The fog of war

Friedrich's Wanderer above Sea and Fog

I honestly don’t know what to believe. The war in Iraq is unwinnable:

Protests were held across the United States. In Los Angeles, where mock coffins were carried, one Iraq veteran said the mood in Congress was changing because of public opposition to the war.

“You are telling that if you are going to represent me, you are going to bring this thing to an end because it is not working. It is over. We lost and it is time to bring the troops home before more of them are killed in an unwinnable, pointless bloodbath. And you are the ones who are going to make that happen,” he said.

The war in Iraq is being won:

I believe that the Sunnis and insurgents are now war weary, and that this is a turnaround point in the campaign to stabilize Iraq.


Al Qaeda will continue the fight long after the Iraqi battlefield becomes inhospitable to their cause, and they will only realize the futility of their endeavor after they are defeated on the wider Middle East battlefield and elsewhere in the world.

As the wider insurgency recedes, the Iraqi state will gain some breathing space to implement the rule of law and dissolve the death squads. A society that sets about rebuilding itself can endure the type of attacks mounted by Al Qaeda, although they are painful.

It’s too early to write off Iraq as long as a majority of the Iraqi people still have hope:

For those eager to write off Iraq as lost, one fact bears remembering. A great many Shiites and Kurds, who together make up 80 percent of the population, will tell you that in spite of all the mistakes the Americans have made here, the single act of removing Saddam Hussein was worth it. And the new American plan, despite all the obstacles, may have a chance to work.

Civil war can only be averted if a political solution is arrived at in Iraq:

The current political plan of President Bush and Prime Minister al-Maliki in establishing a US-backed coalition that includes the few Shia and Sunni parties that are justifying the occupation and working to divide Iraqi into three separate regions will do nothing other than increase the violence and confirm sectarian divisions.

Iraqi political groups like Al-Fadila party, Al-Sadr movement, the National Dialogue Front, the Reconciliation and Liberation Front, and many other Sunnis, Shias, Kurd, and Turkoman groups can’t see any chance for this Bush-Maliki plan to succeed. Because, unlike our plans, this plan is not based on a political solution that can put Iraqis together in building a non-sectarian government that aims to stabilize Iraq and end any foreign intervention.”

A political solution is impossible:

The centrifugal forces of; sect, ethnicity, politics and region continually threaten all these states with disruption and chaos. The answer which that “culture continent” has found for itself over the centuries has been to accept (however grudgingly) the autocratic rule of “strong men.” Brooks and his friends insisted to the “decider” that this tendency was more fiction than reality and that all that was needed to bring about accession of the Middle East to the Modern (democratic) World was a “hard knock.” Well, we knocked and in the process removed all the restraints on the savage rivalries implicit in all Middle Eastern societies.

Do you believe the soldier who fought there, the former INC functionary, the NYT journalist, the Iraqi scholar, or the American soldier-scholar? None of them? All of them? The ones who support your preferred outcome?

My own intuition is that there’s, essentially, no hope of Iraq becoming a liberal democracy worthy of the name at this point and, very likely, never was; that there is no way of our ameliorating the consequences of our withdrawing from Iraq in the state that it’s in now; that redefining our objectives in staying is necessary for it to make any sense at all; and that’s there’s very little constituency here for doing that.

Uncertainty is a central feature of war. The great Prussian scholar of war, Carl von Clausewitz, wrote of it this way:

Lastly, the great uncertainty of all data in war is a peculiar difficulty, because all action must, to a certain extent, be planned in a mere twilight, which in addition not unfrequently—like the effect of a fog or moonshine—gives to things exaggerated dimensions and an unnatural appearance.

What this feeble light leaves indistinct to the sight, talent must discover, or must be left to chance. It is therefore again talent, or the favour of fortune, on which reliance must be placed, for want of objective knowledge.

The fog can be attenuated with intelligence, illuminated by experience, or parted, briefly, by brilliant action or luck but it can’t be eliminated.

We are a people who are obsessed with numbers. Everything is measured, reduced to numbers, and analyzed. This isn’t new: our Constitution mandated that the country’s population be counted every ten years (to the best of my knowledge the first such mandate). It extends to our government, our work, and even our play. Is any pastime so bound up with numbers as is baseball?

There’s been no end of searches for metrics in understanding the situation in Iraq and you can lay your hands on a metric to prove anything you might happen already to believe. Budgets spent and misspent; elections held and votes counted; the inevitably mounting numbers of dead, reported periodically in science magazines, daily in blogs, and, when some number with magical significance has been reached, by the newspapers.

In the end, as Clausewitz tells us, the search is in vain. The fog is inevitable and impenetrable. Is he also right that the only forces we can rely on are talent and luck? Talent has been in short supply lately or, if present, may go unheeded.

10 comments… add one
  • kreiz Link

    I agree with your intuition, Dave. Not so long ago, the President defined success as “a stable, democratic Iraq which is our ally in the WOT”. Any one of the 3 success metrics is (and always was) remote. None of them seem achievable at this point. As M.Tak has commented, Iraq is a Vietnam-like quagmire without any of its strategic irrelevance. My sense is that the likely outcome is redefining success and withdrawing, presumably post-Bush.

