James Fallows pointed me to this depressingly smart piece by Stephen M. Walt, up now at the Foreign Policy website. Walt gives us 10 lessons we should learn from our Iraq fiasco, from number 1 — we lost — through the point Fallows highlights, number 3, in which we learn what happens when the political and media Villages rush to outdo each other in feckless groupthink and morally bankrupt cheerleading folly.*
Because it is not clear if any U.S. approach would have succeeded at an acceptable cost, the real lesson of Iraq is not to do stupid things like this again.
The U.S. military has many virtues, but it is not good at running other countries. And it is not likely to get much better at it with practice. We have a capital-intensive army that places a premium on firepower, and we are a country whose own unusual, melting-pot history has made us less sensitive to the enduring power of nationalism, ethnicity, and other local forces.
Furthermore, because the United States is basically incredibly secure, it is impossible to sustain public support for long and grinding wars of occupation. Once it becomes clear that we face a lengthy and messy struggle, the American people quite properly begin to ask why we are pouring billions of dollars and thousands of lives into some strategic backwater. And they are right.
So my last lesson is that we shouldn’t spend too much time trying to figure out how to do this sort of thing better, because we’re never going to do it well and it will rarely be vital to our overall security. Instead, we ought to work harder on developing an approach to the world that minimizes the risk of getting ourselves into this kind of war again.
In between Walt’s insistence that we honestly confront our loss in Iraq and this rather pious last hope, this short essay examines many important, depressing truths. Read the whole thing. We’ll need to keep reminding selves and others of these desperately hard-won realizations, given that the usual suspects, only to willing to spend somebody else’s blood, are urging us into the next war.
<div align=”center”><iframe width=”420″ height=”315″ src=”http://www.youtube.com/embed/5vUDmFjWgVo” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen></iframe></div>
(And yes. I know I’ve posted this tune before. You gonna make something of it?)
*No matter how often I watch the Mustache of Understanding talk about “American boys and girls going house to house from Basra to Bagdad,” his faux-macho willingness to send other folks kids to blow up still other folks and their kids makes me mouth vomit.
Image: Jacob Cornelisz. van Oostsanen, (attr.) Laughing Fool, c. 1500.
[Cross posted at The Inverse Square Blog]
If we don’t blow them up, how will they know that we care about their well being?
I just finished reading Don DeLillo’s “Point Omega”–the novel is pretty much a spot on 100-page version of this post.
Stupid military adventures is what hegemonic empires do! The braintrust in DC is already making their plans in the wood paneled smoking room of the Chevy Chase country club. The Risk board is already laid out on the pool table, and after Iran is conquered, Kamchatka here we come!
Good article, but no one ever learns anything in DC.
The U.S. military has many virtues, but it is not good at running other countries.
This cannot be emphasized enough. At crushing enemies, seeing them driven before you, etc, we are without peer. But after that, we’re in over our heads.
Democratic Nihilist, Keeper Of Party Purity
Being an American means we never have to think before blowing shit up.
Hell, it’s what we do.
@tirgrain: That’s not true. People in DC learn the wrong lesson with disturbing frequency.
do you know what could have worked?
bricolaging islamic culture instead of trying to ram western culture down muslim throats.
making an alliance with dar ul islam instead of declaring war on it.
growing islamic democracies instead of declaring war on Islam.
helping to stand up islamic democracies instead of ramming secularism down muslim throats.
Stephen Walt’s article is basically a big, humbling dose of plain common sense, which the George Walker Bush administration disdained to the point of punishing those who offered it. Which is why I am well certain that it will be widely ignored, especially among your country’s right wing.
What about Lesson #11: The Surge Was Fucking Awesome And Fixed Everything, in which we learned that everyone would shut up and agree that SURGING was brilliant (as long as we began precisely as the war of ethnosectarian cleansing was winding up having accomplished its goals anyway)?
