What a Quagmire Looks Like

I’ve just begun to read Geoffrey Perret’s new book Commander in Chief: How Truman, Johnson, and Bush Turned a Presidential Power into a Threat to America’s Future. I’ve not gotten far enough into it to endorse the whole book, but I must say I loved the introduction. After encountering the genius who said “The Islamo Fascists have failed to bring on the quagmire” in Iraq yesterday, I feel compelled to quote a chunk of it (emphasis added).

Three wars — Korea, Vietnam, Iraq — all launched at moments of national crisis, all of them unwinnable.

They were unwinnable for many reasons, but the place to begin is this: in North Korea, North Vietnam, and Iraq, the enemy always held the strategic initiative. The most powerful country in the world found itself dancing to its enemy’s tune, not its own. At times it was possible to seize the tactical initiative — crossing the 38th parallel, launching an aerial blitz against North Vietnam, flattening Fallujah. But the loss of the strategic initiative rules out the path to victory implicit in the military paradigm; namely, that one country imposes its will on another. Instead, the country that has chosen to wage the war finds itself wrestling with an insoluble challenge: a political victory requires a military victory first, because there can be no effective government without security and stability. But a military victory requires a political victory first, in the form of a government strong enough to establish a state monopoly on violence.

That’s precisely where we are in Iraq, and that’s precisely what a quagmire looks like.

As commanders in chief seek military success, only to fail, then lurch off in search of political gains and fail again, time is used up. And time is not neutral. It strengthens the enemy. Knowing that, the enemy is never in a hurry. The longer the struggle lasts, the better their prospects.

… These modern wars are managed rather than won. It is possible to lose them, yet impossible to achieve victory. …

… in Iraq, the United States is facing an insurgency that has widespread popular support. More than 250,000 young Iraqi males turn eighteen each year, and beyond Iraq, there is an aggrieved Sunni community of more than a billion people. The Iraq insurgency will never run short of manpower, money, or munitions; nor will terrorist groups across the Middle East.

There is a limit to the number of people that the United States can kill, capture, or incapacitate. In Iraq, it can kill tens of thousands, possibly more than a hundred thousand, but not millions, not in the name of liberation, not in the presence of television and camcorders. There are limits to what even a superpower can do without turning the entire civilized world against it. [Geoffrey Perret, Commander in Chief: How Truman, Johnson, and Bush Turned a Presidential Power into a Threat to America’s Future (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), pp. 5-7]

I go on a rant from time to time — most recently here and here — about how our invasion of Iraq fulfilled Osama bin Laden’s fondest hopes, and how the longer we stay there the better for al Qaeda. I like the way Perret puts it — Time is not neutral. Time is on the enemy’s side. The more time they get, the stronger they will be.

The ever oblivious Max Boot argues that we must give “give Gen. Petraeus and his troops more time–at least another year–to try to change the dynamics on the ground.”

The reality is that Iraq has been experiencing a fairly low-grade civil war until now–one that has been contained by the presence of U.S. troops. While the troop surge in Baghdad hasn’t yet decreased the overall level of violence–suicide bombings, which are notoriously difficult to stop, remain undiminished–the presence of more Iraqi and American troops on the streets has managed to reduce sectarian murders by two-thirds since January. Sunni fanatics are still able to set off their car bombs, but Shiite fanatics are not able to respond in kind by torturing to death 100 Sunnis a night. In other words, the surge is containing the results of the suicide bombings, slowing the cycle of violence that last year was leading Iraq to the brink of the abyss.

The real reality is that Shiites are playing us, according to Peter Harling and Joost Hiltermann, writing for Le Monde diplomatique:

Baghdad’s relative calm is mostly the result of the ability of violent players to preempt the plan and neutralise much of its sting. This is true of both Sunni insurgent groups and Shia militias tied to the government. Followers of Shia militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr have gone to ground, waiting for the storm to pass and allowing US forces to go after Sunni insurgents.

