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Are America and Its Military Headed Unavoidably Toward an 'Iraq Syndrome'?

Discussants: Daniel Goure, senior defense analyst and vice president, Lexington Institute, and Joseph Cirincione
Updated: November 10, 2006

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The protracted war in Iraq, with strains and costs on America's military and society well beyond those anticipated by the current administration, has some experts fearing a lasting hangover akin to the so-called "Vietnam Syndrome" which afflicted policymakers, the armed forces, and America in general after that difficult conflict.

Two of the country's leading national security specialists, Daniel Goure of the Lexington Institute and Joseph Cirincione of the Center for American Progress, debate whether America and its military are headed unavoidably toward an "Iraq Syndrome."

Weigh in on this debate by emailing the editors at CFR.org. To view other online debates click here.


Joseph Cirincione

Most Recent

November 10, 2006

Joseph Cirincione

Dan ends his part of the debate striking the familiar chords that have served him well over the past twenty-five years: Put fresh lipstick on moldy conservative ideas and present them as "new thinking," then trash your opponents as weak, unpatriotic partisans stuck in "old thinking." As the dearly departing Donald Rumsfeld might say, "Goodness gracious! Aren't we past all that?"

Yes, we are. "This is a turning point in American political history," says one of the survivors of the Tuesday Night Massacre, Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN), now running for minority leader. He is right. The conservative era is over. The Iraq Correction has begun.  

It will take some time to grasp the sweep of this change. Get your mind around this:  The Democratic Party won on national security issues. The last time that happened was 1964. The political correction I predicted on Monday had, by Thursday, become a political tectonic shift. The twenty-five-year political tide that swelled with the election of Ronald Reagan has gone out. Center for American Progress President John Podesta says in his new memo on the election: "The post-Goldwater/post-Reagan conservatism has been discredited as a governing philosophy, and simultaneously, a new progressive movement has seized the moment to assert itself, to restore credibility to a government that serves the common good."  

This is an historic realignment, not just of parties, but of ideologies. The new congressional leadership is solidly progressive, but they have bonded to the moderate middle, with support from pragmatic conservatives. Look at the new Democratic senators. Self-described "Truman Democrat" Claire McCaskill of Missouri, proudly progressive Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Western farmer Jon Tester of Montana, and former Republican Jim Webb of Virginia all agree: we must begin an orderly redeployment of our troops from Iraq.

This means the Baker-Hamilton report must begin with this redeployment if it is to have any credibility. Only redeployment will keep faith with the American people. Only redeployment will pressure Iraqi politicians to honor their commitments. Only redeployment will permit the full diplomatic engagement of Iraq's neighbors—including Syria and Iran—in stability efforts.  

Many variations may be pursued within the redeployment matrix, including a proposal for autonomous regions, but nothing can be accomplished without it. If the study group comes back with increased troop levels or some mushy stay-the-troop-levels, redirect-the-politics proposal, it will be dead on arrival. I agree with [American Enterprise Institute Fellow] Reuel Marc Gerecht, who says in today's Wall Street Journal that the middle ground does not exist. "If one works through the different [middle] scenarios, they all return quickly to a Rumsfeldian position that the U.S. needs to do more in Iraq with less—a position that has been proven flatly wrong since the spring of 2003."

We must chose. Great nations have faced such choices in the past and hesitation has proved disastrous. In 1812, Napoleon took the world's best army, commanded by the best generals and equipped with the best weapons, in an unnecessary invasion of a weak, backward nation. He captured Moscow, but he did not defeat the Russians. He hesitated as winter closed in. He had no good options: He could not stay, he could not leave. Finally, with his army breaking, he was forced to retreat. His military, his reputation, and his empire never recovered.

There are no good options in Baghdad today. The members of the Iraq Study Group began their work early this year much like the boy in Ronald Reagan's oft-told joke, who, when presented with a large box of manure on his birthday, exclaims, "There must be a pony in there somewhere!" The group surely now realizes there is no pony. There will not be a Baker ex machina to pull victory from the jaws of disaster. The role of this group is to provide a chance for pro- and anti-war politicians to converge on a way out. It will not be easy. It will not fit the president's or Dan's view of "victory." Victory must be redefined. Our soldiers, our nation, and our future depend on it.   

