The death of U.S. strategy in Iraq
What outcome can justify the costs of fighting on?
Tokyo; and Cambridge, Mass.
John McCain has set off a firestorm by suggesting that the timing of the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq is "not too important." What is important, he said, are the casualties in Iraq, pointing to long-term US troop presence in Japan, South Korea, and Germany. He should be commended for his "straight talk" in articulating what he believes, despite its unpopularity.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
But Senator McCain has yet to give the American people clear answers to three fundamental questions: What, exactly, are the political objectives of keeping large numbers of American soldiers in Iraq for years to come? What plausible outcome would benefit the United States enough to justify the wrenching costs of achieving those objectives? And what, concretely, is the strategy for getting there?
McCain may genuinely believe there is still a political objective, albeit a far more modest one than President Bush and the war's supporters originally articulated, that can justify the sacrifice of still more American lives and treasure. But if he can't do better than slogans such as "winning" and "stability," it's hard to avoid the conclusion that such an objective simply doesn't exist. And in that case, we can add one more exorbitant cost to the war's bill: the death of strategy.
Carl von Clausewitz famously explained that war is simply a continuation of policy by other means. Distasteful as that might seem, it has the virtue of ruling out wars that have no defined political objective. Writing under the shadow of the political upheavals resulting from the Napoleonic wars, the Prussian strategist understood that war is inherently political, and not merely a technical and mechanical confrontation between armies. As such, "victory" cannot be defined solely by the body count of the enemy.
McCain, who fought in a conflict the US lost despite defeating the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army in every battle of military consequence, should instinctively appreciate Clausewitz's insight.Instead, McCain, Bush and many leading Republicans chide Barack Obama and fellow Democrats for refusing to concede that the US is now "winning" in Iraq. But in their focus on tactical-level progress – military fatalities and sectarian killings are down, and pacified neighborhoods are up – they duck the more fundamental question: What larger strategic and political objectives are being served?