The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Friday, February 27, 2009

The Fragility of Victory

President Obama will make good on another campaign promise today. He will announce a plan, developed in consultation with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen, and Iraqi commander General Raymond Odierno, which will withdraw the bulk of U.S. combat troops from Iraq by August 31, 2010. Somewhere between 35,000 to 50,000 solider will remain in Iraq, in order to advise and train Iraqi troops and conduct targeted counter-terrorism missions with them, until December 31, 2011.

Obama briefed Democratic and Republican leaders about the plan and both sides expressed concerns. Democrats grumbled over an increase in the timetable for withdrawal to nineteen months, as compared to the sixteen months Obama promised during his Presidential campaign, as well as the size of the remaining residual force. For their part, Republicans feared troop reductions were occurring too quickly, thereby sacrificing security gains.

John Bolton, the former Bush Administration’s UN Ambassador, summarized Republican anxieties last night in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference.

“We've just seen a vindication of President Bush's surge policy in the recent [Iraq] provincial elections,” Bolton said to loud applause. “The Surge policy had both a military and a political component. The military component has had extraordinary success. The political component is making considerable progress. But we're seeing an Administration so committed to satisfying the left of the Democratic Party that it could well jeopardize all of that.”

Protecting the successes of the Surge was a chief talking point for Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona when he ran against Obama for President last year. McCain prides himself on his knowledge and experience with foreign affairs. He bragged about his frequent trips to Iraq to consult with generals on the ground there and chastised Obama for failing to do the same. Republicans and most Independents consider his expertise in military matter unassailable and many Democrats were willing to concede the point.

Even so, McCain has proven highly capricious and contradictory in evaluating the breadth and lasting impact of the Surge over the past two years.

McCain criticized the Bush Administration for insufficient troop levels in Iraq almost from the start of the war, maintaining the smaller forces strategy championed by former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld was lacking in judgment. Yet he worried that the Surge former President Bush finally authorized was still too small to get the job done.

In January 2007, he told NBC’s Meet the Press, “I am concerned about it, whether it is sufficient numbers or not. I would have liked to have seen more.” One month later, on the floor of the U.S. Senate, McCain’s doubts only seemed to have grown.

“I am very nervous about this new strategy. I am very doubtful that we have enough troops. I don’t know if the Maliki government will be strong enough.”

Six months later, the Surge’s initial success impressed McCain but he still lacked faith in any lasting improvements from it. “If we set a date for withdrawal, there will be chaos, there will be genocide, and the entire region will be engulfed, and we will be back,” he told supporters during an August 2007 Michigan fundraiser.

One month later and McCain’s regard for the accomplishments of the Surge had grown. “Anbar province is one of the more stable parts of Iraq thanks to the success of this new strategy,” he told a crowd during a Labor Day visit to Iowa. “Some people are calling it the McCain surge but that’s not really true,” he modestly added.

In November 2007, his enthusiasm hit a new high. “Despite what you may see from other sources, we are winning in Iraq,” he assured a crowd while on the campaign trail in South Carolina. “The point is we are reducing our casualties and we are succeeding. I can see a scenario now where we could be withdrawing in the coming months.”

Fast-forward four months and McCain still has faith in the surge. “We have achieved enormous success . . . we have them on the run . . . There is no doubt in my mind that the surge is succeeding,” he told a reporter in Pennsylvania in March 2008. However, he now equivocates over the possibility of withdrawal, worrying the insurgents “might be able to carry out some spectacular suicide attacks . . . they are still a very viable and tough enemy.”

One month later, in Kansas City Missouri, McCain’s exhorted the Veterans of Foreign Wars, “There is no doubt about the basic reality in Iraq – we are no longer staring into the abyss of defeat and we can now look ahead to the genuine prospect of success.” It is positive stuff but in less than six months McCain has actually scaled back from having withdrawal in sight to no longer seeing defeat.

Speaking with reporters in May 2008 in Ohio, McCain asserted, “We are winning and we will win” in Iraq but “I'm certainly not putting a date on it.” Once again, he goes on to warn violence in Iraq will persist but now believes it will be “spasmodic and much reduced.” What is more, “Civil war will be prevented, armed militias will be disbanded, security forces will become professional and competent, and the government will be able to impose its authority in every province of Iraq and properly defend its borders.”