Barring that, understanding Islam as a Maynard-Smith uninvadable strategy, and that means acknowledging COIN and the Bush Doctrine could NEVER work in muslim nations.
when has the standard US foreign policy of regime change in MENA EVER succeeded?
“That’s not how the pros do it.” ~ Homer Simpson
@J.D. Rhoades: We aren’t particularly good at running this country, with far more limits on the exercise of power; imagine how much fun we get to have running another country with nearly unimaginable authority to dick around.
and if those guys think Iraq made the US look bad, just wait for the ass kicking we are going to get from Pakistan next year when Imran Khan gets Zardaris job…
and we have already LOST in Afghanistan. we will be lucky to leave there without Operation Frequent Wind Redux in the Fall of Kabul.
Well, there was this one regime change the US engineered in Iran, back in the 1950s; that one succeeded for well over two decades.
Given that we were not able to successfully occupy Iraq, what countries are there that we could ever hope to successfully occupy? And if there aren’t any, why are we paying for a military that can “project force”? Maybe invasions and occupations are just an obsolete notion?
@samara morgan: Remember, it’s named after John Maynard Smith, so be extra careful not to hyphenate it such that it appears to be a collaboration between someone named Maynard and someone named Smith.
@Amir Khalid: yeah right.
searching for Ataturk was that strat.
that worked out great for us, didn’t it?
the shah was overthrown, and Iranians hate our guts. American FP BUILT the Islamic Republic of Iran.
searching for Ataturk put Mubarak in charge of Egypt for 30 years.
now that he’s gone egyptians are slaughtering copts and chomping at the bit to drive Israel into the sea….and America can’t do squat about that except fund SCAF to break heads until the population drives them out too.
wildly successful, non?
Lesson #11: it’s entirely possible to fuck up a war and have top military and civilian leaders face ZERO consequences.
Candidate Obama are you now willing to admit the “surge” worked? Anyone think Charles Gibson and company are going to do the right thing here when the time comes?
Like it’s news that American foreign policy elites have been screwing the pooch regular as clockwork since 1948 or thereabouts. Try Emergency State by David Unger, or The Best and The Brightest by David Halberstam, or Legacy of Ashes by Tim Weiner, or hell, just about anything by Chalmers Johnson. If you’re older enough to remember hearing helicopters every night on the evening news it really does get depressing to see the same mistakes made over…and over…and over again. And that doesn’t even count some of the earlier massive fuckups like overthrowing the secular government of Iran in 1953. Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone like that nice Mr. Mossadegh in charge over there?
Dovetails nicely with Maddow’s book.
As a nation we need to consider Just War doctrine:
-it has a just cause
-it is a last resort
-it is declared by proper authority
-the evil caused by the war is less than the evil to be righted,
-and it has a reasonable probability of success
Frankly, I’m not sure why we invaded Iraq (I heard lots of excuses), but I think we didn’t get past item one on that list. Ok, we got item 3, maybe. 1 out of 5 is a start.
Enhanced Voting Techniques
The whole thing with Iraq was what they hell was winning there? I suppose if it was “blow Saddam’s shit up for LUZ” we won. If was “turn Iraq into America II: The Free Market Version”, which it seemed to be in the end, then we lost. It really didn’t even have the clarity of the Spanish American War’s keep the Philippines American objective.
So frigging depressing.
But I love Dire Straits.
No member of the elites should ever be forgiven for Iraq. Ever. That includes Hilary and Bill, and the Liberal Typing Quislings Brigade.
A society desperately needs a sensible faction of the elites to act as a brake on the jousting nobles who want to go campaigning every spring. Ours has failed us so badly.
I can’t be witty about this. Fuck them for failing us precisely when they could have served our nation as they were supposed to.
In relation to Walt’s lesson #8, the US military faces a major obstacle to making any counterinsurgency campaign work: the racism and contempt for local culture among its ranks that was noted by its NATO allies in Afghanistan. That comes out at its worst in My Lai, in Haditha, in men like Sgt Bales. And it needs to be addressed even if the US chooses its future foreign wars with the best intentions and the utmost wisdom.
