The Iraq War and the Military Gamble: Anatomy of a Potential Disaster

Erwin Rommel was an exceptionally brilliant general who had one of the most remarkable runs in warfare with his desert campaigns in North Africa during World War II. Rommel was constantly dealing with problems: his army was small and under-equipped. They did not have as much experience as the English in desert campaigns. And so Rommel had recourse to strategy, to level the playing field. One strategy he depended on was to attack with speed and boldness, controlling the dynamic in the process (see chapters 14 and 15 in The 33 Strategies of War). Simply put, he took risks. Some thought he was reckless, even suicidal, but in his journals he explained the method to his madness. He said that a wise general always takes risks, but never a gamble, unless the latter is his last resort. What is the difference between the two?

With a risky action, you may have a 30% chance of success, and if you act with great boldness, you can increase that to perhaps 40 or 50%. But if you fail, you have a fallback position. Your losses will be real, but not devastating. You can recover with the passage of months or a year.

With a gamble, you have the same chance of success as a risk, but if you fail, the consequences are much deeper. It may take years to recoup your losses, or you may never recover. Gambles generally involve too many contingencies you cannot control, and once things go wrong you spend your time fixing problems instead of responding with strategy.

What inevitably sucks people into taking gambles is the rosy scenario–the incredibly alluring consequences if it succeeds. A gamble engages your emotions and makes you ignore the terrible dangers. What happens in gamble scenarios, is that when things start to go wrong and failure seems to be a possibility, attempts to correct the course only make things worse. Your emotions drag you deeper and deeper into a kind of resource sinkhole. You lose contact with reality.

In risk taking, you are as realistic and rational in the planning phase, making the risk controlled and purposeful, then executing it with proper energy. In gambles, you are not aware of how deeply your emotions are coloring the decisions and planning of the war, how they veil the realities on the ground.

Some classic military gambles would include the Athenian expedition against Sicily, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1970s. I would have to include the current war in Iraq as a quintessential example. (Look at chapter 22 in The 33 Strategies of War for more discussion on risk versus gamble.)

Let us examine the two distinguishing features of the gamble, in relation to the Iraq War: the emotional components that consciously or unconsciously inspire it, and the very real potential for disastrous consequences if unsuccessful. It has been my contention from the beginning that the Bush administration wanted this war, and with their emotions deeply engaged, they saw what they wanted to see in the intelligence, and failed to make realistic assessments of what such a war could lead to. This began before Bush Jr. took office. As revealed in his biographies, Bush Jr. is obsessed with the idea of not repeating his father’s mistakes, charting different directions. His father’s biggest mistake, according to the son, was leaving Saddam Hussein in power. The dream was to be the one who really ended what his father had begun.

Around Bush Jr. congregated the neo-conservatives, many of whom had been shunned by his father. They preached to Bush Jr. that he must not only separate himself from his father, but from President Clinton. He must show resolve, go to war not in defense, but as an offensive weapon to remold the world order. Well before the 9/11 attack they painted to W. a possible scenario of what taking out Saddam Hussein–and then establishing a democracy in Iraq–could lead to in the Middle East. A kind of domino effect: one bad regime after another falling down. A real resolution to the problems of the region, instead of this constant cancer. This scenario is incredibly seductive.

The emotional pull behind this “grand strategy” was strengthened by the events of 9/11. Attack the enemy where it really lies, at its center of gravity: the decrepit regimes that allow terrorism to take root and thrive in the region. (I do not believe this is the real center of gravity of terrorism, which is the key issue here, but I will leave that for another discussion.)

Unlike Clinton, in the neocons eyes Bush Jr. is a man of great resolve. He will see this through to the end, will not waver when opinion shifts this way or that. Resolve is a quality that can serve a general well, and has its place, but it is not a strategy, and simply being resolute in the face of friction or setbacks is often a sign of narrow-mindedness, obstinacy, all of which are emotional qualities.

The political figures directing this war are driven by emotions. They believe they have the power to remake reality, by their bold actions. They have said as much. They are not strategic creatures. They ignore certain fundamental principles, especially von Clausewitz’s main principle of always engaging with overwhelming force. Their decisions are ultimately based on a kind of faith and resolution. This is mixed in with their strategizing and infects it on all levels. Read George Packer’s excellent book The Assassin’s Gate to understand how they scorn the need for detailed planning or net assessment. Resolution and strength will see them through.

What are the consequences of a defeat in Iraq that would help define this as a gamble? First, a civil war that would break out, a very real possibility, considering the artificial nature of this country. But much worse–a regional war, in which sectarian interests draw in all of the other countries and this war spreads. A great power vacuum in the heart of the Middle East. Iran becoming the center. More political instability that leads to worldwide economic instability. Of course, we could paint disaster scenarios for all wars, but the disaster scenarios in this case are incredibly real and very much possible, if we fail. The fallback position, essential to Rommel, is missing. (I would argue that in the current battle in Lebanon, Israel is taking a risk but has a fallback position if all does not go according to plan.)

War is about control. The side that can dictate the tempo and the terms of the battle will almost always win. Losing control of a situation is always the military nightmare, because once you begin to lose control, problems tend to spiral; strategy goes out the window. In this case, there are so many contingencies that lie beyond the control of the US military. One example: once you signal to the region that your “grand strategy” is to get rid of corrupt regimes and replace them with democratic ones, you are posing a direct threat to Iran and to Syria, who have borders with Iraq, such borders being notoriously porous. It is now in these regimes interest that you fail. While you are occupying Iraq, they will stir up mayhem. Once you leave, they will do their best to make sure democracy fails. You will be thousands of miles away, and they will be operating on the border. You have no control.

To make the issue of control worse, you place yourself in classic double binds, just like the Soviets did in Afghanistan. Number one: the larger the force that is there to hold things together, the greater the target for insurgents and for stirring hatred among the locals; but the smaller the force, the less chance of maintaining any control. Number two: we cannot stay indefinitely or the American public will turn against it; but if we leave too early, we do not give things enough time. There is no way to resolve such double binds.

Once this war clearly went wrong, and problems mounted, the classic dynamic ensued: given the disaster that failure will lead to, we cannot afford to get out. But now, strategy must go back to square one. And as each new problem leads to a series of problems, and friction mounts, the strategy must constantly evolve and never solidifies. In truth, it becomes tactical. Look at what happened to the Athenians, or the Soviets. Endless new ideas about how to remedy the war, but each idea rapidly eclipsed by the changing situation. And so the occupying force stays and stays. Money and lives are wasted. The money comes to account years later when the debts are truly counted for this sinkhole. The lives that are lost on both sides have all kinds of political consequences. If you had left after one year, in this gamble, bad things would ensue, but you would waste much less time and resources, and you may recover. But few people have the wisdom to cut losses once their emotions and their prestige are at stake.

There are other tremendous problems at the root of this war that deserve analysis, such as the organizational dysfunctions within the Bush administration that lead to strategic dysfunction, something I analyze in The 33 Strategies of War, and is analyzed in depth in several books about this war in particular (Packer’s book does an excellent job of this). It would be nice to look at history and see possible remedies, ways out, but I have yet to find them, and I encourage readers to write about any I have missed.

Yes, in any war there always remains a chance of success, even in this one. But ultimately the question is: was this war worth the possible consequences if it does not succeed. I do not think so, and if they were around, the great strategists of history–Hannibal, Scipio Africanus, Sun-tzu, Caesar, Belisarius, Napoleon, Genghis Khan, Sherman, Rommel–would almost certainly agree that this is not the way to wage war.

[Feel free to comment and discuss this post, especially ideas about possible remedies to this war, on the discussion thread located here. Registration is required.]

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