I don’t normally like doing tit-for-tats with other bloggers because I think such exchanges get too insidery and readers get bored with them. But let me take a few moments to respond to a post from Andrew Sullivan criticizing my recent writings on the progress of the war. I’ve said some very pointed things over the last several days — both here and in the Washington Monthly — about the folks running this operation. So I suspect Andrew is not the only one thinking along these lines.
You can read what he has to say here. But I’d summarize it as basically two criticisms. 1) I’m overstating how bad the military situation is. 2) I’ve “staked a certain amount of cred on being just, well, so much smarter than anyone in the administration, but a hawk as well” and I have an axe to grind because I’m “one of those neolibs [who is] trying to be hawks without being neocons.”
Let’s start with the first.
Sullivan says the military situation actually isn’t that bad and that we can still win. I agree that it’s hard for me to disagree with this claim. But that’s largely because I’ve actually said the exact same thing at least two or three times over the last several days. What I have said fairly clearly is that some major mistakes have been made on the planning of this campaign, but that our actual military situation isn’t all that bad. What I do think is that the conduct of the war to this point has shown pretty clearly that our political situation is much worse and that the political assumptions on which the administration based its policy were deeply flawed.
Let me explain each point.
First, it’s seems inarguable to me now that Don Rumsfeld under-gunned the force we sent to the Gulf and that we’re paying a price for it now. What else does one have to say but that we’re two weeks into the war and one of the most important components we really need on the ground in Iraq is currently on the ground in Texas? Frankly, that seems like pretty good prime facie evidence of a screw-up.
Sullivan says that we just shot for the moon (early “shock and awe” etc.) and didn’t quite make it. But that’s okay because the plan is flexible enough to take a little longer and finish the job. On the one hand, yes, we can reconfigure a bit, regroup, and win it the old-fashioned way. But that’s largely because we have a great military and it’s flexible and professional enough to roll with the punches. And, at the end, of the day we’re just a hell of a lot stronger than the Iraqi army. But as an argument, Sullivan’s pretty far short. I don’t like to get too far into the nitty-gritty of military doctrine and strategy because it’s something I’m definitely not an expert on. But I think I know enough to see through this argument.
If it were true that we were just shooting for the moon knowing that it might fail and that we’d then hit them with a more conventional infantry and armor attack, we’d already have our infantry and armor in place. We don’t. So I don’t find that argument particularly credible.
I also don’t get the impression that this is the way the US military likes to fight wars. And for good reason. First of all, if we have to wait a while now to get everything in place, we have a lot of American soldiers and Marines getting in some pretty nasty fire-fights while we’re waiting. The most important point, however, is that you don’t try one risky plan and then, when it doesn’t work, come up with something else.
From my conversations with war planners I get the impression that, given the preponderance of our military power, what you want to do is hit the enemy with massive and unstoppable force from the start. Partly, this makes your own casualties fewer. But also, by not dragging it out and by not giving the enemy any good way to resist, you make it much more likely that the enemy will fold quickly.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we had so much armor and cavalry on the ground that we could brush off these fedayeen who are harassing our supply lines? At this point, we’ve given the Iraqis are really hard whack and they’re still standing. That’s a huge boost for their morale. And I don’t think there’s any question that it has emboldened them and kept our potential friends among the Iraqis hesitant to make a stand in our favor. It also seems like it’s emboldened people in the neighboring states as well states like Syria and Iran.
So, as I say, the military situation isn’t so bad and we can certainly recover from it. But that’s because we have a massive and extremely professional military and that gives us the luxury of being able to recover from some early goofs.
The problem is that our political situation is not nearly as good as our military one. And our ultimate goals are political, not military.
The administration premised virtually all of its strategy and most of its tactics
on the assumption that the civilian population would treat us as liberators.
Unfortunately, that basic assumption has been shown itself to be fundamentally
flawed. Our military strategy was based on the idea that the Iraqis would be
so happy we’d shown up that they wouldn’t harass our supply lines on the way
to Baghdad. That hasn’t panned out.
Far more importantly, the administration’s regional and international diplomatic strategies were also based on this assumption. We were so confident that the Iraqis would welcome our presence that we figured that they’d make our case to the Saudis, the Palestinians, the French and the Germans after the fact. Sure, they figured, the French and Germans are pissed now. But how stupid are they going to look when we find lots of WMD and the Iraqis are thanking us for bringing them democracy? Same difference in the region itself. Yes, the Arab street will seethe, they figured. But how long can it seethe when the Iraqis are counting their blessings and thanking us for ridding them of Saddam?
