To Nowhere and Beyond

A Military ‘Surge’ to the Political Nowhere

by Leon Hadar by Leon Hadar


It was the renowned Prussian military thinker Carl von Clausewitz who had proposed in the early 19th century that "war is merely a continuation of politics" – an assertion that should continue to serve a cautionary note to statesmen and generals who fail to take into consideration the political context in which their military strategy is being pursued.

War should not be likened to a wrestling match whose outcome depends almost entirely on the effective deployment of brute force. A military strategy has to be a means to achieve a political strategy with the player having to overcome both military and political obstacles on his way to victory.

From that "Clausewitzian" perspective, US President George W. Bush’s "new" Iraq policy – his decision to add 21,500 American troops to secure Baghdad and Anbar province as a way of reversing Iraq’s slide into civil war – is an example of a military plan divorced from a sensible political approach.

That explains perhaps why leading political and military figures in Washington and Baghdad ranging from the Iraq Study Group’s (ISG) Wise Men to the US generals who have managed the military operations on the ground (not to mention the Iraqi leaders themselves) have reacted to Bush’s latest plan for Iraq with so much skepticism, if not hostility.

In a way, much of what Bush said last week seemed to be based on the premise that the errors that the US has made in Iraq involved a failure to dispatch the right number of US troops to halt the descent of Baghdad and other parts of Iraq into chaos. A related error, according to Bush, had to do with the excessive restrictions that were imposed on the military operations of the US troops.

In fact, these arguments reflect the notion advanced by many neoconservative analysts that the political thinking underlying the decision to oust Saddam Hussein, centered on the goal of establishing a unified and democratic Iraq, made a lot of sense – but that the military implementation of that strategy was flawed. That is, if only the US had a larger number of brigades in Mesopotamia that were allowed "to do the job," Iraq would have been by now on the road of becoming a functioning democracy in the Middle East.

So, based on this argument which continues to dominate the thinking in such neoconservative bastions as the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where the outlines for the latest plan were drawn, Bush announced that he would be sending five additional brigades to Baghdad, consisting of 16,000 combat troops. This would double the number of troops in the Iraqi capital, who together with Iraqi forces would have the capability and the authority to clear and secure neighborhoods controlled by both Sunnis and Shiites.

Bush also said that the US would be dispatching 4,000 more troops to Anbar province, where most of the anti-American insurgency is led by Sunni-controlled forces (which, according to Bush, have links to al-Qaeda).

In addition, Bush announced plans to double the number of provincial reconstruction teams and to give commanders more flexibility in spending on local improvements. That plan in turn assumes the military strategy that the president outlines will succeed and create the political conditions for pursuing the economic reconstruction of Iraq.

Some neoconservative critics have suggested that the proposed surge is too small and that 30,000 to 35,000 troops would be needed to achieve the goals that Bush stated in his address. But even if the overstretched US military could come up a larger number of troops, that would still make it unlikely that the Americans would be able to overcome the political obstacles that confront them in Baghdad and in Washington.

First, much of the neoconservative grand designs for Iraq were based on the idea that Iraq was a cohesive nation-state and that through open and free elections, its citizens would elect a legitimate and effective central government. But political reality in Iraq proved to be very different than that envisioned by the architects of the war, with three ethnic and religious communities – an Arab-Shiite majority, and Arab-Sunni and Kurdish minorities – vying for power.

The elections brought to power Shiite political parties whose main goal is to protect and advance the interests of their community, including by repressing the Arab-Sunnis, while coexisting with the Kurds in a loose confederation. A Sunni-based insurgency has degenerated into a low-level sectarian civil war with violent Sunni and Shiite extremists challenging a weakening political center as each community continues to advance its respective narrow interests.

Much of the success of the military surge proposed by Bush is based on the expectations that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his government have the political will and power to reverse this process by standing up to the Shiite militias led by the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and by taking action to integrate the Sunnis into the political process.

Indeed, the ability of the Iraqi troops to lead the pacification of Baghdad assumes that such an entity as a legitimate and effective "Iraqi military" is evolving. In reality, in addition to their inability to fight, many Iraqi military troops as well as police units have been infiltrated by the Shiite militias that they were supposed to control.

At the same time, Maliki and his political allies are dependent on the support of Sadr and other leaders of Shiite militias and it is very doubtful that they would be willing to support the Americans in taking a tough stand against the Shiite radicals. And that is very rational behavior, since Maliki knows that Sadr and his militias will remain in Iraq long after Bush and the American troops leave the country.

That even a larger number of American troops are bound to find themselves in the middle of the war between Shiites and Sunnis isn’t going to help Bush deal with the other political hurdle that his costly military strategy is facing: the continuing erosion in the support at home among the political elites and the general public for his Iraq policy.

With the exception of the members of his narrow Republican base, most opinion polls suggest that Bush has lost the backing of almost every demographic group for the conduct of the war and that Americans want to see the start of the withdrawal of the 132,000 US troops that are now deployed in Iraq. But it looks as though Bush has decided to disregard this public opposition as well as the recommendations of the ISG and the military commanders and Iraq, and move to expand the level of US military presence in the country.

Moreover, by pledging last Thursday to "interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria" to Iraq and ordering an additional carrier strike group to the Persian Gulf, Bush has suggested that his administration is preparing for the possibility of the widening of the war to Iran and Syria.

The indications that Bush is going to escalate the war has strengthened the hands of the leaders of the Democratic majority that control Capitol Hill now and that is led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Harry Reid. What should be even more troubling to Bush and his aides is that several leading Republican lawmakers, including Senators Gordon Smith (Oregon), Susan Collins (Maine), and Sam Brownback (Kansas) and others have indicated that they would oppose Bush’s surge plan.

One of the ideas being discussed is the passage of non-binding resolutions in the House of Representatives and the Senate in opposition to Bush’s strategy. In the long run, Congress could even try to use its "power of the purse" to reject the White House’s demands for funding of the war.

Hence the military conflict in Iraq could result in a political war in Washington – demonstrating that politics could also be the continuation of war.