Another perspective on Cordesman’s “A briefing from the battlefield”

Anthony H. Cordesman has provided some of the most comprehensive and reliable information about the Iraq War, so his latest report deserves attention.

The Situation in Iraq: A Briefing from the Battlefield“, Anthony H. Cordesman, Center for Strategic and International Studies (13 February 2008)

Two things I find fascinating about this report:

  1. The US-centric perspective.  Whatever happens happens because of us.
  2. The almost-total focus on al-Qaeda as the enemy.

The first is classic American thinking (this parochialism is one reason nation-building is not our forte), but limiting for a geopolitical analyst.  The second is now the rule in American geopolitical thinking.  This transformation occurred in late 2006 with almost no analysis, starting with the US government and quickly being adopted without comment by a wide range of analysts.  It is psychologically comforting, since focusing on “fighting bad guys” eliminates cognitive dissonance between our actions in Iraq and our strategic needs.  It also postpones discussion about the best structure for Iraq society, and who gets to decide that.

Andrew Sullivan gives an interesting perspective on Cordesman’s analysis in “The Truth, Please, About Iraq“, 26 February 2008 — Excerpt:

Cordesman loves the surge. He thinks it’s been a triumph of violence-suppression, and his data are as solid as we are likely to get (although, as he admits, sectarian violence and cleansing continue beneath the casualty headlines). But Cordesman understands – and is admirably candid about – what remains to be done. We need roughly the same amount of troops we have now through at least the next presidency, and probably through 2016 or even 2020. We need to be spending money in the country consistently for the next decade. Here’s his poignant to-do list, now we have only 2005 levels of mayhem:

  • Consolidate gains against Al Qa’ida in Mesopotamia.
  • Move towards stable accommodation: Change de-Baathification law, provincial powers act and elections, oil law, etc.
  • Keep Shi’ite militias (Sadr forces) under control, and prevent more sectarian and ethnic cleansing in greater Baghdad area.
  • Consolidate creation of tribal militias, ensure they get proper central government support, and that central government recognizes importance of Sunni Sheiks.
  • Stabilize provinces that still have serious conflict – Ninewa, Salah ad Din, Diyala – and prevent Al  Qa’ida in Mesopotamia forces from moving north.
  • Avoid major intra-Shi’ite power struggles and conflicts in south. Limit turmoil and Iranian influence in Basra and south.
  • Limit Kurd, Arab, minority fighting in North.
  • Resolve the “federalism” issue through peaceful referendums.
  • Develop truly capable Iraqi Army and regular forces to phase US role down to overwatch.
  • Find solution to failure to develop effective approach to police force, and to dealing with local security forces, militias, and Facilities Protection Force.
  • Establish effective local criminal justice system and local, provincial and national government presence.

That’s all.  Yes: almost everything remains to be done. … According to Cordesman, no progress is possible without maintaining the same level of troops of the past five years for the next five years. And we have no guarantee that anything will be saner then. That’s the decision Americans need to make clearly, candidly, honestly, for the first time in this war. That’s what this election is about. Let’s put the choice on the table and collectively decide now – for empire or retreat. We won’t get an opportunity like this again. 

Sullivan posts a reader’s comment on this:

I work in the computer field, where it is common to white board the process flow for a project or program to be created and, invariably, somewhere in the middle of that flow will be a critically important box that has an arrow coming into it, and another exiting. The text in that box will be akin to “something magic happens here”.  I read that list and all I can comprehend is “something magic happens here”, and “something magic happens here”, and “something magic happens here”…

This is perhaps a foreshadowing of the “dreamland” described by Wolfgang Schivelbusch in The Culture of Defeat.  The grim reality of future geopolitical and economic problems presses on our imaginations, the end of our hegemonic delusions of power founded on unlimited borrowing at low interest rates.  In response we retreat into comfortable dreams.

… the economic buoyancy of 1919-21 was reminiscent  of the military and political euphoria after the signing of the Brest-Litovsk treaty and before the beginning of the spring offensive of 1918.  Both times, Germans were confronted with the spectacle of what they saw as reality — military victory, the blossoming economy — dissolving into thin air.  The analogy can be taken still further since in neither case was the demise physically apparent…

The German perception of reality became unbalanced.  Vertigo became the dominant sensation of and metaphor for the period of hyperinflation. … In 1939, Sebastian Haffner, looking back on the hyperinflation of 1923, wrote:  “An entire German generation had a spiritual organ removed; an organ that gives human beings constancy, balance, even gravity …”

Something will shatter our dreams, probably bad news of an economic or geopolitical nature.  That is the nature of dreams, that one must eventually wake from them.

Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

For more on this subject see  Archive of my articles about the Iraq War.

8 thoughts on “Another perspective on Cordesman’s “A briefing from the battlefield”

  1. So what you have is cognitive dissonance on a grand scale, or in Boyd’s words, our orientation is amazingly broken. I’m curious if there’s a solution beyond waiting for the catastrophe that wakes us up to the reality that we have to change to continue, and if we’ll be capable of the necessary steps. I’m also trying to figure out how us needing a decade to have a chance at leaving Iraq how we want (and even that only allows the chance that we succeed) is surprising news since most history on insurgencies point to around a decade of commitment allowing the possibility of success, but by no means guaranteeing it.

