Day: July 21, 2006

The Clash over Iraq

I have been revisiting US policy in Iraq of late– to the extent that you can revisit an ongoing issue. Mostly, this comes in the form of reading Cobra II, Squandered Victory, the Foreign Affairs articles and on-line debates, and of course the fine work posted here on the Duck. After all this, I’m not sure I have an opinion or even a learned analysis on the issue (even given my previous postings on the topic). Quite frankly, I’m not sure what to think anymore in strictly analytic / “expert analyst” sense. My mood, however, is certainly one of pessimism and skepticism– not just of the Bush Administration anymore, but of the whole enterprise. Given how badly its been bungled to date (and you can’t read these books without cringing at missteps and poor choices every other page), I don’t think any US plan or leader could do any better.

So, it comes down to a Clash over Iraq:

Should we stay or should we go now?
if we go there will be trouble
and if we stay it will be double
so come on and let me know

The indecisions bugging me
if you don’t want me set me free
Exactly who’m I’m supposed to be?

I really don’t know a better way to say it. Two themes really stand out across the discussion of Iraq: 1) the blind ideoligical faith the various layers of the Administration had in their plan and 2) the nearly incompetent way that plan was implemented, again at all levels–most notably a failure to adjust and adapt to the “reality based community” encountered in Iraq. Its not just that there were “thousands of tatical errors” (of course there were), but there were massive strategic, policy, and “decider” errors as well.

Start with Cobra II (a very solid and comprehensive narrative about the pre-invasion and invasion with excellent insider sourcing). Traditional Foreign Policy Analysis teaches us to look for and evaluate the process of Decision Making. Yet, its clear here that there was no real process of decision making on Iraq. CENTCOM was asked to plan the invasion very early on in the process and dutifully did so. Bush essentially lied about not having war plans on his desk and Franks certainly lied that he had not been asked to make them. Its a fait-acompli, launched on a whim and series of assumptions. Of course, when you assume as everyone knows, you make an ASS of U and ME, and the Bush Administration was no different. Consider the “we’ll be greeted as liberators” part. Its not just that this was a poor assumption coupled with faulty intelligence– it became part of the strategy and had serious costs to the troops encounering hostile fire from Iraqis less than happy to see them. Or consider Frank’s warplan. He always focused on the center of gravity, the Republican Guard, figuring that the real war would be a showdown between the 3rd ID and the Special Republican Guard Divisions somewhere close to Baghdad. He never grasped (until it was far too late) that the real battle was in the rear areas, with an irregular enemy–the Fedeyeen. This was the begining of the ongoing insurgency, and its reasonable to surmise that had Franks ordered US forces to beef up the rear areas and spend a few days wiping out this small, insurgent-style resistance, that the current insurgency would certainly be less severe than it is now. Instead, he had his forces race to an undefended Baghdad. Or what of Rumsfeld’s blind faith in military transformation? Too few troops, and no new reinforcements when they were needed most in the immediate post-conflict moments.

Move to Diamond’s Squandered Victory– again, you see a CPA unwilling to meet with Iraqis, take them and their demands seriously, and unable to fathom any compromises to their plan. Sistani seemed to want legitimacy through elections, something the CPA simply would not give, and it worked to undermine each and every action toward setting up a provisional government. Those from a democracy, sent to build a democracy, forgot the greatest lesson of democracy: its strength is its legitimacy. The cost of legitimacy is certainly a messy and unpredictable (or as far as the CPA was concerned, controllable) process, but the pay-off is a legitimate government capable of taking decisive action to, say, stop an insurgency.

The overall assumption evident throughout the political appointees of the Administration (and among Neo-con talking heads) was that inside each little Iraqi was an American just waiting to get out. The head of Iraq may have been poisoned by Saddam, but the body was healthy, and if we cut off the head, the body would simply grow a new one more to our liking. But, people are not born as rational economic actors with well-ordered preferences that naturally emerge in a free market–be it political or economic. The free market (both politically and economically) that the neocons (including Cheney and Bremmer) sought to create in Iraq may have been possible to creat, but it could not and would not exist prima-facie in a post-Saddam environment. Indeed, as my colleagues here are quite adept at explaining, the rules of markets are social constructs, and must continually be reinforced through a social process of legitimation.

Perhaps if Bush had a few Constructivists on his NSC, things might have gone a bit better.

