Tag: Iraq

The Tragedy of the Military or a Tragedy of Government

As Alex noted in his post below, there have been a number of Hollywood trolls saying negative things about American Sniper. Most have not seen the film, obviously. My understanding is that Sniper is similar to Eastwood’s earlier Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. Both movies were respectful of the military but not “pro-war” in any sense. (They are also both very good movies, especially Letters).

It’s also not the first film with a sniper as the protagonist. The solid film Enemy at the Gates had, as its hero, sniper Vasily Zaitsev. I don’t recall the Hollywood idiotorati complaining then. I guess Communist “mass murderers” are OK. Actually, given the affection Hollywood lefties have for people like Mao and Che, we know they’re OK with mass murderers as long as they’re communist mass murderers.

In any case, the discussion about Sniper got me thinking about this recent article from James Fallows. In it, he uses recent Hollywood movies about the military as an example of the American public’s poor thinking about military matters in general:

From Mister Roberts to South Pacific to Catch-22, from The Caine Mutiny to The Naked and the Dead to From Here to Eternity, American popular and high culture treated our last mass-mobilization war as an effort deserving deep respect and pride, but not above criticism and lampooning. The collective achievement of the military was heroic, but its members and leaders were still real people, with all the foibles of real life. A decade after that war ended, the most popular military-themed TV program was The Phil Silvers Show, about a con man in uniform named Sgt. Bilko. As Bilko, Phil Silvers was that stock American sitcom figure, the lovable blowhard—a role familiar from the time of Jackie Gleason in The Honeymooners to Homer Simpson in The Simpsons today. Gomer Pyle, USMC; Hogan’s Heroes; McHale’s Navy; and even the anachronistic frontier show F Troop were sitcoms whose settings were U.S. military units and whose villains—and schemers, and stooges, and occasional idealists—were people in uniform. American culture was sufficiently at ease with the military to make fun of it, a stance now hard to imagine outside the military itself.

Let’s skip to today’s Iraq-Afghanistan era, in which everyone “supports” the troops but few know very much about them. The pop-culture references to the people fighting our ongoing wars emphasize their suffering and stoicism, or the long-term personal damage they may endure. The Hurt Locker is the clearest example, but also Lone Survivor; Restrepo; the short-lived 2005 FX series set in Iraq, Over There; and Showtime’s current series Homeland. Some emphasize high-stakes action, from the fictionalized 24 to the meant-to-be-true Zero Dark Thirty. Often they portray military and intelligence officials as brave and daring. But while cumulatively these dramas highlight the damage that open-ended warfare has done—on the battlefield and elsewhere, to warriors and civilians alike, in the short term but also through long-term blowback—they lack the comfortable closeness with the military that would allow them to question its competence as they would any other institution’s.

Fallows sees this as a window into our thinking about the military. Because so few serve now, it is exotic territory to many Americans. As a result, our politics are dominated by people supporting our troops but not thinking about them too much. He argues that foreign adventures are engaged in with little thought and with supreme confidence that our soldiers can deal with whatever problems face them. Pentagon programs and the Pentagon’s budget are regarded as sacrosanct. He points out that Solyndra has gotten massive media attention but its cost is a hundredth that of the troubled F-35’s cost overruns. He argues that our distance from the military has created a “chickenhawk nation” — a nation that supports endless numerous military engagements but has little interest in either serving directly or providing the kind of critical thought military engagement deserves. And our debacles in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria reflect this.

Too much complacency regarding our military, and too weak a tragic imagination about the consequences if the next engagement goes wrong, have been part of Americans’ willingness to wade into conflict after conflict, blithely assuming we would win. “Did we have the sense that America cared how we were doing? We did not,” Seth Moulton told me about his experience as a marine during the Iraq War. Moulton became a Marine Corps officer after graduating from Harvard in 2001, believing (as he told me) that when many classmates were heading to Wall Street it was useful to set an example of public service. He opposed the decision to invade Iraq but ended up serving four tours there out of a sense of duty to his comrades. “America was very disconnected. We were proud to serve, but we knew it was a little group of people doing the country’s work.”

Moulton told me, as did many others with Iraq-era military experience, that if more members of Congress or the business and media elite had had children in uniform, the United States would probably not have gone to war in Iraq at all.

In short, he sees America as disengaged, unwilling to see the military as an institution with shortcomings and weaknesses. And our popular culture reflects this disengagement.

I think a few points are in order. First, on the popular culture front: the reason we aren’t getting military comedies anymore is because modern Hollywood sucks at comedy. Most movies have to be “serious” except for big action movies. It used to be that when people wanted to criticize the military, the did it with either gentle affection (Mister Roberts) or biting satire (MASH). Now they do it with over-serious highly politicized movies that no one watches.

Second, there is a big difference between reverence for “the military” as an institution and reverence for the people who are in it. The latter deserve nothing but respect; the former less so. There have been many people critical of military decisions, military contracting, military spending and military engagements. Defenders of aggressive foreign policy have taken to cowering behind our soldiers, equating any criticism of military policy as criticism of the people serving. That’s garbage and Fallows doesn’t really pick that apart as he should.

Third, the military get inordinate respect in our society because they earn it. No matter what the conflict, they have undertaken it without complaint and done as good a job as can be done, even when faced with impossible tasks. Their behavior in even the most awful theaters has been exemplary. And, as Fallows notes, you can’t help but be impressed when you meet soldiers. I haven’t met one who wasn’t respectful, hard-working, smart and dedicated. The only problem I’ve ever had is that they look so good in their uniforms, they make me feel spectacularly underdressed.

