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I know a lot of my friends are not old enough to remember the period of the Vietnam war first hand. Memories of the Vietnam war tend to be emotionally charged, resulting in limited discussion of the facts. With both advocates and detractors of the Iraq war drawing parallels with Vietnam, I wanted to post about some of the actual historical context of the war - but there's so much, I don't know where to start.

Fortunately, someone has already posted much of what I wanted to write about:

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB118792232818807567.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

The author of the article points out that Bush's reminders of the tragedy in the aftermath of Vietnam - prison camps, boat people, killing fields - while not inaccurate, are incomplete. He goes on to point out other lessons that could be learned:

- Dumping allied leaders for reasons of convenience, as the U.S. did with Ngo Dinh Diem, can result in even worse leadership.

- Strategies that are successful militarily, such as with Abrams' change in focus to population protection, can still fail due to lack of political support.

- Successful counterinsurgency requires the ability to strike at insurgent sanctuaries, even across borders.

- Tragedies such as Bush does mention are exacerbated if no provision is made for refugees.

I don't necessarily agree with all his points - for example, I worry that promises to accept refugees may encourage locals to give up rather than solve their own problems - but I do think all these factors are worth remembering.

I would point out a couple of additional factors about the greater historical context of Vietnam that may make it an inexact parallel. Both are related to the fact that Vietnam happened in the context of the Cold War, where the United States had a clearly defined global opponent in the Soviet Union - something that is no longer the case.

The first thing I'd point out is that Vietnam was but one of the "hot" flare ups that occurred during the Cold War. Other examples might include the Korean War in the early 1950s and the Warsaw Pact's invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. There's nothing that says Vietnam is necessarily the best parallel.

The second is that U.S. policy goals are very different in Iraq from what they were in Vietnam. In Vietnam, the primary U.S. goal was never to help the Vietnamese themselves; rather, that goal was secondary to protecting the U.S. sphere of influence, in and beyond Vietnam, from encroachment by the Soviets. In Iraq, the primary goal - at least as Bush seems to see it - is to help the Iraqis themselves establish a freer nation to live in.

Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. To learn from it, we must be able to discuss it.
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On August 25th, 2007 02:08 am (UTC), harrock commented:
OK, I'll discuss it... (Part 1)
...But I have to warn you, I got a bit carried away. :)

That article does a good job of listing some of the reasons for staying the course in Iraq. I don't blame the author for leaving a vacuum on the other side of the question, since that's a natural method of persuasive writing when you have a side in the debate. I don't disagree that his points are valid in general, but I think there are some other vital points to be considered.

The author says that continuing a modest American commitment could have kept South Vietnam in business indefinitely, and cites South Korea as an example of a country that's been kept in existence by American military force. I am not convinced of the premise that South Vietnam would still be there today, but if I drop that for the moment, I think that the resource commitment to protect South Korea was not chicken feed. Strictly from a strategic point of view, you have to ask how many stalemates you can afford to maintain indefinitely.

And yes, we could and did win the strategic stalemate with the Soviet Union. We engaged in proxy fights with the USSR all over the globe, and we showed conclusively that if both sides were paying the overhead to support a proxy (i.e., you're spending a lot of resources just to project power there, before you start generating leverage), we could beat the USSR across the board because we could outspend them by a big margin.

There were places where I think no amount of superior ability to project resources was going to overcome the advantage of physical proximity to the adversary's resources--Hungary, certainly, Czechoslovakia, probably. We certainly took a big hit from physical proximity when China committed troops to the Korean War. When you can beat your enemy on power projection, you still have to watch out when he has a lot of willing and able bodies close to hand.

