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Towards A More Perfect Debate

July 31, 2008

One of the sadder discoveries in my very limited blogging experience is how difficult a genuine discussion is. Some of that stems from my own shortcomings (and possibly that of my commenters) but as millinerd points out ” the anatomy of a blog makes a serious conversation all but impossible.” (An Alan Jacobs quote actually). So I try not to feel too bad about all the comment threads that fizzle or seemingly end in stalemate. But I do often wonder if the phenomenon that Jacobs describes dosen’t actually make things worse. ” The friend of information but the enemy of thought” writes Jacobs.

What’s more, I’ve also learned that what often gets comments more often than not is the sharp attack. If I criticize Barack Obama, or Bill Clinton, or anti-war Democrats in a focused way for long enough I can almost count on someone trying to defend them. Which is entirely understandable- a great deal of my desire to do this blog is to defend the Iraq war from its detractors.

Perhaps saddest of all, I’ve discovered that these kind of sharp posts are often the easiest ones to write. And not having an excess of time to really sit down and gather my thoughts, that’s what tends to come out most. So in continually giving in to this dynamic, I end up not discussing the things most important to me, or at least not discussing them in the ideal manner I imagined when starting the blog.

With that long-winded intro in mind, I’d like once again to point my reader(ship) to another couple of posts by my ideal blogger, Richard Fernandez (aka Wretchard): The Wrong Place and
Should Cops or Generals Spearhead the War on Terror?. This kind of discussion is where my passion lies: more philosophical than polemic, examining first principles and data that at least attempts to be objective. These kind of posts are by nature hard to summarize. Even harder is the search for the killer quote which in a few sentences reduces your ideological opponent to rubble.
As it should be in an ideal debate. Wretchard observes:

How the quagmire and lost cause became the inevitable victory is of academic interest but the more practical question is what to do next. In the opinion of Barack Obama, the US should withdraw from Iraq to concentrate on Afghanistan, the central theater of the war against Islamic terror.

Which leads to a discussion of the practical implications of Obama’s stated strategic goals.

Even laymen might wonder whether distant Afghanistan and not the Middle East was the strategic center of gravity of Islamic fundamentalism. In an earlier post I wrote: “In the debate over whether America should have focused its initial response on uprooting al-Qaeda from Southwest Asia, one thing should not be forgotten. From it’s inception al-Qaeda’s center of gravity has been the the Middle East. It was the source of its money, leadership, ideology and manpower. Afghanistan’s importance from the beginning lay in what it could provide Bin Laden in terms of prestige he could parlay into into influence in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq. The strategic value of land-locked, impoverished Afghanistan to the Jihad was as a symbol rather than a geopolitical prize. The image of Jihadis defeating the Soviet Army was the ultimate source of al-Qaeda’s credibility; something that could prise money, men and political authority from their home front, treasury and recruitment depot. Given a choice between giving up Afghanistan and reprising the defeat of a superpower in Iraq, al Qaeda would have clearly preferred the latter. This does not mean that Afghanistan is strategically unimportant, but it was always secondary to the Middle East.”

That’s an extraordinarily dense claim, each sentence worthy of a post itself. Now in this comment, Timmy C. makes a lot of claims. #5 is:

Barack seems pretty consistently saying Afghanistan and Pakistan were the central front. It’s where AQ was, versus Iraq where they weren’t in any meaningful way, prior to our invading.

And Obama seems consistant saying that as we moved forces and resources from Afghanistan, we were leaving the “central front” and instead going into a distraction and then a trap that distracted us from that front.

Bin Laden was pretty clear on his strategy for us in Iraq in 2004 was to get us stuck in a “swamp” and bleed us dry…

It is absolutely true that Bin Laden changed his focus to Iraq after he was ejected in short order after our invasion. He had no choice. America had raised the stakes by its bold action in Iraq, and to let it go unchallenged would be a further defeat for AQ. Now AQ has been defeated in Iraq and is falling back into Afghanistan and Pakistan. If we can make this victory stick – and as Joe Klein says, no one thinks it’s really possible to lose now- it will be a MAJOR defeat for AQ. Had we withdrawn combat troops by March 2008 as Obama had wanted, I fail to see how this victory could have occurred. To say, in the most simplistically legalistic kind or argument, that we shouldn’t be fighting AQ in Iraq because they “weren’t there in any meaningful way , prior to our invading” reveals the fundamental problem with Obama’s kind of thinking: there’s no long-term strategic plan to defeat the ideology of AQ. He can beat his chest all he wants about acting in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but if he was and is content to leave AQ active in Iraq just because George Bush made them come, then I can only see that as the narrow partisan view it is and not one that will protect America and her allies where ever they are threatened.