Reverence for soldiers, if not necessarily the entire military industrial complex, is a good thing. It’s a great thing, actually. A few years ago, I read my way through the entirety of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It is a great, if extremely long, read. And it’s an important read because I believe the Roman Empire is the nearest historical parallel to the United States.

Three things I learned reading Gibbon:

1) If anyone tells you that the Roman Empire fell for Reason X, they are probably full of it. I’ve heard the Rome fell because of going off the gold standard, because of too many foreign adventures or because of the decline of morality. None of these hold up when you read Gibbon. In fact, the decline of Rome began almost exactly at the same time they abandoned paganism for Christianity and stopped conquering people.

2) In fact, Gibbon partially blames Christianity for the fall of Rome. He believe that the Romans became too focused on the afterlife and not focused enough on real life.

3) I think Gibbon overreaches a bit on Christianity but he does get to the fundamental truth: Rome fell because the Romans stopped defending it. Their military might had decayed, their Emperors had become incompetent and their defense of Rome consisted mainly of trying to bribe their way out of it.

In the Notebooks of Lazarus Long, Robert Heinlein says:

No state has an inherent right to survive through conscript troops and in the long run, no state ever has. Roman matrons used to say to their sons: “Come back with your shield, or on it.” Later on, this custom declined. So did Rome.

God knows our nation isn’t perfect. But a world with America is a giant improvement over a world without it. The survival of our nation depends on our willingness to defend it and the skill and courage of those who choose to defend it. We had better have respect for those who stand between us and the ash heap of history.

But as I noted above, there’s a difference between respecting the people and respecting the institution. Even movies that respect the soldiers can be and often are critical of the military and our political leadership. Eastwood’s Flags of our Fathers, for example, makes a point about the politicization of the soldiers who raised the flag at Iwo Jima. Other recent films, like Blackhawk Down, Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker have focued laserlike on our soldiers and the difficulties they face but either left the politics aside or criticized them in a very subtle way.

In short, Americans understand what a lot of pundits like Fallows don’t: it is possible to revere our soldiers and loathe the men who blithely send them into harm’s way with no clear objective of what they’re supposed to accomplish. Majorities of Americans now oppose open-ended foreign engagements like Syria. Still more want our engagements to come with a clear game plan and objective. Obama’s push to get into Syria was deeply unpopular. But if we’d gone in, the American people would have had no less respect for the men and women going into battle.

And that gets me to the main point. I think Fallows identifies a lot of problems with our military. He’s right that the F-35, a massively overbudget program designed to replace the cheaper and devastatingly effective A-10, is a scandal. He’s right that we are too willing to send the military into situations they aren’t suited for. We’ve gone from a conventional wisdom that the military can’t do anything to a conventional wisdom that they can do everything. Hell, we even sent them to fight Ebola last year and I’m pretty sure bullets don’t work on a virus.

Here’s where I think he misses the mark: this is not unique to the military. It’s more pronounced because the military is the biggest government program and the most visible. It’s more pronounced because we have a combination of neocons and liberal interventionists who have decided that the only “serious” approach to foreign policy involves bombing people.

But other programs have similar problems. As I noted a few weeks ago, California is about to throw $100 billion at a semi-high-speed-rail system. That’s one of dozens if not hundreds of massive bloated expensive infrastructure programs around the country. Bridges are being replaced at a hundred times the cost and in five times the construction time they were originally built. Subway lines and rail lines are being built at a cost of hundreds of millions per mile. And yet, what do we hear? Nothing but platitudes about how we need to build infrastructure and create jobs.

Public schools spend insane amounts of money and achieve mediocre results. Head Start is a gigantic babysitting program that even our government has concluded has no measurable effect on children. Yet education is sacrosanct. When Bush tried to cut programs that everyone agreed were wasteful, redundant and ineffective, he was pilloried because some of those programs were educational .. wasteful, redundant and ineffective but educational.

My own agency, NASA, has frequently had massive cost overruns (and, like the Pentagon, protects its big programs by spreading them out in multiple Congressional districts). Farm subsidies always wind up costing more than projected. It’s only recently that our massive vile War on Drugs and the two million people we’ve jailed has come under criticism.

In short, Fallows is identifying a symptom, not a disease. That military budgets are bloated, that programs like the F-35 are massively over-budget, that we keep sending our military into theaters where they have no clear mission is a symptom. The disease is a government that is dysfunctional, that cowtows to both special and general interests, that is driven by crack-brained pundits and egghead analysts, that never takes one step back to say, “should we really be doing this?”

You want to cure the symptoms? Cure the disease. Government agencies bloat. That is what they do. They secure their positions, they spread out their tendrils, they get powerful interests on their side and they defend themselves. And our leaders find new things for them to do. Government agencies aren’t programs; they are organisms.

Our federal government has 15 different departments. What they should do is put them in a 15-year cycle. Each year of the cycle, one department is completely torn down and replaced with a new department (or abolished, if we don’t think it’s necessary. I’m look at you, Commerce.) So in year T-2, you decide what agencies you need in the new Department and what functions it should have. In year T-1, you decide where the federal employees should go, which ones should be let go and what facilities need to be repurposed or sold. Then in Year zero, you transition to the new department.

I know a lot of people are saying, “why don’t you just do all the departments at once?” But ending or reorganizing a federal department is a massive undertaking. A 15-year cycle means that a lot of federal employees can be pushed into early retirement if necessary; it allows some institutional knowledge to be built and preserved; it allows time for the massive undertaking that reorganizing a department would be; it allows the organizations to accumulate bureaucratic cruft to make the effort worth it. I’m not even convinced you could do one a year. Some, like the Department of Defense, would need to be done over several years. A 20-year cycle might be better.

