Let me comment briefly

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April 8, 2003 4:05 p.m.

Let me comment briefly on Lawrence Kaplan’s new article in TNR about the Rumsfeld position. This is basically a brief for the Rumsfeld, or Pentagon appointees’ position. But it’s a good brief, certainly the most sophisticated and convincing I’ve seen. Still I think Kaplan conflates several issues and sets up at least one straw men.

The heart of Kaplan’s argument is contained in this paragraph …

There is a kernel of truth here. But few of these critics bothered to entertain a simpler and legitimate rationale for the war plan—namely, that it was drawn up with an eye toward political as well as military goals. Principal among these goals was the need to fight the war as a “war of liberation,” which meant placing an extreme emphasis on minimizing Iraqi civilian casualties. Rumsfeld’s plan also had to contend with the danger of large-scale American casualties and thus precluded a months-long massing of American forces in Kuwait, where they would have been vulnerable to Iraqi attack. Finally, to limit Saddam Hussein’s ability to launch missiles, torch oil wells, and create mischief in southern Iraq, it called for a rapid advance to Baghdad and, hence, a smaller force. The alternatives being proposed by the generals today may arguably have enhanced the military effectiveness of the campaign. But they also might have led to political catastrophe.

There are several points here — either explicit or implicit — that are very worthwhile. The first is that Rumsfeld and the Army have built up quite a record over the last two years. So there’s a lot of pre-existing hostility in the air. What’s more, there is a natural tendency for the military to see wars in more purely military terms, i.e., in terms of securing military objectives and force protection rather than in terms of broader political aims.

So, to take an extremely crude, overstated formulation of this viewpoint, military planners might say that instead of a lightning strike, we should have mounted more lumbering, overwhelming force, a long run of bombing, and just crushed all resistance wherever it was before we sent our guys in. If there was one town where a lot of fedayeen were, just pulverize it and sort out the details later, rather than having a bunch of Marines have to get into a bunch of nasty firefights.

I’m not saying anyone was actually suggesting this. But this is the sort of trade-off Kaplan is talking about. We have enough power to just crush the place. But if we bring all our power to bear we’d end up … well, crushing the place. And that would be terrible for our actual political objective, which is to have most Iraqis feel like, on balance, our invasion was a good thing.

This is a good argument. And I don’t doubt that there were some planners — focusing on force protection and the need to mobilize more overwhelming force — who pushed for a more military and less political strategy, with a more massive and devastating use of force.

But I’m not sure how on-point this is.

As nearly as I can tell, the main argument from the retired military folks was not that our rules of engagement were too stringent or that we didn’t hit with enough force. The argument was that our ground forces were stretched too thin or that there was too little armor. They had a hard time protecting supply-lines, beating down resistance in the South, etc. Frankly, these seem like two separate issues, don’t they? The prime argument was simply that we had too few troops on the ground. Would having the 4th ID there on the ground in Iraq have led to a more punishing, politically-counter-productive war or just greater flexibility and an ability to react to the resistance from paramilitaries which eventually developed?

Another argument Kaplan puts forward is the massing of large concentrations of troops in Kuwait and whether that would have left them vulnerable to some sort of preemptive WMD attack from Iraq. If true, this would be a good argument for going in with a minimum of troops at first and then bringing in more later. What’s not clear to me about this argument, however, is whether having, say, one-hundred-thousand more troops on hand would have made them that much more vulnerable. A slow build-up of big numbers of concentrated troops is an invitation to various sorts of asymmetric attack. But we already had more than a couple hundred thousand sitting there around or in the general vicinity of the southern border. Would a third more have presented that much more tempting of a target? It doesn’t seem that way to me. But I put this forward only as a supposition. It does seem like a key issue to resolve to evaluate the overall good plan/bad plan debate.

On balance, Kaplan makes some very strong points. But there seems to be an apples and oranges issue at the center of his argument.

More later on this …

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