An Iraq confession.

I have absolutely no idea of what the U.S. military should do with regard to Iraq.

Here are our three basic options:

  1. If we pull out abruptly, the country will utterly collapse. We’d be abdicating our responsibility to fix what we’ve so badly broken. But no more of our soldiers would die.
  2. If we pull out gradually, the country will slowly collapse. I fail to see how this is better. More soldiers would die than if we pull out abruptly, because a) we’d be there longer and b) inevitably there’d be forces not equipped to protect themselves while still carrying out their mission.
  3. If we remain in place until the country achieves some sort of normalcy, we may be an occupying force for decades to come and, consequently, the country may not ever achieve normalcy because of our presence. Many, many American soldiers die.

I don’t know which of these scenarios results in the smallest numbers of deaths of Iraqis. I don’t know which one prevents the country from entirely falling apart. I don’t know which one avoids a civil war which, as bad as things are now, I’m in no way convinced that they’re experiencing now; it’s more like genocide.

My level of familiarity with Bush’s war in Iraq is rather higher than the average American, I expect. My education in the realm of international relations theory is decent, and perhaps gives me more insight than the average joe about what we’ve gotten ourselves into. But I am not a military strategist and, as such, I feel in no way equipped to advocate for any particular method of releasing this tiger’s tail from our grasp.

Going into Iraq was a mistake. That was obvious at the time. Dick Cheney knew it in 1994 as surely as he must have known it in 2003. But we’re there now, and one way or another, we’ve got to figure out what to do next. I have no idea what that is.

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »

24 replies on “An Iraq confession.”

  1. Occupation for the foreseeable future seems the most logical answer. We still have bases in Japan, Germany, and Korea. I would be suprised if the next president isn’t having this same conversation at the end of his/her first term.

  2. I’m forced to agree with perlogik, but, like Waldo, I’m really not sure. I wonder how long it was after the surrender of Germany and Japan that our guys were still being killed in significant numbers. There’ll always be accidents with millions (or 160,000 in the case of Iraq) of armed, alien teenagers running around someone else’s country, but how many of US casualties in 1949 (4 years after victory) were from “combat?”

    It seems like the “get-out-now” left is going to be disappointed even if a Democrat wins the presidency. There’s just no way any responsible president is going to allow Iraq to devolve into any more of a mess than it already is.

  3. I think one reason that #2 may be preferable to #1 is that a gradual pullout will be a spur to the Iraqi’s to take more responsibility for running the country themselves. A quick pullout (#1) would not give them enough time to figure out how to run the country themselves whereas staying indefinitley (#3) would not give them the motivation. I don’t think anybody really knows what to do about Iraq but I lean towards something like your #2 for this reason.

  4. There was an excellent commentary piece in the Washington Post about counter-insurgency operations by a former Marine Corps Captain named Nate Fick. I’ve been corresponding with him recently, and it’s becoming apparent to me that he’s forgotten more about successfully carrying out a counter-insurgency campaign than most strategists in the administration have ever learned.

    Read his commentary here:

    Talking to him about the topic of his piece, we’re both encouraged as Americans that at least somewhere, someone in the army is learning from the tactical blunders that have resulted from a total lack of an overarching strategic objective that defines what victory is and then how the tactics will dictate the advancement of that goal. But we’re also both very concerned that in Iraq especially, this may be too little, too late.

    Americans have the mistaken perception that wars are won progressively and that, like a football game, it all comes down to the last two-minute drill down the field and who can call better plays and better-manage the clock. That, unfortunately, is bullshit. Any good football coach will tell you that a game is won or lost during the work-week on the practice field; Sunday is just when you find out the final results. Likewise thousands of years ago the strategist Sun Tzu wrote in the Art of War: “A victorious army wins and then goes to war, while a defeated army goes to war and then tries to find a way to win.”

    The fact that we’re only now reaching a definition of what victory is and how we’re going to plan to achieve that objective is an incredibly bad sign. The major question we ultimately have to wrestle with is: have we passed the point where we are capable of influencing the final outcome of the conflicts in which we are currently engaged?

    In spite of recent American screw-ups and set-backs in Afghanistan, I believe that we can still achieve a victory in that nation wherein the indigenous people recongize the legitimacy of their own elected government and cease actively and passively supporting Taliban insurgents. However, considering that I don’t know ANYONE in any part of the world who recognizes the legitimacy of the Iraqi government, I believe there’s a strong possibility that we will never achieve that objective in that theatre. And if that’s true, we might as well leave tomorrow because there’s nothing left to be accomplished.

  5. Perlogik,

    We did not face serious insurgencies in Japan or Germany and South Korea invited us in to protect them – not to occupy them.