There is a political dimension to all warfare, not just counterinsurgencies; all military action is taken with some political objective in mind, right? You could win all the shooting matches and still lose a war, as in Vietnam, because you didn’t win it on the politics, didn’t give the people a good reason to be on your side.
@Bunt: Yeah, and y’know why? Because the “top military and civilian leaders” can just run up some kind of internal enemy to blame. Hippies, Jews, teh Dixie Chicks, what have you — doesn’t matter, the only important thing is it seems kind of plausible to the low-information voter. Presto! Dolchstoßlegende is good to go!
So who is going to be the 2012 Smelly Hippie Who Lost Us Two Wars?
Karl The Crap Blog Detective
And Friedman can go out in public without being pelted with rotten vegetables. It… shouldn’t be so.
Thinking about things before blowing shit up? What the hell is wrong with you? Shit generally doesn’t blow up on its own. So, given that, who if not us is going to blow it up? What do you mean all shit doesn’t need to be blown up? Fucking commie.
Of course, Walt leaves one teeny-tiny, eensy-weensy one off his list: invading other countries is evil.
@Heliopause: Invading another country is not, per se, launching a war of aggression. There are circumstances where it would be justified under Just War Theory or standard international law.
It’s nice that Andrew Bacevich’s views are becoming more mainstream.
For another breath of fresh air, I’d recommend watching Professor Andrew Bacevich on Bill Moyers’ new program (full video here). In it, Bacevich — a West Point Graduate and Vietnam veteran with 23 years of army service — says this about the threat of Iran:
BILL MOYERS: Let me go back to when we were talking about Option C and withdrawal from Afghanistan and the administration’s position. Part of what I hear you saying, confirming what the administration has more or less made clear, that part of the strategy of Option C is to reserve the right to attack anyone who it determines poses a direct threat to American national security, anywhere in the world. So my question to you is, is Iran a direct threat to America?
ANDREW BACEVICH: Oh no. You know, I have a friend who sent me an email, this is six months ago, roughly my age, and he said he never imagined that he would live in a world in which the biggest threat to the United States of America was Iran. I mean, threats used to be powers that somehow more or less were our equivalent. Countries that had big armies. Countries that possessed empires. Countries that had thousands of nuclear weapons. Countries that possessed the ability to destroy us in a heartbeat.
Well, Iran can’t do any of those things. Iran doesn’t possess any of those things. So whatever threat Iran poses is very, very limited. And certainly does not constitute any kind of a justification for yet another experiment with preventive war.[[end blockquote*]]
* normal blockquoting never works with more than one paragraph
Here is what the Iraq war told me.
Enough of attacking other countries so we won’t get attacked. If the almighty USA, and I mean that “both” ways, can’t control Iraq, how is any other country going to CONQUER
the USA with 300 million people that Do Know about DEMOCRACY?
During the Iraq war, the US military let in people that used to be rejected. That didn’t help matters. There was a huge problem with White Supremacists in the US Military in Iraq. The main stream media didn’t cover this.
The command structure leaves a lot to be desired. When you have incompetent presidents like Bush, things fall apart.
@dollared: Don’t you mean that no one who saw this criminal disaster in the making for what it was and said so should ever be forgiven for being right?
@Omnes Omnibus: Yeah, but think of those borders as one giant “hint.” Hmmmmmm, we’re crossing somebody’s border, shouldn’t we check the just war manual here?”
Sadly, it has been replaced by the “Painted Schools Doctrine” (“A school painted in an occupied nation whitewashes any and all wrongdoing, ineptitude, or criminality caused by said invasion”) which itself is based on the “‘Shut up, that’s why!’ Principle.”
Also, the concept of the Unitary Executive may come into play but only during Republican administrations.
@Amir Khalid: /sigh
that is not the problem.
the basic problem is that OIF and OEF, COIN, the Bush Doctrine, Peaceful Democracy Theory, the Freedom Agenda, ALL depended on democracy promotion.