But the point is that the problems in Washington — including those in DoD — are a result of creating massive permanent untouchable institutions in Washington. Sunsetting those institutions or subjecting them to periodic reorganization would do lot more good than “demystifying” the military.

Post Scriptum: I didn’t have a place for this, but did want to note it. Part of the purpose of Fallows piece is to flog the work he did with Gary Hart’s commission on military reform. I’m not sure how Hart came to be regarded as a genius on these things. He was pushing himself as a military reformer in the 1980’s but his ideas were terrible. They mainly consisted of railing against new-fangled technologies like chobham armor and fly-by-wire fighters. He thought they would be unreliable and that we should be mass-producing older “more reliable” weapons systems. This point of view had some respect from old generals who thought it was done better in the old days, but not much respect among anyone else. And history has proven him wrong.

I remember this because my dad, the Air Force colonel, was going through the War College at the time and I was his research assistant. He showed me an Air Force Magazine article that hilariously took apart Hart’s criticisms. I hope I can find it one day and share it with you. It was so awesome I still remember it thirty years later.

One example: Hart criticized modern armor because it used aluminum, which he said was inflammable. Powdered aluminum is inflammable, but the aluminum alloys used in our armored vehicles was not and is not. The writer imagined a general discussing how to build tanks of inflammable materials without letting the soldiers catch on. They pondered building tanks out of wood or highway flares before settling on aluminum alloys.

Bombing Iraq Again

We’re at war in Iraq again. In an effort to prevent the brutal genocide of the Yazidi religious minority by ISIS, we began dropping humanitarian supplies on the refugees. That has now escalated to bombing of ISIS artillery. Right now, Obama is promising the engagement will be “limited”. We will see.

The Circle of Bullshit

Probably the most amazing thing about Washington and the punditocracy that surrounds it is that being ignorant, foolish or spectacularly wrong does not discredit anyone. As long as they can give authoritative soundbites, they will get columns, appearances on TV shows and places in administrations. I’ve talked in this space before about Mark Zandi, who failed to foresee the financial crisis, who predicted massive GDP increases from Obama’s stimulus and whose Moody’s gave AAA ratings to what turned out to be giant tottering piles of subprime mortgage crap. Despite this abysmal track record, he is still trotted out as an expert on economic matters. I’ve talked about Paul Ehrlich, who predicted mass starvation and disease at precisely the time that humanity was getting healthier and fatter. He also lost the Simon-Ehrlich wager badly. He is still trotted out to tell us we’re all going to resort to cannibalism in a few years. We’ve talked about Algore, who did climate science a huge disservice by touting doomsday scenarios and citing the shakiest studies as long as they had the most dire predictions.

Well, one of the worst of the “I’ve been completely wrong but you should absolutely listen to me” people are the group of neocons who touted the Iraq War. Bill Kristol and Fred Kagan have an op-ed calling for us to send troops into Iraq. But Reason reminds us of what they were saying 12 years ago:

The one point I would make is that I think in all the discussion of risks we have lost sight of some of the rewards of a reasonably friendly, reasonably pro-Western government in Iraq. It would really transform the Middle East. A friendly, free, and oil-producing Iraq would leave Iran isolated. I think Syria would be cowed. The Palestinians would, I think, be more willing to negotiate seriously with Israel after this evidence of American willingness to exert influence in the region. Saudi Arabia would have much less leverage, if only because of Iraqi oil production coming on line, with us and with Europe.

Removing Saddam Hussein and his henchmen from power would be a genuine opportunity, I think, to transform the political landscape of the Middle East. The rewards would be very great, and I would also say the risks of failing to do this I think are very great.

This was, to say the least, absurdly optimistic. I doubt that this scenario would have emerged even if Rumsfeld and Bremer hadn’t completely bolloxed the entire enterprise (speaking of Bremer, he’s calling for action as well). But even by 2006, it was obvious that the exact was opposite was going to happen. The Palestinians have been more aggressive, Saudi Arabia has been more oppressive, Syria is in the midst of a brutal civil war and Iran … well, we might be fighting alongside Iran before this is over. That potential alliance wouldn’t even be a possibility if the neocons had gotten their way and we’d starting bombing Iran five years ago.

I realize this is inside Washington stuff — yakkity-yakking talking heads. But to me it embodies the biggest problem with Washington right now: a complete lack of accountability. It doesn’t matter how badly someone has screwed up. They’re never held responsible. The architects of the financial crisis write the banking reform bill. The architect of the Obamacare website clown car is allowed to finish her tenture. Even on the rare occasion someone is forced out, they fall ass backwards into lobbying jobs or commentary gigs, making millions. Sometimes they even find their way back into power. It’s like the Circle of Life, only with bullshit.

The lesson here is that Washington doesn’t care if you’re a total fuck-up as long as you are one of their total fuckups. The system does not exist to do what’s right for the country. It exists to perpetuate the elites, to keep them on the gravy train of government, lobbying and commentary. And if no problems get solved and nothing gets done and the country rambles down the road smashing into concrete dividers like a car without a driver … well, that’s just something else they can comment on and propose pointless policy for.

In a vacuum, that’d be fine. Let the elitist assholes yell at each other. But we don’t live in a vacuum. We live in a country under a mountain of debt, tied down with broken regulations like Gulliver in Lilliput and maybe sending more Americans into harm’s way for no clear purpose. The Circlejerk of Bullshit has a very real cost. At what point will we have had enough of this?

Iraq on the Edge

Uh-oh.

A day after taking over Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, ISIS militants gained nearly complete control of the northern city of Tikrit, witnesses in the city and police officials in neighboring Samarra told CNN.

