Warblogging

Could someone explain to me why people think it was against the law for President Obama to trade five prisoners from the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in exchange for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who has been held by Taliban forces for years? I understand that Congress has passed a law that requires him to notify them before releasing a Guantanamo inmate, but I don’t see where Congress gets the power to constrain the Executive branch this way.

To the extent that they were terrorists and criminals, the President has a constitutional power to pardon people of crimes (even if they haven’t been convicted) or to grant clemency. I’m pretty sure that no law passed by Congress can change that.

Alternatively, if they’re being detained not as criminals but as enemy combatants, like traditional prisoners of war, then aren’t they being detained under the Executive’s constitutional power to wage war and not due to an act of Congress? It doesn’t make sense that the Executive branch could imprison people on its own authority but require permission from Congress to release them.

This is a sincere question. I’m completely willing to believe it was illegal, but I don’t understand why. And note that I’m not asking if it was a good idea.

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about the Unreal Liberal Argument for Conscription, which is basically that the U.S. would be less likely to engage in military adventurism if more people had skin in the game because their children could be drafted. My response was essentially that without the ability to force young men to be soldiers, the government would have to be far more careful about how it picked and fought its wars, an argument I backed up with some rough numbers indicating that we lose far fewer soldiers to war since conscription ended in 1973.

My tweet announcing this post was re-tweeted by Radley Balko (who is probably the most famous person who follows me) which lead to a few interesting responses:

Kevin Wilson tweeted:

There’s also the moral argument that conscription is basically slavery: http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2011/05/how_could_the_d.html …

XM in Dallas tweeted along the same idea:

Great piece. But am I being obtuse by suggesting that we should keep saying out loud that slavery is wrong?

I think that conscription is slavery too, and I’ve said so before. I didn’t mention it explicitly this time because I didn’t think it was a useful response to David Sirota’s argument for conscription. Sirota’s presumably not an evil person, and if he were amenable to the idea that conscription is slavery, he probably would not have made the argument that he did. The people I wanted to reach, those who are swayed by his argument, probably don’t think “it’s slavery” is a compelling point.

But why don’t they? Why does the link between slavery and conscription — which seems practically self-evident to me and others — not seem sensible to so many other people? Bryan Caplan’s article that Kevin Wilson provided in his tweet offers one plausible explanation:

It’s tempting to dismiss all this as doublethink, but after many years of reflection I think I finally figured out what most people are thinking.  Namely: They implicitly regard slavery not as mere involuntary servitude, but as low-status involuntary servitude.  Since most of us honor, respect, and even adore all our soldiers, conscripts have high status – and therefore can’t be slaves.  From this point of view, saying “conscription is slavery” isn’t righteously standing up for the rights of conscripts; it’s wickedly denying them their high status.

That strikes me as quite likely to explain some people’s reactions, perhaps especially on the right. It explains how people can express admiration for our soldiers while simultaneously arguing that we should take away their freedom.

When it comes to liberal advocates of conscription, however, I think that there’s a different dynamic at work. Consider part of an argument made by my (somewhat less libertarian) co-blogger Ken in the comments:

Markets made up of people can be influenced by more than just monetary costs. The all volunteer force is currently overwhelmingly made up of the poor and otherwise disadvantaged. Our recruitment efforts focus on this.

Parents will gladly pay extra money to send their kids to schools in better neighborhoods. They will also gladly pay extra for the poor of America to fight wars for them. I’m not convinced this added monetary expense will be enough to put a dent in warmongering.

To libertarians like me, there’s a world of moral difference between people stuck in an unhappy life because they are poor and people stuck in an unhappy life because a coercive force is keeping them there. Poor people who choose military service because it’s the best of a poor set of options are exercising a choice, whereas people drafted into the military under threat of imprisonment are the victims of state violence.

I don’t think progressives see it that way. They regard economic pressure and state violence as a continuum of forces that take away liberty. To them, forcing people into the military by conscription is on the same moral plane as allowing economic pressures to force people to take take shitty jobs or be unemployed unless they join the military. Looking at it this way, and taking into account their belief that the volunteer army encourages militarism, they may regard conscription as the lesser of two comparable evils.

The way us libertarians see it, however, is that poor people may choose military service as a possible way out of poverty. Conscription would take that choice away from them, and taking away choices is never good.

(Two quick caveats: People who are poor because they are victims of coercive government policies are a completely different matter. Also, if you don’t want poor people to choose military service, the solution is not to draft middle-class people but to give poor people better choices.)

Ken also questions my argument that the increased public cost of sending soldiers to war will discourage militarism:

Do we really choose our wars more carefully now? It seems we rushed headlong into the Iraq war with almost no legitimate justification. The monetary cost certainly didn’t seem to have had a detrimental impact on the decision to invade. Those costs weren’t even budgeted for at the time.

Even when the bill comes due, at a trillion or two dollars over ten or twenty years, most people can be convinced to foot the monetary bill for what they believe is a just war. Those same people may be more reticent to send their sons and daughters into combat where many will come home with terrible wounds, lost limbs, and emotionally scarred, despite the number of American deaths being lower than in past conflicts.