    In Japan, the Emperor surrendered, told his people to surrender and then remained their Emperor following that. Japanese culture stressed obedience to the Emperor so strongly that his instructions and example were sufficient to prevent any insurgency there.

    Germany was not quite so unanimously accepting of the American presence right away but again there was no organized insurgency against us. Just last night I finished reading Audie Murphy’s book, ‘To Hell and Back.’ Towards the end, when he is pushing into Germany, he writes vividly about the sense of total surrender and loss that he saw on the faces of the Germans. They had been fighting for years and years. Their government was collapsing even before the Allied Forces arrived. They’d lost millions of lives. They just had no spirit left to fight with. Not like Iraq, where we knocked out Saddam within about 5 minutes. Plus you had the fact that many of the Germans liked and respected us. In ‘Black Edilweiss’ a Nazi SS soldier writes about how bizarre it seemed to him and his companions that the Americans and British were fighting with the Russians rather than on the side of Germany. They saw us as all sharing a common ‘European spirit,’ fighting for traditional European values in the face of bolshevism. We were predominantly Christians descended from the same Celtic, Germanic stock. To surrender to an army commanded by a man with a good German name like ‘Eisenhower’ was not such a terrible thing for the German people to swallow. Note also that our commander of Pacific forces was Chester Nimitz, the child of German immigrants. Such a large number of Americans are of German ancestry that our entry into WW2 was practically a civil war (yes, I know that is an exaggeration).

    I see no similarities whatsoever between our occupation of Iraq and our occupations of Germany and Japan after the second great war. We are aliens with a wholly different culture, dominant religion and values occupying a country where we are not wanted and which did not attack us and we are there for reasons that we cannot seem to explain to either ourselves or to the vanquished.

  6. It’s tough because we do have a some moral responsibility now for what is going to happen. It’s clear that the “surge” will fail not because of what the military is failing to accomplish in the fighting but because there is nothing happening on the political front. Remember, the surge was to buy time for political work to get done but the administration has chosen to put all their eggs in the military basket. The result will leave us with the sad choices you cite.

    One consideration is partition. Partition has received some bad press recently upon the observation of the 60th anniversary of the India-Pakistan split and the deaths of innocents that followed. But remember Iraq was a creation following WWI as was Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. The latter three no longer exist. How much warfare and expenditure of resources is it worth to hold a country together that was created not for the benefit of Arabs and Kurds but for the British Empire which took control of the region after WWI.

    Partition has very real problems also — make no doubt about that. However, we do not have the luxury of picking among good choices — we are faced only with bad choices.

    The only thing that is sure is that we cannot trust the good judgment of this administration to make a wise choice nor can we trust them to tell us the truth about it once they have made their choice.

  7. You wrote the post that I’ve been thinking about. I’m with you, Waldo. I don’t have an answer to this mess.

    What I do know is that the next president will have to lead us through the quagmire that Iraq has become. And thank goodness, it won’t be Bush.

  8. Jack, you are right that Iraq is very different. My point is we are still in those counties more than a half century later. If you had asked the veterans of WW II at the time they would have thought we might be there 10 years at the most. I think Germany has wanted us to leave from time to time but never gotten it done. The people of Okinawa would love us to leave but Japan looks at China and thinks better of it.

    The bases are valuable to The US, some have even suggested that being kick out of Saudi Arabia was a contributing factor to are war with Iraq. I can even see Iraq wanting us to stay until their army can repel Iran.

    I don’t pretend it’s a solution just that is what history suggest.

  9. In 1945 my uncle Walter anchored at Nagasaki, Japan to join the allied occupation of a surrendered and passive nation – 350,000 Americans strong. My father joined the occupation of Germany in the late 1940’s, part of a constabulary force replacing nearly 200,000 soldiers that had been sitting on a beaten, broken and pacified population. In both cases, the fighting had ended.

    Now we try to quell a guerrilla insurgency, and civil war in Iraq with 160,000 troops plus maybe 100,000 mercenaries. We know how to do these things right. But we don’t have the military forces today. Our President has destroyed the alliances that would provide reinforcing troop strength.

    Meanwhile, the Iraqi Parliament has gone on vacation for a month, the Sunnis have left the cabinet, and violence spreads. It is time to quit looking for a military solution to Iraq. We need to stand up a truly representative Iraqi state, or states. But we have two problems here:
    1) George Bush has no respect for representative government and no skill for diplomacy. He is the worst leader we could have at this critical point. He can’t do his job.
    2) As Commander in Chief, Bush has exhausted our military options.

    Add to that a third problem:
    3) Americans do not support a military draft.

    So, we will lose Iraq to gruesome violence and hope that it doesn’t spread to a regional or world-wide war fueled by ethnic and religious fanaticism. But we knew how to avoid this, we CHOSE not to do so.