Sunni insurgents responded in two ways, depending on their affiliation. Key commanders of patriotic groups (as they call themselves) withdrew from Baghdad with their heavy weaponry in anticipation of large-scale cordon-and-search operations. They left nominal forces in place to avoid giving the impression of retreat and defeat. Residents in some Sunni districts report that insurgents still roam at will, untouched (indeed, unnoticed) by US military operations, issuing permits and claiming protection money. They melt away when their district’s turn comes.

Even as the Bush administration unveiled its plan, jihadists linked to al-Qaida in Iraq opted to intensify their trademark suicide attacks, announcing a martyr campaign to create a bloodbath in Baghdad. True to its word, the group took credit in February for the largest number of car bombs ever, and the pace has hardly slackened since. Part of al-Qaida’s plan, besides foiling any US sense of progress, is to draw the Sadrist Mahdi Army out into the open and expose it to US attack. Both sides would like US forces to do their dirty work for them.

(Joost Hiltermann is deputy program director for the Middle East and North Africa with the International Crisis Group in Amman; Peter Harling is the organization’s senior analyst based in Damascus.)

They’re playing us, people. The Shia are playing us to kill Sunnis for them, and al Qaeda is playing us to kill Shia for them, and the Sunni are probably playing us too. And here is the great unvarnished idiot Max Boot explaining to us that what’s going on in Iraq is “just a low-grade civil war,” and if we keep slogging away we’ll win eventually.

But time is not neutral. Time is on the enemy’s side. The more time we give them, the stronger they are and the weaker we are. And yes, this is a quagmire. In fact, it’s going beyond quagmire stage and turning into a sinkhole.

5 thoughts on “What a Quagmire Looks Like

  1. Quagmires all: Korea, Vietnam, Iraq.
    In none was there a declaration of war by Congress as the Constitution seemingly demands, and which occurred for the war with Mexico, the Spanish-American War, and World Wars I and II, all of which were ended by a formal surrender and treaty.
    Quagmires all, but the first two at least had a rational basis for our nation’s presidentially driven involvement. With Korea, it was an attack by the north across an internationally recognized border on an ally. This attack claimed American casualties from the beginning, and there was a strong justification to sending American divisions from Japan to attempt to halt the onslaught from the north. We were, of course, in one of the first large-scale “hot” conflicts of the “cold war”, and both we, the Russians, and the Chinese knew it. On balance, it seems obvious that our Korean allies in the south survived only because of our intervention (feckless at first, brilliant at Inchon, overweening in the push to the Yalu, stalemated at the end but not defeated). On balance, particularly looking at the bizarre dictatorship of the north, it was a good thing that South Korea survived and prospered with our help.
    A quagmire, but an at least arguably justifiable one.
    U.S. intervention in Vietnam had a good deal less legitimacy, but it was not wholly lacking in rationality. Just as with Korea, arguments can be made about our role in creating the situation (particularly cancelling the Geneva agreements on elections to unify Vietnam). But our military advisors were invited in to aid in putting down an insurgency more or less organized, controlled, and supplied by the northern half of the country, sperated, a la Korea, by a DMZ. Unlike Korea, Vietnam in the early years was not an ivert invasion across national borders, but it had the potential of becoming one (and did, of course, when Ho and Giap answered our influx of regular troops with the NVA). But Vietnam was not done on the whim of a single administration. It spanned Ike, JFK. LBJ, and Nixon. There were pegs on treaties (such as SEATO) and the request of a legitimate government for assistance.
    The great mistake was escalating the war with the insertion of divisions of regular combat troops and their 10-to-one support tail. Vietnam could have been kept at a nagging level, losing several hundred U.S. casualties a year, with no chance of the Viet Cong actually winning, and probably no chance of Ho and Giap staging a full invasion as long as they could chip away and not provoke a frenzied U.S. aerial response on their massed troops and eventually their dikes and cities. This could have gone on with little notice or real import for a decade until there was some sort of inscrutable solution that would have involved a coup or counter-coup and we could have been invited out and gone home. Of course it did go on for a decade, but as a full-fledged war that we had no hope of winning without actually conquering and occupying North Vietnam, which then would have resisted the occupation with similar results to what we see in Iraq. Korea? Again, MacArthur tried to conquer in preparation for occupation and ended up fighting the Chinese.
    So what is our excuse for going into Iraq? In 1991, it was the cross-border invasion of Kuwait. But what was it in 2003? What sort of threat was Saddam? A dozen years of sanctions had gutted the economy. The Iraqi army was a joke. Weapons inspectors, kicked out but then let back in before Bush chased them out with threats of shock and awe, were unequivocal that there were no significant unconventional chemical or biological weapon, and certainly that there were no nuclear weapons or nuclear program to get them that was in any sense imminently threatening. Was the intelligence faulty? Yes, but because it was invented, forged, shaped to meet the program, not because anybody really blundered. Saddam threatened nobody outside his borders and certainly not America. He had no ties to 9/11. So why did we invade and occupy? Oil, Likud, graft, vanity, and votes. No cold war rationale. No rationale of an ally attacked. No invitation from a government or even a legitimate opposition to intervene. No meaningful coalition or U.N. support. Just the electoral plotting of Rove, the greed of Cheney, the fantasies of the Wolfowitzians, the oedipal hangups of Shrub. Just a desperate need for these combat-evading ass hats to prove their manliness. Well, they haven’t proved it yet, but they have destroyed Iraq as a functioning, if routinely despicable, Arab state. And they are well on the way to destroying our ground combat arms for the second time in 40 years. And all for what? To give the twisted morons another four years of misrule? The gods are howling with malignant mirth.

