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August 22, 2007

Fatal Fallacies of the Surge
Posted by David Shorr

I could dissect President Bush's battle cry for the long ideological struggle, delivered to the VFW convention this morning in Kansas City, with its invocations of chapters of history such as Vietnam. But I won't. Suffice it to say that the tragedy of Vietnam was American leaders' inability to see the war in any other terms than the spread of Communism -- thereby completely missing the dimension of nationalism and anti-colonialism.

Instead, I want to take stock of the fundamental flaws in the current Iraq strategy, if only to remind myself of the premises of the whole thing. Little, if any, of the following is news, but unless I'm crazy, the very basis of the policy is very flimsy indeed. Nothing we didn't know, perhaps, but maybe it's useful to cut through the data on violent attacks or the question of whether Petraeus will write the Petraeus Report to remember what a house of cards this is.

  1. No military solution. Iraq will only stabilize if the various factions are satisfied with a political state of affairs in which they can protect their interests without needing a paramilitary to do so. U.S. military officials acknowledge the lack of political progress. Once we admit that political progress is completely separate from, rather than depending on, pacifying local areas, the rationale for the US occupation collapses.
  2. Time for Iraq leaders to reconcile. As the Center for American Progress report points out, "Iraq's leaders fundamentally disagree about what kind of country Iraq is and should be ... [resulting] in a violent struggle for power." We're holding out for progress for which there just isn't any basis. The 82nd Airborne soldiers say as much in their NY Times op-ed and put it very well: "There will be no magnanimous solutions that please every party the way we expect, and there will be winners and losers ... Trying to please every party in the conflict -- as we do now -- will only ensure we are hated by all in the long run."
  3. A strong central government for a unified Iraq. ...would be a great thing. Again, the issue is whether it is at all realistic. Given the defection of key Sunni parties from Maliki's governing coalition, Iraq's national government increasingly looks hollow.
  4. Building up Iraqi security forces. The 82nd Airborne guys highlight the questionable allegiance of the Iraqi military, saying "reports that a majority of Iraqi Army commanders are now reliable partners can be considered only misleading rhetoric. The truth is that battalion commanders, even if well meaning, have little to no influence over the thousands ... who are really loyal only to their militias." Weren't we saying something about parallels with Vietnam?
  5. Let our troops do the job. I posted on this issue a few weeks ago, in response to a William Kristol column. What does it mean to support the troops? We really have to get this straight, once and for all. Our system has a very clear division of labor between the military and us civilians: they execute the mission as ordered; we decide what the mission should be. The wisdom of a given mission is a separate question from its execution -- and our support and gratitude. Peter Pace recently made a point of saying that policy debate doesn't harm morale. Likewise, the soldiers in the New York Times explicitly shrugged off the morale issue and affirmed their duty to the mission at hand. I'm only sorry that people in uniform have to remind us of this.

It seems to me that once you debunk these fallacies, current policy doesn't have anything to stand on. We just have to hope that the glaring obviousness of this becomes recognized widely enough to unshackle the policy from its stubborn inertia.


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I really think the only salient fact worth understanding about our "leaders" is this: these people don't have a fucking clue what to do next.

Honestly, they just have no idea what to do, except more of the same. The only tool they've got in the tool box is military force, and when military force doesn't work, and even more military force doesn't work, they're all out of options.

And, by "these people", I'm not just speaking about Bush and the neocons, but about Democrats like Carl Levin. They just can't face the harsh reality that we've lost, and so they can't make the hard decisions needed to deal with this disaster. So it's cross your fingers, whistle past the quickly filling graveyard, and hope for the hail mary pass.

Meanwhile, out here in "flyover country" (posting this in Wisconsin) people, generally speaking, do know what to do: get the hell out, and do it right quick. The more befuddled and desperate the folks in Washington get, the more clear and determined the rest of us get. No, we can't predict exactly what will happen when we leave, but leave we must, because there's no other choice that makes any sense.

I wish we had the leaders we deserve, because, at this point, any 535 randomly chosen Americans could come up with an Iraq policy that would make a hell of a lot more sense than what we've got now.

I was really hoping we could get through this war without plowing through a lot of Vietnam analogies. Early on the prospects for this looked good, as the Bush administration consistently avoided any rhetoric that would suggest it had gotten the country into a quagmire in a distant land just as an earlier administration (and a Democratic one at that) had.

But the President has decided that the base is still listening, and that this is what it will listen to. He (or Ed Gillespie) is evidently counting on a knee-jerk response from Iraq war opponents about why the Vietnam analogy is wrong. And it looks as if he will not be disappointed. Tsk, tsk, we didn't understand that the North Vietnamese were really about nationalism, not Communism -- as if the second weren't integral to the first. You'd think totalitarianism maintained decades after the war would provide a clue to some people.

