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« Q&A With Gregory Cochran, Part One | Main | Q&A With Gregory Cochran, Part 2 »

September 10, 2007

And Now a Word from Our Leaders

Friedrich von Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards:

After the invigorating plain speaking of Part I of Michael Blowhard's interview with Gregory Cochran on Iraq and related topics, which you should absolutely read, I thought I'd see what officialdom had to say on the subject. A little googling got me the text of General Petraeus' testimony to Congress.

Reading his "Report to Congress on the Situation in Iraq," I couldn't help but be struck by the utter absence of any discussion of what the U.S. has at stake in this conflict. No discussion of what benefits we hope to obtain in Iraq nor any discussion of what dangers we are struggling to avoid by being in Iraq.

If you think I am exaggerating, note his remarks (quoted in full) under the heading "The Nature of the Conflict":

The fundamental source of the conflict in Iraq is competition among ethnic and sectarian communities for power and resources. This competition will take place, and its resolution is key to producing long-term stability in the new Iraq. The question is whether the competition takes place more--or less--violently. This chart shows the security challenges in Iraq. Foreign and home-grown terrorists, insurgents, militia extremists, and criminals all push the ethno-sectarian competition toward violence. Malign actions by Syria and, especially, by Iran fuel that violence. Lack of adequate governmental capacity, lingering sectarian mistrust, and various forms of corruption add to Iraq's challenges. [emphasis original]

I have read that paragraph a number of times and I do not see the words United States, America, or even American anywhere. Likewise, zilch on the nature of American interests in this conflict, dangers to the U.S. from this conflict, benefits to America from this conflict, threats to key allies from this conflict, etc.

He goes on to magnify the oddity of this omission with a later remark:

My recommendations also took into account a number of strategic considerations:

- political progress will take place only if sufficient security exists;

- long-term US ground force viability will benefit from force reductions as the surge runs its course;

- regional, global, and cyberspace initiatives are critical to success; and

- Iraqi leaders understandably want to assume greater sovereignty in their country, although, as they recently announced, they do desire continued presence of coalition forces in Iraq in 2008 under a new UN Security Council Resolution and, following that, they want to negotiate a long term security agreement with the United States and other nations. [emphasis original]

What he terms strategic considerations do not look, um, all that strategic to me. Just to check, I looked up strategy and found this on Wikipedia:

A strategy is a long term plan of action designed to achieve a particular goal, most often "winning".

Noticing the link on "goal", I clicked it and got:

An objective or goal is a personal or organizational desired end point in development. It is usually endeavoured to be reached in finite time by setting deadlines.

By golly, the General has managed to completely avoid stating the nature of the particular goal of his strategy, punted on defining what he means by "winning", dodged describing a personal or organizational desired end point, and finally has utterly avoided setting deadlines for, well, achieving whatever it is he's trying to achieve. For somebody in a profession that involves engaging with strategic issues on an everyday basis, this is a bit peculiar. How does one give a progress report if one can't bear to speak aloud what the initiative is trying to accomplish in the first place? Are we dealing with a general here or a second lieutenant?

Well, maybe I am being unfair. Petraeus does mention one benefit to the U.S., or at least a U.S. industry, from our presence there:

Significantly, in 2007, Iraq will, as in 2006, spend more on its security forces than it will receive in security assistance from the United States. In fact, Iraq is becoming one of the United States' larger foreign military sales customers, committing some $1.6 billion to FMS already, with the possibility of up to $1.8 billion more being committed before the end of this year. And I appreciate the attention that some members of Congress have recently given to speeding up the FMS process for Iraq. [emphasis added]

So is he suggesting that selling arms is our rationale for being in Iraq? Not even I'm paranoid enough to believe that. But it is the only rationale he mentions.

You know, I get more cynical every year but I just can't keep up.



posted by Friedrich at September 10, 2007


FvB, why do you expect to hear rationale on War from a military general? It's not his job to formulate it; his job to develop a strategy for achieving the goals he's given. Station goals is the job of commander-in-chief, and if you're not satisfied with the way Bush did it, your beef is with him, not with Petreus.

Posted by: Tat on September 10, 2007 9:27 PM

That's the question I've always had about Iraq. If we win, what exactly do we get?

Posted by: Rob on September 10, 2007 9:29 PM

Strategy is the larger political, diplomatic scenario that is always derived from the top.

Tactics or the tactical, is what takes place on the battlefield.

