January 21, 2008

War, Meet the 2008 Campaign

Michael Gordon has been busy this weekend. And while Charlie doesn't share AM's aversion to partisan politics and the 2008 election, she's not usually inclined to indulge such idle banter here. But much as readers (and authors) of this blog may wish that national security policy was made in an intellectually pure, non-partisan vacuum, nothing could be further from the truth. Charlie would like to believe that what matters most of the the future course of US policy in Iraq is GEN Petraeus' replacement or the success Ambassador Crocker's efforts with the Iraqi government. Alas, no. What matters is the presidential election, now less than 10 months away.

And to the bewilderment your faithful bloggers, it's not a subject the candidates are giving serious thought.

Anthony Cordesman, a military specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who regularly visits Iraq, put it this way: “You have to grade all the candidates between a D-minus and an F-plus. The Republicans are talking about this as if we have won and as if Iraq is the center of the war on terrorism, rather than Afghanistan and Pakistan and a host of movements in 50 other countries.

“The Democrats talk about this as if the only problem is to withdraw and the difference is over how quickly to do it.”

When the surge began last summer, there was lots of talk about the Washington clock and the Baghdad clock. We don't hear much about either anymore, but rest assured both are still ticking. And of the many paradoxes of modern counter-insurgency, the competing timelines of each civilian population remains the hardest to resolve:

But counterinsurgency is inherently a long-term proposition, and that assumption has driven much of the military thinking about the future, even as it heightens the political debate at home.

“Unless you are suppressing insurgents the way the Romans did — creating a desert and calling it peace — it typically can take the better part of a decade or more,” said Andrew Krepinevich, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

“The paradox,” he added, “is that counterinsurgency requires convincing the Iraqis of our staying power. At the same time, the American people view success in terms of how quickly we can pull out.”

This paradox is at the heart of our strategy in the Long War, and suggests to Charlie that the only real viable option is something resembling a small footprint, indirect approach. But either way, serious effort is going to be required both to prepare the US military for future conflicts and to condition the American public for them. These aren't (all) wars of choice. The military and the public are both going to have to get used to fighting them; and the politicians are going to have to learn how to campaign about them. It's called leadership. Let's hope someone in the 2008 campaign looks into it.