Sunday, December 31, 2006

Unwarranted Pessimism at The American Conservative

William S. Lind unleashed a pessimistic assessment and "worst case" scenario in his recent article in the American Conservative, entitled "How to Lose and Army":

What does the Democrats’ victory mean for the war in Iraq? Regrettably, not what it should, namely an immediate American withdrawal from a hopelessly lost enterprise [emph added].

Lind goes on to ponder how an escalation in the standoff between Iran and the West could lead to the utter destruction of the American Army:

The U.S. Armed Forces are technically well-trained, lavishly resourced Second-Generation militaries. They are today being fought and beaten by Fourth-Generation opponents in Iraq and Afghanistan. They can also be defeated by Third-Generation opponents who can react faster than America’s process-ridden, PowerPoint-enslaved military headquarters. They can be defeated by superior strategy, by trick, by surprise, and by preemption. Unbeatable militaries are like unsinkable ships: they are unsinkable until something sinks them.

If the U.S. were to lose the army it has in Iraq to Iraqi militias, Iranian regular forces, or a combination of both, cutting our one line of supply and then encircling us, the world would change. It would be our Adrianople, our Rocroi, our Stalingrad. American power and prestige would never recover.

I take exception to many of Lind's points, especially his harsh judgment of Iraq being "a hopelessly lost enterprise".

The greatest danger to American military capability is not the physical destruction of its Army in the streets, alleys, and deserts of Iraq, but instead a total loss of collective national will here at home, to the point where the United States will not authorize or even consider the use of the military element of national power, even when its necessity is all but total certitude.

Remember, if you will, that even two decades after the Vietnam war, the Congressional resolution authorizing use of force to expel Iraq from Kuwait was a close, along party line vote. This at a time when an important regional ally had been attacked, and major reserves of oil were at stake. The world is too dangerous to return to the times where America is unwilling to act when its interests are at stake.

While an attack from Iran is certainly a threat to be reckoned with, there is little doubt that the military and various agencies are collectively monitoring Iran at this point. There are already critical links between the Iranians and various Shiite militias running amok in Iraq. So it is unlikely that a surprise attack on par with the Egyptians crossing the Suez in 1973 would happen in Iraq. Especially the complexities involved in a combined attack of Shiite militias and Iranian general purpose forces.

While Iran is certainly capable of a conventional offensive causing hundreds of casualties, it would not be able to sustain this attack over an extended period of time before its own lines of communications were severed, it was politically isolated, and before the other regional players (Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, et al) complicated things further by intervention in one manner or another. It is doubtful that Iran could alert and mobilize its forces, sever the American lines of communication, and reach all march objectives before reaching a culminating point, and despair.

Hypothesizing on the operational destruction of our forces deployed in the Middle East is little more than an ill-conceived thought experiment; placing operational arrogance and confidence aside (and keeping any military enthusiast from smirking at the thought of the Iranians launching a major offensive and seeing their theocracy crumble in the wake of the operational destruction of THEIR military), our forces are dispersed across thousands of miles, oceans, and countries in the region; while Lind identifies this as a weakness in terms of the US Army's ability to mass, it is also an advantage. There is no single base or formation that can be targeted with a conventional attack to decisively cripple American power in the region.

Lind's assessment of the US military is ill-informed and inaccurate as well. The Army units deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan are the best trained, best equipped, most combat-seasoned forces this country has seen in decades. They are not "losing" on the battlefields of the two theaters; tactically, the hostile forces in both of those countries, whether insurgents, militias, terrorists, or criminals, are not a match for this military; it is rather in the realm of the political, the cultural, and in the information sphere that we are in peril of being vanquished.

And Mr. Lind is truly reaching for the low hanging fruit to characterize the military as a conservative, uber-hierarchical organization, beholden to the decisions emanating from oversized staffs serving aloof generals ( ". . . defeated by Third-Generation opponents who can react faster than America’s process-ridden, PowerPoint-enslaved military headquarters"). Lind himself paradoxically admits that the forces deployed in theater are operating in a dispersed manner, which requires exceptional leadership, initiative, and capabilities at the company, battalion, and brigade level; the officer who can throw a Powerpoint presentation together in no time is likely to be able to fire numerous weapons systems, call for close air support, treat a casualty, or shape decisions made while attending a shura, and all to good effect.

Lind's assessment of the Army's strategic vulnerability to a conventional Iranian attack is thus overly pessimistic, bordering on the sensational. Other than a Tet-like event, which would have effects in the political and informational spheres, no Middle Eastern country is capable of an attack of this magnitude, much less living to tell the tale.

Also, Lind's description of the United States' relationship with Israel (She Who Must Be Obeyed) is the contemptible tripe that one expects from a CAIR spokesperson, or from an illogical university radical perhaps, but NOT from a supposed conservative thinker. It is not worthy of further comment.

