The Impossibility of Victory

In yesterday’s Washington Post retired Lt. Gen. William Odom had an op-ed that I genuinely looked forward to reading. Gen. Odom was the Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence of the Army and served as head of the NSA under Reagan. IIRC, Gen. Odom opposed the invasion of Iraq from the very beginning on the grounds that the objective of realizing a stable, democratic Iraq friendly to the U. S. was unachievable. He believed and still believes that we should withdraw our troops from Iraq immediately.

My own position on the invasion of Iraq isn’t terribly far from Gen. Odom’s: I believed then and believe now that establishing a stable, democratic Iraq friendly to the U. S. is unachievable using means and within a timeframe that’s politically acceptable in the U. S. As to the other objectives for invading Iraq (eliminating Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction and removing Saddam Hussein) I believed that containing Saddam was working and maintaining that containment was politically more possible in the United States than establishing a stable democratic Iraq friendly to the U. S. would be.

Where I differ from Gen. Odom is that I believe that the consequences of our leaving Iraq in the shape that it’s in now would be worse than those of our staying there. With Democratic presidential candidates engaged in a bidding war on when we’ll withdraw from Iraq and support for an indefinite military presence in Iraq from practically no one, that’s becoming an increasingly difficult position to maintain, so I’d hoped that Gen. Odom would persuade me that immediate withdrawal from Iraq was the right thing to do.

I was disappointed.

It’s times like this that I wish the trivium (grammer, logic, and rhetoric) were still taught in the schools.

Gen. Odom writes:

There never has been any right way to invade and transform Iraq. Most Americans need no further convincing, but two truths ought to put the matter beyond question:

I agree with this.

The obstacle is not Arabs as persons, it’s Arab and Muslim culture:

First, the assumption that the United States could create a liberal, constitutional democracy in Iraq defies just about everything known by professional students of the topic. Of the more than 40 democracies created since World War II, fewer than 10 can be considered truly “constitutional” — meaning that their domestic order is protected by a broadly accepted rule of law, and has survived for at least a generation. None is a country with Arabic and Muslim political cultures. None has deep sectarian and ethnic fissures like those in Iraq.

On this I’m in agreement, too. I’ve further speculated that key problems include tribalism, the role of women, and the diglossic character of the Arabic language, which is a barrier to real literacy for average people.

Being pro-American is politically impossible in Iraq:

Second, to expect any Iraqi leader who can hold his country together to be pro-American, or to share American goals, is to abandon common sense.

I’m largely in agreement with this. Gen. Odom then takes on the arguments against withdrawal:

1) We must continue the war to prevent the terrible aftermath that will occur if our forces are withdrawn soon. Reflect on the double-think of this formulation. We are now fighting to prevent what our invasion made inevitable! Undoubtedly we will leave a mess — the mess we created, which has become worse each year we have remained. Lawmakers gravely proclaim their opposition to the war, but in the next breath express fear that quitting it will leave a blood bath, a civil war, a terrorist haven, a “failed state,” or some other horror. But this “aftermath” is already upon us; a prolonged U.S. occupation cannot prevent what already exists.

At least for me there’s no double-think involved. I just think that things can get worse if we leave and are likely to do so. Nothing in what Gen. Odom asserts here contradicts that. I’d really like to be persuaded.

2) We must continue the war to prevent Iran’s influence from growing in Iraq. This is another absurd notion. One of the president’s initial war aims, the creation of a democracy in Iraq, ensured increased Iranian influence, both in Iraq and the region. Electoral democracy, predictably, would put Shiite groups in power — groups supported by Iran since Saddam Hussein repressed them in 1991. Why are so many members of Congress swallowing the claim that prolonging the war is now supposed to prevent precisely what starting the war inexorably and predictably caused? Fear that Congress will confront this contradiction helps explain the administration and neocon drumbeat we now hear for expanding the war to Iran.

No argument here. Once upon a time our foreign policy with respect to the Middle East (support for oppressive regimes) was predicated on something called the “Twin Pillars of Defense”: alliance with largely Shi’a Iran on the one hand and the largely Sunni Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on the other, as regional powers preserving stability in the region. That policy has been in a shambles since President Carter imprudently allowed Iran to become a radical Islamist theocracy.

