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Iraq: Losing the American Way

By repudiating our historic ways of war and democratization, the Bush administration threatens attempts at nation-building elsewhere.

The Iraq War has been underway for less than a year, but it has already lasted long enough for us to get some sense of its place in American history and particularly in the grand narrative of America’s role in the world. The war has a complex relation with the major dimensions of American foreign policy—particularly the diplomatic, military, and political—but it is increasingly evident that the war policy of the Bush administration represents a radical abandonment of traditional American ways of dealing with the world, ways that overall have served the United States very well.

First, the way that the administration prepared for the war—disregarding the objections of every international organization and most of America’s traditional allies—was a sharp departure from the long-standing U.S. diplomatic practice of obtaining some form of international approval and legitimization for our wars and military interventions. The Iraq War represents a repudiation of the traditional American way of diplomacy. Second, the way that the administration has fought the war—deploying military forces unusually few in number and now stretched far too thin—has been a sharp departure from the long-standing U.S. military practice of using overwhelming mass not only to defeat an enemy but also to deter any renewed resistance later. The Iraq War represents a repudiation of the traditional American way of war. Finally, the way that the administration has tried to establish stability and peace—promoting liberal democracy while imposing military occupation—is in some senses an extension of the historic U.S. practice with democratization projects, but it is one carried to such an unrealistic and impractical extreme that the prospects for success are bleak. The Iraq War represents a perversion of the traditional American way of democratization. In sum, the war is a three-dimensional assault on the American way in international affairs. It is reasonable to expect that it will cause serious harm to America’s role in the world.

The diplomatic damage has already been much discussed by policy analysts. Certainly, the arrogant posturing and unilateral actions of the Bush administration as it went to war alienated most of our traditional European allies and provoked suspicion, resentment, and even anger in many. However, unexpected difficulties and experienced incapacities can teach even abrasive officials that help from others—even inferior others—can be a good thing. By now, almost one year into the war, the administration has been driven by its hardships in Iraq to solicit the assistance of the very nations, and the United Nations, that it held in such contempt at the beginning of the war. And remarkably, but realistically, these nations and the United Nations are beginning to respond positively and to heal their breach with the United States. Most of the diplomatic damage from the war is likely to prove self-correcting and short-lived, perhaps like the quarrels of Russia and China with the United States regarding the Kosovo War five years ago.

The Iraq War is likely, however, to cause more grave and long-term injury to the U.S. military and to U.S. efforts to promote democracy abroad. This is because of its violations of the traditional American way of war and way of democratization.

The American Way of War

Military strategists and historians have discerned in some nations a distinctive strategic culture or way of war. In the last third of the 20th century, there was a widespread understanding among these professionals that there was a distinctive American way of war and that it was characterized by a reliance upon such advantages as (1) overwhelming mass (a pronounced advantage in men and materiel), (2) wide-ranging mobility (a pronounced advantage in transportation and communication), (3) high-technology weapons systems, and, underlying and sustaining them all, (4) high public support for the war effort. The purest expression of this American way of war was, of course, World War II. Another excellent example was the Persian Gulf War. However, the origins of the American way of war lie in the greatest American conflict of all, the Civil War. The use of overwhelming mass was crucial to the final victory of the North; it was exemplified by the strategy of Ulysses S. Grant. Conversely, the use of wide-ranging mobility was critical to the initial victories of the South; it was exemplified by the strategy of Robert E. Lee.

The classical American way of war was a product of the distinctive geographical and economic features of the United States. The U.S. possessed a vast continental territory, which was endowed with ample natural resources and with a population larger than that of most European powers. Thus the United States almost always had a pronounced advantage in men and materiel. Only the Soviet Union could surpass the U.S. in this respect. In turn, mass geography and widespread population created a need for a correspondingly extensive transportation and communication network, and the large industry and advanced technology of the U.S. economy provided the means with which to build it. Furthermore, the United States was bordered by two oceans; it was not only a continent but also a continental island. This also created demand for a transportation and communication network that extended to other continents. This meant that the United States always had a pronounced advantage in the rapid movement of people and products in peace and of men and materiel in war. No power has ever surpassed the U.S. in this respect. The conjunction of a pronounced advantage in both mass and mobility made the United States the most successful military power of the 20th century, and thereby made the 20th century the American century. No other military power could excel in both dimensions.