But when muslims are DEMOCRATICALLY EMPOWERED TO VOTE, they vote for moar Islam, not less, and NEVAH for missionary democracy with freedom of speech and freedom of religion and secular rule of law.
Our soldiers were told they were making a better world for Iraqis and Afghanis, and became bitter and frustrated when that world was utterly rejected, and not just rejected, but their buddies were getting’ turned into halal hamburger daily and having their brains slapped around in their skulls by IEDs.
the longer the unjust, unwinnable, and immoral wars went on, the more tours of duty, the greater the incidence of atrocities.
The public is completely disconnected from the military now to the point that we fight air wars (Libya) and proxy wars (Yemen/Pakistan) with no input not only from the civilian population but even congress. With a small, volunteer military it will stay this way and my cynical side thinks that it will likely be shorter than the time between Vietnam and Iraq when we see the next mistaken major war. The only time the public cares about what happens is when there’s a major battle, like Baghdad in 03, Fallujah in 04, or when there’s a complete disaster like the Beirut barracks bombings or Mogadishu. This is just a long winded way of saying that all advice will go unheeded and we’ll end up in another guerrilla war within our lifetimes.
KS in MA
“how is any other country going to CONQUER
the USA with 300 million people that Do Know about DEMOCRACY?”
Good point, though I can’t help thinking: Make that “Used to Know about Democracy Maybe Fifty Years Ago” … no, wait … “Maybe a Hundred and Fifty Years Ago” … hmm … “Maybe in 1776”
@dollared: No disagreement here. Limited the circumstances are.
@samara morgan: Actually this is where Just War Theory comes it. Iraq never was justified. Whatever justification existed for Afghanistan began to evaporate once forces were diverted to Iraq and disappeared pretty much entirely when SEAL Team 6 got OBL. it is politically difficult to wind down a war when you aren’t winning, but there is a point when both the sunk costs doctrine and morality demand that you do it.
@trex: there is no just war for the population.
and painting a girls school in A-stan does nothing, because no colleges are getting painted.
do you know who was l33t?
do you know why?
because his shamanism allowed all conquered populations to keep their religion.
we tried to change muslims religion.
can’t be done.
@Omnes Omnibus: there is no such thing as a just war for the local population….anymore.
know why? because atrocities can’t be covered up in the age of cell phones and social media.
That song and Dire Straits are at the top of my list. You can post it anytime and I’ll be happy.
As far ar the rest of it- just so depressing.
@samara morgan: No, but JWT is supposed to balance the harms stemming from the action against harms that would occur in the absence of the action and one should only move forward if the latter exceeed the former. (See, e.g., arguments for NATO action in Libya) there aren’t many military action that could be characterized as just under the theory – which is rather its point.
Yep. We can manage to conquer and annex small island nations like Hawaii and Puerto Rico, but that’s about it. Heck, we can’t even manage to convince Puerto Rico to officially join up as a state.
A Czech-born, Naqshbandi Sufi friend of mine (convert) has voiced exactly what you’ve said about this over and over. “Freedom to do what you want” makes no sense to him, only the freedom to practice Shariah, preferably under a wise Sultan.
Have you read about the Pirahã Tribe in Brazil? Another group with an uninvadable strategy. Their culture refuses any novel methods of living and they are radical empiricists, hence proselytizing with stories about doesn’t work on them. No missionary has ever converted a single individual.
John M. Burt
@Mnemosyne: @J.D. Rhoades:
And if things get slow overseas, we can write us an ultrasound bill that’s sure to provide for plenty of lamentation from our own women . . . .
True dat, I left Bacevich’s books off my list. Washington Rules was excellent, if depressing.
Hewer of Wood, Drawer of Water
@Svensker: this song made all the WWII and Korea vets at my father’s funeral cry
For me the biggest problem with the “Islamic” wars, has always been the sheer unimportance and irrelevance of the target.