The problem that I see in Iraq right now, putting it in a power-strategy point of view, is that when you compare it to Vietnam or Korea, we're not actually allied with a functioning political entity. Sure, South Korea and South Vietnam were pretty shaky, but you could at least point to a government that nominally had jurisdiction over a population that was being invaded by someone who we could fight. We do have allies in Iraq--I hear the Kurds still like us--but concentrating on those alliances seems to directly oppose strategic objectives like leaving a unified country behind. In short, we're still trying to constitute the thing that we could focus our support on. We can hope that it's going to knit, and we can try like hell to make it happen, but that's beside the point of whether it can really work.
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On August 27th, 2007 12:02 am (UTC), psychohist replied:
Re: OK, I'll discuss it... (Part 1)
My primary point really has to do with the historical lessons of Vietnam and the Cold War rather than with Iraq. People who don't want the U.S. engaging in military activity tend to cite Vietnam as if it was an unmitigated disaster, and everything we did there was wrong. I think it's good to be able to actually look at what happened there and realize we did some things right and other things wrong. Both our mistakes and our successes should guide our actions in future similar circumstances.

With respect to Iraq, I agree that the point about not being allied to a fully functioning political entity is valid. In this particular respect, the rebuilding of postwar Germany is a better parallel than is Vietnam. In other respects, of course, neither may be a good parallel.
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On August 28th, 2007 02:55 am (UTC), harrock replied:
Re: OK, I'll discuss it... (Part 1)
I agree that Vietnam is frequently misused as an all-purpose blunt instrument, and shouldn't be. The US military was diligent in absorbing lessons from it, both positive and negative; as citizens, we should be equally diligent.

Scapegoating Maliki certainly seems like a questionable move to me. We know the structural problems are severe. Certainly I doubt that anyone who's not on the ground in Iraq actually has much clue whether he can succeed or not. I'd love to know what Crocker has to say about the current situation. If I had to place a bet, I'd guess he's asking someone to egg Carl Levin's house, because it's one thing to slowly ratchet up your verbal pressure on someone to perform, and another thing to have a Senator calling for him to be sacked.

Hmm...not sure I could agree that Germany is a good model for political reconstruction. We did tear down the government of Germany and reconstitute it, as we have tried to do in Iraq, but I think Germany had more of a unified culture, and less in the way of really sharp divides, than Iraq does.

There is one creepy parallel with Germany, though, which goes right down to terminology. After World War II, we had Denazification, and recently, in Iraq, we had De-baathification. Both programs followed pretty similar philosoophical guidelines--the former regime and everyone associated with it had to be purged from public life. In Germany, within a few years, the Western Allies realized that they were more afraid of the USSR than of Germany looking up to ex-Nazis, so the program was toned way down. (It was striking to read the appendix in "A Bridge Too Far", which listed the current occupation and status of people named in the book who had survived the Market-Garden operation. An awful lot of senior officers on the German side--including guys in the SS--held positions in both the Bundeswehr and in NATO by the late '50's.)

In Iraq, we've stopped excluding ex-Baath party members from government positions en masse. We certainly had a partial failure to learn from a very clear historical parallel (clear, I claim, because we were not only using the same philosophy, but even the same terminology). Hopefully there's still some room to recover, but it's not going to be pleasant. It's going to involve quietly ignoring people whose heads we were calling for in 2003 and 2004. That's a big compromise, but one that we've always been willing to make once we leave ourselves no choice.
On August 30th, 2007 01:43 am (UTC), treptoplax replied:
Vietnam
That whole analogy is oddly apropos; if Ba'athism is Nazism (which it is, really, just an Arab knock-off) does that make the Iranians the Russians?

Offtopic (and I think we've had this discussion briefly in person before), I've heard the thesis bandied about that Vietnam was only a tactical loss for the US, and actually a strategic win in the economic war of attrition against the Soviets. The popular narrative is all about Vietcong guerrillas with AK-47s and bamboo spikes and the wisdom of Sun Tzu, but quite substantial quantities of SAMs and tanks and rocket artillery were expended - even if the material exchange rate was in their favor, it may not have been one the Soviets could afford.
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On August 25th, 2007 02:08 am (UTC), harrock commented:
OK, I'll discuss it... (Part 2)
And now, a bit about evaluating whether it can actually work.

There's a little parlor game people play, matching games to countries. They say that Poker is the American game. Possibly true. But from what I know of Poker, we're not playing very well right now.

