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America’s Generals Haven’t Learned Anything from Iraq

Wed, 03/20/2019 - 4:54pm

Kirkuk, Iraq, 2005 (Shutterstock)

Veni, Vidi, Vici,” boasted Julius Caesar, one of history’s great military captains. “I came, I saw, I conquered.”

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed that famed saying when summing up the Obama administration’s military intervention in Libya in 2011 — with a small alteration. “We came, we saw, he died,” she said with a laugh about the killing of Muammar Gaddafi, that country’s autocratic leader.

Note what she left out, though: the “vici” or victory part. And how right she was to do so, since Washington’s invasions, occupations, and interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere in this century have never produced anything faintly like a single decisive and lasting victory.

“Failure is not an option” was the stirring 1995 movie catchphrase for the dramatic 1970 rescue of the Apollo 13 moon mission and crew, but were such a movie to be made about America’s wars and their less-than-vici-esque results today, the phrase would have to be corrected in Clintonian fashion to read “We came, we saw, we failed.”

Wars are risky, destructive, unpredictable endeavors, so it would hardly be surprising if America’s military and civilian leaders failed occasionally in their endless martial endeavors, despite the overwhelming superiority in firepower of “the world’s greatest military.” Here’s the question, though: Why have all the American wars of this century gone down in flames and what in the world have those leaders learned from such repetitive failures?

The evidence before our eyes suggests that, when it comes to our senior military leaders at least, the answer would be: nothing at all.

Let’s begin with General David Petraeus, he of “the surge” fame in the Iraq War. Of course, he would briefly fall from grace in 2012, while director of the CIA, thanks to an affair with his biographer with whom he inappropriately shared highly classified information. When riding high in Iraq in 2007, however, “King David” (as he was then dubbed) was widely considered an example of America’s best and brightest. He was a soldier-scholar with a doctorate from Princeton, an “insurgent” general with the perfect way — a revival of Vietnam-era counterinsurgency techniques — to stabilize invaded and occupied Iraq. He was the man to snatch victory from the jaws of looming defeat. (Talk about a fable not worthy of Aesop!)

Though retired from the military since 2011, Petraeus somehow remains a bellwether for conventional thinking about America’s wars at the Pentagon, as well as inside the Washington Beltway. And despite the quagmire in Afghanistan (that he had a significant hand in deepening), despite the widespread destruction in Iraq (for which he would hold some responsibility), despite the failed-state chaos in Libya, he continues to relentlessly plug the idea of pursuing a “sustainable” forever war against global terrorism; in other words, yet more of the same.

Here’s how he typically put it in a recent interview:

“I would contend that the fight against Islamist extremists is not one that we’re going to see the end of in our lifetimes probably. I think this is a generational struggle, which requires you to have a sustained commitment. But of course you can only sustain it if it’s sustainable in terms of the expenditure of blood and treasure.”

His comment brings to mind a World War II quip about General George S. Patton, also known as “old blood and guts.” Some of his troops responded to that nickname this way: yes, his guts, but our blood. When men like Petraeus measure the supposed sustainability of their wars in terms of blood and treasure, the first question should be: Whose blood, whose treasure?

When it comes to Washington’s Afghan War, now in its 18th year and looking ever more like a demoralizing defeat, Petraeus admits that U.S. forces “never had an exit strategy.” What they did have, he claims, “was a strategy to allow us to continue to achieve our objectives… with the reduced expenditure in blood and treasure.”

Think of this formulation as an upside-down version of the notorious “body count” of the Vietnam War. Instead of attempting to maximize enemy dead, as General William Westmoreland sought to do from 1965 to 1968, Petraeus is suggesting that the U.S. seek to keep the American body count to a minimum (translating into minimal attention back home), while minimizing the “treasure” spent. By keeping American bucks and body bags down (Afghans be damned), the war, he insists, can be sustained not just for a few more years but generationally. (He cites 70-year troop commitments to NATO and South Korea as reasonable models.)

Talk about lacking an exit strategy!

