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May 24, 2007

Comments

Val Larsen

You weren't crazy in supporting the war either. I just read on Gateway Pundit that the annual war deaths in Afganastan and Iraq combined have been less each year than the number of military deaths due to accidents and heart attacks, etc. Military losses were 7,500 while Clinton was president. They have thus far been 3,824 in the war on terror. To be sure, this is comparing apples and oranges since we continue to lose people to accidents and heart attacks, but the key point is this: a nation that cannot sustain half as many battle deaths in a war as what it loses through accidents and health problems when there is no war is a nation that has lost its capacity for self defense. The gloom and doom about Iraq is all out of proportion to the tiny cost we have paid there. To be sure, all our objectives have not yet been achieved, but it strikes me that they almost certainly would be if we only had a modicum of the fighting spirit that has characterized us in the past. For instance, with broader support for the war effort, we could mount a credible threat to Iran and Syria that could force them to curtail their support for the insurgents. Were it not for the massive fifth column fighting us behind the lines here in the US, our enemies would be utterly demoralized, I believe. Their effectiveness against our military is virtually nil. And there is no way they can succeed in the long run in winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people if they are reduced to a strategy of wantonly murdering those they are hoping to persuade. Sadly, Americans lack the small percentage of our ancestors' resolve that could make this rosy scenario a reality.

Nathan Smith

But I think it's rational to worry a lot about even a small number of US troop deaths (by historical standards) IF it deters recruitment. In the past, we had a draft. That meant we could tolerate far more casualties and easily replenish our armed forces with new conscripts. Today both a changed understanding of the social contract and a shift in the military's mode of operations towards a more skill- and capital-intensive approach make the return of the draft unacceptable. The 3,824 US troops killed were far greater military assets than the larger death tolls in Vietnam, Korea, and WWII, both in the sense that they are more effective in battle, and in that they are harder to recruit and train. Even with a death toll that is low by historical standards, I think the human-capital equation of the military may be at risk.

Nato

"The gloom and doom about Iraq is all out of proportion to the tiny cost we have paid there. To be sure, all our objectives have not yet been achieved, but it strikes me that they almost certainly would be if we only had a modicum of the fighting spirit that has characterized us in the past. For instance, with broader support for the war effort, we could mount a credible threat to Iran and Syria that could force them to curtail their support for the insurgents. Were it not for the massive fifth column fighting us behind the lines here in the US, our enemies would be utterly demoralized, I believe. Their effectiveness against our military is virtually nil. And there is no way they can succeed in the long run in winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people if they are reduced to a strategy of wantonly murdering those they are hoping to persuade"

Just the other day - perhaps yesterday - I was telling Tom how agitated I am about Iraq right now and how I was going to lose it if someone on Nathanael's blog posted something about how well Iraq is going. I suppose this isn't quite the same thing, since it instead speculates that it would be comparatively easy for things to go well if we just had "resolve."

I have a difficult time figuring out how to respond (appropriately) to these kinds of statements. This is not WWII or Vietnam or any other such conflict. There are not two parties in this fight: "us" and "them". There are at the very least four major parties: the US, the Shia majority, the Sunni minority, and the the terrorists. The Shia we can further break down into pro-Iran and anti-Iran factions. The Sunni and (the two) Shia factions have militias that sometimes fight us, sometimes fight each-other and sometimes fight the terrorists. Sometimes the militias are tacitly friendly (to us), sometimes clearly hostile (to us), and frequently somewhat neutral (to us). But even if they were usually friendly, if they felt that we were mostly impotent to keep order and protect the populace, they are not going to sit back and do nothing. They are going to at least act as ad-hoc vigilantes, and frequently they're going to get impatient and frustrated with the difficulty of distinguishing Takfiris/Death Squads from regular folks and go on to sectarian civil war.