At a July 26, 2008 McClatchy Newspaper interview (Obama) said:

I’m not here to lay out a comprehensive military strategy. That’s the job of our commanders on the ground. I can tell you what our strategic goals should be. They should be relatively modest. We shouldn’t want to take over the country. We should want to get out of there as quickly as we can and help the Afghans govern themselves and provide for their own security. Our critical goal should be to make sure that the Taliban and al Qaida are routed and that they cannot project threats against us from that region. And to do that I think we need more troops. I also think that we need to deal with the situation in Pakistan and the fact that terrorists are able to operate with relative freedom of movement there right now.

This is a remarkable statement, a complete admission that even if he accomplished all he set out to do, he would not accomplish much. He doesn’t call for a defeat of the Taliban — which would be meaningless — and still less for dismantling of Islamic extremism. One can’t help thinking that Obama’s reason for redeploying to Afghanistan is because it is not Iraq. That is strategic vision of a sort, but of a very political kind.

Re-focusing on Afghanistan after Iraq is under relative control is one thing; leaving Iraq in AQ’s sights, which could only be interpreted by the world as a failure for the US, and retreating to Afghanistan, a place of much lesser geopolitical value is quite another. This was and is Obama’s gambit. As Time put it:

For McCain, the first priority remains a stable Iraqi nation-state, and he is willing to risk ever more American blood and treasure over the coming years in that quest. For Obama, the first priority is an exit from the country, and he is willing to risk civil chaos in Iraq and a loss of American influence in the region.

Because, you know, sometimes you have to destroy America’s credibility to save it! At least when a Republican is in office. I have a hard time believing that an Obama administration would really let things get that bad; after there’s always enough caveats thrown in to give cover. What Obama has revealed in the last week or so has given me even greater cause to doubt his ability to defend tis country: after years of saying Iraq was a failure because it wasn’t working he finally reveals that even it didn’t work, victory in Iraq is strategically irrelevant. That’s a bold claim, but at least it’s honest.

I have to say it’s what I thought was the truth all along.

(Edited to change title to what it was supposed to be in previous drafts.)

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. Timmy C. permalink
    July 31, 2008 6:27 pm

    I’d still point out that you really don’t get Obama’s plan at all if you think this was it….

    “….; leaving Iraq in AQ’s sights, which could only be interpreted by the world as a failure for the US, and retreating to Afghanistan, a place of much lesser geopolitical value is quite another. This was and is Obama’s gambit.”

    (I”d ask what part of Barack’s plan – current or past – abandons Iraq if they show political progress and military need? And secondly I’d ask if Maliki’s support of Obama’s 16 month timeline as well as the praise of the US Ambassador to Afghanistan, has changed your view of it being an “abandoning of allies?” His plan seems a lot more like the “Re-focusing on Afghanistan after Iraq is under relative control” than you seem to think….)

    That said: in the interest of more first principal related thinking. I’d point you to two bits one the Dem side, one not on thinking over the conflict with AQ.

    Both suggest that the idea that the “War On Terror” is a bad analogy, and that the idea that the only two choices in viewing it is as either a “War” or as a “Police Action” is a false choice.

    The suggestion from both sources is that a better analogy to think of is that of a “Global Counter-Insurgency” or simply “CounterTerrorism”

    One is from Rand, a relatively conservative think tank working for the Defense Dept, and the other is from your former favorite Swift-boat-ee John Kerry….

    They aren’t saying the exactly same thing, and I’m not yet fully thought thru on what either is suggesting, I frankly hadn’t had the time to think about it in depth…. But I find a new metaphor that points to a entirely new mental framework to think about the conflict with Global Terrorists appealing…. Especially as the supposedly only choices (either the Generals or the Police run the anti-terrorist show) came across as both really poor fits to me.