Will those large numbers of wounded vets be eager to send their children into a future conflict, no matter how well equipped with body armor and the latest in battle rifles?

400,000 American soldiers lost their lives in World War II, yet conscription didn’t stop the “greatest generation” from sending their children to Vietnam.  At least the next generation will have some say in the matter.

I’m not convinced this added monetary expense will be enough to put a dent in warmongering. It certainly didn’t seem to diminish the momentum in our most recent invasion of Iraq.

Even if we don’t explicitly debate the benefit-cost calculations of wars explicitly, we have had extensive debates about the size and structure of our military forces. Our military may be larger than most of the rest of the world combined, but in terms of total soldiers under arms, it’s smaller than it used to be. As the cold war ended, we took the opportunity to stand down about 1/3 of our active duty personnel, and there was a lot of discussion of how this would limit our strategic options. The invasion of Iraq strained the limits of our ability to fight battles abroad. At the risk of invoking Donald Rumsfeld, we can only warmonger with the army we have.

A completely different criticism comes from Jon S, who tweeted,

Who knew that only American deaths count??

Every death counts, of course. But I was responding to the argument that re-instituting conscription would make Americans more likely to oppose rampant militarism because they or their loved ones could be drafted into a war. The death rates of our foreign opponents (or even our allies) wouldn’t figure into that argument, so I didn’t take them into account in mine.

Jon S may have been trolling me, because a little later he tweeted:

Witnessing/participating in horrific violence is cost of war,eg PTSD. If cost spread over whole pop, less likely 2 support it

It’s hard to see how conscription in the U.S. could spread around the cost incurred by people from other countries, so he’s clearly talking only about the affect of witnessing/participating in horrific violence as incurred by U.S. participants, which is what I was doing too, and for the same reason.

(It’s possible I misconstrued his tweet and he was really objecting to my only counting fatalities and excluding other harm. I used war deaths as a proxy for total social cost of historic and current wars because I don’t know where to find reliable estimates for those costs.)

I did give the issue of foreign cost some thought as I was writing my post, especially the part about how giving potential soldiers the option to refuse to serve was forcing the military to spend more money on equipment and training. That effect protects American lives, but foreign solders wouldn’t benefit from it. In fact, the enormous investment in American soldiers makes them more effective at killing the enemy, which could conceivably offset the beneficial effect of saving American lives and fighting fewer and smaller wars. If the volunteer military has saved 90,000 American lives but American soldiers have killed an extra, say, half-million of our enemy, then ending conscription has arguably increased the amount of misery in the world.

For purposes of my last post, however, I decided to count the cost of war only in American deaths because (1) as I said, the deaths of foreigners were not part of the argument I was countering, and (2) it’s a much more complicated question requiring a lot more work.

Nevertheless, it is a fair question, so let me give it a shot. Regarding the first problem, let’s use the basic rules of welfare calculations and assume that everybody counts, and everybody counts equally. Some people may very well think that the lives of American soldiers are worth more than the lives of a bunch of terrorists hiding in caves, but that would be rigging the analysis: If you assume American lives are worth more than anybody else’s, then why bother to do the analysis at all?

The second problem is trickier to solve. For one thing, we don’t have good estimates of how many of the enemy were killed in some of our wars. The estimates of the number of North Korean combat deaths apparently spans a range of many hundreds of thousands, as do the estimates of North Vietnamese dead. The numbers for Iraq and Afghanistan are apparently even murkier, especially since people with political interests have interests in understating or overstating the estimate.

Another problem is that I don’t know how many enemy deaths to attribute to American combat action. Lots of North Koreans were killed by South Koreans. And lots of Iraqis were killed by regional militants rather than American soldiers, so then you have to ask how many of those killings would have taken place if we hadn’t invaded. Some of these answers are knowable, but it would take a lot more historical research than I can do.

Yet another problem is that some of these wars arguably had a net benefit. The UN apparently estimates that Operation Restore Hope in Somalia helped support humanitarian intervention that saved 100,000 lives. After North Vietnamese forces conquered South Vietnam, hundreds of thousands of people were executed, died in concentration camps, or died trying to flee, and the Khmer Rouge killed over a million people in Cambodia. So how many lives did we save by not allowing North Korea to do the same thing to South Korea? How many lives, if any, did we save in Bosnia-Herzegovina or Yugoslavia by preventing some unknowable amount of ethnic cleansing? I have no clue how to account for lives saved by warfare, so I won’t. I’m only going to count the cost.

For the time period I was considering (World War II to the present) it’s not unreasonable to make the simplifying assumption that all our wars were wars of choice. We could have kept our troops at home instead of sending them to places like Korea and Vietnam and El Salvador and Afghanistan and Iraq. That means we can reasonably attribute all American combat deaths from those wars to decisions made as part of our national security policy. The same cannot be said of the deaths of our enemies, who may have been killed as a result of non-American action.