Over the last four years we have proven time and again that we cannot or will not enforce civil peace. Subsequent command decisions have overturned not only earlier policies but frequently broken promises. Why would any of those militias trust us to look after their group's self-interest at this point? Sure, our forces are comparatively invincible relative to, say, the IA and IP, but we're also not very effective because of language and cultural barriers as well as an intelligence apparatus that is not nearly what it needs to be to handle more than a tiny fraction of the total workload. The effectiveness of the 3d ACR in Tal Afar needs to be the average level of effectiveness if we're to actually convince the factions to work together under our promises of protection, not an outlier. Then, that level has to be maintained for a while - let's say six months per prior collapse in incipient dialogue.

Of course, the longer we're there in our current half-assed, under-planned manner, the more collapses there will be and the more permanent the sense of distrust. Right now I would say that with the possible exception of small parts of the Kurdish areas, the longer we're there, the harder a stable settlement will be to reach.

And, incidentally, the more incentive Iran and Syria have to fan the flames. Right now, the US catches all the blowback from everyone. Once we're gone, everyone else has to assess the fact that we're not there to hold the bag any more. Sure, they may decide they hate each other enough to continue on with their self-immolation, but I don't see how us continuing to be the table around which the factions chase each other advances anything. "Resolve" in this case seems to imply immobility.

Perhaps "resolve" is supposed to mean willingness to commit massive resources. I don't think it would take a "fifth column" to balk at what it would take to commit those resources, especially at this juncture. Why would the public think that those massive resources would be employed well? Why would the public feel confident that the premises were not false? They've heard a lot of rosy statements from folks who should have known better and here we are four years later and we can't get the damn power on in Baghdad.

Insofar as Vietnam is relevant, I thought this article was pretty much dead-on:
http://www.amconmag.com/2007/2007_05_21/article2.html

Val Larsen

However sick we may be of the mayhem in Iraq, the Iraquis must be sicker of it since they have borne its brunt. Many of them have died for each American soldier who has been killed. In conjunction with the government, we are trying to establish order--the very thing most Iraquis long for. Ultimately, no one wants to live in the Hobbesian world where life is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." The recent alliance of the Sunnis in Anbar with us against Al Kaida is an example of the fruits of this profound human instinct for order. The Sunnis in that provice that has been the heart of the insurgency seem to have had a belly full. Intelligence tips and police recruitment are way up, attacks way down. Nato thinks that the sooner we leave, the sooner the conflict will be resolved. Why? Because it will immediately become so bloody that everyone will give up the fight? If the very considerable blood letting that has already occured hasn't done the trick, why should we think that a greater spasm of violence will soon end the conflict? What is the mechanism that leads to peace more quickly when the one somewhat disinterested and most powerful force withdraws? Even in the medium term--and still more in the long run--we cannot survive as a liberal democratic culture if the failed political culture of the Middle East is not transformed. At some point, one of A.Q. Kahn's nukes will get loose or a chemical or biological attack will kill many tens of thousands or several million Americans. When that happens, the xenophobia on display in the immigration debate will be as nothing. We have a huge stake in what happens in Iraq (and Muslim culture more broadly) and we ought to have the fortitude to see that effort to a successful conclusion. While it is possible that Muslim cultural peculiarities may make success impossible, if that is true in this age of weapons of mass destruction, then our civilization is probably doomed.

Nathan Smith

From the article Nato quotes:

"The narrative stops in 1968... so it lacks a full treatment of Nixon as well as the Domino Theory and its dire warnings about the consequences of withdrawal. While parts of Southeast Asia weren’t pretty after 1975, the warnings proved false..."

I love this casually indifferent reference to the horrible atrocities that ravaged Southeast Asia for a decade after we left. The warnings-- the Domino Theory, anyway-- proved *true.* If that experience has lessons for Iraq, then Val's tenacity is warranted.

Nato

"The recent alliance of the Sunnis in Anbar with us..." "Intelligence tips and police recruitment are way up, attacks way down"

Sadly, these things are not true. It is not that they are the opposite of the truth so much as they take facts that *are* true and then build an untrue narrative on top.