  10. Stephen,

    I think you’re on the right track with partition. We should have gone with a 3 state solution years ago. At this point it’s too late since it’s not up to us anymore. It’s up to the Iraqi Parliament.

    Yes, partition of India was a sad thing that shouldn’t have had to happen. However, I think that partition probably prevented a much worse Indian civil war that would have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands or millions of people. If you have a diverse population that just cannot get along well under a single government then I think it’s better to divide them and give them each self-rule rather than create a situation where one day they all start hacking each other to pieces with machetes or something. This just isn’t a kumbayah world that we live in. Sometimes people just can’t get along.

  11. @ Bubby:

    Your post is a pretty good recitation of the hard left’s position on Iraq and, IMO, even contains some truth. Alternatively, I recently read a piece (sorry, can’t remember where) that the real root cause of our inability to quell the violence over there was our reluctance to “go Roman” on the country, ie, completely destroy their will to resist along with, one supposes, a great deal of their infrastructure.

    You hint in your post about how both Germany and Japan were both utterly beaten and broken before the occupation began. Obviously, we did not do this to Iraq. Just as obviously, we had and have the means to do so if we choose.

    This is not at all to say I endorse such a strategy, merely to point out that if we lack the will to visit wanton destruction on an enemy perhaps our military engagements ought to be limited to airstrikes and the like.

  12. One of the real differences between Iraq and really any of the previous examples of US occupation cited above is that we like to see the goals of our armed forces entirely in line with the goals of the Iraq people. So yes, if we wanted to redefine the mission to subjugation of the Iraqi people we could, and within that context we would be successful. But that is simply not an option. Its not that “we’ve lost the will,” its that we recognize our forces have a dual mission. To protect themselves and to protect the rebuilding of Iraq. This is really the only reason that there is still an Iraq debate. Anyone who still thinks that our continued presence in Iraq is making America safer is delusional.

    The question I want to ask is what are our forces preventing right now? Are we primarily fighting anti-Western insurgents whose will to take up arms would be sapped if there was suddenly no Western presence in the country? Or are we actually effectively preventing a much larger/more open confrontation between the Shi’ites and the Sunnis (and as an aside, if we left, would Iran/Syria/Saudi Arabia attempt to a larger extent than they are now?). The only legitimate argument, in my mind, for staying in Iraq is the “its our mess, and we must fix it” argument. But I am not yet convinced that our continued presence in Iraq is fixing it.

  13. JS: We DO NOT lack the ability or the will to pound an Iraqi population to dust (see O.Vigilant Resolve, and O. Phantom Fury) we just don’t have the ability or will to occupy the entire country. So you got it half right. The least important half.

    The value of massive coercion is vastly over-rated by right-wing theorists. I suspect that comes from a fascination with the power of fear. But it takes hope and commitment to bring the peace.

    Ask Israelis. They “won” a spectacular “6-day” war 40 years ago, but still struggle to find peace.

  14. There is a fourth option, stay and wait for Sadr to cut our lines of supply, encircle the green zone and cut us to pieces much as Giap did to the French.

    That seems to be our present plan.

  15. perlogik,

    You said,

    “My point is we are still in those counties more than a half century later.”

    I think that had a little to do with something called the Cold War. Not to mention how we neutered their militaries abilities to protect their national sovereignty

    I’m not saying that we are not going to be in Iraq for a long time; but we could have left Germany and Japan many, many years ago.

    And to Bubby and J.S.’s argument, its not necessarily about “going Roman”, its about establishing some sort of rule of order. This is why this mess is all our fault, we let the country fly out of control.

    Supposedly this is what the surge is about, but it lacks the numbers, its like trying to put your house fire out by only shooting water in one window, just pushes the fire to other parts of the house.

  16. Alice:

    Your requiteted love for General Giap notwithstanding, what you propose is in no danger of happening.

  17. Bubby said-

    “The value of massive coercion is vastly over-rated by right-wing theorists. I suspect that comes from a fascination with the power of fear.”

    Interestingly, this same theory worked just fine for Saddam!

  18. JS wrote:

    “the real root cause of our inability to quell the violence over there was our reluctance to “go Roman” on the country, ie, completely destroy their will to resist along with, one supposes, a great deal of their infrastructure”

    While that is probably true to some degree, at what point were we supposed to do this? We were led to believe that we were going in as “liberators”. Then we were surprised (well, our unfortunate powers that be were surprised) when part of the population (or a couple parts) decided to fight us for whatever reason. Then that just festered into the mess of today. The whole situation isn’t really comparable to the rather traditional wars of destruction that took place around WWII. When you are liberating someone, it is hard to carpet or fire bomb them.

    To put it another way, whose will to resist do we destroy? I don’t think even our country would feel good about what it would take to do it (maybe that’s what you’re saying).