The options discussed and implied in that article can be reasonably mapped to a Poker hand in which there is already a decent amount of money in the pot, and your opponent has made a significant raise. You can:


  • Fold. Decide to withdraw now, even if it takes X time to do it.
  • Call. Decide to keep going as-is for a while, see if current strategies can pan out. (In Texas Hold'em, you're hoping that the next public card improves your hand. In real life, you're hoping that a better COIN strategy turns things in our favor.)
  • Raise. Bomb Syria, bomb Iran...may as well plan on taking out Pakistan's nuke sites while you're at it.


There's a principle that Poker pros will remind you of when you're deciding what to do. The principle is, It's not your money anymore. Those chips in the pot that you've contributed? They're not yours. They're sunk costs. They're chips that you could win, but they're not yours anymore. The last thing you can afford to think about, strategically, is all of the chips that you put into that pot. The questions are how much you have to pay to keep your chance at the pot, how big the pot is, how do you judge the strength of your hand vs. that of the opponents, and what position you'll be in if you win the pot vs. what position you'll be in if you lose.

(That completely ignores the problem that war is usually negative-sum--half of everyone's bets go straight to the house, so your pot odds--the amount you stand to win vs. the amount you have to throw in--are worse than in any poker game. I'm not in the camp that says that you never fight because it's a negative-sum game. But whoever forgets that it's a negative-sum game is *not* to be followed in my opinion.)

Think about those questions individually. It's obvious that fixating on any one of them will lead to a default strategy.

Being human, and therefore short-sighted, the question that we're keenest to argue about is the most visceral one--how much you have to throw in to keep playing. Many of us are on both sides of this. We're sick to the stomach at what we've already paid, we see that the amount is huge, and that the next bet is huge, and at the same time, we're looking at all the chips in the pot (some of which, we've forgotten, don't belong to us anymore), and we're mesmerized by them.

I don't advocate a pat answer on either of those. But I do know one thing for sure. As a country, we're constitutionally unable to think about losing, and hence, you can still get tarred as a terrorist wannabe just for bringing up the possibility of folding. It is political apostasy to talk about the situation truly rationally. I can say the word "fold" all I want. Any candidate for public office, anywhere, who uses that word is irredeemably toast. We can do it, as Vietnam showed, but we can't do it decisively. We have to make it look like an unforeseen accident.

That is a grevious and potentially fatal flaw in our strategy. You can see its echoes in every empire in the world's history that has crumbled to dust. Failing to make strategy objectively is, in my opinion, just as deadly a moral sin as dodging the consequences, and letting them fall upon those who believed in us, when our bad choices come home to roost. It's just as deadly because, if we could do the former more often, we'd have to do the latter less often.

If we fold in Iraq, many people will suffer as a proximate result. If we call, or up our bet, many people will suffer as a proximate result. There's going to be a lot of suffering to go around in any of these cases, and I don't know anybody who has better than a speculative line of reasoning on the subject.
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On August 25th, 2007 02:09 am (UTC), harrock commented:
OK, I'll discuss it... (Finally, Done)
What I do know is that the current reasoning behind staying the course or upping our bet appears to me to be based largely propositions which are either contradictory, or are clearly wishful thinking, or both.

Is Iraq the central front on terror? Whatever happened to Afghanistan? How about Pakistan? The whole basis of our current counter-insurgency strategy involves the assumption that the local actors don't want al' Qaeda any more than we do. If fighting terrorists is the point, you have to come to an accomodation with local warlords. Which we are.

Do we believe that democracy cures all ills? Well, then, we'd better get ready for an Iraq where the voters are 20% grateful for us getting rid of Saddam, and 30% resentful that we bungled the operation, and 50% loyal to their cultural or tribal factions.

We're caught in a cognitive-dissonant state of knowing that we need to cut deals with warlords to do anything, and knowing that every deal we cut with a warlord will make Iraq more of a feudal state and less like the democracy that we fantasized about back in 2003. We're clinging to the belief that we can still somehow thread this needle.