Heavy fighting erupted inside Tikrit — the hometown of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein — as the military tried to regain control, the sources and a police official in Baghdad said.

According to the witnesses in Tikrit and the Samarra police officials, two police stations in Tikrit were on fire and a military base was taken over by militants.

The governor of Salaheddin province, of which Tikrit is the capital, was missing, according to the sources.

More here.

ISIS is an Islamic group so vicious, Al-Qaeda cut ties to them. They have taken over the Western part of Iraq as well as parts of Syria. US-trained Iraqi forces have apparently been feeling before them.

It’s not clear what’s going to happen here. I doubt they have the ability to attack Baghdad itself. But it’s pretty clear that the Iraqi government doesn’t have the ability to deal with them. My best guess is that we are in for a long and brutal civil war.

Does this mean we shouldn’t have left? I’m not sure what having American troops in the way would do, other than get a lot of our people killed. This is what I feared when we went into Iraq — that toppling Saddam would rid the world of an evil dictator but leave Iraq with an ongoing religious and ethnic struggle. And I don’t see that going back in would stop it.

Iraq is asking for help in the way of airstrikes. That might help and it is of low risk. But we can’t keep bailing out the Iraqi government forever. Eventually, like Afghanistan, Iraq is going to have to decided whether they want to live under a bunch of head-chopping wackos or not.

Class Dismissed

I know I shouldn’t laugh at this, but … yeah:

If there were such a thing, it would probably be rule No. 1 in the teaching manual for instructors of aspiring suicide bombers: Don’t give lessons with live explosives.

In what represented a cautionary tale for terrorist teachers, and a cause of dark humor for ordinary Iraqis, a commander at a secluded terrorist training camp north of Baghdad unwittingly used a belt packed with explosives while conducting a demonstration early Monday for a group of militants, killing himself and 21 other members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, army and police officials said.

Iraqi citizens have long been accustomed to daily attacks on public markets, mosques, funerals and even children’s soccer games, so they saw the story of the fumbling militants as a dark — and delicious — kind of poetic justice, especially coming amid a protracted surge of violence led by the terrorist group, including a rise in suicide bombings.

Let’s see. Twenty-two terrorists times 72 virgins is … 1584 virgins that terrorist heaven is going to have to come up with in a hurry. I’d maybe avoid any gaming conventions for the next month.

The more we learn about terrorists, the more Four Lions looks like a documentary. Most of these guys are idiots and incidents like this are far from isolated.

To be fair, some of the guys killed were probably delusional dickhead teenagers who joined the movement to feel big. But as far as the instructor goes — you know, the guy who tells young men how to blow themselves up while keeping himself very much alive — this is nothing but pure poetic justice.

The Eight Questions

At the risk of going all-Syria, all-the-time here, I thought this article was worth a post. You remember the Powell Doctrine? These were eight questions that Colin Powell asked about foreign interventions before we engaged in them. They are not definitive and this isn’t a game where if you get answers to five of them, you can go ahead and bomb. But they do a very good job of clarifying the thinking about a war. Foreign Policy goes through all eight with Syria. I’ll add my comments but also contrast them against the motivations of the War in Iraq. Note that my answers to the latter will be based on what we knew at the time rather than what we know now. I think you could make the argument that the case for the war in Syria is weaker than the one we had for Iraq.

1. Vital national interests at stake? Hardly. The United States hasn’t cared who governed Syria since 1970, and it did business with Bashar al-Assad’s regime whenever doing so suited it. … Nor is defending the norm against chemical weapons a “vital” interest, given that other states have used them in the past and they are not true weapons of mass destruction anyway.

I agree with this. By contrast, Iraq had a supposed vital national interest of Saddam’s WMDs and the concern that they would be turned against us or Israel. That concern turned out to be bogus (as might this one). But at least it was a legitimate one. Saddam was also a sponsor of terrorism, paying out bounties to the families of Palestinians who blew themselves up in suicide bombs.

2. Clear obtainable objective? Nope. If you can figure out what the Obama administration’s actual objective is — defend the chemical weapons norm? reinforce U.S. credibility? weaken the regime a little but not a lot? send a warning to Iran?, etc. — you have a better microscope than I do.

Agreed. By contrast, our objective in Iraq was regime change and the destruction of the WMDs. Goal one happened, although it didn’t as well as we’d hoped. Goal two had already been achieved.

3. Costs and risks analyzed fully and frankly? Well, maybe. I’m sure people in the administration have talked about them, though it is hard to know how “fully” the risks and costs have been weighed. But let’s be generous and give the administration this one.

I won’t be generous. The supposed costs and risks are being hand waved. No one is really talking about the risk of a broader conflict or a terror response. Obama is talking about how this will be a “limited action” but the Syrians may not agree to limit it the way he wants to. This isn’t a game of Civilization.

In this case, this a flaw that the Syria debacle shares with Iraq, where I don’t think the risk of a full-on civil war was accounted for. In fact, if you read Cobra II, you’ll know that Rumsfeld made it a priority to fight the war on the cheap and over-ruled concerns from the State Department about the long term problems.

4. Other nonviolent policy options exhausted? Hardly. As I’ve noted before, there has been a dearth of imaginative diplomacy surrounding the Syrian conflict ever since it began. Oddly, the administration seems to have thought this whole issue wasn’t important enough to warrant energetic diplomacy, but it is important enough to go to war.

Agreed. By contrast, we spent a decade trying to find a peaceful solution to Iraq including pressure from within the Arab world.

5. Plausible exit strategy to avoid entanglement? Not that I can see. Barack Obama, John Kerry, et al. seem to recognize the danger of a quagmire here, so their “exit strategy” consists of limiting the U.S. attack to airstrikes and cruise missiles and maybe some increased aid to the rebels.

