Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Losing Iraq

Losing in Iraq. They pronounce it with a wicked smile. They seem to like the feel of it on their loose lips.

It sure riles up the wingnut contingent when you say it, eh? The right people. Let's say it again, as often as possible. Let's find evidence of it in every news story.

[If you don't have the stomach to read the tripe I just linked to, I don't blame you. But at least read the top of it and then the last comment on the thread.]

They positively squeal with glee when someone "respectable" like Republican Senator Chuck Hagel says, "The reality is that we're losing in Iraq." By "respectable" they mean someone they lampooned mercilessly as one of Chimpy's minions right up to the moment he said something they agree with.

Christopher Hitchens spoke for a lot of people, as usual, when he marveled at the canaries who worry more about the miner's picks than the coal mine gas:

How can so many people watch this as if they were spectators, handicapping and rating the successes and failures from some imagined position of neutrality? Do they suppose that a defeat in Iraq would be a defeat only for the Bush administration? The United States is awash in human rights groups, feminist organizations, ecological foundations, and committees for the rights of minorities. How come there is not a huge voluntary effort to help and to publicize the efforts to find the hundreds of thousands of "missing" Iraqis, to support Iraqi women's battle against fundamentalists, to assist in the recuperation of the marsh Arab wetlands, and to underwrite the struggle of the Kurds, the largest stateless people in the Middle East? Is Abu Ghraib really the only subject that interests our humanitarians?

On the other side of the political canyon -- my side -- the bomb-word is "treason." Whispered or shouted, hinted or insinuated. The Founders set the "treason" barrier mighty high, but we forget that and slap it on everyone from Cindy Sheehan's simple-minded myrmidions to the New York Times.

Losing in Iraq. Treason in America. The irony, of course, is that the same people who insist America is losing in Iraq also insist that the nation tie its own hands even more tightly to prevent America from doing anything that might alter that spiral into failure. They're the ones who demand we fight ruthless terrorists under the most restrictive interpretations of Geneva conventions and domestic laws. They want us to bring a chessboard to a knife fight. You'd think those Americans who see an imminent American defeat, if they appreciate the consequences of that, would be the first to call for the gloves to come off.

The contradiction on the other side is as easy to appreciate. You can't burn your national values on the barricades while you fight a war in the name of those values. Someone needs to keep an eye on the domestic evolution of power while this long war is underway. The loyal opposition has a duty to live up to both words in that phrase.

People who support the entire Iraq project reject the notion of losing. That's defeatism. That's the curse. How could the world's sole superpower "lose" to a gang of religious retards?

Here's how. And it relates directly to what the right mis-calls the "treason" of the domestic left. Don't be fooled by our military record (updated somewhat since Bill Murray's "We're 10 and 1!" cry in "Stripes"). America has a terrible performance history in defeating an insurgency in a populous nation under the watchful eye of a hostile media.

[The media always is hostile to American authority, since about 1950, when the newscasters and journalists wrested control of the media from the publishers and corporate owners. This is a fact of life we can't deny or change. The media distrusts all presidents -- Republican ones it actively loathes. The only leaders it likes are the ones it creates, like Jack Kennedy.]

This article, "Why the Strong Lose," by Jeffrey Record, turned up in the Winter edition of "Parameters" [Hat tip, Zenpundit]

[A]ll major failed US uses of force since 1945 — in Vietnam, Lebanon, and Somalia — have been against materially weaker enemies. In wars both hot and cold, the United States has fared consistently well against such powerful enemies as Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and the Soviet Union, but the record against lesser foes is decidedly mixed. ... In each case the American Goliath was militarily stalemated or politically defeated by the local David.

The phenomenon of the weak defeating the strong, though exceptional, is as old as war itself. Sparta finally beat Athens; Frederick the Great always punched well above his weight; American rebels overturned British rule in the Thirteen Colonies; the Spanish guerrilla bled Napoleon white; Jewish terrorists forced the British out of Palestine; Vietnamese communists drove France and then the United States out of Indochina; and mujahideen handed the Soviet Union its own “Vietnam” in Afghanistan. Relative military power is hardly a reliable predictor of war outcomes.

I'd disagree with his inclusion of the Peloponesian War here. Sparta only was weaker than Athens at sea. But as Victor Davis Hanson has written recently, Athens had a flaw Sparta never showed -- the volatility of democratic institutions -- and it cracked open in a protracted war of attrition. There is something to be made of the parallel with the situation of America today.

Our current perplexity in Iraq also reminds me a bit of a different classical story. Sparta in its might under King Cleomenes I defeated the army of its rival, Argos, and utterly routed it. The men who survived the battle fled into a grove, which the Spartans set fire to, burning the refugees to death.

