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A nation must think before it acts.
America is suffering from a national STD crisis. No, it’s not the one you think—it’s a Strategic Thinking Deficiency. This deficiency lies at the root of the current challenges in Iraq, an enormous miscalculation and a gross misapplication of national power. This deficiency is also responsible for our continued inability to diagnose today’s global struggle in a holistic manner. Too often we look at Iraq as an isolated event, instead of one front or campaign in a larger conflict. Thus, we fail to see how the actions in one theater impact the conduct of the war in a larger or more systemic sense.
The STD limits our ability to measure what is important from what is merely expedient. What should be an American grand strategy ends up a series of policy stovepipes instead of a comprehensive understanding of the problem, and an equally holistic and integrated solution. Such a fragmented perspective fails to recognize our long-term interests and warps American policy. Key strategic interests are being ignored, and isolated actions take us incrementally away from vital requirements.
Washington is responding in classic fashion; after three years of deadly conflict with little concrete progress, a plethora of policy reviews, Congressional blue-ribbon panels, and study groups are underway. The bipartisan Iraq Study Project (ISG) led by former Secretary of State James Baker and Congressman Lee Hamilton tried to provide a remedy. But it did not offer a plan to achieve “victory” in Iraq, and thus the White House apparently has rejected the panel’s recommendations. The Chairman of the Joint Staff has assembled an outside team composed of U.S. officers with extensive experience in Iraq. A spate of pundits have chimed in with their own set of options, with most seeking a military solution where there is none.
The ISG was a large dose of common sense. Their report provides a polite but devastating critique of American policy in Iraq. Its 79 recommendations include a few clunkers that are not realistic. But, overall, it serves as an indictment of our current strategy and its implementation. There was nothing terribly original or bold in the report, the product of intense negotiations among ten prominent Americans of great intellect with long careers in public service. That’s the nature of these bipartisan groups; the most extreme ideas are left on the editor’s floor, victim to the search for unanimity.
The problem with many critiques of the ISG is that they appear to focus solely on Iraq, and thus reinforce Cold War habits. Such reviews focus on individual trees and not the forest. Any serious review needs to begin with the recognition that we do not understand the nature of our enemy or the nature of the war. We began this conflict by calling it the GWOT. This is typical Pentagonese. In essence, we declared war against a tactic, deliberately making our enemies evil and illegal at the same time—but also confusing ourselves about our objective or who really was our enemy.
Some commentators like Professor Eliot Cohen and former CIA Director James Woolsey suggest that World War IV is appropriate. This does suggest a protracted contest with numerous fronts, and the multidimensional mobilization that is needed to achieve success. But this gives Bin Laden and Al Qaeda far too much credit in terms of their total capability.
So we’ve settled now for the Long War. This says a lot about the protracted nature of the contest, but almost nothing about what we are trying to defeat or what we are fighting for. But it does suggest that it should be fought by the Pentagon, which misleads our strategy. We have over-militarized our counter-terrorism strategy and repeated the mistake in Iraq. In many respects, our reactions have been entirely predictable, very costly, and of great advantage to Al Qaeda. As FPRI Senior Fellow Michael Radu has observed, “When you have confusion defining the enemy, you inevitably have confusion in finding ways to fight it.”
Just what have we accomplished to date in the Long War? Well, any ledger is going to identify some clear gains. Viewed objectively, U.S. policy has garnered some positive achievement. For example:
That’s our progress to date. Much of this progress has taken form as organizational initiatives, which reflect a needed strategic readjustment from an outdated Cold War architecture. But the ledger has both black and red ink. On the debit side, the strategic evaluation is long and pessimistic.
We have to start with the observation that Bin Laden is alive and apparently well, although Al Qaeda is a more diffuse organization. Its exceptional resiliency and adaptiveness are in force, but its command and control are strained. Georgetown University Professor Bruce Hoffman has testified that the enemy has been dispersed but is now more lethal, better trained, and is now more unpredictable than ever. Al Qaeda has achieved an autocatalytic capability to generate cells sympathetic to the movement. The CIA officially confirms this analysis and warns that Iraq has abetted a global rise in radicalism.
The resource implications are staggering. We can start with the human costs. In terms of human life, some 3,000 lives were lost at home, and another 3,000 have died overseas since in our effort to preclude future ones, while another 20,000 have been wounded. The violence in Iraq appears to continue unabated, as evidenced by last December’s 113 Americans killed, the highest level in two years. At an average of 65 deaths a month, one has to ask if another 1,600 lives-24 months of dying-is a price we are willing to pay to help Iraq reestablish itself.
