America is Debating Tactics, Not Strategy


My New America Foundation colleague Michael Lind and author of The American Way of Strategy has just penned a thoughtful op-ed that gets right at the nugget of what Senator Lugar was pushing in his opening statement at the Crocker/Petraeus Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings.
Lind writes in The Australian:

The long-awaited report by David Petraeus to the US Congress on the war in Iraq has provoked a debate about tactics rather than what is needed: a debate about strategy.
The tactics are those of the US troop surge (a weasel word for escalation). Observers agree that the surge has had some effect in reducing violence in parts of Iraq, temporarily if not permanently. But this success, if it is a success, ignores the larger question of US strategy.
The US did not invade Iraq to provide it with a police force. The goal is not reducing Iraqi violence as an end in itself.
The tactic of reducing violence by Shia and Sunni militias and jihadists, some Iraqi and some foreign, was supposed to serve two goals: reconciling the Iraqi population to the central government and giving Iraq’s three main ethnic groups – Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds – time to agree on a stable power-sharing arrangement in a national unity government.
Unfortunately, it appears that however successful the surge may be as a tactic, the two strategic goals are incompatible. The Iraqi nation cannot be reconciled to the Iraqi government if there is no Iraqi nation, only three ethnic nations, each of which prefers a government it controls to one in which it shares power with the others.

I’m not completely on board with Lind on the complete break-up of Iraq into three distinct nations, and I recognize many problems with the somewhat similar Biden-Gelb plan to create a tripartite federal structure — but still, working through the dimensions of that debate is what is important and what we should be spending most of our time wrestling with.
Lind continues:

The beginning of wisdom is to realize that the US needs a new strategy in Iraq, not new tactics in the service of an unworkable strategy.
Recently the US has experienced successes in getting Sunni leaders to co-operate in suppressing jihadists in their territories. This success, however, exposes the falsehood on which the Bush administration has based its justification of the war since 2003: the claim that the US has been fighting a single group called “the terrorists”, consisting of Sunni and Shia militants as well as al-Qa’ida-linked jihadists.
The US should build on this success by reaching out to Shia militants as well as Sunni militants, on condition that they agree to capture or kill jihadists operating in their territory.
Iraq has degenerated into a Hobbesian anarchy in which power grows from the barrel of a gun, as well as from the minaret of a mosque. If mullahs and militias are the real authorities in Iraq, not powerless politicians in a paper parliament, then to avert the further unnecessary expenditure of Iraqi as well as American and British lives, the US should build its policy on this fact.

I also disagree with Lind that an effective US strategy to decrease the Hobbesian temperature would be to create temporary alliances with Shia leaders as we have with Anbar Sunnis to attack and kill resident jihadists.
In my view, the Sunnis in Anbar — now less one important Sheikh killed perhaps in part because of his high profile support of the US mission and his handshake with George W. Bush — are working with American troops so as to buy time to re-organize and rejuvenate before going after Shia interests later, particularly after US troop levels taper.
And frankly, if US troops don’t depart, our Sunni allies today may be attacking us tomorrow.
But again, Michael Lind is exactly on target that we need to engage in a discussion about our strategic objectives — not the micro-tactics discussion the administration has seduced Congress into.

— Steve Clemons


17 comments on “America is Debating Tactics, Not Strategy

  1. Kathleen says:

    Eli Rabett, exactly right, we have to aknowledge that what we did was a CRIME and further, that we have a duty to make reparations to the Iraqi people, as Dennis Kucinich proposes and how they organize their gov’t is THEIR business, not ours.
    Our arrogance is astounding and appalling.


  2. Marky says:

    How is a 3-state solution viable???
    The Sunnis won’t have access to oil revenue, and they will not be satisfied without it.
    It’s a shame that the oil-sharing legislation that the White House wanted Iraq to pass was a giveaway to American oil companies, making it completely impossible to pass, because such a law, without the predatory aspect, was needed.


  3. Eli Rabett says:

    We cannot change anything that is being done in Iraq without coming to grips that what was done was a crime, a blunder and worse. That means the authors of the disaster, their advisers and their flacks need to either acknowledge their responsibilities, or be brought to same.
    Which also means that people like you Steve, have to call them on it, not act as their apologist.


  4. dalivision says:

    Why can’t you state what your thoughts are on what the U.S. should do in Iraq?
    You state “I’m not completely on board with Lind on the complete break-up of Iraq into three distinct nations, and I recognize many problems with the somewhat similar Biden-Gelb plan to create a tripartite federal structure — but still,…..”
    well the break up appears to be coming. You and I and many others may not want a break up into three regions however it appears that is a very clear solution or at least viable. If not please explain.


  5. Sandy says:

    Glenn Greenwald and only a couple of others, unfortunately, ARE voices one can trust IMO.


  6. Sandy says:
    Friday September 14, 2007 09:10 EST
    The endless, meaningless blather from the Washington establishment
    (updated below)
    It has been extremely difficult over the past several months to pay any attention at all to the discussion of Iraq from our political and media stars. IT IS ALL JUST COMPLETE BLATHER, AND NEVER MEANS ANYTHING. All of these stern and worried and tough words spill endlessly from their mouths — they all proclaimed in May that September was the Day of Reckoning: there would be bipartisan, forced withdrawal if the political benchmarks weren’t met — only for the same thing to happen over and over. The conditions are not met; Bush proclaims we are staying; and the Washington Establishment submits….”


