Back To Baghdad?


World War II saw us driven out of the Philippines by the Japanese forces .  Douglas McArthur, the general in charge, fled along with his staff leaving behind thousands of American soldiers. He said as he was leaving: “I shall return,” but it would not be in time to stop the Bataan Death March.

He did return and we took back the Phillippines and eventually defeated Japan as well as it’s allies Germany and Italy. In 4 years we had entered and ended that war victorious.

American forced occupied those three countries for years afterwards. After doing their day jobs they left their bases and interacted with the German, Japanese and Italians outside the bases and throughout their countries. They may not have been universally loved but they were not set upon. They felt safe mingling among their former enemies.

They had no Green Zones where they confined themselves fearful of what may await them outside it’s walls. They didn’t build the biggest embassy in the world, nearly as big as Vatican City, to hide in. They didn’t face radical groups ready to shoot or seize them or cut their throats. They were free to practice their religious beliefs both inside and outside their compounds.

For me the greatest factor in considering who to war with is to ask what will the end result be. Which presupposes the idea that there will be an end result. And that the end result will occur within a reasonable time, the latter eliminating the idea of getting involved in a civil war.

When I talk about warring with someone I mean troops on the ground.  I recognize that the nation that controls the air will win the immediate conflict but unless it intends to maintain its air coverage indefinitely it will eventually lose the war. Air wars without boots are the prototypical Pyrrhic victory: you win the battle but lose the war by incurring overwhelming and continuing hatred against you by the indiscriminate slaughter of the people who you are allegedly there to protect.

Most important in going into war where we have a choice which we have had since WWII we must know that an end result must be the ability to mingle on the streets throughout that country with those people after the combat ends. If you believe you will, then you ask how long it will take for that to happen. Then you add up to costs to determine its worth.

We can’t delude ourselves.  We can’t tell the people we will be welcome with open arms as was said by the Administration which took us to war in Iraq, a country ripe with tribal and religious animosities.  Nor can we believe we can change a 1,000 years of customs and habits by mountain people by teaching them our ways while hiding behind huge redoubts.

There are places in the world like Afghanistan and Iraq where we will always be the stranger. The average American will never be able to walk the streets safely. To go to war in such a nation is a fool ‘s errand since you are really battling an amorphorous enemy that you can’t conquer. We can never win. We can only lose more American lives and send our money into black holes.

Most accept that our entry into Iraq to defeat Saddam Hussein was a huge error. Although he was a tyrant he presented no threat to America. He was an irritant to Israel with his encouragement of the Intifada and the payments to the families of suicide bombers but reflected no power outside his country. We successfully swatted a fly while creating a Lernaean Hydra.

Ten years after freeing the people from his yoke they are worse off. Our imposed democratic system in a country torn by tribes and divided by two forms of Islam cannot hold. We can not keep people free who will not keep themselves free. We are on the verge of seeing Iraq fall into the hands of forces which unlike Saddam do present a threat to us.

Iraq now beckons us to come back after telling us we were no longer wanted. This time it only wants our air power, or so it says, but it will soon be asking for a little more. Just like you can ‘t be a little pregnant one really can’t be a little at war.

Now facing a much greater threat do we return?  That is the question our leaders must answer. For me the answer is simple. I’ve already given it. We can’t mingle with the people after the war is over, if it ever ends, so we best stay away.

We can’t go back to Baghdad as we did with Bataan. If Iraq falls so be it. Over 4,000 American lives would have been lost on a failed mission. Better we limit it to that than to move closer to the brave number of dead listed on the Vietnam Memorial wall who also fought in vain.

The last thing we need is to have the war because it is deemed politically expedient. We saw what happened in Vietnam when we fought not to win the war but to win an election. Even after that tragedy we stumbled into Iraq and Afghanistan.

We need a new way forward. We must put politics aside. We need a Grand Plan that must forbid future ad hoc wars where Americans die for people who despise them.




8 thoughts on “Back To Baghdad?

  1. Matt,

    First let me apologize for being away so long. I was caught up studying for the CFA exam the last 6 months and had little time for anything else.

    That said, it is nice to return to your site. It is one of the few places in the blogosphere where one can engage in reasonable discussion on these issues whether one agrees or disagrees.

    A couple of points. I am in agreement with the consensus view that Iraq was a mistake and would not argue for a repeat, but mainly for the reason that the uncertainties of invasion were too great. I do not agree that our intention was ever to impose our values or way of life on the Iraqi people. I think this has always been a rather simplistic view of the Bush administration’s goals. It is easily understood by reasonably intelligent men that cultures and histories differ, and if only as a matter of gaining diplomatic leverage we would never seek to make Iraqis in our own image. But any Joe Schmoe knows this to be a ludicrous goal.

    It is true that we sought to build a democracy, and Bush certainly believed in a progressive ideal that freedom and democracy would contribute to the evolution of a region that was peaceful and allied with the West. I take issue with Khalid that our involvement is in any way “neo-colonial”. The U.S. certainly comes from the perspective of its own interests, but the notion that it is “neo-colonial” is a false projection of history onto the present. The British and Dutch and French were imperialists. The U.S. was never intent on occupying and controlling a country’s government. The intent was always to leave Iraq as an independent, self-sufficient, sovereign government. Whether that project was naive or not is certainly worthy of discussion. Keep in mind that most of the oil contracts went to non-U.S. firms.

