Friday, November 19, 2004

Don't worry, we're still losing

I've stopped reading the New York Times, so I didn't see this op-ed by a couple of Dartmouth Professors until Oxblog linked to it. The article is by International Relations Professors Daryl Press and Benjamin Valentino. I don't know Prof. Valentino, but back in my undergrad days I took an introductory IR course with Prof. Press. It was a lot of theory and I ended up deciding that I preferred fact to theory, so I became a History major. But I remember an interesting discussion from that course.

This was before 9/11, and on the first day of class, Prof. Press brought up the Prisoner's Dilemma and the Chicken Game, two staples of simplified game theory. The idea was to describe the security situation, with particular attention to the issue of nuclear weapons. Prof. Press wanted to demonstrate that (to some IR theorists) the idea of nuclear proliferation was not a bad one because it brought about mutually assured destruction. We were introduced to the "Rationality Principle" and were told that since states are rational actors in the international system, a state possessing nuclear weapons will not use them because of MAD.

Well, at the time I was a little skeptical, but I accepted some of the logic behind it. However, my first thought after the initial shock of 9/11 was to think back to that lecture and conclude that the "Rationality Principle" is dead. There's no way that in a world where people are willing to fly planes into buildings, they'd be unwilling to use nukes. A lot of people reached similar conclusions, because today most people agree that terrorists with nukes constitute the greatest threat to America.

So, I was quite interested to see what my old professor now had to say. The article is about Falluja, and the headline says it all: "A Victory, But Little Is Gained." I am really bothered by the Professors' pessimism, so here's what I think. They start out by saying that the taking of Falluja "has not brought the United States appreciably closer to achieving its political objectives in Iraq." Really? If our political objectives include improving the security situation, then isn't cleaning up a terrorist hell-hole bringing us closer to that objective? I guess not. The Profs go on to say that "history suggests that America has slim hopes of defeating the insurgency, and that our best chance for 'success' depends on redefining what we would consider a victory." Wow. So, we can't win but let's just say that we intended to not win all along.

The article is filled with this gloomy outlook. "While major operations like the attack on Falluja create the appearance of progress [only the appearance? not actual progress?]... there is virtually no connection between seizing territory and defeating an insurgency." None? So then why sacrifice close to fifty soldiers? We might as well have left Falluja the way it was since capturing it brought us no material advantage, right? And here's another blooper: "Insurgents do not seek victory on the battlefield." So, what do they seek?

To be fair, the Profs do make some interesting points. By the above statement they actually mean that insurgents have different battle plans when compared to regular armies. But, we already know that. Tell us something we don't know. "Guerrillas do not depend on vulnerable lines of supply and communication, so counter insurgents must target them directly." Isn't that what the American military did in Falluja?

The Profs then talk about the history of insurgency, and conclude that nobody has defeated one since WWII. That is, except for Britain in Malaya and a couple of strong men here and there. They then tell us that these examples do not apply, especially the example of Malaysia.

"Many counter insurgency theorists have tried to model operations on teh British effort in Malaya, particularly the emphasis on winning hearts and minds of the local population through public improvements. They have not succeeded. [Really?] Victory in Malaysia, it appears in retrospect, has less to do with British tactical innovations than with the weaknesses and isolation of the insurgents. The guerrillas were not ehtnic Malays." Like in Iraq, right? I mean, Zarqawi et al are foreigners in Iraq, and the insurgents themselves only have a following with a minority of the Iraqi population. Shias and Kurds are on America's side in this conflict, as are most Sunnis. So doesn't this model apply?

I would also add that the Indian experience in Punjab is instructive. Sure, some strong tactics were used, but the methods were primarily liberal - elevating a Sikh to the position of President (an appointed position) and so on, to the point where we ended up with a Sikh Prime Minister. Not bad, as far as counterinsurgency goes.

The Profs continue to astonish: "as long as the insurgency rages, it is unlikely that America will achieve the political goals it set for itself - a unified, democratic Iraq as the first building block in the broader democratization of the Middle East." This is spot-on. The implication is that we should change our goals. I would contend that this means we should be even more determined to defeat the raging insurgency. They go on: "perhaps we should set our goals more realistically, and focus on the achievable." In other words, since we can't win, let's just re-define losing to mean winning, so that we can at least win rhetorically.

The Profs suggest "a new secular strongman," arguing that cohesion and stability are more important. "Saddam Hussein was able to keep his politically, ethnically and religiously divided state together only through nearly constant repression; it seems unlikely that any successor could rule with a velvet glove." This is a misnomer, and one I'd like to address. Saddam Hussein did not maintain cohesion through repression - he maintained his tyranny through repression. The implication is not that constant repression is the only means of maintaining Iraqi unity. Arguably liberalism, freedom and democracy will achieve that goal. In fact, that is exactly what the American government is arguing today.

So what's going on? Why are two Government Professors at Dartmouth arguing that we should redefine our understanding of victory in Iraq? Well, there are two reasons. First, they are arguing for an easy out. By redefining failure to mean success, we can fail and still claim success. That way, we won't need to put in the hard work necessary for success. But, there is also something a little more sinister going on here. Here's the kicker: "These are depressing prospects. The fact that we must now consider them underscores the caution that should be employed before deciding to go to war." Aah! So there it is! In the last paragraph of this Op-Ed, we finally see what they are getting at. We should have known this was going to be difficult from the start, and therefore we shouldn't even have gone in the first place! But don't worry, just because you are seeing victorious marines and soldiers in Falluja today, it doesn't mean that we're winning. And, rest assured, even if it does we'll spin it so that America sees it as a loss and will shy away from force projection in the future. This isn't an argument about Falluja or insurgencies, but a re-opening of the pre-war debate. This strikes me as a note to the faithful not to lose heart - the warmongers may appear vindicated now, but don't worry - we'll still lose!

I ran a search on the NY Times website and found that Prof. Press has written an Op-Ed for them in the past, on March 26, 2003 titled "How to Take Baghdad". You have to pay for it, and I'm not particularly interested in doing so, but here are the first fifty words. They say a lot about Prof. Press' prophetic powers.

"American and British ground forces are approaching Baghdad, but the war has not gone as smoothly as the Bush administration had hoped. Neither intense psychological operations nor precision missile strikes has toppled Saddam Hussein's government. The Republican Guard is standing by its man. And the Iraqi security forces appear willing... "

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