In July 2008, he tells a crowd in Maine that U.S. forces in Iraq “will come home with honor. They won’t come home in defeat,” thereby implying victory had been achieved.

At this same time, McCain ignited a hotbed of controversy over the role of the Surge as compared with other concurrent developments in Iraq. During an interview, CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric mentioned Barack Obama’s contention that a Sunni insurgency against al-Qaida in Anbar, begun before the Surge, was at least as responsible for improving security there. McCain angrily characterized this as a “false depiction.”

Only a few days later, he was backpedaling. “A surge is really a counterinsurgency made up of a number of components,” McCain told reporters in Pennsylvania. “I'm not sure people understand that ‘surge’ is part of a counterinsurgency.”

In August 2008, McCain’s indecision about the state of the Surge’s success continued. “In short, both candidates in this election pledge to end this war and bring our troops home. The great difference is that I intend to win it first,” he said at a Florida campaign stop, suggesting that victory remained unachieved.

The same month, he told Pastor Rick Warren during an interview at Saddleback Church in California that General Petraeus was a “great leader . . . who took us from defeat to victory in Iraq,” suggesting we had already won there.

In an address before the American Enterprise Institute just this Tuesday, McCain warned withdrawing troops too quickly from Iraq could result in “losing fragile gains” made there. So as of February 2009, the success of the Surge does not equate to a complete or lasting victory in his mind.

In this speech, McCain also deftly combined the Surge and Sunni insurgency into a single, seamless strategy, as if no difference between them had ever existed in his mind.

“The Surge of troops conducting counterinsurgency operations, combined with a quickly spreading Anbar Awakening, transformed the country in less than a year.”

Yet this very statement places McCain’s prowess at defining victory in Afghanistan as much in question as his ability to do so for Iraq.

In a self-laudatory speech in New Mexico in July 2008, McCain proclaimed, “Senator Obama will tell you we can't win in Afghanistan without losing in Iraq. In fact, he has it exactly backwards. It is precisely the success of the Surge in Iraq that shows us the way to succeed in Afghanistan. It is by applying the tried and true principles . . . used in the Surge – which Senator Obama opposed – that we will win in Afghanistan.”

However, in his Tuesday speech, McCain insisted the lack of an Afghan insurgency against the Taliban and al-Qaida would make success of any U.S. Surge there “harder and longer” to achieve.

None of this serves as a criticism or “gotcha” against Senator McCain. He is a dedicated American and public servant doing his best to make sense of a complicated situation.

It most definitely serves as a criticism of a pro-war talking point used by McCain and many other conservative hawks. They maintain it makes no sense ending the war by some arbitrary date, insisting the only strategic approach is when commanders on the ground declare victory achieved.

House Minority Leader John Boehner echoed it again last night in reaction to Obama’s plan. “While it may have sounded good during the campaign, I do think it's important that we listen to those commanders and our diplomats who are there to understand how fragile the situation is.”

The problem here, as the above amply demonstrates, is that while soldiers may hate war, they tend to have a difficult time getting out once engaged, continually seeing new threats and new opportunities. In this sense, they are all Alexander, weeping because there are no worlds left for them to conquer. It earns them our admiration for their bravery and selflessness but it is not necessarily strategic.

Wars often begin with military actions that precede official declarations of war by the governments of the nations involved. However, wars end solely when governments officially declare them over. Such declarations usually synchronize with the cessation of military actions but there is sometimes overlap.

General Andrew Jackson fought and won the Battle of New Orleans a full two weeks after the U.S. and Great Britain had signed the Treaty of Ghent. General George Patton’s antagonistic comments, including calls for war, against the Soviet Union following the Allied victory in Europe horrified and outraged his superiors, even if they did ultimately prove prophetic in nature.

Whether Obama requires sixteen months, nineteen months, or longer to complete his drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq will depend upon the exigencies of the situation as it develops. However, he will remained fixed on the goal of withdrawal, making his approach far more consistent and strategic than any McCain might have employed as Commander-In-Chief, following the same sources and standards that left him unable to make a reliable evaluation of the Surge, let alone the war as a whole.

Victory is indeed a fragile thing and, unlike war and battle, far too serious a matter to be left to generals.

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