    Aside from the pursuit of long-term ideals of freedom and democracy, I would also point out that the U.S. and much of the Western world believed that Iraq did indeed have WMDs. Of course it turned out that there were none to be found, but Iraq still had the infrastructure and the expertise in place, and the regime could have started up again. It was found, however, that the weapons themselves were not there. But Saddam always had an interest in hiding this fact, part of his own geopolitical game with Iran and the rest of the region. And as a result of such finagling, he served to make the world believe that he had WMDs.
    It was an intelligence failure not born of deceit by Bush neocons, but of the intelligence failures of the past, when it was believed he had given up his weapons only to discover that he did in fact have such a weapons program. This was the basis of Cheney’s skepticism of the CIA’s analyses – the CIA has gotten so much wrong in its history, it was only natural to question the assumptions and conclusions found in analyses coming from Langley.

    At any rate, I’m not trying to argue for or against the invasion. Just to say that the motives for invasion were not as deceitful as many have come to believe.

    I would also take issue with the notion that we were naive to think we’d be welcomed with open arms. In fact, we were, in the initial stages. The fall of Saddam was welcomed, and we saw that in some of the more memorable images in the media in the immediate aftermath. The great failure of the Bush administration, however, was having no effective strategy for post-war reconstruction, and not anticipating the sectarian divisions that would rack the country apart.

    It also failed to appreciate, as did the media and much of the country, the connections between the Hussein regime and Al Qaeda. Now, before the whistles go off and you start berating me for bringing up the red herring criticisms that Saddam was not involved in 9-11, let me state clearly: Iraq was NOT involved in 9-11. The connections between Saddam and Al Qaeda were never about that. It was a marriage of convenience, and neither trusted each other as is to be expected. But you can find plenty of evidence of them working together (including in the 9-11 Commission report). But why do I bring this up? Because it was al Qaeda that fomented the sectarian divisions in the first place, and al Qaeda had set up shop in Iraq before the invasion. It’s been a while since I studied this issue, so the details escape me as I write off the cuff, but I can gather some of that evidence if you like. The point is that al Qaeda in particular and jihadi extremism in general is as much to blame for the carnage as geopolitical naivete, post-war planning incompetence, or internal sectarian divisions.

    It is also worth pointing out that it was our traditional reluctance to use force that propelled us into war. All Saddam had to do was declare that he had no weapons, and let inspectors into the country to verify. That was all he had to do. But of course he didn’t because he was always playing a game of deceit, and he believed he could play such a game because he did not believe we would eventually carry through with our threat of invasion. He was calling our bluff. This is the same as Bin Laden’s view that America was a “paper tiger” that retreats when the going gets rough – and so he probably thought we’d leave Afghanistan after a fighting season or two. This is what happened in Somalia, for example.

    This is the one thing I always appreciated about the Bush administration, that they carried through with the threat of force. I don’t think Saddam or the jihadists really thought Bush was serious until he showed that he was. Of course, they were prepared for the long war as well, as we are seeing now with Al Qaeda perhaps as strong as it ever was. They were helped by the administration’s incompetence in handling the post-war reconstruction, though the surge finally helped stabilize the situation in 2007.

    But now we find Al Qaeda as strong as it ever was, and believe me, Al Qaeda still has every intention of striking the West, though they are biding their time now.

    Now what does that mean for us and how we respond to Iraq’s request for air power? I don’t know and don’t have an answer. As I indicated, I’ve been away from the news for a few months while studying for a finance exam. But I did want to get these thoughts off my chest.

    Thanks for keeping up the blog.

    1. Jon:

      Nice to hear from you. Hope you did well in the exam. I think it was the same one my son-in-law took a couple of months ago. You came back with a bang, I must say. Much to think about. I’ll reply to it in greater detail but it’s always nice when I hear from someone who has been gone for a while.

  2. It’s all about the oil. If Iraq didn’t sit on significant energy reserves, the West would ignore the situation like they did the Rwandan genocide. The “bottom line” will determine whether the US intervenes in al-Iraq a second time. I suspect Iran will beat us to the punch, and, commit ground troops to defend the Shia regime in Baghdad. It would greatly serve US policy aims, if the rival Sunni, and, Shia, bleed each other to death. The ongoing internecine carnage in Iraq, and, Syria, serves the long term interests of the American neo-colonial project. Obama’s administration needs to do nothing more than sit back, and, watch the blood flow. Once both sides in the conflict are sufficiently weakened, the US and Europe will step in as “peace-makers.”

  3. Robert Fisk has reported from Baghdad that this new Islamicist group is such a threat to the area that Iran will be asking the United States for military assistance (weapons)to combat them. Kuwait and Qatar are fearful, expecting that general destabilization may bring the Saudis to invade their little sheikdoms. The US is going to need those Mexican “undocumented” to staff the military. Amnesty for all now looks eminently practical from this view.

    1. Henry:

      Whenever I see your name it reminds me of the old R & R song: Henry’s Got Flat Feet. I met a woman a couple of years ago who named her baby boy Henry and I sang the song for her. I’m not sure she appreciated it but then one can’t do right all the time.

      Fisk always has a certain slant on things so I take him with a grain of salt But in this case I think he is on to something because the U.S. is now in the not too nice position of having to go to Syria and Iran in order to support Iraq. It shows our foreign policy is all over the place. To save Iraq we must ally ourselves with the Shiites who are less radical than the Sunnis. I can hear many young Americans signing a version of the WWII English patriot song: “Call out the members of the Old Brigade, they’ll set England free, you can call out me mother, me sister and me brother but for God’s sake don’t call me.” Yes, the Dream Act may be resurrected so that we will have enough people with the spirit to fight to provide the fodder for use in the wars. Did you see that the guy they just traded with the Taliban for was kicked out of the Coast Guard for psychological reasons and then he went into the Army. It tells much about who is doing the fighting.

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