Argos now lay open to them, a city defenseless, full of women and slaves. But a poetess named Telesilla rallied the Argive women. She gathered up the young boys and old men left in the city and had them man the walls. Then she gathered up all the weapons she could find and armed the women, and marched them out to fight the Spartan hoplites.

The mighty Spartans, the greatest warriors on land in Greece found themselves face to face with a pack of women in arms. They halted and hesitated. The Spartans thought it over. If they fought the women and won, there would be no honor in it, only shame. If they fought women and somehow lost, how much worse the shame would be! In the end they gave up and went home.

Where I see a parallel is the dilemma of the Spartans (not the bravery of the Argive women). All their might and advantage availed them nothing. The need to fight with dignity and honor as a warrior can lead you into fights you can't win. On the other side, the weaker side, the will to fight at whatever cost, and the awareness of the consequences of defeat, are potent weapons. Stendhal, who had ridden into battle with Napoleon, understood this:

"The lover thinks more often of reaching his mistress than the husband of guarding his wife; the prisoner thinks more often of escaping than the gaoler of shutting his door; and so, whatever the obstacles may be, the lover and the prisoner ought to succeed."

Jeffrey Record's piece gives several examples, some of which ought to be familiar to Americans. Vietnam is one. Our own Revolution is another:

Post-1945 successful rebellions against European colonial rule as well as the Vietnamese struggle against the United States all had one thing in common: the materially weaker insurgent was more politically determined to win because it had much more riding on the outcome of war than did the stronger external power, for whom the stakes were lower. ... Because the outcome of the war can never be as important to the outside power as it is to those who have staked their very existence on victory, the weaker side fights harder, displaying a willingness to incur blood losses that would be unacceptable to the stronger side. The signers of the Declaration of Independence risked their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor in what became a contest with an imperial giant for which North America was (after 1778) a secondary theater of operations in a much larger war. For the American rebel leadership, defeat meant the hangman’s noose. For British commanders in North America, it meant a return to the comforts and pleasures of London society and perhaps eventual reassignment.

He summarizes observations that others have made -- tentatively, perhaps because they are so disturbing to us. Democracies are particularly vulnerable to losing "protracted conflicts against irregular foes." He cites Gil Merom's observation that "democracies fail in small wars because they find it extremely difficult to escalate the level of violence and brutality to that which can secure victory.”

True. And an honorable military tradition in a free people, even when they face defeat, also recoils from such brutality. The Confederate generals in the Civil War, West Pointers, deliberately rejected the option of guerrilla warfare, though many saw it as their best chance for independence. Forrest, a private man with no military education, proved how effective insurgency could be against the Yankees in Mississippi in 1862. But Lee did not follow his path. After the war, Forrest proved it again by founding the Klan. Americans today routinely list him among the nation's 10 greatest villains.

But the cruel truth is, barbarism works -- if by "works" you means defeats the insurgents at a horrific cost in innocent human lives. The French learned that in Algeria, and they also learned the consequence; a free and democratic state with an civilized population simply cannot sustain such a war.

By 1955, the revolutionary FLN was pursuing a policy of open genocide in Algeria: Kill all the French. Civilians of all ages and conditions were hacked to pieces, infants ripped from the womb and dashed to pieces in front of dying mothers, all the depths of depravity of terrorism. If it managed to kill a French official, it then tried to bomb his funeral, too.

The violence spiraled in 1956. The French got tough. In January 1957, Gen. Jacques Massu and his 4,600 men got carte blanche to clean the insurgents out of Algiers. Torture, which had been banned to French soldiers since the Revolution, crept back into use.

The argument was that successful interrogation saved lives, chiefly of Arabs; that Arabs who gave information would be tortured to death, without restraint, by the FLN, and it was vital for the French to make themselves feared more. It was the Arab belief that Massu operated without restraint, as much as the torture itself, which caused prisoners to talk. [Johnson, "Modern Times"]

Torture was not the end of it. According to one French official in a position to know, some 3,000 prisoners "disappeared" during the Algiers battle.

It was the one battle in the insurgency that the French clearly won. Fighting the FLN near its own level, with matching weapons of terror, Massu won the fight for Algiers. But civilized France all but tore itself to pieces in the process.

On the one hand, by freeing army units from political control and stressing the personalities of commanders, it encouraged private armies: colonels increasingly regarded themselves as proprietors of their regiments, as under the monarchy, and began to manipulate their generals into disobedience. In the moral confusion, officers began to see their primary obligation as towards their own men rather than the state.

At the same time, news leaking out of what the army had done in Algiers began to turn French liberal and centre opinion against the war. From 1957 onward, many Frenchmen came to regard Algerian independence, however distasteful, as preferable to the total corruption of the French public conscience. Thus the demand for the restoration of political control of the war -- including negotiations with the FLN -- intensified just as the French army was, as it believed, winning by asserting its independence.