The Sunnis in Al Anbar are tired of the Takfiris; this is true. They have allied against them; this is also true. They have allied with us; not the case. They have become neither pro-government nor pro-US in any significant respect. It's just that the terrorists are so foul they've become enemy #1. These same people have attempted to us the terrorists against their former enemies #1 and have found the blowback too severe.

I'm not going to try to address the police recruitment and intelligence "tips" except to asseverate that they are neither very unprecedented nor necessarily all that positive. There are ways in which they can be positive, but those ways do not primarily involve our continued presence.

Finally, attacks are not "way down." They are slightly lower than they have been for the last six months, and still considerably higher than any time before last summer. They're "down" to approximately double what they were last time I was there.

"Nato thinks that the sooner we leave, the sooner the conflict will be resolved. Why? Because it will immediately become so bloody that everyone will give up the fight? If the very considerable blood letting that has already occured hasn't done the trick, why should we think that a greater spasm of violence will soon end the conflict? What is the mechanism that leads to peace more quickly when the one somewhat disinterested and most powerful force withdraws?"

When we withdraw, then the notionally omnipotent force on which all blame can be laid and to which all complaints can be carried will have withdrawn, leaving the major factions only each-other with whom to deal. No more attempting to apply leverage to the Americans to get the Shia to soften the terms, and no more claiming factional intransigence is due to American presence. On the other side, the Shia can no longer assume that when the chips are down we'll save the state from fracturing by rushing to areas in rebellion. Val is right that neither side wants chaos, but all the leaders can currently assume that we'll keep it from spiraling utterly out of control so they can continue to snipe in the green zone while their constituency is entrenching for civil war. It seems to me that very soon those leaders will have no traction at all on their people.

It may be too late, or it may be the perfect time*. I don't know. What I will say is that as time goes by, things are only going to get worse unless the security situation gets dramatically better - not 10% better, more like 70%. The time for a last push at reconciliation is now, because chances will not get better.

Finally, if losing in Iraq increases the chances of getting nuked by terrorists, then continuing to lose for a whole generation guarantees it. Directly helping a Shia state come to power probably doesn't help either.

*Because people are (possibly) so desperate they're willing to make real concessions for peace, but not yet to complete nihilism.

Nathan Smith

There's a lot of basic differences with Vietnam, too. For one thing we can't lose the war because the goal was to remove Saddam and Saddam is dead. Nato will mock that but I stand by it. Removing Saddam was the #1 war objective and with that accomplished, we win: anything else is to torture language. There are better and worse victories, there are even Pyrrhic victories, but a war that achieves its main objective is a victory. Words mean what they mean, even if you hate Bush. Whereas Vietnam was a loss.

Also we did some pretty unscrupulous things in Vietnam which made our position morally indefensible, for which there are no parallels in Iraq. We didn't bribe Iraqi military officers to murder the Iraqi leader who was our best ally. We didn't refuse to accept an international accord which would have set up free elections.

If we had done those things in Vietnam, our cause would have been just. Our culture, unfortunately, has developed a habit of conceiving the wrongness of Vietnam as a sort of mysterious theological absolute almost like a religious mystery, rather than being a function of specific arrogant or immoral mistakes that put us in the wrong.

Nato

"The warnings-- the Domino Theory, anyway-- proved *true.*"

Indochina did not become communist, let alone all of Southeast Asia. South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were considered immediately prone to going communist, and they did.

Nathan Smith

A better analogy for Iraq than Vietnam is Korea. And *American Conservative* writers should be smart enough to know that. The title of the AmCon article-- "Doomed to Repeat"-- is spurious in a somewhat pernicious way. It is an allusion to George Santayana's "Those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it." But we are not repeating the history of Vietnam; and moreover, we do know that history, very well (though through distorted retrospectively peacenik lenses).

Nato

"we can't lose the war because the goal was to remove Saddam and Saddam is dead. Nato will mock that but I stand by it. Removing Saddam was the #1 war objective and with that accomplished, we win: anything else is to torture language."