We won some darn big pots in the last century--against Hitler, against the USSR. And I'm glad we did, because we were the good guys. But Hitler was a nut who didn't know how to do anything but go all-in, and the Ruskies were playing with weaker cards than anyone realized. We are tempted to attribute our good position to destiny, or to our dependable good luck, or to some other similar illusion.

The reality is that we're deep into a hand that we've misplayed badly, holding iffy cards, with a lot of chips sunk already. And the question that history is asking us right now is: Are we really that good at Poker, or are we just another clueless tourist who won a few hands and then got lightheaded?

We overreached in Iraq, on many levels. Now we need to look forward. That means not only setting aside the blame game, but also setting aside the pride, the ego, and the blood that we've already invested. I do not have confidence in the people who are making policy that they can do the latter. That would take a leader, and we just don't have one right now.
On August 27th, 2007 02:56 am (UTC), treptoplax replied:
Re: OK, I'll discuss it... (Finally, Done)
There is, I hear, a traditional Shi'ite proverb: "The first to reason by analogy was the Devil." That said...

We won that big pot not such by virtue of better play than today, but because we put in rebuy after rebuy. Then we sat there looking at that big pile of chips in front of us, and thinking that the game might end soon, folded hand after hand in the face of a series of marginal bluffs. Eventually we called a couple, and won some more big pots.

It's worth noting that the investment in live and treasure in Iraq so far is a pale shadow of Vietnam, never mind WWII. And the question is not just how it compared to some imagined optimal action but also how to doing nothing...


I think you can make a case that a semi-democratic, semi-Islamic, semi-Shiite regime in Iraq is actually a significant strategic win and quite achievable. But that would get much longer...


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On August 27th, 2007 05:57 pm (UTC), psychohist replied:
Re: OK, I'll discuss it... (Finally, Done)
"But Hitler was a nut who didn't know how to do anything but go all-in, and the Ruskies were playing with weaker cards than anyone realized."

The German army had a contingency plan if any resistance was shown to their march into the Ruhr: full scale retreat back out. It could be argued that Western Europe trained Hitler to "go all-in" by folding too much early on.

With respect to the Soviet Union, at times we had the military advantage, and at times they had the military advantage. I don't think the poker analogy is apt for the Cold War, though - the potential negative sum of an all out thermonuclear war can't be ignored. The game is different if the house takes a 90% cut.

Ultimately, the Soviet Union did not collapse simply because of weakness on their part - it collapsed because we had a superior economic system, one that easily supported a military buildup during the Reagan years that the Soviets couldn't match without collapsing their economy.

It's not at all clear to me that we'll have the same production advantages in the current century that we did in the last. Essentially all modern industry is ultimately based on oil and other fossil fuels - not just transportation and manufacturing, but even food production - and peak oil is likely to cause a major shift in power from the industrialized nations to the oil producing ones.

Most of the oil producing nations are in the mideast. It would be nice if the populations of those nations didn't uniformly hate us. While it's not my primary reason for thinking we should be in Iraq - I think we bear substantial responsibility for the suffering of millions of ordinary Iraqis during the 1990s from our handling of the Gulf War and subsequent sanctions, and owe it to them to help them out now - I think it wouldn't hurt for us to have a major Arab nation that was at least neutral towards us.

I think it's extremely dangerous for us to simply ignore the problem. The mideast is not going to be a backwater in the twenty first century.
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On August 29th, 2007 03:11 am (UTC), harrock replied:
Re: OK, I'll discuss it... (Finally, Done)
Certainly I wouldn't advocate ignoring the problem. :) I'm just concerned that we've missed our best window of opportunity to change Iraq for the better through direct action. Everything that we do there will carry the overhead cost of being an outside imposition, and my sense is that the overhead grows the longer we have a big footprint in the country. We may have a better tactical plan right now than we did four years ago, but it has farther to go.