What it comes down to is that this whole operation was, shall we say heavily leveraged. So the lack of a best case scenario with the civilian population is a serious problem.
Let me be clear. I don’t think we’re universally hated in Iraq. Far from it. Nor do I think that even a long war will make that true. I think most Iraqis despise Saddam. Almost all will be happy for him to go. And many will be happy we got rid of him. What I do think, however, is that the Iraqis are a good deal more ambivalent about our presence than the White House thought. And there’s at least a minority of Iraqis and other Muslims from neighboring countries who are willing to harass and kill American soldiers. That makes our post-war occupation of Iraq much more problematic. And it makes White House’s hoped for ripple-effect — the spread of democracy and pro-American feelings — a lot less credible.
I’ll be honest. I’d like to say that I knew we’d face this much resistance, even in the South. But I didn’t. I thought we’d face a good deal less. But I knew it was a distinct possibility. (Remember: Hope is not a plan.) And that’s why it was so important to go in with a top-flight war plan and a serious multilateral alliance. Without either, I think we’re in a bit of a jam. If we’d drawn three aces and two kings, we’d be sitting pretty. But we didn’t.
So my basic point is this: our military situation isn’t that bad. We can still win and we should be able to rapidly pull together the right mix of forces to make it happen. The problem is that given what we’ve seen so far ‘victory’ itself looks a lot more problematic.
Now to the second point: Sullivan’s contention that I’ve “staked a certain amount of cred on being just, well, so much smarter than anyone in the administration, but a hawk as well” and that I have an axe to grind because I’m “one of those neolibs [who is] trying to be hawks without being neocons.”
I’ve heard this criticism a number of times. But I’m not quite sure what to make of it. The idea seems to be that there is something brazen or illegitimate about being serious-minded about national security and comfortable with the use of military force in foreign affairs and yet still not willing to sign on to the party line of the Weekly Standard. What does this mean exactly? I can’t for the life of me see the problem with being a “hawk” on some issues and yet still resisting very point of enthusiasm or ridiculousness that this or that “neo-con” signs on to.
All I can figure with Sullivan, in this case, is that he wants to create a false dualism in which everybody is either a neo-con, a fellow traveler of neo-cons, or else some hopelessly soft-headed peacenik who secretly longs for Saddam’s affection. I can see where this would make the debate easier. But I don’t think it’s a realistic view of the situation.
Finally, in Sullivan’s post, there’s a generalized claim that I’m somehow gleeful at the chance that certain of the administration heavyweights may be discredited by this and perhaps that I’m even enjoying seeing the difficult time we’re having in Iraq.
Human nature is probably too frail not to have some moments of satisfaction at predictions being vindicated. But there’s no glee in the points I’m trying to make about the people who’ve gotten us into this situation. If there’s some extra intensity in the postings of late it comes from two principal reasons.
1) Not having to finish and revise a dissertation manuscript frees up a lot of time and mental energy.
2) Far more importantly, I don’t like watching people risk American blood, treasure and honor on unproven and often improbable theories. I don’t want to see similar mistakes made in North Korea or on the West Bank or in Europe or elsewhere. And I don’t want to see these folks passing the blame off on others.
It’s very important that the American people know that people in this administration acted recklessly and unwisely since that’s the best way to prevent it from happening again.
Sullivan concludes by saying that I may be “haunted” by what I’ve written over the last week. Presumably, I’ll be haunted one or two months from now when we’re off on an easy occupation of Baghdad, governing a peaceful nation of thankful Iraqis, and resting easier since we’ve cowed Syria, Iran and the Palestinians into quiescence.
I’ll be honest, if that happens, my reputation as a predictor of future events will take something of a hit. But I’ll happily take that hit given how much better a situation it would mean for the country. My feeling about this situation isn’t one of exhilaration but rather mortification for the situation that we’re in.
Among old lefties, there always used to be this line that you couldn’t say socialism or communism had failed because it had never really been tried. I told a friend a few days ago, that for better or worse, after this is done, we’re not going to be able to say the same thing about neo-conservatism. This is their show. If it all pans out great, they’ll really be able to crow. If it doesn’t, there will be nowhere to run.