On the rare but important occasions when the United States could not deploy its advantages in both mass and mobility, the U.S. military faced serious problems. Both the Korean War and the Vietnam War degenerated into wars of attrition in which the U.S. military had the advantage in mass firepower but no obvious advantage in the mobility of its ground combat forces. In the last two years of the Korean War, both the U.S. Army and the communist armies were trapped in a static war of position near the 38th Parallel, and the end result was a stalemate. In the Vietnam War, the communist guerrilla forces had the advantage in mobility, and this contributed greatly to the U.S. defeat. Indeed, it is the nature of any guerrilla war that the insurgent forces have the advantage of mobility, and the counterinsurgency forces have the advantage of mass. It seems that the classical American way of war has no obvious answer if the military challenge comes from guerrillas and insurgents.

In the aftermath of its Vietnam debacle, the U.S. Army painfully examined the lessons of that war, and it largely concluded that the classical American way of war was really the only right way of war for the Army. The lessons learned were institutionalized in the curriculum of the Army War College, as well as several other military schools, and in the strategic doctrine, bureaucratic organization, and weapons procurement of the Army itself. Many of the lessons learned were crystallized in what became known as the Weinberger/Powell Doctrine (after Caspar Weinberger, secretary of defense in the Reagan administration and Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the first Bush administration). Central to the classical American way of war and its recapitulation in the Weinberger/Powell Doctrine was the idea that when the United States goes to war, it should do so as a nation defending its vital national interests against another nation, and when the U.S. Army goes to war, it should do so as an army fighting another army. Wars to advance peripheral, imperial interests and wars against insurgent forces were violations of the American way of war.

The Rumsfeld Transformation Project

From the beginning of the second Bush administration, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has worked vigorously and systematically to overthrow the classical American way of war and the Weinberger/Powell Doctrine and to replace them with a new program of military “transformation” and a new doctrine of preemptive (really preventive) war. He has moved to reduce the role of heavy weapons systems (armor and artillery) and large combat divisions in the U.S. Army and to increase the role of lighter and smaller forces (airborne and special operations); in effect, he seeks to reduce the role of mass and to accentuate the role of mobility. To implement his transformation project, he has canceled the Crusader heavy-artillery system, and he has appointed a retired Special Forces general to be the new Army Chief of Staff. Most importantly, however, Rumsfeld has seen the Iraq War as the pilot plant and exemplary case of his grand project of transformation. If the U.S. could win a war in Iraq with a transformed military and a transformed doctrine, it would also be a decisive victory in Washington for the thoroughly new American way of war in its bureaucratic struggles with the old one.

The Rumsfeld transformation project gains credibility because there are indeed some serious problems with the classical American way of war—particularly with the idea that the U.S. Army should only fight another army. The most obvious difficulty is that there no longer seems to be any other real army to fight. Indeed, neither the Army, the Navy, nor the Air Force have any equivalent force or “peer competitor” to fight. Although the Chinese nation might become a peer competitor to the American nation in a couple of decades, that is far in the future, and the last peer competitor—the Soviet military—is now far in the past.

The United States still has enemies, however, most obviously in transnational networks of Islamic terrorists but also in rogue states, such as North Korea. These enemies will seek to attack the United States not with conventional military forces or an American-style way of war but with asymmetrical warfare. At the upper end of the war spectrum, this will mean weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear ones in the case of North Korea. At the lower end of the spectrum will be terrorist operations like al-Qaeda and guerrilla warfare, with the Iraqi insurgents now becoming the exemplar. Of course, the most ominous threat comes from a diabolical synthesis of the upper end and the lower end—weapons of mass destruction in the hands of transnational terrorist networks.

