Thursday, August 18, 2005

The Epilogue, Part II

Wheat to the Left, Chaff to the Right

Dan Darling references many of the outright frightening consequences that a failed Iraq could lead to, as I mentioned in Part I. In addition, he talks about some of the political fallout, such as a setback for the effort of encouraging democratic change in the Muslim world - most of which I agree with. There are, however, points of departure between me and Mr. Darling. For example, Darling writes:

If the US withdraws and Iraq collapses and the Middle East destabilizes as a result, support among both the American public and the political establishment for any future military intervention is going to be out of the question for the immediate future. That's bad from where I'm standing because, for all the discussion of de-militarizing the war on terrorism, al-Qaeda is still out there, a point I would think would be rather painfully obvious by everything that's happened this summer in Ayodhya, London, and Sharm el-Sheikh among other locations worldwide.
I actually think that, with some clarification, the thing that Darling fears is what I hope for. If Americans do not walk away from the Iraq invasion with an understanding of the limits, if not the counter-productiveness, of military intervention in many contexts (particularly the ill named "War on Terror"), then that would truly be a tragic blunder and an unsettling harbinger of mistakes to be repeated in the future. Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that we should develop an across the board, knee-jerk prejudice against the use of military force when necessary, but we must lose this belief that military intervention is an effective solution in more ways than what is practical - or that it is an effective vehicle for mass social change.

Still, it's not that Darling's concerns are hollow. Whatever the outcome in Iraq, we must, as a nation, remain aware of the fact that certain military uses are necessary evils - for example invading Afghanistan to disrupt the Al Qaeda infrastructure and remove the Taliban government that was providing sanctuary was necessary and, if anything, was not given enough or as sustained an effort as needed. We must stave off the most extreme cases of a potential "Iraq Syndrome."

Nevertheless, I am confident that the American people would treat the next Afghanistan the same way - regardless of the onset of Iraq Syndrome. For all of this nation's virtues, and there are many, throughout its history America has never really shown an aversion to using force. After all, in the era of the "Vietnam Syndrome," in which America was supposedly so disillusioned by Vietnam that it was unwilling to project force around the globe, we engaged in military campaigns in Beirut, Grenada, Panama, Haiti, the Balkans in multiple versions, Somalia, the Persian Gulf - twice!, and Afghanistan. Not to mention proxy wars and "advisory roles" in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Afghanistan, numerous African nations, etc. In other words, don't fret about a gun shy America.

Let me frame a hypothetical to illustrate the distinction of life post-Iraq, even post-Iraq failure. The ruling regime in Sudan is destabilized, and a radical Islamist regime takes over which provides sanctuary and succor to Al Qaeda. Then there is another major terrorist attack on US soil that originates from the Sudan-based Al Qaeda leadership. My expectation is that the American people would recognize that military intervention would be necessary, and if the intelligence was available and reliable, hopefully we could have intervened in the hypothetical Sudan before the terrorist attack ever occurred.

But, and this is the key, in the aftermath of the attack, while emotions are raw and fear is rampant, the American people must not allow themselves to be manipulated into thinking that another country unrelated to the attack or Sudan, say Iran, should be invaded also. I hope that we have learned our lesson from Iraq that we must keep our eye on the goal, and not be lured into diversionary excursions that actually drain the military, intelligence and financial resources needed to combat violent extremists while providing those same extremists with a boon in terms of support, recruitment, training and networking. Even if the war is sold with the specter of nuclear Armageddon, and even if it is packaged as the domino tipping panacea to all the world's ills.

Part of this learning process must be to come to grips with the reality that a John Podhoretz, David Frum, Richard Perle, William Kristol, Weekly Standard-style
World War IV - which envisions the United States marching from Iraq, to Iran, to Syria, and to other Muslim nations in between, "liberating" them, implanting democracy and expunging terrorism in the process is reckless beyond words. First of all, as even David Brooks has been forced to acknowledge, democracy doesn't necessarily prevent terrorism and, unfortunately, democratic nations (such as France, Spain, England, Italy, etc) produce jihadist terrorist too. Second, such nation building writ large, or even on a small scale, requires a confluence of luck, underlying institutional development, a willing populace, economic preconditions, internal pressure, and a host of other tangible and intangibles that are not easily brought about by external actors - let alone via the barrel of a gun. And that's just in the country that is the target of our largesse. Our own needs (financial, military, diplomatic, etc) must also enter the equation and limit these big dreams.