    Not Military vs. Police. Counterinsurgency.

    I think if you could restrain your anti-body like reaction to John Kerry, you might like a chunk of what he says in that link.

    And what I liked about the Rand study was a clear focus on studying HOW terrorist groups END.
    As well as it’s similar metaphor and mental framework shifting:

    “A key part of this strategy should include ending the notion of a war on terrorism and replacing it with such concepts as counterterrorism, which most governments with significant terrorist threats use…Terrorists should be perceived and described as criminals, not holy warriors.”

    At least bigger ideas worth chewing on.

    Here is the full Rand study available for free: http://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/MG741/

  2. Timmy C. permalink
    July 31, 2008 6:58 pm

    And it will be interesting to see this document from Sec Def Gates, that sounds similar to the above:

    ” His strategy, however, departs from Rumsfeld’s focus on preemptive military action and instead encourages current and future U.S. leaders to work with other countries to eliminate the conditions that foster extremism.

    “The use of force plays a role, yet military efforts to capture or kill terrorists are likely to be subordinate to measures to promote local participation in government and economic programs to spur development, as well as efforts to understand and address the grievances that often lie at the heart of insurgencies,”

  3. August 3, 2008 6:57 pm

    Tim-
    Good stuff. This feels more like a conversation.

    The “Cops or Generals” article, which I didn’t comment much on, is a good look at the RAND study you cited. Takeaway: it is somewhat of a false choice as you say. The tone of the piece is defending against interpreting the RAND piece as a “cops only” document.

    Also, I like Bob Gates a lot. There was much I liked about Rummy too, but I have to say his stock has fallen.

    I”d ask what part of Barack’s plan – current or past – abandons Iraq if they show political progress and military need?

    Obama absolutely advocated abandoning Iraq because of their percieved lack of political progress Tim. You ought to know this. This abandonment was supposed to be the threat that would spur them to greater political progress. Getting all combat troops out of Iraq by March 2008 as he advocated, would have definitly been interpreted by the world as a defeat for the US; it also would have opened the door for AQ to create further chaos. Instead we are talking about how to leave a success. You and Obama I think want to avoid this part of the equation: yes there is some agreement now, but when the going got tough, Obama wanted to get out regardless of consequences for the US and Iraq. I and John McCain are not going to let that one get by easily!

    This particular point is an example of how you tend to confuse the argument- not intenionally I think but it is something I’ve noticed in your recent comments.

    Not Military vs. Police. Counterinsurgency.

    Check out this old comment of yours:

    I agree with Kagan that for much of the occupation, our strategy was more or less this: “That approach relied on keeping the American troop presence in Iraq as small as possible, pushing unprepared Iraqi Security Forces into the lead too rapidly, and using political progress as the principal means of bringing the violence under control.”

    But not for all of it. In Operation Together Forward II, they did their first attempt and “clear hold build” as a strategy was first really tried in this operation. And it failed.

    My implied question: not how is this different than MOST of the occupation, but how is it significantly different than Operation Together Forward II.

    The answer is it was a genuine counterinsurgency strategy as opposed to whatever we had before. Some guys called it “commuting to the war”. It emphasized force protection above all else. IMHO, Obamas “strike force” plan he was advocating would have made the commute even further than it was then. With even worse results if you accept the logic that the quick response time of getting troops closer to the people is what enables effective counterinsurgency.

    I guess I should have blogged about this more, but I eventually came away with the impression that no one else was really interested in learning about this stuff. Whatever. The point is, Obama had no clue about this kind of strategy, more inclined to write it off as failed Vietnam-era strategy for his own political benefit. The thing that really burns me up about Obama- who I definitely have an anti-body like reaction to- is that after years of building his appeal as the get them out of Iraq faster guy, he suddenly wants us to believe that he would be a better leader now that the war is being won by the fucking strategy he oppesed at every step of the way.

    Obama bet against he home team. I won’t soon forgive him for that. I can’t trust him because of that.

    I’m glad you’re enamored of conunter-insurgency tactics though. That’s a step in the right direction for the country if we can all start agreeing on that.

  4. August 4, 2008 11:38 am

    encourages current and future U.S. leaders to work with other countries to eliminate the conditions that foster extremism.