To clarify, I'm not in favor of teleporting all US personnel out of Iraq tomorrow morning. I'm in favor of limiting our objectives and winding down our presence over the next few years, on our own schedule, with some flexibility to respond to the evolving situation. I'd accept a limited longer-term presence, but the key is "limited". I want to get far enough out of Iraq that the Army (especially, but also the other services) can take a breath, repair the damage, and prepare for the kind of battles we're now throwing them into. I want to re-orient on the home front too, such that we're not funding the war out of thin air and leaving PTSD victims to fend for themselves. Unfortunately, I know of no way that I (or anyone) can influence policy in these direction--the line from the White House seems to be that nobody outside the Executive Branch has any legitimate input. It's a private war; our only concern is to supply the resources, and (in some families) to supply the blood.

Anyway, I have a more useful thing to throw out. Looking at historical precedents for things we're trying to do in Iraq, I'd suggest we look back at Reconstruction after our own Civil War. The Federal government maintained military occupation of the former Confederate states until, one at a time, they were re-admitted to the Union. This included attempts to give political power to an oppressed racial group over the objections of the local majority, and specific requirements that the states had to meet before their political rights were restored.

Sadly, the example of Reconstruction is kind of bleak politically--it didn't leave behind a politically empowered black population, because as soon as the readmitted states were free to do so, they rolled back black rights as far as they could. Approximately full political rights for blacks had to wait a hundred years (and required more federal intervention).

As with all of the other comparisons, there are a host of differences between Reconstruction and Iraq, but I think that Reconstruction may be a better example of the difficulty of what we're trying to achieve than the other examples are. Germany didn't so much have disenfranchised groups to integrate into its damaged-but-existent traditionof representative government; they'd already wiped them out. In Vietnam and Korea, our political goals were more limited--we were looking for solid allies first, and democracy second, in areas with no tradition of representative government (that I can think of).

One could say that Reconstruction failed to change attitudes in the South because the Federal government bailed out instead of sticking with it. But I think that's pretty simplistic, since racial prejudice was so deeply entrenched both in the South and in the North. I think that Federal troops could have occupied the South for a generation and gotten little for their trouble except for a new generation of guys who didn't remember being beaten in the last war.

I'm not sure which way that particular example points with respect to Iraq, but I think it's worth thinking about when we're talking about reconstituting political systems in occupied areas.
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On August 29th, 2007 04:49 pm (UTC), psychohist replied:
Re: OK, I'll discuss it... (Finally, Done)
"We may have a better tactical plan right now than we did four years ago, but it has farther to go."

I think a lot of people forget how far Iraq has come in four years. Four years ago, Saddam was still on the loose, the primary insurgent forces still seemed to be controlled by the Baathists and Saddam's extended family, and their apparent goal was to outlast the U.S. and restore Baath party rule. The Baathists subsequently lost control of the Sunni insurgents to foreign influences, including Al Qaeda, and more recently those insurgents seem to have been defeated by a U.S. organized alliance of Sunni tribal leaders. I'm not certain that could have happened any quicker.

I do agree that, with more forces in the country, we might have been able to pacify Baghdad in parallel, rather than afterwards. I don't think it would have been a sure thing, though - driving the die hard anti-American portions of the Mehdi army out of Baghdad has thus far only caused them to move to areas where they are more easily resupplied by their Iranian backers. That's currently leading to problems in Basra, which was formerly peaceful. Doing that earlier might just have caused them to ally with the Baathists.

"To clarify, I'm not in favor of teleporting all US personnel out of Iraq tomorrow morning. I'm in favor of limiting our objectives and winding down our presence over the next few years, on our own schedule, with some flexibility to respond to the evolving situation.... Unfortunately, I know of no way that I (or anyone) can influence policy in these direction--the line from the White House seems to be that nobody outside the Executive Branch has any legitimate input."

If you really wanted to influence policy on a day to day basis, you could take a policy post - say, joining the Army and working your way up to General over 20 years. If you really don't insist on immediate changes, though, it could be easier just to vote in the election next year. That's the way our government works: the Commander in Chief is the President, and wars are prosecuted by the Executive branch; Congress can cut off funding, but aside from that the average citizen's control lies in voting on who the Commander in Chief will be every four years.