Why did we want to remove him so bad? What was his removal supposed to accomplish? What *has* it accomplished, in the way it eventuated? If there's a large negative gap there, then I would say that it would torture *logic* to say we succeeded.

"Our culture, unfortunately, has developed a habit of conceiving the wrongness of Vietnam as a sort of mysterious theological absolute almost like a religious mystery, rather than being a function of specific arrogant or immoral mistakes that put us in the wrong."

Agreed. I feel the same way about Iraq.

Nato

"A better analogy for Iraq than Vietnam is Korea."

I'm stumped.

Nathan Smith

re: "Why did we want to remove him so bad? What was his removal supposed to accomplish? What *has* it accomplished, in the way it eventuated? If there's a large negative gap there, then I would say that it would torture *logic* to say we succeeded."

You can ask the same thing about World War I. What were the Allies hoping to gain by fighting it? Yes, certain territorial gains: Alsace-Lorraine, Italia irredenta; yes, to cage German naval power... But was it really worth it, the way it turned out? Can those meager gains justify all that was lost? But the bigger "why" questions are irrelevant to whether or not the Allies won. Maybe France was stupid to want Alsace-Lorraine so badly that they sacrificed 10% of their prime-age male population to get it back; but anyway, Alsace-Lorraine was their war objective, and they achieved it. Same with Saddam. If we were stupid to want him removed, or if he wasn't worth removing at the price that it eventually cost (not that that's what *I* think), that's not really relevant to whether the war was a victory. We had a war objective, and we achieved it. That's victory. Now that Saddam is dead, the victory can't be reversed.

What *have* we accomplished? We've liberated the Shia. And we've ended a despicable totalitarian regime, even if what came in its place leaves much to be desired. We've set a precedent for toppling dictators, one that is not likely to be applied again anytime soon, but will also not be forgotten. And one which now has a certain amount of electoral legitimation-- Bush, Blair, and Howard were all re-elected. To restore the old ultra-sovereigntist doctrines by which Saddam was considered legitimate and overthrowing him "illegal," nothing less than convicting Bush and Blair as war criminals would suffice. Now, among the pundits, the people, and the politicians, there will be plenty of unrepentant apologists for the Iraq War, and for the "Bush Doctrine," the "forward strategy of fredom" or whatever-you-call-it, in one form or another. Dictators will not sleep as easily as they did. We've also, with an inadvertent cynicism worthy of Nixon, raised up a new and terrible Shia adversary to our Sunni wolf-in-sheep's-clothing ally-enemies in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, whose spawn attacked us on 9/11. Also, as you have said before-- and again, with a grim sort of inadvertent cynicism-- we "gave al-Qaeda enough rope to hang themselves" by drawing them into Iraq where they slaughtered tens of thousands of their fellow-Muslims (and some of us too but far fewer), thus discrediting themselves in the eyes of the Islamic umma of which they hoped to be the vanguard. Afghanistan would have weakened them but it was Iraq that permanently marginalized them into hateful futility-- Iraq is "why bin Laden is not like Che Guevara," as I once posted. We did a lot more, too, but that list is a start.

re: Why Korea?

1. Korea was an *unpopular* war. Vietnam is remembered as being unpopular because of youth protests against it, but the polls don't actually show that it was particularly unpopular. Korea was.
2. Korea was a declared war, Vietnam wasn't, Iraq was.
3. Vietnam was a loss, Korea was a sort of half-victory or draw. Iraq will be at worst a half-victory.

Nathan Smith

It occurs to me that an Iraq/Korea analogy is much more encouraging than an Iraq/Vietnam analogy. We didn't have a complete breakdown of national will after Korea. We wanted peace, but not isolationism. If the reaction to Iraq is the same, that's not so bad.

Val Larsen

One of the memes used to attack Bush is the complaint that his war in Iraq has lasted longer than the WWII. Why, these folks ask, is the war not over and are the troops not home? But of course by the troops-being-home standard, WWII isn't over 60 years after it ended, nor more strikingly is the Korean war. To be sure, soldiers continue to die in Iraq, but who would pay the WWII price of 406,306 war dead to get the violence in Iraq to end immediately.