    Reading their press releases, this seems to largely be what the whole CJTF-HOA crew are engaged in these days. IOW – we’re doing a lot of hearts and minds type stuff in Africa to try and keep it from getting out of hand.

    Of course they have a pretty big hammer available should it be required, but so far its not been needed.

    Unfortunately, the American public, including most of the media, are completely unaware that CJTF-HOA is in business.

  5. Timmy C. permalink
    August 4, 2008 5:48 pm

    Glad you like additional discussion of CounterInsurgeny thinking….vs War On Terror… A big distinction.

    Think you either purposefully or whatever just don’t get my question on Barack:

    To reiterate the question which was what part of Barack’s plan would have abandoned the Iraqi’s IF they has did show both political progress and need?

    The question and difference between Barack’s policy and your own (as I see it) isn’t abandonment vs staying, it’s conditional vs. seemingly unconditional support.

    But I’m kinda tired of beating that dead horse, and agree that there might be more interesting turf in looking at meta issues around counter terrorism etc…

  6. August 5, 2008 10:52 am

    IF they has did show both political progress and need?

    His pimping an immediate pullout pre-surge? Now that the surge worked, he’s been hemming and hawing a lot to cover up his past grave errors of judgment.

  7. timmyc permalink
    August 5, 2008 12:51 pm

    Pardon my late night grammar… I “has did” know better than that when not tired….

    And yep, PA, if by “immediate pullout” you are referring to his original PHASED withdrawal over 15 months that was able to pause if the Iraqis showed political progress and need….Then yep, that is what I mean.

  8. August 6, 2008 8:05 pm

    15 months is about what an immediate pullout would take considering logistics and force protection for the egress. There is nothing “phased” about that. Its as fast a headlong retreat as can be accomplished without abandoning a vast amount of material in place.

  9. August 6, 2008 8:13 pm

    Tim-
    You seem to think that if you or Obama says the words “phased redeployment” enough that means his plan was responsible. It was not. Had it been followed, it would have ended in catastrophe. From the link you gave on his Senate website dated Jan 30, 2007:

    The legislation commences redeployment of U.S. forces no later than May 1, 2007 with the goal of removing all combat brigades from Iraq by March 31, 2008, a date that is consistent with the expectation of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group.

    The fig leaf of the ISG is not enough either. Do you really think that had we removed all combat brigades by March of this year we would be seeing success? Or that we wouldn’t be seeing an expanded civil war, possibly spilling out into a wider regional war?

    The surge – a military action- gave room for political reconciliation to come. What you seemingly refuse to admit is that Obama’s plan was a way to ensure conditions for failure, rather than a clever way to avoid “unconditional support”. Without ensuring safety – thi MILITARY aspect of the surge- political progress would never have come. You agreed as much by admitting our forces were too small all along. By your own logic ye shall fall my friend.

    BTW, lecturing me on the virtues of counterinsurgency at this date is about 18months too late. You disparaged it all along- or ignored the discussion of it here- and from what I can gather only support it because it has worked- thanks to McCain and Bush’s initiative among others – and are desparately trying to take credit for it. NO WAY. You had your chance. Your party fought the surge tooth and nail every step of the way. History may let you get away with it, but I will not!

    Barack would have used the lack of political progress in Iraq to get out. In fact, as his refusal to change his opinion of Iraq he showed that political progress is also no reason to stay at this point. He’s been very clear. Out, out, out.

  10. timmy c permalink
    August 10, 2008 2:51 pm

    As I thought. Dead horse.

    As best as I can read you, your lack of specifically answering my question was not that you think his plan would abandon Iraq but rather that don’t believe that Barack really do what his plan said….that he wouldn’t pause a withdrawal if his threat to leave if the Iraqi’s did in fact show concrete political progress and needed our help.

    That’s not a criticism of his plan itself but of his honesty. Whatever. Dead horse. Moving on.

    Here is the full text of the Gates recent 2008 defense strategy… and i wasn’t tyring to “lecture” you on it, just to try to engage on a “more perfect debate” about philosophies of military and political strategies as you asked…

    http://www.defenselink.mil/news/2008%20National%20Defense%20Strategy.pdf

    Still looking over it myself. But on a first blush, it makes me think that if Obama does win, that he he might keep Gates as his Sec Def.

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