To avoid turning this into a life-long research project, I eventually settled on a simple methodology. I would visit Wikipedia’s page on United States military casualties of war and click through to the Wikipedia page for each war after World War II to look up the number of enemy casualties, choosing low or high estimates conservatively with respect to my hypothesis. I’ll fill in a few other numbers from other sources. (If you have better data handy, let me know.)

Counting only Korea and Vietnam, I get a low-bound estimate of 817,000 enemy dead before the United States ended conscription. (The high estimate is 1,915,000 dead, not including 1.5 million civilian deaths on both sides of the Korean conflict.)

In the post-conscription era, I’ll stick to the high-end estimates and include 20000 dead in the El Savadoran Civil war, 70 in our invasion of Grenada, 60 in the bombing of Libya, 3500 in our invasion of Panama, 29,600 in the first Gulf War, 1000 in Somalia (from Operation Irene, the Blackhawk Down incident), 25,000 in Bosnia-Herzgovina, 11,000 in Yugoslavia, and all 13,000 guerrilla soldiers killed in the Columbian conflict so far. I’ll assume all deaths were the result, directly or indirectly, of American involvement.

Wikipedia says there are no generally accepted numbers for the number of casualties from the War on Terror in Afghanistan and Iraq. For Afghanistan, I’ll use the estimate by Jonathon Steele of the Guardian (no shill for United States militarism) of 50,000 dead. Finally, for Iraq, I’ll use the death toll of 655,000 from the Lancet‘s survey of Iraq War casualties, which includes a large number of people killed by militant attacks against the population. (There was a higher estimate by another organization, but the Lancet‘s work was peer-reviewed.)

That brings the grand total to 818,000 non-U.S. dead, which is coincidentally only a thousand more than than during the conscription era. Since the post conscription period was about 1/3 longer (29 vs. 38 years) it ends up being about 25% less deadly for people outside the U.S.

This is not, of course, a very robust finding, and neither was my previous analysis of American war deaths, even though it found a much higher ratio. I have no idea how to determine significance. I’m pulling numbers from dubious sources and disregarding conflicting estimates. I’m using a proxy measurement for the total social cost, and I’m not controlling for other independent variables — most obviously, the end of the Cold War.

(A better approach to studying the subject would probably not rely on statistics. Instead, we should examine the actual historic decision making behind all conflicts entered into — and all conflicts avoided — during the period before and after the end of conscription. This is well beyond my capabilities, but I suppose historians have studied the process at various times and places.)

That said, I do have a plausible theory — that forcing the government to pay the full market price for military service (rather than allowing it to confiscate the labor, freedom, and lives of American soldiers) forces it to protect soldiers more thoroughly and use them more wisely. The numbers we have available seem to support my theory, and they don’t support the theory that eliminating the draft has caused an increase in militarism.

There’s also the question of whether conscription would really “work” by spreading the cost around. One of the criticisms of conscription during the Vietnam war was the ease with which non-disadvantaged people could get deferments or find other ways to avoid being drafted. What reason is there to believe it would be different this time? Unless you really think progressive forces would have the political power to establish a truly class-neutral conscription system. In which case, why not use that substantial political power to fight militarism directly?

Finally — and the only thing that matters to some of us — an all-volunteer army avoids the moral blight of slavery. Seriously, when has slavery ever been the solution to a progressive social problem? Should we encourage higher wages by randomly forcing hundreds of thousands of Americans to work in factory assembly lines or serve in battalions of migrant farm workers? Could we end the sexual exploitation of women by forcing everyone to sell sex? Maybe we could get better healthcare by forcing a larger percentage of the population to become doctors and nurses? And who would get to make those decisions?

I think the all-volunteer system is an important way to ensure that those who serve in our county’s military have a strong say in their conditions and terms of service. And I think that in turn will discourage the use of our military forces for dubious adventurism. Which is, I think, something we should all want.

When first I read the news that Muslim fundamentalists in Egypt were attacking the U.S. embassy in protest to a movie about Mohammad, my immediate reaction was that they were idiots. Someone, somewhere in the United States made a movie insulting their religion and they’re getting violently pissed off at the embassy? What a bunch of morons.

Then yesterday I read that similar attacks in Libya resulted in the death of Ambassador Stevens and several others.

Again, I was astounded by the dangerous insanity on display. Put simply, if you think your religion demands that you kill people who disrespect it, then your religion is stupid, and you are stupid for following it.

[Update: This first detail section appears to be a false report. It’s now being reported that Ambassador Stevens was killed in the embassy.]

Then I read the details of the attack:

The U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other embassy staff were killed in a rocket attack on their car, a Libyan official said, as they were rushed from a consular building stormed by militants denouncing a U.S.-made film insulting the Prophet Mohammad.

Gunmen had attacked and burned the U.S. consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi, a center of last year’s uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, late on Tuesday evening, killing one U.S. consular official. The building was evacuated.

