Iraq: A Military Critique

It seems likely that the Iraq war, aside from a few phrases about our brave men and women in uniform fighting for freedom and perhaps a mention of Saddam’s capture, will not figure too heavily in tonight’s State of the Union address. Even though Howard Dean, the most prominent war critic among the Democratic contenders, seems to have tanked in Iowa, the war has probably brought President Bush as much of a bounce in the way of approval points in the polls as it is likely to, and there’s a chance that too much discussion of the war could start to get embarrassing.

In case you just hopped off the turnip truck, a State of the Union speech in an election year is a quintessentially political document, and pundits who pay more attention to these things than I do say that Dubya’s major goal in this speech will be to shore up constituencies on domestic issues. He might surprise us, but that makes a certain amount of sense.

What most pundits are too polite to say is that the rationale for the war started evaporating about the time the troops marched in – some of us thought at the time there was nothing to evaporate, of course – and it keeps getting weaker. Even most administration spokespeople, with the occasionally mildly foolhardy (but still carefully modulated to preserve deniability) exception of Vice President Cheney, have admitted as much, although understandably they haven’t dwelled on it.

Both Secretary of State Powell and the president have admitted there is no concrete proof of a link between Saddam and al Qaida that had anything to do with 9/11. David Kay has resigned as the U.S. government’s chief WMD detective after finding nothing other than evidence that Saddam had big dreams on paper and some scientists doing research. The occupation has proven more difficult and bloody than anybody in the administration seems to have had any notion it would be, and the evidence suggests that they’ve been improvising desperately since last May or so. And now the Shiites are getting restless at the American notion that you need an operational (and pliant?) government in place before you get too carried away with this actual voting stuff.


It seems ironic that just about the time the war and its aftermath has become something the administration would just as soon not talk about too much that Gov. Dean starts losing strength, at least in Iowa. I’ll leave to other pundits the reasons for his quick fade (while noting that Iowa is just the beginning of a primary season likely to have numerous twists and turns before it’s done). He had already ceased to provide a clear alternative to current Bush policies, having said that while the war was a bad idea, now that we’re there we need to stay until – well, that’s a little unclear, but at least until things are a bit more stable (which might not be until we leave).

That probably isn’t the biggest reason for the Dean nosedive. He probably got the votes of the most persistent antiwar Democrats (at least those who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Kucinich) on the basis of his previous stances. One wonders, however, if another Democrat will take up at least nuanced criticism of the steps and assumptions that got this country into the misbegotten war. So far, despite what seem significant vulnerabilities to me, none have, and the president doesn’t seem to have paid much of a political price for the misleading assumptions and downright lies that paved the political path to war.

It does seem a shame. The Iraq war – or at least the aftermath – has become troublesome to the war’s advocates, but the Democrats (some because they’re mildly compromised by the congressional votes, some because they just won’t go there until the focus groups give the command) don’t seem to be in a position to exploit those vulnerabilities. Elections are supposed to be when the people have a chance to hear extended discussion such that they at least have a chance to make informed choices about the key issues of the day. But since, from the perspective of the politicians, seeking government power is more about – well, seeking and holding power – than about taking principled stances, it is more common during election season for politicians to avoid or fudge the really important issues.


If the politicians won’t provide a discussion based on a thoroughgoing critique of administration policies, it might just be up to – heaven help us – the military. I wrote briefly last week about a study with the disarmingly neutral title, “Bounding the Global War on Terror,” published by the Strategic Studies Institute of the Army War College. It is a thorough and really rather devastating critique.

Dr. Jeffrey Record, who wrote the report, is not some peacenik professor at some Podunk college. He got his doctorate from Johns Hopkins and has been in national security posts most of his life. Currently he is a professor at the US Air Force’s Air War College in Birmingham, AL. He was national security adviser to former Georgia Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn, known as a realistic hawk when he was in the Senate and a longtime chairman of the Senate Armed Service Committee. Before that Record did similar chores for Democratic Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, also a Democratic moderate and something of a hawk during the Cole War, and he worked for the Senate Armed Services Committee itself. The author of six books, he has also served stints with the modestly liberal Brookings Institution and the modestly conservative Hudson Institute. The military must take him somewhat seriously. Otherwise why would they give him teaching posts at military educational institutions and publish his work?

In his paper Dr. Record argues that the war on Iraq “was a war-of-choice distraction from the war of necessity against al Qaida,” and that the administration’s strategic objectives in the war on terrorism are so diffuse, muddled, and in some cases inherently unrealistic that we have lost focus and are in serious danger of punting away some struggles against the current terrorist that are eminently winnable.

The report, of course, is prefaced by the standard disclaimer (it appeared on all the dozen or so other reports that I opened on the Strategic Studies Institute Web site) to the effect that the views “do not reflect the official policy of the Department of the Army,” etc. etc. But publication of the paper was approved by the Army War College’s commandant, Maj. Gen. David H. Huntoon. Retired Army Co. Douglas C. Lovelace, Jr., director of the Strategic Studies Institute, didn’t exactly back away from the report when questioned. “I think that the substance that Jeff brings out in the article really, really needs to be considered,” he told the Washington Post when questioned.

The substance, briefly, is this. Destroying or neutralizing al Qaida is a realistic but quite difficult goal. Destroying “terrorism” or “evil” is an inherently unrealistic utopian fantasy that gets in the way of thinking intelligently about sound policy, since terrorism is a tactic and evil is an aspect of the human condition.

The invasion of Iraq was a distraction from the main strategic goal that has consumed and continues to consume resources that could have been used to go after al Qaida more aggressively or to beef up domestic security. It has alienated potential foreign allies and sympathizers unnecessarily at a time when cooperation against an international but stateless foe is more important than ever. It has already stretched the military to the breaking point, and unless more realistic or achievable goals are set, continuing on the current path is likely to cause serious problems for the United States and give terrorists opportunities to reemerge.

There’s much more, but I don’t think that’s an unfair summary of what Dr. Record had to say. His conclusion is striking: “The global war on terrorism as currently defined and waged is dangerously indiscriminate and ambitious.” Current policy “is strategically unfocused, promises more than it can deliver, and threatens to dissipate US military resources in and endless and hopeless search for absolute security.”

Is this paper the army’s way of trying desperately to get the administration’s attention before the neocons talk it into yet another adventure? I can’t say, and I seriously doubt anybody from the army would tell me if it were. Col. Lovelace and Maj. Gen. Huntoon were properly cagey. The colonel said the general knew the study would be controversial, but it was worth publishing “under the umbrella of academic freedom.” Under that umbrella they could publish my pieces on how ending the drug war would do a great deal to defund terrorism and make the job of tracking down (or at least neutralizing) al Qaida and its allies. Perhaps I should submit them and see how eager they are to do so.

The best hope, perhaps, is that this study, if it receives sufficient attention (people I talk to inside the Beltway say there’s been quite a bit of buzz, but I haven’t seen much follow-up in the media) will widen the range of acceptable political discussion about Iraq, how we got into it, and whether future adventures are a good idea. Dr. Record mentions beefing up the military as one option, but he also discusses the idea of reducing some of our hundreds of military commitments overseas.

The administration seems prepared to do neither, preferring to live in a dream world in which its ambitious but unfocused goals are realistic and moral. The American people really shouldn’t let it get away with that. War, peace, and the strategic posture of the United States are issues that should be front-and-center during an election year.

– Alan Bock

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).