That said, I don't think the current administration differs with your basic time line. It should be remembered that the U.S. troop presence in Iraq was on a continuous downtrend until the surge began - and that the surge seemed to be a direct response to people who disagreed with the administration's previous policy, which seems to me to prove that the administration was listening to at least one opposition viewpoint.
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On August 30th, 2007 03:34 am (UTC), harrock replied:
Re: OK, I'll discuss it...
Regarding that option list, I confess that I've strayed from just discussing the lessons of history, but I assure you that I did so mainly to provide readers more data on my specific beliefs, since I'd been spending a lot of time in abstraction. I think you didn't mean it this way, but the option list sounds a bit like being told off. You have inadvertantly hit the nerve--not only haven't I chosen the right career to influence policy, but I've chosen to live in a state where my vote for President is nearly worthless (and if you disagree, you must agree that it's worth a heck of a lot less, mathematically, than a vote in Ohio). For my part, I apologize for my snarkiness thus far in the conversation.

On the other topic...the way our government is supposed to work, the Legislative branch is supposed to declare states of war in the first place. There are known gray areas that require Executive action, but I have a hard time believing that the writers of the Constitution would have thought that invading a sovereign state with the intention of replacing its government was not an act of war, requiring the authorization of Congress. I certainly don't think that the Framers thought that Congress had nothing to say about the Executive undertaking acts of war, but that's essentially what the signing statement on the 2002 Iraq authorization said. Do you concur with the Executive's position on this?

I guess the logic would go like this: there are a zillion contingent statutes that can be invoked if War is declared, and one can argue that declared War, as meant by the Constitution, is just a state of law that invokes emergency statutes, and its only connection to actual military conflict is that it's not supposed to be used in absence of military conflict. In that construction, Congress's power to declare war implies no power to restrain the Executive (except through the ever-popular purse strings).

The Constitution is pretty sparse right there. It's clear to me that the C-in-C has a lot of leeway, but why put the power for Congress to declare war in there, if the only purpose was to write hooks for contingent statutes that hadn't been written yet? (Or are we going back to common law and saying that a formal Declaration of War already had a traditional meaning which included additional powers for the government, but which didn't restrain the government in absence of a formal declaration?)
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On August 30th, 2007 09:21 pm (UTC), psychohist replied:
Re: OK, I'll discuss it...
While the Constitutional framework is simple, I think it's quite clear. Congress is given the power to declare war. The President, by virtue of being Commander in Chief, is responsible for the actual prosecution of such a war once declared. In making the President Commander in Chief, the drafters of the Constitution were evidently smart enough to realize that a war can't be run by committee. They did reserve the power to raise armies to Congress, restricting appropriations to no more than two years. That period is long enough that group decision would be possible, while short enough to give the electorate a chance to reverse any government decision within the normal electoral time frame.

Subsequent to World War II, two separate Presidents have committed substantial military forces - essentially going to war - without Congressional action: Truman in Korea and Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam. Those actions were arguably unconstitutional - I personally think they were unconstitutional - but it took until 1973 for Congress to object by passing the War Powers Act, which required the President to get Congressional approval for use of military force.

Of course the War Powers Act goes further, by requiring the President to continue consulting with and reporting to Congress subsequent to the initial declaration of war. Many feel that those additional provisions infringe on the Executive's constitutionally defined duties as Commander in Chief, and are thus unconstitutional, and I personally agree with that as well.

My comments regarding how to influence policy were an effort to point out how policy works within the Constitutional framework: Congress has input in the form of declarations of war and funding; we have input in the form of electing members of Congress and Presidents; the details and short term decisions are left to the Executive. I do apologize for hitting a nerve and for perhaps using overly acerbic wording.

I agree that invading a sovereign state with the intention of replacing its government is an act of war, and I agree it requires the authorization of Congress. The 2002 "Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq" provided that authorization. That authorization satisfies the Constitutional requirement for a declaration of war and had been interpreted as such by the Supreme Court; few if any Congressmen disagree. It also goes further and works within the framework of the War Powers Act. The Administration has continued to voluntarily satisfy the requirements of the War Powers Act, even though they contend that those requirements are unconstitutional and void.

