I have deliberately kept this blog apolitical in the past, and I’m not intending to make this a political arena now, but there is something I noticed in the debates last week that all the presidential candidates on both sides of the fence fail to understand:
The war in Iraq is political…in fact, all war is politics.
In the early nineteenth century, Carl von Clausewitz famously wrote, “War is an extension of politics by other means.” In other words, the continuum of political action that contains such things as diplomatic negotiations, treaties, embargoes, sanctions, trade, and other day-to-day things also contains, on its outer fringes, war. War is politics–bloodier, louder, and more costly (in terms of human life) than other areas of politics. But at the end of the day, war is always political…and that is neither good nor bad, it just is.
Specifically with regards to the war in Iraq, the political ideology behind the war (from the beginning) was to replace a heinous, murderous dictator with a democracy. Whether one agrees with the premise or not, this is why the was began.
As a military officer and armchair military historian and tactician, it seems evident that this ideology requires several long-term political goals, including:
- Development of an internal police force / military capable of protecting the citizens of Iraq against internal and external threats
- Creation of the ability to repair and extend the national infrastructure
- Development of the ability to create / foster international relationships with the goal of increasing domestic security and providing the opportunity for foreign and domestic economic growth
- Establishment of a viable democratic government able to maintain control of the nation in order to a) make democracy a more alluring form of government than other alternatives (willing change) and b) make democratic government ‘worth fighting for’ against those who would subvert it (unwilling change)
In order to achieve the long-term goals, this ideology immediately requires tactical and strategic military victories in order to establish an environment conducive to the growth, nurture, and development of the long-term objectives.
So how are we doing?
- We are relatively successful with our immediately necessary goal of tactical military victories
- We do not seem to be seeing any significant progress toward achieving our long-term political goals
- We appear to be losing military advantage and political / national will
Unless there are significant improvement in areas two and three, above, we run the risk of losing the war in a manner not all that different from what we experienced in Vietnam, where we were tactically successful (militarily) but failed strategically and politically. Am I making hasty and emotional comparisons to the Vietnam War? No! However, as time progresses, the risk of losing the war increases and the likelihood of victory decreases, similar to what we saw in another decade in another theater.
Our military power is weakening over time due to troop burnout, aging equipment, troop retention issues, a loss of battle-experienced soldiers/officers, and lack of timely tactical adaptation from convention to low intensity (i.e., guerrilla warfare) tactics. To argue to the contrary is nonsensical. Simultaneously, our political power and national will are weakening due to the length of the war and the questionable legitimacy (in the eyes of many) of the original ideology. Two hundred years ago, Clausewitz cited the need for overwhelming military strength and national will as essential for victory in war. Based on his wisdom and our current situation, are we currently in a situation where the war is unwinnable? I don’t think so…not yet, anyway.
Despite what we may see and hear in the media, there is no reason why the US should not be able to achieve victory in Iraq:
- We are familiar with the terrain and physical environment
- We are equipped with the proper equipment (though we need to continue upgrading, maintaining, and replacing that equipment as it ages)
- We are prepared at some level to train for, fight, and win in low-intensity conflicts (though I think we have forgotten some of the tactical lessons from Vietnam)
- As a nation we largely (?) believe in the legitimacy of fighting for causes of right and wrong
Given these reasons, it is reasonable to expect that victory is possible even without the benefit of a powerful multinational coalition. As in Vietnam, we must be acutely aware at all levels that tactical victory does not necessarily translate into strategic victory (militarily) or overall political victory (achieving our political ends). Additionally, we must also be aware of the reality that war is an extension of politics–our ultimate aim here is political, not merely (or even primarily) military. Consequently, we cannot expend all our attention or resources trying to achieve military victory while letting political ends languish. In short:
- If we are militarily superior but fail to realize our political goals, we can never reach the point of military withdrawal without admitting defeat because…
- Failure to achieve our political ends is defeat
Maybe later I’ll put on my chaplain hat and write some thoughts on what our course of action as a nation must be morally if we reach the point where the war becomes unwinnable…but those are different thoughts for a different day.