And he also speaks of a persistent “industrial-strength” Afghan insurgency without noting that U.S. military actions, including drone strikes and an increasing reliance on air power, result in ever more dead civilians, which only feed that same insurgency. For him, Afghanistan is little more than a “platform” for regional counterterror operations and so anything must be done to prevent the greatest horror of all: withdrawing American troops too quickly.

In fact, he suggests that American-trained and supplied Iraqi forces collapsed in 2014, when attacked by relatively small groups of ISIS militants, exactly because U.S. troops had been withdrawn too quickly. The same, he has no doubt, will happen if President Trump repeats this “mistake” in Afghanistan. (Poor showings by U.S.-trained forces are never, of course, evidence of a bankrupt approach in Washington, but of the need to “stay the course.”)

Petraeus’s critique is, in fact, a subtle version of the stab-in-the-back myth. Its underlying premise: that the U.S. military is always on the generational cusp of success, whether in Vietnam in 1971, Iraq in 2011, or Afghanistan in 2019, if only the rug weren’t pulled out from under the U.S. military by irresolute commanders-in-chief.

Of course, this is all nonsense. Commanded by none other than General David Petraeus, the Afghan surge of 2009-2010 proved a dismal failure as, in the end, had his Iraq surge of 2007. U.S. efforts to train reliable indigenous forces (no matter where in the embattled Greater Middle East and Africa) have also consistently failed. Yet Petraeus’s answer is always more of the same: more U.S. troops and advisers, training, bombing, and killing, all to be repeated at “sustainable” levels for generations to come.

The alternative, he suggests, is too awful to contemplate:

“You have to do something about [Islamic extremism] because otherwise they’re going to spew violence, extremism, instability, and a tsunami of refugees not just into neighboring countries but… into our western European allies, undermining their domestic political situations.”

No mention here of how the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq spread destruction and, in the end, a “tsunami of refugees” throughout the region. No mention of how U.S. interventions and bombing in Libya, Syria, Somalia, and elsewhere help “spew” violence and generate a series of failed states.

And amazingly enough, despite his lack of “vici” moments, the American media still sees King David as the go-to guy for advice on how to fight and win the wars he’s had such a hand in losing.

And just in case you want to start worrying a little, he’s now offering such advice on even more dangerous matters. He’s started to comment on the new “cold war” that now has Washington abuzz, a coming era — as he puts it — of “renewed great power rivalries” with China and Russia, an era, in fact, of “multi-domain warfare” that could prove far more challenging than “the asymmetric abilities of the terrorists and extremists and insurgents that we’ve countered in Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan and a variety of other places, particularly since 9/11.”

For Petraeus, even if Islamic terrorism disappeared tomorrow and not generations from now, the U.S. military would still be engaged with the supercharged threat of China and Russia. I can already hear Pentagon cash registers going ka-ching!

And here, in the end, is what’s most striking about Petraeus’s war lessons: no concept of peace even exists in his version of the future. Instead, whether via Islamic terrorism or rival great powers, America faces intractable threats into a distant future. Give him credit for one thing: if adopted, his vision could keep the national security state funded in the staggering fashion it’s come to expect for generations, or at least until the money runs out and the U.S. empire collapses.

Two Senior Generals Draw Lessons from the Iraq War

David Petraeus remains America’s best-known general of this century. His thinking, though, is anything but unique. Take two other senior U.S. Army generals, Mark Milley and Ray Odierno, both of whom recently contributed forewords to the Army’s official history of the Iraq War that tell you what you need to know about Pentagon thinking these days.

Published this January, the Army’s history of Operation Iraqi Freedom is detailed and controversial. Completed in June 2016, its publication was pushed back due to internal disagreements. As the Wall Street Journal put it in October 2018: “Senior [Army] brass fretted over the impact the study’s criticisms might have on prominent officers’ reputations and on congressional support for the service.” With those worries apparently resolved, the study is now available at the Army War College website.

