December 07, 2006

Iraq Study Group- how not to respond.

I haven't yet read the Iraq Study Group report (text here but others have- and others have responded. The thing is that some of the responses have laid bare exactly why the strategy so far in Iraq has failed and have illustrated some of the problems that we face so neatly that responding to them seems fair enough, despite not having read the report itself.

Of whom could I be speaking in such stentorian tones of disapproval? Well the National Review, a leading magazine of the American right, has today in its editorial condemned the group's report in these terms.

Bush has to work on his own to try to save our position there, and he must do it by acting in the real world that it is always the great luxury of bipartisan commissions to ignore.

The National Review may be right- the report may be hopeless- just gathering together the great and the good does not generate out of certainty a good conclusion, it can generate muddled thinking. The grounds for why this report, which I repeat I haven't yet read, might be wrong though are important. By identifying the grounds for which the report is wrong you are effectively analysing the situation and coming to a different assessment and forming a different reccomendation of how we deal with Iraq. So what are the National Review's criticisms of the report and why are they wrong?

The National Review's critique boils down to these points:

1. Iran and Syria have no interest in the stability of Iraq under a US dominated regime, therefore there is no prospect in holding negotiations with them, particularly as the price in terms of nuclear laisser faire and Lebanon would be too high.

2. Neither of them have an interest in leaving the status of International Pariah- when Libya did it they did it under the threat of force to Saddam and no change of policy, in Israel or on WTO accession could convince them to come into the fold.

3. Reducing the number of US troops in the country takes out the only stabilising force- from the Iraqi security forces and leaves them vulnerable.

4. The Iraqi government is not succeeding because of a lack of domestic security forces not because its dependant upon US troops to succeed.

What should we make of each of the four criticisms and the suggested conclusion which is to increase US forces inside Iraq by up to 50,000 troops and sack the generals, Abuzaid and Casey, in command of US forces. Firstly I should clarify one thought- I have no idea how the generals are performing and what constraints upon them have been put by the Pentagon and whether sacking them is a good idea. But beyond that how does the National Review's strategy look.

The problem is that it doesn't look good- unravelling it from the top is a good thing to do. The 50,000 troops don't seem to exist, especially given the fact that US forces are already under pressure, and the UK its major ally is running out of spare troops to rotate into Iraq fairly quickly- a hope built on increase in troops rests on an increase in the size of the US army, something that with training and recruitment could take years- we don't have years in Iraq.

As to Syria and Iran. The National Review seems very pessimistic about the chances of engagement. But it might be possible especially in Syria to detach one ally of Tehran from it- to negotiate separately instead of together. Syria's reason for coming to Iran is fear of regime change- what about a guarentee issued by the West of Syria's existing borders and a guarentee that Israel won't attack them as was threatened in the Summer. The National Review is simply wrong about Libya- my understanding is that the process of normalisation in Libya dates back to negotiations conducted at a low level under Clinton and so far before the Iraq war, Libya was not not a consequence of Saddam and thus offers us some hope for movement on the Syrian side in particular.

As to the interests of Iran inside Iraq. Its worth stating that there is a worse problem for Iran than the National Review seems to think and that is that if US forces leave- Iran could be dragged by the force of its own rhetoric, by its need to be seen protecting the Shia in the region and also by its underlings in Iraq into an Iraqi civil war. A bloody conflict which would cause massive problems for Iran, especially in its claim to popularity in the other Sunni regimes of the region- not neccessarily a good thing for Tehran. The National Review might therefore be being unduly pessimistic about the chances of an Iranian raprochement.

Lastly the National Review is unduly sanguine about the presence of US forces within a country. If the rhetoric of quisling can be heard in the UK, how much worse would it be in Iraq. Similarly so long as the Iraqi security forces are associated with the United States, how far do they become a force of occupation and not one of liberation. We must be mindful of the force of nationalism- something that we underrated on the invasion and have underrated before (see Vietnam). Again the presence of a visible US Foot maybe contributing to instability.

All of this is not to say that the ISG will bring success, nor is it to say that diplomatic efforts or troop withdrawels will definitely help, but the National Review seems locked in a mindset in which diplomacy can't work and only increases in troop numbers can. That's not neccessarily a sensible approach, as I've argued above. The basic fact about it is that it ignores how much of the vulnerability and strength of the US position depends upon the hatred felt for the US across the Arab world. That hatred makes it very difficult for a government sustained by the US to survive but equally makes an artificial unity behind Iran against America. The National Review's analysis ignores the first fact and thinks the unity isn't artificial. They are wrong. It remains to be seen whether the ISG have come up with the golden bullet, as the new US Defence secretary suggested in the recent hearings there may not be such a thing, but whether the ISG have come up with it or not- the one thing that President Bush shouldn't do is get to his policy by the same logic as the NR, he may following a different logic end up in their position, but their analysis is faulty and I'm not sure that their conclusions aren't impossible as well.

LATER Both the ISG and the National Review reccomend more training for Iraqi forces- this suggests that the training efforts undertaken so far have been fundamentally flawed by a lack of training for the trainers- particularly in languages.

LATER STILL Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan in the Weekly Standard are also arguing for raising troop levels by 50,000, where do these troops come from? I understand that armies can be increased- but in weeks can you train fifty thousand men to be ready to go to Iraq, I doubt it.


amalh said...

my views on the Iraq Study Group report are posted at

Gracchi said...

Thank you for coming over- I read your article and have to say I disagree- I've left a comment to indicate part of my disagreement over at your blog, but thanks for coming over.

QueenBitch said...

I guess that for some of us Americans, keeping up with the enemy (i.e. neocons like Kristol, Kagan, and anyone involved with the National Review and Weekly Standard) is tiresome because none of their arguements are new. They are like Bush -- too proud to admit that their so-called foreign policy doesn't work.