That it hasn't shouldn't distract us from the point, which is the ways that Iraq is not like Vietnam. America had friends in Saigon; we don't in Baghdad. Nixon had gotten American combat forces out of Vietnam by early 1973, two years before North Vietnamese tanks overran the South's capital; withdrawal from Iraq hasn't even started yet. The North Vietnamese invasion in 1975 took place along main roads exposed to American airpower, had Congress not forbidden its use; nothing comparable exists in Iraq now.

Most importantly, South Vietnam (and Cambodia for that matter) had a viable government under attack from an external source. Iraq has a non-viable government, parts of which are at war with one another and with armed factions at loose in the country, also with unarmed civilians who they find in the wrong place at the wrong time. There is finally the small difference that even in the throes of Watergate and its aftermath the American administration was able to attend to some foreign policy issues besides Vietnam -- it even made a little progress with the Arabs and Israelis -- while the Bush administration today is all Iraq, all the time. But let's not pile on.

The case for staying in Iraq is not analogous to the case for not abandoning South Vietnam. Compared to Iraq, Vietnam made sense.

Aaah, at last I get to agree with SteveB, whose point about the wisdom of ordinary people is an interesting echo of the dread Tom Friedman's recent column. (BTW, I spend the workweek in the Iowa part of Flyover, and the weekend in WI, where spouse teaches in the UW system).

Zathras' careful comparison of the Iraq and Vietnam cases puts me to shame, reminding me of the grad school class where we were taught to always examine both the similarities AND differences in historical analogies. That said, the Vietnam comparison does help explain 'these people.' Re-read Halberstam's Best and the Brightest to see how flawed premises take root. And George Bush bears a stronger and stronger resemblance to LBJ, trapped in a war with which presidency and psyche are inextricably bound.

Not sure Levin & others deserve to be lumped in. I'm also waiting to see a more definitive break, but the pathology has a slight difference. Bush et al are hell-bent on 'success,' people on the other side can't bring themselves to admit failure -- due to equal parts nervousness about political appearances and the ingrained optimism of American political culture.

Like your co-blogger Cohen, you want us to draw a line between the cheerleaders (for the surge, or for the invasion) and those who sit, more or less silently, on the sidelines tsking and tutting: "no, let's not invade quite yet", or "no let's not withdraw quite yet".

But, from where I sit, they're all part of the same system, a system that reliably produces war and prolongs it.

People like Levin could do something - certainly they can do more than I can - and they choose not to. I think this has less to do with fear of what Rove, or his successor will do to them and more with their buy-in to American imperialism and refusal to accept that the United States can fail "on their watch." With power comes a sense of responsibility (at least to most people) and that weighs heavily on someone like Levin.

But whatever the reason for his inaction, the dead are just as dead.

So, sorry to throw your "aggreement" back at you, especially since it's likely to be a rare occurence (and could I possible agree with Thomas Friedman? Perish the thought!) but we remain very, very far apart.

I have a feeling I wouldn't have liked Lyndon Johnson very much. I suspect I would have thought him a boor personally, which is certainly how I regard George Bush.

But Johnson was also a figure of historic consequence; no other President in our modern history could have changed the things he did with respect to the central issue of civil rights, and of course his sponsorship of the early space program will likely be seen by future generations as the most important thing done by any recent President. Listening to him now, agonizing that failing to stand up to the Communists in Vietnam would produce a reaction that would wreck everything he wanted to do in domestic policy, I understand what he was trying to protect. This is what makes him such a tragic figure.

Bush, the self-indulgent son of a self-indulgent generation, isn't like that at all. His is the hubris of the spoiled child, the pampered momma's boy. Johnson, absent the accident of Kennedy's martyrdom, couldn't have won an election outside Texas if his life had depended on it; Bush's whole career was oriented toward scraping through election campaigns. He entered office having no big ideas for changing the country (nor had he thought deeply about changing the way America approached foreign relations, as Nixon had). Bush was spurred onward toward invading Iraq because he got spooked and stayed spooked by 9/11, and because he saw an easy triumph as a way to sustain electoral momentum. There were no "flawed premises" in the Bush White House about Iraq after Saddam Hussein. There were instead no premises -- everything after the fall of Baghdad was all wishing and guessing.

I don't mean to sound picky or argumentative. The truth is that Vietnam was a dreadful mistake, or rather a series of dreadful mistakes; not only would I not minimize their consequences, I would argue that we have never fully come to terms with them, especially with the opportunity costs of having committed so much to a region of the world only peripherally important to American interests. It's just that I have little stomach for rearguing Vietnam while we are still mired in Iraq. I have some sympathy for Johnson, and much more for Nixon, because I understand that mistakes happen in government and people have to deal with them, sometimes very imperfectly even when their motives are in good order and their reasoning as good as one could expect it to be. Bush, for whom the business of government has always been subordinate to the business of the campaign, I regard merely as a small man unworthy of the office to which he was elected, and to which he has done damage it will take many years to repair.