Thus, one might say a head coach has a strategy for a football game, but it is his specific assistant coaches that often define the tactics of the offense or the defense, or what have you. If the tactics do not fit in with what the head coach thinks is his overall strategy, of course he will step in or replace the guy, but you get the point.

The context with which you use the word "goal" is actually close to meaningless.

A general is not the head coach in this scenario, he is an assistant to the president. It is not within the parameters of his job to define or explain "why" we are at war, or what benefiit the country is supposed to glean from the fight.

Not that generals have not tried to do as such before, but they were wrong to do so. It's called grandstanding. MacArthur was famous for it, and of course, he had larger political designs.

Posted by: Ray G on September 10, 2007 9:37 PM

"...political progress will take place only if sufficient security exists"

Isn't this the kernel of U.S. strategy? Weaken the bad guys to the point where the Iraqi Security Forces (such as they are) of the Iraqi Government (such as it is) can at least hold their own in the major population centers, maintaining the security necessary for orderly existence to become the norm, not the exception? The hope being that the civilian population, having tasted the possibilities of peace, will turn on those who only bring chaos. If that can be accomplished a U.S. withdrawal might leave behind a nascent state able to contain the insurrection against it.

Posted by: ricpic on September 10, 2007 11:23 PM

Not to be tedious, guys, but nobody, from our Supreme Leader on down, is sharing what these so-called goals are. These goals certainly aren't the widely discussed pre-war notion of turning Iraq into a pro-Western democracy. But what they are now is sort of...questionable. How exactly does General Petraeus give a status report on progress towards goals that nobody, but nobody, can define? The whole exercise is just designed to give Senate Republicans enough cover to keep supporting the war so nobody has to admit publicly that they have not only engaged in a war of choice, but they also lost it.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 10, 2007 11:46 PM


You're asking why the US has to rule the world. Or, more specifically, what it gets out of ruling the world.

Now that's a stupid question! Why would you want to ask a question like that? Nobody ever asks that question. What a stupid question. Geeze.

Next you might want to know why Obama wants to double the tribute budget. Excuse me, "foreign aid." The "foreign aid budge." Is this the next stupid question? Geeze, what a stupid question. Well, your Jedi mind tricks won't work on me, buddy.

Of course, what you're actually asking is why Washington, DC has to rule the world. Well? Why does Washington, DC have to rule North America? What a stupid question. Because it does, of course. God, some people are so dense.

Posted by: Mencius on September 10, 2007 11:59 PM

we need to rule the world. the martians are watching, and if we don't step up they'll invade. if foreigners think that the american boot is hard, they better be careful because martians have these weird feet and their boots leave a really deep mark in the back. now, i know that some of you are skeptical, but trust me. even if there's only a 0.000000000001% i'm right, multiply that by the infinite catastrophe of a martian invasion and a conquest of the human species. we have to act, we have to invade the world!

Posted by: razib on September 11, 2007 12:16 AM

Oh, I took his illogical approach to mean that he wasn't even serious about looking for an answer. My bad. I thought he was just picking on Petraeus.

Here it is.

Islam is at war with the West. Period.

To not realize this, is to be either incredibly naive or brazenly dishonest.

To the many here that of course do not agree, do a little research into Islamic activity the world over, particularly in Western Europe. There is a very overt, and obvious effort to force Islamic culture on the rest of the world.

Beating our spears into plowshares, abolishing all borders and those pesky arbitrary states will not produce a Utopian free market the world over, but it will simply allow bad people to do really bad things.

Then we wouldn't even have the liberty to sit around and ponder who is more evil, George Bush or Donald Rumsfeld.

Posted by: Ray G on September 11, 2007 1:28 AM

Mr. G:

Call me either incredibly naive or brazenly dishonest, but I don't see how spending $10 or $12 billion dollars a month keeping Shias from murdering Sunnis and vice versa in Iraq gives me much insurance against being forced to convert to Islam. Don't get me wrong, I strongly distrust and dislike the "religion of peace". I just think it would be much more effective to spend the same $10 or $12 billion a month to (1) keeping crazed Islamics away from the U.S. (or, if identifying the crazy ones isn't possible, keeping all middle-easterners away from the U.S., which is certainly possible); (2) scanning cargo and eliminating other easy ways for terrorists to harm US citizens; (3) developing energy independence so that we can stop funding the horrible regimes that Moslems seem addicted to creating.