(a momentary pause while you stop laughing at the insanity of that last statement)

All of which leads me to essentially agree with what Marc Lynch suggests:

Which brings me to the question of withdrawal. I’ve long been skeptical about the calls for it, for two main reasons: First, it seemed irresponsible to walk away from the mess the United States has made, repeating on a larger scale the elder Bush’s abandonment of Iraqi Shiites and Kurds to Saddam’s tender mercies. And second, announcing plans for withdrawal seemed likely to create dangerous incentives for all political actors to game the schedule. But those reasons now pale in comparison to the problems posed by not withdrawing. It seems the height of strategic irresponsibility to remain in a place where there is not only no realistic plan for victory, but also every indication that the American presence is making things worse.

At this point, focusing solely on coming up with a strategy for “victory” does not make sense, because no such strategy is out there. The United States does not need to defeat insurgents or jihadists in hand-to-hand combat to prove its mettle, and indeed, the more it tries to impose its will in Iraq now the worse the results are likely to be. Washington’s credibility is so low, its presence so inflammatory, that virtually any initiative under an American brand name will generate resistance. For these reasons, therefore, I have regretfully come to the conclusion that—although much would depend on the terms, context, and execution of it—a gradual U.S. withdrawal seems like the least bad option still available.

I think Marc is spot-on. There is no “good” outcome here, and our futile pursuit of such a “victory” may actually make matters worse. Leaving isn’t much better, but consider this option: the fundamental problem with the nacent Iraqi government is its weakness and legitimacy. Consider this: what if we could strengthen that government by enhancing its legitimacy by allowing it to take back the country from our occupation.

Maybe that’s who we’re supposed to be.

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It is the gods who weep…

They see us killing each other… over and over since time began.
— Akira Kurosawa’s Ran.

Malak Khaled interviews Lebanese refugees:

Their grand daughter, Marwa, looks at us with sad eyes.
“Why are you sad,” I ask her.
“I want to go home.”
“Why aren’t you home?”
“Israel is bombing a lot.”
“What do you feel when you hear the bombing,” I ask her.
“I feel so afraid. The sound is very very very loud.”
“And what do you do when you feel afraid?
“I cry, and I go to Mama”
“Do you feel afraid here?”
“No. Here, I am not afraid, but I was afraid at home.”
“You know, there are kids being bombed in Israel now, you know who bombs at them?
“Yes, the moqawamee (the national resistance)”
“Do you want the moqawamee to stop? They might be feeling afraid too?
“I want Israel to stop bombing at us first”

In Israel:

The Hezbollah rocket crashed into a residential neighborhood in the town’s winding hills on Wednesday afternoon, killing Rabia Taluzi, 7, and his brother Mahmoud, 3, as they walked home from a cousin’s house. Two of their older brothers, Motaz, 13, and Allah, 12, were with them but escaped serious injury…. Residents say that before the rockets hit here, most of them had not altered their routines.

Though most of the town’s children continued to play outside, Nohad Taluzi, the mother of the boys who were killed, had insisted that her eight children remain in the house.

But the children begged her, and began to cry, said Amna Taluzi, their aunt. As a compromise, Nohad Taluzi allowed her sons to walk several blocks to play inside their cousin’s house. When they were walking back, the family said, they were hit.


As members of the Siboni family whiled away Monday afternoon in lawn chairs just outside their bomb shelter, knitting, smoking and reading the Torah, Hezbollah’s rockets suddenly fell with their signature thump.

Workers rescued a wounded man from a building in Haifa hit by a Hezbollah rocket on Monday.
“Go inside, go inside,” advised Talia Siboni, age 2, who was clutching her doll. “This really scares me.”

The family swiftly complied, and over the next hour the thunder of eight crashing rockets was audible in this coastal town, several miles south of the Lebanese border.

Lisa at “On the Face” via Israelity:

The moderates of the Middle East are locked in a battle with the extremists. And look what they did to the moderates. Without blinking, without thinking, we fell victim to the classic “divide and conquer” technique. We work hard for months and years to build connections, develop our societies, educate ourselves, promote democracy and free speech… And they destroy it all, in less than a week. And we let them.

In Iraq, and this is already “old” news, the death toll mounts:

An average of more than 100 civilians per day were killed in Iraq last month, the United Nations reported Tuesday, registering what appears to be the highest official monthly tally of violent deaths since the fall of Baghdad.

