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What are the conditions for victory in Iraq?


Last week, I pointed out that Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld has a very odd way of looking at progress in the war in Iraq. I promised you a non-Rumsfeldian assessment of what victory requires. Here is a downpayment, with a little help from another writer.

Regarding Rumsfeld, I wrote that

...the Secretary of Defense has chosen to analyze prospects for victory in Iraq without mentioning either the need to defeat the insurgency or the establishment of a stable, democratic postwar order -- the Administration's stated objective. It is as if he believes that victory consists only of wrapping up a few dozen major figures from the overthrown regime -- Saddam, his sons, and his key advisers and officials. By this standard, the coalition won the Battle of Iraq last month when Saddam emerged from the "spider hole" near Tikrit. And if that's so, why aren't we bringing the troops home already? Clearly, the Rumsfeld memo's conception of the conflict falls far short of political and strategic reality, not to mention military reality.
Now comes International Herald Tribune columnist William Pfaff to save me the trouble of expressing myself. In Saturday's Trib, Pfaff wrote:
The possibility that the United States might lose the Iraq war has yet to be seriously discussed at the level of national politics and policy. There is an all but universal assumption that American power will in the end crush anything that resists it.

It is true that some critics have warned of a "new Vietnam," but they nearly always do so in terms that suggest only that the eventual victory will be more costly than the Bush government expected.

The Vietnam analogy is wrong in military terms. The insurgents in Iraq are not an organized, disciplined national movement, amply supplied with arms and leadership from a sister country across the border, itself protected by a nuclear power. That was South Vietnam's case, with North Vietnam and China backing the NLF insurrection.

The relevant analogy of Vietnam with Iraq is political. The Bush administration's ambition in Iraq is identical to that of the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations in Vietnam. It is to find or shape a plausible national movement that will turn the country into a strategic American ally.

In Vietnam there was from the start a Westernized national force, the Catholic elite and educated middle classes that had run the country when it was a French colony. But they represented too narrow a segment of the population and were too weak to overcome the dynamic, Communist-led National Liberation Movement, which combined peasant nationalism with Marxist utopianism. Frustrated by the failure of Ngo Dinh Diem - the Catholic mandarin and nationalist whom the United States had brought back from American exile and installed in power - to impose himself across the country, the Kennedy administration instigated a military coup and acquiesced in his murder.

It replaced Diem with the first in a series of generals, one after another of whom failed in turn, essentially because they represented the interests and ideas of the United States against Vietnamese nationalism. Eventually the Nixon administration abandoned the last of the generals, Nguyen Van Thieu, and formally withdrew from the war, calling this "Vietnamization." When Saigon fell two years later, President Richard Nixon blamed the U.S. Congress and the liberal press.

The Bush administration, in Iraq, is still looking for its Ngo Dinh Diem.

I don't endorse everything that Pfaff's column says. For instance, there is no reason to believe that Kennedy officials "acquiesced" in he murder of Diem and his brother, although they really should have seen it coming. And the Bush Administration's goal for Iraq allegedly involves the formation of a democratic government.

Still, the above-quoted passage certainly captures the essence of the strategic and political situation. I don't feel much need to improve on it.

As Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara wrote in his 1995 book In Retrospect, "We viewed the people and leaders of South Vietnam in terms of our own experience. We saw in them a thirst for - and a determination to fight for - freedom and democracy. We totally misjudged the political forces within the country."

There is every reason to believe that the Bush Administration, in a choice bit of wishful thinking, repeated this error in Iraq.

To follow: an assessment of the military requirements of victory.


A sequel to this entry appears here.

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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000153.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

by Analyst @ 07:25 AM CST [Link]


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Replies: 6 comments

Analyst explains some more of the problematic aspects of the USA involvement in Iraq, but doesn't really attempt to answer the question "What are the conditions for victory?" which is the title of the essay.

The title could be understood in two different ways:
1- What has to happen in order for US to win?

2- What criteria should US use in order to judge if it has won?

I am assuming that #2 is the alternative that was meant.

"Winning" means fulfilling the objectives of the war. Since the objectives of the war are never stated honestly and keep shifting, it is very difficult to set out the criteria for winning.