  2. Perret’s book sounds very insightful. It’s not quite appropriate for this thread, but I want to comment a bit on the rightie site you linked to. It’s probably for the best that I couldn’t figure out how to log into this site and add a few choice comments of my own.

    What I’ve observed over and over again among right wingers is a kind of small minded myopia. They cherry pick data points to “prove” their claims, and “nut-pick” (an apt neologism) other data points to “disprove” an opposing argument.

    We see this on the Strata-Sphere site (which sounds like, and is almost as cartoonish as, The Jetsons), when some small, incremental victory is touted as PROOF that the Surge ™ is working. Likewise they tout the free market’s ability to come up with amazing wonder drugs to cure particular forms of cancer as PROOF that we have The Finest Health Care System in the World ™.

    Fear is what drives conservatives, and fear constricts one’s vision. These people are inherently small minded because of their fear, and couldn’t see the Big Picture if their lives depended on it.

    Fear-based small mindedness leads one to accept an ideology instead of reality, which is complex, ambiguous, and impartial. They likewise would not recognize truth if it hit them across the face, which it does regularly. It’s extremely dangerous to let people who cannot see ten feet in front of them behind the wheel of a powerful machine. These are the types that are running our country today.

  3. “but the place to begin is this: in North Korea, North Vietnam, and Iraq,”

    There was relatively little “fighting” went on in “North Korea” and no “fighting” at all in “North Vietnam”…

    I think your author’s thinking is a little muddled on what constitutes “having the initiative”…

    He don’t sound like much of a Military Man to me…

    (OTOH, “xpara” sounds like he’s been in too long)…

  4. Impressive comments.
    Back in 1970, my French teacher who was from (Gasp!) France , told me the U.S. in VietNam was like an elephant standing on a fire ant mound.Great analogy.

    One of my neighbors, a gent of around 59, just got back from a trip tp VietNam, went there with another neighbor, fell in love with a Vietnamese woman 20 yrs his junior, and will soon be bringing her and her 2 kids here. He said the country is very poor and still is battle scared from the war with the U.S.
    We fought a war with a country that had little indoor plumbing or refrigeration and got our ass kicked.
    The reason we lost? It’s pretty hard to make war for a long time 6,000 miles from home, and it’t even harder to fight a war when you’re the invader and you’re fighting every one in the family you invaded.
    You’d thing we’d learn.

  5. Now we got the wonder boy. Gen.Petraeus, PhD.. all polished up and loaded with chest trinkets.He wrote the book on counter-insurgency so there’s not need to question our up coming victory. It all under control, folks.
    I remember watching a newsreel many years ago of a French General taking command of French forces in Algeria, his billing was much the same as Petraeus’ —saviour of the cause. I wonder how he made out against his insurgency?

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