Final Iraq Post – from the Archives: My 2007 Essay in Support of the Iraq Surge


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Back when I was at Ohio State University in graduate school, I was solicited by a friend to write for a start-up journal in political science, the OSU Journal of Politics and International Affairs. My essay is no longer findable through their website – their archive doesn’t go back to the first issue – but my essay at the time was on the surge debate. Given that I’ve been talking about Iraq for the last month here, I thought I’d put this up; it’s not available elsewhere anymore. This is the unaltered text from the spring 2007. I feel like I did pretty well actually. I still agree with most of what I wrote 6 years ago in the midst of the war’s worst days:

One Last Chance in Iraq for a Sustainable War on Terror

The sense that the United States is losing the war (or more precisely, the peace) in Iraq is palpable. The cable news networks are filled with images of burning cars and markets. The Bush administration seems almost paralyzed – reciting only bromides about freedom and democracy as the long-predicted post-sovereignty civil war seems already to have begun. New York Times pundits like Paul Krugman and Thomas Friedman increasing see a negotiated, half-and-half, ‘at-least-its-better-than-Saddam’ outcome as the most likely scenario. Centrist/liberal supporters of the war, like the Economist and the New Republic are publishing a flurry of criticism that we are ‘losing the peace’ despite having won the war. Even conservatives like the Wall Street Journal and the Weekly Standard, stalwart defenders of the war, have backed away from higher hopes of a democratic, liberal Iraq which the President outlined.

But the growing Iraqi withdrawal debate is wrong-headed. The pullout mooted by such diverse figures as Senator Charles Hagel, Jon Stewart, and Cindy Sheehan would be catastrophic, and our growing national fantasy with its imminence is hazardous. It creates an unreal expectation that ignores the probable post-withdrawal bloodbath, emboldens the insurgents to hang tough, gives false comfort to military families especially, and tempts the Democrats to abdicate responsible policy input for cheap political shots.

The problem in Iraq is not some grandiose failure of America’s post-9/11 grand strategy. Rather it is a mundane, if widespread, process failure on the part of the Bush administration. The problem with the occupation is not its existence, as the American left increasingly says, but its staggering ineptitude, which too few on the right will concede. The answer is not exit, but a meaningful occupation – nation-building – that demonstrates real commitment to the outcome. This would require, as John McCain and other proponents of the surge have long observed, more soldiers and far more money.

WHY SURGE ?

The reasons for trying once again to occupy Iraq better are still the same as four years ago.

First, strategically, an exit timetable would be an admission of defeat in what is now the central front of the War on Terror (WoT) and would signal the insurgents to simply wait us out. A hasty exit would reinforce an old image problem in American foreign policy – casualty shyness. The Islamists remember our pull-outs from Beirut and Somalia. As in Vietnam, American credibility is at stake, and we are far from 1969 where the current costs of credibility maintenance outweigh the longer projected costs of defeat.

The American left has apparently conceded that no victory is to be had under any circumstances. This may be correct; four years of squandered time may have set anything passing for ‘victory’ out of our reach. But even at this late hour, one final, hail mary pass – the surge – is worth it, because the stakes are enormous. The left correctly resents that Bush administration policy, as a self-fulfilling prophecy, made Iraq central to the WoT. But there is no ducking that reality now. We are stuck with the outcome of four years of Rumsfeldian mismanagement, but must nonetheless make our best effort to win. An American defeat in Iraq would embolden the terrorists as the President says, even if he is the one primarily responsible for offering them that opportunity. If Iraq is left prostrate and chaotic by our withdrawal, that would not end the conflict; it would probably worsen, as the latest National Intelligence Estimate observed. Iraq would likely implode with its neighbors heavily tempted to intervene. A protracted, Lebanese-style civil war is likely. A US re-intervention might even be necessary if the violence became extreme or seriously threatened oil supplies. We will face emboldened Islamist threats in neighboring states.

Second, morally, post-American Iraq could easily degenerate toward Bosnian – where it arguably is already – or even Rwandan levels of violence. Ironically, the US military is now the most socially progressive force in Iraq. Regardless of one’s opinion of the Bush administration, Colin Powell’s ‘pottery barn rule’ (‘you break it, you buy it’) now applies. To leave the Iraqis with a civil war and failed state would be a staggering moral failing on our part. Tens of thousand of Iraqis have died to date in a US war of choice; we owe them our best effort at stabilization.

AN UWANTED NATION-BUILDING MISSION

The mission now is a mixture of combat and nation-building, but democracies have limited political will to slug it out in such guerilla conflicts. We have the resources. With a population of 300 million and a GDP close to $13 trillion, the US has the capacity to ramp up its efforts significantly. Even at this late date, we probably have a fighting chance to defeat the insurgents and rebuild the Iraqi state as we did in Germany and Japan. But it would be very expensive and take a long time, and the last four years of drift have raised those costs significantly. Think-tankers in Washington have suggested figures on the order of 2-300,000 occupation troops over a decade costing $1 trillion. This clearly parallels Vietnam, and we still did not win there after a huge commitment.

