Conservative Versus Liberal: The War Over the Wars

BY Herschel Smith
6 years, 3 months ago

The demarcation between “conservative” and “liberal” over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has not only made for strange bedfellows in recent months and years, it has caused the twisting and spinning of evidence and data to fit into a political model, this model being derived by political party operatives not for purposes of clear delineation and advocacy of strategy and tactics regarding the global war on terror, but rather for purposes of victory in the U.S. electoral college.

In the discussion that follows, we will provide three examples of this phenomenon and then an analysis of these examples to show how the traditional boundary conditions of “conservative” and “liberal” no longer suffice as an adequate explanation or descriptor of the positions advocated by an individual or party.

Examples

The first example pertains to whether the Sunni insurgency was primarily indigenous Sunnis or al Qaeda.  On or about July 2007, we released Al Qaeda, Indigenous Sunnis and the Insurgency in Iraq.  The primary point of this article was not to berate the talking points of the administration or Multinational Force, but rather to point out that much of what had been called al Qaeda in Iraq or al Qaeda in Mesopotamia was actually indigenous Iraqi Sunnis.

The next example pertains to the state of the U.S. Army and Marines.  Mid-2007, Gen. Peter Pace, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, conducted his own review of our military posture and concluded that there has been an overall decline in military readiness and that there is a significant risk that the U.S. military would not be able to respond effectively if it were confronted with another crisis.  Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen gave warning in October of 2007 that the Army and Marines were weary.  Speaking of his visits to soldiers and marines in Iraq and Afghanistan … Mullen said: “They’re tired. They’ve been doing unbelievably great work for our country. And we need to make sure we take care of them and their families.” Regarding prolonged and repeated deployments for the ground forces in Iran and Afghanistan, he said, “The ground forces are not broken, but they are breakable.”

General Pace above was cited in the testimony of Lawrence J. Kord of the left-leaning Center for American Progress.  But W. Thomas Smith, Jr., an analyst who can hardly be called liberal, recently authored an analysis which calls the Army and Marines “war-weary” and “worn thin,” both in terms of human and materiel exhaustion.  This assessment is disputed by Major General Bob Scales, a Foxnews contributor, who uses re-enlistment statistics and other intangibles to conclude that the Army and Marines are resilient rather than broken.  Scales’ view is disputed in the superlative by General Richard A. Cody, the Army’s vice chief of staff, who said that the heavy deployments are inflicting “incredible stress” on soldiers and families and that they pose “a significant risk” to the nation’s all-volunteer military; and General Robert Magnus, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, who called the current pace of operations “unsustainable.”

The final example is Basra, and prior and recent operations there to bring peace and stability.  For all the attention given to Basra in recent days, we’ll note that most analysts are Johnny come lately compared to The Captain’s Journal.  TCJ has been covering Basra beginning mid-2007 with Calamity in Basra and British Rules of Engagement and The Rise of the JAM, recently with Continued Chaos in Basra and ending with As the Smoke Clears Over Basra.  The spin of victory is unrelenting.  One analyst is commenting that the Iraqi Army performance in Basra was good enough that it might be a model that points to a U.S. exit strategy.

Discussion and Analysis

An administration talking point during Operation Iraqi Freedom has been the battle with al Qaeda, and properly so.  But the term “al Qaeda” became a surrogate for a much larger campaign involving Ansar al Sunna, hard line Ba’athists, the Fedayeen, and indigenous fighters among other rogue elements.  The focus on al Qaeda neglected the strategy necessary to effect progress.  That is, insurgents who fight primarily (or at least partially) for religious reasons must be dealt with in a different way than indigenous insurgents.  For this reason The Captain’s Journal has been supportive of the concerned citizens program (now called sons of Iraq) for indigenous Sunnis, and exclusively kinetic operations against al Qaeda.  But balance is necessary, and we have also discussed Iraq as a watershed moment for al Qaeda, and the significant loss that al Qaeda has suffered as a result of sending so many of its fighters to die in Iraq.  In fact, as we had pointed out in Resurgence of Taliban and al Qaeda, by early to mid-2007, there was a paradigm shift concerning the recruitment of jihadists across the globe.  Iraq was and is becoming increasingly seen as a losing proposition for al Qaeda and the deployments of fighters is now primarily to Pakistan and Afghanistan rather than Iraq.

Over the course of this debate over al Qaeda, “conservatives” and “liberals” have become strange bedfellows.  Commentators on the right have argued for seeing the robust presence of al Qaeda in Iraq.  Commentators on the left find themselves in the hard position of having to relinquish their narrative that the U.S. is embroiled exclusively in a civil war in order to refute the conservative narrative.  We must leave Iraq immediately, says the left, because it is our mere presence there which is drawing jihadists from across the globe.  We must stay, says the right, because jihadists from across the globe are in Iraq and will cause a destabilizing presence if we leave.  Both narratives are shortsighted.  The exclusive focus by the right on al Qaeda missed the counterinsurgency strategy pressed by General Odierno to bring the indigenous fighters into the Iraqi fold.  The narrative on the left misses the role that a stable Iraq will play in the region over the next century, and assumes that al Qaeda has no regional or worldwide ambitions, contrary to its stated intent.