I don’t believe Islam is of any significance to the future of the West, and even the transitory importance of oil, would be better dealt with, by recognizing the fundamental limits of oil and the need to develop post-oil alternatives.
I wonder how much further along we would be now, if the money that was spent on the wars, had been spent on advancing energy technology?
Fortunately at least some of the other powers like Germany and Denmark, Japan and Spain, and Italy, and now China, spent the money that needed to be spent on renewable energy, and now we stand on the threshold of a post-fossil-fuel world.
In the long run, Germany was more important than the USA to the future of Western civilization. Because Germany played the key role in developing solar to the point of near-grid-parity, while USA fucked around occupying and bombing the Muslims.
Now it looks very likely to me that Chinese manufacturing will shortly complete the task of commercializing renewables. You’re welcome.
I love that painting in that context. Fantastic choice.
I think an even more basic problem is that they are not actually intended to “work” in that sense.
They are approaches which satisfy a shifting set of US-directed domestic political needs to justify foreign policy actions for short term goals designed primarily for selfish elites and broader ideological justifications.
These people to a degree, yes, believe their own horse-shit about how their all-new sparkling COIN or LIC or whatever will finally allow us to teach these poor locals to shit rainbows, but when push comes to shove, no one loses sight of whatever miserable and mean set of actual goals there were.
Yes, you had your asshole nitwits parading around the nation with their theories of how the new Low Intensity Conflict combined with Democracy Promotion and stabilizing Regional Trade Initiatives and Supra-National Organizations like the OAS meant that Reaganites were building democracy in Nicaragua rather than slaughtering a mildly liberal / leftish political program they opposed.
But it was the latter which they did, and it was the latter which they cared about.
Cranking out reams of shit about LIC theory and Democracy Promotion helped sell and justify — including self-justify for many involved — the blowing up of civilian infrastructure and aid and direction of genocidal massacring freaks, but what was important was they wanted to do the latter.
They didn’t care if it “worked” in the sense of creating some stable Nicaragua. Fuck Nicaragua. They didn’t give a fuck about Nicaragua or Nicaraguans, or beautiful theories about their new scholarly informed ways of combining ‘human rights emphases’ with blah blah blah.
They just held off for another generation the ‘pink tide’ which now Latin America largely achieved, for the first time in history having a nation-state and economic system throughout the Southern hemisphere actually independent of the imperial power above or in Europe.
I’ve never been able to figure out why we don’t apply the Haiti Principle every time some moron in Congress, the White House, or the Pentagon wants to invade somebody.
If we haven’t solved all the problems in Haiti, which is just off our coast, as a result of all the military interventions we’ve staged there, staying at least once for 17 years, how the hell do we figure we can fix things in countries half-way around the world where we understand neither the language nor the culture?
we are a country whose own unusual, melting-pot history has made us less sensitive to the enduring power of nationalism, ethnicity, and other local forces
And we are a country with one major political party that exalts arrogance, insularity, bloodlust and ignorance of the rest of the world as virtues.
we are a country whose own unusual, melting-pot history has made us less sensitive to the enduring power of nationalism
Excuse me, but …lol.
In general, the basic US citizen is *so* nationalistic (and generally ignorant) that he or she cannot even conceive of how anyone can be nationalistic of any nation but the US.
This is a blind spot the size of Iraq.
Since your leaders share this blind spot, as well as not understanding that other nations will take the actions that advance their own goals, and this does not make them evil, you are going to be at war with Iran soon. Good luck with that.
Karen in GA
@Wapiti: I’m late to this, and maybe this has been covered, but: How would people know all of the criteria had been met? If you asked most Americans in early 2003, they’d have told you that all of your points applied to Iraq.
(And that’s a great portrait of Robert Carlyle.)
