March 19, 2012

Falling In and Out of War

By John A. Nagl

When you’ve been wrong about something as important as war, as I have, you owe yourself some hard thinking about how to avoid repeating the mistake. And if that’s true for a mere kibitzing columnist, it’s immeasurably more true for those in a position to actually start a war.

So here we are, finally, messily winding down the long war in Afghanistan and simultaneously being goaded toward new military ventures against the regimes in Syria and Iran. Being in the question-asking business, I’ve been pondering this: What are the right questions the president should ask — and we as his employers should ask — when deciding whether going to war is (a) justified and (b) worth it? Here are five, plus two caveats, and some thoughts about how all this applies to the wars before us.


It ought to be the first question we ask. Sometimes the answer is obvious. There is a broad agreement that it was in America’s vital national interest in 2001 to go after the homicidal zealots behind the 9/11 attacks on America, and the Afghan regime that hosted them. Whatever you think of how the war was waged or how long it should continue, the going-in was, as the cops say, a righteous shoot.

Often the American stake is not so clear-cut. We may feel an obligation to defend an ally. (Some allies more than others.) We have been known to fight for our economic interests. We intervene in the name of American values, an elastic rubric that can mean anything from halting agenocide to, in George W. Bush’s expansive doctrine, promoting freedom.

Senator John McCain, demanding American air strikes to help rebels topple the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, adopts the Bush “freedom agenda” rationale: by halting suffering and helping overthrow tyranny, we earn some leverage with the victors, improving the odds that Syria will become less hostile to our interests. For a variety of robust dissents, look no further than the conservative Web site National Review Online. There you find the neocon view that intervention is not about fomenting a Syrian democracy; it is about striking at an Islamist, anti-American cabal centered on Iran. You also find the libertarian view that our national interest is best served by staying out of a situation we can only make worse.

Nobody said these would be easy questions.


Judged solely by Question No. 1, there is little difference between Libya, where we helped an inchoate mix of rebels overthrow a brutally oppressive regime, and Syria, where we have so far chosen not to help an inchoate mix of rebels overthrow an even more brutally oppressive regime. The critical difference: Syria is much harder. Libya had weak air defenses deployed along the coastline, easily accessible to Western bombers. Syria’s defenses are more lethal, more plentiful and spread across inland population centers. “We’d have to carpet-bomb a path in and out, or risk American pilots being shot down by the regime and used as human shields,” said John Nagl, a retired Army counterinsurgency expert who teaches at the U.S. Naval Academy. “We’d be killing a lot more people.”

Cost-benefit analysis may seem a cold-blooded discipline — you can’t put a price on freedom, blah blah blah — but it is inseparable from the question of our national interests. After more than 10 years of war that have bled our treasury of at least $3 trillion, killed or disabled many thousands of our troops, and created the kind of multiple-rotation stress that invites atrocities and desecrations, every incremental commitment has to be weighed against the cost to our economic security and our readiness to face the next real threat.

Karl Eikenberry, who served in Afghanistan both as a military commander and as ambassador, put it this way: “If we do not in the future better align ends, ways and means, historians may find that in the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan the United States was compelled to contract its global posture similar to the British when they announced their ‘East of Suez’ policy in the late 1960s.”


Policy makers should — and President Obama mostly has — put a premium on appraising alternatives to war. Most notably, the president has held off an Israeli air assault on Iran’s nuclear facilities by mobilizing tough sanctions on Iran’s oil and banking industries, and by all but declaring that if Iran gets too close to making nuclear weapons the U.S. will send in the bombs. The sanctions show some signs of working.

The ultimate “or what” question about Iran is, if sanctions and threats fail, could we live with a nuclear Iran? Could we trust that like every other nuclear state Iran would be deterred from using its weapons by the certain knowledge that a counterstrike would turn Persia into a wasteland? It’s worth serious discussion, but while the idea of containment by deterrence is gaining ground in pundit-land, President Obama can’t touch it; to do so would undermine the whole effort to halt Iran’s program and, not incidentally, would be hazardous to his reelection.


In these optional wars, it is useful to have company — to enhance our moral authority, to amplify the intelligence, to share the cost, to spread the risk — and to second-guess us. In Libya, we had 17 other nations enforcing a blockade and no-fly zone, Arabs and Turks among them. “Leading from behind” may have been a mockable phrase, but it was a serviceable strategy.

In Syria, no one is volunteering to join us yet.


This is the question Robert Gates made a mantra at the Defense Department: What happens next? How does this play out? What are the second-order and third-order effects?

One unintended (but foreseeable) consequence of invading Iraq was that it distracted our attention and energy from the far more important undertaking in Afghanistan. Now one possible consequence of rushing too fast for the exits in Afghanistan — tempting as that may be given the breakdown of Afghan-American trust — is the increased likelihood that a collapsing Afghanistan would spill into a wobbly Pakistan. In Pakistan there are both numerous nuclear weapons and an abundance of rogue fanatics who would not hesitate to use them.

Syria, says Nagl, is another good place to think hard about collateral chaos: “The hard part is not toppling Assad, it’s what comes afterwards. Everybody raise your hands if you’re up for another occupation of an Islamic country.”

My first caveat is public opinion, which no democracy can ignore. Fighting wars is not something you do by poll. Public opinion can be wrong. It lagged behind F.D.R. beforeWorld War II; it was riding along enthusiastically with President Bush when he invaded Iraq. But public opinion puts a thumb on the scale. The U.S. used force to stop a genocide in Bosnia, but did not in Rwanda or Darfur — one critical difference being that Americans (and American TV screens) were paying attention to the European slaughter, but not to the African atrocities.

My second caveat is that asking the right questions only works if you are prepared to hear answers you might not like. Sometimes our leaders start with the answers and work backward, fixing the facts to the policy, as the head of Britain’s MI6 said of the Potemkin intelligence used to sell the invasion of Iraq. To pick just one example from the no-fact zone of Republican primary season, Rick Santorum, the most hawkish of the Republican candidates on Iran, keeps suggesting that Iran’s nuclear program is not under international inspection. It’s possible that Iran has hidden away some facility we don’t know about, but everything we know about — that is, everything we would bomb if we decided to attack — is monitored by international inspectors.

If Iraq taught us nothing else, it should have taught us this: Before you deploy the troops, deploy the fact-checkers.