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Syllabus of Errors, Part One


There is faith, and there is reason, and while each may inform the other, there comes a time when they must part ways. So it is in Iraq.

I supported the war in Iraq. I supported it for several reasons. I believed that cruel tyrants ipso facto have no legitimacy, and that any outside power was within its rights, and indeed its obligations, to destroy their regimes. I believed that the swelling tide of Muslim terror and jihad were the primary threat to the United States — and the West — in the modern era. I believed that that tide stemmed directly from the social and political sickness of the Muslim world itself. I believed that those illnesses were curable with a good dose of liberal democratic values. I believed that those values were exportable by force. I believed that the successful export of those values into a nation in the heart of the Muslim world would be an epochal blow against the forces of despotism and fanaticism that enslaved much of that world — and threatened ours.

I still believe all these things. But there were many things that I believed as corollaries with these postulates that I was wrong about. I was wrong to think that the social and political sickness of the Muslim world was a transient phenomenon, separable from the societies and faith in which it flourished. I was wrong to think that slavery and ignorance are conditions from which persons inherently wish liberation. I was wrong to think that one venue in the heart of the Muslim world was as good as another: that Iraq was as sufficient as Jordan, or Saudi Arabia, or Egypt.

Most grievous of all errors, I was wrong to think that the Administration of George W. Bush was competent to act upon any of the given beliefs.

From the beginning, it was easy to see how poor planning, lack of strategic competence, and even lack of operational competence inexorably crippled the war effort. It is a catalogue of complaints familiar enough to sober observers: The chronic undermanning of the occupation and counterinsurgency forces. The failure to stem disorder in the early days. The precipitate disbanding of the Iraqi army. The American military’s unpreparedness for a guerrilla campaign. The British military’s near-total failure to fight Islamists in its own AOR. The inability to secure borders. The reliance, forced by undermanning, on ethnic militias from peshmerga to Badrists for basic security duties. The April 2004 retreat from Fallujah. The failure in October 2003, April 2004, and August 2004 to capture or kill Moqtada al Sadr. The endemic shoddy accountability and execution of reconstruction projects.

Even these mistakes, unforgivable and obvious as they were, did not diminish my support for the war. I maintained a resolve, if not an enthusiasm, for the war in Iraq for two reasons:

First, the consequences of defeat or withdrawal — and was there a meaningful difference? — seemed obvious. For America to quit the field would give a psychological boost to the jihadists equivalent to or greater than that provided by the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan. For the United States to be perceived as defeated twice in living memory by local insurgencies would merely invite future such phenomena in future wars — and confirm the dangerous notion that Western polities are inherently unable to meet such efforts. For our country to abandon our local allies would be to cheapen the value of an American alliance, and expose to grave danger those who depend upon us: Taiwan, South Korea, and Israel, among others, would lay exposed to the predations of their neighbors. Like it or not, it was clear that in Iraq lay the future of American power — and the liberty of millions abroad.

Second, a military effort is still a military effort, and for all the ineptitude of our political and operational leadership, it nonetheless seemed unlikely that our enemies in the field would win. For all its flaws, the Bush Administration has one thing right: the key to victory is to stay. Insurgencies win when they outlast, and that too is the key to our victory — to stay in the field. It is common on the left and on the isolationist right to take the list of mistakes above, and from it conclude that defeat is foreordained. It is not so. History is replete with examples of blundering victors (the winners of the American Civil War and the Boer War each spent the first two-thirds of their respective wars doing their utmost to fail), and we should not simply assume that Iraq is a lost cause because it is a poorly-done cause.

Again, I still believe that both these rationales remain valid. But they no longer encompass the whole of the situation in Iraq in which we are enmeshed. And as such, they may be no longer relevant. The bombing of the Shi’a al Askari mosque in Samarra and its aftermath have altered the war there sufficiently so that we may now consider it a different war than that in which we were previously engaged.

Continued in part two.

Share  Posted by Josh Trevino at 6:13 PM | Permalink

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