Betting on the Wrong Donkey

November 1, 2007 • Commentary
This article appeared in National Interest on November 1, 2007.

One almost wonders if Kurt Campbell and Michael O’Hanlon wish that the Democrats had lost the congressional elections of 2006.

Before then, the Democratic Party had suffered a series of embarrassing electoral defeats and national security often proved its downfall. Bill Clinton explained the problem thusly: The electorate “would choose ‘strong and wrong’ over ‘timid and right’ every time.”

But sensing that “Republican missteps [had] created a potential opening for intrepid Democrats and moderate Republicans”, Campbell and O’Hanlon offered in the spring of 2006 Hard Power: The New Politics of National Security. The book, they explained, was a primer to help Democrats “think about the difficult decisions associated with military power and national security.”

But a funny thing happened on the way to the voting booth — millions of Americans elected the very soft‐​power Dems who Campbell and O’Hanlon so roundly scorned. Particularly notable were a group of political neophytes who all rode to victory over GOP incumbents on a wave of anti‐​war sentiment — such as Dave Loebsack of Iowa, Carol Shea‐​Porter of New Hampshire, New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand, and Pennsylvania native and Iraq War veteran Patrick Murphy.

The fact that this groundswell occurred — and the reason why Campbell and O’Hanlon failed to anticipate it — explains what is wrong with this book, what is wrong with the elite foreign‐​policy community the authors represent and ultimately what is wrong with the state of public discourse on matters that are crucial to the nation’s future.

While the American public is crying out for a genuinely new approach to foreign policy, Campbell and O’Hanlon emphasize repeatedly that their proposals do not “represent a radical contrast with previous policy.” But given that previous policies have so often failed, how can their wholehearted embrace of the conventional wisdom hope to attract wide popular support?

Emblematic of the authors’ limited appreciation of the country’s current state of affairs is their frequent use of a curious descriptor of their views: “hard‐​headed.” They describe their book as offering “hard‐​headed ideas and intellectual ammunition [to policymakers] prepared for a new approach to foreign affairs and national security” (my emphasis). The term hard‐​headed has several connotations, but the most common are “obstinate” and “stubborn.” Perhaps they mean “hard‐​nosed?” Their ideas, meanwhile, are not new; they are merely a recapitulation of familiar themes. To continue to feed the same stale ideas to a country hungry for a change of course — even as these policies continually fail — is, indeed, hard‐​headed.

Which brings us back to the spring of 2006, when Hard Power was released. Campbell and O’Hanlon sensed an opportunity to erase the Democrats’ long‐​standing vulnerability on matters of national security. That would only occur, they predicted, “if [Democrats] demonstrate more competence and confidence in their own ideas”, rather than simply basing their strategy “on a comparison with George W. Bush.”

However, given that a number of long‐​shot Democratic candidates won office in November 2006 on the basis of their opposition to the Iraq War and President Bush, it is likely that many will use the same playbook the next time around. Thus, as a domestic political strategy, Hard Power seems flaccid.

Campbell and O’Hanlon claim to be “new” thinkers, but on the defining national‐​security issue of our time — the invasion and occupation of Iraq — the former was inexplicably silent and the latter horribly wrong.

In February 2003, O’Hanlon published an article supporting the invasion. Since then, he has paid lip service to eventual troop reductions, but only those that occur after the security situation on the ground improves. It has not, and thus O’Hanlon has become a leading advocate for still more troops in Iraq, a position staked out in this book and then promoted in a series of op‐​eds in defense of the president’s so‐​called surge.

Campbell, for his part, said almost nothing about Iraq during the run‐​up to war. While acting as a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), he seems to have been more focused on events in northeast Asia, his area of specialty during the Clinton Administration. But it is strange that a leading figure at one of the pre‐​eminent foreign‐​policy think tanks in Washington would take a pass on the most important foreign‐​policy issue in decades. As it happened, CSIS as an institution said very little about Iraq prior to the invasion, and one of their only public forums on the subject featured Senator John McCain (R-AZ) making the case for war.

The authors’ view of Iraq as of the spring of 2006 comes through rather clearly in this book. “There was a real case for overthrowing Saddam”, they write, “even with the benefit of crystalline hindsight.” They continue, “So while the haste and hubris that characterized the Bush Administration’s march to war in Iraq can and should be castigated, the basic decision to confront Saddam was not unreasonable (even if it was debatable).”