The Iraq War witnessed the overthrow of autocrat (and former U.S. ally) Saddam Hussein, a speedy declaration of “mission accomplished” by President George W. Bush, and that country’s subsequent descent into occupation, insurgency, civil war, and chaos. What should the Army have learned from all this? General Milley, now Army chief of staff and President Trump’s nominee to serve as the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, is explicit on its lessons:

“OIF [Operation Iraqi Freedom] is a sober reminder that technological advantages and standoff weapons alone cannot render a decision; that the promise of short wars is often elusive; that the ends, ways, and means must be in balance; that our Army must understand the type of war we are engaged with in order to adapt as necessary; that decisions in war occur on the ground in the mud and dirt; and that timeless factors such as human agency, chance, and an enemy’s conviction, all shape a war’s outcome.”

These aren’t, in fact, lessons. They’re military banalities. The side with the best weapons doesn’t always win. Short wars can turn into long ones. The enemy has a say in how the war is fought.

What they lack is any sense of Army responsibility for mismanaging the Iraq War so spectacularly. In other words, “mission accomplished” for General Milley.

General Odierno, who commissioned the study and served in Iraq for 55 months, spills yet more ink in arguing, like Milley, that the Army has learned from its mistakes and adapted, becoming even more agile and lethal. Here’s my summary of his “lessons”:

* Superior technology doesn’t guarantee victory. Skill and warcraft remain vital.

* To win a war of occupation, soldiers need to know the environment, including “the local political and social consequences of our actions… When conditions on the ground change, we must be willing to reexamine the assumptions that underpin our strategy and plans and change course if necessary, no matter how painful it may be,” while developing better “strategic leaders.”

* The Army needs to be enlarged further because “landpower” is so vital and America’s troops were “overtaxed by the commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the decision to limit our troop levels in both theaters had severe operational consequences.”

* The Iraq War showcased an Army with an “astonishing” capacity “to learn and adapt in the midst of a war that the United States was well on its way to losing.”

The gist of Odierno’s “lessons”: the Army learned, adapted, and overcame. Therefore, it deserves America’s thanks and yet more of everything, including the money and resources to pursue future wars even more successfully.

There would, however, be another way to read those lessons of his: that the Army overvalued technology, that combat skills were lacking, that efforts to work with allies and Iraqi forces regularly failed, that Army leadership lacked the skills needed to win, and that it was folly to get into a global war on terror in the first place.

On those failings, neither Milley nor Odierno has anything of value to say, since their focus is purely on how to make the Army prevail in future versions of just such wars. Their limited critique, in short, does little to prevent future disasters. Much like Petraeus’s reflections, they cannot envision an end point to the process — no victory to be celebrated, no return to America being “a normal country in a normal time.” There is only war and more war in their (and so our) future.

The Undiscovered Country

Talk of such future wars — of, that is, more of the same — reminded me of the sixth Star Trek movie, The Undiscovered Country. In that space opera, which appeared in 1991 just as the Soviet Union was imploding, peace finally breaks out between the quasi-democratic Federation (think: the USA) and the warmongering Klingon Empire (think: the USSR). Even the Federation’s implacable warrior-captain, James T. Kirk, grudgingly learns to bury the phaser with the Klingon “bastards” who murdered his son.

Back then, I was a young captain in the U.S. Air Force and, with the apparent end of the Cold War, my colleagues and I dared talk about, if not eternal peace, at least “peace” as our own — and not just Star Trek‘s — undiscovered country. Like many at the time, even we in the military were looking forward to what was then called a “peace dividend.”

But that unknown land, which Americans then glimpsed ever so briefly, remains unexplored to this day. The reason why is simple enough. As Andrew Bacevich put it in his book Breach of Trust, “For the Pentagon [in 1991], peace posed a concrete and imminent threat” — which meant that new threats, “rogue states” of every sort, had to be found. And found they were.

It comes as no surprise, then, that America’s generals have learned so little of real value from their twenty-first-century losses. They continue to see a state of “infinite war” as necessary and are blind to the ways in which endless war and the ever-developing war state in Washington are the enemies of democracy.

