Monday, July 28, 2008

Why Is The U.S. (Still) In Iraq?

The New York Times, which recently allowed presidential hopeful Barak Obama to publish and diseminate his views in an in-paper Op-Ed piece, recently rejected a rebuttal submitted by his opponent John McCain.[1]

The interesting thing about the rebuttal, in my view, is that it expressly articulates what seems to have been quite unclear to many Americans at the outset of operations in Iraq: its purpose. While stating that he "expect[s] to welcome home most of our troops from Iraq by the end of my first term in office," McCain commits himself to "the goal of creating stable, secure, self-sustaining democratic allies" in the Middle East.

This is the goal I had discerned in U.S. invasion planning, but it's clear this perception was not as widespread as I believed. It was not widespread within the military, which war-gamed only to the fall of Bagdad, and apparently undertook little thought about what it would take to get the country running again, afterward. It was not widespread within the American public, which seems to have become very excited at the non-appearance of chemical and biological munitions for which Iraq's previous government had failed to account. It certainly wasn't widespread in the Middle East, where folks seem to crow on about Americans stealing oil (oh, really?) and land (take the land; please!) and defiling holy sites that local opposition happily turns into military targets by employing them as cover or firing platforms.

Failing to identify the U.S. objective leaves the definition of success in the hands of national enemies. Failure to clearly articulate the American purpose at the outset fueled a propaganda nightmare we've not yet ended.

While it's nice to hear some objective other than mere flight from the theater of battle, which is the sense I get from the Obama campaign and its vacillating explanation for why the U.S. should withdraw quickly, I also point out that the objective McCain articulates depends on a naïveté regarding the operation of human institutions and the nature of man.

When Truman oversaw the end of the Second World War, he wasn't able to withdraw all the troops in the next term, even unambiguously winning by receipt of a formal document of surrender by the leaders of an enemy state. In the Middle East, the enemies haven't got a state apparatus to surrender, and the governments we've obliterated in pursuit of our goals haven't helped the U.S. claim plausible victory because the U.S. hadn't clearly articulated those governments' obliteration as the purpose of the military intervention. Winning on the battlefield isn't enough to win the conflict at hand.

It's a propaganda war, and it will last longer than any person now living, whether we have troops in the Middle East or not. The only question is how many Americans will die in battle if we fight abroad compared to the number that will die in political murders if we give enemies thousands of miles of sanctuary. It's not a question for which I have data, but it's surely the question policy-makers in the United States should be weighing.

Alas, it's more important to them to weigh the next election.

[1] The New York Times effectively wrote an op-ed piece in writing a rejection letter inviting a re-write, for which it offered some suggestions:
It would also have to lay out a clear plan for achieving victory -- with troops levels, timetables and measures for compelling the Iraqis to cooperate. And it would need to describe the senator's Afghanistan strategy, spelling out how it meshes with his Iraq plan.
The editors there either have never heard Field Marshall Helmuth Carl Bernard von Moltke's famous maxim, or they are counting on it to ensure McCain embarrasses himself: No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.

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