    The other side of things is how do we measure success? The insurgents could also be practicing “strategic patience.” This idea has been brought up often enough. They know we judge less deaths as success, so we’ll be more likely to leave. If this is the case, (and even if it isn’t) then what can we look at to figure out if things are going the way we want, since as the comment you shared points out, we have identified some of the issues we are facing, and solving things like “the “federalism” issue through peaceful referendums.” is something that led to war in the U.S., so how do we figure to solve it peacefully for a people with a history and culture that is very much not our own?
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    Fabius Maximus replies: The only solution I can see is the election. If we choose not to change the course of the war by this means, than we own it. Q.E.D.

  2. Murray, exactly, we have programmed groupthink going on, because it is comfortable, and discourages any children in the crowd from pointing out the Emperor’s true sartorial condition. The conspiracy is clearly subconscious and unintentional but seems to be all about money and comfort… the message across the governmental, political, and media seems to be: ‘worry, but leave it to us, you can do nothing, so go shopping. these are not the droids you’re looking for.’

    Momentarily indulging the indigenous reflex for self-congratulation, this is what makes this blog a wonderful place and is a tribute to its esteemed founder. We as a country and a race are beyond the point where we can even pretend that partial, specialized approaches to our problems are viable. Politics, economics, psychology, military strategy are all intertwined, and some minimal understanding of all of these is required to even begin to approach these situations coherently. When we begin to notice and acknowledge, for example, that a mass media situation about a war is precisely analogous to one in a corporate, economic situation, that it has the same shape, potential solutions suggest themselves.

    Fab Max has it right… this next election, the American people have to take back their democracy by showing up, voting, and making some tough choices. If we do, we have a chance. If we don’t, we will deserve what we get and realize the dark side of Pogo’s Theorem: ‘we have met the enemy, and he is us.’

  3. “The only solution I can see is the election. If we choose not to change the course of the war by this means, than we own it.”

    We already passed that point in November 2004, didn’t we?
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Few things are definitively and finally settled in an election. The Iraq and Afghanistan Wars continue, and we have another opportunity to end it. The next will come in four or eight years, by which time fate may have found a more harsch way to end them.

  4. FM – Thanks for the inclusion of Sullivan’s post; “That’s all. Yes: almost everything remains to be done.” I could laugh it if weren’t all so sad.

    Murray, I agree with you about the thoughts about strategic patience on the part of insurgents/local patriots. How long did the Afghan mujahideen (sp? – I know there’s about 5 ways to spell that) wait and continue to bleed the Soviets? I seem to remember a quote about how they believed they would win because they thought they were operating on God’s time-scale, not man’s.

    As to children and emperor’s clothing (or lacktherof), the sad thing is how many _have_ pointed it and are merely ignored. Cassandra had it easy….I agree that the country needs a major overhaul, starting at the political level. Look at the current selection of POTUS candidates. As FM has pointed out in the past, our political system seems to do a poor job of sorting for the best qualified and instead picks those that sound or look the best (or woof the loudest, to paraphrase Bretcher).

  5. I don’t understand how this election between a candidate who deosn’t want to end the war ever and one of two other candidates that claim to want to end the war but will only do so after seven impossible things happen presents the USans with a path to actually ending the war. Please expound on what statements or preferably actions give sufficient credibility to claims of opposing war to override the fact that every candidate running has voted multiple times to continue funding the war.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I absolutely agree. I have a post in the queue on this subject. But we are responsible for the selection of candidates to run as well as those who win. If more Americans wanted us out, and felt strongly about it, we would have someone advocating this. As it is, the Pew polls show that a “Majority now believe U.S. effort in Iraq will succeed, 53-39“.
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    This is a result of and tribute to the skill and intensity of the propaganda campaign waged in America during the past year. Our government might not do foreign occupations well, but they have mastered one aspect of 4GW.

  6. . If more Americans wanted us out, and felt strongly about it, we would have someone advocating this. As it is, the Pew polls show that a “Majority now believe U.S. effort in Iraq will succeed, 53-39“.
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    This is a result of and tribute to the skill and intensity of the propaganda campaign waged in America during the past year. Our government might not do foreign occupations well, but they have mastered one aspect of 4GW.

    The alternative explanation for this poll result would be that the American public – for fundamentally psychological reasons – is predisposed to believe that the United States will “win” in Iraq – objective evidence be damned.

    There is an endless amount of rhetoric in the United States about the Sixties. Most political opinion can be reduced to a debate over who one thinks the good guys or the bad guys were in that decade. Note the endless talk about the Kennedy’s; the Jane Fonda rhetoric; the images of the helicopters flying from the embassy in Saigon, and so forth. Iraq is a proxy for Vietnam and a “victory” in Iraq would constitute a redemption for the “defeat” in Vietnam.

    You have written very well about the economy. I would submit, however, that these economic problems are but a symptom of a deeper problem – the failure or refusal of American society to evolve since the Sixties and the increasing dissonance between the concerns of that time and objective reality as it now exists.
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    Fabius Maximus: Good point; who can say for certain? The increased optimism about the war folllows some intense news and opinion campaign about the surge, but cause and effect are almost impossible to prove!

  7. “Few things are definitively and finally settled in an election. The Iraq and Afghanistan Wars continue, and we have another opportunity to end it.”

    Indeed, but my point was that November 2004 was when Iraq went from “Bush’s War” to “America’s War”, at least in the eyes of the world. We had the chance to repudiate the policies and did not. So we own them, to our lasting shame.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I agree, that was our (citizens’) best opportunity to force an exit. But we were drunk on victory…

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