Friday’s White House press briefing was a sickening sight to behold. That’s probably a bit too strong a reaction, but it’s how I feel. Within limits, a reporter’s job is to pose tough questions. Yet this press corps is all too eager to catch the administration in an embarrassing admission of error. It takes only the slightest hiccup in the war to draw out the partisanship and Vietnam nostalgia of the liberal media.
Having said that, the opening of the war, with all its dramatic success, was indeed characterized by some revealing miscalculations on the part of the administration. Despite the press’s not-so-hidden antiwar agenda, we need to acknowledge those correctable mistakes, and draw the appropriate lessons. That’s tough to do in a country where the public, the parties, and the press are still divided over the wisdom of the war itself. Sadly, the debate over the war’s conduct has been prematurely polarized. It ought to be possible to acknowledge some misjudgments, without conjuring up boomer fantasies (hopeful fantasies) of descent into quagmire.
Clearly, the opening of the war was a spectacular success overall. In the conservative media, at least, the historic rapidity and range of our initial advance has been fully acknowledged. We’ve quickly trapped the Republican Guard units surrounding Baghdad, are well into the process of degrading them, and will sooner or later destroy them.
But the fact of the matter is, we went into battle with too few troops. That error is correctable. And it’s true, as the saying goes, that no military man expects his plans to survive first contact with the enemy. Yet our too-limited deployment of forces was a foreseeable error. (In fact, it was foreseen.) More important, our reluctance to commit a larger number of troops to the beginning of the battle teaches a critical lesson.
Clearly, our military planners underestimated the likelihood and effectiveness of resistance from Saddam’s irregular loyalists. True, not everything in war can be anticipated. But that is why much of the Pentagon brass argued, well before the start of the war, for a larger invading force. Precisely because unexpected contingencies do arise, it makes sense to have substantial force available from the start to protect exposed supply lines. But now, the troops who were originally meant to cycle in as relief and reinforcement will be called on to add the fighting power that ought to have been present from the very first moments of the war.
Is this a disaster? Hardly. Still, given the pressure on our supply lines, we may now have to wait some weeks, until reinforcements are in place, before launching a major assault on the Republican Guard. We could well strike the Guard sooner, but even the possibility of a significant delay in our attack plans shows that the initial decision to invade with a relatively lean force was misguided. Of course, on any reasonable time scale, a few weeks here or there is not the end of the world. War is uncertain, and we cannot expect perfection. But given the unpleasant reality of a press corps fairly yearning for a “quagmire,” the administration might have saved itself a good deal of political trouble if it had gone into Iraq with a larger force. In a nation still haunted by the Vietnam era, our greatest vulnerability in wartime is our national will.
So why did the Pentagon enter Iraq with a relatively lean force in the first place? This was not mere happenstance. Nor was it primarily a question of underestimating Saddam’s militia. The polarizing debate between the dovish mainstream press and the hawkish counter-press over the conduct of the war disguises another — in some ways more important — dispute. The hidden battle between Defense Secretary Rumsfeld (and his civilian allies), on the one hand, and the traditional military brass, on the other, is feeding the more public debate over the wisdom of the war itself.
Secretary Rumsfeld is an advocate of military “transformation” — the use of advanced technologies (smart bombs, night vision, surveillance drones, etc.) to achieve victory without the need for large numbers of ground troops. Afghanistan, with its laser targeting, and minimal American troop commitments, was a showcase of military transformation. But transformation is expensive, and with an already strained defense budget and weak economy, transformation can only be paid for by cutting into funding for the new generation of conventional weaponry (helicopters, assault vehicles, refueling planes, and general infrastructure) that the military depends upon to perform its most basic functions.
The transformation debate is the subtext of the battle between Secretary Rumsfeld and the Pentagon brass over how many troops to commit to Iraq. By capping the number of troops in our invasion force at a relatively low level, Secretary Rumsfeld hoped to show that a transformed military could dispense with some of the more cautious traditional views of the brass about, say, the need to protect exposed supply lines with major troop deployments. Unfortunately, what worked in Afghanistan has not worked in Iraq. The mistake is fairly easily corrected. But for the sake of the future, it is important to note that it was a mistake, and that it did need correction.
The lesson in all this is that transformation is not a cure-all for the problems of our overstretched military. Even in a high-tech war, where our forces can fight at night, strike from a distance, and essentially annihilate irregulars like the Fedayeen Saddam, untrained and technologically primitive forces can still cause us problems. In the end, machines cannot always substitute for “boots on the ground.” We had best learn this lesson now, when the consequences of our mistake are relatively slight, so as not to suffer more serious problems at the hands of foes like North Korea or China.
The transformation debate is behind yet another element of the media skirmish over the conduct of the war. The “shock and awe” concept is very much a part of transformation. The notion that precision targeted weapons can decapitate leadership, break its will to resist, and end war quickly, without major troop clashes, is part and parcel of the transformation doctrine. Clearly, although the press was already eager to shout “quagmire,” the shock-and-awe idea did set up an expectation in the public and the press that the war could be over within days.