The question isn’t why they think the way they do. The question is why so many Americans share their vision. The future is now. Isn’t it time that the U.S. sought to invade and occupy a different “land” entirely: an undiscovered country — a future — defined by peace?

The post America’s Generals Haven’t Learned Anything from Iraq appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

A retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and professor of history, William Astore is a TomDispatch regular. His personal blog is Bracing Views.

After Trump

Wed, 03/20/2019 - 1:30pm


Donald Trump has shaken up U.S. foreign policy. Most of what he has done has been disastrous, like pulling America out of the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal. He has been erratic, unprincipled, aggressive, and unilateral.

And yet, he has also created some interesting opportunities, sometimes inadvertently, that progressives should seize. The foreign policy elite has been challenged like never before. In the most likely scenario, of course, the Blob — as President Obama liked to characterize the unthinking foreign policy consensus inside the Beltway — attempts to reestablish the status quo ante after the 2020 elections.

But maybe, just maybe, the United States could go down a different road after Trump. Here’s what that road might look like.

An End to Endless War?

The Trump administration did not depart from the dangerous U.S. military fixation on the Middle East. It finished what the Obama administration started, namely bombing the stuffing out of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. It ramped up drone strikes in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan. It forged closer relations with the autocratic and destabilizing Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia and supported to the hilt the right-wing lunacy of the Netanyahu government in Israel.

And yet, the endless war against terrorism started by George W. Bush may finally be coming to an end. The Trump administration is eager to pull troops out of Afghanistan, the longest war in U.S. history. Late last year, Trump instructed the Pentagon to withdraw half of the 14,000 American troops in that country, but the Pentagon convinced him ultimately to go slow. The same applies to Syria, where Trump impulsively announced a troop withdrawal only for his hawkish advisors to walk back that plan.

The important message in all this, however, is that the days of surges are over. The American public has not had any appetite for boots on the ground in the Middle East for some time. The drawdown might be faster or slower, but the tide is receding. In Afghanistan, a peace process, however flawed, may provide the cover necessary to end U.S. military involvement. In Syria, the United States is gradually accepting the continuity of Bashar al-Assad’s repressive but resilient regime. Iraq limps along, but it has survived even after the bulk of American troops have left the country and is even repairing its relationship with Iran.

Meanwhile, Congress is finally asserting itself. Last week, the Senate passed a bill mandating the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the war in Yemen. For the first time since the passage of the War Powers Act in 1973, both chambers have declared that the United States should exit an overseas conflict.

But that’s not all. There’s finally a good chance that Congress will repeal the bill that started it all: the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF). At the time of its passage, the only congressional representative brave enough to say no was Barbara Lee (D-CA). She’s still in Congress leading the fight to revoke the AUMF. As a result, for the first time in a decade, Congress will have an opportunity to debate the full range of U.S. military interventions. Six members of Congress, including presidential hopefuls Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, have also signed a pledge to “end the forever wars.” This pledge should become a litmus test for all Democratic presidential candidates.

Trump is no pacifist. But his skepticism about the wars initiated by his predecessors has opened up a debate on U.S. militarism, particularly in the Middle East and surrounding areas. Progressives need to seize this opportunity and make sure that liberal hawks don’t join hands with conventional militarists to reverse this trend after 2020.

China, Russia, and Military Spending

But here’s the rub. The Pentagon is not focused on the Middle East. In a very real sense, the Pentagon has moved on from the wars of the 2000s. It has refocused for some time on China and, to a lesser extent, Russia, the two “revisionist powers” that Trump’s National Security Strategy identifies as key threats to the United States. And if that weren’t enough, the Pentagon is also gearing up to address a range of new threats like cyberwarfare and space combat.

So, even as momentum gathers to end the forever wars, the Pentagon is looking at a major increase in its budget to fight other conflicts. Trump wants to boost military spending to $750 billion. The Dems are willing to settle for a more modest increase to $733 billion. Either way, it’s way too much.

