Geopolitical analysts are especially fond of quoting Edmund Burke and George Santayana on the folly of ignoring the lessons of history and the dangers of repeating the original decisions. But what's even more imprudent, and potentially fatal, is to learn the wrong lessons from history — and by avoiding the previous mistakes, plow ahead without understanding the causes of their failure.
President Barack Obama is now in danger of steering a perilous course in confronting the threat of Islamic State in the Middle East (also known as ISIS or ISIL) by seeking to avoid any suggestion that American ground troops will be needed to defeat these extremist forces. Mindful of the grave mistakes of the Bush/Cheney administration, Mr. Obama has gone out of his way to say American soldiers will only serve as advisers or embassy guards.
As several experts have pointed out, Islamic State poses a serious threat not only to the stability of Iraq and Syria but the entire region if its momentum is not halted and its support not confronted by overwhelming force and political cohesion.
Very few people today dispute the conclusion that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a grave, reckless and costly strategic disaster — perhaps the worst in American history. Based on lies, a failure to attract a broad-based allied coalition and a crude distortion of U.S. national interests, it left Iraq in shambles and allowed Iran to become the effective winner in the short term.
But while the Obama administration is correctly taking its time to organize an effective coalition against the new threat, it is in danger of ignoring or forgetting the second lesson of the Bush/Cheney invasion: the utter disaster of the execution.
Even the harshest critics of the 2003 invasion would concede that had the former administration followed the advice of many military and diplomatic experts, committed overwhelming force, gathered a broad coalition as done before Desert Storm in 1991, and planned properly for an occupation, the initial decision would have been rationalized. Success tends to have that effect.
Both of us organized wargaming exercises for the Pentagon and State Department in 2002 — up to a year before the March, 2003 invasion — which found wide opposition to an invasion. But these exercises also looked at the major consequences if the administration went ahead.
Projecting an easy military victory over Saddam's forces, the main recommendations to senior leaders from State Department and U.S. Central Command war games in 2002 were:
•Form a broad coalition of actors along the lines followed by President George H. W. Bush in 1991 before Desert Storm, including key Muslim states.
•Adhere to the Weinberger/Powell doctrine, committing overwhelming forces, both for the military campaign and the resulting and more challenging post-war conditions. An occupation would take far more force than the initial campaign. A wargame for Gen. Anthony Zinni, then head of U. S. Central Command, found that 300,000 troops would be necessary for a successful occupation — twice the estimate of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
•Do not — under any circumstances — tear apart the Iraqi army or its generally effective civil service. While essential to overthrow a brutal dictator and get rid of 200 or more of his closest military and civil advisers, the stability of post-war Iraq would need a strong army and civil servants, many of them Baathist supporters only by expediency. The Iraqi people, while initially pleased with Saddam's overthrow, "will expect the powerful United States to turn on the lights overnight," as one memo observed. Power generation has barely crawled back to pre-Saddam levels.
Under its hand-picked pro-consul, Paul Bremer, the Bush/Cheney group did just the opposite. They disbanded the Iraqi army and allowed the firing of hundreds of basically apolitical civil servants.
The circumstances today are very different.
Air strikes and intelligence cooperation can significantly degrade Islamic State, but cities can be a major problem. Ground forces could still be required to retake areas such as Mosul — and Iraq's army is in no position to do that. By saying no American "boots on the ground," we have told the extremists to take up positions in urban areas.
President Obama needs to make it clear that cities will not be sanctuaries. Just as he has changed his mind that this really is a war, he must change his mind and admit that we may well use American forces on the ground.
The German military philosopher Carl von Clausewitz said war should be an extension of policy. It should not be an extension of politics. Just because Bush 43 got it so wrong is not a reason for a new mistake.
If the objective is to degrade and destroy Islamic State, the president should not pre-decide limits to achieve that critical goal.
Frederic Hill, a former Baltimore Sun correspondent and editorial writer, and Col. Sam Gardiner organized wargaming exercises for the State Department and Defense Department on the Middle East and dozens of other political/military and economic challenges for more than 20 years. Their emails are email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
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