Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Hawk vs. Hawk

David Brooks Likens Iraq War to "Vietnam":

"The lesson of Vietnam is that you can't win these wars via military means."

"These wars", David? So Iraq and Vietnam are fundamentally the same kind of war? Nice to see this finally acknowledged; let's keep it in mind for future reference.

Today's column is, by the debased standards of the Brooks oeuvre, a pretty good one. Brooks distinguishes between two camps of Iraq counterinsurgency strategists: the "gradualists" and the "confrontationalists". Gradualists would prefer to keep US troops out of rebel strongholds like Falluja over the next year or so, while helping the Allawi government build up its own military strength and political support for an eventual, Iraqi-led assault. They think attacking now only strengthens anti-US and anti-Allawi sentiment, and the US can't take and hold rebel territory alone. The "confrontationalists", on the other hand, argue that letting the insurgents control whole swaths of the country lets them build up their own strength and stymie stabilization efforts, and may prevent the Allawi government from ever getting a firm footing. They think we should go in now, guns blazing.

This is an okay characterization, as far as it goes. The problem is that it's kind of irrelevant. As Brooks says, the Iraq war resembles the Vietnam war, right down to the fruitless conflicts over tactics and strategy between bomb-em-all neanderthal generals like Westmoreland and hearts-and-minds enlightened junior officers like John Paul Vann. Ultimately, these arguments are just footnotes to history, because by the time the brass starts getting into these kinds of dust-ups, there is no longer a correct US strategy; the mistakes have been made, and every approach will fail. The biggest resemblance between Iraq and Vietnam at this point is that, barring a miracle, the US is going to lose.

Brooks says "the lesson of Vietnam is that you can't win these wars by military means. You have to build a political structure that organizes public support and mix it with military might." But he then spends his entire column talking exclusively about what the US military should or shouldn't do. He seems to have no more detailed notion of what "build[ing] a political structure that organizes public support" might entail. One might think that, having acknowledged that building a political structure is the most important task, Brooks might then take a look at the extant political actors in Iraq - religious, ethnic, and clan-based organizations and leaders, their strengths and interests - and talk about how the structure of the newly established Iraqi interim government interfaces with these forces, and what strategies it can pursue to grow roots and create stability. But such discussions are clearly too complicated and boring for Brooks. He's really only interested if it involves tanks and fighter jets - American ones, please.

Let's go to the play by play.

"The debate on how to proceed in Iraq is not between the hawks and the doves: it's within the hawk community, and it's between the gradualists and the confrontationalists."

Well, yeah, when you're in the middle of fighting a war, the debate on how to fight that war doesn't tend to involve people who don't think you should fight. It's not exactly clear what Brooks means by "doves" here, so it's not clear who he thinks he's dissing. If by "doves" he means those who didn't think we should invade Iraq, we actually have a very clear position on the war: we told you so. As for our position on gradualism vs. confrontationalism, we say: good luck, and it serves you morons right. In about six months, once it becomes politically acceptable, our position will probably change to: it's too late; Iraq is fucked. Bring the troops home now.

"The gradualists argue that it would be crazy to rush into terrorist-controlled cities and try to clean them out with massive force because the initial attack would be so bloody there'd be a debilitating political backlash.
The terrorists would fight as long as there were heart-wrenching scenes of dead children on satellite TV, then would melt away to fight another day. And if the U.S. did take control of, say, a newly destroyed Falluja, we would find that we didn't have enough troops to control the city and still hunt down terrorists elsewhere. We'd end up abandoning the city (as we have other places), and the terrorists would just take control again. We'd be back where we started.
There is a reason, the gradualists point out, that counterinsurgency wars have tended to take a decade or more. They can be won only with slow, steady pressure. The better course, they continue, is to allow some time to train and build up Iraq's own security forces, and allow some time for the interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, to build up a base of anti-insurgent political support. The lesson of Vietnam is that you can't win these wars via military means. You have to build a political structure that organizes public support and mix it with military might.
The gradualists point to what just happened in Najaf as their model for how the Iraq war should proceed. First, Allawi laid down tough conditions: that Moktada al-Sadr's militia had to go. Then he convinced many of the locals that their lives would be better without lawless thugs in their midst. Then the U.S. attacked and weakened the terrorists. Then Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani brokered an agreement that led to the re-establishment of government control. Now development aid can flow to Najaf again. Aid projects worth roughly $6 million are resuming, and $37 million more is on the way.
Najaf, the gradualists argue, showed it's possible to marginalize the extremists and rally the decent majority. Now the task is to build on that success in other towns, and slowly rob the terrorists of sanctuaries."

That's the task all right - assuming the government does actually control Najaf now, rather than simply depending on the political clout of Sistani and the military clout of the US marines to claim a fictive sovereignty over the city. Slowly robbing the terrorists of their sanctuaries sounds nice. So did Ngo Dinh Diem's plan to slowly rob the Viet Cong of its sanctuaries. Perhaps, unlike Diem, Allawi will turn out to actually preside over a government that's more than a hapless and corrupt house of cards, propped up by US money and armed force. We'll see.

"The confrontationalists can't believe the Bush folks, of all people, are waging a sensitive war on terror. By moving so slowly, the U.S. is allowing terror armies to thrive and grow. With U.S. acquiescence, fascists are allowed to preen, terrorize and entrench themselves.
Moreover, they continue, there's no reason to think the Najaf model will work in Sunni cities, where we don't understand and can't exploit the local rifts, where there is no Sistani figure to come in at crucial moments.
In Sunni cities, the so-called moderates may make deals with Allawi, but they break them just as quickly - or else are beheaded by the terrorists. Members of the Falluja Brigade, who were supposed to take the city from the terrorists, switched over and joined the other side.
The gradualist approach, the confrontationalists conclude, has allowed terror to thrive. Now there are about 100 attacks a day. U.S. troops find themselves engaged in a modulated half-war in which they engage the enemy enough to suffer casualties, but not enough to win. The Iraqis are demoralized because it doesn't look as if the country will be pacified in time for full national elections, and because without security there can be no economic development - only more misery and more terror. U.S. troops are demoralized because if they are going to hit the enemy, they want to hit the enemy hard.
The gradualists clearly have the upper hand within the Bush administration. When administration officials talk about Iraq, they emphasize that this is a deliberate process, leading to elections in January but continuing long after. But when pressed, they tend to search for some compromise approach, emphasizing political solutions in places like Sadr City and the military approach in Falluja.
It's depressing to realize how strong the case against each option is."

Sure is. In fact, it makes you think: what if neither strategy works? What if Iraq turns into a bleeding, flaming, anarchic hellhole and a breeding ground for terrorism - permanently? What if it is simply impossible for the US to bring stability to Iraq? What would Brooks advocate doing then? Hm? How about the Lebanon solution - let a vicious, dictatorial, powerful neighbor invade and assume political control? How'd you like to see an Iranian-controlled Iraq, David?

Gosh, that decision to invade Iraq looks better all the time. The US sure is safer with Saddam Hussein out of power.

"But the weight of the argument is on the gradualist side. That's mostly because people like Ayad Allawi deserve a chance to succeed. These people in the interim government are scorned as stooges and U.S. puppets, but they're risking and sometimes giving their lives for their country. Let's take the time to give them a shot. "

After all, we haven't got any other ideas. Gosh, this nation-building thing is hard.


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