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A Brilliant Military Strategist on Why Counter-Insurgency in Iraq is Futile

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In the February issue of Harpers Magazine, there appears an article by Edward Luttwak entitled "Dead End: Counterinsurgency Warfare as Military Malpractice." In the article, Luttwak argues that there is no way that the United States, despite its superior military power, can prevail against an insurgency such as is ongoing now in Iraq-at least no way that's consistent with American values (and that stops short of the brutal tactics used by the ancient Romans and by the Nazis). I've been reading Luttwak's writings occasionally for about thirty years, and I have found his thinking to be exceptionally brilliant in his field, which generally involves matters of military strategy. It would be interesting to go back over all his writings and tally up how often history has borne out his analyses, but I virtually always find his thinking to be lucid and persuasive. In the present article about the counter-insurgency efforts of the United States, Luttwak's analysis seemed to me as lucid and persuasive as always. And I commend that article to your attention. (The article does not appear to be available online.) The article raised a couple of questions in my mind. As I've had an acquaintanceship with Luttwak since the early 1980s, when we were both working at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington (where he remains), I have approached him with those questions. My first question was whether, for the reasons given in his article, the American venture in Iraq was doomed to failure from the outset or whether that failure was the result of the various blunders committed by the Bushites in establishing a post-Saddam order-- blunders that allowed considerable space for the insurgency to grow (while Rumsfeld was in his "Stuff happens" mode of denial and incompetence). Luttwak responded that it was doomed from the outset. I asked also whether, given the present situation, the best thing to do --even from the standpoint of the Iraqis, who have been plunged by this American invasion into disorder-- is to withdraw now or to stay to try to mitigate the destructive chaos we have unleashed. Luttwak said we should disengage. Luttwak referred me to an article of his published at the beginning of 2005 in the journal, FOREIGN AFFAIRS. And he succinctly summed up his analysis there with the words: "Not Germany in 1945 but Spain in 1799--unwilling to modernize, will follow priests and tribals in rejecting democracy." The article is entitled, "Iraq: The Logic of Disengagement." What follows are some passages from that article, which is available online at Luttwak's overall case for disengagement might be summed up with this quote from the article:
[Once the United States] has declared its firm commitment to withdraw-or perhaps, given the widespread conviction that the United States entered Iraq to exploit its resources, once visible physical preparations for an evacuation have begun-the calculus of other parties will change. In a reversal of the usual sequence, the U.S. hand will be strengthened by withdrawal, and Washington may well be able to lay the groundwork for a reasonably stable Iraq.
The idea is that many of these "other parties" presently have no great incentive to create order, but in the absence of U.S. forces their own interest in avoiding anarchy in Iraq will likely lead them to pursue different, more constructive courses of action from their present ones. Luttwak's analysis of why Iraq has not worked out as the neo-cons had predicted contains these elements:
[In Iraq, in contrast with what happened after the Americans occupied Japan and Germany after World War II,] [a]n already difficult task has been made altogether impossible by the refusal of Iraqi teachers, journalists, and publicists-let alone preachers-to be instructed and to instruct others in democratic ways. In any case, unlike Germany or Japan after 1945, Iraq after 2003 never became secure enough for occupation personnel to operate effectively, let alone to carry out mass political education in every city and town, as was done in Germany and Japan.
The plain fact is that there are not enough aspiring democrats in Iraq to sustain democratic institutions. The Shiite majority includes cosmopolitan figures, but by far its greater part has expressed in every possible way a strong preference for clerical leadership. The clerics, in turn, reject any elected assembly that would be free to legislate without their supervision-and could thus legalize, for example, the drinking of alcohol or the freedom to change one's religion. The Sunni-Arab minority, for its part, has dominated Iraq from the time it was formed into a state, and its leaders have consistently rejected democracy in principle because they refuse to accept a subordinate status. As for the Kurds, they have administered their separate de facto autonomies with considerable success, but it is significant that they have not even attempted to hold elections for themselves...
