Currently, there are many retired generals appearing in frenetic fashion on television. Sometimes they hype their recent books, or, as during the three-week war, offer sharp interviews about our supposed strategic and operational blunders in Iraq–imperial hubris, too few troops, wrong war, wrong place, and other assorted lapses.
Apart from the ethical questions involved in promoting a book or showcasing a media appearance during a time of war by offering an “inside” view unknown to others of the supposedly culpable administration of the military, what is striking is the empty nature of these controversies rehashed ad nauseam.
Imagine that, as we crossed the Rhine, retired World War II officers were still harping, in March, 1945, about who was responsible months during Operation Cobra for the accidental B-17 bombing, killing, and wounding of hundreds of American soldiers and the death of Lt. Gen. Leslie McNair; or, in the midst of Matthew Ridgeway’s Korean counteroffensives, we were still bickering over MacArthur’s disastrous intelligence lapses about Chinese intervention that caused thousands of casualties. Did the opponents of daylight bombing over Europe in 1943 still damn the theories of old Billy Mitchell, or press on to find a way to hit Nazi Germany hard by late 1944?
First of all, whatever one thinks about Iraq, the old question of whether Iraq and al Qaeda enjoyed a beneficial relationship is moot–they did. The only area of post facto disagreement is over to what degree did Iraqi knowledge of, or support for, the first World Trade Center bombing, al Qaedists in Kurdistan, sanctuary for the Afghan jihadists, or, as was recently disclosed by postbellum archives, Saddam’s interest in the utility of Islamic terror, enhance operations against the United States.
Second, the old no-blood-for-oil mantra of petroleum conspiracy is over with. Gas skyrocketed after the invasion–just as jittery oil executives warned before the war that it would. Billions of petroleum profits have piled up in the coffers of the Middle East. Secret Baathist oil concessions to Russia and France were voided. Oil-for-Food was exposed. And the Iraqi oil industry came under transparent auspices for the first time. The only area of controversy that could possibly still arise would have to come from the realist right. It would run something like this: “Why, in our zeal for reform, did we upset fragile oil commerce with a dictator that proved so lucrative to the West and international oil companies?”
A third dead-end subject is Iran. The Bush administration is hardly hell-bent on preemption, unilateralism, and imperial grandeur in blocking Iran’s rapid ascendance to nuclear status.
Instead, there are, and always were, only three bad choices. First, we could let the multilateral Europeans jawbone, using the cowboy George Bush as the bad-cop foil while drawing in the United Nations, the Russians, and the Chinese, or the Arab League, in hopes of delay. Perhaps as we bought time we could pray that after 26 years either the Iranians would liberalize their regime or the democratic experiment in Iraq would prove destabilizing to the neighboring mullahs.
The second tact was live with a nuclear Iran as if it were a Pakistan–and perhaps hope that something like a nuclear democratic India emerged next door to deter it.
The third choice, of course, was to tarry until the last possible moment and then take out the installations before the missiles were armed. The rationale behind that nightmarish gambit would be that the resulting mess–collateral damage, missed sites, enhanced terrorism, dirty-bomb suicide bombers, Shiite fervor in Iraq, and ostracism by the world community–was worth the price to stop a nuclear theocracy before it blackmailed the West, took de facto control of the Middle East oil nexus, nuked Israel, or spread global jiahdist fundamentalism through intimidation.
All alternatives are bad. All have been discussed. So far neither the retired military brass nor the Democratic opposition has offered anything new–much less which choice they can assure us is best. The result is that Iran is the new soapbox on which talking heads can blather about the dangers of “preemption,” but without either responsibility for, or maturity in, advocating a viable alternative.
The old “good” Afghanistan / “bad” Iraq false dichotomy is ending as well, as we experience similar postbellum reconstructions. Whatever one’s views three years ago about removing Saddam, by now the jihadists in Afghanistan are not much different from their brethren in Iraq. The Taliban uses suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices just like al-Zarqawi’s killers. Their fundamentalist rhetoric is almost the same.
On some days in March as many Americans died in Afghanistan as in Iraq; and indeed, more Iraqis each day are fighting and dying against Islamic jihadism than are Afghans. Nearby Pakistan is almost as unhelpful as Iraq’s neighbors Iran and Syria.
Democracy in both places is fragile. In other words, in both places there are real threats to establishing an alternative to the autocracies that once sponsored terrorism and destabilized the region. And the chances that Mr. Karzai can establish a lasting democratic government among the provinces of his warlords are about the same as Shiites, Kurds, and Sunnis coming together to form a government. Such is the Middle East, as we see with Hamas on the West Bank–a dysfunctional region where realists will be blamed for their amoral emphasis on the semblance of order as much as idealists for their democratic fervor and the resulting disruption.
