Sunday, January 02, 2005

Cost Benefit Nit-pickery

Well happily Mark has already taken some of the burden off my shoulders by laying out a big dollop of smackdown, but there's another issue that is raised by both Clifford May's article and this one by James Robbins. This issue is the importance of "staying the course" in Iraq.

Both commentators make the case that "staying the course" is important. I think this is reasonable. It is not unfair to state that various events over the past 20 years or so - the defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan, precipitous departure of US troops from Beirut and Somalia and the failure of successive US governments to respond robustly to various terror attacks on US assets abroad - have conspired to give Islamic terrorists a sense of confidence and legitimisation that was arguably avoidable. The Afghan Arab mujahideen took the view that they had single handedly brought down one of the world's two superpowers. American actions gave the impression that the USA had no spunk and that Americans were just soft running dogs. I see nothing terribly contentious in the notion that American failure in Iraq will give the enemy a similar boost and a similar sense of legitimacy and success. This would be a Bad Thing - again, nothing contentious there.

But simply repeating over and over the mantra that we must "stay the course" does not in and of itself constitute a strategy. Again, I come back to the notion that a viable strategy must seek a balance between ends, means and ways. The loss of Iraq would be a severe, severe blow with massive implications and repurcussions, but it would not see America wiped off the map and it would not remove the USA's ability to continue the Global War On Terror (or what you will).On this basis, the campaign (and we should view it as a campaign in a broader conflict) in Iraq is not a conflict with unlimited ends and it should not - ultimately can not - be a conflict that the Coalition can or should pursue with unlimited means or ways. There HAS to be a point at which the cost of "staying the course" will be higher than the cost of shutting up shop and buggering off. Whether or not May and Robbins recognise this but simply omit it I'm not sure. I certainly hope they recognise it.

Of course, I speak as a Brit and the British have a fine tradition of getting into a war, getting pasted, cheesing it back to the British Isles and still managing to win the war. The most unequivocal signal that our side is going to win a war is that within a month or two of it starting the British Army will be fleeing pell-mell toward the coast, shedding a long trail of weapons, supplies, vehicles and ammunition in its wake. If you're German or French and you see the British running away, that's the point at which you need to start worrying. I don't think that's quite what Edward Luttwak meant when he talked about the paradoxical logic of strategy but there you go... Winston Churchill thought it was important to "stay the course" but Britain did so by staying in the war and in order to stay in the war it became necessary to recognise that the campaign in France was beyond winning. Had Clifford May been in charge in 1940 perhaps we'd have sent what was left of the RAF back into battle rather than pulling it back to the home bases and getting ready for a defence, all in the name of staying the course. And then we would have been, frankly, buggered.

Now, as I say, I think there is no small amount of merit in the the arguments that the loss of the Iraq campaign would be a serious blow with major repercussions (not merely for ourselves but for those Iraqis who have had the guts to back the Coalition. I hate to think what is going to happen to Iraqi liberals if the whole thing goes tits up), so the threshold of giving it all up as a bad job must be set pretty high. But it's got to be there. Plus, we need to talk about ways. What if Coalition troops are in the position where they can't be driven out by force but equally they can't pacify the country and the idea of democracy in Iraq is laughable? Do we create a wasteland and call it peace, all in the name of not being seen to cut and run? These are questions and issues that need to be discussed and engaged with and so far May and Robbins have failed to do so.

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