In the broader Iraq Correction, we may now see a new governing philosophy that goes beyond Iraq and national security issues to reject the greed and corruption of the conservative era (to which Democrats were not immune). It is summed up in the phrase many are using, including newly-elected Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley: the common good. If Democrats do what Nancy Pelosi says, if they deliver the "most open, most honest, most ethical Congress in history," if they follow New York Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer's promise to "work hard, in a bipartisan way...and push aside the special interests and always keep our eye on the average American family," then his prediction could come true—Democrats could be the majority party for a generation.

And they will deserve it. Not just for making Nancy Pelosi, as speaker of the house, the highest-ranking woman (and, by the way, Italian-American) in American history, but by beginning an era that puts American families first, shuns the lobbyists, values bipartisan deliberations, and restores an ethical realism to our national security.  

That is not a syndrome. That is a vision.


Daniel Goure

November 9, 2006

Daniel Goure

Tuesday’s elections appear to have created a Yogi Berra syndrome, at least in Joe’s mind. It’s back to the future again. I agree with Joe that the election underscored the American people’s desire to see a change of course in Iraq. I ,too, want the course changed. But in which direction? And what lessons does Iraq hold for future American strategy?

Here is where Joe and I part company. He appears to want not a course change but an 180-degree reversal back to the 1990s—the era of the Powell Doctrine, opposition to antimissile defenses, and the myth that the Clinton administration supported the military, with some new stories thrown in. Just one example: Based on the history of Pentagon procurements, it was actually the Reagan military that won so brilliantly in Afghanistan and Iraq. It did so despite shortages of almost everything, including small- caliber ammunition, because Clinton-era defense budgets forced the Army to choose between things like force protection and base housing. I am not a card-carrying neocon, but Joe’s rewriting of history could turn me into one.

The reality is that you cannot go home again, there is never another first kiss, and there is no return to the military strategies and force posture constructs [organizational structures] of the past. If there is danger of an Iraq syndrome, then this is it: the belief that you can return to the past, intellectually if not corporeally. The world has moved on, for better and worse. The Powell Doctrine prescription for overwhelming force is meaningless in a world where rogue regimes will, and terrorist groups may, acquire nuclear weapons. It is also pointless to speak of exit strategies for interventions in failed states. It’s been twelve years and there is no exit in sight from the Balkans. Darfur? Bet on twenty years, at least.

The resignation of Don Rumsfeld is a tragedy. It is a tragedy because Rumsfeld did more to transform the military than anyone since the National Security Act of 1947. In particular, he bent if not broke the iron grip the Services had on organizing, training, and equipping the military. “President Clinton’s military,” as Joe refers to it, would have accomplished neither the rapid victory in Afghanistan, nor the brilliant campaign to Baghdad had it not been for Don Rumsfeld’s leadership. He demonstrated that the military doctrines, command structures, and acquisition policies of the Industrial Age were no longer relevant in an Information Age. It would be a tragedy to see his good works undone by those desirous of returning to the past.

His resignation is also an opportunity. It is an opportunity to find out if the generals have any ideas regarding how to proceed now. Presumably, Gates will listen more and direct less than Rumsfeld did. But will we hear anything from the military? The heart of the Powell Doctrine is that the military gets to set the terms for U.S. engagements. Rumsfeld was criticized unmercifully for not listening to the generals. He listened. He did not, however, let them determine U.S. national security strategy. Perhaps Rumsfeld’s resignation will also be an opportunity to see how well the military performs in a retrograde maneuver. Or should we call it a "reaction"? How about a "correction"? Or more honestly, why not call it what it is, a retreat?

A new chapter in America’s national security policy may have opened on Tuesday night. I disagree with Joe that the themes are clear. The American people voted for a better future with new approaches to Iraq. They did not sign up for any of the late- Cold-War progressive rhetoric that Joe propounds. If you think so, that's your syndrome.


Joseph Cirincione

November 8, 2006

Joseph Cirincione

The American people have delivered a powerful rebuke to President Bush, his party, and his strategic vision. The election was a clear repudiation of the war in Iraq, but its implications will now spread through the body politic. The message is clear: Change course. 