The problem with “shock and awe” is that the Pentagon couldn’t execute the strategy without working through the press. Shock and awe is part military action, and part psychological gamesmanship. To deliver the message to Saddam and the leaders of the Republican guard that their position was hopeless, Secretary Rumsfeld had to make repeated press appearances, show tape of the fearsome MOAB bomb, openly call for capitulation, harp on stories of early surrenders, etc. While it’s true that the administration can now point to early statements from the president and others that the war might be long and difficult, the overwhelming effect of the shock and awe campaign was to set the public up for an easy victory against minimal resistance.
In a country that was not still divided by the legacy of the Sixties, this would not have been a problem. Why not take our best shot at bringing the enemy painlessly to heel, then move on to battle if that doesn’t work out. But with a press corps eager to make the war and the president look bad, the failure of shock and awe backfired. That’s not really Secretary Rumsfeld’s fault. It simply shows that our cultural divisions continue to hamstring our military efforts. In general, the press has been exploiting the internal divisions between the civilian Pentagon and the military brass, to get quotes that feed its antiwar line.
But the debate at the Pentagon demands the attention of those of us who support the war. A legitimate dispute over the size and structure of our military must not be allowed to get lost, simply because that argument is being exploited and distorted by the antiwar press. There is more than one way to be a hawk. We need to have an open debate between what we might call “hopeful hawks” and “prudent hawks.” The ideal-typical “hopeful hawk” is a fan of transformation, opposed to an expanded conventional military, and optimistic about bringing democracy to a post-Saddam Iraq. In contrast, an ideal-typical “prudent hawk” (and here I stand) is skeptical of transformation’s bolder claims, intent on building up our conventional military forces, and are cautious about a too rapid democratization process in post-Saddam Iraq. (See also this “prudent hawk” statement by George Will.)
The most hopeful of the hopeful hawks once believed we could defeat Saddam Hussein on the model of the war in Afghanistan — with a combination of American air power, special forces, and anti-Saddam Iraqis on the ground. Wisely, President Bush vetoed that war plan as too risky. As Gideon Rose points out in this important piece in Slate, the course of the current war shows that hopeful hawks can sometimes be wrong. (For two other Slate pieces on the link between the war and the “transformation” debate, see this important account, and this one as well, by Fred Kaplan.)
I’m not claiming that transformation is a bad idea. It worked in Afghanistan, and elements of transformation are surely making a major contribution to the present war effort. But transformation cannot eliminate the need for increased force levels to meet the extremely treacherous military challenges we now face around the world. We need more troops. And those troops need up to date equipment. We cannot afford to defund a new generation of conventional weapons in order to pay for third generation transformation. We are in a fight for our lives right now — a fight that could easily spread across the globe.
Transformation depends upon the claim that, with the aid of new technologies, a single soldier, or a single aircraft, can command far more destructive power than in the past. That claim is valid. Yet the war in Iraq shows that even the most technologically primitive opposition can force us to deploy significant manpower. And that is not the biggest flaw in the transformation theory. The real problem with transformation is that, no matter how much deadly firepower a single soldier can command, he cannot be in two places at once. With war looming in Korea, nuclear proliferation in Iran, the danger of a coup in Pakistan, and a host of other Middle Eastern countries poised for chaos or conflict, maintaining military manpower at a fraction of Cold War levels is madness.
I don’t mean to seem overly critical of Secretary Rumsfeld. Secretary Rumsfeld is trying to work within his political constraints. Despite 9/11, this country still does not adequately understand the dangers that proliferating weapons of mass destruction, combined with terrorism, really pose. In some limited sense, the attack on Iraq may be a “war of choice.” In fact, we have no choice but to try to stem the tide of WMD proliferation, and to reign in rogue regimes. A single terrorist initiated nuclear blast in an American city (much less two or three such blasts) could paralyze our society, and ultimately transform it beyond recognition.
Unwilling to face this truth, our cultural elite still yearns to relive Vietnam. Given that political constraint, who dares ask for a larger defense budget, or greatly expanded force levels, especially in a time of economic constraint? You can tell how stuck in our Vietnam syndrome we are when the left actually pushes a draft as a tool to undermine the war. Given all that, Secretary Rumsfeld has been forced to choose between transformation and adequate conventional forces. Ironically, then, if anyone is responsible for our reluctance to commit a large force to Iraq, it is the liberal press corps. Since they’d howl at an expanded military, Rumsfeld has been forced to sacrifice troop strength to transformation.
The president still has the support of the country, but anti-war liberals remain powerful enough to veto an expanded military. That has set off the battle between Rumsfeld and the Pentagon brass over how to spend our too small military budget. Instead of exploiting that battle, and the relatively minor (yet ultimately important and revealing) military mistakes it has forced, the mainstream press needs to wake up to the immense dangers that this country now faces. If half the effort the media put into embarrassing the administration were devoted to asking what our military really needs to defend us, the correctable mistakes of the current war might be prevented from turning into the disastrous mistakes of the next one.