March 1, 2009  

The damage done

The Bush administration discredited crucial strategic concepts

The quickest way to discredit a good idea is to execute it incompetently. Human nature will blame the idea along with those who botched it. The presidential administration of George W. Bush came to power with a number of sound, even crucial, military and strategic concepts in mind, such as regime change, pre-emptive attacks, punitive expeditions and decapitation strikes. Unfortunately, the implementation of such strategic endeavors was entrusted to a cadre of inexperienced, stunningly arrogant pseudo-academics who were, at best, close-minded and naive. The result was a succession of disappointments, setbacks and outright failures that triggered the emotional rejection of sound ideas that had been misapplied.

Much has been written about the concrete errors of the Bush administration in the military and strategic spheres, but the focus is ever upon the immediate costs, with little regard to the crippling of future policy formulation and the diminution of our range of options in the crises of tomorrow. Even allowing for the faddish nature of Bush hatred among the intelligentsia, the damage done to our conception of what can or cannot be done by our military and what is or isn’t permissible in war may hamper our effectiveness for decades.

Perhaps the greatest paradox of the Bush administration’s military legacy is that the intelligentsia finally got what it wanted — academically credentialed officials in virtually every top position and the shunning of the advice of military professionals. That this occurred under a Republican president should not obscure the lesson about what happens when theoreticians without practical experience are put in charge of life-and-death decisions. For all its cowboy iconography, the Bush administration was not composed of Rough Riders, but of senior appointees insulated from break-your-nose reality since childhood. They could not grasp the ferocious aspects of human nature that war reveals and empowers. Only the quality of our military rescued the administration’s foreign endeavors — to the extent they have been rescued — and now we face a future in which our military is going to be underfunded, operationally restricted and strategically misapplied.

The Bush administration’s mismanagement of its wars did not set defense thinking back a mere three decades to the post-Vietnam era, but a full century: The greatest power in history is determined to become a strategic Lilliput.

Regime change: an idea subverted

The Bush administration’s strategic illiteracy regarding Iraq robbed not only the U.S., but humankind, of a critical tool to facilitate peace, human rights, development and improved governance. During the Cold War, the age-old tradition that legitimate states enjoy the right to do as they wish within their own borders metastasized into a defense of monstrous dictators hiding behind artificial frontiers. A figure such as Saddam Hussein could seize power through a coup and maintain it in a sea of blood, then claim “sovereignty” when faced with foreign dismay. As I write, “President” Robert Mugabe, who has ravaged a once-rich country to the point where hunger prevails and cholera kills thousands, is considered untouchable. Murderous thugs rule Myanmar; Sudan butchers its own citizens; and Iran, the government of which has stated its intent to destroy Israel, pursues nuclear weapons with essential impunity. Meanwhile, the true basis of all legitimate sovereignty — the will of the population — goes ignored.

No moral human being can maintain that a dictator has the right to slaughter his own people — yet, the international community defends that right. In 2003, with the dismantling of Saddam’s regime, there was a brief, wonderful glimmer of hope that things might change. Around the world, frightened dictators hastened to make nice, while states that had tolerated or even abetted terrorists suddenly found it necessary to shake the offending crumbs from their aprons. The Bush administration’s noble decision to remove the Baathist regime had the potential to move human governance forward. Instead, the incompetence with which it was done set back freedom and decency elsewhere: The strongmen gained a new lease on life.

The immediate failing of the administration was its reluctance to send enough troops and show the right mettle for an effective occupation — or even to anticipate the need for an occupation. The administration’s notion of how developments would unfold was formed not from the sober assessments of generals, diplomats or senior intelligence officials, but through a bizarre combination of mirror-imaging and wishful thinking that led a supposedly tough-minded vice president to rely for his situational awareness on an Iraqi fortuneteller. (Dick Cheney and his national security adviser spoke with then-indicted fraudster Ahmed Chalabi daily during the invasion and its aftermath, while angrily dismissing unwelcome reports from Americans on the ground.)

The problem wasn’t what we did, but how we did it — and, above all, unrealistic expectations. The hermetic circle around the president, vice president and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld talked itself into a congenial fantasy: Not only would a country that had been raped for two generations prove instantly problem-free and capable of democratic self-government, but its rehabilitation would pay for itself (even netting a tidy profit for well-positioned American firms).

The most worthless words in the English language may be “if only,” but consider how differently things might have turned out that first year in Iraq had we held sensible expectations and made the traditional preparations to assume an occupation’s responsibilities. The administration’s ideological theorists assumed that removing Saddam would inevitably lead to optimal results. Instead of exploring rational options based upon worst-case scenarios — the standard military planning procedure — the administration simply crossed its fingers. The realist’s basic choices would have been to break the regime’s hold on power then leave and let the Iraqis sort themselves out, or to accept that staying on to nurture a new government demanded a full-blown, no-nonsense, shoot-the-looters occupation. Instead, the cabal inside the administration chose a third option: Remove Saddam as cheaply as possible, at great risk, then loiter in Baghdad, hoping for the best. The well-intentioned but startlingly arrogant neoconservatives were certain they understood the use of military force better than any generals.

