"I see what you're proposing about Greg, Sullivan, etc, you're saying they were wrong before so everybody should ignore them. But beyond that?"

On the contrary, Greg and Sullivan are among the best and the brightest we have. They both understand that we will never make ourselves more secure by dismantling our liberties and condoning torture, and they consistently defend the best that America stands for. They both think independently, and are not, like so many others, simply mouthpieces for one or the other of the fashionable ideologies of our time. I wouldn't waste my time criticizing them if I thought they were worthless, and I will continue to read them. In this particular instance, I happen to disagree with them.

As for the rest of the strawmen you have created to represent me, I will leave them to defend themselves on their own.

Posted by: Helian at August 23, 2006 04:37 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Helian, that I completely misunderstood your position might be some indication to you about how clear you were.

"I suggest we be very circumspect about accepting their advice, and keep in mind the fact that, if we do accept it, we will have to contend with their panic-stricken defeatism as well as the enemy when the chips are down."

I hope you can understand how this could be read as implying you think we should not follow Greg's advice.

At any rate, what is your advice? You explained that you were against the war in the first place. "I opposed the second Gulf War"

Now you appear to be saying that we can win it, and without additional troops. "There is, however, no basis for the conclusion that it is hopeless unless we pump in “40,000 to 70,000” additional troops"

Have you switched to supporting the war? You praise Rumsfeld with faint damns, you argue that there's no point in getting rid of him because Bush would probably appoint a replacement who was just as bad. Are you saying that our military can win with limited resources, even with Rumsfelt tied behind their backs?

It's real unclear to me what you're advocating, beyond ignoring Greg etc on this topic.

Posted by: J Thomas at August 23, 2006 04:45 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

“Helian, that I completely misunderstood your position might be some indication to you about how clear you were.”

You came to conclusions that were unwarranted by anything I said. That’s your problem, not mine. I am not here to spoon feed the other commenters.

“At any rate, what is your advice? You explained that you were against the war in the first place. Now you appear to be saying that we can win it, and without additional troops…Have you switched to supporting the war?”

I did not support going to war. It does not necessarily follow that I must therefore oppose winning the war once we are in it. In fact, I consider it winnable and am in favor of winning it.

“You praise Rumsfeld with faint damns, you argue that there's no point in getting rid of him because Bush would probably appoint a replacement who was just as bad. Are you saying that our military can win with limited resources, even with Rumsfelt tied behind their backs?”

The point of my post was not to praise Rumsfeld, or advocate any particular troop strength level, or, for that matter, to pass judgment on any particular strategy or tactic whatsoever. The point of my post was, in short, to point out that morale is important in determining the outcome of wars, that Gregory is a defeatist, and that the negative effect of his defeatism in harming morale and thereby promoting defeat rather than victory is likely to be much larger than any conceivable positive effect in the form of a decision to change our strategy and tactics so as to make victory more likely by people who can do anything about them. Those are complex propositions, and one could easily write books elaborating on them. It would be useless to try to “prove” them in the context of a blog comment section. If Gregory happens to read these comments, he will certainly reject them at first. However, he might think about them, and, since he’s intelligent and doesn’t wear prominent ideological blinkers, he might eventually realize that there’s some truth to what I’ve written. That was the point of my post.

Posted by: Helian at August 24, 2006 02:36 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I think I see.

You didn't support our reasons for going to war, or the war.

But now you do support the war. You think it can be won, and that it will be much easier to win if we demonstrate full resolve and if we not let ourselves have any doubts about whether the fruits of victory are worth what it will cost.

I agree with you that the war is winnable. If we had the will, in three months w could make and transport enough nerve gas to kill every insurgent in every village in iraq. But what would such a victory be worth to us?

I say that a victory worth having means we wind up with an iraqi government that doesn't hate us, elected by an iraqi people that don't hate us. And it's too late for that. We've already lost that war.

Abu Ghraib convinced a lot of americans there was something wrong. But the iraqis had already heard all about it from their own people, and about Camp Xray and Camp Victory and all the rest of it. Americans can believe that it was a few bad apples doing it, but you'll never get iraqis to believe that. Their own police used quite brutal methods, and their criminals were proud of what they could take. We said we didn't do the kind of torture they did, and we didn't. So to iraqis we look like effete perverts. And utter hypocrites. Back when we let the iraqi police try to handle local security, and we handled the prisons, they'd collect dangerous criminals and thieves and such, and they'd tuirn them over to us. And we'd look at them and see that they had no clues about finding Saddam or the insurgency etc, and we'd let them go. People held without charge who might have info were kept for months or years. Apolitical murderers got let out in 2 weeks. We showed the iraqis how much we cared for their civilian security then, and we've never shown them different since.

The collaborationist government in iraq doesn't support us as much as the collaborationist french government supported the nazis. When you read polls that say 10% or 15% of the nonkurd public doesn't want us to leave this year, you're reading about people who've spent decades under a dictatorship that tortured them for telling the truth, people who don't trust pollsters not to turn them over to the secret police. I assert without proof that 100% of nonkurd iraqis want us gone as soon as possible. I assert that there's no good way to test this, while our occupation continues.

We can't possibly get a meaningful victory in iraq. People who try to pretend otherwise are helping to prolong the agony which weakens the USA.

There's no conceivable reason to maintain any morale whatsoever about this fiasco. Keeping up morale in the hope that with sufficient morale we might find some way to win, is plain stupid. We have nothing left to win in iraq.

Posted by: J Thomas at August 24, 2006 07:14 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


I agree it's about time you see our current situation correctly -- I agree with you entirely. However, the current Preznit will not do any of this. The reason, at base, can only be that it is because he doesn't care about any of this stuff he said he cared about in Iraq. If we are to "stay the course"; if we "will be there until the job is done"; if we "will do what it takes" -- and then fail to do that when we have other resources at our disposal that we do not use? Well then, it's because we actually don't believe any of that.

If we cannot commit the troops and deaths necessary to repair what we have done, we should leave. Do not throw bad deaths after good. I can see some argument about balancing possible future Iraqi deaths in a full-blown civil war against current deaths, but we'd be into the realm of wild speculation too far.

I hope we suck it up and try our best to do the right thing here. But I fear that we will not. And I've been right so far, which really saddens me.

Posted by: ralph at August 25, 2006 08:33 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

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Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.

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