Warning – Star Trek analogy*****
I never understand why some folks seem to be so eager for wars. For the most part, the wars of the last 40 years have not much affected them. Iraq and Afghanistan, after the initial invasions became invisible wars. Remember that old Star Trek (TOS) episode where the two warring cultures end up just sending lists of people to each other to be the official designated casualties and are ordered to kill themselves. That way they avoid the destruction of property and grimness of bodies blown apart — so the war goes on and on for generation. The only note this episode didn’t hit in our current situation is the incredible cost of war in lives and treasure, and how it is decimating our society.
How did Kirk solve this situation. He blew up the computers and citizen killing stations forcing the two sides to consider resuming real hostilities. The sides are so horrified with real war, they immediately start peace negotiations. Unrealist? Sure. It would just ignite our bloodlust if such attacks actually reached the US. With Star Trek being of the sixties, this was all about the Cold War and the Nuclear stand off. The Federation was supposed to be enlightened compared to our own barbaric times. I think a lot of us growing up in that time briefly believed such an evolution in human thinking and interaction could be achieved. So young, so young.
Here’s my idea to restore the “shared sacrifice” needed to ensure that hawks have some skin in the game too
(from another blog comment)
re-instituted draft not enuff – we need to up the ante
Rush Limbaugh used his anal cysts to stay out of harm’s way. I would create a lottery for the rabid chicken hawks whether in politics or media, and those voting for the chicken hawks…but not for service necessarily (though one’s volunteer service immediately exempts his or her family).
There was that Star Trek episode where the warring subgroups on this planet sanitized the warfare in order to eliminate the destruction by computerizing it and having the victims report to be eliminated.
What I propose would be similar. What caused me to think of it was all those “we thank you for your service and sacrifice” platitudes to troops or their surviving or suffering family members from those most definitely not in anyone’s crosshairs. All those cheerleading for war would submit to a lottery themselves. The first level would be to determine who of the blowhards’ family (over 17 – the age of enlistment with a parent or guardian’s note) in addition to themselves the lottery would include, and the second level would be what traumatization they would incur (if any). The odds of getting any given “assigned” injury would be based on the %’s of what actual combat troops were incurring, from PTSDs (could be induced by a “Clockwork Orange” type immersion/exposure to traumatizing stimuli), to any Purple Heart or negligence type wound or injury (i.e. KBR shower electrocutions – Cheney’s so-called “other priorities” won’t mean sh!t) up to but excluding actual death, though combat KIAs and MIAs would be factored into the odds (we want to be fair, don’t we?). Second chance drawings would be awarded to the most vocal and/or clueless blowhards based on a formula that factored in forced multiple tours of duty, overused and overextended National Guard units, wagging the dog wars, and wars for Israel, and the callous deployment of poorly supplied troops (with bonus penalties for doing so at the enrichment of crooked contractors – see above).
Finally, bonus penalties for egregious war crimes committed by our side (and not truly “fog of war” and dumb mistakes by kids without much life experiences put in situations that anyone would have difficulty navigating). That means those whose number was called might be water-boarded, put in naked piles while being humiliated (bonus upside for them as they might actually enjoy it), or watching their children being tortured.
Human sociopathic scum like Bush, Cheney, Beck, Limbaugh, Rumsfeld, et al instead of just claiming such sacrifice was absolutely necessary for the safety and well-being of the nation and its citizenry could actually confirm that by risking/wagering their own safety and that of their families so that could nobly share in that same sacrifice (or at least possible risk of it) themselves. Any cheating or shenanigans from them would result in the execution of *all* on their first level list, no exceptions.
Hey Mitt! You still want to go to war with Iran now that your five non-Military sons get to roll the dice with you?!? But before you answer, try reading Dalton Trumbo’s “Johnny Got His Gun” (or the movie if it’s Dubya or Bachmann or Palin we are talking about). Sure you got $250 million dollars but maybe now you got no mouth to scream. I guess you *really* felt it was worth it!
Pro-war Dems get in on this too. And the same plan goes into effect even if it’s agreed the war is just and necessary. That’s the cruel and destructive nature of actual war. Just like that Star Trek episode meant to highlight.