Monday, October 23, 2006

It Comes In Threes...

While it can, at times, require one to concoct elaborate rationalizations just to mute the cacophony of cognitive dissonance, the effort expended in preserving illusions of belief, and concealing errors in judgment, can seem an acceptable price to pay when considering the unsavory alternative: actually admitting one's error. Owning up to mistakes is, undoubtedly, a painful process that hauntingly reverberates in ones consciousness and memory. But there is value in going through these ordeals: such introspective reckoning signifies the attainment of a certain level of maturity, integrity and wisdom. That is growth.

That being said, human beings have never shown a particular penchant for delaying gratification, or eagerly embracing the hard work and toil required for personal growth. The reluctance to admit fallibility is not a quirk unique to our current President - even if he has taken this trait to ridiculous extremes. As an alternative to acknowledging the consequences of our actions, we tend to reach for the analgesic properties locked away in narratives of victimization, blame of the other and a general deflection of responsibility.

Considering this facet of human nature against the backdrop of the tragically deteriorating situation in Iraq, it should come as no surprise to see a caravan of excuses and explanations emigrating, head to tail, from the deserts of Mesopotamia. Each camel-borne parcel an elixir - every argument a salve - designed to ease the psychological burden plaguing the advocates of a policy that has resulted in staggering carnage at mind-boggling costs (already).

To my eye, there have been three narratives that have emerged, thus far, which have resonated most profoundly with those seeking relief from the symptoms of dissonance without having to undertake the messy work of addressing the pathology. There are three exotic storylines that are all the rage in the bazaar, and as if by some cosmic force of kizmet, our own Ralph Peters has been kind enough to collect all three under his merchant's tent:

First, there is the blame the media/liberals model. According to this often contradictory storyline, things aren't as bad in Iraq as the media/liberals claim, and though they are actually as bad as advertised, they wouldn't be had the media/liberals not been exaggerating/reporting the negative stories from the beginning. If not for Nancy Pelosi and the New York Times, none of the insurgencies would have emerged, nor civil wars erupted. Even if they had, we would have beaten the insurgents and sectarian warriors back with the omnipotent sound of our nation's applause in unison. We have been stabbed in the back by the traitors within.

Second, and picking up steam as of late, is the blame the Iraqis brand rationalization. The marketing campaign claims that the Iraqi people are too petulant, violent, rapacious, vindictive and inherently uncivilized to accept the gift of 'shock and awe' liberation that George Bush magnanimously imposed on them. If only Iraqis were more appreciative of Bush's invasion, they might have the decency to get in line as the supply side embracing, pro-US/Israel ally we expect and deserve. Our noble effort, and its humble messenger, have been betrayed. This product fits well, is multi-purposed (can be used to sell the next war of "necessity," if not liberation, given the inherent Muslim/Arab nature), and it is augmented by feelings of superiority/exceptionalism and highlights of religious and ethnic discrimination.

Third, and perhaps the trendiest this season, is the story that our defeat in Iraq is the result of our excessive kindness - our shock and awe just wasn't awful enough. In our effort to liberate Iraqis from the tyranny and brutality of Saddam, we failed because our tactics did not sufficiently resemble...the tyrannical brutality of Saddam.

Melanie Morgan donned this latest fashion in an appearance with Chris Matthews recently [emphasis mine]:

Look, I’m not a cheerleader for the President of the United States. Um, I...I believe that he made the right decision and he did it for the right reasons. I don’t agree with all of the way the war has been prosecuted. I think we should have gone in and just blitzed Iraq. We haven’t had a, a serious war, really, since WWII.
"Blitzed"? Er, poor choice of words there Melanie. Beyond the self-inflicted Godwin wound, is there any actual evidence that a more comprehensive, prolonged campaign of aerial bombardment of Iraqi cities would have improved our chances? If so, please make the strategic case, because I'd love to hear it. At the very least, such a display of wanton disregard for the lives of Iraqis at the outset of the conflict would have rendered the democracy promoting/humanitarian justification for the war dead on arrival. You don't blitz your way to hearts and minds.