The Rumsfeld transformation program and preemptive doctrine does not really address the challenge of rogue states that have already acquired nuclear weapons. Hypothetically, some combination of highly accurate intelligence and highly effective weapons, such as nuclear bunker bombs, could destroy an enemy’s stock of WMD. However, the failure to find any significant stock of such weapons in Iraq certainly casts doubt on the accuracy of U.S. intelligence. And even highly effective weapons systems would have a hard time destroying widely dispersed stocks of biological weapons. The only way that the Rumsfeld transformation project can deal with the WMD threat is when a rogue state has not yet acquired these weapons and a U.S. military operation can destroy the rogue regime before it does so. But this would really be a preventive war, not a preemptive one. This was the case with Iraq and conceivably could become the case with Iran.

Nor does the Rumsfeld transformation project really address the challenge of transnational terrorist networks, such as al-Qaeda. This threat is better dealt with by a multidimensional array of agencies and instruments (intelligence, security, and financial) working with their counterparts in other countries that face similar threats, particularly those in Europe. The war in Iraq certainly has not helped to enhance these counterterrorist capabilities, and it may have made more difficult the necessary international trust and cooperation.

The Rumsfeld Army and Counterinsurgency War

The only task that the new Rumsfeld Army, with its lighter, more mobile configuration, can perform better than the old classical Army, with its heavy armor and artillery configuration, will be operations against an enemy that is even more light and mobile, such as guerrillas and insurgents. And here, several ironies are immediately apparent. First, the origins of the Weinberger/Powell Doctrine lie in the lessons learned from the Vietnam War, and its basic impetus was “no more Vietnams.” Among other things, this meant that the regular units of the U.S. Army would fight no more counterinsurgency wars. The Rumsfeld transformation project amounts to a radical overthrow of the Weinberger/ Powell Doctrine, and it seeks to return the Army to the period at the beginning of the Vietnam War—the era when Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was engaged in his own radical program of military transformation and when other political appointees of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations were enthusiastic advocates of some major combination of high-technology and counterinsurgency. More fundamentally, the Rumsfeld project seeks to transform the U.S. Army into an instrument which will fight for peripheral, imperial interests, and not just for vital national ones. As such, the new way of war can be seen as the neoconservative way of war.

Second, it was not until the United States invaded Iraq and imposed a military occupation that the U.S. faced any guerrilla threat that needed to be dealt with by regular U.S. military forces. (Almost everyone agreed that the guerrilla forces in Afghanistan and in Colombia would be better handled by a combination of U.S. Special Forces and local military forces.) The U.S. occupation of Iraq has created, for the first time since the Vietnam War, the very problem that the Rumsfeld transformation project was supposed to solve.

Third, even before Rumsfeld began his construction of his new Army and his deconstruction of the old one, the United States already had a long established, lighter, and more mobile ground force. That was the U.S. Marines. During the first half of the 20th century, the Marines had far more experience and success with light and mobile operations than did the Army. This included operations against insurgents in the Caribbean basin and in Central America. With only minor modifications, and perhaps some expansion, the Marines could perform virtually all of the tasks that Rumsfeld’s lighter, more mobile, transformed Army is supposed to perform. But his new Army may not be able to perform some of the tasks that the old army could perform so well, such as quickly overwhelming another peer competitor army, if one should ever come into being and pose a threat to the vital national interests of the United States.

The American Way of Democratization

The 20th century witnessed numerous attempts to bring democracy to countries that hitherto had been ruled by dictatorial or authoritarian regimes. Most of these efforts were promoted by the United States, and many of them were backed by U.S. military intervention and occupation. Because the 20th century was the American century, it was also the century of democratization. Indeed, the century began with the United States engaged in two separate military occupations to bring democracy (albeit of a distinctively American sort and in a somewhat distant future) to colonies of the former Spanish empire, one in the Philippines and one in Cuba; the Philippine occupation and successful repression of the insurgents there was especially bloody and costly. A decade later, President Woodrow Wilson defined the essence of this new century—which indeed might be seen also as the Wilsonian century—when he first sent the U.S. Marines into several Latin American countries and declared that he was going to “teach the South Americans to elect good men,” and then sent the entire U.S. military into Europe and declared that the United States was going “to make the world safe for democracy.”