In economic terms, the United States has spent $500 billion on the war, every dime borrowed, with a total bill that will undoubtedly exceed $1 trillion when increased personnel costs, veteran health bills, worn-out equipment, and national debt payments are factored in. Advocates of perseverance in Iraq have no response to the question, “what does another $200 billion achieve that the first $500 billion failed to secure?” The significantly enlarged national debt also presents a looming liability and a further limit on our strategic freedom of action. In the long term this further limits our ability to invest in our security, infrastructure, people or global competitiveness.
Internally, we still lack an accepted constitutional framework for fighting this new form of war-and the Executive Branch’s assertions of wartime powers do not constitute a long term solution. In terms of diplomacy and the informational component of U.S. power, we’ve been isolated, outgunned by Islamic media. Polls suggest that in many countries, the United States is perceived as the greatest source of instability. Then Secretary Rumsfeld acknowledged in 2005 that our ability to counter the narrative of the Islamist extremists has been amateurish. We are still not effectively contradicting the narrative of our enemy—in fact we’ve not tried at all.
The geostrategic scorecard is not rosy either. We have less flexibility to deal with Iran or North Korea today, the latter now believed to have sufficient material for 10 nuclear bombs, unless it sold some for hard currency. Iran has been the biggest benefactor of U.S. policy to date; its influence and nuclear ambitions have not been retarded while our attention and armed might has been focused on Iraq. North Korea and Iran would not be as bold if the “velvet glove” of U.S. diplomacy was backed with a mailed fist. Russia and China have quietly made inroads with diplomatic and economic initiatives that significantly enhance their long term goals in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere. Meanwhile, our forces are bogged down in Iraq and our capabilities are being eroded. The rising strategic risks being taken by American policy makers by this erosion are overlooked in favor of a myopic focus on Iraq.
Afghanistan, another key campaign in this war, remains a troubled land. The Taliban, once vanquished, is resurging. More than 300 American and NATO troops have died there the past two years. Violence is up, and President Karzai’s credibility is significantly diminished. Suicide terrorism, once an anomaly, is now a weekly event. Recent reports document a bumper crop of new opium. The Taliban, which curtailed the cultivation of poppies when they were in power, is now actively promoting and protecting the drug business. A $3 billion annual cash flow has overcome the Taliban’s moral scruples. The transition from Holy Warriors to Drug Warriors is not heartening. A recent CIA report offered little solace. It found that Karzai’s government has little control over what happens outside of Kabul, and that popular support is declining due to perceptions of ineffectiveness and corruption.
With regard to Iraq, there has been measurable progress, but as the President admitted, not enough and not fast enough. As a recent intelligence assessment from Baghdad starkly put it, the insurgency remains “potent,” sectarian murders are up 200 to 300 percent, and the potential for civil war has passed a tipping point. Civilian casualties are up significantly. Nary a weekend goes by without the morgue in Baghdad receiving 100 bodies, most with their hands bound and evidencing signs of torture. The majority of Iraqis think that attacking Americans is acceptable. Our reconstruction programs were significant, but not well managed. Our training and security assistance efforts never received the priority and resources that they should have been accorded. The Iraqi military and police are weak, and thoroughly penetrated by corrosive factions and religious groups. What we think of as a trained Iraqi unit by day, the locals call “death squads” at night.
Militarily, the U.S. military is stretched thin. Its material readiness is slowly being eroded and its personnel costs are rising. It will take at least two years after any significant troop redeployments to reestablish manpower, equipment and training systems for future contingencies. The Chief of Staff of the Army just testified that the Army has reached the breaking point. The ISG report was clear on this, pointing out that it will take a serious program with dedicated resources to restore the American military.
So the ledger is mixed. There has been some success in both Afghanistan and Iraq. But our strategy has failed in achieving stated or desired ends. The costs for what has been accomplished has been completely disproportionate to the gains. Furthermore, the effort in Iraq has detracted from other strategic interests.
By any objective viewpoint, a strategic net assessment is equally harsh. The investment to date has significantly exceeded projected costs. Far too often, the means employed have been applied contrary to our ultimate aim. It is hard to swallow, but America today is weaker, poorer, and more isolated than it was three years ago. There is ample evidence that should we continue along today’s lines, it would materially impair our world standing and overall security posture.