Ralph Peters chimes in:

Have we lost the will to win wars? Not just in Iraq, but anywhere? Do we really believe that being nice is more important than victory?
What's eating away at Peters is not just the fact that some of our "civilian leaders" have become obsessed with waging war "gently" and in a "politically correct" fashion - but that our military might - gasp! - be adopting an actual counterinsurgency doctrine.

The good news is that the Army and Marine Corps worked together on the new counterinsurgency doctrine laid out in Field Manual 3-24 (the Army version). The bad news is that the doctrine writers and their superiors came up with fatally wrong prescriptions for combating today's insurgencies.
Peters' main criticism of the counterinsurgency manual is that it advises, in certain settings and under certain circumstances, the use of limited force - or even no force. But he mostly seems to miss the point:

The new counterinsurgency doctrine recommends forbearance, patience, understanding, non-violent solutions and even outright passivity. Unfortunately, our enemies won't sign up for a replay of the Summer of Love in San Francisco. We can't treat hardcore terrorists like Halloween pranksters on mid-term break from prep school.[...]

...The text is a mush of pop-zen mantras such as "Sometimes doing nothing is the best reaction," "The best weapons do not shoot," or "The more force used, the less effective it is."

That's just nutty. Should we have done nothing in the wake of 9/11? Would everything have been OK if we'd just been nicer? What non-lethal "best weapons" might have snagged Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora, where the problem was too little military force, not too much violence?
What Peters leaves out, or better yet, attempts to explain away by raising the specter of religious fanaticism, is that the targets of the forbearance are not the combatants themselves. It is the underlying population - which such enemies rely on for support, funding, room to operate and other forms of vital cooperation.

Thus, counterinsurgency doctrine advises that our tactics must be designed to kill and capture enemies, but at acceptable costs considering the underlying dynamic. For example, if you are faced with a situation where you know that one enemy is hiding out in an apartment building housing hundreds of innocent civilians, launching a cruise missile at the apartment building would be a net negative. Yes, you would have one less enemy, but in the process, you will have likely created thousands more. This is especially true in (though not unique to) a country like Iraq wherein tribal/familial ties are paramount and the duty to avenge the killing of a family/tribe member is honor bound.

On the other hand, Osama at Tora Bora posed no such complications - though it did present Peters with a clever, if disingenuous, misdirection. No civilians were nearby Tora Bora, or likely to be caught in the crossfire. No wide-net sweep affecting large swathes of innocent civilians was required to nab him, no collective punishment, no linguistic/cultural training required, etc. Osama didn't get away because we were too concerned about the non-existent civilian population that didn't live in the remote, mountainous, caves of Tora Bora. Instead, you can chalk it up to the unreliability of Northern Alliance troops, the lack of cooperation from Pakistan in sealing off the border escape, and Bush's decision not to commit additional units of Marines then-available in the region to the battle itself.

Counterinsurgency doctrine does not counsel against a response to 9/11, or against killing enemies. It just advocates for an understanding of the nature of these highly complex conflicts - one that recognizes that the ranks of the insurgents, and their levels of support, will be continually replenished unless and until the counterinsurgents are able to convince the underlying population to abandon them.

Peters might claim that we can 'convince' the underlying population to aid us by resorting to good old fashioned, "savage" and "ferocious" brutality. Maybe he's right. Hell, it seemed to work for Saddam while it lasted. Maybe instead of a counterinsurgency manual, we could have just borrowed Saddam's. But, uh, that would sort of cast our noble mission in Iraq in a slightly tarnished light, no? At what price victory? Or better yet, just what is victory?

Because trying to create a free, democratic, pro-US society that would rehabilitate our image, and serve as a model to the rest of the Muslim world, through the use of an unrestrained aerial blitz, followed by a savage and ferocious invasion and occupation is about as realistic as Osama doing the hippie dance in San Francisco. Dude.

[UPDATE: Elsewhere, as a testament to blog synergy, Josh Marshall discusses the role of personal responsibility, and admitting mistakes, from a different perspective. Worth the read.]

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