If the Europeans can't get up the backbone to deal with the Moslem threat there, that's their tough luck...not my problem, as I see it.

Of course, if like most people in our government you don't want to just serve the security needs of Americans but wish to be in charge of and make a profit from the whole world, you probably see more of a point than I do in keeping the various factions in Iraq from accomplishing their heart's desire and killing each other. And I'm sure that we can find lots of other people who we must, simply must, tell what to do...hey, so many people to push around, so many wars to fight, and so little time.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 11, 2007 2:09 AM

Islam is at war with the West. Period.

To not realize this, is to be either incredibly naive or brazenly dishonest.

you live in a simple little universe. if you don't realize it...well, i won't say what you are ;-) there are factions in the west at war with the west, as i'm sure you believe. similarly, there are factions within islam at war with islam. you elide complexities and offer up a simple one sentence formula as a 'take it or leave it' proposition.

well, thank god that the american public is leaving the childish models that you're presenting above. the world is not divided between just the angels and the demons.

Posted by: razib on September 11, 2007 2:12 AM

The fraction of Islam that is 'at war with the West' doesn't have a single tank or jet fighter.
Judging by the rate at which jihadists infiltrate Iraq, all of Islam manages to produce only 1000 untrained, unequipped, unpaid, suicidal jihadists per year.

And of course interrogation of captured infiltrators suggests that three-quarters of _those_ only became interested in jihadism because we invaded Iraq.
That's about the same force level they managed in Afghanistan, against the Soviets: almost all the real resistance was by locals with American arms aid. The 'Afghan Arabs' were a joke.

The guerillas in El Salvador, a postage-stamped sized country, managed to put about 12,000 soldiers into the field at their peak: that's a bigger force than Al-Qaeda and all the jihadists that have infiltrated Iraq.

Posted by: gcochran on September 11, 2007 9:50 AM

The reason we're criticizing Petraeus is that Bush is hiding behind him, the same way Bush hides behind the young rank and file troops who are making all the sacrifices. A number of generals have already ended their careers, either because they disagreed with Bush, or because they followed his orders and were blamed when they orders turned out to be senseless.

Posted by: John Emerson on September 11, 2007 9:55 AM

The only sensibe statements made yesterday were by Ike Skelton and Tom Lantos and a congressman on the PBS News hour, who said that we're trying to win an occupation, which can't be done.

Our armed forces in Iraq constitute it's government, police and national security forces. When we leave, there wil be nothing to replace us. The current civil war will continue until one side decisively annihilates the other. Most probably the Shiites with Iranian support will finally crush the Sunni minority.

To make a distateful analogy, Iraq is the foreign policy equivalent of Terri Schiavo. Iraq is a dead nation whose minimal vital signs are maintained by our occupation, Iraq's feeding tube. Bush won't acknowledge that and pull the tube and the Democrats won't force him to.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on September 11, 2007 2:50 PM

What up G?
Islam is at war with the West. Period.

From your About The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

If I had just seen the quote on your blog, I might have been naive enough to believe that you that it was a bad thing.

Posted by: Rob on September 11, 2007 6:44 PM

If I were to guess at the strategy on Iraq it would be: to achieve a breathing space in which a temporarily stabilized Iraqi government can be established.
That is, one that will not immediately collapse into all-out civil war.
Also which won't produce a prompt takeover by Baathists, Iranians, Islamists, etc.
Both of which have an appreciable potential to initiate a regional war.

Such a state may not, and need not, have much of a future. If it can merely survive for a couple of years, that may afford the time for the US to reposition its forces, and for the endgame to begin in Iran, one way or another.

Another guess would be that related calculations were behind the decision to eliminate Saddamite Iraq in the first place: that Saddam was playing for survival into a post-sanctions phase, where if the Iran came to the fore he might have opportunities to revive his ambitions.

Posted by: John SF on September 12, 2007 7:27 AM

The whole exercise is just designed to give Senate Republicans enough cover to keep supporting the war so nobody has to admit publicly that they have not only engaged in a war of choice, but they also lost it.

Ain't that the truth? Even worse, predictably lost it. Plus, no one has demonstrated to me that "establishing enough security so that political progress is possible" is, in itself, possible or desired over there. I'm not sure the axiom is true: even if total security exists, what makes anyone rationally believe, on the basis of what has happened, that even then political progress will be made?

Posted by: annette on September 13, 2007 10:34 AM

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