This is a familiar error. Much of their critique of the war, such as it is, is focused on the administration’s poor execution. They note the lack of adequate planning for the postwar period. They invoke the standard remedy — more troops. But they ignore the extent to which the presence of foreign troops was bound to engender resistance. Instead, they imply that Iraqis might have been willing to tolerate the foreign troop presence except for the fact that “our presence was increasingly perceived as a clumsy and ineffective occupation force.”

This is almost certainly incorrect. Iraqis were likely to resist even in the face of a skilled and effective occupation force. For starters, no one likes being bossed around, especially by foreigners. The Iraqis, given their long history of domination by the Turks and later the British, were particularly indisposed to a foreign occupation. No matter what happened, Saddam’s removal was going to create political winners and losers, and the losers were bound to fight back.

Such challenges were clear not merely in retrospect. Long before the war began, quite a number of individuals foresaw the disasters that would likely ensue following the destruction of Saddam’s government. As Paul Pillar explained in the pages of this magazine, the CIA prepared two different estimates about the likely difficulties we would encounter in the post‐​conflict environment. Their warnings were ignored. Officials within the Department of Defense actually blocked personnel who had worked on the State Department’s “Future of Iraq” Project from cooperating with Jay Garner’s ill‐​fated Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance.

Still other expert opinion was ignored or shunted aside. A U.S. Army War College report by Conrad Crane and W. Andrew Terrill published in February 2003 concluded that the rebuilding of Iraq would “require a considerable commitment of American resources, but the longer U.S. presence is maintained, the more likely violent resistance will develop.” The Cato Institute’s Ted Galen Carpenter predicted in September 2002 that even if the attack on Iraq went “quickly and easily, victory simply means that the United States would undertake another long and futile nation‐​building mission”, a mission that was likely to drag on for years. That same month, 33 respected scholars placed an advertisement in The New York Times warning that we had “no plausible exit strategy.” Noting that Iraq was a “deeply divided society”, they foresaw that “the United States would have to occupy and police [the country] for many years to create a viable state.”

Contrast these prescient warnings with Campbell and O’Hanlon’s ex post facto explanation that most of the problems we are encountering in Iraq could have been avoided if only there were smarter people in the White House:

It is clear now that too much momentum was lost; too many Iraqis became cynical about America’s intentions and hateful towards its soldiers and Marines; too many weapons were leeched out of arms caches; and too many radical jihadists from abroad snuck into the country.

So goes their assessment of how we got into the mess in Mesopotamia. Taking stock of the situation in the spring of 2006, they opined that “the opportunity for even a new strategy to reverse the situation is rapidly fading.”

If the situation was as bad as this, it might have been logical to conclude that the mission could not be salvaged. The authors came to the opposite conclusion. Fretting about a “bout of isolation similar to the post‐​Vietnam malaise”, the authors asserted that the best way to avert this slide toward “isolationism” is to rescue the Iraq mission.

By rejecting talk of any “fixed timeline” for the removal of troops, they endorse the same open‐​ended commitment embraced by the president, John McCain and the editors of The Weekly Standard. While conceding the need for a debate over the size of the U.S. military presence in Iraq, they declare “there should be no doubt about the need for some serious, sustained presence.” What does “serious” mean? How many troops and for how long? Their stated desire for a debate notwithstanding, their inability or unwillingness to address these questions implies a serious lack of appreciation for the magnitude of the folly of our intervention in Iraq.

In short, both Campbell and O’Hanlon are willing accomplices to one of the greatest foreign‐​policy blunders in American history. To say that the war in Iraq must succeed, as they do, implies it must succeed at all costs. That is not wise strategic advice — it is the epitome of un‐​strategic thinking. Hard‐​headed, indeed.

It is only logical that Americans, fatigued by Iraq, are anxious for a new national‐​security strategy that is not predicated on America always playing the thankless role of global sheriff. Instead, the authors offer up more inside‐​the‐​beltway thinking, based, as always, on the vision of the United States as the “indispensable nation.”

