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January 10, 2005

Victor Davis Hanson Interview

John Hawkins landed an interview with Victor Davis Hanson. The entire interview is well worth reading. As always, Hanson provides valuable historical perspective on current events, something lacking in most analyses one reads. I've been accused of being too sanguine about our prospects in Iraq (not necessarily true). I do enjoy reading Hanson's essays as he stresses many of the same points I do. Moreover, his are usually better expressed.

A few selected quotes follow. On post-war Iraq:

...if we look at it in the longer historical expanse from the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime and not concentrate on any two to three week period, then the idea that a year and a half after the regime was over with --- we’d have elections pretty well under way and we would have over 2/3’s of the country pacified --- then I know it’s a tragedy that we’ve lost that many men, that was not unexpected --- but given history’s harsh judgment of other military operations and --- we’re doing pretty well.

I think our main problem is that people don’t understand the extent of the revolutionary endeavor that we undertook --- that we’re really trying to bring democracy to a place where it just simply did not exist --- and there’s a lot of neutrals, enemies and allies that don’t want that to happen...

The 'Iraq is another Vietnam' comparison:

...there’ only one modicum of comparison that works and that is whether the U.S. will continue to have the willpower and the tenacity to support a democratic government. We almost did in Vietnam and then right before the finish line we stopped, but otherwise the comparison doesn’t make any sense.

Have we been aggressive enough/the 'boots on the ground' brouhaha:

When soldiers are in junta force protection or they’re just into garrison duty, then there’s always a greater cry for more and more soldiers.

When they’re audacious and they’re on the offensive and they’re killing the enemy, then there’s going to be less of the enemy and they’re going to get a reputation for ferocity. As you know, we were no safer in Vietnam with 525,000 in 1967. We were no better off than we were with 25,000 in 1971 or 1972. So it’s not the number per se.

That’s why this whole inside the beltway acrimony is so disturbing. The real discussion should be not how many troops you have but what is exactly the mission of these troops? What are they going to do and what are they not going to do? I think they should have been from Day 1 going after --- in really an offensive mode --- the people in the Sunni Triangle as they did with this wonderful operation that we saw the last couple of months in Fallujah. That should have been done earlier.

I saw this as perhaps the most important point in the interview. The whole 'more boots' controversy, while interesting and loads of fun for the Democrats, is really a distraction unless we commit to using those troops aggressively to go after the terrorists. I've said many times that war follows on political decisions. The war in Iraq (like Vietnam) is no exception.

In my admittedly cynical view, absent the political will to go after the terrorists, committing more troops in Iraq would accomplish three things, none of which achieve the desired aim:

1. burn up money
2. expose more of our men and women to potential attacks
3. increase domestic political opposition to the war in America

A fourth point, rarely made, is that by the time we're able to recruit, train, and deploy additional troops the crisis is likely to be past. Now we have created a self-perpetuating situation. Once troops are in place, bringing them home is an uphill battle.

We've been conducting 'peacekeeping' operations in Kosovo since the 1990's. Strangely, the very people who contend we shouldn't be in Iraq at all want to commit more people to a region we're not likely to leave anytime soon. Wouldn't it be more consistent to maintain the miniumum necessary force while training the Iraqis to handle their own security? I'm not sure what incentive the Iraqis will have to build their own security forces when they see us increasing, rather than decreasing, our own military presence over time.

The Iraq=Vietnam crowd seem determined to create a self-fulfilling prophecy: their novel plan is to flood the area with troops we lack the willpower to use, so we can withdraw before the job is really done. That would be truly shortsighted.

But at least they'd be able to say, "I told you so". One wonders if that isn't the point of this little exercise.

Posted by Cassandra at January 10, 2005 04:53 AM

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Comments

All of this makes sense at one level, and I especially agree that we should not be increasing the number of soldiers in Iraq. However, it neatly dodges two questions that bother me.

First, will the "Iraqization" of the counterinsurgency work? I am very concerned that the insurgents have deeply penetrated all Iraqi institutions, including the planning circles of the nascient army, and that we will not therefore succeed in replacing American security with Iraqi security.

Second, if "Iraqization" doesn't work, what do we do? We could withdraw, as we did from Vietnam. Would that leave Iraq as a failed state? Or would it fight a civil war from which strong institutions would emerge, one way or theother? If we don't withdraw, how long do we remain, and what is the exit strategy?

It seems that the whole strategy turns on the Iraqis learning to take over their own security and actually doing so. If that fails, what's Plan B?

This is my biggest concern, and you know I write this as somebody who believes that this war was necessary.

Posted by: Jack at January 10, 2005 06:42 AM

I'm sure I'll be attacked viciously for saying this (not by you) but this all boils down to human nature:

It's a lot like raising kids. At some point, you have to stand back and let them have the reins. Of course, you want to judge that time correctly, but holding on too long is just as bad as letting go too soon - in some ways (I believe) holding on too long is worse. People have a way of muddling through when you cut them loose. But when you sap their will by coddling them, they give up and fail.