This is the one point where the Syrian issue scores over Iraq. It never was really clear what the endgame in Iraq was and we did become bogged down in a sectarian conflict. Our footprint in Syria is likely to be orders of magnitude smaller. Once we stop bombing, that appears to be it.

For now.

6. Have the consequences been fully considered? It’s hard to believe they have. Whacking Assad’s forces won’t do that much to restate any “red lines” against chemical weapons use, and as noted above, that’s a pretty modest objective in any case. But military action might also help bring down the regime, thereby turning Syria into a failed state, fueling a bitter struggle among competing ethnic, sectarian, and extremist groups, and creating an ideal breeding and training ground for jihadists. It may also undercut the moderate forces who are currently ascendant in Iran, derail any chance of a diplomatic deal with them (which is a far more important goal), and even reinforce Iran’s desire for a deterrent of its own. Is there any evidence that Obama, Kerry, Rice & Co. have thought all these things through?

Nope. By contrast, the theory behind the Iraq War was that we would frighten other nations into abandoning WMD programs (which worked with Libya) and turn Iraq into an ally against other gulf regimes. The latter did not work out and it turned out our post-war planning foundered on the rocks of incompetent management from Bremmer and Rumsfeld. But there was a lot of thought into what was going to happen after Iraq.

7. Support from the American people? No, no, and no.

By contrast, our intervention in Iraq had the initial support of 50-60% of the public. The public has apparently learned their lesson.

8. Genuine and broad international support? Not really. The British Parliament has already voted against military action, and Germany has made it clear that it’s not playing either. Russia and China are of course dead set against. America’s got the French (oh boy!), the Saudis, and (quietly) the Israelis, along with the usual coalition of the cowed, coerced, or co-opted.

The Left mocking Bush’s Coalition of the Willing but we had a lot more support for that than Obama does for Syria.

Now, I am comparing apples and oranges here. Iraq was a full-scaled invasion and a ten-year occupation. Syria is “just” a police-action bombing, similar to what Clinton did to Iraq in 1998. But run Clinton’s bombing through that list. Clinton’s bombing had goals (I mean, besides attracting attention away from the Lewinsky scandal). We attacked the WMDs and destroyed almost all of them. We’re not doing that here. We’re “sending a message” that we don’t like the use of chemical weapons. In that sense, the Syrian attack is basically Hans Brix’s strongly worded letter taped to a Tomahawk missile.

But the point is that this action has not been thought out, is not the result of a long involved policy decision and is attracting — at least within the beltway — very little debate.

I always harp on about process — following the Constitution, following the rules, following procedure. The reason I do is because I think that if you create a good process you will, more often than not, get a good result. The problems in our country are mainly a result of a “do something, anything” mentality and a tendency to defer to government power and action in any crisis. It’s very clear that the process within this Administration when it comes to war is haphazard, sloppy and politicized. This time, it may only cost us a few billion in treasure, a few hundred Syrian lives. It may cost us a lot more.

How much will it cost, though, if we ever a real foreign policy crisis?

Ten Years from Iraq

Last week marked the tenth anniversary of the Iraq War. I’ve been reading a lot of commentary reflecting on the near decade of conflict. While I think it may be decades before the full wisdom or folly of the war is understood, I had a few thoughts I’ve been spinning around on the subject.

Why We Fight:

I won’t try to pretend I didn’t support the war. I absolutely did. Remembering why exactly I supported the war is a bit more difficult. There were various reasons. But, in the end, I supported the war because I thought that Saddam’s fall was inevitable. If we could effect a relatively peaceful transition, it was possible we could create an ally in the region, something to balance out our “ally” Saudi Arabia, especially if the Iranian regime fell. We had the ability. We had a target nation that was isolated, fractious, vulnerable and supported terrorism. Toppling its vile malicious dictator and transitioning to a better if imperfect government seemed like something we could do.

In retrospect, I’m not sure what I was smoking. I spent too much time listening to starry-eyed idealists who thought the world could be changed through military force. Moreover, I was ignoring the reality that Iraq was never a country in a traditional sense. It was a country carved out of a bunch of tribes so that Faisal would have a place to rule. The nation of Shiites, Sunni and Kurds was only held together by the iron fist of Saddam. It is still possible that, in the end, a stable Iraq will emerge. But that’s a tenuous thread of hope on which to commit so much blood and treasure.

I was also persuaded by frankly flimsy arguments that we didn’t have to finish Afghanistan before we got into Iraq. After all, we fought on two fronts in World War II, didn’t we? But we didn’t have a World War-sized military or a World War-sized budget. And, as it turned out, not only was Iraq a much bigger task than we anticipated, Afghanistan was too. At the end of World War II, we were occupying two countries that had an interest in rebuilding and moving on (in Ambrose’s Band of Brothers, the men of Easy Company remember Germans cleaning bombed out cities and stacking up bricks for use in rebuilding). Many Afghanis and Iraqis wanted peace and prosperity. But the countries were dominated by those who gloried in chaos and destruction.

I also ignored the danger of realigning the regional powers. Before our invasion, the “Axis of Evil” consisted of two countries that hated each other and a backward country on the other side of the world. Now, as Malou Innocent has pointed out, Iran’s influence in Iraq is waxing — an utterly predictable development given Maliki’s association with Iran and the link between Shiite populations. Saddam counterbalanced Iran. Maliki is practically joining forces with them. Was this was what we wanted? Was this not inevitable no matter what happened?

