The Corner

Politicizing Strategy: The Debate on Force Levels in Iraq

For those convinced that “more is better” when it comes to U.S. force levels in Iraq, Rumsfeld was a favorite target, because it was inconceivable that the generals on the ground really didn’t want more troops.  Well now, with Rusmfeld gone, and the head of Central Command speaking his mind, it emerges that the generals really don’t want more troops.

One unintended effect of the Baker-Hamilton report has been to so thoroughly politicize issues of strategy, operations, and even tactics, that the military is getting increasingly sidelined in the decision-making.  President Bush is in danger of committing the one mistake of the Vietnam era that he vowed never to commit–to allow military decisions to become politicized.  Recent reports describe the widening rift between political appointees in Washington and the generals on the ground. 

That is an ill omen.  The generals know what they are talking about: There is no reason to believe that an increase in force levels will have any effect at all on the levels of violence in Baghdad.  The violence is occurring in a security vacuum, but that doesn’t mean that it’s occurring because of a security vacuum.  Remember Algeria in 1990s — a huge army was powerless against a modest insurgency.  According to the New York Times,

General Abizaid argues for a broader approach to Iraq than that of looking solely to putting out the fires in Baghdad. ”You have to internationalize the problem,” General Abizaid said. “You have to attack it diplomatically, geo-strategically. You just can’t apply a microscope on a particular problem in downtown Baghdad and a particular problem in downtown Kabul and say that somehow or another, if you throw enough military forces at it, that you are going to solve the broader issues in the region of extremism.”

But political pressure creates politicized strategies.  The president has a problem: all the violence in Baghdad makes it look like we’re losing the war, regardless the pace of reconstruction or political progress.  Now the violence in Baghdad has become the political determinant of victory and defeat–and hence the primary focus of military strategy.

The generals have kept their eye on the ball: The deteriorating security situation in Baghdad is at root not a military problem but a political one.  All the troops in the world will not reduce the violence if a political reconciliation continues to elude the major warring factions–and the increased presence of U.S. troops is more certain to increase the violence than reduce it.  Occupation is a “toxin,” as Abizaid points out, and “a wasting asset,” as MacArthur once said.

Hopefully the president will resist the temptation to prioritize his political problems over those of Iraq. 

Mario Loyola — Mr. Loyola is a research associate professor and the director of the Environmental Finance and Risk Management Program at Florida International University and a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. From 2017 to 2019 he was the associate director for regulatory reform at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.


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