3) We must prevent the emergence of a new haven for al-Qaeda in Iraq. But it was the U.S. invasion that opened Iraq’s doors to al-Qaeda. The longer U.S. forces have remained there, the stronger al-Qaeda has become. Yet its strength within the Kurdish and Shiite areas is trivial. After a U.S. withdrawal, it will probably play a continuing role in helping the Sunni groups against the Shiites and the Kurds. Whether such foreign elements could remain or thrive in Iraq after the resolution of civil war is open to question. Meanwhile, continuing the war will not push al-Qaeda outside Iraq. On the contrary, the American presence is the glue that holds al-Qaeda there now.

Again, Gen. Odom doesn’t contradict the assertion: he just says it’s “open to question”. Thin gruel. I have particular problems with this statement:

On the contrary, the American presence is the glue that holds al-Qaeda there now.

It seems to me that, in the absence of an American presence in Anbar province, al-Qaeda is quite capable of maintaining a substantial presence without “American glue”. I seem to remember a substantial presence of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan without any presence of Americans whatever.

4) We must continue to fight in order to “support the troops.” This argument effectively paralyzes almost all members of Congress. Lawmakers proclaim in grave tones a litany of problems in Iraq sufficient to justify a rapid pullout. Then they reject that logical conclusion, insisting we cannot do so because we must support the troops. Has anybody asked the troops?

I don’t make this argument but it seems to be made pretty frequently by milbloggers. As I suppose Gen. Odom would say, it’s open to question.

Gen. Odom then arranges the bones of “a strategy that might actually bear fruit”.

The first and most critical step is to recognize that fighting on now simply prolongs our losses and blocks the way to a new strategy. Getting out of Iraq is the pre-condition for creating new strategic options. Withdrawal will take away the conditions that allow our enemies in the region to enjoy our pain. It will awaken those European states reluctant to collaborate with us in Iraq and the region.

With this statement I begin to see the reason for the difference between Gen. Odom’s views and my own: he’s an optimist. I see no reason whatever that European states (presumably France and Germany) will suddenly be energized by our withdrawl from Iraq and Gen. Odom presents no evidence to that effect.

Second, we must recognize that the United States alone cannot stabilize the Middle East.

I am in complete agreement with this statement. But there’s a caveat, too: a stability in the Middle East that enshrines support for violent radical Islamists who fly planes into buildings, set bombs in mass transit systems, and launch missiles into neighboring countries isn’t in either U. S. or European interests, either. I don’t see anybody lining up to preserve any other sort of stability in the Middle East and that particular variety which includes “support for oppressive regimes” and “occupation” has become unsustainable.

Third, we must acknowledge that most of our policies are actually destabilizing the region. Spreading democracy, using sticks to try to prevent nuclear proliferation, threatening “regime change,” using the hysterical rhetoric of the “global war on terrorism” — all undermine the stability we so desperately need in the Middle East.

Gosh, I wish he’d presented some alternatives here. One attractive alternative I’ve heard—a sort of Chinese model in which United States and Europe encourages economic development in the region—has IMO the defect that it won’t work fast enough to head off a real conflagration.

Fourth, we must redefine our purpose. It must be a stable region, not primarily a democratic Iraq. We must redirect our military operations so they enhance rather than undermine stability. We can write off the war as a “tactical draw” and make “regional stability” our measure of “victory.” That single step would dramatically realign the opposing forces in the region, where most states want stability. Even many in the angry mobs of young Arabs shouting profanities against the United States want predictable order, albeit on better social and economic terms than they now have.

With this I’m in the most agreement of all. We’re in desperate need of redefining our objectives. Unfortunately, it’s not clear to me that withdrawing from Iraq and accepting all of the implications of that would facilitate that process.

10 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw Link

    I would like to see the list of 40 post WWII democracies and in particular, the 30 that have failed to maintain constitutional democracies. I think the bar is being set too high. Liberal, constitutional, pro-American and within the time-frame of America’s fickle attentions? Impossible. How long did it take America to become liberal and constitutional. I’m thinking about the Alien & Sedition Acts, Andrew Jackson’s populist anti-constitutionalism, slavery and equal rights, frontier justice, and women’s suffrage. I am betting the 30 might not sound bad if they were identified. Where is South Korea?

    I note Freedom House lists 42 free countries in 1972 and 90 free countries in 2006. That doesn’t mean that they are constitutional, but it reinforces my impression that Odom is picking his evidence to support his preconceived view.