Obviously no one in the US wanted this level of obligation, nor would Congress have voted for a project of this magnitude. The informal deal between the Bush administration, and Congress and the public, was that Iraq 2 would be a blitzkrieg like Iraq 1 or Afghanistan. That lengthy, tedious, expensive nation-building might follow scarcely arose in our national, pre-war discussion. And the Bush administration’s half-hearted, clientistic commitment to reconstruction shows its clear disdain of nation-building. It did not expect to nation-build, and it does not wish to. This is the flimsy work of wimpy Europeans and international organizations; Secretary Rumsfeld notoriously described the US Army as trained to ‘break things and kill people.’ The Pentagon ignored the State Department’s Future of Iraq project from the 1990s which planned for this very scenario.

Hence with no real plan or structure to the occupation, we lurch from crisis to ‘turning point,’ hoping for a break. The public was never mobilized for the long haul, hence the growing discontent and ‘quagmire’ analogies. Instead of increasing taxes to pay for the war and impart a shared sense of national sacrifice, the Bush team cut taxes, and now we are borrowing again. Instead of expanding the Army to meet the strenuous demands of Iraq, the occupation struggles undermanned and underequipped. Instead of mobilizing civilian reconstruction resources – Americorps/Peace Corps, aid and charity organizations, college students, or nongovernmental organizations (NGO) – to bring a human face to American power in the Gulf and actually build a functioning Iraqi public sector, the mission must remain militarized, because we are too understaffed to provide security.

We might still win this conflict, rather than simply hold, but we must recognize the necessity of domestic sacrifice to have even a fighting chance. The Army needs many more soldiers, and we must pay for them. We must raise taxes; this is now a national security requirement given the military’s great needs and the size of the deficit/debt. Then, in a post-surge secure environment, we can ‘civilian-ize’ the mission and get about the difficult, grubby business of building a functioning and democratic Iraqi state. This too will cost money. German reconstruction took four years, and they were culturally more similar.

Lasting victory will require domestic mobilization. Either we make that public national sacrifice, or we stumble on, day-to-day, so desperate to leave that we may pass off a failed state to Islamist clerics. The peace may still be winnable, but it requires real national commitment at this point: a serious domestic mobilization. That means the movement of the citizen economy and consciousness to something closer to wartime footing. And it requires presidential leadership to ignite.

SUSTAINING THE WAR ON TERROR

Donald Rumsfeld’s departure reopens the debate on US mid-range strategy in the WoT. Beyond Iraq, a protracted, yet sustainable, WoT requires greater home front mobilization to more properly translate America’s deep resources into instruments for victory. Here are three components to insure the sustainability of the Iraq occupation, and the larger war on terrorism (WoT), for the length necessary:

1. Budgetary Restraint

It is increasing obvious that rebuilding Iraq – as well as Afghanistan and funding the WoT – will cost large sums of money. The US does have the resources necessary. Our $13 trillion GDP represents more than 1/3 of the world economy. Yet those resources are scarcely being brought to bear. It staggers the mind to think that as we see Iraq slipping from our grip, we are cutting taxes and expanding entitlements (especially Medicare). The costs of this fiscal recklessness are clear. As we have not the resources to devote to Afghan reconstruction, that country continues to lurch along under warlordism and the Taliban seem to be creeping back. In Iraq, the revenue needed to deploy more soldiers, replace hardware, and spend on reconstruction projects continually increases US budget deficits.

It is high time that the costs of the war were brought home to the domestic economy. Despite policymakers’ insistence, social science and commonsense know that opportunity costs are real. The US now faces the serious trade-off that fighting wars on the cheap is inhibiting victory. We cannot have it both ways. President Johnson tried this in Vietnam, and eventually capitulated to tax increases and the draft. It is time the ‘home front’ became a home front. The administration needs to ask for the resources necessary for both anti-terror warfighting, as well as postwar nation-building (US Agency for International Development [USAID], the Peace Corps, World Bank, etc.). This means budget requests that reflect the costs of the war – without chicanery like supplemental allocations or absurdly low cost projections, serious tax increases to pay for the war, particularly on carbon to reduce our strategic dependence, and/or significant entitlement reform, especially of budget-busters like Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid. We must restrain the expansion of the federal government’s obligations and raise its revenues when the extended duration of Iraq/Afghanistan and the WoT suggest large, medium-term increases in defense, homeland security, intelligence, and state department appropriation.

