Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The blame game

Claiming, a month after the November elections, that "now is the time to speak up," Republican Senator Gordon Smith of Oregon denounced the administration's handling of the Iraq war and stated on CNN:
"And I felt I had to speak out because if we're going to be there, let's win; if we're not, let's -- let's at least fight the war on terror in a way that makes sense."
As if "winning" is a “choice.”

In such statements, we're already beginning to see the opening rounds of the political wars and recriminations that will rage in the wake of the U.S. catastrophe in Iraq. Who will write the history of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and on what terms? The basic outlines of that debate are visible in the “back-stabbing” mythologies that evolved decades ago (and continue to this day) around the U.S. defeat in Vietnam. For example, one "ex soldier" writes to the London Telegraph:

" must recognize that the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam because of a lack of will, not a lack of ability to win, and that the consequences of retreat were horrific for the people of Southeast Asia. The lesson to be learned is that we must NEVER retreat, but on every front fight on until we are victorious... The defenders of Western Civilisation - America, the U.K., Australia et. al. are the GOOD GUYS. Keep the big picture in mind, and never lose the will to win!" [Note the writer’s assumption that a continued war, lasting for many more years, would’ve somehow been less “horrific” for the people of Southeast Asia, while producing a better result.]

Four decades before the Vietnam debacle began, Nazi propagandists and other nationalists promoted the notion that the "November criminals" had betrayed the allegedly "undefeated" German army by signing both an armistice and the oppressive treaty of Versailles that ended World War I in 1919. This Dolchstosslegende ("stab-in-the-back legend") became a powerful instrument for blaming Weimar politicians, communists, Jews and liberals for the German defeat and subsequent economic collapse.

This "back-stabbing" slander, which has since been refined and extended, has many advantages for its proponents, including:

  1. It attributes a nation’s defeat to failures by one’s political enemies—usually incompetent and possibly treasonous politicians—rather than a lack of military prowess. In one variation on this motif, blame can also be extended to a civilian population that is allegedly indifferent to the conflict or unwilling to sufficiently “sacrifice” to support it.

  1. It perpetuates the notion of one’s ultimate moral and military superiority over the nation’s enemy in the face of a humiliating and possibly emasculating defeat.

  1. It tries to deter and isolate antiwar critics by suggesting that they embolden the enemy and undermine morale. George W. Bush, for example, has stated: “These baseless attacks send the wrong signal to our troops and to an enemy that is questioning America's will... As our troops fight a ruthless enemy determined to destroy our way of life, they deserve to know that their elected leaders who voted to send them to war continue to stand behind them.”

Lack of will, to the Greeks, was akrasia— the inability to conform behavior to the principles or values one professes. “Will” is often presented as an abstraction, usually as one aspect of strength of character. But the verb “to will” is transient: it’s directed towards something. It can’t be separated from the motivation and values that generally animate our conduct. These values, depending on their importance to the warmaking elites and ordinary citizens, determine the level of “will” or motivation that a nation brings to a conflict.

The motivation to wage war is highest, of course, when a nation is directly attacked. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor—the first direct assault on U.S. territory by a foreign invader since the War of 1812—was a powerful stimulus to mobilization and the drive for final unconditional victory. The connection between Al Qaida and the Taliban government of Afghanistan was sufficiently clear to generate strong support for a retaliatory invasion after the attacks of September 11th.

The perception that Iraq was also an imminent threat to the U.S.—strengthened by Colin Powell’s forceful presentation on WMD’s to the U.N.—generated an upwelling of early support for Operation Iraqi Freedom. So did the widespread but counterfactual belief that there was some connection between the regime of Saddam Hussein and Al Qaida. The WMD rationale evaporated early in the war, and successive justifications have become increasingly untenable. At this writing, 70% of respondents in an ABC/Washington Post poll disapproved of Bush's handling of the Iraq war.

The assumption behind the back-stabbing hypothesis is that military success is a function of the quantum of “will” that each opponent brings to a conflict. “Will” is seen as evidence of the strength of character necessary to persevere in the face of the inevitable hardships inflicted by a protracted military conflict.

By this standard, did a "weak" Lyndon Johnson and Democratic leadership “choose” defeat in Vietnam? A sufficiently large U.S. force, perhaps double the 500,000 troops committed by 1968, might have held off the Vietcong and North Vietnamese for another dozen years or even indefinitely. Given the political "will" to persevere, the American advantages in air superiority, armor and technology could’ve limited the scope of any military successes by the Vietnamese. At the same time, it’s difficult to imagine any conclusive victory against a nationalist movement that enjoyed the active, and probably growing, support of a large portion of the Vietnamese population. It’s also difficult to imagine the devastating effects of an even longer war on the Vietnamese people.

It’s an old axiom of guerilla warfare that the insurgents only need to survive—they don’t need to win. An even longer war of attrition in Vietnam, against a highly motivated opponent, was politically unacceptable in the U.S. A hundred or more combat deaths per week, and a continuing military draft, were too high a price for a war with unclear objectives and a diminishing sense of any real threat to the U.S. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, faced with the reality that military victory was not possible, finally opted for a political settlement in 1973 on essentially the same terms that were available to the U.S. when secret negotiations began in 1969.**

Can George Bush choose victory in Iraq, if only the rest of us would do enough moral calisthenics to strengthen our “will” to win? The parallels between Vietnam and Iraq can easily be overstretched*, but it’s difficult to imagine a situation where either side could achieve a decisive military victory in Iraq. As in Vietnam, the U.S. would likely prevail in setpiece battles between conventional forces. So the insurgents will avoid them and continue their strategy of relatively low-intensity but widespread guerilla attacks using technologies that date to World War II and earlier.

With or without the proposed "surge" of U.S. troops, there can be no military solution to the war in Iraq for either side. No administration will commit a half-million troops for another decade, or more, to end a threat that the American public can no longer perceive. Even such a massive infusion of U.S. troops might not produce anything that could seriously be called a long-term “victory.” The likely result is an expanded war of attrition, similar to what we see already, and further devastation of Iraq and its people.

War is an instrument of policy. The final test of success is whether the political goals that animate military action have been achieved. If not, victory in battle is nearly as irrelevant as Andrew Jackson's defeat of the British at New Orleans fifteen days after the end to the War of 1812 had been negotiated.

Behind the provocative rhetoric of people like Senator Smith, there are just two likely results for the war in Iraq. The first would be an immediate U.S. withdrawal, regardless of the consequences, on the theory that the Iraqis have shown themselves incapable of taking the opportunity—so generously given to them by us—to rebuild a country whose destruction we precipitated. The second would be a political settlement of some kind that will be highly unfavorable to U.S. “interests”—which are rarely described in detail, but can easily be imagined—in Iraq and the region.

The rest is wilfull fantasy.


*One critical difference: in Vietnam, the U.S. had no trouble identifying its negotiating partners, despite early disputes about the shape of the table for the Paris peace talks.

**On November 3, 1969, Nixon addressed the nation and asked for support from "the great silent majority of my fellow Americans" for his Vietnam strategy. He said: "...the more divided we are at home, the less likely the enemy is to negotiate at Paris...North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States. Only Americans can do that."

UPDATE: As noted in an excellent analysis ("Surging to Disaster") in the American Prospect, Fred Kagan's trendy proposal for a "surge" in U.S. troop is called "Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq."

GRAPHIC: Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans, 1815 (Engraving by H. B. Hall after W. Momberger.)

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