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March 02, 2011

Gates: Any DefSec Who Proposes Wars Similar to Iraq and Afghanistan "Should Have His Head Examined"

Key quote:

“In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it,” Mr. Gates told an assembly of Army cadets here.


“The odds of repeating another Afghanistan or Iraq — invading, pacifying, and administering a large third-world country — may be low,” Mr. Gates said, but the Army and the rest of the government must focus on capabilities that can “prevent festering problems from growing into full-blown crises..."

He also talks about "reshaping" (that is, cutting) the Army's and Marines' budget because he thinks a large conventional mechanized-units-vs.-mechanized-units war is unlikely.

I don't know about that last part. I'd say we'll have few of those wars. And more of the smaller-unit/guerilla war. But I'd say the likelihood of either is pretty high. The former's at like 70% and the latter's at 100%. Just because most fights will be small-unit engagements doesn't mean large-scale warfare isn't going to happen.

Back when Bush was running in 2000, conservatives were united, almost universally, behind the proposition that the nation-building of the Clinton years was a bad use of the military, using it for a purpose it was not designed for, putting troops into a bad spot as they were in a position to be shot by any illegal combatant hiding a gun beneath his robes. We all agreed on that, pretty much.

Somehow it happened that Bush reversed his belief on this, and we (and by we, I mean I, definitely) bought into the idea that nation-building per se wasn't bad, a lot of times it was needed and morally required (Powell's "you break it, you bought it" doctrine), and maybe we just needed to do it differently than Clinton did. Perhaps the complaint became just that Clinton used nation-building in situations not truly vital to the national interest (Haiti, Kosovo) and maybe we just needed to be careful about committing to such a large, ongoing proposition, restricting ourselves to only attempt this in situations where the national interest was directly implicated (Iraq, Afghanistan).

After eight years of pacifying Iraq and Afghanistan, I'm not at all sure we were right to depart from the basic idea that nation-building was a bad idea.

This is less about Iraq and Afghanistan and more about the next war, which just might be Iran. Personally, I'd be on board for military action, but I would strongly prefer to leave the pacification and nation-building to the Iranians. Pay 'em, arm 'em, give them targeting lasers to paint targets for jet strikes, but I wouldn't support a massive, decade-long police action in a country with more than twice as many people as Iraq.

We used to do this a lot. We would arm indigenous fighters, train them, feed them intelligence, offer assistance. After 9/11, I think the decision was made that we had to show a very, very bright-line distinction between the real soldier -- professional, uniformed, acting under orders, scrupulously avoiding (to the extent possible) civilian collateral damage -- and the terrorist, and that led us to conclude, I think, that we couldn't just depart Iraq after smashing the Baathist state and let the Iraqis fight it out. Because there would be a whole lot of terrorist, civilian-targeting attacks, and we'd be on the hook for that. Even the more civilized groups we might have chosen to ally with would perpetrate the occasional terrorist horror -- Muslims don't seem to really buy into the civilian/soldier distinction very much.

But going forward in Iran, if it comes to that (and unless President WeakKnees becomes more proactive in undermining the regime and not propping it up, it will come to that), I am personally not on board with Colin Powell's you break it, you bought it edict.

American troops are of course the most disciplined, ethical, and heroic in the world. So heroic, in fact, we typically expect them to put their own lives in danger for the purpose of reducing the chance of collateral damage. Few other troops would even consider such rules of engagement; our guys might complain about it, but in the end, they follow orders.

So if American troops are the primarily force in a country, we can expect the lowest possible number of civilian collateral casualties. But the question I'm asking myself now is: How much do I really care about the fewest number of civilian collateral casualties? In Iraq, if the deaths of 3000 American soldiers (in the later post-war campaign) saved, let's say, 60,000 Iraqi civilians -- was that a good trade? Or, more importantly, because the more important thing to me is the doctrine going forward: Would I be willing to make that trade in a hypothetical pacification campaign in Iran? Would I trade 3,000 US soldiers to make sure the fewest Iranian civilians died in the chaos that ensued after a decapitation of the state?

I think I'd say the Iranians will have to fight it out themselves. Again, we'd be there, somewhere, in case of emergency, and to take high-impact action against factions we weren't fond of (an airstrike coordinated with Iranian ground fighters against a pro-mullah stronghold, for example).

But I wouldn't support an Iraq-style American-troops-as-primary-combatants pacification.

And I don't even think that it matters what I think -- I don't think any President, Republican or Democrat or Tea Partier, is going to propose such a thing. Which makes this question very important, because unless the country can accept that arm-your-proxies style of limited warfare, I think we're going to have a Vietnam Syndrome going forward. Given the choice between no military action at all and full-scale invasion plus pacification/nation-building, I think the country will select, by large margins, "no military action at all," and I think that is very dangerous.

We will need to fight another country again, most likely sooner rather than later. We need a doctrine about such a war that can actually gain popular support.

I just don't believe the country will undertake another Iraq or Afghanistan you-break-it-you-bought-it plan, at least not for a long time. So I think those who believe that warfare must always be a possible tool available to us (even if only occasionally used) must formulate a doctrine in which the post-war pacification campaign is specifically ruled out and our goals in the post-war scenario are achieved by means other than heavy presence of American troops as primary combatants.

I just don't think the Iraq model of post-war pacification is an option in the next five to ten years, at least, for political reasons. (For prudential reasons, I'm not sure we should be get into that sort of pacification program even after it becomes politically viable again, either.)

So to me, if we actually want to credibly threaten a country like Iran -- and do more than merely threaten, should it come to that -- we need a doctrine that has a chance of getting the nation behind it, and we have to begin conditioning the nation to realize what happens when disciplined, heroic American troops are not the primary combatants -- a lot of civilians are going to die, most likely, because only American troops (and some other professional Western-tradition troops) are brave enough to put the lives of civilians before their own. Pretty much everyone else (including, alas, the good guys we support, or more accurately, the less monstrous guys we're forced to support for lack of better options) have no compunctions about blowing up a schoolbus filled with kids.

I don't imagine that will be an easy sell. But unless that sale is made, I think our military threat is effectively off the table for a long time to come.

It's my sense at the moment that if we stick with the idea this sort of war makes sense and we'll keep the same doctrine going forward, that sounds great and all, but no one is actually going to really behave in that manner, and no president is likely to call for war with that announced doctrine. So sticking to that doctrine just means we can't go to war.

I'm not eager for the country to go to war, but if you assume (as I do) that sometimes war is a necessary evil, you need that option to always be available.

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posted by Ace at 03:40 PM

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