There are no controlled experiments in history. Suppose that the objectives were really to make would-be terrorists respect the USA, and think twice about organizing an attack on the USA. If there are no more large attacks, how does one prove that this is due to the American "victory" in Iraq?

Suppose the objectives were to strengthen the position of regimes allied to the US in the Gulf, and ensure the flow of oil. If the Saudi regime stays in power for the next 50 years, how can we know that it is due to the American victory in Iraq?

In any case, it has almost always been the case that every victory, no matter how dramatic, heroic, glorious and fabled, is always relative. Not all objectives are reached, and some turn out to be irrelevant.

Victory in the Napoleonic wars did not in the long run "save" Europe from democracy. Victory in WW I did not make the world safe for democracy. Victory in WW II did not (at least not immediately) create a peaceful community of nations. It didn't save the British empire in East Asia. In that respect, the Japanese achieved one of their announced war aims.

After the victory of the 6-day war, we Israelis thought that all
troubles were over. Certainly it was a victory by any criterion, and it achieved the limited tactical objectives of the war. However,it did not ensure peace in the long run.

I am not a big fan of trying to decide if Iraq is like Germany or Japan(as the Pentagon thought) or like Vietnam as the Iraq war critics think. Iraq is like Iraq. Apart from the truism that each historical event is more or less unique, the USA has never been involved in a war in the Middle East before. The Middle East is unlike Europe or South East Asia.

Perhaps it is also fruitful to ask, "How do you know if you lost?" Under what conditions should the USA decide that the occupation of Iraq is a mistake, and get out? Analysis from that starting point would have served the US in good stead in Vietnam. It would have been helpful to the Germans in WW I if they had done some serious thinking along those lines after the battle of the Marne, and of course, if they had sued for peace after the battle of Stalingrad in World War II. If two hundred US soldiers get killed in a big suicide operation, will it force the US to withdraw? If a thousand are killed? If after 10 years and 1000 billion dollars, Iraq is still not pacified and stable, is it time to quit? Does quitting mean the collapse of US policy (and oil supplies) in the Gulf?


Posted by Moderator @ 01/06/2004 11:36 AM CST

This analysis seems a little off to me--a large problem is with the Pfaff article itself. Pfaff says there's no military analogy, only a political one, and then elaborates, discussing Diem only to say this White House has no Diem. So, what's the analogy again? There apparently is none. Pfaff looks like a quagmire thinker to me, more comfortable writing about something he knows about than something he evidently hasn't given too much time to thinking about.

In fact there's evidence the White House had at least some idea it knew what it was getting into, which is both why the Pentagon backed Chalabi early on and the State Dept disliked him. Without giving too much credit to Pfaff's phony non-analogy, the Pentagon probably saw him as a kind of Diem, the State Dept did also, which, again, is why one liked him, the other didn't. All that's to say, I don't really believe the administration misjudged the political forces in Iraq. Remember, this is one reason why they let Saddam go after Gulf War 1? Because they had an accurate picture of the political situation in Iraq. There are clearly a number of things that have gone wrong in Iraq, some of them due no doubt to bad planning, some of them due to the problems that arise from an administration split into powerful competing factions, and then of course there's France. The problem however is definitely not that no one has sufficietly studied Vietnam. So I'm requesting an international embargo on all Vietnam analogies--just for a week. Maybe such an embargo will make people think about Grenada. Remember? The ostensible reason was to go in and save med students but in truth it was all about regime change.