The U.S. attempt at the beginning of the 21st century to use military conquest and occupation to bring democracy to Iraq and, by a process vaguely defined, perhaps to its neighbors as well (particularly Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia) is thus the latest chapter in a grand American narrative has been underway for more than a hundred years. By now, many countries know what it means to be, in the words of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “forced to be free.”

Indeed, there have been four great theaters where the United States has performed its epic drama of political democratization through military occupation, of ballots through bullets, over the decades. These were (1) the Caribbean basin and Central America from the 1900s-1930s (Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Nicaragua) and again from the 1960s-1990s (the Dominican Republic and Haiti again and also Grenada and Panama); (2) Central Europe from the 1940s-1950s (West Germany, Austria, and Italy); (3) Northeast Asia from the 1940s-1950s (Japan and South Korea); and (4) Southeast Asia from the 1960s-1970s (particularly South Vietnam).

Together, these add up to more than a dozen cases in which the United States has used military occupation to bring about political democratization. They provide useful precedents and lessons for the current efforts in Iraq. (The Bush administration and neoconservative writers have repeatedly cited the U.S. successes in West Germany and Japan, but they have been notably silent about the large numbers of failures or disappointments elsewhere, particularly in the Caribbean basin and Central America.)

In addition, the 1990s were the decade of numerous attempts to bring democracy to the countries of the former Soviet Union and communist Eastern Europe. With the exception of Bosnia and Kosovo, these democratization projects did not involve military occupation by U.S. forces. However, as we will see, these ex-communist countries (almost two dozen in number) also provide plenty of evidence and lessons relevant to the prospects for democratization in Iraq.

The Bush administration and the neoconservatives promoted the Iraq War and accompanying regime change as the first phase in a grand project that would bring democracy to Iraq’s neighbors and perhaps even to the Middle East more generally. Whenever they had to present an historical precedent to show that this kind of radical and ambitious project had succeeded in the past, they pointed to West Germany and Japan. They never mentioned the many other U.S. efforts to use military force to democratize countries in Latin America, and of course they never mentioned the epic U.S. failure in South Vietnam. (The one exception is Max Boot, especially in his important book, The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power.) Nor did they mention the most recent, wide-ranging, and numerous efforts with democratization among the countries of the former Soviet Union and communist Eastern Europe. If any honest discussion about the prospects for democratization in Iraq and other countries of the Middle East had included any analysis of a few of these three dozen cases, the discussion would have ended with a general consensus that the prospects were surely bleak.

The German and Japanese Exceptions

The cases of West Germany and Japan certainly demonstrate that military conquest and occupation can bring about a successful and permanent democratization. The U.S. achievement in these countries was all the more impressive since, in the 1940s, the leading American area specialists and professional experts frequently argued that the peculiar features of German and Japanese history and culture made democracy an alien and unlikely system for these nations. When, in the early 2000s, the leading American area specialists and professional experts have made similar arguments about Arab or Muslim history and culture, one can understand why the promoters of the democratization project for the Middle East could dismiss these arguments and why they might do so in good faith. It is important, however, to look at the circumstances of the German and Japanese cases in more detail. There were three crucial ways in which these circumstances differed from those of today’s Iraq.

