Iraq War Year Six: Our Long Goodbye to the Cold War

Now that America's exit from Iraq is on the horizon -- we need to begin the long overdue conversation about how we got ourselves into this war. Beyond blaming the Bush administration and the neo-cons. Fingering them is the easy part. We need to talk about the civic and cultural reasons for getting into Iraq, because it will reveal a new way for Americans to understand national security. Blame the Bush administration. Fine. Blame the media. Okay. But "we the people" need to take a few hits as well.

In early March, 2003 I was working on Capitol Hill, and I sat in on a discussion with two Army academics who laid out a hypothetical situation where the US would invade and occupy Iraq... They had a sobering list of 140 responsibilities that we would have to assume -- everything from setting up a central bank to managing garbage collection. Some of the data was from the US-Allied experience in post World War II Germany and Japan... but many of the insights also came from the Army's own knowledge gained since 1991 -- the year the Cold War ended. From then onward, our military has time and again relied on the provision of public goods and services to achieve victory. Remember 1993, when we lost 18 Army Rangers in Somalia? That experience should have been a seismic "a-ha" moment for the US Congress and, by extension the American public. A humanitarian mission that switched midstream to a battle with powerful violent gangs. Our personnel (both civilian and military) had the wrong set of tools. There was no military solution. We withdrew and developed an allergic reaction to insight about our own obsolete warfighting strategy. Then came Haiti, then Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor.... The United Nations badly needed US leadership on new, creative and much more subtle applications of force. Europe, the UK, Australia, NATO -- all evolved and adjusted to the new threat environment, accepted a much broader definition of security and implemented new policies. The US, in contrast, declared a "readiness crisis" because the Army was no longer prepared to stop the Soviets from invading Poland. The Soviet Union had disappeared 7 years prior. American vision was blurred by the ideological beer goggles of the conservative leadership on Capitol Hill. Congress stayed stuck in the past for another decade. Then came Afghanistan. Then Iraq.

The cornerstone of American democracy is the belief in civilian supremacy in government. We need to revisit this principle within a larger conversation about the lessons from Iraq. As our generals have been saying for six years now, it is the peace that is decisive, not the war. The use of overwhelming force has not only lost utility in warfighting today , it has become counterproductive. The "surge" would never have worked if the political deals hadn't been made. Counter insurgency strategy is about protecting civilians -- it is implicit that violence is never decisive. It requires peace deals to endure. We have two gaps, a lack of civilian personnel in our agencies so we over-rely on the military -- and a glaring domestic political gap in American leadership on issues of war and peace. The military knows what they are doing... but they don't necessarily know why they are doing it... that's the job of the civilian authorities... Militaries are operational and tactical creatures -- they don't set strategy. And we have lacked a guiding strategy now for nearly two decades. The ongoing defense budget debate in Congress is a great chance to wedge open this larger strategic discussion. Both the DoD and the White House want to break our addiction to entrenched and expensive weapons programs that drain the budget but don't deliver on our most urgent needs. Lacking a strategic rationale, the industry giants like Lockheed Martin say the spending is about jobs. There are other ways to get Americans working again, however, and it should not be at the expense of our safety.

So what is our new strategy? President Obama has made clear that he intends to restore American strength by keeping the military strong... but also by seeking legitimacy -- i.e. the moral authority to lead. He continually references the mutually reinforcing link between American strength and our ideals about justice, human rights and rule of law. This is a clear departure from the never-ending war claims of the Bush administration (indeed, Obama and his administration do not say GWOT anymore) But it is also an important step away from containment -- the defining strategic principle of the past century -- If there is any common thread between contagious fundamentalism, climate change catastrophe and avian flu -- it is our inability to contain them. How about this framework for seeking global security:

  • Today's security challenges require political, economic, social and military tools.
  • Today's security policies must address the safety of people across borders, as well as the safety of people within borders.
  • These needs are equally important and simultaneous; they must not be posed as trade-offs in policy nor in budgets

Today, America's military is not only overstretched by warfighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is burdened by far too many responsibilities in carrying out US foreign policy -- a job that it never signed up for and should not have. Americans in uniform and carrying guns are not the message we want to send to the world. Yes the American military is a fine institution, but we're creating a perverse incentive when they are the ones providing public goods and services. I had a conversation once with a Member of Parliament from the Philippines -- she raved about the Special Forces soldiers stationed in her country. Of course I was proud, but also unsettled. We are doing exactly what we tell other countries to stop doing i.e. maintaining very clear boundaries and keeping the military out of work that civilians should be doing.

Restoring the civil-military balance is a priority at the Defense Department. Secretary Gates is the primary evangelist for revitalizing the State Department and staffing up our economic development agency (USAID). Other signs are hopeful. Howard Berman, Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee -- is dedicated to correcting this imbalance. The House Armed Services Committee shows great signs of progressive leadership on this problem as well. But they can't do it without a supportive public constituency. And it will ultimately require tradeoffs. Our defense budget doesn't come close to putting dollars where the most probable risks are. It is organized around containment, not legitimacy. The former is hardware intensive, the latter, people intensive. Secretary of State Clinton's "Smart Power" initiative, of bolstering civilian personnel must therefore be understood in strategic national security terms.

One could argue that we would not be in Iraq today if Congress had adopted a modern vision of security after 1991. Here's part of a Marine Corps Guidance Order dated August, 1997

"In the next century, we will have Marines conducting humanitarian operations, peacekeeping, and high intensity combat all in the same day and in the same operating area. This mission depth will require Marines to work side by side with other government and non government agencies. What is lacking at this point is an operational concept for comprehensive command and control that weaves the diverse capabilities of the different entities into a coherent campaign plan"

We've put off this conversation for so long, that alarms are ringing about humanitarian missions under threat because of perceived military association. This arises because of a cultural and a civic oversight on our part. As a culture, we have loved the military to death. When we're scared, we love it even more. Our elected leaders, in response, offer inadequate critical decision making about the institution, how to respect it professionally by keeping it out of politics, by keeping it out of civilian tasks and by developing alternatives now that the world has changed. The military is the consummate planning organization -- it has known for a long time that the world has changed -- but lacked the civilian leadership to fundamentally shift how we match means to ends, and tactics to strategy. Today is the sixth anniversary of the Iraq war. If we Americans truly value the lives sacrificed there -- we will require that our elected leaders -- at long last -- create and fund a security strategy that keeps us safer, costs less and restores the boundaries of a healthy civil-military relationship.