Posted by L.S. @ 01/06/2004 05:12 PM CST

The goal of the Iraq war was to: A) establish a government in Iraq that would allow the U.S. to control the supply of oil exported from Iraq and B)to intimidate the surrounding countries so that they will continue the current oil export system. (control of the supply of oil)...Victory or defeat is therefore easy to define. American deaths, no matter how many will be no deterant. Only if the U.S. determines oil can not be exported from Iraq will they leave. The "resistance" to the U.S. in Iraq are well funded and well trained: their goal is to insure the U.S. does not export any oil...The proof that this is correct is that the current ( and former) U.S. administrations have not announced a "national initiative to replace all imported oil with ethanol, fuel cells, and or electric vehicles"; that announcement by it self would cause the price of oil to plummit, and shut off the real source of funds to the terrorist: oil revenues. Additional proof is the non-sence that this is a "war on terrorism"; terrorism is only a battle tactic like blitz-crieg or coma-cozy..the war is being fought because the Islamic fundamentalist realize that Islam can not stay viable in the face of "western market driven societies". The leaders of oil exportng counties in the mid-east must destroy the "west" to deter their people from converting from Islam to "western"; therefore they fund terrorist to battle the west. Simply threatening to replace oil with alternatives would cause the "arabs" to sue for peace including agreeing to trade with Israel and forcing Arafat to settle..

Posted by R. S. @ 01/07/2004 01:29 PM CST

cont..since the U.S will not announce a national initiative to replace imported oil with ethanol fuel cells and/or electric vehicles, it can only be that the U.S. desires a nice long lasting war fighting the foot soldiers(terrorist)sent by the arab oil producing countries presumably so the americans can sell lotsssss of weapons to the arab oil producing countries as well as fund Haliburton and the Bechtel group, you know the ones who build (built) the oil infrastucture of the mid-east.It is of course a great irony that the U.S. public finances the war against itself every day at the gas pumps. The U.S. should build ethanol plants beside the electric generating plants in the U.S.: balance its trade deficit, create full employment. Meanwhile the leaders of the arab oil countries that fund terror with their oil revenue from the "west" are invited to dinner in the western capitals...even as their foot soldiers do their thing...perhaps we should simply invite them to diinner continuously and then on the days they will not come we will understand a terror event is coming that day in that city...

Posted by R.S @ 01/07/2004 05:24 PM CST

      The stated goal of the Bush administration, to bring about democracy in Iraq, seems to me to possibly be self-conflicted from the start. For some reason, I simply can’t understand how a true Iraqi democracy could be a place where the most powerful people in the country are not allowed to run for office. This just doesn’t make sense to me.
      Most would agree that the most powerful native people currently in Iraq are the Shiite clerics, yet Bush has repeatedly declared that the new “Iraqi democracy will not be one where Shiite clerics can run for office.” How can Bush claim to favor democracy in Iraq, while at the same time telling the people of Iraq who they can and cannot elect?
      Perhaps I am missing something here, but I always thought that in a true democracy, the most powerful and popular people in the country generally run for office. I have not yet heard of a successful democracy where some leader in a foreign country (such as president Bush) can tell the people who can and cannot run for office. How can Bush hope to preserve any sense of legitimacy in the pending Iraqi elections if he will not allow these elections to reflect the genuine will of the people?
      Witness the never ending blood-bath in Algeria. Here there was a legitimate election in which clerics fairly won the election. Next the pro-Western junta nullified the election results and assumed power arbitrarily. What were the results of this? They were primarily two-fold, as I see it;

1. Overnight Algeria was transformed from a hopeful democracy into a dictatorship, complete with a vast system of ever-present omni-present governmental spies and also a vast underground network of muslim fundamentalist revolutionaries. Meanwhile the bloodshed in Algeria continues on a daily basis, with little coverage by the press.
2. In the rest of the muslim world, the idea of functional democracy was once again made into a political joke, with the clear example of the distortions of the failed elections in Algeria to once again prove to all other muslims that democracy and Islam are somehow fundamentally incompatible with one another.

      It seems to me that just as you can take a horse to water, but you cannot force the water down its throat, so we can offer democracy to a country like Iraq, but it will be a mistake to believe that we can force this upon them. Only when the Iraqi people decide for themselves that they are truly thirsty for this form of government, will they be ready to partake of it.
      Meanwhile, I would consider the holding of an honest election in Iraq, where anyone who is not a plain criminal can run, as a victory in Iraq. But for the time being, that possibility seems to me to be quite unlikely.

                        Scott Perry

                        Democracy Watch International

Posted by Scott Perry @ 01/12/2004 10:32 PM CST

Please click on the link below to see a good article about bringing Peace to Iraq.

Scott Perry

Posted by See article by Former Balkan Administrator Re: Rebuilding Iraq @ 01/18/2004 07:16 PM CST

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