It is now imperative that the president and Congress work together to develop this new direction. As much as some Democrats may wish otherwise, President Bush remains the commander in chief and as such has the responsibility to keep America secure. But Congress is now controlled by a party which believes it has a mandate for a new, pragmatic national security policy. 

Bipartisanship is more vital than ever. There are many ready to reach across the aisle. Statements from Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) and soon-to-be Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) are encouraging. Both say they intend to govern from the middle. Many progressives and conservatives are already rediscovering the values and positions that they have in common—and that each has more in common with the other than either has with the neoconservatives and the president’s current policies. 

Dan is not a card-carrying neoconservative, but he repeats many of the old neocon canards of how Democrats weakened the military. This is not the place to correct those calumnies in detail, or to argue about Iran, North Korea, etc. Let me just remind him that it was the Clinton Army that won the Afghanistan war in spectacular fashion and demonstrated its bravery and skill in the initial lighting-quick military victories in Iraq.  Nor can competence on national defense be judged by the size of the budget. It is less about inputs than outputs. Americans want their leaders to give the troops the weapons they need and weapons that work. They do not want to waste precious resources on Cold War relics or the frozen turkey of an anti-missile system in Alaska.  Progressives, moderates, and conservatives will find common cause on these issues in the coming year.

The question posed by this debate can be answered with dispassionate analysis: Is an “Iraq Syndrome” inevitable? After reading Dan's postings and thinking about this for a few days, I believe it is fair to reach three conclusions:

1.  Syndrome is not the right word. It implies a disease or disorder, something undesirable. The name itself biases the assessment. It would be more accurate to call it an "Iraq Reaction" (more neutral), or an "Iraq Correction" (more positive). 

2. A correction is underway. The policy pendulum in America is swinging back to the middle. Both the public and the politicians they elected agree by large majorities.  Reflecting Dan's concerns, they disapprove of Bush's management of the war and conclude the president does not have a plan to deal with the war. But they go much further than Dan: 60 to 70 percent (depending on the poll) say they want us out of Iraq. A third of the public want the troops out immediately, but most favor a careful, phased redeployment.  Anti-abortion, pro-gun moderates are in agreement with pro-choice, anti-gun progressives on this central point.

 3.  It is likely that this correction will extend to other military interventions.  Washington Post reporter and author Karen DeYoung told a CFR meeting November 7 that “the Iraq war vindicates the Powell doctrine.” It is highly unlikely that the Joint Chiefs [of Staff] will agree to future combat operations without the deployment of an overwhelming military force, the clear support of the American people, and a clear exit strategy. These requirements were known before the Iraq war, as the newly declassified 1999 study conducted by Marine General Anthony Zinni, Desert Crossing, reveals in detail. The requirements were ignored. They will not be again. That means future interventions of the sort Dan encourages will be highly unlikely absent a clear, imminent threat to America.  

This is all to the good. It does not mean America will be less involved in the world. It means that we will be more thoughtful about our involvement. The midterm elections begin a new chapter in America’s national security policy. There will be many plot twists, but the theme is clear.


Daniel Goure

November 7, 2006

Daniel Goure

Joe Cirincione tries hard to find the telltale signs of a forthcoming “Iraq Syndrome” without much luck. Conservatives criticizing the administration over its Iraq policy is hardly new; just ask Bill Kristol, Robert Kagan, Newt Gingrich, Ralph Peters, or even the infamous Richard Perle. The neocons he sees in retreat actually want to charge ahead, putting more troops in Iraq and dealing more decisively with the efforts by Syria and Iran to destabilize their neighbor. Retired generals (so far six out of over 1,000 on the lists) calling for the secretary of defense to resign are doing so in order to have in his place someone who will do a better job of winning the war. The American people may be deciding to “throw the rascals out.” Perhaps, but in the most recent polls, the public was evenly split between Republicans and Democrats regarding which party would do a better job handling Iraq.