But while I remain concerned about the region and worried that the long-term impact will be negative, I still can not descend into the depths of pure cynicism. The Left likes to think the War was all about seizing oil, enriching Haliburton and portraying the Democrats as cowards. Even if you assume that kind of thinking was in our leadership, the soldiers weren’t thinking that way. Our generals weren’t. Our State Department wasn’t. These people honestly believed they could save Iraq from itself. In the end, the problem of Iraq was not created by our supposed imperial ambitions being blunted; it was created by an idealistic view of what was possible.

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned Weapons of Mass Destruction. I never really bought that as a justification for the war. Saddam had them for decades and never gave them to terrorists. He was not so stupid as to think we wouldn’t be able to trace it. I warned conservatives at the time that playing the WMD angle — while good politically — was dangerous because it would blow up if we didn’t find any actual weapons. When it turned out that all Iraq had was a few stale sarin shells, that gave rise to the tiresome “Bush lied, people died” mantra. (One residual question I’m always asked is why Saddam didn’t allow inspections if he didn’t have the weapons. Cobra II answers this: he was relying on the uncertainty to keep his own people from rebelling and Iran from attacking). And there is plenty of evidence that our leadership at least suspected that the WMD’s did not exist. But I never bought it; I always saw it as a narrative to justify a war that was being fought for other reasons. But I don’t think those “other reasons” were a lust for oil and war profits. Those other reasons were a belief that we could fundamentally transform the region.

In that vein, I think that the war critics want to ignore something important: as bad as Iraq is now, it was worse under Hussein. To pretend that Iraq, as problematic as it is, isn’t better off than it was under Saddam is to ignore history. His torture chambers are gone. His brutal prisons are gone. He’s no longer paying blood money to the families of Palestinian terrorists who blow themselves up. People are in far less danger of being gassed, shot or starved to death. And there is still an outside chance that Iraq will eventually stabilize and become a fully functional nation. To suggest that Iraq would be better off or that the world be better off with Saddam still in power is a bit ridiculous.

(And let’s not ignore that Libya quickly got rid of their WMD program as a result of the war. Imagine the recent Libyan civil war had been fought with chemical weapons. Imagine those weapons on the loose, perhaps used at Benghazi.)

The war was not a total failure. Saddam is gone. That’s not a bad thing.

But the price. Was it worth the price? The cost is simply staggering: 4500 American troops dead, over 30,000 wounded and God knows how many with trauma that is driving them to horrifying rates of suicide and depression. Long-term costs, including care of veterans, estimated between $4 and $6 trillion. Over 100,000 Iraqi civilians dead. Had those numbers been placed in front of us in March of 2003 as the future outcome of the Iraq War, would we have done it? Was getting rid of that vile slime worth the price we paid?

The Failure of “No Blood for Oil”

No discussion of Iraq is complete without finding someone to blame for the problems we had. War supporters, neocons and the Bush Administration are the obvious targets and I agree that the lion’s share of responsibility falls on us. I’ll get to that in a moment. But there is one group that tries to pretend no responsibility falls upon them.

I know the Left bristles at any blame being thrown at them for the war. After all, they opposed it didn’t they? But the Iraq War illustrates a point that I have often made, in recent years, against Obama’s critics: mindless opposition is worse than no opposition. Had the anti-war protesters questioned the WMD intelligence, had they talked about the difficulty of nation building, had they talked about the ability to contain Saddam, it might have slowed the pace of invasion. And, to be fair, many smart anti-war people did make these points. But they were drowned in the “no blood for oil” and “Bushitler” campaigns that tried to make this out to be an expansion of America’s racist empire.

That didn’t persuade anybody. On the contrary, it solidified the determination of those of us who supported the war. And when thing began to go wrong, the Bush Administration and their supporters used the pre-war hysteria to dismiss legitimate concerns. People who tried to point out that the violence was escalating, that our methods were strengthening AQI, that we didn’t have enough troops were immediately thrown into the heap with those who though Bush was seizing Iraq’s oil. Legitimate reporting was dismissed as media bias. Human rights concerns were just another attempt to criticize our troops.

When you play tribal politics, you can’t pretend to be surprised when the other side responds in a tribal fashion. The Left tried to make the political side of the war an “us versus them” thing and then were surprised when it became … an “us versus them” thing. I don’t thing a smarter opposition would have stopped the war. But it might have gotten us to address the growing problem earlier and more effectively than we eventually did.

Mismanagement

It’s hard to remember now but the initial stages of the war actually went extremely well. After some delays, our military broke through and overran Iraq with speed and determination. Saddam and his sons driven were underground (literally), a relative calm was established, elections were held. Remember everyone dipping their fingers in blue ink? For a time, it looked like we had done it: we had deposed a vile and evil dictator and established a democracy. A successful nation building!

And then, the pieces began to fall apart. The violence in Iraq never quite died out. Al-Qaeda established a presence in Iraq and terrorist attacks proliferated. A unified government could not be created.

And then it suddenly blew up, literally, with the Golden Mosque.

I do not think this was inevitable. We have chewed over these points before, but it’s worth talking about again. As documented in the must-read Cobra II, both the State Department and General Shinseki tried desperately to warn Rumsfeld that he didn’t have enough troops to control the country. But Rummy was determined to try out his long-haired theories about the military. At one point, he planned to invade with about 10,000 troops. He only agreed to more troops on the condition that the invasion start while some were still at sea so they could be turned around if not needed. The inner circles of power were almost entirely concerned with showing how easy it was to knock over a dictator. Managing the country afterward? Meh.

Bremer mismanaged Iraq as badly as could be imagined. Reconstruction, as documented by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, was oriented around giving contracts to Bush supporters and their children instead of those with experience in reconstruction (or knowledge of the region). Our response to the growing insurgency included torture authorized at the highest levels, which David Petraeus described as AQI’s most effective recruiting tool.