The death toll, drawn from Iraqi government agencies, was the most precise measurement of civilian deaths provided by any government organization since the invasion and represented a substantial increase over the figures in daily news media reports.

Contributing to the trend cited by the United Nations, a suicide car bomber killed at least 53 people and wounded at least 105 in the holy Shiite city of Kufa on Tuesday after he lured a throng of day laborers to his van with the offer of work.

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American primacy: cutting through the noise, part I

Over recent days, however, we’ve seen a flurry of talk about the end of Pax Americana and the coming of multipolarity.

It wasn’t long ago that America was the “New Rome”. In fact, only a few months ago did I finish Deepak Lal’s In Praise of Empires, in which he argues that “the contemporary academic theory” that “Ph.D. practitioners have learned has by and large been devised for the anarchical European state system which developed with the fall of Rome.” How “to maintain an empire is not what they have been taught in their classrooms” (p. 78).

International-relations pundits and even–I know this may come as a shock–international-relations theorists are notorious fashion victims.

The Japanese economy is kicking butt in the 1980s and we’re all going on about “Japan as Number One” and “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers”.

Then the Cold War ends and a lot of people start warning about fleeting unipolarity and the coming multipolar order.

Next we’re in the middle of the 1990s and people are like “wait, where’s the mutipolarity?” The next thing you know everyone’s going on about how “unipolarity is stable” and the puzzle of why no one is balancing against the US. After September 11, 2001, the big guns start talking “American Empire” and suddenly we’ve got to worry about “soft balancing.”

Now American primacy is collapsing. Or is it? Let’s all step back and take a collective breath.

First, the global distribution of power hasn’t changed overnight. The world is still militarily unipolar and economically multipolar. The chart below shows the CIA Factbook data on 2005 military spending. I’ve listed 1-18 and, for good measure, stuck in North Korea (22), Iran (25), and Pakistan (26). The US, as you can see, dwarfs its nearest peer competitors, China, France, and Japan. The reality of these figures becomes even starker when one considers that, of all the countries in the top 18, only China and India aren’t close US allies and only China gives military strategists heart palpitations. Most scholars talk about unipolarity as a condition in which the most powerful state faces no conceivable coalition capable of matching its capabilities. The position of the US still fits that definition.

(Source: CIA Factbook. Click to enlarge)

Just for good measure, here’s a pie chart that shows the US share of global military spending.

(Source: CIA Factbook. Click to enlarge)

The economic situation remains multipolar. No real surprises here.

China will overtake the US in fifty years (give or take)… unless its economy implodes, its political system collapses, or its growth hits major structural limitations.

(Source: CIA Factbook. Click to enlarge)

(Source: CIA Factbook. Click to enlarge)

If China wants to become a peer-competitor to the United States, then we should expect military unipolarity to end sometime before the Chinese economy overtakes the American economy. Given that projection–and predicting trends this far out is very dangerous–the US is still likely to enjoy a period of military supremacy unmatched, at least in the European experience, since the collapse of the Carolingian Empire.

I fully realize that counting tanks, aircraft carriers, and economic output is a crude measure for power. So let’s look at Timothy Garton Ash’s nicely worded synthesis of all the factors that might make this a multipolar world:

The first, and most familiar, is the rise or revival of other states – China, India, Brazil, Russia as comeback kid – whose power resources compete with those of the established powers of the west.

See above. “Compete” here should be read as “within specific regions.” Few preeminent powers–I would say “none” but I’m sure there’s an example or two to prove me wrong–have faced a total absence of competitors. But China and India are not year peer competitors. Russia? Not even close; there’s no sign of an imminent revival of Russian military prowess. Whether their oil revenues will translate into future prosperity remains highly uncertain.

The second is the growing power of non-state actors. These are of widely differing kinds. They range from movements like Hamas, Hizbullah and al-Qaida, to non-governmental organisations like Greenpeace, from big energy corporations and drug companies to regions and religions.

Transnational actors do constitute a serious problem for the United States–and for a lot of other states as well–but these forms of “asymmetric warfare” and “proxy warfare by states” primarily check and limit US influence. They demonstrate that the US is not omnipotent.

Unipolarity, however, never implied the omnipotence of the United States. This remains, arguably, the major mistake of the neo-conservative movement: they conflate the fact of American military primacy with the notion that the US has a free hand to remake the world–or, at least, regions of the world–as it sees fit. The current environment implies not the brute reality of multipolar chaos, but the deleterious impact of ill-adised and poorly implemented policies on the scope of American influence. This is a theme I’ll return to later.