In the wake of the Bush administration’s transfer of power to its successor, Iraq does have a chance at maintaining a customized pseudo-democracy, but the agony and tangible costs along the way discredited the inherently sensible idea of regime change. Chastened, the Bush administration abandoned its ideals and re-embraced the Middle Eastern authoritarian regimes it initially had sought to liberalize. In 2003, our actions terrified Iran, Libya and even America’s No. 1 enemy, Saudi Arabia. By 2009, they barely took us seriously — and we had defaulted to betting, once again, on the regime of Egypt’s aging president, Hosni Mubarak, with a pile-on-the-chips enthusiasm reminiscent of the hand we played with the last shah of Iran.

Clichés become clichés because they convey tested truths, and we can pile them on when analyzing the Bush administration’s failures: “The devil is in the details,” “Anything worth doing is worth doing well,” “There’s no free lunch,” “If something can go wrong, it will,” “Always plan for the worst case,” “Always have a Plan B,” and, not least, “Walk softly, and carry a big stick.” But no amount of criticism is going to redeem the administration’s genius for doing the right thing appallingly badly. Had it gotten regime change right, we would live in a different, better world today. But its execution was so inept that millions more human beings will suffer and die because incompetence discredited an idea whose time had come.

Pre-emptive attacks

Another valuable tool has been banished, for now, from our arsenal of concepts: pre-emptive attacks. By focusing exclusively on spurious claims that Iraq was readying weapons of mass destruction in a secret program, the Bush administration made doing the right thing look like bullying justified by lies. Unaccountably, the administration failed to play the human-rights card — which would have been sounder policy, putting “Old Europe” and its profiteers on the defensive. The catastrophic perversion of intelligence has been amply discussed elsewhere, but what remains bewildering is the way the administration crammed all of its justification eggs into one basket — then waited for the WMD bunny to appear.

In an age of the proliferation of WMD — notably, nuclear weapons — pre-emptive strikes must remain an option. Unfortunately, the standards of proof of hostile capabilities and intentions have soared to the point where decisive U.S. action in a timely manner seems unlikely for years, if not decades, to come.

The dangerous age in which we live cannot afford to indulge in moral equivalency. Even as we insist that our enemies really don’t mean the threats they hurl in our direction, they move along with their preparations to fulfill their murderous promises. As the cardinal example of the moment, Iran’s nuclear program menaces Israel, the Sunni Arab states to the west and southwest, and our own interests and freedom of action in a vital region. Thanks to the botch-up in Iraq, though, it’s unlikely that we will take effective pre-emptive action, no matter the evidence compiled about Iran’s purposes. While this is not intended as an argument for attacking Iran today, we need to recognize the possibility that our reluctance to act boldly in the future may have terrible consequences — far worse than the most comprehensive pre-emptive strike would generate. This isn’t about cure-all prescriptions, but preserving options. Again, the Bush-era incompetence at war-making rendered the astute and timely employment of military force far more difficult for future administrations.

In this new, second age of WMD, when great-power rivalries subject to rational calculation have been replaced by knife fights between gods, we appear apt to wait until we have witnessed a regional apocalypse before acting. Without behaving as warmongers, there are times when we have to shoot first for the good not only of ourselves, but of civilization. Thanks to the Iraq debacle, we won’t.

While the term “punitive expeditions” is far too honest to be used by any administration or the Pentagon (where the very model of a modern major general would rather be politically correct than effective), the concept is of tremendous practical value. Suppose we had sent enough forces to Afghanistan to do it right — to corral and kill al-Qaida’s remnants while convincing the Taliban that the U.S. and its citizens meant business — instead of trying to do things on the cheap (only to find ourselves bogged down in a deepening tar pit). Suppose that, after slaughtering al-Qaida’s cadres and leaders, while bloodying the Taliban, we had simply withdrawn — with the promise to return, if provoked again. Would we be safer? We certainly would have more strategic options, and more young Americans would be alive. And the world’s only superpower would not be at the mercy of corrupt Pakistan.

What if, after reaching Baghdad, pummeling the Baathist regime, then capturing Saddam (after killing his sons), we had come home — after making it clear that we would not tolerate open interference by Iraq’s neighbors? Would the subsequent civil strife have been deadlier than the bloody mess we fostered by flopping indecisively on the Iraqi couch and chowing down on ideological junk food for almost four years before growing serious about restoring public order? While we cannot know precisely what course Iraq would have taken, we can be certain that al-Qaida would not have thrived, that (again) more young Americans would still be alive, that we would be less indebted (although various private gunslinger organizations would be poorer), and that the Iraq that emerged, whatever its other qualities, would not have been defiant toward the U.S.