The Libyan official said the ambassador, Christopher Stevens, was being driven from the consulate building to a safer location when gunmen opened fire.

“The American ambassador and three staff members were killed when gunmen fired rockets at them,” the official in Benghazi told Reuters.

Oh.

That doesn’t sound so stupid. In fact, it sounds less like mob action and more like special ops. The crowds gathering outside the embassy may have been the usual ignorant fools, but somebody with tactical smarts was hiding amoung them. Whoever it was, they knew enough to hold off the rocket attack until they had a high-value target out in the open. They may or may not have whipped the mob into a frenzy, but they sure used the mob to suit their purposes.

I’m just guessing from reports, but it looks like our ambassador wasn’t killed by the mob. He was killed by somebody’s soldiers.

Update: And then the story changes again. It now appears the the ambassador died in the fire at the embassy, but the remaining Americans were followed to their safe house, which came under siege:

Here, two more things went wrong. First, Obeidi found four times as many Americans at the single-storey, fortified house as he had been told expect – 37, not just 10. So he did not have enough transport. Then, the villa came under massive attack.

This time, there was little doubt in the minds of Libyans who experienced it that this was a well-organized assault by men who had mastered the complexities of military mortar fire.

“This attack was planned,” Obeid said. “The accuracy with which the mortars hit us was too good for any ordinary revolutionaries.”

While some Libyan officials suggested that former soldiers from Gaddafi’s army may have been involved in Benghazi, some of the Islamist fighters also have substantial military experience from years spent fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

So, yeah, it was a military operation against U.S. personnel. A small act of war.

Over at Nobody’s Business, I finally get around to responding to Thomas Ricks’ idiotic New York Times op-ed:

Proposed for your consideration: We should be allowed to hunt Thomas Ricks for sport. I’m sure it would be great fun for us, and I think that if skinned and properly tanned, his silver-haired visage would look great on my living room wall.

Find out why, read the whole thing: Enslaving our kids.

We just passed the fifth anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq, and the staff of Reason magazine have been looking back to 2003 to review their positions on the war in Iraq then and now. I figure I might as well go on the record about where I stood then and where I stand now.

Back then, I knew I didn’t know enough to have a well-informed opinion (and I was still new enough to blogging to let that stop me), so I wrote very little about the invasion except for a tongue-in-cheek strategy suggestion. I was hardly a war booster, but if pressed I would have said that invading Iraq was probably a good thing.

To start with, getting rid of Saddam Hussein was a great idea. He was a tyrant and I say death to tyrants.

There were those who opposed the invasion on the grounds that Iraq was a sovereign nation which we had no right to invade. I had a simple answer to that: The only legitimate governments are democracies. Any government which is not of, by, and for the people is not a government we should respect. Dictators are the moral equivalent of gangsters, and Saddam Hussein was no more the legitimate ruler of Iraq than John Gotti was the mayor of New York.

What give us the right? I think everyone has the right. You don’t need anybody else’s permission to free someone from tyranny. (You wouldn’t want to free someone against their will, of course, but in the absence of a clear and uncoerced statement to the contrary, I think it’s safe to assume that people want to be free.)

Then why not invade some other dictatorship such as Iran, Syria, or “our friends” the Saudis? I wouldn’t have a moral problem with overthrowing any of those governments, but an illegitimate government only keeps it from being immoral to invade, it doesn’t mean we have to invade.

Just because we believe people would be better off if we invaded, doesn’t mean it’s our duty as a nation to do so. Even back then, it was clear that an invasion would have a cost in blood and treasure, and we owe it to our soldiers and our taxpayers not to squander what they give us on wars that do not serve our national interest. We should only invade Iraq, I thought, if it also served a legitimate national interest.

That’s where the weapons of mass destruction came in. Keeping such weapons out of the hands of terrorists was a clear matter of national security.

Then there’s the oil. Protesters can chant “no blood for oil” all they want, but that doesn’t change the fact that American civilization will crumble if we don’t get oil. The safety of our oil supply is a matter of national security as well, and if invading Iraq and setting up a free democracy will help stabilize the region, all the better.

I thought invading Iraq would serve a confluence of interests. A successful operation would

  • overthrow a tyrant
  • eliminate Iraqi weapons of mass destruction
  • free the Iraqi people
  • spread democracy in the middle east
  • help stabilize the region
  • safeguard our oil supply

But if an invasion is such a great idea, why wasn’t I a war booster?

Well, although that list makes the invasion sound like a terrific idea, there’s one very important point I left out which concerned me very much at the time: Invading Iraq and accomplishing the items on that list is only a good idea if it actually works.

The problem was, I knew far too little about the middle east, the Bush administration, and modern warfare to make many confident predictions. I was sure the initial invasion would sweep the Iraqi army from the battlefield, but when it came to picking up the pieces afterward, I had no idea what would happen.

The best I could figure out is that it all depended on the Iraqi people. If they welcomed us as liberators and enthusiastically started the hard work of building a free democracy, everything would be fine. But if they cooperated with an organized guerilla resistance movement, we’d be stuck in an ugly situation for a long time.

The best I could do was listen to what all sides were saying and decide who made the most sense. The Bush Administration had Colin Powell and access to everything our intelligence agencies knew about the middle east.  The anti-war crowd had Hollywood celebrities and giant paper-machete heads, and they seemed to think that insulting George Bush for not approving the Kyoto agreement was a compelling argument against the war. (I’m simplifying a bit.) Also, the anti-war crowd had been wrong every step of the way in Afghanistan.

At the time, I still believed that, whatever their faults in other areas, the Bush administration was serious about national security. Also, without free speech the Iraqi people couldn’t tell us what they would really do if we invaded, but I figured our intelligence agencies had the assets and capability to make some really good guesses.

So, I figured the invasion would probably be successful, and therefore it was probably a good idea. I didn’t love the idea, but I thought evertything would turn out better in the end.

Once the war was underway, as I expected, we quickly accomplished the first goal of overthrowing Saddam Hussein.

Troublingly, the second goal, destroying the weapons of mass destruction, proved to have been unnecessary.

As the war dragged on, we went backwards on the last two goals, stabilizing the region and safeguarding our oil supply. As for the middle two goals, I’m not sure if what the Iraqis have now can really be called freedom, and I don’t think we’ve impressed the Muslim world with the benefits of democracy.

Even after the war started to go bad, the question that kept nagging at me was “Would the world have been a better place if Saddam was still in charge in Iraq?” The answer, I thought, was “no.”

But here we are after five years of violent confict and Iraqis are still dying, Iran is emerging as an unopposed power in the region, and the enemy has learned a lot about how to fight us. I’m beginning to think it’s a no-win situation, and our best move is to admit it and cut our losses.

Of course, given my track record on this subject, it’s just as likely that the resistance is going to collapse next month, the Iraqis will begin to build a working society, and the liberals will gain power in Iran.

It’s probably better if you don’t pay attention to a thing I say.

A friend of mine just reminded me of a great organization called Operation Support Our Troops-Illinois.

Founded in 2003 by Debi Rickert, OSOTIL sends out care packages to our troops deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq. They follow Department of Defense security standards and guidelines. Most of the items they send are not available through the military supply system and are difficult to find locally.

Just to give you an idea, the current list of most desired items includes Canned Fruit, Crackers, Beef Jerky/Slim Jims, Nuts, Shaving Cream, Deodorant, Hand lotion, Body wash, Foot Powder, Socks, Cold drink mix, Gatorade, Coffee, Unscented baby wipes, Pringles, Peanut Butter, Jelly, Bug Spray, Fly Strips, Fly swatters, and Sunscreen.

That’s just the top ten list. They accept a lot of other stuff as well.

OSOTIL has drop-off locations for goods all over Illinois, or you can just send them money using PayPal to help cover their $2400/month shipping bill. Details for all of this are available on their home page.

If you’re not from Illinois, then check out the national parent organization, Operation Support Our Troops

Wretchard at The Belmont Club points to an article in the Sierra Vista Herald about an address by Qubad J. Talabany, a representative of Iraqi Kurdistan, to a U.S. military Training and Doctrine Command Cultural Awareness Summit:

In 1974, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger led the United States away from supporting a Kurdish homeland.

After the first Gulf War against Iraq in the early 1990s, “we believed (President George) Bush senior,” Talabany said. When the current President George H.W. Bush’s father called for Iraqis to rise up against Saddam Hussein and promised support, the Kurds and Shiites in southern Iraq did, only to see the United States turn its back.

The end result was Hussein killed thousands of Kurds and caused others to flee into the Turkish mountains for protection, where many died of exposure.

“We didn’t trust the United States after that,” Talabany said.

But with the full commitment of American forces finally toppling Hussein in 2003, Kurds once again were willing to take a chance on America.

If the United States decides to pull out before the job is done, “we Kurds want guarantees we will be protected,” he said.

If the Democrats succeed in getting the U.S. to withdraw from Iraq, they need to ensure that we leave behind enough forces to protect the Kurds. All the good things we say we want for Iraq—democracy, freedom, wealth—the Kurds have been building for themselves. When we invaded, they really did welcome us a liberators. We owe them our support.

Via Lindsey Bayerstein comes this link to photographs of U.S. soldiers receiving care at Walter Reed Hospital. (The whole Washington Post article is here).

If you prefer something more abstract, check out icasualties.org. As I write this, there are 3133 confirmed U.S. war dead. Here’s a list of all of them.

The same site shows 23,471 wounded in combat, and another 6,835 with non-combat injuries bad enough to need medical air transport.

We can stop all this bloodshed, just by leaving.

(See also this companion piece.)

Everyone who’s talking about Iraq is talking about “the surge” and whether it will work. Taken literally, that’s a silly question. Of course the surge will work: The surge is just a troop movement. It’s difficult to move 21,500 troops—and everything they need to fight a war—to the other side of the world, but it’s the kind of difficult thing the U.S. military is very, very good at. It’s going to happen.

So the surge will work, but the surge is not the plan. Baghdad is the plan. Instead of talking about the surge, we should be talking about the Baghdad strategy.

The plan is to secure Baghdad. Our troops will attempt to kill or chase away most of the enemy insurgents and prevent them from re-entering the city. Planners say that will require putting five additional bridades of U.S. soldiers into Baghdad. Rather than pulling those soldiers away from other duties in Iraq, the plan is to keep our existing forces in place and bring in additional troops to support the additional operations in Baghdad. That’s the surge.

If you think this would have been more effective three or four years ago, you’re in good company. A lot of people who support the broad goals of the war are not happy with the way it’s been fought. (I haven’t followed the war in detail for a long time, so I can’t claim to have been calling for reform, but it did seem like our military goals became a lot less clear after the first few months. I assumed it was just me, and maybe it was.) I’m sure the historians will figure out how it went wrong, but I think it’s more than just a coincidence that the U.S. military is once again seizing the initiative now that Rumsfeld is gone.

Our new Baghdad forces will be accompanied by a large portion of the new Iraqi army, bringing the total of additional forces in the capital city to over 40,000. Smaller forces will be sent to help pacify Anbar Province and to interdict enemy infiltration into Iraq over the borders with Syria and Iran.

Actually, some of this activity has already started:

U.S. and Iraqi troops moved into a Sunni neighborhood in southern Baghdad on Thursday, while insurgents struck back with car bombs that killed seven people. In southern Iraq, British troops sealed off the border with Iran to prevent weapons smuggling.

Helicopters buzzed overhead as a joint U.S.-Iraqi force headed into the Dora neighborhood – a longtime Sunni militant area – on the second day of a long-awaited security operation in the capital, according to Iraqi officials. U.S. troops searched three Shiite areas Wednesday, meeting little resistance in house-to-house searches.

The Interior Ministry also said U.S. and Iraqi forces were sweeping through four main districts, including Sunni and Shiite areas, seizing weapons and ammunitions.

It’s unfortunate that so much of the focus in the media and in Congress has been on the surge rather than on the new strategy the surge is supporting. It has lead to a lot of discussion about the number of troops in Iraq, with very little discussion of what they should be doing there.

I don’t know much about military matters, so I have no idea how the new strategy will work out. Maybe it will work, maybe it’s too late, and maybe it would never have worked. But it’s what we should be talking about.

Some people are talking about pulling out of Iraq. As much as I’d like us to be out of that war, I can’t make myself believe that withdrawing from Iraq is the right thing to do.

Yes, I’m certainly willing to believe that we’d be better off if we had never invaded Iraq, and I might even be willing to believe that the Iraqis would be better off if we had left Saddam Hussein in charge. But we can’t undo the things we’ve done. We can’t put Iraq back together the way it used to be.

We can only try to control what happens next.

Here’s the problem with withdrawing our troops from Iraq, in a single paragraph from an article about something else:

AQI is both feared and hated,” Capt Broekhuizen said, referring to Al Qaeda in Iraq. “They’ve been running a brutal terror campaign. No city leaders are left here who will take a leadership role.” Marines from Golf Company said they recently fished two bodies out of the local river: a man had been decapitated, and his 4-year old tied to his leg before both were thrown into the river and the little boy drowned. The killings were a product of Al Qaeda terror.

If we leave Iraq now, we will be leaving it in the hands of the people who did that. We will be giving the beheaders control over the lives of 26 million people.

What happens next…is genocide.

[Update: See also this companion piece.]

This is the second installment of a series of modest proposals for victory in Iraq.

Proposals for changing our Iraq strategy have often been given simple names such as Go Big (send more troops), Go Long (plan a permanent occupation), or Go Home (the core of my previous proposal). I guess this proposal’s simple name would be Go Nuclear.

Many people claim that this is a war against Islamofascism—the desire by some Islamic leaders to conquer the world and convert it to Islam—and that it’s our job to fight it. I’ve also heard people claim that Islamic culture (or maybe it’s Arabic culture) is oriented to respect power and authority, not democratic cooperation, meaning that the hoards of people fighting for our Islamofascist enemies won’t recognize the advantages of a western liberal democracy and won’t take an opportunity to form one.

In other words, if we believe these two theories, our enemies are an implacable foe who would rather fight than live a better life. They cannot be bargained with or reasoned with. They feel no pity or remorse. They are not deal makers or coalition builders. And they seek to destroy our civilization. Our only recourse is to defeat them by force of arms.

Then that should be our strategy.

The United States has a stockpile of about ten thousand nuclear warheads. According to our arms reduction plans, we’re planning to reduce this stockpile considerably. One way of doing so is to expend the warheads in the middle east. Think of it as an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.

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President Bush has offered his plan for Iraq, and in fielding criticism of it, Press Secretary Tony Snow has said anybody who didn’t like it should offer a better one. I’m rising to that challenge with a series of modest proposals addressing not just the conflict in Iraq, but the emerging larger war against Islamofascism.

My first proposal is simple: We declare victory and go home. This is completely different from “cut-and-run.”

People say we haven’t won in Iraq, but that’s rigid literalist thinking. Just because we haven’t succeeded at every single one of our goals doesn’t mean we haven’t scored some meaningful victories. Consider:

  • The United States no longer neads to fear Iraqi weapons of mass descruction.
  • Saddam Hussein is dead. There’s your regime change right there.
  • Iraq is no longer a military threat to other nations in the region.

We should just put those victories in our pocket and leave.

True, Iraq is not a peaceful democracy like we were hoping, but is that a real problem? If you live in Iraq, then obviously yes. That’s why so many people who advocate a withdrawl are insisting it will make the Iraqis stand up for themselves. They don’t want to be blamed for the chaos and bloodshed that will follow our departure.

That’s where my plan differs from cut-and run: Under my plan, we don’t pretend to care what happens in Iraq after we leave. So let me restate my original question: True, Iraq is not a peaceful democracy like we were hoping, but is that a real problem for us?

I don’t think so, because I don’t think Saddam Hussein was feeling very victorious as they tightened the rope around his neck. From his point of view, it didn’t matter if we stayed or left. All that mattered is that we’d been there and kicked his ass.

We no longer care what mattered to Saddam Hussein, but we do care what matters to other people like him. When we declare victory and leave Iraq, we want to leave behind a message that matters to people like Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadi-Nejad, Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il.

That message is simple: Piss us off and we’ll fuck you up.

Sure, we may not replace you with a peaceful democracy, but we will replace you. In the process of doing so, we’ll destroy your military and kill a whole bunch of your supporters and probably you too. Heck once your supporters realize they’re going to die because of you, they just might do the job for us.

In short, this is a strategy of deterrence. We want our enemies to believe we’ll destroy them if they misbehave. Hopefully this will discourage them from misbehaving so we won’t have to go through the wearying exercise of destroying them.

One of the biggest advantages of this strategy is that it’s quick. If we’re going to declare victory and go home without rebuilding anything, we can get it over with in a jiffy. We could have left Iraq three years ago, pausing only to shoot Saddam on the way out so he didn’t regain power during the descent into chaos.

Alternatively, since we would have finished the job so quickly, we could have done a few more jobs. Why try to threaten and deter other countries when we have plenty of time to destroy them? In the four years we’ve been fighting in Iraq, we could have destroyed Syria, Iran, and the parts of Pakistan we don’t like.

There are a few downsides to this strategy.

First of all, Al-Qaeda will see our withdrawl from Iraq as a victory for them. Even worse, some of the very people we’re trying to frighten will see this as an Al-Qaeda victory and won’t think we’re all that scary because of it. Maybe we need to stage a big attack on Al-Qaeda to show them we mean business…but then we’re not really going home, are we?…I still need to work on this part of the plan…

The second problem is that Iraq didn’t really do anything to piss us off right before we attacked them. Oh, they’ve been shooting at our aircraft in the no-fly zone for years, interfering with weapons inspectors, and causing all kinds of trouble, but it’s not like we were responding to a sudden change in their behavior. That’s going to make it hard for other countries to tell when we’re pissed off at them until we actually blow them up…which defeats the purpose of having a deterrent.

Fortunately, having just watched the DVD of Snakes On a Plane, I think we can borrow a solution from Mother Nature. Rattlesnakes shake the rattle on their tail just before striking. It’s a built-in reflex, so when a snake shakes its rattle, you know it’s not bluffing. Other animals have recognizable pre-attack behavior as well, such as screeching birds or growling dogs. We need to find the equivalent of an animal’s attack cry for an American military attack, so our enemies will know when we’re serious.

I have an idea about that, and a Democratic congress is a start. We should also elect a Democratic president. Then, if our enemies do something to piss us off again, we scare the crap out of them by electing ourselves another Republican from Texas. Or maybe we elect Jeb Bush. He’s another Bush (and you know how those Bush guys are about middle eastern wars) plus he’s from Florida, so you know he’s much crazier than his brother.

President Bush has offered his plan for Iraq, and in fielding criticism of it, Press Secretary Tony Snow has said anybody who didn’t like Bush’s plan should offer a better one. I’m planning to answer that challenge in a series of modest proposals. This is just background.

Jennifer the Feral Genius wrote in her blog:

…I can’t quite bring myself to believe we’re going to hit Iran. I’d never be able to defend this position in an actual debate, though, because my reasoning amounts to me waving my hands in the air and sputtering “We can’t! Our military’s stretched as it is! We don’t have the ability!” …

It depends what we’re trying to do. Do we need to conquer and rebuild Iran? Or do we just need to damage it a bit? Building an entire democratic nation is hard, but our military finds it pretty easy to hurt people and break things.

Military planners differentiate between control and denial. It’s the difference between using an asset yourself and preventing your enemy from using it. For example, if your enemy has people and supplies crossing a bridge over a river, it may be enough to simply blow it up with a guided bomb from an aircraft, thus denying it to your enemy. But if you want to use the bridge yourself, you probably need to capture it with ground troops. Control is a lot more difficult than denial, and it’s important not to confuse the two.

Arguably, that’s been the problem with the war in Iraq. Denying control of Iraq to Saddam Hussein was easy. Controlling it ourselves…that’s a lot harder.

(Al-Qaeda has the same problem. They have been able to deny us complete control of Iraq, but captured Al-Qaeda communications indicate they are frustrated by our ability to keep them from gaining control.)

As I understand it, the Cold War shaped the U.S. military to perform a role that was ultimately defensive in nature. We expected an attack on Europe from the Soviet Union, and our military goal was to thwart that attack. To do that, we were going to counterattack and destroy the military forces of the Soviet Union. This counterattack would almost certainly have involved an invasion of the Soviet Union, but our invasion was only for the purpose of stopping their invasion. We had no designs on Soviet land, people, or natural resources. Our goal was to stop the invasion, not take over the country. The U.S. military is designed to attack our enemies but not to conquer them.

By 1990, our military had evolved to to perform this role very well. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, we counterattacked into Iraq and destroyed much of the Iraqi army in only a couple of months.

Note that when we re-invaded Iraq in 2003 we continued to use the terminology of defense. A “preemptive” attack is a counterattack that is launched to stop an enemy attack before it starts. During the Cold War, if we had seen the Soviet army massing for an invasion of Europe, we might have decided to preempt that attack by attacking first. In Iraq, our counterattack was nominally intended to preempt terrorist use of chemical and biological weapons.

By this time, our military had become even more effective at destroying enemy forces, and within three weeks the Iraqi army was destroyed or driven from the field of battle.

President Bush has taken a lot of abuse over the “Mission Accomplished” banner, but in many ways it was accurate. U.S. military forces exist in their current form for the purpose of destroying other nations’ military forces, and by that standard, they had accomplished their mission.

Unfortunately, destroying the Iraqi army was not the only thing we had planned to do, but the U.S. military wasn’t designed for nation building.

President Bush has announced his plan for victory in Iraq, and I’ll say this about it: It sounds like a plan. Maybe the news sources I usually read have all been omitting this stuff from other reports, but this is the first thing I’ve heard about the war in Iraq since the initial invasion that sounds like actual military planning.

When I first started hearing about the 20,000-troop surge, the reports seemed to imply that this would be little more than a broad increase in troop levels—a few extra companies for every commander.

That wouldn’t be much help. In almost any war, you want to concentrate your forces in order to overwhelm the enemy at a particular location, and you want to choose the location that will do the most good.

The new plan seems to do that. Some of the troops are headed to Anbar Province to make sure it doesn’t fall to the heavy concentration of Al-Qaeda forces there. Nearly all the rest of the troops—probably about 15,000 I’m guessing—are headed for Baghdad.

I’m not saying this is a plan for victory, because I sure don’t know enough to tell, but at least it sounds like a plan. 20,000 more troops in all of Iraq won’t do much good. 15,000 more troops in Baghdad…that might make a big difference.

John Ruberry links to a Sunday Times report that Israel is planning a nuclear strike on Iran.

I’m not sure what to make of this story. Israel planning to nuke Iran just is the inevitable consequence of Iran’s threatening to develop nuclear weapons. Iranian leaders have been calling for Israel’s destruction for years. Now that they are acquiring the means to do so, Israel is making plans to nuke them first.

Iran wanted to be a nuclear power. Well, that’s how it works. Now you have enemies that plan nuclear wars against you—balance of terror, mutually assured destruction and all that. Welcome to the nuclear club.

It’s hard to know how serious Israel’s plans are. A nuclear war will happen fast, and there won’t be much time for thinking about it when it starts. Therefore any country that has nuclear weapons is going to have planning staff to decide how to use them. When not fighting a nuclear war (which is, so far, thankfully, always) the staff conducts wargames and puts together canned plans for attacking enemies. I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that the U.S. also has a plan for a nuclear attack on Iran.

(Heck, I have a plan for a nuclear attack on Iran, but that’s a topic for another post…)

A conventional bombing attack against Iranian nuclear facilities would require a huge force. The United States could do it easily, but Israel would have a hard time conducting such a large air operation. Israel is therefore planning an alternative attack using small nuclear bunker-buster bombs in the one-kiloton range, according to the article.

The middle east has been a troubled region for a long time, and it may be about to get even worse. If Israel launches a conventional air strike against Iran, the Iranian leadership will have just minutes to decide whether to let it continue or to try to stop it and then hope the Israelies don’t have the willpower to use their nuclear strike plan.

If Israel does nuke Iran, the Islamic powers will go insane, which would be bad for U.S. interests in the region. This raises the possibility that the United States should destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities in a conventional attack so that the Israelies won’t do so in a nuclear attack.

Interesting times.