If there is a syndrome to be found, it predates Iraq. Actually, it took hold well before September 11, 2001. It is the undermining of this nation’s national security capabilities, a syndrome from which we have yet to recover. It began, in part, with then CIA Director, former Admiral Stansfield Turner, and his decision to downgrade human intelligence (read spies) because of improvements made in technical collection means (read satellites). Besides, exploiting HUMINT, as it is called, meant dealing with unsavory people. The CIA had no intelligence sources in Iraq and therefore had to rely on international inspectors because the intelligence system was broken. If the war in Iraq was unnecessary, as Joe argues, it is only because we were able to confirm after the invasion what we could not know with any certainty before then. Just ask Kenneth Pollack. And the system remains broken, as well documented by Richard Posner.

The syndrome came to full flower in the 1990s with a 40 percent reduction in the size of the U.S. military. If we do not want to send reservists to Iraq, then we need a larger Army. Not the 50,000 proposed by some Democratic strategists such as Larry Korb, Kurt Campbell and Michael O’Hanlon, but 200,000. This would still be less than what we had in uniform at the beginning of the 1990s. The lack of adequate amounts of personal protection gear, armored vehicles, self-defense systems for helicopters and aircraft, and small caliber ammunition, just to mention a few items, was the result of choices made by the military under conditions of resource scarcity. The Clinton administration’s balanced budget was built on the backs of the U.S. Armed Forces. It has been regained at tremendous cost in lives and treasure over the past three years.

Since Joe brought up Iran, let’s discuss this problem for a moment. We may be facing an Iran syndrome. How do we deal with a theocratic dictatorship bent on acquiring nuclear weapons?  How can we deter them should they acquire such weapons? The failure to prevail in Iraq will make it all the more difficult to answer these questions. Use nuclear weapons? Not if Joe has his way. Rely on our conventional power? If it is inadequate for Iraq, how much better will we fare against a nation with three times that country’s population? Moreover, redeploying our forces means bringing them home. The idea of re-redeploying any of them, except perhaps the U.S. Navy, to deter or if necessary defeat Iran is one that is difficult to comprehend.

So, there is no evidence of an Iraq syndrome. But there are many potential syndromes to come. Regardless of what the United States does in Iraq, or perhaps because of what it has experienced there, it is imperative that we avoid the mistake of not fully investing in our Armed Forces. The defense budget is approaching $500 billion dollars. It needs to go higher.


Joseph Cirincione

November 6, 2006

Joseph Cirincione

"Victory has a thousand fathers," President John F. Kennedy famously said after the Bay of Pigs, "But defeat is an orphan."  As the catastrophe of the Iraq war deepens, many who promoted the war dissociate themselves from the chaos they created. How far will this distancing go? Will it be confined to attempts to salvage political careers and consulting contracts? Or will it extend to a new isolationist swing among the American people and American military?
 
It is too soon to declare an "Iraq Syndrome," but we are certainly feeling the first waves of an Iraq reaction in three distinct areas: the neoconservative retreat, the political repudiation of the party of war, and the growing antiwar mood of the military.
 
The first is easy to document. Websites are full of neoconservative finger-pointing and backup plans. Joshua Muravchik at the American Enterprise Institute calls for "Operation Comeback," which includes drafting Joe Lieberman as the Republican vice presidential candidate in 2008, preparing to bomb Iran in 2007, and blaming the loss of Iraq on the incompetence of the administration (as Dan does).
 
Seven neocons gave the same blame story to Vanity Fair, including Richard Perle, who says although "huge mistakes were made...they were not made by neoconservatives...I had no responsibility for that."
 
But the failure in Iraq is not simply a good plan badly executed. The fiasco flows directly from the strategy itself. The decision to launch the nation into an unnecessary war is the gravest mistake any leader can make. This administration systematically misled the American people on the need for war and continues to mislead us on the need to stay at war in Iraq. 
 
The second reaction will be demonstrated November 7, as millions will vote against the war and the party that launched it. Vice President Cheney's new slogan, "Full speed ahead," will surely come back to haunt him. The danger is that this reaction will not stop at some sensible middle ground, but swing all the way to isolationism. Dan's points on why this would be a mistake are well taken, but it still might happen, as it has to varying degrees after all previous wars from World War I on. 
 