  7. Sandy says:

    I agree, JohnH. The problem is, so few seem capable of doing that. Washington has become Bizarro World. Up is Down. One does….(or deliberately does NOT)….talk about what is relevant….and TRUE…only insofar as it serves one’s OWN purposes and career. And, I wasn’t a cynic before this administration. Witness the crimes…year after year. They are the untouchables. Mafioso-worthy. Surpassing them even. Crimes against humanity. No question about it. None.
    Valdemort. There, I said it.


  8. JohnH says:

    Sandy, I too don’t care if Bush reiterates his mission, which is as fickle as the wind. I do care that credible, independent voices (if there are any) in the foreign policy elite finally offer up something of value in return for those fat paychecks and nice titles–clear statements as to what America’s goals in Iraq should be. Only then can we have an intelligent discussion about the whole Iraq project: goals, strategies and tactics.
    “You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.” –Yogi Berra


  9. Sandy says:

    JohnH, what does it matter whether Bush/Cheney have outlined their mission…or goal…or any of it? Would they even be capable of telling the truth? Would any one believe them? Based on what actions they have taken so far?
    These men are sociopaths. They not only cannot handle the truth. They wouldn’t know it if they saw or heard it…much less told it.
    It’s all just the politics of POWER to them.
    Spin. Spin. Spin.


  10. JohnH says:

    One more thing. The failure to clearly identify the mission in Iraq may be indicative of fuzzy thinking on Bush’s part or of a deliberate and malicious attempt to obscure his agenda (I believe the latter).
    However, just because Bush’s goals are outwardly ambiguous doesn’t mean that the rest of the foreign policy elite/national security mob has to follow in lock step. Their total inability to clearly articulate strategic goals for Iraq is a total indictment of the foreign policy elite and evidence of the paucity of clear thinking endemic to them.


  11. JohnH says:

    Once again, Steve and Michael Lind totally miss the boat. You can’t have a strategy without a goal. So what are we in Iraq for? Al Qaeda, freedom and democracy, or oil? The current Iraqi exercise is a classic example of ready, fire, aim.
    Once you clearly set the goal then you can strategize (and bring the American people into the discussion, while you’re at it). If it’s oil, you can prioritize the geographic areas that need to be secured. Or you can decide that you’re better off forgetting the whole adventure and invest that $2 billion per week in projects that save energy, like high speed rail instead of airports.
    Without knowing what we’re fighting for, we’re simply there because we’re there, as the old war song goes.


  12. Kathleen says:

    Dan Kervic… wide-eyed cub scouts… love it.
    So let me get this straight.. when Sunnis agreed to lay down their arms if we agreed to withdraw within two years, we rejected that offer, but now we’re paying 30 grand a head to Sunnis who will fight for us now?
    Meanwhile, back in Spin City, as Democraps are whining about the failure of the Iraqi gov’t to end sectarian violence, we are building walls in Iraq. What’s up with that?
    Does Busholini own a concrete company?


  13. bakho says:

    Bush strategy is today exactly what it was in 2002. Bush strategy was to invade Iraq, replace Saddam with a government beholden to the US and station large numbers of US troops in Iraq indefinately.
    The surge is a cynical ploy by Bush to continue domestic political support for maintaining troops in Iraq. The announcement of bringing troops home (there are no replacements anyway) is a cynical ploy to falsely imply that Bush wants us to leave Iraq.
    If Bush wanted to get us out of Iraq, we would be making progress on getting out. Bush does not now nor has he ever wanted to leave Iraq. Bush is committed to staying.


  14. rich says:

    With one hand George Bush pushes an Iraqi national govt, bound by an oil-revenue sharing agreement, and with the other? Tearing Iraq apart. Josh Marshall @ TPM notes:
    The collapse of a political agreement to share oil revenues was due to an oil deal that Ray Hunt (of Hunt Oil) struck withe Kurds. Hunt is an old crony of Bush’s and was twice-appointed by him to the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.
    Oil Buddies –09.13.07
    An article in tomorrow’s Times reports that the long-negotiated compromise which seemed to be leading towards an Iraqi oil law — a key ‘progress’ benchmark — has apparently collapsed. All gone down the drain.
    The story though connects up with another one we told you about just a couple days ago — the decision of the Kurdistan regional government to sign an oil exploration deal with Dallas-based Hunt Oil, run by Mr. Ray L. Hunt.
    The Shia and Sunni leaders believe the Kurds are opting for a sort of oil secession that puts them outside the whole concept of a law to share the country’s oil resources. And the Hunt deal is apparently the straw that broke the camel’s back, shall we say.
    But remember, Hunt, in addition to being the son of legendary Texas John Birch Society extremist H.L. Hunt, is also a pal of the president’s. Indeed, President Bush has twice appointed Hunt to his Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. So while the president is striving to get the Iraqis to meet these benchmarks one of his own pals — and more importantly, political appointees — is busy helping to tear the whole thing apart. –Josh Marshall
    Again, the question must be posed, aloud: Is George W. Bush actively seeking to rebuild a stable, secure Iraq at the federal level? Or tear it apart for good?
    The larger pattern indicates the latter. Second, it’s in Bush’s interest to maintain a fractured polity and a continued civil war with high levels of violence. It’s an excuse to stay.
    More focus on the House of Saud and less on Israel (notwithstanding Israeli role & interests) from commenters here would go a long way towards completing a coherent picture of ‘Whose interests are served by this war?’
    It’s one thing to push Maliki and other political factions towards a political solution. It’s another to actively rip it apart using old pals in the oil bidniz.
    It’s one thing to demand Iran not fan the flames. It’s another to ignore the vast river of cash and arms flowing from the Saudis to the Sunnis attacking American soldiers.
    It’s one thing to reach out to the Sunni nationalist tribal groups. It’s another to ask for credit when that should’ve been STEP ONE in 2003.
    In whose interest is it to simultaneously bleed Saudi Arabia of Wahabbist radicals and Iraq of Baathist nationalists? It will never work–indigenous forces will always be positioned, long-run, to make U.S. and al-Quaeda bear the brunt of the costs. We’re the proxies here: when we outlive our usefulness–and Ray Hunt’s Kurdish oil deal is an unmistakable sign that’s already happened–the alliances will shift again.
    If 9/11 occured under Jimmy Carter’s watch, and he STILL hadn’t captured bin Laden–would Repubs be in docile lockstep support behind their Prznt?


  15. Dan Kervick says:

    Who cares about all this? In a month or two, when bombs are falling on Iran, nobody is going to remember the surge, or the various partition plans, or any of the other diversionary Iraq debates.
    In accordance with their planned post-Labor Day roll-out, as was reported last month, the Bush administration is now telling one daily lie after another about Iran – lies about the nature of Iranian activity in Afghanistan; lies about the nature of Iranian activity in Iraq; lies about US-backed provocations from radical Kurdish groups; lies about the reasons for putting a base right on the Iran border, etc. The US is stringing tripwires all over the region, so that eventually even the most careful of Iranian statesmen will not be able to avoid tripping over one. Then, bombs away.
    They White House is also spinning a thoroughly preposterous story, one so preposterous that only the unworldly and ignorant American public could be expected to believe it. According to this fable, Iran is working with the Taliban, a fanatical and ignorant takfiri group with a track record of slaughtering Shia Muslims and Iranian diplomats, a group that believes every Shia Muslim is an apostate meriting execution, and helping that group fight against the Karzai government that is actively promoting good Afghan relations with Iran.
    Not only that, according to Bush and Co., Iran is practicing the very same inane and nonsensical foreign policy to its west, and is working through its diabolical agents to undermine the same Baghdad government they are investing in economically, in the process helping to restore the power of the former Sunni ruling class that fought a vicious war against Iran in the 80’s.
    Of course, not long ago the story was even more ridiculous. It was claimed that Iran was working directly with the Sunni insurgency, and actively arming them. That was before we switched sides in our own war, re-labelled 95% of the insurgency the “Anbar Awakening”, and decided to say Iran was only helping their Shia militia henchmen. Finally, this absurdly self-destructive foreign policy is said to be aimed at strengthening a growing Iranian “hegemony” in the region – surely the most unimpressive and geographically limited hegemony the world has ever seen.
    Why do you think all of these Sunni Arabs – who have fought since the beginning of this war to prevent the ascendancy of Shia power in Iraq, to topple the democratically elected government that was eventually formed, and restore their own formerly privileged positions in Iraq – have suddenly switched sides? A few weeks ago they were only too happy to kill US soldiers with abandon. What changed? What changed is that they now know that the US is about to attack the Sunni’s loathed Persian enemies to the East, and in the process destroy the elected government in Baghdad, and bring some new Sunni chieftain to power.
    And yet so many of the hapless Democrats who were suckered into the last war, are falling for the new yarns all over again. The same cub scouts who listened wide-eyed to the scoutmaster’s last campfire tale about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and terror camps are being dazzled once again by a presidential scare story. Even Senator Obama has now climbed on board with the Iran divestment movement, a movement whose chief backers are the same old tired neocon cast of characters who orchestrated the Iraq fiasco.
    How guileless can these people be? How bad do things in Washington have to get before people are willing to entertain and go on record with the idea that our president is a pathological liar and murderous lunatic, who has to be stopped?
    And how is it that the White House can suddenly switch sides in a war, arm the very people who have been killing our soldiers for four years, undermine the government our soldiers have been fighting to defend for that same period of time, and yet there is hardly a peep from official Washington and its think-tanky court intellectuals about this treacherous stab in the back? How can people who claim to be concerned with restoring America’s image in the world, sit on their thumbs as the US brazenly betrays the people who have risked allying themselves with us?.


  16. Ben Rosengart says:

    You’re smack on with this one. I guess it’s tricky to keep your eye on the ball when the Administration has so much ability to determine what does and doesn’t get into the news. But Congress can and should do better.


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