It is logically indisputable that diplomacy will have to come into the of the problems is finding an envoy to take the lead, as no representative from the current adminstration will be able to accomplish anything. Even the majority of Republicans are admitting this now.

The main come-back, lately, with the talking heads here in the US is that if we could have diplomacy with the USSR back in the day, and considering the diplomacy of the Clinton administration both in the Middle East and in North Korea, why is it hopeless to try for diplomacy in Iran and Syria?

You might review the PNAC document advising an invasion of those two countries (after a "successful invasion" of Iraq) to get an answer. Fortunately, those who once brushed that plan off as nothing are now seeing that the administration truely was trying to follow its recommendations, and most responsible representatives are acting against it. In fact, it seems that no one is even willing to argue with the supporters of that doctrine, anymore. The attitude has finally become one of, "okay I will listen to the same arguement you've been giving for more than six years now and then I'm going to talk to the grown-ups."

Let's hope it isn't too late.

Great blog by the way...found you in the comments in the Guardian.

james higham said...

...A bloody conflict which would cause massive problems for Iran, especially in its claim to popularity in the other Sunni regimes of the region- not neccessarily a good thing for Tehran...
Thereby partly behind your questioning of the term Muslim Alliance?

Gracchi said...

Yes I was waiting for you to find this James! (He is referring for those who aren't cognoscenti of both blogs (and why not?) to an article he posted which had a phrase in about a Muslim Alliance to which I objected in the comments, and we had an amicable discussion about- just to clarify for those who don't know)

Queenbitch- thanks for the compliment- come back and join in. I can understand that if you've been battling these guys for years you might have got tired- I am aware of teh PNAC docs as well- but I just find their errors very interesting- I wonder a lot of the time if really neo-conservatism though it looks like a doctrine about foreign affairs is actually a doctrine about foreign affairs that reflects home again. That this argument they are advancing isn't really about foreign affairs at all- I'm trying to crystallise a series of thoughts at the moment around that and the influence of Machiavelli upon them which I'm going to post at some point, when I've quite grasped what I want to say.

Diplomacy as you'll see by my post, I think has to come into it, largely because the US lacks the power to do anything else. Whether you like the idea or don't like the idea, there is no other option in my view. The interesting question though to me is the degree to which Iran has a free hadn in Iraq and whether for example if Tehran agrees to a compromise, its people on the groudn in Iraq would obey its orders.

Political Umpire said...

Great post, as always. Looking at the history of the US military it would be easily possible to raise a much, much larger army, in a reasonably short period of time _IF_ the political will was there, which I don't think it is. It's another example of how if they intended to take over Iraq, they should have done it in 1991 when there were over 500,000 men on the ground (the cold war army). Funnily enough, the reasons given as to why they did not have proved to be remarkably accurate (all the more ironic as they were made by, amongst others, Cheney and Powell).

Having said that, although the US military is the most efficient killing machine in history, that's about all it's good for. Their doctrine developed in WWII: establish a kill zone, and kill everything in it. Perfect strategy for a conventional war but of no use in countering an insurgency.

Then you have the issue of where so many of the American army's rank and file are drawn from. Having visited America recently, it seemed to confirm what Theodore Dalrymple wrote about the Abu Graid (sp?) scandal. So many are what you'd pejoratively call 'trailer park trash'; the American underclass that does not see much of the economic miracle, is not welcome in the middle class suburbs, and is forcibly evicted from the same by nightstick and shotgun wielding cops. Take those people out of that environment, give the uniform and a weapon and what you might have is an effective killer but what you don't have is someone capable of bridging cultural gaps and ingratiating themselves with a totally alien culture. For the time they were in Iraq, Col. Tim Collins' Irish guards were an unqualified success - no casualties and a stable environment for the locals. But aside from the fact that they were all highly trained professionals, they came from Northern Ireland and were therefore well aware of sectarian violence and how to stop it.

Time (and the length of this comment already) precludes me from going on further, though I have other issues about Libya and the Syrians, which I'll try and get back to later. Obviously it is a thought provoking post!

Gracchi said...

Thanks Political Umpire- I agree with you about the US Army- I have heard stories from friends in Iraq both civil servants and people with military relatives that the US soldiers are incredibly arrogant and culturally unaware. I encountered some myself on a train from Cambridge to London, who between having fantasies of raping women, were discussing why the (I don't like quoting this but will just to convey the sheer shock I had) ragheads blew up more people on Friday. Apart from the racism- not understanding what Friday is in Islam when you are invading an Islamic country is pretty basic. (I should of course note that these were only two soldiers and not therefore representative at all I hope of the US Forces out there)

To your points- I think you are right- the US could raise the forces by the draft for example. But I don't think they would be the right kind of forces- what we need are trained Arabic speaking soldiers who can deal wiht an insurgency- not people off the streets taught how to use a gun.

As to 1991, what's happening now does make that decision look very wise...

Political Umpire said...

Gracchi, I recommend the book (NOT the film) Black Hawk Down - interesting parallels to Iraq, save that the Americans only came there on charitable grounds (the charity being Bush Snr's hoped-for legacy as a world statesman, the American voters already having given their opinion on his domestic policies). It shows three different levels of the US army - the grunts of the 10th Mountain Division, regarded with scorn by the Rangers, who were early-20s, predominately white middle class, some with college degrees. In turn the Rangers were regarded with contempt by the top of the feeding chain, the Delta soldiers (SAS equivalent). Delta are described as being built like American pro football players, and utterly ruthless killing machines. The army basically ignored the episode, to its cost later.

Gracchi said...

Thanks for the reccomendation.