The third reaction is already in motion, as retired and active-duty military reject the strategy that is breaking the Army, the Marines, and the National Guard.  The "revolt of the generals" is coming in congressional testimony, press interviews, and in the call for Donald Rumsfeld's resignation from the Military Times family of newspapers: "His strategy has failed, and his ability to lead is compromised.  And although the blame for our failures in Iraq rests with the secretary, it will be the troops who bear its brunt."
 
If this military resistance grows, it may prevent the new plans to rush more National Guard and Reserve troops to Iraq, reported in Sunday's Washington Post. It has already blocked civilian defense officials from including nuclear weapons in their Iran attack plans. It may thwart air strikes on Iran altogether if, as some suspect, the neocons and the White House try to launch another war next year. 
 
The danger would come if an Iraq reaction deepens into arguments against peacekeeping missions, against intervention in Darfur and similar crises, against a critically-needed reinforcement of our forces in Afghanistan, and against a sensible redeployment of troops from Iraq.


Daniel Goure

November 6, 2006

Daniel Goure

The answer, short and sweet, is decidedly no. Why? My reasons are many, but fall into three categories: easy, hard, and hardest.

The easy reasons begin with the proposition that the Iraq conflict has been designated as the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld war by opponents and proponents alike. It is either an illegal, immoral, or mistaken enterprise foisted on the American public by a neo-con[servative] cabal or a legitimate, even noble, enterprise gone awry by the hubris of those at the White House and Pentagon. From the failures of intelligence and the lack of a plan for stability and reconstruction, through the hash created by [L.] Paul Bremer [III] and the CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority] and ending with the failure to conduct a proper counterinsurgency campaign, there will be endless opportunities to second-guess the Bush administration on Iraq.

Another easy reason is that the Iraqis can be blamed for much of what has occurred in their country. Their sectarian divisions, the consequences of decades of tyrannical government, susceptibility to outside influences, and lack of familiarity with or acceptance of democratic institutions all led them to throw away a golden opportunity. They did it once before in the 1920s.

The harder answers have to do with America’s relationship with its military and the perspectives of that institution itself.  As many have noted, one reason for the lack of an “Iraq Syndrome” in the public at large is the all-volunteer Army. The absence of a draft must be viewed as a central factor in the nation’s tolerance for what is happening in Iraq. We nevertheless view the professional military as if they were all our own sons and daughters, but the emotional edge is not there. No one blames the military for the situation in Iraq, although its lack of experience in counterinsurgency warfare and stability operations clearly has something to do with the mess in that country.

The military does not view itself as having been defeated in Iraq. It can point to numerous successes, not only in the initial march upcountry but in its efforts to pacify and reconstruct a failed state with inadequate forces and resources. It has learned many hard lessons, the most central of which is the importance of low-intensity conflict and the need to restructure itself in order to meet this challenge. From the introduction of the Stryker brigades, to the use of unmanned aerial systems such as the Global Hawk and Armed Predators, and the acquisition of the Littoral Combat Ship,  the military is reequipping and reshaping itself, albeit perhaps too slowly, for the future.

The hardest reason is that America will have no time to wallow in an “Iraq Syndrome.” The reality is that America and its allies face a host of serious and growing threats. There is the unfinished business in Afghanistan. There are the jihadists and the rogue states such as North Korea, Iran, and Syria who will gain greatly from a loss in Iraq. Even those most opposed to the continuing mission in Iraq want redeployment and a regional presence. They too understand the dangers we face. There are failed states that not only are potential havens for terrorists, but are also breeding grounds for genocidal conflicts. Finally, there are natural catastrophes such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 2005 Pakistan earthquake. Like it or not, America and its military will be busy in the years to come.

In truth, the central story of Iraq is not about intelligence failures, botched diplomacy, misguided principles, inadequate forces, or hapless locals. Ultimately, Iraq will be seen as a failure of the Bush administration to make good on its idealistic impulses. The goals of liberating Iraq and assisting to make a transition to pluralistic democracy have their roots in America’s Wilsonian and humanitarian ideals. Regardless of what happens in Iraq, those impulses will not die. Indeed, throughout the time the United States has been in Iraq we have been subjected continuously to calls to help end the killing in Darfur, to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum, and to support democratic values and the rule of law in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and Africa. In truth, our misfortune is that we care what happens in the world, perhaps too much. Moreover, we will continue to have the power to make a difference.

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