In certain important respects, we face an enemy that is more dangerous than either the Nazis or the communists. The Nazis and communists did not use suicide bombers because it is hard to motivate an atheist who thinks there is nothing after death to sacrifice the only life he will ever have with not even the chance of escape that, say, the soldiers at Stalingrad had, however unrealistic. The Japanese were (for partly religious reasons) willing to be suicide bombers, and there is a pretty good chance that we would never have been able to wholly conquer Japan had it not been for the atom bomb.

It is clear from the conventional battles we have fought that the Iraqis are not the Japanese. When faced with overwhelming odds, they tended to give up on the battlefield, not to grimly dig in deeper as the Japanese did and await death, hoping to take as many of the enemy with them as possible. There is obviously a lot of common sense and love of life in their culture, attributes that hold out hope for an Islaam that we can live with. On the other hand, Islaam (especially Arab Islaam) has demonstrated that it can produce fanatics as in love with death and brutality as the Japanese were. And even if only 1 percent of Muslims are fanatical in this way (and the evidence seems to be that there are more than 1 percent who are our implacable enemies), they and we will be doomed.

But through extended engagement, we helped the Japanese transform themselves into a nation that is a clear asset to the world community and that probably no longer would accept the kind of atrocities it committed so willingly during WWII. If we are fortunate, out relationship with the Iraqis will be equally long and equally fruitful, not just for Iraq but for the larger Muslim world. Bagdad has always been close to the center of Muslim culture, so if it can become a decent, prosperous place, then there will be hope for them and us to avoid a clash of civilizations that may kill millions of us (and given our power and the fury that would be unleashed by mass killings here) still more millions of them.

I confess that I don’t have adequate information to assess our prospects for achieving success if we remain engaged—or even the current state of affairs on the ground. I know our mainstream press is getting it wrong. That is obvious from what they choose to focus on in their reporting—sensational violence without context and without countervailing facts. I get a very different picture from people like Michael Yon (who reports as the mainstream doesn’t on the generosity and heroism of our troops and on the relationships they are building with their Iraqi brothers in arms). Through Instapundit, I get relativley positive reports, but I can’t from this distance know to what extent they reflect the reality on the ground.

What I can know for certain from the U.S. is the magnitude of the price we have paid, which is small by the standards of almost all the wars we have previously fought. I also know that victory in war is ultimately a function of national will. (This is patently true when the technical/economic advantages are as favorable as they are for us.) And I think I also know my country well enough to say that we will be “righteously” vicious in the awful violence we will direct at our enemies if we suffer even 50,000 dead in a single attack, let alone 1,000,000. All restraint will be swept away. That won’t be a good thing for humanity, but it will probably be unavoidable if a big attack comes, as it is likely to do if the political culture of the Middle East doesn’t change in the direction we are trying to nudge it in Iraq.

Nathan Smith

Another Iraq-Korea parallel: in Korea, as in Iraq, we won an initial victory and then, a bit intoxicated by our initial victory, we let ourselves add new and more ambitious war aims-- MacArthur wanted to free the North as well as the South; Bush tried not just to free Iraq from Saddam, but to establish a model democracy in the Middle East. It was the second, more ambitious goal that got us into trouble.

Nathan Smith

"I also know that victory in war is ultimately a function of national will... This is patently true when the technical/economic advantages are as favorable as they are for us."

Yes, but. There's things technology can do and things it can't. If our mission now is to establish democracy in Iraq, that depends on Iraqis-- not just a majority of Iraqis, but a huge super-majority that amounts to a national consensus, with few enough recalcitrants that they can be isolated and rendered ineffectual-- reconciling with each other and with the new order so that they can live together. In spite of our wealth and technology and the skill and dedication of our soldiers, I think that result is ultimately outside our control.

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