"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Did We Learn Anything From Iraq?

James Fallows, writing today in The Atlantic (2.20.13) was an early critic of the second war in Iraq, and his criticism only increased as the years went on. He cites many reasons why he feels the invasion of Iraq was wrong.

  • Exaggerating the scale and imminence of a threat from Iraq;
  • Growing testily impatient with any solutions other than the "kinetic" (e.g., from TNY 10 years ago, "a return to a hollow pursuit of containment will be the most dangerous option of all.");
  • Grossly underestimating the difficulty of "removing" that threat with military force;
  • Showing a failure of tragic imagination (different from a tragic failure of imagination, which was also true) about the ripple effects and long-term costs and consequences of taking a clear and "decisive" step now.

I agree with all four, but feel that things would have been far different if we had taken a Genghis Khan view of war – invade, kill and intimidate, take no prisoners, and truck no dispute.  We may have, as Fallows suggests, gone into Iraq for the wrong reasons.  We may have underestimated the task and hand; and badly misunderstood the social, political, and cultural environment in which we were to fight; but had we conquered rather than just defeated, our goals would have been accomplished.

As we all remember, once the statue of Saddam Hussein had been toppled and the initial euphoria of realizing that the dictator had been ousted, the rebellion, internecine fighting, and the crime and lawlessness began.  Had we been a merciless occupying force and had been prepared to be so for a decade or more, the situation would have turned out far more positively.  If we had maintained absolute military discipline and killed all who broke curfew, refused to cooperate, and acted seditiously, we could have enforced a calm compliance and introduced the civic, judicial, and financial reforms necessary to build a new, democratic Iraq.  We did this in Germany and Japan after WWII. In those countries the occupation did not have to be brutal and repressive because we had reduced both countries to ashes and had totally destroyed the old regimes and any vestiges of them, so our job was made easier, and given the self-discipline, intelligence, and will of both defeated cultures, they themselves recreated their societies in a different image.  The job of nation-building would have been more difficult in Iraq, but it could have been done.

Neither of these options – brutal and repressive occupation and nation-building – were possible given American attitudes and political philosophy.  Ever since Vietnam when we tried to ‘win the hearts and minds’ of the people (a devastating and predictable failure) we have been a pusillanimous army.  We have been more concerned about civilian casualties than winning.  We have always wanted to be loved, and that has distinguished us from the French, for example, who know they are pricks but also are convinced that they are right.  We tiptoe through villages and rebellious neighborhoods with milk and cookies so that the image of The Great Satan can be softened to a benign Santa Claus.  Democracy means local participation, community involvement, and peaceful cooperation we believe in our hearts, and if only the local people would realize the goodness of Americans and the rightness of our vision, everything would be hunky-dory.

This vision, of course, has nothing to do with people who have been riven by religious and ethnic hatred for centuries, who have had to scrap and battle for purchase in every quarter, and who saw the demise of the dictator not as a triumph of rightness but an opportunity to make money.  In Afghanistan we suffered from the same cultural myopia.  Poppies are bad for little children, we said to the Taliban.  Fuck little children, said the Taliban.  Poppies are good for making money.

The image of Robo-Cop military police breaking down doors in periodic sweeps, intimidating men, threatening women, and tossing disrespectful children down the stairs would never cut it back home.  Someone would find out, no matter how much the media was controlled.  Waterboarding? Are you kidding? Most intelligence experts know that it is unreliable as a means of gathering reliable, actionable information, but it sure is good for intimidation purposes.  But the image of supposedly sweet, innocent farm boys cutting off eyelids and giving testicle shocks would not go over well in The Heartland.  In short, our idealistic vision of ourselves as good, kind, generous people, always gets in the way of victory.

I wrote the following in a blog entitled Drones and Targeted Killing – Bombs Away! in which I suggested that eventually these idealistic moral compunctions would disappear. The term ‘asymmetrical warfare’ can have many meanings, and one is that there is no balance or symmetry between an amoral force like al-Qaeda who will do anything to achieve its objectives including killing innocent civilians and a moral force like the United States whose moral rectitude is out of pace with the times:

It is obvious that any remaining moral considerations about acts of war are dissipating and will soon disappear.  Nixon espoused what he called ‘The Madman Theory’.  He was quite pleased that the Russians thought him unbalanced and quite capable of pulling the nuclear trigger. The Viet Cong were masters of intimidation, threat, and execrable acts of torture and punishment designed to show Americans that they would stop at nothing to win the war. Genghis Khan marched down from the Steppes and marauded his way from sea to see, leaving the heads of anyone who stood in his way impaled on stakes.  Truman threatened a nuclear holocaust if Japan did not capitulate and then followed through on the threat. 

In other words, if the enemy thinks us capable of the most intolerable of human actions, he might think twice about continuing his opposition to us. We have come full circle. We had few qualms about reducing Hiroshima and Nagasaki to ashes.  We fretted over My Lai and have tried to reduce civilian casualties and our own in our Afghanistan and Iraq incursions.  Now, with the use of drones we are finally shedding our innocence.  We are coming to realize that war is about winning; that the ends justify the means; and that war is hell – get it over with as quickly as possible and don’t worry too much about how. 

Turning to nation-building – it is a long, complex, and meticulous task for which we have absolutely no patience.  It turns out that we stayed in Iraq for ten years, far longer than the Neocons had ever expected.  In other words, the duration of our stay was unplanned for and was no part of any strategic objective.  Nation-building means planning to stay for at least ten years, probably more.  We have always been and will continue to be a nation with no patience, with a firm belief in the silver bullet, in short-term profits, and quick success.  We look at The Hundred Years War or The War of the Roses which lasted for generations and think that those Europeans were crazy and just didn’t know how do manage things like Americans.  We are dismissive of complexity, and don’t even try to grapple with it.  In this increasingly complex world, we are always at a disadvantage.  The combination of amoral, totally dedicated enemies, and a persistent idealistic view of human nature and society will do us in all the time. Maybe getting used to drones is the first step, but I doubt it.

Nation-building would also brand us as colonialists, and we would have to live with that image as well as that of occupiers, a double-whammy that we idealists could never tolerate.  We went into Iraq to liberate it, not to colonize it, we rationalize; but this kind of idealistic, moralistic thinking prevents us from total victory.  If we really wanted to realize Wolfowitz’s vision of evangelizing democracy; and secure the country’s oil for Western industry, then we should have been prepared to take the country over and do the job right.

Fallows says the same thing slightly differently:

If we were to "learn" from mistakes, we might avoid this specific set of biases and miscalibrations when it comes to another "preventive" strike against another threatening nation in exactly the same part of the world. But we see every one of these four elements of this syndrome -- exaggeration, impatience, Pollyanna-ism about military measures, naiveté about long-term effects - in discussions about the "need" and "moral duty" to condone military action against Iran.

Our enemies are getting harder and losing whatever vestiges of civility, honor, and morality they might once have had.  We are still debating drones, waterboarding, and just wars.  Where is Genghis Khan when we need him?

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