And here's a bit of the flesh on that allusion he made to Spain, 1799:
ferocious insurgency of the illiterate Spanish poor against their would-be liberators under the leadership of their traditional oppressors. On July 6, 1808, King Joseph of Spain presented a draft constitution that for the first time in Spain's history o ¬ered an independent judiciary, freedom of the press, and the abolition of the remaining feudal privileges of the aristocracy and the church. Ecclesiastical overlords still owned 3,148 towns and villages, which were inhabited by some of Europe's most wretched tenants. Yet the Spanish peasantry did not rise to demand the immediate implementation of the new constitution. Instead, they obeyed the priests, who summoned them to fight against the ungodly innovations of the foreign invader-for Joseph was the brother of Napoleon Bonaparte and had been placed on the Spanish throne by French troops a month earlier. That was all that mattered for most Spaniards-not what was proposed, but who proposed it.
Hence, according to Luttwak, the futility of this American venture supposedly to impose democracy on a nation about which the Bushites knew rather little, and did not care to know more. I am inclined to believe that there is much validity to Luttwak's analysis of the situation in Iraq. In one matter, however, he seems to adhere to a perception of the American invasion that I think mistaken. He writes, in a passage that makes clear the analogy with Spain:
The clerics dismiss all talk of democracy and human rights by the invaders as mere hypocrisy-except for women's rights, which are promoted in earnest, the clerics say, to induce Iraqi daughters and wives to dishonor their families by aping the shameless disobedience of Western women. The vast majority of Iraqis, assiduous mosque-goers and semi-literate at best, naturally believe their religious leaders. The alternative would be to believe what for them is entirely incomprehensible: that foreigners have been unselfishly expending their own blood and treasure to help them. As opinion polls and countless incidents demonstrate, Americans and their allies are widely hated as the worst of invaders, out to rob Muslim Iraqis not only of their territory and oil, but also of their religion and family honor.
This passage seems to imply that Luttwak interprets the Bushite invasion as an "unselfish" expenditure of American blood and treasure undertaken in order to help the Iraqis. Knowing Luttwak, I would be surprised if he actually holds to that interpretation of the Bushite motivations behind the invasion. (Postscript, I have now inquired about his beliefs on this score, and he has responded, saying: "The unrealistic purpose of the US invasion was to establish a successful democracy.") That is not my reading of the underlying motives and purpose behind the invasion of Iraq. While I believe that this may have been an important part of the motivation for Wolfowitz's endorsement of this invasion, I do not for a second believe it is true for the likes of Bush and Cheney and Rove and Rumsfeld. Hell, I've never seen them do an unselfish thing even for Americans! (And when it comes to "democracy," can one take seriously the value they place on democracy in view of how systematically they've sought to dismantled OURS?) When one looks at how the Bushites have dealt with the whole situation --especially how they've dealt with the oil, and their huge investment in permanent bases-- I really cannot see the Iraqis' cynical interpretation of American motives as a sign of some cultural limitation of theirs. I have believed in the relative altruism of come American moves in the international realm in times past, so the idea of our putting soldiers on the ground somewhere to help others is not "incomprehensible" to me. But in this instance, with this invasion by this Bushite gang, I agree with what Luttwak here reports as the Iraqi interpretation. And so, finally, as impressed as I generally am by Luttwak's analytic abilities, his interpretation of American motives opens the door just a crack with respect to my original question about whether the failure in Iraq was inevitable (whether the blunders were, as Luttwak says, "irrelevant"), or whether the way the Bushites have gone about it is what doomed the mission to failure. That uncertainty creeps in thusly: If Luttwak has misinterpreted the signs of what this invasion was about, as I believe he has-- if he himself has bought into the altruistic motives the Bushites have advanced-- perhaps that indicates that he's not read correctly all the factors that turned this Iraq venture sour. Perhaps, for example, he's not recognized all the ways the execution of this occupation has created an enmity that was not inevitable and has failed to contain that part of the enmity that, while inevitable, might --just perhaps-- have been nipped in the bud. So I'm left half willing to defer to Luttwak's answers to my two questions, while harboring some lurking doubts.
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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
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