A prior liberal-democratic experience. First, Germany and Japan (as well as Austria and Italy) actually had considerable experience with some version of liberal democracy only a couple of decades before, during the 1920s between the First World War and the Great Depression. The Weimar Republic, with its grand drama of blighted hopes and dark tragedy, is especially well-known, but Japan also experienced liberalization and even democratization in the 1920s. Austria had a political system similar to the Weimar Republic. And Italy had had a functioning liberal democracy for more than two decades before Mussolini put an end to it in 1922. For a time, each of these countries had developed liberal, democratic, and even social-democratic parties. Although these parties were repressed by the later totalitarian or authoritarian regimes, in the late 1940s the experience was still in the memories of substantial portions of the population. Indeed, some of the prominent leaders of the liberal-democratic period were still there—Konrad Adenauer in Germany, Karl Renner in Austria, Alcide de Gasperi in Italy, and Shigeru Yoshida in Japan—and the U.S. occupation authorities soon drew upon them to assume leadership in the new (really re-newed) liberal-democratic systems.

With regard to this feature of prior historical experience, the contrast between West Germany and Japan in the late 1940s and Iraq (as well as Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia) today could not be greater. These latter countries have never been liberal democracies. Further, the most liberal (but hardly democratic) regime in Iraqi history was the monarchy of King Faisal II, but that was violently overthrown in 1958, almost half a century ago. In Iraq, there is no historical base whatsoever for the American democratization project.

To get some sense of how successful externally imposed democratization would be in the absence of internally developed historical experience, one would have to look instead at the U.S. efforts to impose democracy upon such countries as Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Panama. Here, the only cases that can be said to be successful were the slow establishment of a liberal-democratic system in the Dominican Republic during the decade or so after the U.S. military intervention and occupation in 1965-1966 and the quick establishment of such a system in Panama after the U.S. intervention and occupation of 1989-1990. In contrast, each of the U.S. democratization projects of the 1900s-1930s ended in failure, with the liberal-democratic system overthrown and replaced by some kind of dictatorial regime.

A greater foreign threat. Second, and probably more important, West Germany and Japan in the late 1940s each perceived a foreign threat that was even greater than the one posed by the U.S. occupation. As oppressive as the military forces of the United States might have seemed to the West Germans and Japanese, there was the fear of something that would be even worse: the military forces of the Soviet Union. The threat from the Soviet military was especially obvious to the West Germans, who had ample evidence of the reign of pillage, rape, and murder that the Red Army inflicted upon Germans in the East and could be expected to inflict upon Germans in the West, if they ever got the chance. Even the Japanese feared a possible conquest by the Soviet military and revolution by the Japanese communists, particularly after they saw what the Soviets did to the Japanese colonists and soldiers they captured in Manchuria. As bad as the reality of the American occupation was for both nations, the specter of a Soviet occupation was a good deal worse. And it soon became clear to many West Germans and Japanese that only the American military stood in the way of that specter being realized.

With regard to this second feature, that of perceived foreign threat, there is again a great contrast between West Germany and Japan then and Iraq now. Of course, given the memory of the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s and the close relations between the Shi’ite regime in Iran and the Shi’ite majority in Iraq, Iran would appear to pose a potential threat to Iraq. And given the long-standing hostility of the Turks to the Kurds, Turkey might also appear to pose a potential threat to Iraq.

But Iraqis perceive these hypothetical threats in the context of the ethnic hostilities within Iraq itself. For now, the Iraqi Shi’ites fear and loathe the Iraqi Sunnis more than they do the Iranian Shi’ites, and it even seems that for now the Iraqi Kurds fear and loathe the Iraqi Sunni Arabs more than they do the Turks. And it is increasingly evident that both the Sunnis and the Shi’ites loathe the American occupation as much or more.

Again, to get some sense of how acceptable a U.S. military occupation would be in the absence of a still-greater foreign military threat, one would have to look not at West Germany and Japan but instead at the U.S. occupations in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Panama. In the cases where the occupation was prolonged beyond a couple of years, there developed substantial local resentment and even resistance. And in the two most successful cases (the Dominican Republic in 1965-1966 and Panama in 1989-1990), the United States withdrew its military forces and ended its occupation in less than a year.

An ethnically-homogenous population. Third, and probably most important, West Germany and Japan (and also Austria and Italy) were among the most ethnically homogeneous nations in the world. There were no significant ethnic minorities—they formed less than two percent of the populations—and there were no significant secession movements. Democratization did bring all sorts of political conflicts and cleavages—particularly around issues of economic class—but no ethnic group or territory voted to separate itself from the rest of the nation.