This irreconcilable conflict produced the explosion of May 1958 which collapsed the Fourth Republic and returned de Gaulle to power.

Record adds:

For democracies, the strategy of “barbarism” against the weaker side’s noncombatant social and political support base is neither morally acceptable nor, over time, politically sustainable. Since 1945, wars against colonial or ex-colonial peoples have become increasingly unacceptable to most democratic states’ political and moral sensibilities. Merom says that “what fails democracies in small wars is the interaction of sensitivity to casualties, repugnance to brutal military behavior, and commitment to democratic life.”

Democracies fail in small wars because, more specifically, they are unable to resolve three related dilemmas: “how to reconcile the humanitarian values of a portion of the educated class with the brutal requirements of counterinsurgency warfare, ... how to find a domestically acceptable trade-off between brutality and sacrifice, [and] how to preserve support for the war without undermining the democratic order.”

Dictatorships, of course, have no such constraint. And insurgents seem instinctively to grasp this weakness in their democratic foes. Record introduces Robert Pape's landmark study of suicide terrorism from 1980 through 2003, which speculated that suicide terrorism, like guerrilla warfare, is “a strategy of coercion, a means to compel a target government to change policy.” It is felt to be especially effective against democracies, Record notes, for three reasons:

First, democracies “are thought to be especially vulnerable to coercive punishment.” Their threshold of intolerable pain is lower than that of dictatorships. Second, democracies are believed to be more restrained than authoritarian regimes in their use of force, especially against noncombatants. “Democracies are widely perceived as less likely to harm civilians, and no democratic regime has committed genocide in the twentieth century.” Third, “suicide attacks may also be harder to organize or publicize in authoritarian police states.”

This dispassionate but deeply disturbing set of observations opens up an important discussion we as a nation ought to be having, but which can't seem to advance past the salvos of "Chickenhawk!" and "Defeatist!"

If, for all our ability to beat up anyone's nation-state armed forces, we're a musclebound weakling when it comes to insurgencies, we have a problem. All of us, the smug left included, because as Michael Moore pointed out in his perverse way, the 9-11 hijackers didn't take an account of who loved Bush and who hated him in those skyscrapers or on those luckless jets.

["If someone did this to get back at Bush, then they did so by killing thousands of people who did not vote for him! Boston, New York, DC, and the planes' destination of California -- these were places that voted against Bush!" The quote originally was posted as a "Mike's Message" on Moore's website on Sept. 12, but was removed not long after.]

And every time the Americans make a military display, then pull back rather than bringing down the hammer, as they did in Fallujah in April 2004, the jihadis surge. They make sure the message gets through: We defeated the infidel Marines. We are strong, they are weak. And when they do so they draw power, they suck in thousands of young men with their mirage of victory. And more blood and carnage follows.

The image of America pulling back from a fight is what inspired bin Laden in the first place:

"After leaving Afghanistan, the Muslim fighters headed for Somalia and prepared for a long battle, thinking that the Americans were like the Russians. The youth were surprised at the low morale of the American soldiers and realized more than before that the American soldier was a paper tiger and after a few blows ran in defeat. And America forgot all the hoopla and media propaganda ... about being the world leader and the leader of the New World Order, and after a few blows they forgot about this title and left, dragging their corpses and their shameful defeat."

And ... well, I'll let the interviewer tell the rest of the story:

The Somalia operation, in some ways, made bin Laden. During the Afghan war, the CIA had been very aware of him (although the agency now insists it never "controlled" him), but in Somalia, bin Laden had taken a swing at the biggest kid in the school yard and given him a black eye.

This is no secret. CNN's Jeff Greenfield, for example, has connect the same three dots:

It began as a peacekeeping mission in March, 1983. U.S. Marines were sent to Lebanon to try to stop a bloody civil war. Seven months later, 20 years ago today, a massive truck bomb blew up the Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 U.S. servicemen -- the worst single-day loss of life for the American military since Korea.

Grim as the news was, it was, in part, overshadowed by the U.S. invasion of Grenada two days later, to overthrow a hard-left pro-Cuban government.

And when President Reagan ordered the Marines to leave Lebanon in January, 1984, not many Americans paid attention.

But by some accounts, others did pay attention. That terrorist act of 20 years ago may have helped to convince some of America's adversaries that the United States, for all of its might, was vulnerable, that heavy losses could be inflicted upon it at a relatively low price.

After all, the reasoning went, the U.S. had lost a war in Vietnam, not because it was militarily weak, but because it did not have the political will to bear the costs. And over the years, these adversaries seemed to take heart from what they saw as American weakness, from what the U.S. did not do when it left Saddam Hussein in power after the first Gulf War, when it pulled troops out of Somalia in 1993 after 18 Americans were killed -- the Black Hawk down incident -- when it failed to strike hard after the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing or the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa that killed 19 Americans, or the attack in 2000 on the USS Cole that left 17 dead.

