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Conditions for victory in Iraq, continued: political vs. military


Earlier this month, I offered a "downpayment" on an assessment of what victory for the U.S. in Iraq requires. I had hoped to point out the fundamentally political nature of the challenge now facing the United States, and then move on to its military aspects. But as the comments of some readers make clear, more remains to be said about politics, and why the political aspects of the effort outweigh the military aspects, or ought to outweigh them.

The administration's stated goal in Iraq, in its essence, is the establishment of a sovereign and democratic state. (And we might add, a stable state.) In Iraqi terms, this would require a decisive break from the old system: control by a strongman backed by brutal security forces and a minority invested in his rule at the expense of the majority. In its place would be a new system of governance headed by a leader of limited powers, embedded within a system of representation, and broadly acceptable throughout Iraqi society.

To achieve this political outcome, Iraq will have to pass a series of political milestones. Passing these milestones is synonymous with achieving victory -- or, to use a more apposite, less military-sounding term, achieving success.

What are the milestones? Let's begin at the end -- the characteristics enumerated above -- and work backwards from there.

A leader of limited powers. This goal assumes the reconstruction of security forces operating within a new framework, such as a constitution, that assigns their loyalty to the state, rather than to any one person, and defines what orders they may or may not follow. At the same time, these security forces must be strong enough to deter or defeat coup attempts.

A system of representation. At the most simple, a parliament and elections.

A government (and a leader) broadly acceptable throughout Iraqi society. This requires, minimally, a series of safeguards against majoritarian control, assuring the rights of all Iraqis. The need for a popular and conciliatory leader to emerge early on also seems important.

Notice that none of the above requirements can be fulfilled at gunpoint. The conditions for victory in Iraq -- and this was my earlier point -- are primarily non-military in character. Just capturing 50-odd figures from the old regime won't do the trick. Even crushing the insurgents won't do it.

MEASURED AGAINST THESE STANDARDS, how is the U.S. effort faring? Our strategy has focused on developing a constitution and establishing a new government through the mechanism of a group of 24 (originally 25) American-appointed Iraqis, the so called Iraqi Governing Council, or IGC. The approach to both goals seems deliberately convoluted, apparently in the hope that injecting uncertainty into the outcomes will soften opposition.

Certainly, the IGC channel doesn't seem to be winning much acceptance. Shi'ite Arabs are marching in the streets to demand control of the process. The Sunni Arabs who aren't shooting at American troops and their allies or setting off bombs are establishing their own parallel council. And the Kurds are demanding what amounts to their own government and territory -- or rather, the expansion of their territory and the powers of their government, since they already have these things.

In short, things aren't going so swimmingly. Oddly enough, though, tracking the number of attacks and fatalities since the capture of Saddam and plotting the capture of the last few remaining old-regime "face cards" seem to be of greater interest to U.S. Central Command than any of the above concerns. Managing these other minutiae is the department of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), whose most salient feature is just how little it has -- authority, that is. Authority and resources. This arrangement should raise questions about just how seriously the U.S. government takes its own stated goals for Iraq, or whether it's really capable of pursuing them in any significant and organized fashion.

If a military-first approach to a complex political problem with a military aspect sounds familiar, it should. The U.S. took a similarly imbalanced approach in Vietnam, as I and others have already pointed out, and it's troubling that we seem to have learned so little from the experience. But one reader, who probably speaks for many others as well, objects to recalling Vietnam in this context. It's certainly the case that analogies tend to mislead, and this one has been done to death. On the other hand, one doesn't need to invoke Santayana to realize that we do ourselves no favors if we refuse to learn from difficult experiences.

An effort to avoid learning anything from the Vietnam debacle was underway even before we had extricated ourselves. A conference volume published in 1968 offers the thoughts of a famous foreign policy sage on this score.

SAMUEL P. HUNTINGTON: ...this conference may well mark the formal beginning of the misreading of the Vietnam experience. If the legacy of misplaced analogies which the past has bequeathed to the Vietnam debates is even half equalled by the misplaced analogies which Vietnam bequeaths to the future, error will compound error in positively horrifying manner. It is conceivable that our policy-makers may best meet future crises and dilemmas if they simply blot out of their minds any recollection of this one. The right lesson, in short, may be an unlesson.
To this despairing effacement of reason came the following reply:
STANLEY HOFFMAN: Throughout the conflict we have made the mistake of not facing clearly enough the circumstances peculiar to Vietnam which vitiated our analysis and defeated our expectations. We should not now make the opposite mistake of putting all the blame on "circumstances beyond our control": for unless we recognize our errors, our contribution to the tragedy, we may well, by our own action, reproduce elsewhere the circumstances that we found in Vietnam--say, in Thailand. Of all the disasters of Vietnam the worst could be our unwillingness to learn enough from them.
Perhaps Hoffman should not have been so concerned that we would reproduce the circumstances of Vietnam. Decades later, we have instead reproduced some of the worst of the bureaucratic and mental habits of the doomed struggle. Intriguingly, in Iraq, Hoffman's opposites have come full circle: ignoring the peculiarities of the Iraqi political landscape marches in lockstep with the finding of fault in allegedly unforeseeable circumstances. Perhaps these twin failings never were poles apart to begin with.

Hopefully, that covers what was left unstated before about the political nature of the contest in Iraq. To come: how can military power best contribute to the desired outcome?


(Notes: The above quotations appear in Richard Pfeffer, ed., No More Vietnams? (1968), documenting the proceedings of a conference of the Adlai Stevenson Institute. I am indebted to the late Bernard Brodie, whose War and Politics (1973) features shorter versions of the above quotes and generally hammers home the importance of keeping one's political goals uppermost in mind.)

Addendum. A brief response. Moderator, below, writes:

Earlier, Analyst implied that USA might be wise to abandon the goal of democracy in Iraq, but now Analyst seems to be insisting upon it - that is commendable.
I haven't changed my perspective. Even with the best leadership and use of resources, our ability to democratize Iraq seems negligible. We should pursue more realistic and attainable goals. But my saying so here won't lead anyone in the White House to agree.

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by Analyst @ 08:17 AM CST [Link]


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Replies: 1 Comment

Analyst has identified an important problem in US Iraqi policy.

There is a problem in the absence of handling of non-military aspects of the issues. There is only so much that can be done with guns and $$$.

It is not necessarily the same as Vietnam, and lessons learned RE Vietnam will not necessarily be applicable here.

Santayana said, "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

But Mark Twain said "We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it--and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove-lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove--lid again--and that is well; but she will also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore." (I have also seen other versions of this quote).

In history, we do not always have the "thermometers" to distinguish the two kinds of stoves.

Earlier, Analyst implied that USA might be wise to abandon the goal of democracy in Iraq, but now Analyst seems to be insisting upon it - that is commendable.

I would say that American goals in Iraq are:

- A government that is independently viable (unlike Vietnam and unlike current IGC)

- A government that is not a threat to its neighbors and is a reasonably good international "citizen"

- A government that is not a threat to some or all of its own people.

- A government that is representative and expresses the will of the people.

- A government that advances the development and welfare of the people.

Achieving even the first three goals is a challenge in many countries of the Middle East, but the first three goals are essential to USA success. To that, from the point of view of the USA, I would add - a gov't that is friendly to the USA.

However, while it is obvious there is something wrong with the US approach, it is not clear what political approach would work, and it is not clear that the USA has the local "smarts" to implements such a solution.

Posted by Moderator @ 01/20/2004 02:43 PM CST

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