With regard to this third feature, the ethnic homogeneity prevalent in Germany and Japan is manifestly lacking in Iraq. As is well known, Iraq has never been ethnically homogeneous; from its creation in 1920, it has always been divided into three ethnic parts, the Sunni Arabs, the Shi’ite Arabs, and the Kurds (who are Sunni, but non-Arab), with the Sunni minority imposing an authoritarian and usually brutal regime upon the Shi’ite majority and the Kurdish minority. Moreover, the three ethnic parts have roughly corresponded to three territorial parts, with the Sunni Arabs in the center, the Shi’ite Arabs in the south, and the Kurds in the north (with mixed populations in major cities). Iraq was always an unstable equilibrium, a partition waiting to happen, artificially held together by the iron bonds of an authoritarian and brutal regime. In such circumstances, “regime change” would inevitably result in state change or even country change; in particular, democratization would mean that one or more of the three ethnic and territorial parts of Iraq would vote to separate itself from the others. One could have an Iraq, but without democracy. Alternatively, one could have democracy, but without an Iraq. But one could not have both.

To get some sense of how successful democratization would be with such pronounced ethnic heterogeneity, one would have to look not at West Germany and Japan in the late 1940s but instead at the recent and very extensive experience of democratization in the former communist countries. Certainly, one would have to look especially at the Balkans, which were once called the Near East and which is not that far geographically and sociologically from the contemporary Middle East.

Here the evidence is unambiguous. In virtually every country in the communist world where there was ethnic heterogeneity, democratization—which included free elections—was followed immediately by secession and partition. This was largely peaceful in the case of the Slavic and the Baltic republics of the Soviet Union and in the case of the “velvet divorce” between the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic. It was violent and even genocidal in the Caucasian republics of the Soviet Union and in several of the republics of Yugoslavia. But be the process peaceful or violent, the democratization of multiethnic societies almost always issued in secession and partition. Given these results of democratization in multiethnic countries of the communist world in the 1990s—especially the violent results in the Caucasus and the Balkans, which are so proximate to Iraq both geographically and historically—it is almost incredible that anyone could seriously argue that the most relevant comparisons to Iraq were the homogeneous nations of West Germany and Japan in the 1940s.

The Coming Failure

In summary, ample historical experience with a wide variety of democratization projects predicts that the U.S. effort to bring democracy to Iraq will end in failure. That effort may fail because the Iraqi people do not have the cultural values, social conditions, or historical experience with which to construct a democracy. Or it may fail because the Iraqi people come to associate democracy with the U.S. occupation and with all the disruptions and humiliations that a military administration inevitably brings. Or it may fail because there is actually no Iraqi people at all, only three peoples who will use democracy to break away from each other—at best, this would result in three democracies, rather than one; at worst, it would result in three states engaged in a new war of their very own. Or it may fail because of all of the above. With all these paths leading straight to failure, it will take a miracle for the U.S. democratization project in Iraq to succeed.

The failure of democratization in Iraq will discredit similar U.S. efforts elsewhere. The damage will be greatest in the Middle East and in the Muslim world more broadly, where Islamism will be left as the only valid ideology and Islamization as the only vital political and social project. Elsewhere, the harm will not be as profound, but for a few years at least, other countries will dismiss any U.S. proclamations and promotions of democratization as just another preposterous, feckless, and tiresome American conceit.

The United States might be able to absorb and eventually recover from this failure in Iraq, rather like it absorbed and eventually recovered from its epic failure in Vietnam three decades ago. Indeed, 30 years from now, Islamism might itself be discredited in the Middle East, rather like communism is discredited in Southeast Asia today. But like that earlier war, at the end of the day virtually all honest and reasonable people will agree that it would have been best if the United States had never gone to war at all.


James Kurth is the Claude Smith Professor of Political Science at Swarthmore College, where he teaches American foreign policy, defense policy, and international politics.



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