The current state of the U.S. military also brings the differences (and similarities) between the right and left into sharp focus.  The left has known for quite some time that the present pace of operations is unsustainable with the current military.  This has become a powerful talking point for withdrawal from at least one theater of operations, and this usually has been Iraq with most commentators.  In order to counter this point, some conservative commentators (including blogs and running up through retired generals) actually argue that the armed forces are – contrary to the specific, repeated, documented and insistent pronouncements by active duty generals – just fine.

But there is a problem with this narrative.  Tooling America for the long war is not something that either political party is ready to consider because of two reasons.  First, for the left, tooling for the long war would require acquiescence to the notion that there is such a thing.  Second, for the right, it would require the political courage to put before the American people that the time had come to go on a war footing.  Max Boot gives us a short picture of just how far we currently are from this footing.  “The overall size of our economy is $13.1 trillion. So the Iraq War is costing us less than 1% of GDP (0.91% to be exact). Even if you add in the entire defense budget that still only gets us to roughly 4% of GDP—roughly half of what we spent on average during the Cold War, to say nothing of previous “hot” wars such as World War II (34.5% of GDP), Korea (11.7%), and Vietnam (8.9%).”

The final example is interesting insofar as it unmasks the pretensions of the conservative narrative that the armed forces are having no problems with the current pace of operations.  This example is Basra.  If the U.S. Army and Marines can sustain the current pace of operations indefinitely without morale and materiel problems, then there is no need to see Basra as the exit strategy.

We must toe a balanced and careful line in these matters.  The campaign for Iraq is complex and requires patience, and measured words and doctrine, including full-orbed implementation of counterinsurgency involving both the hard and soft power of the government.  When a conservative takes the situation in Basra – where women have been beheaded by the hundreds, members of the the Iraqi Army deserted to the Mahdi militia, units in the Iraqi police were told not to shoot at the Mahdi militia even if shot at by them, and the Iranians had the power to broker the ceasefire – and turns this data on its head to conclude that this is some sort of victory for the Iraqi Army, then the conservative knows that he is on the wrong side of the data.  Pointing out failure is not the same thing as demanding retreat.  Max Boot, hardly having a history of advocacy for retreat, has one of the best analyses of Basra, and yet sees multiple failures on the part of the Iraqi army.

When a conservative finds himself ignoring the very real strain on the U.S. Army and Marines, he should know that he is on the wrong side of the data.  Usually supportive of the armed forces, when conservatives side with political talking points against the troops, the conservative soul has been lost.  The Captain’s Journal has good and well-sourced reason to believe that the recent resignation of CENTCOM commander Admiral William J. Fallon had little to do with any specific campaign, present or future, but rather, was focused more on whether the country itself is prepared to go on a war footing in order to tool the armed forces of the United States with the men and materiel it needs to conduct the long war.

The people of the United States will ultimately decide if and how to conduct the long war.  Issuing forth spin and fact-denial in the name of advocacy of that war (or for those on the left, advocacy against that war) creates an evolving narrative that changes as rapidly as the latest political soundbite, and places conservatives in truly dark company, unwittingly arguing for the diminution of the military.  Advocacy for winning the long war requires truth-telling.  It is always the best policy.  As part of this truth-telling, the need to increase the size and budget of the armed forces goes without question.  Going on a war footing to conduct the global war in which we now find ourselves should have been a point of contention in the new media for years.  Unfortunately, much of the new media is too wrapped up in talking points to engage the most significant issue of the century.

  • http://www.snappingturtle.net/jmc/tmblog/ TMLutas

    I agree that we need to shift to a war footing and expansion of the military is actually the top item on my blog, Flit(TM) right now. I think that a lot of people on the right are quietly coming to this conclusion.

  • D. B. Light

    Funny how these discussions all seem to resolve themselves into talking points for the next round of budget battles. The consensus seems to be that unless we restore the troop strength and budget levels to what they were before the cuts of the nineties the military cannot function. Far too many people see the war as an excuse to push bureaucratic agendas and to promote scare stories to justify those agendas.

    The U.S. already accounts for something in excess of 40% of all military spending of the world’s 189 states. That should be enough, even for the “long war”.

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    Unfortunately, you get an “F” today in class for poor listening skills. Here is what you can have. You can resource the armed forces so that we don’t break an Army and Marine Corps which is deploying our warriors on their fourth and sometimes fifth combat tours so that we don’t break them completely. Or, you can withdraw from the long war. What you CAN’T do is prosecute the long war with the armed forces we have. I can explain it a little more slowly offline with you if you wish.

  • Larry

    What I see is that the national government just moved from their tricycle to training wheels. They whizzed right through Najaf and some other towns, but crashed in Sadr City and Basra. If they get up and keep riding, those training wheels will fall off and not be missed. Enough analogy.

    My question is: who is running things now in the places where they attempted to assert authority. I’ve heard that JAM, and but not the INA and IP have pulled back in Basra, and that the government now runs the ports.

    Is any of this true?

    On the question of military readiness. I agree that we can’t spend 4% and do what we’re doing. Since it needs doing, the budget needs to rise. However, there are many programs that no longer match our needs and should be mothballed. E.g., new submarines.

    We also need a new kind of force. Counterinsurgency with all its school-building and sheik-schmoozing is critical to our success in both theaters. Rather than convert our force from its current kinetic focus, shouldn’t we be building a separate organization?


You are currently reading "Conservative Versus Liberal: The War Over the Wars", entry #1028 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Army,Department of Defense,Marine Corps,The Long War and was published April 6th, 2008 by Herschel Smith.

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