There is room for constructive, informed debate on what the next steps for the U.S. should be in the Middle East, but Mr. Lind's pessimistic diatribe provides marginal utility to those who must decide what comes next, and is a disservice to those who will be in the field, executing whatever policy is decided upon.

Post Script. I came across Lind's article from a post over at The Elephant Bar; this post actually evolved from my response to a post over there.


2164th said...

I agree with your assessment on the individual points and your thorough analysis. Lind makes some specific points that are valid but gets lost in the degree, taking them to the extreme. My interest and memory in on the 'Tet effect" where a hard won and costly victory is scored as a defeat. The US military is strapped with an ill-defined and changing mission, onerous ROE and a less than enthusiastic Iraqi populace and a diminishing public support in the US.

That blame lies at the foot of an administration that is at best tongue tied in defining the reason for being in Iraq and what achievable goals are in US interests. The US will support a winnable war at a cost if they understand the reason and have confidence in the leadership.

Harrison said...

Salient post. Agreed that Lind is seriously underestimating the prowress of our army, and the resilience of the national spirit in times of crisis such as this.

Lind assumes that Iran is able to mobilise its conventional national forces to encircle our troops, but to date, the mullahs have cautiously refrained from employing the national army for fear of a military coup d'etat - in truth, the loyalty of the armed forces is questionable at best, while the Foreign Legions of Hezbollah and the Mahdi Army, including the Revolutionary/Special Guards are much more dependable.

And I would think that our military is more than capable of operating in inclement weather than the incompetently trained Iranian army. Also, though our forces are dispersed, there should be little doubt as to whether we would be able to effectively mobilise and localise troops wherever necessary - somewhat akin to the novel idea of the General Staff under Helmut von Moltke in Germany prior to the First World War, whereby the stunning alacrity of German mobilisation utterly caught the European powers off-guard.

It is useful to refer to Lind's article An Operational Doctrine for Intervention.

I part of Lind's argument when fellow peacekeeper provided the link at the EB a few weeks ago.

However, now it seems that the second part of the hypothesis requires dissecting.

We live in a world in which the nationalism that arose in Europe in response to the French Revolution has spread almost universally. Any foreign presence rubs this nationalism the wrong way. The longer we stay, the more we assist our opponents in preaching the case for a national war.

Yet has Arab nationalism ever managed to successfully galvanise the peoples against foreign occupiers? Forget about Arab statesmen, despots and dictators - truth is, more often than not domestic and foreign policy has been guided by the interests of the Arab elites, not that of its peoples. Elite nationalism thrives, broad-based nationalism flounders.

Germany had Bismarck, Italy had Camillo di Cavour, France had Napoleon - these men had visions of nationalism, brotherhood and collective consciousness in the belief of shared values. What has the Arab world manage to conjure up? Perhaps they once believed in Arafat or Nasser, but the fact remains that factionalism and segmentalism remain endemic characteristics of Arab societies, and nationalism is a foreign import, a genie in a bottle that Arab elites would like contained as they exploit the divisiveness of tribes and sects for personal profit.

Even in Iraq, al-Sadr, al-Hakim and Sistani could very well have ordered us out in the name of protecting national sovereignty, yet till today, Sistani fears the Sadrists' influence radicalising moderate Shiites, while al-Sadr fears Iranian interference via al-Hakim's SCIRI, while al-Hakim has to fend off al-Sadr's nationalist credentials in order to earn more seats in parliament and establish a voting bloc to veto any Sadr-led measure that would threaten Iranian influence in Iraq.

Lind did remark that:

We can eliminate hostile governments in some developing countries--seize their leaders, take control of their institutions, and turn the levers of power over to their opponents. We can destroy the regular armed forces in those countries, if our own forces can move fast enough to encircle them before they disperse. Once the armed forces are destroyed, we can stabilize the countryside for a certain period of time. In short, we can carry out what might be called an extended coup de main.

We do not necessarily need to worry too much about the Iranian national army, for it does not embody nationalistic spirit but instead is plagued by divided loyalties, or even vehemently opposed to the regime - that might explain why the mullahs are less than enthusiastic about deploying them to deal with unrest in Kurdish, Azeri and Baluch uprisings within Iran.

I'm not advocating the invasion of Iran, but what I would like to contribute to the discussion is that Iran's sting is in its predilection for proxy wars and nuclear capability, not direct confrontation. Iranian nationalism is fragile, predicated on the basis of pride in defending its right to nuclear arms; their national will is nowhere as strong and resilient as that of the American people in the event of a prolonged, necessary imperative to establish security and non-violence in the region.

Bob W. said...


Excellent points all around; I will do the recommended background reading as well.

Bob W

sexy said...