January 13, 2005

RULES? IN A KNIFE FIGHT?: Redrafting the Rules of Engagement in the First Terrorist War

It is ritualistic for most Americans to assert that they "Support our troops," but the truth of the matter is that far too many Americans are becoming far too interested in making sure our troops are behaving correctly than actually supporting and sustaining them. Knowing well that nice guys finish last, it is past time for Americans to ask themselves how 'nice' they want to be in fighting the Terrorist War.

How frustrating to be an American soldier in Iraq and know that strategy, tactics, and the rules of engagement seem to always be subordinate to politics. But because the American people must always support America's wars, this frustration must be accepted. Victory in a democratic society emerges from the people's will to pursue it.

At the moment, our political and moral considerations hamper the battle to expunge Islamic Totalitarianism, and victory is a word not often heard from our leadership. Instead, one gets the impression that the President and his core group would prefer it if Americans and the world began to think of the Iraq stage of the Terrorist War as a kind of Tsunami relief effort with guns. This is not a condition that can be sustained for an indefinite period.

We need to stop pretending. The goal of the Terrorist War must shift from the oft-trumpeted plan of "implanting democracy and bringing freedom" to one of unconditional victory over Islamic Totalitarianism. While "giving the gift of democracy" is a comforting and warm notion on which to run for re-election, it does nothing to achieve victory, since it denies that victory is a goal. Instead, according to the prevailing message being repeated ad nauseum from the administration, "democracy and freedom" are the goals of this war. This is sheer propaganda.

Democracy and freedom for others cannot be the goals of war. They can only be the fruits of something more primary -- victory. Absent the goal of victory, this will indeed become "The Forever War," and America cannot sustain such an effort. In historic terms, the American will to wage war suffers a serious fall-off after three years unless victory can be see as a clear end state, and only then if progress toward victory is repeatedly demonstrated . We are already beyond the three year limit, and it is unlikely that Americans can be made to care much longer, in the face of trickle-down casualty rates, whether or not Iraqis ever become free and democratic.

Absent a plan for victory, the current state of a low-level, hunt-and-peck war in Iraq will cease to be supported. The conflict will soon become either one or the other of two different states of intensifying war, or it will fizzle and gutter out. To gutter out and retreat would be to court disastrous consequences for the United States in the short term and the entire world in the future; a future more costly to the planet in terms of life, liberty and treasure than anything currently contemplated.

While we may or may not be winning "the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people," we are in the perceptions of many Americans of all political persuasions, not winning the war. To sustain a war requires a perception of victory. In an age of instant images, it is no longer enough to actually win battles, you have to be seen to be doing it by friend and enemy alike.

If we are to come to our senses and make victory our goal, our current methods of fighting in Iraq are going to have to change. We are rapidly approaching a point where our path splits into two. We can choose either one or the other, or we choose to turn back. Much as the current administration's opponents would like it, it is unlikely we will turn back. Military minds recognize that to leave Iraq now only means that we would have to return at a later time and under much more difficult circumstances. In that case, it behooves Americans of all political positions to prepare themselves for a point at which the intensity level of our war will be increased, either arithmetically or exponentially. We are, it would seem, moving towards a point where we will have to seek a wider war.

This point may not be far off. Given the political conditions at present a partial victory in Iraq can be achieved soon under a loosened version of our current constraints. This can be done under the political climate that exists at present. An even broader victory extending throughout the region would require a more resolved national will and is doubtful absent a triggering event.

America and its military forces currently operate under rules of engagement that strictly limit the amount of lethal force that can be applied in battle. Designed primarily to limit the loss of innocent life, these rules are widely promulgated to the troops and, in the main, strictly observed. When they seem to be broken, as we saw in the infamous Fallujah shooting incident, the investigation is swift and intense -- even if the results are not always to the liking of the critics of the military.

Given the almost unlimited destructive power available to the American armed forces, it has to be conceded that it is so far the most restrained occupying force in recent history. It seems almost a point of national honor and pride to send our military off to war with one-hand tied behind its back. But this has not always been so and need not remain so. While currently inhibited in Iraq, there is every reason to believe that we are about to enter a phase where the current rules of engagement are about to be rewritten to allow the military more latitude in the application of lethal force than they currently enjoy.

Two dates loom large at present -- The Inauguration of George W. Bush and the elections in Iraq. Both of these take place in the next fortnight. Right now, both of these events constrain the military's freedom of action out of political considerations. Following these events, it is to be hoped that the time of riding the brakes will be over.

You will recall that the reduction of Fallujah had to wait upon the American elections of last November. Given the importance of retaining the Bush doctrine over the next four years of war, that was a sensible administration policy. Absent Bush's reelection, all would be at sixes and sevens with the possibility of a retreat to the policies of September 10 highly likely. No one watching the situation on the ground in Iraq and the United States had any doubt about when the battle of Fallujah would occur, and so it went forward in the wake of Bush's victory.

But while Fallujah was successful, it still left the sizable Baathist remnant and its supporters functioning and in control of an unacceptable portion of Iraq. In addition, aid and financing from Syria and Iran was not curtailed, nor were the borders controlled. If we are to sustain our presence in this critical country this must change.

To move forward towards victory in the Terrorist war the elimination by any means necessary of the Baathist/Terrorist forces, the placing of Syria in check, and the neutralizing of Iran are critical. These three goals remain and will be, I trust, acted upon beginning in February. At that time, we can expect to see a change in the posture and pace of US military activities throughout the Middle-East. At the same time, we can expect to see a loosening of the current rules of engagement throughout that sphere. Activity on and across the Syrian and Iranian borders will increase; first in the form of raids and active pursuit, then in the form of air strikes and, finally, cross-border incursions in strength into both countries if the former methods do not yield rapid results.

Within the Sunni triangle we can expect to see heightened and sustained actions on the part of both American and Iraqi forces. Both these actions and actions along the borders will be accompanied by increased casualties among our forces and increased damage and risk both to members of the insurgency and to civilians in the area. It is not that the gloves will be taken off, but they will be loosened. While restraint may be a temporary political expedient, it is not a strategic posture that achieves victory, and in war, the need for a state of victory will always reassert itself.

Regardless of the ostensible goal of our actions in Iraq -- the establishment of a functioning democracy -- the more compelling goal for America's national-interest must remain the military domination and control of the Middle East by any means necessary. Failure to achieve this will place the fate of United States and the developed world in the hands of rogue regimes able to achieve nuclear weapons, and ready to employ them. If the world is to cross the dangerous divide of the next decade, this cannot be allowed to occur.

To achieve this, the build-out, maintenance and control of bases and staging areas in the Iraq are essential. We simply cannot check in and check out with carrier groups as need be. Reducing a corrupt and weakened Iraq is one thing, dealing with Syria, a weaponized Iran, and an Iraq back under Baathist control and with obligations to international terrorism is quite another. The posture assumed by Israel should the United States give up or retreat from Iran is alone enough to give pause to the most committed doves. Democracy would be nice for Iraq. Freedom for the Iraqis a clear long-term benefit. But of all the things in Iraq most essential to avoiding a nuclear exchange in the region and outside it, the American bases are what must be built up and held.

Indeed, despite all the tumult in Iraq since the beginning of the occupation, this is what has been done. In order to continue to expand and hold this basing, an orderly and stable Iraqi government is necessary. Hence the importance of successful Iraqi elections beyond the benefits of instilling a democracy are manifest.

The key to all this is the ability to maintain the will of the American public to support the Terrorist War. To attain this it is necessary to send a clear signal to the public that more than just aid and comfort to an oppressed people is involved in this war. At the moment it is unclear whether or not the administration is prepared to send that signal in anything other than smothered semaphore, a condition that will not satisfy or sustain this effort no matter how politic it may seem on a day to day basis.

Without the announcement of and an immediate and sustained move to obtain victory in Iraq, the whole momentum of the Terrorist War, always shaky, will slow and, in time, reverse itself. At that point the administration will find itself in the often-predicted quagmire, except that it will be on its own making. It is perfectly feasible that in concentrating too hard on winning the hearts and mind of the Iraqi people, we will lose the Iraq portion of the war. Once that occurs then all that is left is to wait for the second and more deadly path to open in the Terrorist War.

The tragedy is that the second path, the path of Total War in which an all new rules of engagement comes into play, requires the triggering event of a second catastrophic attack on American civilians on American soil. That event, should it be allowed to occur, will cost the lives of thousands if not tens of thousands of American men, women and, this time, children. This is not to say that the clear quest for victory in Iraq, a quest that requires the utter defeat of the enemy no matter how dearly bought, will insure that no such attack happens in America. It is to say that, should we retreat from and fail to secure victory in Iraq, such an event moves from a probability to a certainty.

The American response to such another lethal attack on the homeland is not hard to visualize. The only question will be whether or not the state of total war that erupts will include nuclear weapons as a first option, or whether America will be content to level and destroy large Middle-Eastern states and populations with conventional weapons, holding back nuclear weapons as a final persuader. In either case, the opening salvos placed onto the countries involved will be far more staggering than anything seen since the closing days of the air war in the European and Pacific theaters of World War II.

But an air war against Iran, Syria, portions of Iraq and other Middle Eastern nations would only be the opening salvos. Indeed, it is not hard to see an extended air campaign as merely buying time while the country at last moves onto a war footing. Following the reinstitution of the draft in the United States and the conversion of its present economy of affluence to a war economy, an invasion and occupation of these areas of the world would follow. This time it would not be an occupation in search of a democracy, but one in search of vengeance and security for the United States. This situation would reshape the face of the Earth for generations and perhaps centuries to come. It would be a realignment of the political sphere at home and abroad not seen since Rome. And it will make Rome look like a mere off-hand study.

The specter of an America galvanized into a society that takes classic imperialism seriously is not something that the 21st century has any real preparation for, least of all the United States. But make no mistake, these changes would be the default state of the nation following any serious attack on its home soil. It would, within ten years, create a nation that does not resemble the United States of today. Exactly what it would be, I cannot say, but I would not like to find out.

Which is why we need to, in the coming six months, look very seriously at any policy which restrains the armed forces now in Iraq from pressing forward to victory. Fighting in Iraq with one hand behind our back and an overarching concern for civilian hearts and minds does not, in the long run, do anyone any favors.

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Posted by Vanderleun at January 13, 2005 9:06 PM | TrackBack
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

As I wrote on my own blog today (in reaction to the Dana Priest WaPo article) one of the reasons we need to press for victory in Iraq is that right now we're running the best possible training area for would-be terrorists and jihadis to perfect skills that are effective against us. If we don't achieve decisive victory against them, those people and skills will be exported all over the world—here, Europe, everywhere.

Posted by: Dave Schuler at January 14, 2005 8:22 AM

That event, should it be allowed to occur, will cost the lives of thousands if not tens of thousands of American men, women and, this time, children.

Not to detract from your excellent essay, but just to clarify this one, small area. There were child passengers on at least one of the aircraft on 9/11.

Posted by: P.A. Breault at January 14, 2005 8:31 AM

I think what Gerard was referring to was intentional targeting of children versus children as incidental collateral.

Posted by: phil g at January 14, 2005 8:53 AM

Phil, aka. Beslan. I agree. There was talk of something like that happening down in San Diego a few months ago. When they found those plans of the San Diego school in Iraq, combined with the scare that some AQ might have snuck across the US/Mexico border... Doing something like that, however, I don't think is in the terrorists "best interests" as that would just re-galvanize the American public. What we've got going on in Iraq (though I fully support it) is a slow leak. Like being "nibbled to death by ducks". There aren't any nuclear/bio/chem weapons being used, though those guys most likely have access to at the very least chlorine gas. What we're all seeing is 10,15 and on a big day 20 (average #'s) GI's being killed. I think American's *are* tired as we can see with slipping approval ratings and the "is the war worth it" figures. *shrugs*

/arm-chair quarterbacking

-Fat Kid

Posted by: fat kid at January 14, 2005 9:17 AM

I'd like to think that Americans still have the mettle to respond in such a forceful way to an attack. I know that I do, and I know that you do, and, being from the South, I know most men here still think the way their grandfathers did. I don't know about the rest of the country, but, if pop culture is any indication, it doesn't look good.
Let's hope we still have enough Americans who understand that dying to keep your people free and safe is the greatest thing a man could ever hope to accomplish and that, as a country, the correct way to respond to a hard punch in the gut is a fast bullet to the head.

Posted by: jared at January 14, 2005 9:18 AM

Gerard is clearly referring to a terrorist nuclear attack on the U.S. Read his earlier piece,"The Sacrifice and the Reckoning."

Posted by: Philomathean at January 14, 2005 9:39 AM

You got us thinking . . . thanks for the post.

Posted by: Chain Gang at January 14, 2005 9:54 AM

After three-plus years of the so-called War on Terror, much of it hidden from view, most of it confusing, the picture is somewhat coming into focus.

Tactically, there is plenty to admire: the U.S. military and its civilian overlords have shown an impressive creativity and ability to learn in action -- a far cry from the tradition of generals fighting the last war, as when sending wave after wave of infantry against machine guns.

Strategically, the story is different and troubling. The administation, despite occasional flashes of effective rhetoric, can't seem to clarify for Americans, much less the rest of the world, why we have taken on this heavy responsibility that everyone agrees is costly.

You have described with admirable precision what is at issue in Iraq and its neighborhood, yet the words from the presidential pulpit seem almost to want to play down geo-strategic considerations, and to sell the Iraq mission as foreign aid. Our soldiers, a few more of whom are blown up in each morning's headlines, are cast as social workers with guns. When the government talks about safeguarding the American people, it is usually in the context of justifying deep-shoe probes at airports.

I'm convinced that the overwhelming majority of Americans, except for part of a cohort that came of age in the 1960s, is willing to accept risk and sacrifice so that we are not at the mercy of Islamic fanatics with nuclear weapons and improvised explosive devices. They will not, and should not, tolerate the nation's sons and daughters being sent into detonation range to teach civics.

Offering the establishment of Middle Eastern democracy (a possible benefit, but not a convincing goal) in exchange for lives spent appeals to the delusion of another time, that prosperity and democracy will overcome all ill-will. Today it is not the generals who are fighting the last war; it's their political masters.

Posted by: Rick Darby at January 14, 2005 12:31 PM

I've commented on other blogs that I do not want peace with our enemies...I want victory over them. We are an especially tolerant and generous people. We did not make these enemies--they decided to become our enemies all on their own.

And you're completely right about the question of how we should respond to another WMD attack on our soil. [I say "another" because I view the 9/11 attacks as WMD attacks.] I do not want to live in a post-nuclear world, but more so, I do not want to live threatened constantly by Islamic extremists. Should we be attacked again, I hope the response is quick, and brutal.

Posted by: azlibertarian at January 14, 2005 7:08 PM

One additional thing, since no one else has commented on it...

Rule #1 in a Knife Fight is: Bring a Gun.

Posted by: azlibertarian at January 14, 2005 7:10 PM

I agree completely. This administrations blind spot is it's inability to make a coherent argument in defence of its war strategy and communicating it effectively. All administrations and leaders have their strengths and weaknesses, if this is the major weakness in this admin, I can live with it. There are many great communicators such as Gerard who are carrying the water for this admin in making the case. Hopefully it is enough.

Posted by: phil g at January 17, 2005 7:44 AM

The sheer enertia of big organizations drags at our ablity to take action in the Middle East. That and our fickle allies with their fragile egos. Everyone has an excuse not to act. Yet we have acted and with 3 elections, a Lebanon that is becoming free of Syria, and a Kadafi who has thrown down his WMD as though they were too hot to handle, we have actually been very successful. Kurdstan is peaceful and prospering. Many of the Shiite areas of Iraq are quiet. There are indicators that Al Qaeda is giving up and leaving the battle field. Their horse is looking tired in Iraq and it is not welcome in Afghanistan. That is some kind of victory. One that our troops have fought and bled for. And yet the ordinary public is unaware of much of this.
The problem of perception is not Bushes fault.
Our weakness is homegrown. All news is filtered though a dishonest liberal news media. And for political gain the Democratic party is trying to tear down the institutions that support the war. This is essentially suicidal, but they persist.
We are doing well, but this is a battle on many fronts and the most critical ones may be here at home.

Posted by: Rob at April 20, 2006 1:56 AM

The Salafist terrorists can only win if we prove weak willed to the point we cannot defend ourselves. Most of our history does not encourage this hope. There are numerous examples of enemies who have misunderestimated the soft corrupt old United States. Those would include our own slave owners in the South, Tojo, the Nazis, and the Barbary Pirates. The last were of course the Jihadists of their day. Only by having to fight ourselves, can we be defeated, and yet that is exactly the battle that we are engaged in. The leftist elites in the media, academia and permanent bureaucracy are at war with the war against terror. It is quite disspiriting to find your pleasant liberal neighors trying to commit suicide and take you with them. I think the liberals and the terrorists will fail. But then I am known as an optimist.

Posted by: Rob at June 3, 2006 9:17 PM

This war on terrorism not only gifted our presence in the middle east, but has also tightened our national security to top tier levels. The average person now is yielding some privileges back to the government ultimately to uphold "life,liberty and the pursuit of happiness". I'm all for it, but you need proper excavation and a solid foundation laid to build a structure. You can't build a house on sand.

Posted by: chris at January 17, 2007 10:08 PM
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