In that light, the collapse of Iraq after al-Askari bombing was not unexpected; it was inevitable. The success in Iraq was illusory, resting on a foundation of … well, sand. If it hadn’t been al-Askari, it would have been something that plunged Iraq into the abyss.

What followed was probably the most frustrating part of the entire affair. Iraq exploded in violence and it became obvious that we didn’t have enough troops to control the situation (actually, it had been obvious we didn’t have enough troops in 2003; 2006 just drove the point home). Throughout 2006, as violence rose, the need for more troops became obvious. McCain, to his credit, was among the first to call for a surge. But the President and his defenders insisted that everything was fine, that the problems in Iraq were simply a liberal media creation. They would ignore the growing horrific death toll and tout some school that had been built. No matter what was happening in reality, the bulk of the GOP and almost all of the conservative commentariat were committed to the pravda that all was well.

(Part of this was a Guns of August thing: fighting the political battle over the last war. Many war supporters — particularly the ones in the Bush Administration — had bitter memories of Vietnam and how the Tet Offensive was a disaster for North Vietnam but portrayed as a success by our media. But Iraq, even this respect, was not Vietnam. The collapse of the country was not a media creation.)

It was only after the Republicans got hammered in the 2006 election that the President decided to change course. Rumsfeld was canned, the surge was authorized and the situation improved. If you want to pinpoint when I finally broke from the Republican Party, that was it. That was the moment. When not just the President but every GOP commentator in the punditsphere suddenly turned a 180 and said, “Of course we need a surge! It’s obvious we need more troops! Why do you oppose more troops! Do you hate America?!” The sudden reversal of everything they had been saying for years without blinking an eye or even acknowledging how wrong they had been told me this was no longer a group of principled people, but an organization that was purely political.

That plays into another point. Several pundits have claimed that the Iraq War, in effect, gave us Obamacare. The idea is that the blazing incompetence shown by the GOP soured the public on them and gave us a Democratic President and enough of a Democratic Congress to get Obamacare passed. Like Doug Mataconis, I find that a bit glib. It’s yet another effort to hammer Iraq into a Vietnam-shaped mold to which it is ill-suited. The economic collapse was a much more important factor in the election (and re-election) of Barack Obama.

But it is true that Iraq played a big role in the 2006 election and it is true that the GOP’s foreign policy credentials were permanently damaged by the war. And those credentials remain damaged as long as many of the architects and supporters of that war remain in positions of authority and respect. Many of the same people who clamored loudest for Iraq and still insist it was a good idea are now clamoring for us to get involved in Syria. After the last ten years, it would be ridiculous to take them seriously. And as long as those jokers linger around the halls of power, we should still be skeptical of the GOP on foreign policy.

Dereliction of Duty

We’ve gone over the responsibility that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, etc. bear for both the war and its progress. And it’s been frustrating to see them evade that responsibility and insist that anything that went wrong was somebody else’s fault. But there is one body that I don’t think has ever really been held to account for their role in Iraq: Congress.

Our Constitution is very clear: only Congress has the authority to start a war. And on the eve of the Iraq War, our Congress … couldn’t be bothered. They essentially punted that decision to President Bush. In a decision involving — even in foresight — hundreds of billions of dollars and a risk to tens of thousands of American lives, Congress couldn’t be bothered to examine the case for war. Healey:

In 2002, very few of our elected representatives were interested in doing basic due diligence before exercising the solemn responsibility that the Constitution gives Congress in the power “to declare War.” From late September 2002 on, copies of the 92-page National Intelligence Estimate on the Iraq threat were available to any member of the House or Senate who wanted to review it. Only a handful even bothered. Then-Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.)—our current secretary of state and his predecessor—weren’t among the six senators who took the time to read the report before voting for war. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) explained that getting away to the secure room to read the NIE—a short walk away across the Capitol grounds—is “not easy to do” and that NIEs make for “extremely dense reading.”

Robert Byrd was an idiot but he did make one important observation. When the vote came up, there was almost no debate. There were very few comments made. Congress just shrugged and said, “um, OK”. They passed the law within a week by massive margins in both houses.

Congress didn’t want to take responsibility. They didn’t want to oppose the war because it was popular. But they didn’t want to actually declare war so that they would be held responsible if it went wrong. So they passed an “authorization” that essentially gave their war-making power to the President.

I won’t let them off. Giving up responsibility is the same as declaring war, as far as I’m concerned. There are 374 members of Congress who voted for the Iraq War. Every single one of them bears responsibility for what happened — for good or ill.

The Future

In the end, the Iraq War is the past. It officially ended in December 2011. Chewing the bones is an exercise for historians. The reason I wrote this post is to think what lessons we should learn going forward. What we do now?

First, we have to make sure we take care of those who were wounded, widowed or orphaned. It will be expensive — estimated by some as $3-5 trillion over the long term. But we owe it to them. Soldiers do not decide policy; they follow orders. We can never allow our disagreements over the war to impugn the honor of those who went or to cancel the tremendous debt we owe them. Regardless of the politics, they went there. Many of them went multiple times. And many bear the physical and emotional scars of one of America’s longest wars. The veterans of Iraq are just as deserving of our respect and support as all other veterans. And they’re not getting it.

Second, we can be more cautious about our future engagements. Both the President and Congress must take their war-making ability with the seriousness and solemnity it deserves. We can not go to war without a clear singular and doable objective. If you look at the successful wars in our time — Panama, Grenada, the Gulf War – these were carried out with a single and concrete objective. If you look at the unsuccessful ones — Iraq, Somalia — the objectives were nebulous. We can not build nations. We can not bring democracy to places that don’t want it. The purpose of the military is to kill people and break things, not to be a guidance councilor to a nation of thirty million people.