Equally fossilized is the “more troops” debate. Whatever one’s views about needing more troops in 2003-5, few Democratic senators or pundits are now calling for an infusion of 100,000 more Americans into Iraq. While everyone blames the present policy, no one ever suggests that current positive trends–a growing Iraqi security force and decreasing American deaths in March–might possibly be related to the moderate size of the American garrison forces.
So, for every argument offered by “experts,” there was just as available a convincing counter-argument–something usually lost on those eager to keep up with the 24-hour news cycle.
More troops might have brought a larger footprint that made peacekeeping easier–but also raised a provocative Western profile in an Islamic country. More troops may have facilitated Iraqization–or, in the style of Vietnam, created perpetual dependency. More troops might have shortened the war and occupation–or made monthly dollar costs even higher, raised casualties, and ensured that eventual troop draw-downs would be more difficult. More troops might have bolstered U.S. prestige through a bold show of power–or simply attenuated our forces elsewhere, in Japan, Okinawa, Korea, and Europe, and invited adventurism by our enemies. Too few troops were the fault of the present Administration–or the chickens that came home to roost after the drastic cutbacks in the post-Cold war euphoria of the 1990s.
“Troop transformation” has become equally calcified. We know the script. Pensioned Army and Marine generals appear ever more ubiquitously to assure the public that we have near criminally shorted ground troops. They alone are now speaking for the silenced brave majors and dutiful colonels stuck on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq with too few soldiers–as their four-star Pentagon brass sold out to Mr. Rumsfeld’s pie-in-the-skies theorists in Washington.
Maybe–but then again, maybe not. The counterarguments are never offered. If hundreds of billions of dollars were invested in sophisticated smart shells and bombs, drones, and computers, to ensure far greater lethality per combatant, then must traditional troop levels always stay the same? How many artillery pieces is a bomber worth, with ordinance that for the first time in military history doesn’t often miss? Has the world become more receptive to large American foreign bases? Or depots to housing tens of thousands of conventional troops and supplies? And did lessons of the Balkans and Afghanistan prove the need for far more ground troops and traditional armor and artillery units?
The point is simple: Somewhere between the impractical ideas that the U.S. military was to become mostly Special Forces on donkeys guiding bombs with laptops, or, instead, a collection of huge divisions with tanks and Crusader artillery platforms, there is a balance that the recent experience of war, from Panama to the Sunni Triangle, alone distills. And it isn’t easy finding that center when we had enemies as diverse as Slobodan Milosevic, Mullah Omar, Osama bin Laden, and Saddam Hussein.
So we know the nature of these weary debates. Both sides offer reasonable arguments. Fine. But let us not fool ourselves any longer that each subsequent “exposé” and leak by some retired general, CIA agent, or State Department official–inevitably right around publication date–offers anything newer, smarter, or much more ethical in this dark era that began on September 11. No need to mention the media’s “brave” role in all this, from the flushed-Koran story to the supposedly “deliberate” American military targeting of journalists.
Ridding the world of the Taliban in Afghanistan after the attacks on the United States was as necessary as it was daunting–especially given Afghanistan’s primordial past, the rise of Islamic fascism, and that creepy neighborhood that has so plagued past invaders.
After allowing the Kurds and Shiites to be butchered in 1991 (in what turned out to be an inconclusive war), the 12-year no-fly-zones and Oil-for-Food, and the three-week war in 2003, staying on to change the landscape in Iraq was as critical as it was unappealing.
Iran’s nuclear ambitions did not start in 2006. Like Pakistan’s, they were a decade in the making. Indeed, they are the logical fruition of a radical Islam that hates the West as much as it is parasitic on it–and, in lunatic fashion, screams that past American appeasement was really aggression.
Changing the military to meet more nonconventional challenges was always going to be iffy–given the billions of dollars and decades of traditions at stake–and only more acrimonious when war, as it always does, puts theory into practice.
What we need, then, are not more self-appointed ethicists, but far more humility and recognition that in this war nothing is easy. Choices have been made, and remain to be made, between the not very good and the very, very bad. Most importantly, so far, none of our mistakes has been unprecedented, fatal to our cause, or impossible to correct.
So let us have far less self-serving second-guessing, and far more national confidence that we are winning–and that radical Islamists and their fascist supporters in the Middle East are soon going to lament the day that they ever began this war.