The American public has gauged our progress to date and weighed the resources spent on their behalf. They recognize that we must change course to a different heading and adjust our means. This is why calls to “surge” more military forces are falling on deaf ears at home and from our commanders in Iraq. Einstein’s adage that “insanity consists of doing the same thing but expecting different results” has been forgotten. We have already surged 20,000 troops (Iraqi and U.S. units) to Baghdad and have nothing to show for it. Advocates of surging unready brigades to Baghdad have to answer why doing more of the same thing and expecting better results makes any strategic sense.
Instead of persisting with the same strategy, James Fallows suggests in The Atlantic that we “Declare Victory” and come home. This perspective overestimates our success to date and repeats the errors of the last few decades, which only emboldened the enemy, whose ideology has spread and is now self-generating. It also underestimates our opponents and their commitment. “Come home America” is not a strategy, it’s an evasion of responsibility.
But Mr. Fallows correctly diagnoses the essence of the strategic deficiency. He recognized that the conflict in Iraq is merely a single campaign in a long war. We can lose a battle, and we may even lose a campaign. But we cannot afford to lose the larger struggle against extremism. So upon closer examination, Fallows’ assessment is close to the mark. We have achieved what we could in Iraq, and now need to shift to the longer and larger threats. As the ISG report makes explicit, it is time to stand back and look at the problem in a larger sense. Others want to see a clear cut plan for victory in Iraq. Such calls fail to recognize the simple fact that “victory” has already been elusive even as the butcher’s bill has increased. We should be more honest with the American people about what constitutes victory.
As the supporting external agent, victory for the United States in Iraq must be understood to mean a functioning, stable and representative government in Baghdad. Getting to this point will depend on a number of decisions, including the form of government, degree of reconciliation or justice between parties, and political power sharing arrangements. These decisions will all be in the hands of the Iraqis. Whether or not they agree to put aside sectarian differences, agree to build effective tools of governance, and establish social justice is up to them. Victory is not a product of American manufacture in this war, and it cannot be attained by force of arms. We can help midwife a better Iraq, but to this point all we have done is nurture a civil war.
Resolution of this campaign is not about U.S. troop levels. As Charles Krauthammer noted in Philadelphia in November 2006 at FPRI’s annual dinner, “You can tinker with American tactics and troop levels all you want, but unless the Iraqis can establish a government of unitary purpose and resolute actions, the simple objective of the war—leaving behind a self-sustaining democratic government—will not be achieved.”
The solution does not lie in staying the course or adding more combat brigades. That approach only benefits Bin Laden and our enemies. Their strategy is to provoke a costly engagement at a time and place of their choosing. Our strategy should be based on our interests, not the jihadists. Our strategy should also focus on the real problem, which is economic and political in nature. We are using the wrong metrics when we focus on infantry brigades. Those who want to “surge” fresh formations should insist on surging reconstruction aid and fresh battalions of diplomats and State Department personnel. Surging combat forces (more accurately extending current troops) is a cosmetic salve that may buy some time, but time for what? In addition to pressuring the Iraqis to come to an agreement, someone needs to pressure the NSC staff to do their jobs and effectively coordinate U.S. strategy and oversee its execution. We can and should expect the Iraqis to do more, but we have not even succeeded in compelling our own institutions to adapt to the nature of this conflict with any degree of urgency.
The resolution for the Iraq crisis from an American perspective can be found in the following four questions: (1) What has to be done to preclude Iraq from becoming a source of regional instability and can America devise and implement a plan to achieve this? (2) Will the Iraq people work with us in attaining this goal? (3) Can we accomplish this within the time period and resources the American people will tolerate? (4) Can we attain this without compromising other strategic security interests?
If the answer to any of these questions is no, we should prepare to pull back most of our combat forces this year. But if the answer to all the questions is yes, we could and should still ramp down the U.S. contribution to roughly 100,000 troops by the start of 2008, with further cuts dependent on the effective stand up of Iraqi security formations. We have too many staffs and support personnel in Iraq and too few troops to bother with taming the Sunnis in Al Anbar. We should aim for retaining a force of more than 50,000 through 2009, which should be sustainable. This is not about a retreat, it’s about the recognition of what is possible and what is strategically necessary. The chaos, regional instability, an emboldened enemy and lost prestige that proponents of surging fear have already occurred, we just have not faced up to the facts yet. It’s also about recognizing that we need to properly conceptualize the Long War as 80 percent political and ideological, and stop treating it like a nail because all we have is our Pentagon hammer. Once cured of our current thinking deficiency, the opportunity to reengage intelligently in the Long War with a refined, comprehensive approach will be open to us.
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