As for the signing statement, all Presidents since 1973 have contended that the War Powers Act was unconstitutional and that they don't actually have to get Congressional consent for any military activities, although ever since 1973, they have all actually gotten such consent before committing troops, as Bush did in this case. I don't completely agree with either the Executive's or the Legislative's positions on this, both of which I consider extreme; on the other hand, from a practical standpoint, I think the system is still working.
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On September 23rd, 2007 03:21 am (UTC), harrock replied:
Re: OK, I'll discuss it...
Still working, but I think it's not working well, because neither I, nor our allies, nor our enemies, can actually say for sure how it works. There are tangible advantages to that in terms of strategic flexibility, but I think we pay a lot in credibility.

I've been thinking about how to explain my anxiety on this subject, which got me to this point in the conversation. My first thought was to say "I worry that I'm going to wake up one morning and find out that we're bombing Iran, and it's too late for anyone to disagree". After a while I've decided that that's not very likely, because I don't think that the present Administration is willing to do that without some kind of Congressional authorization, and that would be close to impossible.

However, I doubt that almost anyone in the Muslim world has quite that nuanced an understanding of how things work here. Look at it from their perspective. "The President of the United States gave a speech in which he specifically targeted three countries. In Iraq, he framed Saddam Hussein on WMDs and then invaded. Iran is the next country over, and the U.S. is already building a list of reasons to attack. And the Americans themselves can't tell you whether their President has the right to make that call himself, or not."

When trying to win over the Muslim world, it's hard enough to make our case using the rule of law and democracy as selling points, just based on the fact that no institution can ever quite live up to its ideals. Our recent history is one strike against us to all but the most sympathetic Muslims. The fact that our vaunted rule of law has this big gray area on decisions of war and peace doesn't help.

By itself it is a small thing; but it's symbolic of the reasons why an undecided person on the Muslim street may decide against us: We talk a good game about rule of law and democracy, but it's easy to find a long list of our actions that don't live up to it. We talk about the evils of allowing one strongman to recklessly commit his people to aggressive war--but to some appearances, from the outside, that's what we have done.

This perception makes us weak, and the bits of reality that underly the perception also make us weak.
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On August 30th, 2007 04:41 pm (UTC), psychohist replied:
Reconstruction and Denazification
The point about reconstruction being a possible analogy is a good one. I look at it in a slightly different way.

Historically, regime change - in the loose sense, where 'regime' includes cultural and economic patterns as well as a government - is generally accompanied by, indeed seems to require, a backlash against the previous regime. Denazification, which you mentioned before, was a rather mild example; another example was the French backlash at the same time against collaborators.

The period of radical reconstruction was a rather more extreme example, during which the radical Republicans sought to extract vengeance against the former Confederates by imposing what amounted to a foreign government of occupation. This regime was sufficiently oppressive - and sufficiently unsuccessful at reconstructing a war torn region - to cause a backlash of its own.

On the whole, I would count denazification as far more successful than reconstruction. This may be why the administration emphasized debaathification in Iraq. On the other hand, it's becoming clear that the fundamental tension in Iraq is not so much political as religious, and while it's relatively easy for people to disavow political views, it's more difficult to abandon a religion. In this respect the situation may be less tractable, and more like the former Confederacy after the civil war.

I think that the natural release of tension in Iraq would have involved a severely violent backlash against all Sunnis by the Shiites and possibly the Kurds. The administration has been trying very hard to prevent such a backlash and to move directly to a religiously tolerant regime where the groups can coexist. That's a laudable goal; the question is whether it's actually achievable.
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On August 30th, 2007 09:57 pm (UTC), harrock replied:
Re: Reconstruction and Denazification
As you've touched on, the driving forces behind Radical Reconstruction included a lot of vengeance and simple profiteering. I think our attempts at execution match our ideals much better in Iraq than they did during Reconstruction. But it's a hard needle to thread under good circumstances.