Given the litany of disastrous effects that the war has had on America’s global standing, and given the enormous costs borne by U.S. taxpayers and the U.S. military, the hangover from Iraq will impose some constraints on future administrations’ propensity to launch another war of choice. “A key challenge for future leaders”, they write, “will be to overcome these constraints with a positive new vision and strong leadership, rather than allowing them to set the tone for America’s future global role” (emphasis mine). Thus are the authors’ interventionist biases revealed. If Iraq’s disastrous aftermath sets the context, is it not logical to draw lessons that would prevent us from repeating similar mistakes in the future? This reviewer, for one, is all in favor of “constraints.” In fact, if there had been more effective constraints in 2002 and early 2003, there might have been no war in the first place.

Accepting as a given that the United States must and should fight more wars of choice in the future, the authors would enlarge the Army and Marine Corps by at least 50,000 active‐​duty personnel to cover manpower shortfalls in the event “that the Iraq mission will continue at a substantial scale longer than many hope or expect.”

But the real purpose of such troops extends well beyond Iraq. They propose that more money would also go to “regional planning centers for the National Guard” as well as a “more muscular State Department response force for aiding in the reconstruction and stabilization of countries that have recently experienced warfare.”

The new troops will be especially useful, according to Campbell and O’Hanlon, in repairing failed states, “since such locations can wind up providing sanctuary or resources to movements such as Al‐​Qaeda.” Thus does the flawed conventional wisdom again rear its ugly head. Failed states can, but often do not, serve as staging areas for terrorists. Terrorists are adept at operating in a number of different environments, including failed and failing states, but also some healthy ones. After all, the cell that planned the 9/11 attacks was based for a time in Hamburg, Germany; moreover, nearly all of the terrorists that attacked British trains and buses in July 2005 and had plans to launch similar attacks on aircraft in the late summer of 2006, were born and raised in one of the most stable and prosperous countries on the planet.

Campbell and O’Hanlon thus conflate the threat posed by terrorists with the existence of weak and failing states. And they dramatically — although it would appear unintentionally — reveal the other flaw behind nation‐​building as national‐​security policy. “Should stabilization efforts be required”, they intone, “the scale of the undertaking could be breathtaking.” Precisely, which is why an active‐​duty military that was 50,000 or even 100,000 troops larger would be inadequate to the task.

Take, for example, their call for “a quickly deployable” corps of “Diplomatic Special Forces” with a “capability large enough to coordinate an effort in a country the size of Iraq or Afghanistan or even Congo.” They explain that a corps of 10,000 deployable civilians would be desirable and advertise this force as a way to relieve the military of some of its burdens.

But the practical effect would be exactly the opposite, since the military would be called on to provide security to shield diplomats and nation‐​builders as they went about their work. Indeed, the number of troops required for such missions would be absolutely staggering. A well‐​established rule of thumb for the ratio of troops to population needed to impose order in a conflict zone (twenty per 1,000) would require 1.2 million troops in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, more than 800,000 in Sudan and nearly 350,000 in the Ivory Coast, a country that routinely appears near the top of any failed‐​states list. It should be painfully obvious that the U.S. military has nowhere near the capacity necessary for achieving some measure of success, and not even hard‐​headed Democrats such as Campbell and O’Hanlon go nearly far enough to close the gap. After all, if the price of the hard‐​power strategy were advertised up front, most Americans would reject it.

The public’s skepticism is warranted. Successful nation‐​building is predicated on the ability to stay in‐​country for a very long time with many troops. An on‐​call, rapid‐​reaction nation‐​building corps is likely to get involved in missions that would place more U.S. troops in more places abroad, and for very long periods of time. In an age in which international terrorism could just as plausibly arise from Marseille, France, as it could from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, America cannot afford to lose its focus and sap its strength by engaging in futile attempts to build nations.

Campbell and O’Hanlon’s inability, or unwillingness, to render strategic judgments and to differentiate between vital missions, peripheral missions and missions that require no American involvement whatsoever is further revealed by their other plans for leaving America’s enormous military budget more or less at its current level.

A recent Gallup poll found that despite the pervasive fear engendered by 9/11, more than four in ten Americans believe that we are spending too much on defense — the highest figure in 15 years. By contrast, only one in five believe the United States should spend more. Campbell and O’Hanlon hew to the middle, declaring, “the basic magnitude of the defense budget is determined by the broad parameters of this American defense posture.” But this is a tautology. It is only by accepting essentially all existing missions as a given that they can avoid making hard choices on what to cut from our horribly bloated defense budget.

