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Iraq

Quitters Never Win

Focusing on "Best Defeat" Ensures a Future of Failures

By Michael Tanji | June 18, 2007

Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellows Steven Simon and Ray Takeyh explain why we’ve lost in Iraq and how to bravely run away:

Last week's bloodshed in Iraq and the bombing of what remained of the historic Shiite shrine in Samarra and of two Sunni mosques in Basra were more reminders of a terrible truth: The war in Iraq is lost. The only question that remains -- for our gallant troops and our blinkered policymakers -- is how to manage the inevitable. What the United States needs now is a guide to how to lose -- how to start thinking about minimizing the damage done to American interests, saving lives and ultimately wresting some good from this fiasco.

I think most people in this country have a different definition of “lost” than the authors. The war is won; Saddam is deposed and dead and Iraq the oppressive police-state and sponsor of terrorism is no more. Iraqi political progress is indeed lacking, but one shudders to consider the state of Iraq’s political system absent the relative stability being afforded by the surge. This is in fact an issue the authors address later, but in a wholly inadequate fashion.

It is so convenient to point to the impact of last year’s election as justification for flight, but no one who actually bothers to talk to Americans accepts this as fact. American’s are against losing and if their rejection of certain political dispositions is indicative of anything, it is the half-measures and unoriginal thinking the political class has supported to date. If the election was a signal that the people were behind retreat, how then to explain the record low approval rating of the Congress that was supposed to extract us from the quagmire?

Some compare post-war Iraq to post-war Germany or Japan and wonder why we see so little progress is the same amount of time. Such comparisons are helpful but only to illustrate that they are comparing apples-to-pineapples (similar name but one is much more prickly). To reach post-war status after WW II the US and its allies mobilized tens of millions of soldiers and waged total war against the vanquished. The level of destruction and “collateral damage” caused by such a warfighting strategy is viewed as unacceptable today. An errantly placed precision-guided-munition is enough to spark international outrage, so repeating the bombing of Dresden is pretty much out of the question. So too is a massive occupation force; a body of troops that simply does not exist today.

Of the many military lessons of Iraq the one to take away here is that it takes remarkably little to win but it still takes a major investment to occupy. If there is a root cause of failure in Iraq it is as much doctrinal as it is political.

The analysis continues but is remarkably contradictory. If the US leaves a Sunni-Shiite war is unlikely to be a big deal, yet “Sunni-Shiite-Kurd killing and score-settling” is likely to intensify after our departure; the chief jihdist threat to the US originates in Pakistan (agreed), but al-Qaeda in Iraq, the terrorists they are training and the weapons they are deploying is almost a trifle (tell that to the IED task force); there are downsides to defeat (no kidding), but with the appropriate application of spin we can come out smelling like a rose (a case where words are supposed to speak more loudly than actions).

Concern over how a potential strategic adversary might view a US withdrawal is a red herring; the US has yet to be defeated in a modern force-on-force conflict and that is a record that is unlikely to be broken. What continues to perplex us, despite several "teaching moments" that have occurred in the last several decades, is terrorism and insurgency. While countries like China will take decades to catch up to where our military capabilities are today (much less twenty years from now), a US withdrawal from Iraq prior to crushing the insurgency sends the message that if you re going to stand against the US, size doesn't matter.

It’s the asymmetry, stupid.

Of all the messages our untimely departure from Iraq would send, the most significant is that you need little in the way of resources to defeat the world’s last and greatest superpower. In fact, not only can you drive the great Satan from your homeland, the odds are pretty good that you could use the same tactics to take the fight to him and win. Note that the 9/11 plot didn’t even bother considering the Pentagon as an adversary, merely a target.

The authors continue with yet another call for a return to so-called realism, which apparently means repeating the very real mistakes of the past. Iran nourishes itself on our carrots and uses the sticks we throw at it to fuel forges in which new weapons are crafted for use against us. The promotion of peace between Israel and Palestine can only work if both sides are serious about accomplishing the mission, something that is proven false almost before the ink is dry on such agreements.

If there is one area where agreement can be found it is in the idea that forcing democracy on people is a misguided and ill-advised strategy. We manage to get along with a lot of countries that are not democracies or at the very least are not democracies-like-us. Democracy works for us in part because it’s all we know; we lack hundreds of years of history under a king or emperor or warlord to consider as comparison. Iraq may not become the 51st state, but we shouldn’t expect it to come to that decision in a timeframe that – politically and historically speaking – is akin to blink of an eye. Until recently, we have not seriously afforded them such time.

Finally there is this statement:

If this administration is not prepared to lose this war right, its successor will be saddled with the burden.

One wonders if our departure from Somalia (Islamists employing insurgent tactics) was a proper loss, what lessons it taught our adversaries, and what burden if any it left the current administration.

Losing “right” means one thing and one thing only: Justification for future failure. Retreat – couch it in any language you like – justifies poor intelligence, shoddy planning, and the promotion of half-baked theories and delusional world views (regardless of the political origin). Opponents of the surge find it untenable and unpalatable, but failure to adopt an aggressive strategy to dampen the violence and send a clear, unambiguous signal to trouble-makers, only increases the number of future distasteful situations we will have to face.

2 Comments

Vince Lombardi said it best, though it was misinterpreted, "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." As I said before, the US can't win wars of attrition, the causualties and collateral damage come back to haunt you. Today's wars have to be won quickly and decisively----only a World War would tolerate a fire-bombing of Dresden for revenge. Bush got caught in the middle. The military was too small for an all out assault with full occupation and to do so would have required a reimposing of the the draft---no more need be said. So he opted for a half-assed campaign and the rest is history once politics gets involved.

A while back, I believe that Marvin debated the question of the "definition of success" in Iraq. Withdrawal is likely to leave an unacceptable mess, but to me, being clear about that "definition" is quite important to the total picture.

The asymmetry of the conflict, and the strategies to address this, is lost on many people.