Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

10 February 2009

Object Lessons for Foreign Wars

On Sunday the Washington Post ran what may be the most important report on the Iraq War ever published. It is must reading for anyone who cares about our country, our military, and civilian control over it. The story is so sensitive that interviews it reports had been “embargoed” for two years, apparently until the Obama Administration took office.

The headline is simple. It was Ray Odierno—now commander of all our forces in Iraq— who instigated the “surge” and the switch to counterinsurgency tactics that plucked our chance for victory out of the jaws of defeat. It was not his boss David Petraeus. Nor was it SecDef Robert Gates. And it certainly wasn’t higher political authority.

Both Petraeus and Gates responded well to Odierno’s initiative because it was based on reality, not politics. Within days of his installation as SecDef, Gates decided to implement Odierno’s plan for change, against the Pentagon’s wishes. But it was Odierno who prompted the change.

Odierno worked from a subordinate position, risking his career. You might say he was an insurgent. To achieve his stunning reversal of policy, he worked outside the chain of command. He got retired generals involved, lobbying the Pentagon and the White House. Chief among them was Jack Keane, a former Army vice chief of staff and a regular of the talk-show circuit familiar to anyone who has followed the war’s uncertain progress.

Keane himself may be the ultimate instigator. General Odierno was known for his troops’ heavy-handed “conventional” tactics during his first tour in Iraq in 2003-2004. He changed his mind and heart after he returned as second in command in 2006.

Many others confirm his change of heart, but Odierno won’t say what motivated it. The story’s author speculates that it may have been the wounding of Odierno’s son, who lost an arm to the Iraqi insurgency. But a family tragedy doesn’t create a new strategy, far less a counterinsurgency plan. Keane may have been the one who helped forge Odierno’s doubts and dissatisfaction into a concrete strategy.

Yet the story is less important for naming names than for what it teaches. It offers the Obama Administration five vital lessons.

The first is the danger of civilian control of the military. Of course civilian control is essential to democracy; I am hardly arguing against it. But when civilian authority moves beyond selecting goals, missions and personnel to things like strategy and tactics and evaluating success—in which it has no expertise—disaster follows. That’s what happened in Vietnam, and that’s what almost happened in Iraq.

Nearly two and a half years ago, I wrote a post condemning Dubya’s and Donald Rumsfeld’s micro-mismanagement of the War in Iraq. I am neither an insider nor a military man. I just read the news carefully. But it was obvious even to me that we were losing because we were fighting the war based on a fictitious narrative developed in Washington for domestic political consumption.

The people who spun that tale were domestic pols like Rumsfeld with little or no military expertise. So the tale had nothing to do with tested military strategy or reality in Iraq. It was responsible for years of fiasco.

Sunday’s Post story confirmed those points, as had numerous reports in the interim. But the Post story went further: it showed how a single man, Odierno (or perhaps he and Keane), broke the spell of the Washington fairy tale and forced our leaders to see reality.

And therein lies the second lesson. The gravest risk of civilian control of the military is trying to manage foreign wars based on U.S. domestic politics. Hillary Clinton personified that risk, with her lifetime devoted to domestic politics and her history of “triangulation.” Reality doesn’t triangulate. We dodged that bullet by electing a realist who recognizes the existence of a world outside of Washington.

In order to come to grips with the reality he acknowledges, President Obama may have to bend his promise to wind down the War in Iraq quickly. That will be hard for him. The promise helped him win, and many who voted for him still count on him to fulfill it.

But realities in Iraq and the Middle East don’t give a damn about political promises here or any U.S. politician’s domestic political problems. Like every realist, the President has to deal with reality where it lives. The fragile stability we have achieved at such great cost, coupled with the recent provincial elections, has a game-changing potential that we cannot ignore.

The third lesson from Odierno’s story may help President Obama see and cope with reality. Good information can percolate from the bottom up even in an administration as top down and divorced from reality as Dubya’s was. Our new President has promised “bottom up” government. He appears to have a “bottom up” model ingrained in his soul from his days as a community organizer. If he can keep the same model alive in governing our military, it will serve him well.

The President has modeled his style on Abraham Lincoln’s. He also should keep in mind another great president, FDR. FDR could work his will in a world and a government vastly more complicated than Lincoln’s by maintaining contacts and getting information way down the chain of command.

Herman Wouk’s best-selling novel The Winds of War and its sequels illustrate how FDR did it. They suppose that he maintained close and direct war-long contact with a mid-level military commander. Although fictional, the account is realistic; serious nonfiction like Richard Neustadt’s Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents confirms it. President Obama will have to maintain contact with many General Odiernos and retired General Keanes if he wants to know what is really happening in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thank God for that Blackberry!

The fourth lesson of Odierno’s story is also a difficult one: the enduring power of myth. So many myths contributed to our near-disaster in Iraq. There was the myth that war is about technology and equipment, not people. There was the myth of intrinsic American superiority—that our troops’ superb training and equipment make one of “us” the equal of ten or a hundred of “them.” Even if that’s true on an open, World War II-style battlefield, it’s not true in a big city whose people all speak “their” language and sympathize with “them.” Last but hardly least, there was the myth that all people intrinsically share American values simply because they are human.

Our peculiar values derive from eight centuries of democratic development since the Magna Carta. They are highly sophisticated and often counter-intuitive (like, for example, our penchant for tolerating obnoxious and disruptive speech, which sometimes turns out to be right). Even if all human beings share our desire for freedom and justice, they see those values through the lenses of their own languages, cultures, and histories. The notion that they share our values in a way that affects their views on day-to-day governance is at best a gross oversimplification, at worst nonsense. As one who experienced unique American and foreign cultures at an early age, President Obama is better positioned to understand this truth than any leader in our history.

The fifth and final lesson from the Odierno story is that the Pentagon is even more prone to becoming an echo chamber than the rest of Washington. Military folk are trained to give and receive orders. Those who rise to the Pentagon and beyond do so because they have political as well as military skill. The combination of military obedience and political skill can be deadly, as recent history has showed. It allowed Donald Rumsfeld to convert Colin Powell’s meritocracy into Rumsfeld’s sycophancy in about two years. There is perhaps no place in our government where a team of rivals and a diversity of views are more important and more difficult to maintain than the Pentagon.

The Post has done our new administration and the public a great service in publishing Odierno’s story. The new administration should drink its object lessons deeply as it seeks to convert our tenuous “victory” in Iraq into lasting political change and begins its long march into the quagmire of Afghanistan and Pakistan.


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