I firmly believe it won't work if we don't get out of their way and let them handle it. I think they'll be more ruthless than we would if we just get the hell out of their way and let them deal with these jerks. They're running out of patience, and believe me, they don't have our soft Western sensibilities about how to deal with terrorists. We're walking a fine line and I think we're staying on the right side of it by listening to them.

As long as they think we'll step in, they're not going to stand on their own.

And on the question of infiltration, isn't that the best argument for disbanding the Iraqi army? :)

This was a gamble; no doubt. But freedom is a gamble - we're gambling on human nature. They'll have stronger institutions if they have to fight for them than if we hand them to them on a silver platter.

People value what they earn, not what they're given.

Even if it fails, Saddam is gone and it would take a while for another leader to build the kind of stranglehold he had on Iraq. If nothing else, we bought time. That man was trouble waiting to happen. People forget his aspirations and the fact that he was the most efficient and successful Arab leader of his day. He defied the free world for 12 years with impunity, spilling over his own borders twice to invade neighboring nations.

But hey... he was no threat to regional stability :)

Posted by: Cassandra at January 10, 2005 07:06 AM

Don't get me wrong -- I think that Iraq was and remains a strategic victory for any number of reasons. That does not mean that we do not have to figure out how and when to get out of there without leaving a failed state behind.

The question of "disbanding" the Iraqi army is a difficult one, but I do not think that the risk of infiltration was an argument against a sensible mustering out. That is, you could have disarmed the Iraqi army, carefully created a census of its personnel to the extent that had not vanished during the war, given them all non-military make-work jobs, and one by one vetted them, trained them, given them some sort of loyalty test that would not be constitutional in the United States, and then put them back into a reconstituted organization.

My objection to disbanding the Iraqi army has never been to the notion of disarming the Iraqi army. My problem is with the lack of imagination applied to dealing with the ancient and predictable problem of unemployed soldiers.

Posted by: Jack at January 10, 2005 08:33 AM

I'm not sure we handled that all that well. On the other hand, I'm not sure how easy it would have been to handle well - there was a lot going on at the time.

I think it was a question of priorities. Some people say that's when it would have been a good thing to have more people. Maybe - I question whether they'd have been put to efficient use in the chaos that followed the fall of Baghdad.

The bottom line (it seems to me) was not 'lack of planning' so much as that we couldn't really have been sure what we were facing until it really happened and we're dealing with a 24/7, media-driven, politicized atmosphere in which every move you make will be second-guessed. Hard to know what would have worked or if other options would have been better - this isn't cookbook-type stuff.

It's messy. I continue to resist the 20/20 pundit-driven hand-wringing - I don't think they have any more idea now than we did then how things would have gone, had we made different choices. I think we'd have had DIFFERENT problems - not necessarily no problems.

Sometimes - and no one wants to seem to face this - we just have to muddle through.

Posted by: Cassandra at January 10, 2005 09:57 AM

Spank them and send them to bed without dinner. If they blow something up again, ground them for two weeks. That should handle it. If not, and they blow up something again, or launch an RPG at a convoy, then you may have to resort to spankings. A firm open hand on the buttox only. No belts or electric cords.

Posted by: Dr. Spock at January 10, 2005 03:53 PM

Thank you Mr. J. I feel so much better now :)

Posted by: Cassandra at January 10, 2005 04:53 PM

Thanks for the John Hawkins link, what a GREAT interview. The perfect antidote to shallow punditry like Andrew Sullivan

Posted by: jeff at January 10, 2005 07:28 PM

Andrew Sullivan isn't shallow; he is, though, at times a hopeless narcissist.
But maybe narcissism is, by definition, being shallow. Whoa! this is troubling!

Seriously, Re: Jack's comments:
I think the nearest (though not exact) analogy is central America, especially El Salvador.
Thoughout the '80's it was'hopeless','a quagmire', etc. Through the continuing efforts at elections and forming democratic institutions, the civil war (and their domestic form of 'terrorism') eventually faded away.
This election in Iraq will not end the 'insurgency'. Iran and Syria have too much at stake to allow Iraq to succeed (as the US would define success). But the next step is a diplomatic counter-offensive against both Iran and Syria. (see Michael Ledeen on NRO today).
1) Confront Syria with its conduct in Lebanon. Lebanon should be a pluralistic democracy in the ME, but it's a political basket case, thanks to Syria, Hezbollah (Iran), and others. We have to take the struggle to THEM, not sit back and wait for them to take more potshots at the Iraquis.
2) Support democratic political resistance to the Mullahs in Iran. This will take a re-alignment of the State Dept (Say! Isn't Colin Powell re-tiring? What a coincindence!) The Mullahs must be undercut politically AT HOME, in Iran.
But you know, that's just me talking. so there.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at January 10, 2005 08:47 PM

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