Why Advocate a Policy You Admit Is a Failure?

One of the common rhetorical tropes of war hawks is on display in Max Boot’s LA Times column today: the war is/was a good idea, but there aren’t/weren’t enough troops to succeed:

For the last three years, the Bush administration has pursued a policy of wishful thinking in Iraq, operating under the hope that some deus ex machina…would salvage a deteriorating situation.

Boot then presents a list of convincing particulars demonstrating that the security environment is deteriorating in Iraq, ephemeral pieces of “good news” notwithstanding.  Boot then concludes that

By now it should be obvious that the “light footprint” approach has not worked. It has increased, not decreased, resentment of the United States because Iraqis are aggrieved by the breakdown of law and order. Yet there appears to be no serious rethinking of this flawed strategy at either the Pentagon or the White House.

The essential question for Boot and his fellow-travelers is: How, in good conscience, can you continue to support a war that you have no evidence will be conducted properly–now or in any future scenario–by your own definition of the word “properly”?   This is irresponsible in the extreme.

Put another way: Max Boot says the current war strategy in Iraq has failed.  Max Boot says there is no sign that a successful war strategy will be employed.  Therefore, Max Boot says that we should continue the war.

Boot suggests in this short and insufficient passage that more troops are available:

It’s true that the armed forces are overstretched and need to be enlarged, but there are still just 150,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq out of 2.6 million in the active-duty ranks, reserves and National Guard. More soldiers could be found to police Baghdad if this were deemed a top priority.

Not so fast.  It’s easy to look at raw numbers and conclude that there are more troops to be had.  But Boot’s claim of 2.6 million is just hogwash.  From my handy copy of IISS’s The Military Balance, I can see why.

First, it’s important to recognize that the coast guard, Navy, and Air Force aren’t going to be too helpful in policing Samarra.  Therefore, we’d have to exclude them from the count.  That leaves us here:

Army: 633,630

Army Reserve National Guard: 351,650

Marines: 186,661

Marine Corps Reserve: 92,000

So we come in just under 1.3 million, not 2.6.  That’s offering the charitable (and wrong) assumption that all of the folks in the Army, National Guard, Marines, and Marine Corps Reserve are combat troops, as opposed to logistics and targeting specialists, engineers, what have you.  If we wanted to run those numbers, Boot would be in much deeper trouble.

Next, we’re confronted with the unwelcome reality that counterinsurgency doctrine says you’d need (roughly) between 10 and 20 troops per 1,000 indigenous persons for a project as ambitious as Iraq.  This point is not controversial at all among counterinsurgency experts.  (By way of comparison, the United States has about 2.3 police officers per 1,000 population.)  So that puts us at between 250,000 and 500,000 troops on the ground at any given time in Iraq.

Next, as my friends Matt Yglesias and Sam Rosenfeld pointed out in November,

Sustaining a given number of troops in a combat situation requires twice that number to be dedicated to the mission, so that soldiers can rotate in and out of theater. As there are only 1 million soldiers in the entire Army, a 500,000-troop deployment would imply that literally everyone – from the National Guard units currently assisting with disaster relief on the Gulf Coast to those serving in Afghanistan, Korea, and Europe to the bureaucrats doing staff work in the Pentagon and elsewhere – would be dedicated to the mission. This is plainly impossible. Indeed, as of this writing the Army has zero uncommitted active combat brigades, and there are serious questions as to how long the current deployment is sustainable. The Army is already facing persistent shortfalls in recruitment, and former General Barry McCaffrey and others have expressed the view that if current trends continue, the Guard and Reserve forces will “melt down” over the next three years.

So now we’re talking about keeping at least 500,000 and as many as 1,000,000 (of a total end strength of ~1.3 million) Americans dedicated full-time to fighting the war in Iraq, or waiting for their turn to fight the war in Iraq.  That wouldn’t take into account the war in Afghanistan, commitments in Europe and East Asia, or–God forbid–any unexpected contingency that should present itself.

Now, of course, there’s the other unwelcome problem that the National Guard and Marine Corps Reserves might not be too happy about, y’know, all being called up at once.  There would be economic effects of taking them out of the productive economy, and on and on.

If this all seems ridiculous, that’s because it is.  Boot should know better.

So Boot is left with a choice: Support the war you have, or don’t.  As things stand now, we don’t have a State Department 4 times as big as it is and a military 3 times as big as it is.  If we did, maybe things could be different.  But we don’t.