Zahthras: Believe me or not, but in April 2003 I wrote an article making the same point. After begging the pardon of my readers for dredging up the Vietnam war, I did go on to mention all the ways in which the american position in Vietnam was stronger than now, including the legal and moral position. (I did go a bit to far in defending the tonkin resolution). Then i asked the question, that if the U.S. failed under more favourable conditions in Vietnam, what to expect now?

One might say that Germany, not having internalized the lessons of World War I, needed the thorough and resolutive defeat of World War II to learn the error of its ways.

Similarly, America is a delusional Empire whose leaders (on both sides of the House) obviously have not (for the most part) learned the lessons of Viet Nam.

I doubt there is anything we, the People, can do to stop them from driving us towards the same fate. Those whom the Gods would destroy, etc.

Zathras gets the last word on the contrasts with Vietnam, and the limited value in comparing.

"We really have to get this straight, once and for all. Our system has a very clear division of labor between the military and us civilians: they execute the mission as ordered; we decide what the mission should be."

There certainly is a divison of labor on this blog! The contributors arrogate unto themselves some mystical knowledge of military and foreign policy expertise, having never themselves bothered with wearing their nation's uniform.

Other nations don't have such a civil-military divsion, and indeed men in Israel or Switzerland might find it odd that so many (let's not mince words) chickenhawks mention AS A POINT OF HONOR that they are the civilians, that they are masters over servants dying at their behest, and that they are somehow privileged to have never been in combat.

One of the hilarious aspects of this blog is the certainty so many in here seem to have about our unique military culture and how they, should they be given the keys to the car, could steer it.

If this shall be the new lords after 2008, I have no more faith in their custody of our armed forces than I currently have. Different party, same attitude.

Chickenhawks, all.

Sure, there are many diferences between Iraq and Vietnam, but when people, usually critics of the war, compare the two wars, they're mostly referring to the similarities in our behavior and the similar arguments used to sustain both wars.

How can you hear "we're fighting the terrorists over there so we don't have to fight them over here" and not think of Vietnam?

And, with apologies to Mr. Godwin and his Law, lupin has it right: to compare the German invasion of Belgium in 1914 and the German invasion of Poland in 1939 is not to say that Belgium is Poland; rather it's to say that Germany, in its essential elements, was the same country in '39 as it was in '14, because Germany's elites learned nothing from their first disastrous war.

Sound familiar?

What frustrates me the most about the blogosphere are all the assumptions about what people think they know about others of us. Thinking we have each other pegged and figured out really undercuts the genuine exchange of views.

SoldierNoLongerInIraq correctly guesses (though s/he couldn't know) that I have not served in the military. I don't know who considers lack of service as a matter of honor, but I certainly do not.

The substantive issue here is the question of who has a voice. Do either civilians or servicemembers have a privileged position in deciding national security? What are the purpose and ramifications of civilian control of the military?

Certainly the purpose is NOT to assert the inherent superiority of civilians. For starters, veterans are civilians. But in the chain of command, orders are orders, and if everyone in the chain is bound to follow orders without question, who gives the orders to the top brass? Which brings me to the other purpose. We've seen countries run by the military, and it doesn't seem like a good idea.

Should civilians drown out the voices of military experience? Absolutely not. That's part of what's gotten us into this mess. But you shouldn't silence the voices of those who haven't served either. Very Serious Person or not, my work has been to engage in the debate over our foreign policy, and no one should disqualify anyone else from that debate.

"SoldierNoLongerInIraq correctly guesses (though s/he couldn't know) that I have not served in the military."

Trust me, it's not hard to tell.

No one within a democracy should be disqualified from discussing any topic vital to national policy. And no one would dispute that any soldier's allegience is to civilian overseers. The bedrock morality of the American warfighter is subservience to civil authority.

That said, this blog continues to feature "experts" who arrogate onto themselves a certain measure of expertise concerning foreign policy in general, and the artful use of force in particular.

If the chickenhawk argument has some validity for a generation of policymakers currently ruling the Republican roost, then it equally should be applied to those in the opposition.

Currently, the mystical invocation of "supporting the troops" echoes across the punditry. In reality, I don't believe either the conservatives or the progressives give a damn about "the troops," save how they might be used as rhetorical pawns over pedestrian power spats.

One man's Iraq is another man's Darfur, and "supporting the troops" will ring just as hollow in defense of policies over which the troops have no right to debate.

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