Perhaps the greatest practical failing of the administration’s idealists was their unquestioned assumption that, when the U.S. sends in our troops, we must remain to fix every local plumbing leak. We can’t afford that and it doesn’t work. God and occupations help those who help themselves. Frequently, an occupation isn’t the answer, but a new problem. Defending our citizens and our interests does not mean we have to adopt our former enemies. While full-scale occupations may be necessary or wise in specific cases, more often we just need to convince violent enemies that it’s dumb to take on those bad-hombre Americans. Why is this so difficult for our leaders to comprehend? How could President Bill Clinton expect to foster good governance in Somalia? How could President George W. Bush expect Iraqis to turn into flower children overnight? How can President Barack Obama expect Afghanistan to become a modern, unified state?

The most-promising concept in play is, in fact, a postmodern version of the punitive expedition: our Predator attacks, occasional airstrikes and black operations in Pakistan and elsewhere. Having seen the utility and effectiveness of such actions on a small scale, can’t we envision taking punitive actions on a greater scale, when appropriate? Call them by whatever innocuous name or acronym you wish, but punitive expeditions are effective, relatively economical and — critical to the American psyche — relatively quick. We should no more assume that our troops must remain wherever they are deployed than cops would assume a requirement to remain at a crime scene for all eternity.

All of these concepts are, of course, interrelated. Another variant on regime change is the decapitation strike, in which the ruling clique of a criminal government is eliminated without resort to a full-scale invasion bound to create collateral damage and punish the relatively innocent. Ethically and morally, decapitation strikes should appeal to us; however, we’re trapped in traditional European thinking in which heads of state and senior officials are sacred beings, although the masses are disposable. And, as always, the well-meaning souls who do such terrible harm would cry, “Assassination!”

We have lost our grip on what is and is not moral. Would it have been immoral if we had possessed and employed the means to eliminate Hitler and his inner circle in 1942? Or in 1939, for that matter? In the 21st century, as various technologies coalesce to permit us to find and target individuals with stand-off weapons, isn’t it obviously more humane to target the lawless leader directly than to fight through the masses he has oppressed or conscripted? Yet, every tinpot Hitler will have his defenders — especially among the Western intelligentsia.

We are not yet at a technological level that can guarantee success in decapitation strikes, but the day is coming. Tragically, though, our Air Force has already discredited this valuable concept. By flogging “shock and awe” as the answer to all our strategic needs, it oversold immature technologies and forgot human psychology. As Joint Forces Command chief Gen. James Mattis, an exemplary Marine, grasped in his over-the-beach assault on “effects-based operations,” we can’t just impress a determined enemy into surrendering by breaking a few windows. In over-promising results from a succession of dismally ineffective shock-and-awe air campaigns, a procurement-driven Air Force refused to analyze the enemy: Why would someone in Saddam’s position ever surrender, given his recognition that this was an all-or-nothing game? Saddam was perfectly willing to fight to the last Iraqi. Without killing him, his family and his inner circle, you weren’t going to get peace in our time. War isn’t about show-and-tell. It’s about killing.

As our capabilities are refined, we increasingly will have the ability to target the truly guilty — the leaders of hostile states or terrorist organizations. While war will remain a messy, ugly, business overall, we occasionally will have the opportunity to strike and eliminate those who make the decisions, rather than those who have no choice but to carry out those decisions. This, rather than absurd and crippling rules of engagement, would introduce a new humanity to warfare. Eliminating hostile leaders and their cliques would not guarantee a perfect outcome, but it would increase the probability that the targeted regime’s successors would behave more circumspectly.

Of course, academic theorists and activists in search of a cause will demand, “Who are we to decide to eliminate Dictator X?” The answer is “We’re us. We represent freedom, decency and civilization. In this world, force prevails. We’re going to make sure it’s our force.”

Gulliver’s travails

We have the world’s most capable military. And we’re determined to cripple it. Splendid troops and cutting-edge weapons systems diminish precipitously in value when they are not employed with strategic insight, clear goals, sound planning — and courage. Since the end of the Vietnam War, successive administrations, Republican and Democrat, have deployed our troops simply because they couldn’t think of anything else to do. Soldiers and Marines became the universal bandage, applied to unhappy patients by nearsighted physicians: Lebanon, Somalia, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq — not one of these deployments began with a clear end-state in mind and a realistic plan for achieving it. The greatest “combat multiplier” we could acquire in the coming decades would be a new sense of realism about what war means and the necessity of clearly stated missions. Do the hard mental labor before pulling the trigger.

The ultimate military legacy of the administration of George W. Bush will not be the wars it fought but the future wars it made more difficult to fight effectively. We enter a new administration with a strategic arsenal emptied of sound ideas by disastrous performances. AFJ

Ralph Peters is a retired Army officer and columnist, and the author of 24 books, including the new novel “The War After Armageddon.”