Wednesday, November 23, 2016

We Learn!

We can learn from the Iraq War.

Will wonders never cease?

US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter suggested US forces are unlikely to drawdown their presence in Iraq if Mosul is recaptured, as any security gains may be fragile.

"We have discussed that with the Iraqi government, and I only start there because it will, in the end, be a decision that we make with the Iraqi government," Carter said during a 22 October meeting with US troops in Baghdad.

And so after learning the lesson of withdrawing from Iraq in 2011 only to return in 2014 after the Iraqis screwed up and allowed ISIL (or ISIS or Islamic State) to gain strength, we have decided to learn the lessons of Italy, Germany, Japan, and South Korea, where our long-term military presence in states without democratic traditions following wars created strong democratic allies.

And yeah, part of this change of heart is the realization by the Iraqis that they screwed up by being eager to show they could get along without us.

So the Obama administration, after rejecting the notion that we achieved anything in Iraq and which left Iraq in 2011, belatedly realized that it needed to begin Iraq War 2.0 to restore what we had gained; and after achieving that by defeating ISIL (well, only partly achieving that because Iran's increased penetration of Iraq is also a casualty of our 2011 pull out as much as ISIL's rise was) we will this time--inshallah--remain in Iraq to defend the (re-)gains of Iraq War 2.0.

And it is at this moment that Republicans are supposed to reject the war?

To move beyond the Iraq War, Republican foreign-policy elites must begin by overcoming their decade-long discomfort with it. Learning from the war should not mean re-litigating it or in­dulg­ing in breast-beating self-flagellation that cheapens the sacrifices of thousands who deserve our gratitude. But they should accept what the war looks like to most Americans.

In a word, it looks like a disaster. The war, by any measure, proved extraordinarily costly in blood and treasure. The 2007 troop surge rescued hope for political reconciliation in Baghdad, only for sectarianism to return and the Obama administration to squander what gains remained. By 2014, ISIS had stormed forth. Surveying the wreckage, most Americans have consistently considered Iraq a failure.

What to make of this?

On the surface,  I have no problem saying we must learn from the war. But if "moving beyond" the war (and how do we do that when we will remain to defend what we achieved?) means going along with the Democrats on Iraq War 1.0, I say no thank you.

Re-litigating it is in a sense pointless--it was 100% legal and justified. Given that Democrats constantly tried to re-debate the decision to go to war throughout the war after about autumn 2003 rather than debate how to win the war they once supported in concept and law, I don't like the idea of opening up the question of going to war in 2003.

That legal issue is not in my lane these days, but fortunately Learning Curve has done sound work in reminding us--not re-litigating strictly speaking--of the war's legality (among other issues) which Democrats have obscured despite their past support for the war.

And given the self-flagellation that the Democrats engage in, going along with the Democrats to "move beyond" the war does indeed cheapen the sacrifice of thousands of Americans (as well as those of our allies). I personally think these Americans (and allies) and their families deserve our gratitude for fighting and winning a war for a good cause rather than thanking them for going off to die in a Third World Hell Hole for no particular good reason other than that they were ordered to do so.

If the war looks like a disaster to most Americans, I think those who wish to defend what Americans died for in Iraq should defend the war rather than go along with a view that does in fact cheapen what Americans died to achieve.

And how do you strengthen our willingness to fight for American interests by "moving beyond" the war under Democratic party terms when any future suggestion to fight an enemy will be stuck right in the middle of your surrender of the rightness of the Iraq War's need and legality? Do you really think that the people who opposed the Iraq War earlier than you do won't throw your more recent support of the war in your face while ignoring their own past support?

So let me focus on the second paragraph above.

The war was not a disaster. It was so not a disaster that even President Obama was willing to restart the war with Iraq War 2.0 and is now willing to remain in Iraq when they were not willing in 2011.

Was it really extraordinarily costly in money? The direct costs of waging the war (about $760 billion) approximated the amount of money that we committed to expend at the stroke of a pen with the 2009 stimulus spending bill (about $790 billion, in the initial estimate).

And the Army used the war spending to upgrade weapons that the Army would have wanted to upgrade anyway. So at least part of the direct cost is an accounting issue.

Now, many say the true cost of the war is many multiples beyond the direct cost. Yet if we are going to count the costs of war as all future spending resulting from it, could we do that for scoring all domestic programs? Have we ever even pretended to declare "mission accomplished" in the war on poverty, for example? Do any federal spending programs ever end?

And recall that even total defense spending during the Iraq War did not match Cold War spending as a percent of GDP when we weren't fighting (see 1975-1990, but also note 1954 to 1964). So how extraordinarily costly of a financial burden was the Iraq War really?

See here for the data by year.

Recall too that we spent money to avoid spending lives (both ours and innocent civilians historically caught in the crossfire). So if you are going to claim our loss of life was extraordinarily costly, please tone down the money aspect of your complaints. Saving money costs lives. Spending money saved lives.

As for the actual casualties, first compare Iraq and Afghanistan. We have lost about 4,500 killed in Iraq and about 2,000 have been killed in Afghanistan. The "good" war cost us 44% of the once-"bad" war (I assume it is now "good" given that President Obama is fighting Iraq War 2.0).

Then consider our historical losses at war. Of the top ten costly wars in American history, the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns combined rank 9th in total, and last in casualties per day and casualties per capita.

And recall that we managed to recruit troops for our volunteer Army for an increasingly unpopular wars even though the argument is that the war was extraordinarily costly in American lives.

Don't get me wrong, the casualties are tragedies. I'm not dismissing them as trivial. But the judgment that the casualties were extraordinarily costly rests on the amount of deaths and not the pain from individuals who were killed or terribly wounded.

So our losses were not high by historical comparisons. Indeed, given the resources of our enemies, you could make the case that our casualties were extraordinarily low. That's a testament to our troops' skill and equipment--both made possible by spending money.

And how do we get allies to fight with us in the future if we don't defend what we've done in Iraq and what we asked them to do with us?

Finally, don't think that "moving beyond" the Iraq War (will there be a on the right?) won't give Republicans any credit. Remember, for Democrats you get no credit for "evolving" on an issue after they do. No matter what, Republicans will forever be blamed for Iraq despite the pre-war bipartisan consensus on Iraq's beastly domestic record, Saddam's record of aggression and terrorism, his pursuit of WMD, the need to replace Saddam with democracy, and the need to invade Iraq to finally destroy the Saddam regime.

So no, I have no interest in "moving beyond" the Iraq War. We did a good thing that was good for America, Iraqis, and the world. I hope we defend what we achieved by remaining.

I truly fear that just as President Obama belatedly at the end of his second term learned this lesson, that a new President Trump will pull out again and be forced to relearn the lesson one more time (or refuse to learn as President Obama apparently has learned at this late date).

So shove your "moving beyond" retreat from the Iraq War notion. That's the last thing (dare I say extraordinarily bad) we need to learn from the war.