The Illogic of Iraq

Explaining one of history's most egregious strategic non sequiturs.

Exactly 10 years ago the American invasion of Iraq commenced, launching one of military history's most egregious strategic non sequiturs. Not since Napoleon Bonaparte's ill-fated expedition to Egypt and Syria (1798-1801) -- from which he ultimately fled, losing an army and a fleet -- has the world seen a great power so humbled in the pursuit of illusory goals. Napoleon's dream was to use his incomparable army to spread French revolutionary and democratic ideals across a key portion of the Muslim world. But, as historian Lynn Montross once noted, "The masses were too fatalistic to be stirred by promises of a liberty they neither understood nor trusted."

The grand American goal in the Middle East, pursued some two centuries after Napoleon but with nearly the same idea in mind that had motivated him, foundered for similar reasons. The military occupation of Iraq, predictably, sparked a general uprising. But whereas Lord Nelson's great victory at Aboukir Bay forced an end to the French campaign, no such dramatic intervention drove American forces out. So they stayed, at a cost of over a trillion dollars, tens of thousands of soldiers' lives lost or shattered, and with the mounting Iraqi death toll rising well above 100,000. A debacle.

In some ways, the misadventure in Iraq can be seen as worse than Napoleon's blunder, in terms of the flawed logic that underpinned it. In addition to the idealistic American "democracy project," this was a war started to defang Saddam Hussein's budding nuclear arsenal. But U.N. inspectors had made clear beforehand that there simply were no such weapons in Iraq; invading forces overran the whole country and found none. Not anywhere in the country.

The other threat-based rationale for the war was the notion that there was a connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. Again, this was a terrible logical fallacy; Saddam was one of the "apostates" targeted for overthrow by al Qaeda. Sadly, the prolonged American presence in Iraq actually brought the terrorist network's jihadis there, as it was much easier for them to fight their "far enemy" in this more easily reachable theater of operations. Today, the American military is gone, while al Qaeda, after suffering sharp reverses, is back and making mischief once more.

Even the leading explanation for the tactical defeat suffered by al Qaeda in Iraq is subject to some fuzzy reasoning. The faith many have put in "the surge" having turned the tide needs to be questioned. The relatively small number of additional American trigger-pullers sent -- some 20,000 -- mattered far less than the change in operational concept. It was the outreach to indigenous Iraqis, who made up the majority of the insurgents, and their willingness to turn against the foreign fighters al Qaeda had sent, that made the true difference. What the U.S. military calls "influence operations" haven't yet received their proper due in this campaign.

And by efforts to achieve influence, I am not referring to the hundreds of millions spent on propaganda -- often in the form of planted, paid-for stories. No, influence grew instead from the presence of small groups of Americans living in and operating from local outposts in many places around Iraq. Propaganda proved counterproductive, but American soldiers and Marines, removed from massive operating bases and stationed where they could respond to trouble in minutes, impressed average Iraqis tremendously -- and generated vast amounts of good intelligence, forging the bonds that influenced some 80,000 insurgents to switch sides.

It is a pity that, at his confirmation hearing, Chuck Hagel wasn't ready to answer John McCain's question about the surge. If there is one really positive lesson to draw from Iraq, it is that war is not simply a numbers game. Increasingly, military action is becoming just a backdrop to the larger "battle of the story" about the context and conduct of war. A deeper understanding of the interplay of force and influence is much needed, especially in this time of growing fiscal austerity.

But even a very useful insight of this sort is small beer, given the consequences of the determined pursuit of an illogical strategy to its logical end. In the case of Iraq, the whole premise of spreading democracy by violently overthrowing an authoritarian regime should have been questioned from the outset. In a country with a majority Shiite population, it is only logical to assume that the Shi'a would play a dominant role in a democratic Iraq. And these are the same Shi'a whom the United States incited to rebel against Saddam Hussein back in the spring of 1991 -- then abandoned them to their bloody fate. Hundreds of thousands were killed back then. It should be expected that these Shi'a will lean more toward their co-religionists in Tehran than toward Washington -- which has pretty much abandoned them once again.

Yet for all the clarity of this logical fallacy in the American democracy project, it has not stopped President Obama from helping to overthrow Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya, or from calling for the ouster of Bashar al-Assad in Syria -- even though the fall of the former and the uprising against the latter have given al Qaeda new "active fronts" (to use the jihadis' own term) in which to operate. The very fact that our policy of regime change is aimed at the same rulers our principal enemy wishes to overthrow should give logical pause. So far, it hasn't. But at least there are some limits to the American pursuit of folly; there is no call in Washington for overthrow of the regime in Riyadh. For this we should at least be thankful.

But let us not be complacent, for the power of illogic is great and resilient. Napoleon was able to exploit this power with his own "influence campaign" as, on his return from Egypt, in abject defeat, he was nonetheless embraced as a great national hero and savior. Perhaps the only way to inoculate ourselves against the virulent resurgence of illogic may be to take a long, hard look at the intervention in Iraq and what has flowed from it. So far, the tendency among senior military and civilian leaders has been to avert their gaze, what with the endgame in Afghanistan and the looming "pivot to the Pacific" forming important distractions. Still, our defense establishment is large, and our universities are full of curious scholars of strategic affairs. There are plenty enough qualified people both to pursue current initiatives and to take a deep, unflinching look at the debacle that began to unfold a decade ago, the ripples of which continue to plague our foreign policy.