The reason why I've picked on denazification as an example is that I don't think the similarity of terminology is an accident at all; I think that it was a deliberate attempt to recapture both the moral authority we had at the moment of Hitler's fall, and also to recapture the mystique of our very successful effort to rebuild Germany as an ally. We had not only de-Baathification, but also war crimes trials. It's true that the court for the trials was/is Iraqi, and not composed of the conquering powers as it was at Nuremburg, but the similarities of theme are hard to ignore.

And my concern there is that, very simply, that looks to me like a textbook case of over-reaching and wishful thinking. What did we do the last time that we utterly defeated an enemy who was (properly, in both cases, IMO) designated as an archetype of evil? We purged his party from public life and held a trial.

I think they tried to re-use a formula without thinking very hard about the flaws of the formula, and I think they did so because they looked at the historical example only from our perspective--the supreme moment of American glory, when we crossed the ocean to crush a bloodthirsty tyrant, then swept his cronies out of power forever and gave them the fair trial that they never gave their victims, then helped the country back onto its feet... Who wouldn't want to resurrect that feeling, especially given all of the flak and doubts that were being raised? I'm not saying that anyone went to the National Archives and made photocopies of the Denazification plans. I'm just saying that once we started equating Saddam and Hitler in our rhetoric, we were on the path.

On the backlash front... I can't think of any good examples where we had to deal with both a cultural fault line and external support for an insurgency at the same time, though I think we'd find some of that in Vietnam. The best case I can see would be (as I believe you suggest) that some degree of backlash was inevitable, and that the bottled-up force of backlash makes it easier for insurgents to operate, so if we can ride out or dissipate the backlash, the insurgency will find less support than it has now. It's something to hope for, and something we can make more likely.
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On September 11th, 2007 02:20 am (UTC), psychohist replied:
Re: Reconstruction and Denazification
Petraeus' testimony, for those who are interested:

http://ap.google.com/article/ALeqM5jeVvMpWAfFXL8an_q5dlANQsPPkA

I wish I could see the charts he refers to.
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On September 23rd, 2007 03:55 am (UTC), harrock replied:
Testimony
My reaction to the MoveOn ad, basically, is "WTF?" It has caused me to think about how we got to this point. As a technical expert who often has to walk into meetings where partisans on d6 sides are all planning to leap on whatever facts I say, and spin them according to their own agendae, I feel entitled to sympathize.

Regardless of my opinion on our chances of success, I don't expect a military leader to go on TV and talk up the ways in which we can fail. I expect him to talk about the plan, what we know about how well the plan is going, and what paths are still open for us to succeed. Which it seems to me that he did.

Perhaps the more extreme anti-war factionites are guilty here of the same error I was ranting about in the first place--if you don't like the situation, or you're frustrated, just keep raising...

Of course, it's naive to imagine that anyone testifying before Congress isn't a political event, even if that person is a field commander in a war in progress... Everybody knew that politically, on the face of it, Patreus going to DC was going to be a bump for the stay-the-course faction. The ad was, in my opinion, a childish and desperate attempt to ignore and/or rewrite that reality. If I was running the anti-war faction, I'd just have taken my lumps and gone forward. (I had to rewrite that, because I originally said "moved on", instead of "gone forward". Ironic...)
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On September 24th, 2007 01:15 am (UTC), psychohist replied:
Re: Testimony
I'm not sure how MoveOn got into the discussion. I was just providing links because I often find that news reports about testimony are incomplete from being edited to fit in a few paragraphs.

I agree Petraeus' testimony doesn't really say anything new - which is to be expected since the surge strategy was basically authored by Petraeus himself. Well, there are a few new things - there were some unexpected successes in Anbar, and some unexpected problems in Basra, but no big surprises.

There are no surprises in Crocker's testimony, either, but I thought it was interesting in terms of understanding more about the Iraqi internal political situation. Personally I think we've finally got a team that actually understands Iraq pretty well. Khalilzad was the right person for Afghanistan, but Iraq is different from Afghanistan.
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On September 11th, 2007 06:21 pm (UTC), psychohist replied:
Re: Reconstruction and Denazification
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