And if Congress and the President can not take this responsibility seriously; if they insist on starting wars (or punting on wars) that are nebulous in their objectives, we must fire their asses. Republican or Democrat, any politician who can’t be bothered to think about whether or not we send our soldiers into harm’s way should be drummed out of office.

Third, we must return to the Powell Doctrine. If we go, we go all in. We send in more troops than we think we’ll need, more planes, more ships, more missiles. None of this “proportionality” bullshit. No more experiments to see how few troops we can use to accomplish a given mission. We overwhelm the enemy with sheer numbers. Completely overwhelming an enemy is not some blood-thirsty macho thing. It is the surest way for a rapid victory and minimal casualties … on both sides.

In my heart, I still think the Iraq War could have been as successful or more successful than it was if we had more competent management and a hell of lot more troops. Iraq might still be chaotic, but it would be a lot less so and have cost a lost less blood and treasure.

And, in the end, that is the greatest tragedy of the Iraq War: it didn’t have to go this way.

The Man, The Myth, The Legend

One of the interesting things about the Petraeus scandal is that it has brought about a re-evaluation of the man the press called “King David”. No one came out of the Iraq fiasco with as strong a reputation. Almost everyone was tarnished by it … except Petraeus. But now some in the media, eager to tear down the latest idol, are turning on him. Probably one of the most revealing articles came from Spencer Ackerman:

Like many in the press, nearly every national politician, and lots of members of Petraeus’ brain trust over the years, I played a role in the creation of the legend around David Petraeus. Yes, Paula Broadwell wrote the ultimate Petraeus hagiography, the now-unfortunately titled All In. But she was hardly alone (except maybe for the sleeping-with-Petraeus part). The biggest irony surrounding Petraeus’ unexpected downfall is that he became a casualty of the very publicity machine he cultivated to portray him as superhuman. I have some insight into how that machine worked.

It’s worth a read. Petraeus is not the first general to work hard on maintaining his public image. Grant, Eisenhower, Pershing — all of them were well aware of the public’s fascination with our generals. Indeed, once a general becomes famous, maintaining a solid public image becomes critical. The media are all too eager to tear down a military icon when it suits them. George Patton was one of our best generals but was constantly in trouble and losing commands because his public image, during the war at least, was awful.

But were the plaudits completely undeserved?

It won’t take you long to find harsh assessments, especially when it comes to Afghanistan. But I keep circling back to the early days of Iraq, when Petraeus seemed to be the only one who understood how to work with the Iraqis. I keep going back to the Iraq surge. His critics are saying the violence was ending anyway because the Iraqis were growing tired of it. I find that dubious in the extreme. People never really tire of violence. Petraeus laid out a strategy for reducing the violence, executed it and saw the violence reduce. It would be an amazing coincidence if he had nothing to do with the improvement in conditions on the ground.

That this strategy failed in Afghanistan is not surprising because Afghanistan was a different problem. In Iraq, we were dealing with sectarian violence and could intervene productively. In Afghanistan, we’re dealing with an active resistance to our very presence.

I do think Ackerman makes one very good point:

The uncomfortable truth is that a lot of us who’ve covered Petraeus over the years could have written that. It’s embarrassingly close to my piece on Petraeus’ legacy that @bitteranagram tweeted. And that’s not something you should fault Petraeus for. It’s something you should fault reporters like me for. Another irony that Petraeus’ downfall reveals is that some of us who egotistically thought our coverage of Petraeus and counterinsurgency was so sophisticated were perpetuating myths without fully realizing it.

None of this is to say that Petraeus was actually a crappy officer whom the press turned into a genius. That would be just as dumb and ultimately unfair as lionizing Petraeus, whose affair had nothing to do with his military leadership or achievements. ”David Petraeus will be remembered as the finest officer of his generation, and as the commander who turned the Iraq War around,” e-mails military scholar Mark Moyar. But it is to say that a lot of the journalism around Petraeus gave him a pass, and I wrote too much of it. Writing critically about a public figure you come to admire is a journalistic challenge.

I don’t think it’s just the media; all of us wanted him to be more than just a good general and an admirable man, which he still is. We wanted him to be something almost God-like; the man who could rescue Iraq, turn Afghanistan around, remake the CIA and (most likely) become a great President one day. It was an offshoot of the military being the most respected and beloved institution in the nation, with approval ratings that are usually several times that of politicians.

Petraeus’ downfall reminds us that he is human and has both professional and personal failings. But let’s not let it wipe away the good marks on his record, which are many.

Gaffe or Freudian slip?

That’s what I ask when I see Defense Secretary Leon Panetta make this statement:

“The reason you guys are here is because of 9/11. The US got attacked and 3,000 human beings got killed because of Al-Qaeda,” Panetta told about 150 soldiers at the Camp Victory US base.

“We’ve been fighting as a result of that,” he said.

The fact of the matter is that no matter what you want reality to be, the decisions to go into Iraq allowed our military to draw Al Qaeda there, and our military then basically crushed them. Afghanistan is proving to be a huge problem because Pakistan is unreliable and outright hostile IMO.

That wasn’t his only “gaffe” – he also said this:

The new defence secretary also committed a faux pas in Afghanistan on Saturday, telling reporters the United States intends to keep 70,000 troops there until 2014.

President Barack Obama’s administration has said it plans a steady withdrawal of US forces until the Afghans can take over their own security. Panetta’s aides immediately retracted his remarks.

Maybe this too was a Freudian slip. Obama was just electioneering and Panetta just likely got reality and the narrative confused.