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National Security

Smaller Is Smarter

Military drawdowns have driven innovation for millennia.

There is an emerging consensus, in Congress and around the country, that government spending must decline, but there is just as strong a sentiment that there are far more artful ways to achieve this than by across-the-board cuts. In the case of domestic entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare, this growing awareness has sparked some bold thinking about reforms, particularly among Republicans in Congress. In the defense sector, however, there is far less evidence of a willingness to contemplate innovative ideas. But if there were, a world of intriguing possibilities would open up.

Unfortunately, the bipartisan reaction to sequestration as it bears upon military matters has been to try to figure out ways to wriggle free of its constraints, perhaps even to avoid any spending reductions over the next 10 years, much less drawdowns amounting to an additional $500 billion on top of currently planned cuts. If this sentiment prevails, a signal disservice will have been rendered to the military and the American people, because the failure to insist on defense spending reductions will continue to allow the military to forgo making tough and much needed choices about future directions. Strategic affairs are in great flux, due to factors ranging from radical technological change to the rise of a series of wars between nations and networks. A failure to transform the military now will only increase perils -- even if spending cuts are avoided.

The challenge before us is to embrace budgetary constraints as empowering rather than crippling. And there are many good examples of professional militaries that seized such opportunities, extending far back in history. In the 6th century of the Common Era, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian sought to restore territorial holdings in the West that had been lost as Rome declined and fell -- yet he had only the slenderest of financial resources with which to carry out this goal. However, he picked skillful generals, Belisarius and Narses, who made the most of what little they had as they pioneered the development of new types of military formations. The great strategist Liddell Hart saw in the heavy cavalry troops that were created, in part to make up for a critical lack of legionary infantry, a clear foreshadowing of modern armored warfare. And so, with always outnumbered forces, Belisarius and Narses reconquered and held Italy, Africa, and southern Spain for the Empire.

A more modern example of success-under-constraint is the post-World War I army of Germany's Weimar Republic. In this case, treaty restrictions and the parlous state of the economy kept the active-duty force quite small -- limited to 100,000 soldiers. Their commander, General Hans von Seeckt, used this in two important ways. First, he emphasized the profound importance of understanding the operational implications of key maturing technologies: tanks, planes, and radio. His focus on mobile maneuvers led to the rise of blitzkrieg. Second, force-size limits led him to rethink the active-reserve mix, and to nurture the notion of cycling through large numbers of young men on short active-duty periods, then moving them into vigorous reserve programs -- sometimes under the guise of labor organizations. Thus Germany eventually had a very large trained manpower pool upon which to draw, allowing the army to expand rapidly and effectively when war came.

To some extent, the U.S. military during the decade after Vietnam followed a similar pattern of development. Active-duty forces were reduced by 40 percent, from 3.5 to 2.1 million. Defense spending declined sharply as well, falling from $344 billion in 1972, at the end of the war, to just $295 billion by 1979 -- over a 14 percent drop before factoring in the effects of inflation. Yet in the face of these challenges, the smaller active army became more professionalized and a new doctrine began to form, Air-Land Battle, which was formally introduced in 1982 and focused on the importance of the swift movement of information and the striking power of precision-guided munitions. Like the German Reichswehr, the post-Vietnam U.S. military found its way ahead despite considerable constraints. Even the spending increases under Ronald Reagan were relatively short-lived as, by the time the elder President Bush submitted his final budget for FY 1993, the actual spending level was only $15 billion more than at the end of the Vietnam War. In inflation-adjusted dollars, this was quite a reduction.

The larger point here is that constraints in general should be seen as opportunities for innovation. Budgetary matters aside, think of the Boland Amendment in the 1980s, which restricted the American presence in El Salvador to 55 military advisors. In the midst of a bitter civil war being waged in our continent's most densely populated country, these advisors hugely improved the quality (and behavior) of the Salvadoran military, and came up with a counterinsurgency strategy that turned the tide of battle and helped lead to a durable peace and the establishment of a vibrant democracy. More recently, similar political and other constraints have limited the American military to sending only small detachments of special operations forces to the Philippines and Colombia -- yet they have done profound good in both places with their highly innovative ideas.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks on America, the need to respond swiftly in far-off Afghanistan led to Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld championing another bold approach: setting loose just 11 Special Forces A-teams -- about 200 sets of boots on the ground -- in the company of indigenous Afghan fighters of quite mixed quality. The result was an amazing victory, the toppling of the Taliban in a few short weeks once the Green Berets were deployed in battle. That the occupation of Afghanistan went awry later on, and that large surges of troops did little to end the war, should be seen simply as testament to the fact that too many resources may impede the kind of creativity called for in such settings. We were at our best, our most inventive, when our forces were the insurgents, operating on a shoestring.

So embrace the call for defense budget cuts in the same amount as called for by sequestration, but reject the meat-ax notion of applying reductions equally, across the board. There are more skillful ways ahead that will emerge in the wake of reduced resources -- perhaps a whole new way of war to be revealed. For the Byzantines, such creativity took the form of creating a 6th century version of the modern armored division. For the Reichswehr, it took the form of deep thinking about the implications of technological change and the need for rapid "expandability" of the force. For the U.S. military, the lessons of recent experience suggest an ever greater awareness of the need to move from forces made of a few large and expensive things to a force comprised of many small, nimble, networked parts.

The answers will reveal themselves. All they wait on is the "call for the question" to be stimulated by the requirement for additional defense budget cuts.

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