Thursday, April 21, 2005

Iraq War: The stab-in-the-back is already an operative excuse for some people

The stab-in-the-back theory of the American failure in Iraq is already becoming popular for a number of people, it seems.  That's the one that says that everything was going fine, Our Side was winning every battle, freedom was on the march.  But then those lilly-livered cowardly civilian politicians and those worthless so-called "citizens" who got tired of being lied to about "tipping points" and "breaking the back of the resistance" and we-killed-the-civilians-at-the-checkpoint-because-they-ignored-all-our-warnings and all the rest were demanding that a pointless war that was started based on lies to begin with had gone on far enough.

We haven't had a helicopters-on-the-embassy-roof-in-Saigon moment in Iraq yet.  And I certainly hope we manage to execute an exit strategy that gets us out in a less bad way than that.

But the excuses and finger-pointing and spreading the blame around are already in process.  A recent example I've seen is in a book review by Col. Stuart A. Herrington (ret.) in Parameters Spring 2005.  His review is notable in that he details some of the reasons that "Vietnamization" failed in the Vietnam War.  (His piece is the first of several at that link.)  But then he argues:

Simply put, having wasted more than three years (until 1968) pursuing a flawed strategy, the Pentagon lost the support of the American population, and was not given the time to get it right, even when it was clear that General Creighton Abrams’ pacification and Vietnamization approach might have worked.

Well, no.  The public gave the Pentagon from 1961 to 1965 to "get it right."  They failed.  Then with an continually expanding war from 1965-68 the public gave the Pentagon time to "get it right."  From 1968 to 1973, the public gave the Pentagon time to "get it right."  And in the end, it was a spectacular waste.  Vietnam was never essential to American national security.

In the real world, the public was far too patient with the endless promises of "light at the end of the tunnel," a phrase now officially retired from the military vocabulary because it became the Vietnam War equivalent of, say, FOX News being "fair and balanced."

The following paragraph is especially notable because of the way the argument progresses.  It starts off with reasonably pragmatic comments on the Iraq War.  Then by the end, suddenly everything is laid at the feet of the wimpy public who may not be willing to back an indefinite continuation of a war that never should have been started.  (Started in violation of international law and the Congressional war resolution, if we want to get picky about it.)

History is not supposed to repeat itself, but one is drawn to some sobering similarities between our current attempts to create a stable and secure Iraq and the legacy of the failed policy of Vietnamization. In Iraq, we are attempting to accomplish a difficult mission involving reestablishing security (pacification), while concurrently creating an Iraqi military and police force that will permit US and coalition forces to depart (“Iraqification”). At the same time, we are attempting to lay the groundwork for a form of government in Baghdad that is alien to that region, and doing so without sealing the borders, gifting the insurgency with sanctuaries from which external support can be provided. (Sound familiar?) In spite of military experts who absorbed the lessons of Vietnam and warned of the sizable commitment and time required to consolidate the initial military victory and achieve a stable, revitalized, and democratic Iraq, since the fall of Baghdad we have stubbornly attempted to accomplish these goals with too few forces. Worse yet, having lost almost two years since the masterful campaign that toppled Saddam Hussein, the proverbial clock is ticking, and the Bush Administration is at real risk of losing popular support at home. (my emphasis)

The template is laid out pretty clearly here, with the connection to the stab-in-the-back excuse for the Vietnam disaster made explicit.  Presidential lies to justify the war that make Lyndon Johnson and the Gulf of Tonkin incident look like a model of scupulous integrity; unbelievable miscalculations by thoroughly irresponsible officials; Pentagon spokespeople including generals who go out and talk smack to the press that quickly turns out to be bogus; senior civilian and military officials who authorize grotesque and sadistic torture against civilians snatched off the street virtually at random; a refusal by the Republican Party politicians who insist that the war is critical to national security to even talk about raising the taxes to pay for it or having a draft that everyone knows is the only way to provide the troops need to actually "win" - none of this is the problem, you see.

No, the only problem is those worthless, cowardly civilians back home, who spend their evenings reading polemics by Ward Chuchill, who don't have the will to just support the war as long as Bush the Magnificent and his loyal band of devoted ministers tell us we have to.

If you ask me, we already have a serious problem with "will," not to mention responsbility and common decency, with all the Republicans who supported Dear Leaders' war resolution passed in October 2002.  They should have had the "will" to demand that it's conditions be observed.  They should have the "will" right now to demand accountability from the Republican President who violated it.

But they didn't, they don't, and they won't.