    And for what it’s worth, this discussion is a great one to have for us regular ol’ voting folks. And the tone has been truly cordial – moreso than I expect even for this blog (which attends to it’s tone much better than most). Kudos, people. It helps me, for one, keep the faith in the American populace as one willing to become informed and help others do the same.

    Sniff. Makes me proud…

  19. The most honest discussion I have seen to date on Iraq. Unfortunately, I feel that we lack the true leadership in Washington….that includes both parties….to admit what the situation is and ask the tough question and seek the “what is the right thing to do for our nation” answers.

  20. Option 1 is a little more complicated because of trying to get gear out. Most of the articles I’ve read on it have been talking about give or take two years to get all of our hardware out of Iraq. That’s not very abrupt.

    So to go with option one we either, A) destroy the hardware, which is a big stinking waste B)leave it for god knows who to use or C) perhaps sell them to a nearby neighbor we trust. I hate that we are selling weapons to Saudi Arabia (I just don’t trust them) but if we’re going to go ahead with it than maybe we should send them some used goods from across the boarder as opposed stuff from home.

    Honestly, I hate all these sub-options.

    The gradual pull out (option 2) seems like a good way to go, though the trick is keeping stability and hell if I know how you pull that off.

    The longer we are in Iraq the more I feel like we are actually doing what Al-Qaeda wants us to do. While we are losing lives and moral in Iraq, other nations seem to be shifting into serious players around us, all while Al-Qaeda continues to set up cells throughout the world. We have Iran and North Korea making a big fuss over themselves. Russia seems to want back in on the game with their northern territory disputes. And all the while China is just sitting there becoming more and more powerful.

    It’s not so much that we have to fear any of these countries attacking the US per se. (We do have to watch out for them equipping terrorist though.) The problem is that we have no military muscle – no bite behind are bark. That was the problem we had when North Korea went nuclear. What were we going to do about it? Invade them? Hah! In the end we threw money at the problem and China gave them the evil eye to back down.

    When talk of war with Iran comes up and we quickly say that wont happen, the scary part isn’t the idea of such a war. Sure, we don’t want it, but its that we probably couldn’t seriously fight it while trying to keep Iraq (oh and lets not forget good old Afghanistan) afloat that is the real problem. I really think our enemies are aware of that. Ever so slowly, we’re being pushed from our position as head world superpower.

  21. Again,

    We did not have to “go Roman” to have had a stabilizing affect. All we had to have done is gone with General Zinni original plan or something similar. we would have had the appropriate solder to civilian ratio to maintain order and impose broken windows enforcemant. And we would have had to right resources to maintain the mission.

    The actual heart breaking malfeasance of the Rumsfield/Franks axis is little understood beyond, “we should have had more troops”. It goes way beyond that to logistics, to making sure the right troops were at the right place at the right time (Abu Ghraib: we didn’t have troops trained to take care of prisoners), on and on and on and on.

    I suggest everyone read Cobra II. Every page is a “what the fuck!!!” moment.

    A quicker read is “Fiasco”.

    Pure ideology adherence over reality, plain and simple . . . and sorry the very same people who constructed the “surge” are the same people who gave this disaster in the first place.

    I don’t know about you, but if I take my car to get fixed and I come back and its a smoking ruin, good chance I wont go back to that mechanic.

  22. “The value of massive coercion is vastly over-rated by right-wing theorists. I suspect that comes from a fascination with the power of fear.”

    Interestingly, this same theory worked just fine for Saddam!

    Which is why he had buddies like Don Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and Ron Reagan. Then he starting f-ing with Kuwait’s oil production and, well, you know.

  23. More than anything else, I think the lesson that I’ve learned from this war is that the government is not, in fact, smarter than me. At least, the people in power in the current government aren’t smarter than me. At the outset of this war, I was convinced that there would be no WMD, that it would become a quagmire, and I didn’t understand how invading Baghdad would go well in 2003 after it was seen as a potential disaster a decade previous. All of these things have come to be. I’m not particularly perceptive, and I don’t have any special knowledge — there were millions of Americans saying and thinking the same things.

    What I guess I’d hoped was that there was something that we didn’t know. We trust our government to make decisions using more information than we have. Though it might look like they’re headed for disaster, it’s OK, they’ve got a super-secret backup plan. But, no. In this instance — a time when it really, really counts — they’ve got nothing.

    Most of us here seem to agree that we’re in a bad situation in Iraq, and there’s no clear path out. I’m increasingly convinced that this is a fundamental truth. It’s not that we’re all muddled up because of partisan disagreements. It’s not that there are competing plans with different levels of goodness. We’ve just got that tiger by the tail and — there’s no getting around it — we’re going to get bit. We’re just arguing over how many bites we’ll receive and how severe they’ll be. It’s a shame that this debate couldn’t have been had by the decision makers four years ago.

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