The US national debt has grown by 54% (!) on President Bush’s watch – from $5.7 trillion in January 2000 to $8.8 trillion today. Bush budget deficits average over $300 billion annually even during growth phases like today. Because the average American consumer is in dissavings (-1%, heavily due to credit cards), our government borrows increasingly from foreigners, including China, which the President once labeled a ‘strategic competitor.’ Our debt-to-GDP ratio exceeds 70%, and our liabilities will balloon in the next decade as boomers retire and the WoT rolls on. Our current budgeteering is shockingly dangerous given incipient commitments.

2. Presidential Forthrightness

George Bush refers to himself as a war-time president, yet in domestic policy, one would never imagine it. Honesty on the length, cost and necessity of the WoT will insure a national consensus to support it, even as it encounters rough patches like today. Given the President and the Iraq war’s low poll numbers, it is apparent that the President has failed to date to use the bully pulpit to solidify a reserve of national support for this project. The administration needs to demonstrate leadership in two areas immediately to forge the required reservoir of domestic support.

a. The President and his spokesmen need to speak openly and candidly about the costs – in blood and treasure – and duration of the WoT, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The language and gesture of the administration has now become irresponsibly vague on this issue. Repeatedly on the cable and Sunday morning talkshows and even at congressional hearings, figures such as Stephen Hadley, Condoleezza Rice and Dick Cheney have refused to provide even their sense for how long the WoT, Afghanistan, and Iraq would last. The administration was angered when Ted Koppel read the names of fallen US servicemen in Iraq, and has ended video coverage of their bodies returned from abroad. Like the lowball cost projections in the 2008 budget, this is imposture in an area of profound national importance. It is unworthy of a war-time presidency and the gravity required by that assertion. Yes, we are in this for a long ride, but they must give us some concrete idea of what that means. The ‘timetable’ can be long and grim; indeed containing Islamism probably will be lengthy twilight struggle. But there must be some reassurance to the voters that this thing will end one day, that victory has some shape. Otherwise they will turn against it.

b. The President needs to take advantage of the sense of national crisis generated by 9/11 and Iraq to rally the citizenry to a sense of national mission and stolid determination. It was widely noted that the President missed an enormous opportunity after 9/11 to mobilize the nation, to bring greater seriousness to American political dialogue. Instead the President has been strongly partisan in his language on the war, deploying a cynical language of patriotism against critics of Iraq 2 or the Patriot Act, reaching to democratic universalist extremes as a post-MWD rationale for Iraq 2, and repeatedly speaking before military rather than civilian audiences on such topics. Before last year’s election, the President reached his nadir in suggesting that the Democrats want the terrorist to win. In place of this, the President needs to use a more communitarian, less militaristic, and more pragmatic language of goals sought and sacrifices required.

3. Increased Capacity

It is increasingly clear the US military, while adept at winning wars, is ‘under-capacitied’ for winning the peace. It is too small to properly occupy Iraq and Afghanistan – as Army chief of staff Eric Shinseki told Congress before Secretary Rumsfeld fired him for doing so – and not properly equipped and trained as nation-builders. This is not surprising. The former is an unanticipated externality of the ‘revolution in military affairs.’ It is painfully obvious that DoD planners gave no serious thought to occupation, and are genuinely surprised that the lean, hi-tech US military has failed to pacify Iraq and Afghanistan. The latter – the dearth of a trained cadre of nation-builders – is also a direct result of administration’s military-heavy approach to foreign policy problems. Secretary Rice contemptuously noted in the 2000 election cycle that the US military has ‘better things to do than walk Bosnian children to school,’ and the President campaigned actively against nation-building.

We are now paying the price of such myopia. Militarizing American foreign policy options is increasingly a dead-end in the band of dangerous and failed states of Eurasia and Africa. Deploying a war paradigm – the ‘war’ on terror, we have vastly overrated the ‘stateness’ or coherence of rickety, postcolonial countries, and therefore the utility of conventional military force against them. Returning soldiers and family bloggers have widely noted that American servicemen are being asked to do things for which they are not trained – including most notoriously, running prisons, but also such day-to-day activities as opening schools and rebuilding infrastructure. Unsurprisingly, this reflects the nation-building needs of failing postcolonial states.

Hence, Donald Rumsfeld’s replacement should, finally, expand both the Army – so that security in American post-conflict zones can be insured – and America’s paltry nation-building capacity. The former means hiring at least three more divisions worth of ground soldiers, and Robert Gates has committed to expanding the force. This new capacity also needs training in peacekeeping, and we should solicit those with better backgrounds in this (such as Britain – because of Northern Ireland – or the UN).

