23 July, 2008

Defining victory

It seems to me that much of the argument between the candidates on Iraq is based on a fundamental disagreement over what constitutes victory. Recent interviews with each of the candidates spell this out. In each case, Katie Couric asks "what is victory?" and here is how each candidate responds. The emphasis is mine.

I know what this conflict is all about. I will bring our troops home. I will bring them home in victory. I will not do what the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said would be very dangerous. We will have a stable Iraq that we won't have to return to because we have succeeded in the strategy and we will come home with victory and honor and not in defeat. Sen. Obama has said that if the surge failed that he might have to send troops back. After this surge has succeeded and we’ve won a victory, we’ll never have to send Americans back.
What happens is that if we continue to put $10 billion to $12 billion a month into Iraq, if we are willing to send as many troops as we can muster continually into Iraq? There's no doubt that that's gonna have an impact. But it doesn't meet our long-term strategic goal, which is to make the American people safer over the long term. If that means that we're detracting from our efforts in Afghanistan, where conditions are deteriorating, if it means that we are distracted from going after Osama bin Laden who is still sending out audio tapes and is operating training camps where we know terrorists' actions are being plotted.

If we have shifted away from the central front of terrorism as a consequence of enormous and continuing investments in Iraq, then that's a poor strategic choice. And ultimately, what we've got to do is - we have to recognize that Iraq is just one of our … security problems. It's not the only one.
There seems to be a major difference in focus, as well as assumptions. I hope McCain has a more broad concept of victory than the one he articulates here, because what he's calling for isn't strategic victory, it's operational. Operational victory on the wrong front can be worse than irrelevant. It would be as if the US fought World War II by invading Brazil. Even if you win there, it doesn't really matter.

McCain seems to be assuming Iraq is the center of gravity, the necessary battle if one is to win the war (or at least not lose it). Obama seems to be assuming Iraq is peripheral.

So which is right? I'm fairly certain that Iraq was peripheral in 2001, and in 2003. The American commitment made Iraq more important, and it encouraged a transfer of enemy resources to that front. If and when the US shifts to another front, some of those enemy resources will follow. I don't care much about perceptions of "American resolve," because those can be influenced by other means, and they aren't all that important in the long-term calculations of most opponents anyway. It's a poor bet to assume another state will be so internally fragmented that it will refuse to use its capabilities. And while some people will make that bet (Saddam Hussein comes to mind), most will apply some kind of worse-case assumption.

If it is American choices that have increased Iraq's importance, other choices can reduce it. I suspect that two years after most combat troops are out of Iraq--however it is accomplished--the country will not be considered important enough to go back in with a similar force, no matter what happens there.


Bo DiMuccio said...


There is an analogy in your post - one that I believe is central to its thrust – that is very misleading in my view: Iraq is to the war on terror what Brazil would have been to WWII. Surely you can't be suggesting that Iraq was as peripheral to that war, even in 2001 as Brazil was in, say 1941? Let’s face it: we don't know exactly what calculations led to the Bush administration's ultimate decision to intervene in Iraq. If other monumental foreign policy decisions throughout history constitute a guide, there will be perpetual debates and arguments over this, long after the administration's documents are declassified, even and perhaps especially among experts in the field. But one thing we know is that there was a rationale. So let's say for the sake of argument that after 9/11, the Bush administration decided it had to make a huge statement against state sponsorship of terrorism and that for a variety of reasons, it chose to focus the bulk of its attention on Iraq. We could certainly debate over whether that was itself a good enough reason to use force or whether even Iraq was the best place upon which to focus this effort. However, Iraq could certainly not have been considered the least relevant focus imaginable for this strategy (that distinction would go probably to Denmark or maybe Aruba). But unless there’s a relevancy around Brazil as regards the origins of WWII that I have missed, that is exactly what your Brazil analogy would seem to be suggesting: that, in other words, Iraq as a focus of the Bush administration’s terrorism strategy post 9/11 was precisely as random and misdirected as it would have been for Roosevelt to respond to, say, Pearl Harbor by invading Brazil. You aren’t saying this, are you? By the way, other than that, I think you make some very good points in this post.

Bo Di Muccio

Daniel McIntosh said...

Good point: there are levels of irrelevance. Actually, I chose Brazil as an example because it was a fascist state with strong ties to Germany--so much so that it was one of the places that Nazi war criminals fled to after the war. Before German U-boats settled the matter, Vargas tried to play the Allies and the Axis against one another, and the Brazilian military was strongly pro-German.

"Let’s face it: we don't know exactly what calculations led to the Bush administration's ultimate decision to intervene in Iraq. If other monumental foreign policy decisions throughout history constitute a guide, there will be perpetual debates and arguments over this, long after the administration's documents are declassified, even and perhaps especially among experts in the field. But one thing we know is that there was a rationale."

Actually, there were several rationales. The most common (and used by advocates before 9/11) was that the first Iraq War had ended too soon, leading to the deaths of thousands of civilians, and leaving a regime in power with an anti-Western agenda and a program for WMD. It was a debate that had been going on for years, and for the most part the pro-invasion forces had lost. There were also the economic aspects, personality clashes, geopolitical signals (especially to put pressure on Saudi Arabia) and support for Israel.

There was no single rationale, or coalition, to launch the war prior to 9/11. Even after 9/11, multiple rationales (approximately 30, by one review of public statements) were used to put together a domestic coalition. Some of the most useful of those reasons were either (1) stupid (It'll be easy, it will pay for itself, Saddam has a direct connection to 9/11) or (2) misjudgments (strong action in Iraq will lead to greater cooperation from the Saudis and Pakistan, success will be so fast that opposition won't have time to organize, our intelligence on WMD is a "slam dunk," the transformation of war means there's less of a requirement for troops on the ground) or (3) lies (Saddam and Osama are allies, the threat to the US from Iraqi-produced WMD is real and immediate). The best presentation of the case for war (General Powell before the Security Council) was based on a systematic misrepresentation of the facts--first to the General, and then to the world.

Maybe it comes down to the question of whether or not you trust these guys. Even the insiders I talked to at the time (including some off-the-record military and intelligence types), as well as the usual array of area specialists, were convinced that there were major problems with the policy. If the point was to make a strong statement, there were more productive ways to do it, ways that wouldn't have cost us so many lives or so much money or so much time or so much international support.

Bo DiMuccio said...


Thanks for your thoughtful points. But to be clear, I wasn’t suggesting that there was literally a single rationale (truly, by “a rationale,” I meant a system of interrelated arguments in support of something), or that the rationale I threw out as a straw dog was actually the administration’s central reasoning for choosing the course that it did. As you say, there is never a single driver of complex foreign policy decisions and as you further suggest, the decision to intervene in Iraq is a very good example of this. Plenty of academics, pundits and run-of-the-mill ideologues would like very much for their reductionist arguments (in general and about Iraq specifically) to be accurate and helpful, but they just aren’t.

Clearly, we could argue all day long about why, what, and when the Administration did what it did vis-à-vis Iraq. Maybe we should, in another context. In retrospect, that there were problems with the policy is a certainty. But that was not what my post was about at all. My point was really that no matter how one describes the rationale, no matter what one believes that it was, and whatever the extent of one’s trust or not in the Bush Administration, it would be hard to make the argument that Brazil (WWII) and Iraq (Post 9/11) are perfectly analogous in this context. The fact that you suggest that they are, imputes a lot more virulence and cynicism into your overall argument than, I think, is really there. I could be wrong on this latter point. I mean, you categorize the useful arguments (for launching war) into three and only three categories: stupid, misjudgments and lies. So perhaps the analogy is completely, accurately reflective of your view :-) ?