A third trend involves changes in the very currency of power. Developments in technologies with violent potential mean that very small groups of people can challenge powerful established states, whether by piloting an aeroplane into the World Trade Centre in New York, targeting a missile at Haifa, taking on the US military in Iraq, bombing the London underground, or squirting sarin gas into the Tokyo subway. Developments in information technology and globalised media mean that the most powerful military in the history of the world can lose a war, not on the battlefield of dust and blood, but on the battlefield of world opinion. If you look at the precipitate decline in US popularity since 2002, charted by the Pew Global Attitudes polls even in countries traditionally sympathetic to Washington, you could argue that this is what has been happening to the US.

These changes do not as yet, I would argue, suggest that power has shifted as radically out of the hands of states, let alone the United States, as Ash implies. Al-Qaeda can kill three thousand Americans, other terrorist cells can kill hundreds, quasi-state actors supported by states may show a surprising degree of military prowess, but they cannot inflict the kind of massive damage that militarily capable states can accomplish. Compare the damage an all-out HIzbullah attack is inflicting on Israel with what the IDF is doing to Lebanon. And despite arguments about whether the IDF’s actions are proportionate or whether the IDF isn’t being discriminating enough in its attacks, the fact is that, if they wanted to, the IDF could be doing a lot worse to the Lebanese population.

Now, consider what the United States could do if it took its glove off, engaged in actual war mobilization, and so forth. I have no doubt that American and international public opinion, let alone basic prudence, limits the United States from becoming a full-blown, stategic-bombing, nuclear-weapons using, war machine. But when we think about unipolarity and its implications, we need to recognize that these unrealized capabilities render it impossible for its nearest competitors to contemplate a great-power conflict waged against it. The world is far, in military terms, from a multipolar distribution of power.

The state of American hegemony, however, remains in question. While some pundits and scholars treat unipolarity and hegemony as synonymous, we should recognize important differences between the two concepts. Unipolarity is a distribution of power; hegemony comprises a condition in which a preeminent power creates a quasi-hierarchical order by establishing rules of the game and providing public goods. Bush foreign policy may be jeopardizing American hegemony, and the kinds of checks on US influence discussed above represent serious threats to America’s hegemonic influence. But, to the extent that our current predicament stems from hegemonic mismanagement, it is possible that a new, more capable Republican or Democratic administration could turn things around.

More on hegemony, the “Pax Americana”, and American empire in the next installment.

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Bush is going on vacation

But he’s not going to abandon work altogether. And what kind of work will he do?

BUSH WILL MIX work with vacation time at Crawford ranch. Aides explore August swing to battleground state such as Pennsylvania, where Republicans are defending three endangered House seats and Sen. Santorum. Also planned: one-year commemoration of Hurricane Katrina, viewed by Republican strategists as biggest second-term setback.

The Duck really isn’t supposed to be a shrill, partisan blog. But there comes a point in time when those of us who care deeply about international relations just can’t take it any more. Historians will remember this month of unwanted back rubs, “cutting the pig”, recommending Iraq-style democracy for Russia, and exercising his first veto to prevent the “murder” of cytoblasts while the Middle East and Afghanistan burn. They will write about it as the time when the story of the Bush administration changed from a Greek tragedy to Juvenalian satire.

That’s about it. Later today I’ll publish the first of a few posts on what current events do, or don’t, tell us about American primacy.

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I think I am going to be sick

Via LGM:

Shorter United States Army LTC Ralph Kauzlarich: Pat Tillman’s parents are only unhappy about the death of their son and the subsequent Army coverup of that event because they aren’t Christian.

“In an interview with, Kauzlarich said: “When you die, I mean, there is supposedly a better life, right? Well, if you are an atheist and you don’t believe in anything, if you die, what is there to go to? Nothing. You are worm dirt. So for their son to die for nothing, and now he is no more- that is pretty hard to get your head around that. So I don’t know how an atheist thinks. I can only imagine that that would be pretty tough.”

Asked by whether the Tillmans’ religious beliefs are a factor in the ongoing investigation, Kauzlarich said, “I think so. There is not a whole lot of trust in the system or faith in the system [by the Tillmans]. So that is my personal opinion, knowing what I know.””

I wish I had something snarky or profound to say, but I don’t. It speaks for itself.

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