The Long View 2002-08-15: How Iraq Can Win

The Long ViewIf you have never clicked through the links to see John's archived site in all it's 1990s glory, you should. In this case, you are missing the topical links John embedded in the left sidebar. I'll excerpt one that is particularly relevant now:

Victor Davis Hanson's Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power perhaps needs a companion volume about wars the West lost.

Hanson is fairly well-known as a conservative academic and a supporter of invading Iraq after 9/11, and has written a number of influential volumes on the history of classical Greece as an important constituent of the Western way of life. In this particular volume, Hanson argues that there is a fundamental difference between the Asiatic way of war and the Western way of war. Many battles in classical antiquity were pathetically unorganized affairs. Both sides would meet in some dusty plain and mill around for a time. Various enthusiastic hotheads from either side would ride out to goad challengers, and eventually either the delay would produce some kind of useful truce, or a clash of mobs would occur, and the army that broke ranks first would be slaughtered as they fled.

Greece, and Rome after her, was fantastically successful by drilling soldiers in formation and insisting on rigid discipline. Soldiers that stick together and follow orders are typically much more successful, although far from invincible. When you bring hoplites and cavalry to the Middle East and the Mediterranean Basin, you get Alexander the Great and the Roman Empire. The Romans did have problems with barbarians such as the Germans [much bigger than the typical Imperial Roman soldier due to different diet and genetics] and the Huns [the Romans didn't place much emphasis on missle weapons, and so had trouble with mounted archers. An English long bow vastly outranges the shortbows mounted archers use, and horses are big targets, but the Romans didn't have anything like a longbow].

Hanson contrasts the Asiatic way of war, which aims for psychological effect, with the Western way of war, which seeks to annihilate the enemy army. This is true, so far as it goes, but there is really more than one Western way of war. An influential alternative is maneuver warfare, which seeks to destroy the ability of the enemy to resist rather than the enemy's army per se. This is an idea that goes back at least to Sun Tzu, but would have been familiar to Hannibal as well. Maneuver warfare is nonetheless shares more in common with the more direct Western approach [what Jerry Pournelle calls WARRE] than the Asiatic way.

By way of comparison, consider the current state of ISIS. A great deal of ink has been spilt over this group, but ISIS probably has fewer than 30,000 members. Probably a lot less with US help. There is a certain amount of media hype involved, but this is an accurate expression of what Hanson was getting at: numbers matter less than politics and posturing in Middle Eastern warfare. [this may also explain why Hanson was sometimes conflated with the War Nerd.] If a country like Tunisia practiced war like the United States, it could send 500,000 young men to Syria and Iraq, rather decisively settling the current conflict.

Nonetheless, the very attention that ISIS generates in Western media indicates that the Asiatic way of war has its advantages. The curious thing is that they can only win if we pay attention to them.

How Iraq Can Win


There was a flurry of stories on Monday, August 12, that set me scurrying to what few sources I have to find out whether the war with Iraq was imminent. Certainly that was what the oil markets suspected. That was the day when the Iraqis took the trouble to remove as a bargaining chip the possibility of further weapons inspections. They did this despite the fact the Saudis were still trying to use the prospect of inspections to negotiate a deal with the UN. There were somewhat confused reports that the US military was buying up commercial shipping space to take helicopters to the Gulf area on an expedited basis. There were even reports that the Israelis were preparing for an Iraqi missile attack at any time.

The flurry has continued, but I have resisted the impulse to comment on these items as they appear. Possibly I don't have the true blogger temperament. Another factor is that I am on record in print, in this month's Business Travel Executive, suggesting that a war is most likely in late October. How dare mere history contradict my speculations?

Actually, the US debate does have a blind spot. All the war plans we have been reading about recently presuppose a passive Iraq. At most, the plans contemplate that Iraq might seek to inflict maximum casualties on attacking US forces, with the hope of causing Somalia-like revulsion at home. There is also speculation that the Iraqis might do something "crazy," like respond to a conventional US attack by launching against Israel whatever weapons of mass destruction they may have. Because of the certainty of Israeli retaliation if the WMDs actually worked, the latter strategy would be the Iraqi national equivalent of a suicide bombing.

Victor Davis Hanson, author of Carnage and Culture, has described the "Asiatic" way of war as the kind that really is diplomacy by other means. The chief strategy is to inflict a humiliating coup on the enemy, whose leaders then lose so much face at home that they have to seek terms. This strategy does not work well when it confronts a power able to employ the Western model of war, which is aimed not at psychological effect, but at the annihilation of an opponent's armed forces. It is reasonably clear that Iraq cannot defend itself militarily against the US for any length of time. Something we have to keep in mind, however, is that the "Asiatic" model is not without its successes, and against the US in particular. The Asiatic model is arguably the sane model to apply against an opponent with limited cohesion and political will.

Political will is not lacking in the US at the moment. The assertion that the Administration has yet to make the case to the public for an invasion of Iraq is beside the point. The people as a whole support an invasion, the sooner the better. The calls for debate and dialogue come from influential minorities who want to delay action long enough for the national consensus to evaporate. Where the will is lacking is in the West as a whole.

The US can, and probably should, conduct the Iraqi campaign without substantial support from its allies, if only to show once and for all that their material support is unnecessary. The US can and probably should act without UN authorization, beyond that remaining from the Security Council resolutions of 1990 and 1991. Passive disapproval is one thing, however, and active opposition is another. It would be beyond the political ability even of the United States to conduct an invasion if the EU and UN were diplomatically engaged in the region at the time.

The obvious way to secure such engagement would be to link the Iraqi and Palestinian situations. Iraq has international defenders but no friends; the regime is a pariah even to those states which object to seeing it changed by force. Palestine, on the other hand, is the apple of the eye of the European Left. Even on the Right, it is more popular than Israel. The same networks that organized the boycotts against the apartheid government of South Africa are having some success in organizing boycotts against Israeli goods, and even blackballing Israeli academics. If support for regime change in Iraq could be made to seem to be support for apartheid, that would change the situation substantially.

Iraq tried to create a link during the 1991 war with its Scud attacks on Israel. Iraq failed then, because the linkage was so obviously artificial. What is different now is the continuing suicide-intifada, which has at least the appearance of a guerrilla campaign. It also provokes genuine military reprisals from Israel. Iraq could create a linkage by making its own reprisals to those reprisals. Iraq could plausibly claim to be defending the Palestinian people, if it attacked Israel with missiles or drone aircraft while Israel was engaged in another reprisal. Assuming the Iraqi attack did not include weapons of mass destruction, Israel's counterstrike would be within Iraq's tolerances, or at least the tolerances of Iraqis in very deep bunkers. The US would then have to consider the fact that any action it took in Iraq would make it an active ally of Israel, united in attacking on an Arab country.

Just as important, the world's diplomatic machinery would then go into high gear to prevent the situation from "spinning out of control." The US could block Security Council action, though not a humiliating Security Council debate. In any case, a general conference to consider the whole Middle East could be called by some regional organization, or by an ad hoc coalition that would certainly include US allies. The US might find that it could not start an invasion without endangering diplomats on the ground.

For any of this to happen, it would have to start soon, before the US has forces in position that could preempt Iraqi support for the intifada. In reality, Iraq has a history of dithering while temporary advantages melt away; they could have dislodged the US from Saudi Arabia in 1991, had they acted quickly. With any luck at all, this time they will also dither until it is too late

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site