  • PD Shaw Link

    A “liberal democracy” is not the same as “a stable, democratic Iraq which is our ally in the WOT.” Arguably Turkey is an example of the second, but not the first. If the Iraqi military emerges as one of the most competent post-invasion institutions, then the Turkish model may be where this thing is heading.

  • As Turkey moves towards Islamism, PD.

    The three-fold formulation above is Mr. Bush’s not mine. I agree, I think, with Fareed Zakaria that democracy other than liberal democracy isn’t worthy of the name. An illiberal democracy in Iraq is fully capable of killing or expelling its Sunni Arabs which would threaten the stability of the entire region.

  • a Vietnam-like quagmire without any of its strategic irrelevance

    If I may quote myself, Vietnam may have been a domino, but Iraq is the dice.

    *sigh* This is why I can’t muster the heart to write about it, Dave, except in comments on either blogs. I cannot stand the easy, smug defeatism of politicians selling back to the public a false version of its own true despair; but for that true despair, I blame the administration. I also can’t stand it that some people are still praising Bush’s resolve and wisdom and suggesting that not to do so is to be a Bush-hater moonbat traitor. We are in a God-awful situation; the Iraqis are in a far worse one. I have to support the last chance of the surge without trusting or admiring the administration that brought us to this pass. My slim hope is in the talent of David Petraeus.

  • The “surge” will provide operational stability for U.S. troops by enlarging the zone of (relative) normalcy in Baghdad to create a “green zone lite”. In itself, it is the right thing to do for military reasons but it doesn’t create strategic answers for our Iraqi problems.

    We need to change our goals to pragmatic and minimalist ones which might allow, at some point, a draw down to a quick-reaction force. Though not any time soon.

  • I still feel the way I’ve felt for some time…that we need to redeploy our troops and set up bases in Kurdistan, as the Kurds have begged us to do for quite some time.

    The only reason for us to be in Iraq is to have a strategic base against Iran in the region, to combat jihad. That’s what this war is and should be about, and the only reason Bush hasn’t is because his Saudi pals are agin’ it.

    Helping the Kurds set up a strong, independent Kurdistan would provide our troops with a safe, secure base, a steady ally and doubled combat strength without sending another American over there.

    Things might have been different if the Bush Administration had not allowed a bunch of corrupt, Iran friendly Shiite politicians into power, but that’s where we are now. As it is, the Shiites are already involved in the ethnic cleansing of Sunnis in Iraq…and with all the `happy talk’ about `insurgents’ being kiled nd arrested, I notice that it’s the Sunnis we’re fighting and al Sadr’s men who are going quietly.

    Obviously, a deal’s been struck.

    The reason for the malaise I think you feel, IMO, is that we are using our men’s lives and the national will to prop up something that is diametrically opposed to our interests.

    We need to concentrate on victory.

  • I think I’m a little more inclined to take Bush at his word than you are, FF. I think that the war in Iraq was and continues to be about establishing a stable, democratic Iraq that’s our ally in the War on Terror. It’s not an objective that I support for reasons of achievability in a politically possible timeframe but I think it continues to be Bush’s objective.

    As to the Shi’ite-dominated Iraqi government, that’s simply a consequence of democracy in Iraq—that’s what the numbers say.

    As to the Kurds, I think you’re a little overly optimistic. The Kurds like us as long as we’re their buffer against the Arabs to the south, the Turks to the West, and the Iranians to the east. I doubt they’re quite as reliable as you may think.

  • Ymarsakar Link

    I don’t want a “liberal democracy” in Iraq. Liberal democracies have protests like the one we saw in DC. Liberal democracies have Muslims infiltrating them, like we see in Britain. Liberal democracies are Weak, they are brittle, and they sure as hell have problems laying down Law and Order in chaotic situations.

    What I want is a Spartan State in Iraq. The Kurds are a great example of what I’m talking about. The Iraqis won’t be as good as them, but they can become adequate for the war ahead.

    The Kurds are more reliable than most people think. And this is not just based off of personal recounts by Michael Totten and Hitchins.

    Everything else recounted concerning the analysis of the politics by FF, is wrong in my view.

    The Kurds are more reliable than Britain, Australia, Japan, and California put together. It is because the Kurds are a warrior people from warrior cultures, like the Gurkhas are. They have a very strong tradition that binds, and because of this tradition and their history under Saddam, they are sealed to the United States military by loyalty of an almost clannish strength.

    To use a Hitchins story. He was in a vehicle with some kurds before 2001, and he saw a pic of Herbert Bush on the car that the Kurds used. And he asked “why do you have this mofo basturd(or some other colorful term) on this vehicle when he was the one who hanged you guys out to dry”.

    The answer was short and to the point.

    “Because without Bush, I don’t think we would still be here by now” (reference no fly zones)

    The Kurds have a can do attitude. Very American in tone. While many alliances are created based upon mutual interest, the ties that bind Kurds to Americans and vice a versa are steeped not so much in common interests as in common understanding of the other. American soldiers like and understand the Kurds, and vice a versa. Many American soldiers have recounted the difference between talking to a Kurd and talking to a Sunni. The sunnis being all “Inshallah” while the Kurds are “can do”. This was from Michael Yon.

    The Kurds like us even after America’s mistakes.

  • Dave — The only thing I know for certain is that this is an outstanding post. How refreshing it is to read someone who doesn’t claim to have all the answers!

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