  • it reinforces my impression that Odom is picking his evidence to support his preconceived view.

    There’s a lot of that going around.

    I note, however, that, when the Administration does it, it’s “lying”; when anyone else does it it’s “zealous advocacy”.

  • Good article and two very cogent comments. In my mind, it ties into the Feith controversy in which, essentially, advocacy was disguised as intelligence.

    I have a lot of respect for Mr. Odom and have read a couple of his books on intelligence (excellent reads, btw), but I don’t agree with his prescription here for largely the same reasons as you Dave.

    But beyond that, the increasing “conventional wisdom” that Iraq is unwinnable is not as wise at it may appear. First we have to define “winning” or at least what we believe is a desirable and achievable end-state. I’m disappointed the elites in America are too busy focusing on pre-war intelligence or body counts or the politically expedient rhetoric of the day to have this sort of fundamental discussion. In my view, the greatest obstacle in Iraq now is that we’re not working toward a common strategic goal. Those, like Gen. Odom, advocating immediate withdrawal have not put forth much in the way of strategic objectives. It seems to me that’s putting the cart before the horse – we must have a strategic objective and only then can we evaluate various policy options, like troop withdrawal, to see if they will further that objective. I know this line of reasoning is probably preaching to the choir here.

    Furthermore, I’m not in the “conventional wisdom” camp that believes we can’t achieve a semblance of GWB’s goal of a peaceful, stable and democratic Iraq. I think that goal is achievable, but will require a generational commitment and an acceptance (and possibly support), in the interim, of some nasty and unpalatable actions. My thinking here is along the lines of El Salvador where American support decided a civil war that eventually led to liberalization and freedom. Freedom house rates El Salvador as one of the 90 “free” countries. To get there, however, required a bloody civil war with tacit American support of brutal tactics including deaths squads. And the American support consisted primarily of training, funding and weapons provided by less than 100 advisors.

    A similar course of action could take place in Iraq, but it would require a lot of changes on the ground and, to put it mildly, American support for morally questionable practices. There are other options as well that could be considered, but no one in any position of power or prominence is discussing them. Instead the discussion is one of withdrawal and timetables for “achievement.”

  • I was just forwarded an email from a friend in Iraq that’s been making the rounds. It’s originator is Gen Barry McCaffrey. Rather than post the entire email here, I googled it and someone already has a copy on their blog:

    I don’t agree with everything, but overall it’s a pretty good assessment.

  • I have no idea as to the authenticity of the email but this

    If we and the Iraqi government cannot achieve stability and a military US withdrawal in the coming very few years…the region and US interests are going to be severely menaced for the next 10 years or more. The Mid-East is vital to our international interests…Vietnam was not.

    is something that I’ve been hammering here for some time.

  • Yeah, I can’t verify its authenticity yet either, but I’ve received it several times now as a forwarded message from friends in Iraq. I’m sure its pedigree will be revealed in the next day or two but so far it looks legit.

  • Ken Hoop Link

    If you accept the early premises of America’s inadequacies together with
    Arabic tribalism mentioned by Odom-and you did-it follows that America has no ethical or strategic defense for staying in Iraq.

    Your weakness at following through is hinted at in your tacit approval of America’s former assistance to the Shah’s pro-Israel and anti-Islamic
    regime. The CIA assassinated the popular Mossadegh in 1953 and set the anti-American sentiment in just motion.

    Every moderate Arab government tell us if we wish to retain any
    respect and influence in the region and stem jihad recruitment in their
    nations, we must force a settlement on the Israelis.

    Obviously it will take a defiant and clever American statesmen
    to pinpoint for the general public and cow into submission the Lobby
    which prevents this. Until he arises, America has nothing to offer
    a region which well understands the Lobby better than most of
    our citizens do.

  • kreiz Link

    Dave, I don’t have anything meaningful to add to the discussion. Just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed the piece. I’ve read it several times. Clear-thinking and provocative- your usual excellent job.

  • “None has deep sectarian and ethnic fissures like those in Iraq.”

    Like perhaps….India ?

    The much mythologized Mossadegh was not assassinated, Ken.

  • It’s times like this that I wish the trivium (grammer, logic, and rhetoric) were still taught in the schools.

    They are, at St. John’s College. 😉

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