The bulk of this spending is directed at preventing China, the only major power with a military remotely the size of America’s, from becoming number one. Indeed, the Trump administration is engaged in a full-court press on Beijing. In the South China Sea, the U.S. navy is conducting “freedom of navigation” exercises specifically designed to send a “back off” signal to China. Meanwhile, Trump has initiated a trade war of escalating tariffs with Beijing and has gone all out to pressure allies to freeze China out of the latest telecom upgrades. The cooperation between Washington and Beijing on environment and energy that flourished during the Obama years is dwindling.

But here, too, Trump’s moves offer progressives a few opportunities. With his face-to-face meetings with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Trump has shown at least some willingness to end the most dangerous Cold War divide in Asia between North and South Korea. Though Trump’s overtures can also be understood as a tactic to drive a wedge between Pyongyang and Beijing, progressives should seize upon the ongoing peace discussions as a golden opportunity to regionalize the issue.

Rapprochement with North Korea could be the key to unlocking the problem of East Asian security, not just the ongoing territorial conflicts around various islands but also the larger stand-off between U.S. allies and China. Japan recently invested heavily in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and South Korea is eager to facilitate a de-escalation of tensions region-wide. The Democrats are clueless about all of this, or actively hostile (because they dislike everything Trump does). Progressives, on the other hand, must raise up this peace process on the Korean peninsula as a way to defuse a new and potentially explosive conflict between Washington and Beijing.

Trump’s efforts to reset U.S.-Russian relations are, of course, complicated by the president’s complicity in Moscow’s interference in the 2016 elections. But here, too, progressives should focus on where the interests of Washington and Moscow converge, such as arms control or engagement with Iran. A return to good, old-fashioned diplomacy, when the United States negotiated in good faith with adversaries like Cuba and Iran as well as Russia and China, should again become a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy.

The military budget is a tough nut to crack. Americans generally favor a reduction in the Pentagon’s budget, but the political process still heavily favors the military-industrial complex. So does Trump, though even here the president has shown a way out. His declaration of a national emergency entails a direct siphoning of funds from the Pentagon to pay for his beloved Wall.

Trump’s emergency is bogus, the Wall a chimera. But Trump’s move is a reminder that the Pentagon budget is not sacrosanct. America is beset by several authentic emergencies: climate change, collapsing infrastructure, drug epidemics, deteriorating public education. For years, realists have argued that money from the Pentagon can’t just be transferred to other purposes. Well, maybe it can. The next administration just has to rally the country around the true emergencies that America faces.

Going It Together

Trump’s America First rhetoric and actions appeal to a certain segment of America. But most Americans see the value of the United Nations, of working with allies, of engaging in multilateralism. Indeed, Trump’s foreign policy record should produce immediate nostalgia for the various examples of cooperative U.S. foreign policy in the past, from the creation of the United Nations all the way up to Iran nuclear agreement.

Here, Trump has not shown the way. He has proven what a dead-end unilateralism is. The world has become a decidedly more dangerous place in the last two years.

Moreover, Trump’s unilateral actions have largely reinforced the determination of other international actors to preserve what the United States has tried to tear asunder. The Europeans have scrambled to maintain the Iran nuclear agreement. China and others are stepping forward on climate change. All the other signatories of the Trans Pacific Partnership have signed the treaty and moved on. The UN Human Rights Council has continued to operate after the United States withdrew last summer. In fact, earlier this month, it issued its first ever statement rebuking Saudi Arabia, an initiative spearheaded by Iceland, which replaced the United States.

Liberal internationalists wring their hands about the loss of American “leadership.” I’m not so concerned about this issue. American leadership has as often had a negative global impact as a positive one. More important is the opportunity for a global rebalance. The United States is no longer the global rule-setter. Other countries are stepping forward to exert global influence: China and the EU, of course, but also Russia, Turkey, and India.

Trump has inadvertently strengthened the case for the United States to play a more modest role in international relations. Progressives have to build on this new global modesty by pushing for the United States to engage in a global conversation about governance: how best to marshal international energies to address major problems such as climate change, pandemics, and economic inequality. That conversation must begin with a reset of relations with China.

