Quitting Iraq won't undo the real
damage of the war.
by James K. Galbraith
Mother Jones magazine, March/April
In November 2004, Lt. General Ricardo
Sanchez came to a luncheon at my professional home, the LBJ School
of Public Affairs. I attended and asked some inconvenient questions.
It was an inconsequential exchange, but two weeks later I received
a surprising invitation: Would I fly to Germany in February and
speak to the leadership of the Army V Corps about the operational
conditions of Iraq? I have no military experience, and have never
been to Iraq, while many in my audience-mostly generals and colonels-had
spent over a year there. But of course I went. My unstated assignment
was to say some inconvenient things, which may have otherwise
Inconvenience has since gone public, big
time. Back in November, Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) gave a breakthrough
speech, describing the troops as "stretched thin": "Recruitment
is down, even as our military has lowered its standards. Defense
budgets are being cut. Personnel costs are skyrocketing. Choices
will have to be made." At the same time, Murtha added, success
in Iraq is very remote. "Oil production and energy production
are below pre-war levels. Our reconstruction efforts have been
crippled by the security situation. Only $9 billion of the $18
billion appropriated for reconstruction has been spent. Unemployment
remains at about 60 percent. Clean water is scarce. And most importantly,
insurgent incidents have increased from about 150 per week to
over 700 in the last year. Since the revelations at Abu Ghraib,
American casualties have doubled."
For this, Cheney blasted him, but then
it emerged that Murtha's crime was tipping the administration's
own hand. It appears we are beginning a long, slow, painful retreat
But are we drawing the full and correct
lessons from this disaster? Some former liberal hawks now take
refuge in what Sam Rosenfeld and Matthew Yglesias call "the
incompetence dodge": that things would have turned out okay
if only the neocon cabal were not in charge. Such libhawks would
withdraw U.S. forces only to use them again, in another (but,
of course, more justified and better planned) war. And that would
mean a bigger war, with a bigger force on the ground, and a much
bigger budget to support it.
But the reality is that the Iraq war could
not be won by a force of any size or by an expenditure of any
amount. Against determined opposition, occupations in the modern
world cannot prevail. They haven't for more than 60 years. The
reason is that the basic economics of warfare have changed. Here
are six reasons I gave to the officers in Germany-a pure exercise
in stating what they already knew.
Sixty years ago the then-colonial world
was mostly rural; today it consists of enormous cities. These
urban jungles of concrete provide vast advantages-concealment,
fortification, communication, intelligence-to the defender. In
cities, troops on patrol are isolated and exposed; their location
is always known, while that of the enemy is not. More patrols
mean more targets. The superior firepower of the occupiers just
means that a lot more innocent people get hurt.
So does the "crude" weaponry
of insurgents. Car bombs, booby traps, and suicide belts are cheap
and effective. Detonated by radio or wire from within a nearby
building, roadside bombs equalize the insurgent and the invader.
Detonated by fanatics, suicide bombs are extremely difficult to
stop. Shaped explosives, which have started to appear in Iraq,
are able to burn right through armor plate. To prevent these attacks
means emphasizing force protection; this gets in the way of everything
The violence in Iraq is horrific, but
it's the media that makes it intolerable. Indeed, the violence
is horrific only by modern standards. To truly cow a colonial
population (as in British India in 1857, or on the American plains
in the late 19th century) requires mass murder on a far larger
scale. The presence of the media makes this most inconvenient.
As we demonstrated at Fallujah, the sure way to subdue a hostile
city is to destroy it. But that's no way to win a political war
back home-or hearts and minds in Iraq.
Jet travel is a military mixed blessing.
Today's army works on rotations; soldiers are deployed for about
a year and then (in principle at least) they come home. When that
happens, local liaisons and intelligence relationships must be
rebuilt. On the other hand, if soldiers are denied the right to
rotate home, their morale is going to suffer far more than in
the old days when there was no such expectation. Email and blogs
make sure that morale problems get home fast when the soldiers
As if that were not enough, war today
cannot escape the free market. When we invaded Iraq, the borders
collapsed and import restrictions were eliminated. Imports surged,
notably of electrical appliances like air conditioners and refrigerators.
By the time the electricity supply was rebuilt, demand had skyrocketed,
and the power could run for only a few hours a day. Without control
over electrical demand, the reconstruction effort was crippled,
and the Americans couldn't win the Iraqi people's respect and
support. They were expecting miracles, after all, and they didn't
Finally, there has been a fundamental
change of expectations: call it the presumption of independence.
The British may have believed that their empire would always be
the "dread and envy of them all," but today no one believes
the American presence in Iraq can endure over the long term. So
unless you are in a safe zone (like Kurdistan) or part of an exiled
elite with a posh flat in London, it does not pay to cuddle up
to the occupying power. The retribution could be most unpleasant.
These are now the fundamental facts of
wars of occupation. They tell us that foreign military power cannot
long prevail over the territory of a people-in this case, the
Sunnis of central Iraq-who are prepared to resist it to the death.
This does not necessarily mean that the new Iraq will collapse
when we leave. But if we cannot defeat the insurgency, then the
insurgents will have to be accommodated, somehow, politically.
Or else we leave the country to fight it out even more brutally
in our absence.
We should have known we'd face this situation.
In tiny East Timor, a ragtag band of resisters harried the Indonesian
army for more than 25 years; that band (splendid people, by the
way) now runs the world's newest independent state. In Afghanistan,
U.S.-assisted guerrillas drove out the Red army; their successors
now make most of the country ungovernable. In Chechnya, the country
has been destroyed but the rebellion hasn't been subdued. And
then there was Vietnam.
During the Cold War, we ringed the world
with bases-but always in alliance with existing governments that
were legitimate, at least up to a point. One may disapprove of
the regimes we supported, but this model for the projection of
military power works. It is called "containment." It
works as long as the host regimes remain viable and as long as
the military power it projects isn't tested in actual combat.
When these conditions failed-in Iran, in the Philippines, in Vietnam-so
did the strategy.
The successful use of military power-as
Mao Zedong understood when he called America a "paper tiger"-entails
a large element of bluff. Vietnam deflated the image that American
power could never be challenged. To some extent, the Gulf War
of 1991 restored that image, but the restoration was achieved
by the limited aims and quick termination of that war. The Clinton
successes in the Balkans came in part because all sides bought
this lesson of the Gulf War. (With Serbia, the bluff came close
to being called again; the Kosovo bombing campaign took 80 days
and Russian diplomacy rescued us in the end.)
But now Iraq has once again exposed what
military power cannot achieve, short of nuclear weapons. Iran
and North Korea have taken notice. Meanwhile, our friends, the
Europeans and the Japanese, must be asking themselves: Exactly
what sort of security does the American alliance buy, and at what
Bush and Cheney have done more than merely
bungle a war and damage the Army. They have destroyed the foundation
of the post-Cold War world security system, which was the accepted
authority of American military power. That reputation is now gone.
It cannot be restored simply by retreating from Iraq. This does
not mean that every ongoing alliance will now collapse. But they
are all more vulnerable than they were before, and once we leave
central Iraq, they will be weaker still. As these paper tigers
start to blow in the wind, so too will America's economic security
From this point of view, the fuss over
whether we were misled into war-Is the sky blue? Is the grass
green?-stands in the way of a deeper debate that should start
quite soon and ask this question: Now that Bush and Cheney have
screwed up the only successful known model for world security
under our leadership, what the devil do we do?
James K. Galbraith teaches economics at
the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University
of Texas-Austin. He previously served in several positions on
the staff of the U.S. Congress, including executive director of
the Joint Economic Committee.