The latter means seriously funding the State Department (which receives 1/20 the budget allocation DoD receives), including the USAID, to put a more congenial face on American power than just soldiers in body armor. Similarly, the Peace Corps needs to be dramatically expanded (which the President promised in the 2002 State of the Union but never occurred) to create a mobilizable, on-call reserve of nation-builders. Perhaps an ‘armed Peace Corps’ – Peace Corps-style nation-builders, with some military training – could institutionally marry diverse needs. Civilian reconstruction entities like the UN and western NGOs were driven out of Iraq by the violence. An ‘armed Peace Corps’ could provide a pool of nation-builders capable of working in such hostile postconflict zones, so relieving the nation-building strain on the Pentagon while keeping control of reconstruction with the US government. Lastly, other nation-building entities broadly congruent with American values, such as some NGOs, the World Bank, and the United Nations Development Program need increased funding and public support.

Finally, if financial incentives are not enough and the WoT pulls us into many foreign countries at once, national service may be a last recourse to insure that the US government has a robust in-house military and nation-building capacity. Three changes in US posture have significantly expanded the manpower demand in the our military and reconstruction bureaucracies. First, many of our allies are hedging away from us; burden-sharing problems with them (in Afghanistan, e.g.) is growing more difficult. Zell Miller and Bill O’Reilly, e.g., have both referred to France as an enemy of the United States; Donald Rumsfeld contemned traditional NATO allies as ‘Old Europe’; President Bush scarcely travels. As we turn from traditional friends, we now need more internal capabilities to carry out missions alone. The price of Bush-era unilateral righteousness is increasing, costly isolation. Second, we dislike many of the traditionally vehicles of nation-building (the UN, World Bank, NGOs). The UN is especially loathed in the US. So if we cannot or will not outsource reconstruction to these entities, then we must, once again, do it ourselves. Third, we have changed American strategy from defensive containment to aggressive preemption. We are challenging many more states now (‘regime change’) and risking simultaneous sustained military engagements. Donald Rumsfeld has described the WoT as ‘the long war.’ The US may be engaged and/or fighting in several Eurasian hot spots at once in the coming decades. Iran and North Korea are obvious future examples.

This ambitious reworking of US foreign policy (the Bush Doctrine) is very expensive. Unless we are prepared to compromise more with foreigners, we will increasingly need our own internal capacities for conflict and reconstruction. We clearly do not have the capability today for many unaided, simultaneous engagements. National service is the only conceivable route to provide the sheer numbers to support the go-it-alone Bush Doctrine. This service need not be in the military. The US, although in need of more military ‘boots on the ground,’ also needs more trained, professional nation-builders to complement them. We have not met the pottery barn test; we do not have the cadre to put Iraq and Afghanistan back together. We should examine the possibility of national civil service (Germany has experience with this), but focused on international affairs. This could include a stint in Peace Corps or USAID programming, time with an INGO, or service in the military, including blue-helmet peace keeping units.

CONCLUSION

George Bush claims to be a war-time president and has read the terrorist challenge as a military threat. If so, then the WoT may well require further US interventions abroad, but alienated US allies in Europe and Asia will likely not share these burdens. Iraq may be a model of our future, do-it-yourself interventions in Eurasian hotspots. It has been a poor template to date, but the costs of defeat are far higher than the American left will admit. Withdrawal will not end the war, but almost certainly deepen and expand it. American re-engagement is quite likely. As Clark Clifford told President Johnson after we bogged down in Vietnam, having provoked this conflict, we must make our best effort to win, and we may still lose.

More generally, the Bush team has undermined the American alliance network, so raising the domestic costs for the WoT. Because of the Bush Doctrine, we will increasingly fight the WoT alone. George Bush’s successor will confront alienated, unhappy allies and a deeply anti-American world, but powerful confessional-populist forces in the US, with slight interest in conciliating foreigners after 9/11, will limit the next president’s room to unwind the Bush Doctrine. Little allied burden-sharing is likely in the near future. Hence a sustainable, unilateralized WoT requires the US develop its own in-house capacity to win both the wars and the peaces. Only a domestic semi-war-footing – more communitarianism, taxes, and troops; and less partisanship and entitlements – can provide the national public resources for the generational struggle President Bush has framed. Unfortunately the President has ducked hard choices and national sacrifice by heavy, irresponsible borrowing and overextending the Army. This risks imperial overstretch. Could we conceivably fight North Korea or Iran with a yawning national debt, an Army increasingly described as ‘broken,’ and allies walking away from us ? If Americans will not support the high domestic mobilization a war demands, then perhaps President Bush should drop the rhetoric of a war on terror for a new language closer to something Americans will sustain.”

3 thoughts on “Final Iraq Post – from the Archives: My 2007 Essay in Support of the Iraq Surge

  1. Pingback: My October Diplomat Essay: Was Syria a Bridge-Too-Far for Untrammeled Executive War-Powers? (yes) | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

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  3. Pingback: No, ‘American Sniper’ is Not the greatest American War Movie; it’s actually quite Conventional | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

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