The Global Economy

There’s a major problem in all this talk of global governance. Most of the leading players are thoroughly illiberal: China, Russia, India, Turkey, Brazil, even parts of the EU.

If given a chance, these countries are likely to rewrite the rules of the international road to prevent global bodies from challenging human rights violations within their sovereign borders. The current administrations in Moscow, Beijing, Ankara, New Delhi, Brazilia, Budapest, and (alas) Washington show a preference for strong-arm leadership. They are frequently anti-immigrant and/or intolerant of ethnic and religious minorities.

A major source of this new illiberal sentiment is a dissatisfaction with the results of economic globalization. Tremendous wealth has been created as a result of increased trade, more rapid movement of money and financial services across borders, and the creation of global assembly lines for products.

Much of that wealth has remained concentrated in relatively few hands. Last year, for instance, the wealth of the poorest half of humanity dropped by an astonishing 11 percent while billionaires increased their holdings by 12 percent. The 26 wealthiest people in the world now own as much as the poorest 3.8 billion people. It’s not just action at the edges, but also the hollowing out of the middle: the disappearance of well-paid jobs for the middle class in industrialized countries.

This raging inequality — and the raging against inequality — stems from the economic policies of liberals and conservatives alike. The major parties of the center all embraced some form of neo-liberal economic reform — less government, less regulation, less oversight, more unfettered market. So, it’s no wonder that the disgruntled have rejected the conventional political parties. But instead of supporting progressive alternatives to neoliberal economics, the electorate has gravitated toward right-wing populism.

Here again, the bankruptcy of Trump’s populism is an extraordinary opportunity for progressives. Trump has not helped out the heartland. He’s given handouts to the rich through his tax cuts and ushered in a whole new set of lobbyists to populate the swamp of Washington.

With a Green New Deal, progressives offer a powerful response to Trumpian populism: a large-scale infrastructure plan that creates good jobs, repairs America’s infrastructure, and reduces the country’s carbon footprint. America’s liberal economic trajectory was built on some of the worst kind of industries: oil, coal, military. Trump’s solution has been to double down on these very same sectors. Progressives need to offer a clear, positive, and Green alternative.

The Fear Factor

Trump rode a wave of fear into the White House. He made it seem as if immigrants were about to storm the country. His casual racism also endeared him to the alt-right and white supremacists. As president, he has simply raised all of that fear and loathing to a global level with his talk of “shithole countries,” his Muslim travel ban, and his obsessive focus on his Wall.

In the long run, Trump could very well represent the last gasp of white male privilege in a country that will soon enough be majority non-white (circa 2045) and where women are making huge political and economic gains (capturing a record 24 percent of congressional seats in 2018).

Progressives should, of course, counter all of these racist and sexist rearguard actions with calm, fact-based analysis.

But progressives should also recognize that emotions bring people out to the polls. Progressives should not be hesitant about exploiting the fear factor as well. We just have to focus on the where Americans should focus their anxieties.

Progressives have to focus on the fear of an extreme weather event wiping out a large swath of the United States. We have to focus on the legitimate fear that people have of losing their jobs or being unable to pay off their debts. We have to focus on the very rational fear of gun violence.

And, of course, progressives need to join with lots of other political actors in the United States to capitalize on the widespread fear that Donald Trump — or someone very much like him — could win the presidential election in 2020.

Liberals have too often supported U.S. military interventions, huge levels of military spending, American exceptionalism on the world stage, economic policies that have torn apart communities, and the politics of white privilege that have tarnished the democratic reputation of this country.

This particular liberal trajectory is a dead end. And so is Trump’s purported alternative.

America is ready for something new. Progressives now have an opportunity to take advantage of what Trump has done (and not done) as well as the widespread disgust with the failures of liberal politics as usual to remake America and America’s place in the world.

The post After Trump appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus and author of the dystopian novel Frostlands.