Know When to Fold 'Em
From the January 11, 2007, New York Daily News
January 11, 2007
by William E. Odom
The military theorist Carl von Clausewitz said that war is always a gamble. President Bush stepped up to the Iraqi poker table in the spring of 2003 and won a couple of big hands. Flush with the cash and a cry that, "In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed," he failed to pick up his chips and go home. Instead, he has hung around for the last 3½ years, betting on lousy hands - pairs of twos and threes and numerous inside straights.
With his debts totaling more than 3,000 troops killed in action, over 20,000 wounded, and nearly half a trillion in cash tossed into the sump hole, he claims to be launching a new strategy. But is he? Or is it merely tactical tinkering?
To me, the answer is clear: Increasing the U.S. force level by 21,500 troops, adding a billion or two dollars of new aid, and setting progress markers for the Iraqi government to meet look far more like tactical tinkering.
If 132,000 U.S. troops cannot pacify 26 million Iraqis in more than three years, how can 153,500 do the job in a few months? If more than $18 billion in reconstruction aid has failed to fix the situation in Iraq but let it get worse, why would a few more billion finally fix it this year? If the Iraqi government has failed to meet its past markers of progress, why will it succeed in meeting new ones?
Is there really an "Iraqi government" - or is it merely a collection of would-be politicians beholden to warring factions? Why has it not dawned on the President that the Iranians, Al Qaeda and Iraqi clerics are dealing the cards here?
For the President, a real strategic change would be to quit the game, set up his own poker table, and stack the deck to ensure a return on his money. What would that look like? The first step would be to redefine U.S. interests and war aims. Of the President's three initial aims - destroy Saddam's WMD, overthrow him, and establish an Iraqi liberal democracy - two are accomplished (the first, we now know, happened even before the invasion).
Write off the democracy goal as a draw, declare a tactical victory, and withdraw in good order. Of course a terrible mess will be left, but more troops and money can only make it worse, not better. The new strategic aim must be regional stability, not democracy in Iraq. The United States alone cannot achieve it. It will need help. And other countries will not help while we are bogged down in Iraq. They enjoy our pain.
But once they see U.S. forces departing, they will be frightened. The aftermath of our departure will cause them far more pain than it will us. Not only will the countries in the Middle East become more cooperative, but so will the Europeans and others.
Why? Because none of them can lead a global coalition. The Europeans will be asking us to lead, and the others will see it as the least-undesirable alternative. Precisely how to orchestrate such a coalition to reestablish regional stability will be a challenge, but it will be a new poker game with more favorable odds.
The old game has expanded Iran's influence in the region, allowed Al Qaeda to build more cadres and reduced Israel's security. It's time to reshape the game. That means salvaging our strategy, not toying with tactics.
William E. Odom, director of the National Security Agency from 1985 to 1988 and a retired Army general, is a senior fellow with Hudson Institute. To contact General Odom, please do so via telephone at 202.974.2400 or address your letter to: General Odom c/o Hudson Institute, 1015 15th Street, N.W. 6th Floor Washington, DC 20005.
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