A Time for Reconsideration

From a military or strategic standpoint, to be sure, there’s not that much significance to the figure of 2,000 U.S. military personnel – Staff Sgt. George Alexander Jr., 34, of Killeen, Texas, was the sad milestone, although some will dispute whether he was # 2,000 or "only" #1,993 – who have died in Iraq. However, if, as the famed Prussian philosopher of war Karl von Clausewitz famously said, war is simply politics conducted by other means (and vice versa, I might add), the number might have genuine significance.

Insofar as wars are inherently political, in a regime with vestiges of democracy, public opinion matters. And public opinion can respond to numbers that from a purely military perspective might have little or no significance. However war enthusiasts like Victor David Hanson might lament the fact, this is not Vietnam, Korea, World War II or the Civil War, in all of which U.S. casualties were higher by degrees of magnitude. In part because of the unrealistic expectations popularized by advocates of the invasion of Iraq and in part because of post-Vietnam history, the American people, while not as squeamish as some of us who believe this war was not worth a single American life, are not as tolerant of casualties as during glorious battles of the past.

Given that two-thirds of Americans now believe the Iraq war was a mistake, the milestone, especially inasmuch as it was reached the same week officials announced the approval of a draft Iraqi constitution, is likely to have some resonance. The challenge for those who do not relish future wars of conquest or imperial housekeeping is to move the conversation beyond the wisdom of this war to a discussion of a future foreign policy in which war is viewed as an absolute last resort instead of the first-reach option for political leaders with neither military experience nor much interest in the world beyond our borders.

Military Reality

Reconsidering the wisdom of this war is the first order of business, of course. We may or may not be in the process of reconsidering it through the judicial process, sparked by indictments of top executive-branch aides. Even if indictments happen and trials offer new information, however, there’s more than enough open-source material available to broaden the understanding that this war was based not only on faulty interpretations of intelligence (to be charitable), but on a profoundly wrongheaded vision of the proper role of the United States in the world.

One can certainly understand and agree with the proposition that Saddam Hussein was a vicious tyrant who brought untold suffering on the people of Iraq and had a history of being an unsettling threat to his neighbors. The jury is still out, given the unrelenting violence that is in some ways more unsettling because it is less predictable, on whether the Iraqi people are better off without that thug in power. Probably so, but we won’t have the information to make a more informed judgment for years.

Even if Saddam Hussein had possessed "weapons of mass destruction" (an arbitrary category created to lump nuclear weapons in with still-frightening but less "mass" chemical and biological weapons), it should be obvious by now that he posed no real threat to the United States. Even as the revolutionarily aggressive National Security Strategy of 2002 spoke of the right to engage in "preemptive" wars to neutralize potential or developing imminent threats, the war in Iraq more nearly met the criteria of a "preventive" war, which under just war theory or any other widely accepted understanding of international relations is a war of aggression and not justifiable.

As Nightline noted this week, the growing consciousness that the war was a bad idea from the outset, not simply a good idea poorly executed in the aftermath, is having an impact at the point where military and political strategists will have no choice but to notice – military recruitment. As the AP recently reported, "The Army is closing the books on one of the leanest recruiting years since it became an all-volunteer service three decades ago, missing its enlistment targets by the largest margin since 1979 and raising questions about its plans for growth."

The Army National Guard and Army Reserve had even worse recruiting years. Apparently the Marines, Air Force, and Navy met their goals this year (some of the services have offered $20,000 enlistment bonuses). But perhaps in part because of active citizen involvement on high school campuses, the Army is finding the going tougher, and the problems are not likely to get better in the next year or so.

Because service in the military is not coerced these days, this phenomenon could be interpreted as a marketplace-like signal that the American people – or at least those of military service age and aptitude – are less willing than before to buy what the military is selling, that is, to fill the ranks with people willing and ready to be sent on whatever imperial mission the political leaders have in mind this year or next. Iraq – and not just the 2,000 fatalities but the 25,000 seriously wounded and the 40,000 returned home for less serious physical injuries or stress reactions – has reminded young Americans that there can be a serious price to pay, sometimes a lifelong price for survivors, for being the tools to carry out the whims of our rulers.

Broader Picture

Although it is impossible to predict the precise course, it is difficult to believe that U.S. disengagement from occupying Iraq, if only in the form of keeping a smaller number of U.S. military people on bases where they will have little interaction with the Iraqi people (the Kurds would probably oblige), will not happen eventually. Our military people know, and even some of our political leaders must know, that a highly visible U.S. presence in Iraq is an aggravating factor in the insurgency.

It is unlikely that the U.S. is willing to – if only because the resources are not available – commit the 500,000-plus active fighters that would be necessary to defeat the insurgency on the ground (under an optimistic scenario). The current policy is unlikely to yield anything better than a military stalemate. There is a possibility that further elections that produce a remotely legitimate Iraqi government will defuse the urge to insurge, but it would be unwise to count on it. The only real alternative is disengagement in some form. The best bet is for the U.S. to grab onto the next plausibly rosy political development as a reason to declare victory and begin to stand down.

Whether the Iraq war becomes an "endless slog," as the Cato Institute’s Ted Carpenter suggested to me it likely would, or winds down over the next year or so, those of us who want to reduce the incidence of U.S. wars in the future should have an opportunity to get the kind of wider hearing that could make our proposals a real part of the policy mix. Here are a few preliminary suggestions for issues we might emphasize.

As retired Air Force Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski has pointed out recently, a good first step might be reminding ourselves that the U.S. Constitution gives Congress, not the president acting unilaterally, the power to declare war. To be sure, Congress gave the president a vague and unduly broad authorization to use military force prior to the Iraq war. But as citizens, we should let our congresscritters know that that’s not good enough under our system or for the chastened American people. Next time we’ll demand a formal declaration of war rather than another abdication of responsibility.

As Karen Kwiatkowski put it, "Had Congress been asked to declare war in Iraq, they would have done two things. First, they would have asked for more information, and the CIA, in providing that information, would have admitted publicly and privately that their case that Iraq posed a material threat to America was weak. So weak in fact, that the war was not only not necessary, it was laughable. Secondly, just as appropriately, the Congress would have refused to declare war on Iraq, and we would not have invaded the country."

Demanding that any future wars be declared wars, subject to understandable objectives so an ordinary person could have an idea when victory had been achieved, would be a good start. That alone would be likely to reduce the number of military engagements in the near future.

Beyond that, however, it should be time to speak more broadly of the necessity for a new foreign policy, one based on the core interests of the United States in defending its own people and guided by the principle – deeply rooted in though not always observed in American history – that political and military intervention in the affairs of other countries is seldom a prudent course, that it more likely to endanger the American people than to make them safer.

As Thomas Jefferson put it in his inaugural address: "Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations – entangling alliances with none." Conditions and circumstances change, of course, making it necessary to be aware of what is going on in the world so as to be able to apply a policy intelligently. But changing circumstances have not made such a policy unrealistic or unworkable. Indeed, a strong case can be made that in a world in which the nation-state is becoming less significant as an economic unit the avoidance of entangling alliances could be the most realistic policy of all.

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).