There have been a number of prominent congressional leaders of both parties in recent days decrying the “surge” to be an utter failure with such proclamations as, “This war is lost and the surge is not accomplishing anything as indicated by the extreme violence in Iraq.” These statements fuel the drive to order a withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. Whether the government — which means the totality of both the administration and the Congress — ultimately chooses to pursue this course of action or not, it must be done so with a clear and sober understanding of the likely end results, both near and long term; a failure to do so could produce unintended consequences that may ultimately prove more dangerous to the United States than anything we presently face.
Without question the situation in Iraq today is chaotic and bloody. Since November, the average monthly death toll for American service members has been its highest since the war began in March 2003 and shows no signs of abating. It is altogether understandable, then, that America’s leaders would desire to find a way to stop the flow of American blood.
The question of consequences for changing current policy and withdrawing, however, has thus far focused only on the potential near-term fallout. But there is a far more weighty issue to be considered, and that is the effect our actions will have on the calculus of potential enemies in the mid to long term.
Many highly reputable analysts have argued what “message” will or will not be sent to our future adversaries if we withdraw from Iraq because of the casualties we suffer. What has not been addressed, however, is how our actions have already been viewed.
In an interview conducted less than a month after September 11, Osama bin Laden revealed his intention to influence American policy through the use of terrorism when he said, “I ask the American people to force their government to give up anti-Muslim policies. The American people had risen against their government’s war in Vietnam. They must do the same today.” It should give us pause to realize we are poised to do just as bin Laden asked.
Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor wrote in Cobra II, “[Saddam Hussein] believed the Americans had no stomach for a bloody war… In 1991, the Americans had fulfilled their limited aim of liberating Kuwait and elected not to press on to Baghdad. Saddam saw that not as forbearance, but as an aversion to casualties.” A 2007 RAND report, “Entering the Dragon’s Lair,” reported that “Chinese writers frequently argue that these domestic pressures (partisan politics, potential public opposition, a highly critical media, and an assertive Congress) are functions of an almost total unwillingness on the part of U.S. leaders and the American public to accept casualties in contemporary military conflicts.”
It is clear that our enemies have twice used their perception of our aversion to casualties as part of their calculations regarding war and peace; our most potent potential enemy gives significant consideration to this perception. It is crucial, then, that in this current situation we give full consideration to the consequences of our actions; we have to get this right.
The bitter discord that currently characterizes our national leadership aids and abets the enemies of America and creates the potential to place our forces under greater peril in the future. If we withdraw as a result of our current internal division future enemies of the United States will learn that to defeat America they must spill as much American blood as possible. At this late hour, there is likely only one way we can solve this powerful dilemma in Iraq: unity of effort.
Trite though it may sound, a unified plan of action will allow us to deny our enemies an advantage in this current fight and communicate a message to any future adversaries that though we may bicker against each other, we can overcome internal divisiveness when necessary. What must be urgently accomplished, therefore, is for the Congress and the administration to come together to develop a single, mutually supported plan that will result in the insurgency feeling the heat of a singularly focused Uncle Sam — the military fighting on the ground, the political leadership in Washington, and the American people, all working together.
Sadly, however, I feel the chances of this happening are remote. For in order to achieve the necessary unity, such bitter antagonist such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Bush, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Sen. John McCain or Rep. Jack Murtha and any Republican would have to come together to work out a single plan that would require each to eat no small amount of pride, make significant compromises to passionately held beliefs and agree to support the result wholeheartedly. Instead, I believe a zero-sum political contest will continue to be prosecuted in Washington until one side “wins” and the other side stews in defeat, plotting its next move to continue the division.
Our current enemies will celebrate their victory and future foes will make their own assessments of American resolve and include that in their decision-making matrix for later use. How discouraging that what was once one of America’s greatest strengths — unity and resolve in time of crisis — may now be its greatest strategic weakness.
Maj. Daniel L. Davis is a Cavalry officer who fought in Desert Storm in 1991 and served in Afghanistan in 2005.