Just look at the pathetic spectacle of the John Bolton hearings.  It's clear to everyone even half paying attention, and even to the Republicans on the Foreign Relations Committee itself, that this is a guy who has no problem at all abusing his official authority to get intelligence analysts to produce bogus analyses to support his own reckless warmongering.  He has no problem deceiving Congress or the public.  Yet those great Republican "moderates" Dick Lugar and Chuck Hagel sit around dithering and still supporting the guy for UN Ambassador.  Who cares if they talk nice on the Sunday talk shows if they go right along and support the most reckless and irresponsible policies and appointment of their Dear Leader Bush?  A little more "will" to act like responsible legislators would really be appropriate on their part right now.

But back to Col. Herrington and his ideas about why the military should never be blamed for its own failures:

As shameful and difficult as it is to contemplate, unless we get it right in the next year in Iraq, regardless of what it costs or how many troops we must commit, we maywind up relegating theAllawi government to the fate of the Thieu government. For just as Hanoi correctly reckoned in 1968 that the American center of gravity was the will of the American people, so too have the Iraqi insurgents and their al Qaeda allies made the same calculation. One hopes that planners in Washington understand this, and that the Commander-in-Chief will use his second-term political capital to hang tough. (my emphasis)

This whole business about how the "center of gravity was the will of the American people" is Pentagon mealy-mouth-speak for "those wimp civilians are always to blame."

It is worth thinking about what a fundamentally ahistorical and also very undemocratic a notion this is.  It really is a closed loop to argue this way, and Herrington's article lets the circular argument stand out clearly.  If the "center of gravity" (think for a second if there's anything more that half-baked mysticism in that idea the way it's used in that review) is the Will of the American citizens, by definition any failure is the result of a failure of civilian Will.  Watch carefully to see if you ever see a general turn down a medal or promotion on the grounds his or her success was not their own doing, but rather the success of civilian Will which was the real "center of gravity."

This kind of thinking has become so common, particularly among armchair war lovers and keyboard commandos, that it's easy to forget how deeply reactionary and antidemocratic it is.  Does the ability of a country to fight a war depend on the "will" of the home population.  Yes.  Certainly in the history of modern nation-states, it always has and it always will.

But notice the way in which Herrington identifies the failure of American Will with what The Enemy wants.  As he employs it, the notion is pure propaganda.  The most important question for American citizens and their elected officials in questions of war and peace are what is in the national interest, is war justified as a last resort in this case, are the costs (financial, material and human) acceptable in light of what gains can be reasonably expected?  Presumably, the "other side" in any particular war would prefer that the United States stay out of it.

As a practical  matter in understanding the thinking of actual and potential enemies, its obviously important to understand what the opponent is thinking about how the US responds in various situations.  From what I've read from Michael Scheuer and others about Bin Laden's thinking, he saw the Reagan administration's decision to withdraw troops from Lebanon after a successful suicide bomb attack by Iranian-backed guerrillas on American and Frence bases there as a sign of American weakness.

But does that mean it was a bad decision in that context?  It's a ridiculous question.  Those kinds of perceptions are one element among many that goes into those decisions.  But that's not what Herrington is doing in that article with his "center of gravity" mumbo-jumbo.  He's simply trying to shift the blame for the military failures in Vietnam and Iraq to someone other than the military that failed.

In a democracy, failure in military matters is obviously - or it should be obvious - never the doing of the military alone.  But this notion that the generals should be let off the hook for their failures and even crimes - in the case of the current torture policy, in a particularly notorious example - and the blame shift to the Will of the civilians is a genuinely poisonous notion.

It also "blips" over real history in many cases.  During the Vietnam War, the Maoist strategy on the part of China was to prolong the Vietnam War for as long as possible to weaken the United States without having a full victory by the Vietnamese Communists either.  Would it have been better if the Will of the American public had supported an even more extended American presence in Vietnam when that Will would have been supporting exactly what the Chinese Communists wanted in order to weaken the US?

It's also very clear that the Iraq War has increased the prestige of the jihadist groups and that the Iraq War is providing a training ground for Al Qaeda militants and other Sunni extremists.  Would the public Will to continue there indefinitely help or hurt the United States?  Would the jihadists think Americans have a weak Will if we pull out of Iraq sooner rather than later?  Or would continuing to fight in a situation where no really good outcome for the United States is any longer feasible make the jihadists think that the Americans had more Will than good sense?

In other words, the excuse-making has already begun, years before the American troops are even pulled out.  And years before the public Will persuades a post-Dubya administration to cut our losses and get out of the Iraq War.

No comments: