April 5, 2004

Wilsonian Dreams, Jacksonian Realities

In his Monday morning warm-up for the week to come Andrew Sullivan cycles back to the 'too-few-troops in Iraq' observation:

More and more, it seems hard to avoid inferring that we made one huge mistake: not in liberating Iraq, but in attempting to occupy it with relatively few troops. You have to have unquestioned security before any sort of democracy can begin to function. But, under the Rumsfeld plan, we never had the numbers or resources to do precisely that.
As I recall, this observation of "not enough boots on the ground" has been around since well before the actual invasion of Iraq last year. It seems to me to be an argument that misses the point. I don't ever recall generals complaining that they had too many men and were satisfied with the number of men they had. In war onne would always like to have more soldiers. But there are not always more troops to be had and at some point generals are told to do what they can with those they do have.

So on one side, there's a constant call for more troops from an already over-extended military that squanders large numbers of troops by stationing them in places that need little defense, such as Europe. On the other side, there's the instruction -- notably within the Rumsfeld camp -- to do more with less -- the "No more hires, let's just up our productivity!" argument. A resolution might be found if you could somehow bring the "level of force" camp into agreement with the "use of force" camp -- a "more with more" meets "more with less" concord.

But a "more with more" and "more with less" compromise cannot currently exist for two reasons. The first is a political environment which precludes a "more with more" argument to be advanced in an election year. For while it is clear that to carry the task of the nation forward beyond Iraq in the First Terrorist War, the military needs to expand significantly, any significant expansion touches on two elements -- money and (instant political death) the draft.

Many things will be discussed this year but neither increased military spending nor a draft will be among them, even though the contingency plans for both are no doubt already sitting somewhere in the Pentagon -- complete with fresh Power Point presentations. And while it would be possible for either a Kerry or a Bush to muscle through more military spending following an election, only a second-term President could move to reinstate the draft, and for that even he would need a triggering event.

That leaves "more with less" as the only effective current option in the First Terrorist War. But, frankly, "more with less" cannot be accomplished either. And this second reason our efforts towards victory are hampered is the real elephant in the Oval Office.

What weakens our military the most in the occupation of Iraq and elsewhere in the First Terrorist War is not our enemy, but our present doctrines of force. What weakens us is not so much the numbers of our forces, but the rules of engagement that inhibit the power of these forces from being fully deployed.

The full deployment of US battle space is something any enemy of the United States seeks to avoid at all costs. This is because anything that comes within a deployed US battle space is quickly and decisively destroyed. To defeat the United States, an enemy needs to be able to prevent the space from being deployed, seek to operate outside it, or to leave it at speed. In any case, the enemy depends upon the United States following its announced rules of engagement to survive in a war against it. He has seldom been disappointed in recent memory.

The overarcing rules or policies of engagement are based on two long standing fantasies of the United States government, its military and its people. The first fantasy is that we can be victorious and still minimize casualties among our troops. The second fantasy is that we can be victorious and avoid any significant collateral damage.

While either one of these fantasies alone might have some reality, both together add up to pure delusion. A delusion that flatters us and our vision of ourself as a kind and caring nation, but a delusion just the same. Our shared delusion is that, with enough planning and care, you can have a war where only the enemy dies; that you can have cake all around and on the house and the same cake tomorrow. A new American dream.

This dream has been the hope of a number of administrations, Republican and Democrat, for decades. It is a Wilsonian dream.** But it is, as we have seen, see now and will see later, only a long nightmare with a pleasant smile. The four American bodies turn into charred pinatas in Fallujah last week show us the nightmare inside our dream. The daily toll on our troops across Iraq show us the futility of our hope. Still we are pressing on with that hope in hand as our guiding policy. We persist in the belief that our technology and careful military planning will yield us, very soon now, that Utopian wars where only the enemy dies. Our military dream arises from our social dream that our advanced technology will, in the end, trump history.

The reality is that a technologically driven Utopia, civilian and military, will prove, as it always has, to be a dream defered. Instead our waking reality will be that every day we shall see an indeterminate number of Americans sacrificed to this foolish dream until, in one manner or another, the people or our leaders decide that enough have died and the quest for too much perfection is a mistake.

At that point, two options arise. The first is withdrawal into our homeland with an ABM roof and the hope that the world will somehow right itself, but that our military will remain safe to be used only to repair the annual flood damage or hurricane catastrophe. The second is to abandon the concept that global wars can be won with either few casualties or little collateral damage, but not both, and proceed accordingly.

One of the central premises of our enemies in the First Terrorist War holds that we cannot abide casualties and, if large enough or constant enough, America will prove itself unable to face the unremitting attrition of our military men and women. We know this because they have told us.

It is not important that the sum total of our losses be large, only that they are constant. In this, the morbid daily "salutes" on PBS and other media outlets for the one to ten soldiers a day who die in Iraq works in our enemies' favor. (It is worth reflecting that, if this were a war where we engage other armies similarly equipped, the losses on a daily basis would consume more air-time than available for the entire news report. The first few moments at Normandy in WW II were more costly in casualties than the first decade of the First Terrorist War.)

Numbers, in the final analysis, are not the point. What is important is the continuing perception of loss that our enemy counts on to weaken our resolve. Indeed, attrition in Iraq coupled with no attacks on American soil during the election year would seem to be a fruitful tactic for our enemies to pursue. To date they have, but it is best never to credit them with more intelligence than they possess.

Another premise on which our enemies depend in attacking us in Iraq is that the American military will go to great lengths to avoid collateral damage; that it will even sacrifice the safety, fighting strength and ability of our own troops to do so. The tactics and strategies of the Terrorist organizations center around this assumption. To date, their assumption has proved correct.* Regardless of the much trumpeted "lesson of Iraq" to other rogue nations, towns, regions and entire nations continue today to give refuge, munitions, training and rest areas to terrorists secure in the knowledge that we will not pursue them with all the force at our command. Not only do the terrorists feel safe in many areas behind their "human shields," the shields feel safe as well.

In tactical terms this means we cannot attack their fighting elements or their lines of resupply aggressively. In strategic terms it means that their centers of cultural and political and military strength remain safe from any devastating raids from the air or the land. What they have forced us to play at is a fantasy WWII where Japan and Germany were placed off-limits to military action, while we sought victory by fighting only on the edges of the conflict. This is a recipe tailor-made for a war without end and, had we followed it in WWII, endless war we would have had.

Today, endless war is what we are looking at. It is not so much that we have or do not have an "exit strategy" for Iraq, what we do not have -- hamstrung as we are in the Siamese-Twin policy of "low-to-no military casualties" joined at the head to "low-to-no collateral damage" -- is a strategy that will end the First Terrorist War.

Perhaps we do have a new strategy in hand, but it is not one that can be announced in an election year absent a triggering attack on United States' soil. Absent that, what is now will continue at least through November of this year. Our enemies will continue their attacks on our military such as we see today in Iraq. Our enemies will continue their attacks on civilian populations such as we saw on September 11 in 2001 and in Madrid of this year. They will continue to rely on us to seek to keep our military casualties low and their civilian populations and centers of social and cultural safe from any real harm. As it currently stands, it is safer to be a muslim in Saudi Arabia and Syria, than a citizen of France or Spain.Our enemies rely on us to, in short, react as Isreal has done to terrorism for decades. We have, to date, been at pains not to disappoint.

Our enemies depend on us to continue to react in the Wilsonian tradition of being the sort of Americans that only seek to give the gifts of freedom, democracy, and self-rule to a collection of peoples that cannot earn it in their own right. They depend on us to hold our Jacksonian tradition of waging total war on our enemies in check. Total war, brought to innocent civilians, using all the means at their command is something that our enemies reserve as their sole prerogative. We have, to date, proven to be dependable.

Our enemies see us as an impatient, wary, predictable giant unable to withstand constant light casualties, constantly fearful of civilian losses at home, and yet unwilling to wage total war against them and the villages, cities, nations and cultures that sustain them. Is their confidence in this assessment misplaced? Or have they read us correctly? The coming year will tell that tale. What comes after will shape the history of the century to come.

* As this is being written on April 5, military actions in Fallujah and elsewhere in Iraq may signal that the safety of terrorists within village or city strongholds is being questioned. Whether this signals a change in the overall policy of allowing the enemy to maintain its centers is doubtful. That it signals a tactical change in Iraq is more certain. Whether those tactics will be exported beyond the present needs in Iraq is unclear.

** For an excellent background item on the Wilsonian vs. Jacksonian traditions in American foreign policy, I would commend you to: Michael Totten's "Are the Jacksonians Sated?" at Tech Central.

Posted by Vanderleun at April 5, 2004 8:33 AM | TrackBack
Bookmark and Share