In Diplomacy at its Worse, Nicholas Kristof takes the administration to task for not accepting a May 2003 Iranian “Grand Bargain” proposal. “It was not clear to me that a grand bargain was reachable, but it was definitely worth pursuing - and still is today.” Well, the not particularly enticing proposal came when Iran was still reeling from the American victory in Iraq and given the administration decision to stop with Iraq, it was a significant miss. But to assume that a similar bargain is available today ignores the enormous shift in the American - Iranian balance of power since. War may be a continuation of diplomacy but diplomacy is also a continuation of war. Neither are static.
Just note the cool reception Congress and the country gave to General Petraeus. I am no great fan of the general. His previous assignment was to rebuild an Iraqi army. Enough said. But I do not believe any general would have fared better. The truth, as Brian Michael Jenkins explained yesterday is that we are all paying a heavy price for faulty strategic decisions taken by a military leadership determined to avoid another Vietnam by constructing an army suited for fighting successfully other armies but unsuited for fighting an insurgency. Counter insurgency education was downgraded. Weapon systems, marine and army unites suited for such struggle were not developed.
Once in Iraq, its generals continued to dismiss the importance of the emerging insurgency. Nothing exemplifies that dismissive attitude than the military’s adherence to a 9 month rotation cycle which virtually insured that vital knowledge about the enemy painstakingly gathered by the unit leaving the battlefield just at the moment it finally began to get a grip on the situation. This attitude doomed whatever small chance of securing Iraq the US might have had.
None of this takes the political leadership off the hook nor does it mean that the US must declare the war lost. The American army was not better prepared for the civil war or W.W.II and its loses at the beginning of those wars were far more devastating. The difference was that in 1860 and 1941 the presidents became one dimensional “Win the War” presidents. The same cannot be said about any of the post World War II presidents. Consequently, the US has not won a decisive military victory since then. Soaring Reaganite rhetoric aside, the Cold War was not a military victory and the conclusion of Desert Storm was less than awe inspiring.
George W. Bush fits neatly into his predecessors’ mold. Following 9/11 he punched back but never opted for a decisive knock-out. I remember a short exchange I had with Al Haig some months following the toppling of Saddam. I asked him if he knew where we are going next. He said he did not. I asked if he thought the administration knows. He said they better. “What if they don’t,” I persisted. “Then we lose,” he replied. It was the answered I feared.
Yesterday, John McCain and Joe Lieberman tried to explain to reporters and scholars that a thinly stretched army is far superior to a defeated one. US military and civilian leaders operate with a huge margin of error. They may still have time to refocus and turn the war around. But the Sharm Al Sheikh conference will not do it nor will Rice’s newly expressed willingness to discuss Iraq with Iran. The idea of creating a democratic Iraq in a sea of authoritarian Middle East has never been any more viable than the creation of democratic France would have been in the middle of a Fascist/Nazi Europe. Whatever remote chance of success it had was annulled by the inept US military response to the developing Iraqi insurgency.
All the bench marks and attempts to blame the Iraqis are just diversionary tactics (also used in Vietnam) which fool no one. The real question is will the current military/civilian leadership accept a Vietnam style defeat in the hope of finding another way to counter the Islamist threat or will they opt for victory by opening a second front? Much is in the balance.
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