That history may have been what Osama bin Laden had in mind when he said, three months after 9/11: "When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse." Indeed, one of the principle arguments made for American military action in Afghanistan and in Iraq was that the U.S. had to prove by direct action that America was not a weak horse, that al Qaeda and its allies were misreading America's resolve. If that's true, that Beirut bombing of 20 years ago may have been where that miscalculation began.

And it may be about to happen again, in Iraq. According to one article, American troops in Mosul suddenly, ominously, found they were being ignored once the talk of a U.S. drawdown began to pick up. Insurgents are ignoring the Americans, and working hard to intimidate civilian leaders, so that the jihadis will have the authority when the Americans go.

"They've realized we're not going to be here forever," [Capt. Pat] Flynn said. "It's a waiting game, and they can wait us out."

It happened once before in Iraq, in April 2004, as the Marines were poised to clear the terrorists from the rat-warren of Fallujah. No military force in history has taken greater care to pick out the bad guys who embed themselves in a civilian population. It is chiefly what sets apart the 21st century military from the 20th century version, embodied still by the Russian army. Visit the ruins of Grozny, if you doubt it.

Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera television networks, reaching hundreds of millions of Arabs and more trusted in Iraq than the U.S.-funded Al Iraqiya, had learned to steer a careful berth around criticism of autocratic Arab regimes. But both were fierce about Israel and America. They had a working relationship with the insurgents; getting tips about attacks on convoys and showing up in time to film the dead Americans.

In the first week of April 2004, insurgents invited Al Jazeera reporter Ahmed Mansour and his crew into Fallujah, and scenes from the Fallujah hospital flooded Arab households for hour after hour for days on end: dead, bleeding, maimed bodies. Wails, sobs, screams. "Most poignant were the pictures Jazeera ran of babies, one after another, all calm, frail, and pitiful in the repose of death," Bing West wrote in his account of the Fallujah battles, "No True Glory" [p.91]. "Where, how, or when they died was not attributed. The viewer assumed all the infants were killed by the Marines in Fallujah. The baby pictures would bring tears from a rock."

The public outcry that ensued in Iraq was a spark that threatened to send months of pent up frustration up in flames. Even British allies complained about "heavy-handed" American tactics.

Western journalists couldn't get into the city without approval from the insurgents. Those embedded with the embattled Marines did not report anything that could jibe with the lurid tales of widespread carnage in the city. But the world wasn't listening to them. It was watching Al Jazeera's images on TV. Massive civilian casualties became the accepted topos of Fallujah. The figure arrived at, by some murky calculation based on quotes in the Arab press from doctors, was more than 600 dead and 1,000 wounded. The actual figure, it turns out, likely was less than half that. But the White House, the Pentagon, the Coalition Provisional Authority let the lies pass. The Marines had the capability to drive the insurgents out of Fallujah, as they eventually did in November, but in April, as Marine Lt. Gen. Conway put it, "Al Jazeera kicked our butts."

The consequences, if we repeat this on a nationwide scale in Iraq, would be disaster beyond measure.

When President Bush asks "all Americans to hold their elected leaders to account and demand a debate that brings credit to our democracy, not comfort to our adversaries," the Democrats scream bloody murder. That's a mistake. Whatever his political motives, or his own party's defects, the words here are sound:

"There is a difference between responsible and irresponsible debate and it's even more important to conduct this debate responsibly when American troops are risking their lives overseas."

Sure, it's still a free country, and you can say anything. But just because you can say anything doesn't mean you ought to. Especially if you aspire to be treated as a serious political leader in wartime by the American people.

Record cites Marine Corps small-war expert Thomas X. Hammes: Though war against an unconventional enemy “is the only kind of war America has ever lost,” the Defense Department “has largely ignored unconventional warfare. As the only Goliath in the world, we should be worried that the world’s Davids have found a sling and stone that work. Yet the internal DOD debate has largely ignored this striking difference between the outcomes of conventional and unconventional warfare.”

Perhaps Iraq was a tragic wrong turn for America in the war on Islamist terrorism. I don't believe so at all -- though the idea was better than the execution -- but it's a debate we can and should have. But in this moment, that inquiry isn't the most dire problem we ought to be working to solve. Some people act as though it's the only issue.

If the current Republican leadership is devoid of creative thinking and the will-power to lead America seriously through a long war, and the Democrats refuse to acknowledge the problem entirely, where do we turn?

Start by looking for someone who can say, "We might lose in Iraq," and who says it with a frown, not a smile.

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