Instead, we must shift our thinking in the broader clash against violent extremists, and in Iraq itself, to the understanding that in both cases we are fighting a counterinsurgency.
Francis Fukuyama said it quite well, so I will return to him:
The War on Terror is, in other words, a classic counter-insurgency war, except that it is one being played out on a global scale. There are genuine bad guys out there who are much more bitter ideological enemies than the Soviets ever were, but their success depends on the attitudes of the broader populations around them who can be alternatively supportive, hostile or indifferent-depending on how we play our cards. As we are seeing vividly in Iraqi cities like Fallujah and Najaf, counter-insurgency wars are incredibly difficult to fight, because we must somehow destroy the enemy without alienating the broader population and making things worse. Counter-insurgency requires a tricky mixture of precisely targeted force, political judgment and extremely good intelligence: a combination of carrots and sticks.
Fukuyama touches on an important point for both Iraq and the War on Terror: when you use military force, you inevitably alienate the people you are trying to influence and in turn greatly assist your enemies. In Afghanistan, this was a necessary evil - mitigated in many ways by the appearance of legitimacy and of a just cause, even in the Muslim world. In Iraq, we were greeted with suspicion, mistrust and animosity - a platform unable to sustain such grandiose plans. This was only made worse by the inescapable brutality of war.

recently cited a succinct and informative article entitled Best Practices In Counterinsurgency which appeared in a recent issue of the Military Review. These experts on counterinsurgency point to something that has been much derided in the US press, especially when it was uttered by John Kerry in the past election.

Intelligence operations that help detect terrorist insurgents for arrest and prosecution are the single most important practice to protect a population from threats to its security. [emphasis added]
To see this in action, let's take Darling's examples of Al Qaeda still being "out there" which he cites in reference to his hope that Americans don't abandon the use of the military: the recent attacks in Ayodhya, India, London, England and Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt "among other locations worldwide." What Dan doesn't address, though, is what, exactly, could military intervention have been used for in any of those settings? Could military intervention have prevented any of those attacks? Should we have invaded England? Would an invasion of Egypt have prevented or caused more terrorism? In urging us to keep military options on the table, he cites examples where only intelligence operations would have succeeded. This is true for most examples of terrorist attacks and prevention. When cells are embedded in non-hostile nations, the military is an ill-suited tool to remove them. The sanctuary in Afghanistan was the exception, not the rule.

Just fill in the blank in this sentence: "The War on Terror would be going so much better right now if we would only invade [insert country]." Is there such a country out there where invasion would not do more harm than good? The answer is no if you truly understand what counterinsurgency means, and what steps we must take to marginalize and isolate the violent extremists from the moderate majority. Dan Darling continues:

Given that the US withdrawal from Iraq will result in a recruiting bonanza for the group as well as an affirmation that everything bin Laden and his acolytes have been saying is correct, it puts the organization in a position where they can basically attack the United States with impunity without fear of anything save 1990s-style arrests and extraditions or token reprisals. The military option, in other words, will have been removed from the table for the immediate future during a period when it will be most needed.
Here I think Darling is misreading the situation in terms of what our responses would be, no matter the outcome in Iraq. There is no way the US government, no matter the administration or result in Iraq, would return to the same perspective on Al Qaeda that we had in the 1990s and early 2000s. You simply can't turn back the clock, nor should we. The US will aggressively use its intelligence assets to roll up cells, hound Bin Laden (maybe even find him, huh?), and strike out at any sanctuary we can locate (within reason, and within the confines of maintaining necessary alliances that exist even in the post-9/11 world). To suggest we were really using these resources in the 1990s is to belittle the many successes in this arena since 9/11.

The thought that Bin Laden would be able to sit back in open sight and strike us without retaliation would require more than a loss in Iraq. That being said, as mentioned above, it is unlikely that the military option would be the most effective anti-Bin Laden measure in most circumstances. But where it was needed, the American people wouldn't need any convincing. They might be doubting the lethality of Saddam at this point, but not Bin Laden. I wonder sometimes if the Bush administration has not had this formulation inverted. As newly declassified documents from the State Department indicate, we began planning the Iraq invasion less than two months after 9/11, with Bin Laden and his cohorts still alive and kicking.

(In Part III, I will discuss how we can better apply the lessons on counterinsurgency and marginalization directly to the Iraq campaign)

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