When they get further down into the weeds, scrutinizing individual weapons systems, nearly all of the big‐​ticket items remain on the books. Littoral combat ships, submarines, F‐​22s and V‐​22s all survive, albeit in smaller numbers. And don’t forget their support for a larger military. Those tough choices they keep talking about seem limited to cutting missile defense and reducing the number of nuclear warheads to a level consistent with the Moscow Treaty of 2002 (whereby the United States and Russia would possess between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads by 2012).

We are indeed engaged in a “long war”, a conflict with a shadowy enemy that will stop at nothing to harm innocent Americans. But conventional armies and gold‐​plated, whiz‐​bang hardware are precisely the wrong tools for fighting such a foe. Counter‐​terrorism depends on timely intelligence, most of it gleaned from non‐​military sources. Moreover, the most effective counter‐​terrorism operations rely on effective cooperation with foreign partners and the integration of law enforcement, diplomacy and coordinated financial pressure — not blunt military force.

They contend that their hard‐​power proposals are not radical, but this is only true in the context of the times. Our current policies, though deeply entrenched in the Democratic and Republican Party establishments, are radical — radically wrong for the country.

We need a wholesale change of course based on a sober appreciation for the often‐​disastrous consequences of military intervention. We need to limit our propensity to wage war. Asking our already overburdened military to take on still more wars of choice is both unnecessary and counterproductive. The long‐​term solution is a reappraisal of our strategy for fighting terrorism and a reconsideration of the appropriate balance to be struck among the tools we use to implement it.

The authors do a better job laying out a reasonable strategy for winning the so‐​called long war, but the solutions they offer are not based on Hard Power; rather, they encompass a range of soft policies, such as diplomacy, economic carrots and sticks, and citizen outreach. They describe them as “tough‐​minded policies”, but their call for democracy promotion through “adept diplomacy, patience, and a subtle touch” doesn’t sound very hard. Even those policies that are heavily reliant on intrusive government power — such as favorable tax treatment for hybrid cars and regulations mandating more efficient household appliances — still seem more soft than hard, and they can be expected to have no meaningful impact on reducing the threat of terrorism against Americans.

Other soft proposals, such as “more resources for various visa and immigration services and the creation of expedited procedures for student visas”, would make space for the types of private, non‐​coercive engagement between Americans and non‐​Americans that is so badly needed. In a similar vein, they are correct to emphasize free trade, including bilateral pacts in the Middle East, and they deserve praise for their advocacy of lifting textile quotas and not exempting cotton — as is currently done for the benefit of a very small number of American cotton growers.

All told, their approach to the long war is useful, but really just consistent with the post–Bush Doctrine conventional wisdom.

Their fixation on sounding hard‐​headed, even when they occasionally advocate soft policies, sometimes reveals itself in an embarrassing inconsistency. For example, they understand that the struggle against terrorism “cannot be won by military force alone, or even principally.” Indeed, they recognize that Hard Power, especially in the form of large‐​scale conventional operations, is often irrelevant, and occasionally counterproductive, to winning the long war. But that begs the question: Why, at the same time, do they expound on the benefits of a much larger military?

Ultimately, this book and the principles guiding it are based on the same shop‐​worn America‐​as‐​indispensable‐​nation mindset that a growing number of Americans have roundly rejected. While the policy elites debate amongst themselves how to improve our performance as the world’s policeman, Americans, by a three to one margin, believe that the United States should step back from this role.

Campbell and O’Hanlon’s purportedly “sophisticated political strategy” offers only more of the same. Indeed, it might actually make things worse; to the extent that their perception of national‐​security interests is broader than that of classic conservatives, but perhaps even more expansive than that of the neoconservatives, it is likely that Campbell and O’Hanlon’s proposals would result in more military intervention, not less.

Some interventions are, and will be, necessary. But advocates for future wars must have a reasonable expectation that military intervention will advance U.S. national security, and they must be equally confident that it has a reasonable chance of success. Iraq, especially, teaches us that wars of choice, even those pursued with the best of intentions, are likely to encounter a host of unintended consequences that should call the wisdom of such intervention into question.

Campbell and O’Hanlon appear not to have learned this. They embrace the interventionist consensus, encouraging Democrats to limit themselves to picking at the edges of a deeply flawed hegemonic strategy.

This tinkering at the margins isn’t much by way of strategic thinking, and, to the extent that it is, it’s a strategy of defeat. To follow their advice, one would have to be truly hard‐​headed.

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