Can the U.S. avoid a worst-case scenario in Iraq?

Perhaps -- by increasing troop strength and raising taxes. An interview with "Dark Victory" author Jeffrey Record.

Robert Schlesinger
April 29, 2004 6:39PM (UTC)

Jeffrey Record is no stranger to controversy. A visiting research professor at the U.S. Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute in Carlisle, Pa., he gained national attention in January with his monograph "Bounding the Global War on Terrorism." In the piece, Record blasts the Bush administration's global war on terrorism as "unfocused" and "open-ended," while critiquing the Iraq war as "unnecessary," a "detour" from the essential focus on al-Qaida. He expands on the Iraq themes in his new book, "Dark Victory: America's Second War Against Iraq."

Record knows of what he speaks. His experience includes working on Capitol Hill for former Sens. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., and Lloyd Bentsen, D-Texas, and the Senate Armed Services Committee, as well as research at the Brookings Institution and the Hudson Institute and teaching military history at Georgetown University. Before his tenure at the Army War College, he was a professor of strategy and international security at the U.S. Air Force's Air War College in Montgomery, Ala. He has previously written about the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the Vietnam War, among other topics. Last week and this week, Record chatted with Washington journalist Robert Schlesinger about Iraq, al-Qaida and the Vietnam analogy.


What do you make of the current situation in Fallujah, Iraq?

It's fairly clear that there are differences of opinion about what should be done there. There's some sense that cleaning up Fallujah would create more problems than it would solve. It would radicalize remaining moderates, and it would also expose Marines to considerable casualties. I don't know what's going on on the ground, but I have a sense that there's a force mismatch here. It's another example of not having enough force on the ground.

How would you handle the situation?


I'm not sure I have an answer to that question. A whole host of mistakes here are coming back to haunt us, beginning with not going in with enough force for stability operations. I have a sense of foreboding about our long-term prospects in Iraq. It seems to me that overthrowing Saddam Hussein was always going to be the easier task than reconstructing an Iraq that would be favorable to our interests. It's clear to me that insufficient attention was paid to the second task. Certainly the level of planning for postwar Iraq was relatively insufficient compared to that for the war itself, and certainly compared to the long-range planning that we conducted during World War II in preparing to occupy Japan and Germany. We were well prepared for our postwar occupation and political reconstruction responsibilities in Germany and Japan because we had anticipated a lot of the problems we encountered and had put a lot of time and manpower into being prepared when Germany and Japan collapsed. And in both cases we went in with overwhelming force, so there was no question of insurgents.

What prompted you to start the research for your book?

I've been a defense policy analyst for 30 years. What is called the Bush doctrine -- whether you agree with it or not -- is a dramatic departure from pre-Sept. 11 policy. Of course it caused a considerable flurry within the defense analytical community. There's a lot of meat there that needed to be digested. So I was certainly not alone in examining this. Sept. 11 was, I think, a major turning point.


Do you agree with this doctrine?

The starting premise of the Bush doctrine is that we face a new kind of enemy that we've never encountered before, and that is a nonstate kind of adversary, one that is very, very difficult to deter and that seeks to obtain the kind of destructive power that states heretofore have monopolized. I think this is really unique; we've never seen anything like this before. And it didn't take a lot of imagination to extrapolate from the airplanes flying into the World Trade Center what would have happened if they had been armed with some kind of nuclear weapon. So I think the starting premise is very sound; you're not going to find much disagreement on that.


My problem with the Bush doctrine is that it mixes together the terrorist threats and the more standard type of threats from rogue states. As I argue in the book, I think it was a mistake to have gone into Iraq, a mistake to have equated Saddam Hussein and rogue states [like Iraq] with terrorist organizations generally. It was the lumping together of rogue states and terrorist organizations that kind of threw me off. I thought -- and still do -- that this was a strategic mistake of the first order because it essentially has gotten us involved in an unnecessary war of choice at the expense of a war of necessity against al-Qaida and its allied al-Qaida-inspired organizations.

The Bush administration and its allies argue that it's not so much a lumping together as a potential intersection -- that before the war we "knew" that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and that al-Qaida wanted weapons of mass destruction, and we knew that they don't like us.

They also don't like each other, or they didn't like each other. So the plausibility of Saddam Hussein, even had he had these weapons, [giving them to Osama bin Laden and his allies] was regarded as extremely low by people who knew al-Qaida and people who knew Saddam Hussein.


Given that a lot of people know that al-Qaida hates Iraq, that Saddam is No. 2 to Bush among bin Laden's most wanted, why do you think we're in Iraq?

The impact of 9/11 on members of the Bush administration was to propel them, as they should have been propelled, into [thinking of] the worst-case scenario. Everybody knew that terrorist organizations were seeking weapons of this kind, and the assumption was that if they didn't have them on their own, they would get them from these kinds of rogue states that hate us as well. That to date, as far as we know, has not happened. I'm more concerned about loose nukes in the Soviet Union than those technologies getting into the hands of these bad guys.

There's no question that these guys are seeking these kinds of weapons. And they are extremely difficult to deter, unlike rogue states, which can be deterred. Saddam Hussein was in fact being effectively deterred and contained at the time of 9/11 and at the time we launched the invasion.


I also think that there were -- and the evidence for this now is becoming almost unassailable -- a number of people in the Bush administration who were Iraq obsessed and who wanted to finish off Saddam Hussein for one reason or another. This is becoming clearer with almost every account that is coming out. I think some of them saw the events of 9/11 as a set of circumstances that they could parlay certainly into a war against al-Qaida and into an expanded conflict against Iraq.

You said the nexus between rogue states and terrorists was a worst-case scenario. Wasn't it reasonable for the president and his advisors to look at the worst-case scenario and say, since the potential damage is so great, we have to go ahead?

You always have to weigh probabilities against the cost of taking a particular action. I think the probability of a transfer of weapons to al-Qaida by Saddam was so low -- and we're dealing here with two specific actors, not in generic terms -- that it was not worth the cost we're still continuing to pay.

Now we have in effect opened up a new front in the war on terrorism. We have provided a whole new set of targets. We have started an unnecessary war by plopping down in the middle of an Arab heartland a huge Anglo-American force, which, leaving aside the issue of whether we went in with enough force, is going to invite this kind of attention from a lot of people in the Middle East. I don't think that the decision to go to war in Iraq can be repealed. I'm not one of those people who believe that this was wrong in the first place and now it's time to cut and run. I think that would invite an even worse situation. One thing we don't want to do in Iraq is to leave behind another failed state that could become another breeding ground for terrorists, particularly in an area of such importance as the Middle East.


So the issue is whether or not we can sustain ourselves there, and there are some scenarios in which I think we would have to abandon Iraq. If the country were to degenerate into a civil war, if it were to become another Lebanon, where we simply lost control of events -- that's the worst case I think we're looking at -- then I think we probably would be forced to get out.

What would your strategy be if you were called in at this point?

First, you have to put in more troops -- how many more, I'm not sure. Clearly they're looking for more troops than what they have there now. Sensible people have been saying this all along. My point is that we've got to do everything in our power to leave behind a better peace.

On the political side --


What effect would more troops have?

More troops generally will provide you with more security. It allows you to do more things, such as buy time so you can get the Iraqis sufficiently trained. I've been working on a study comparing Iraq and Vietnam. In Vietnam, in addition to half a million American troops, we had a South Vietnamese military establishment numbering anywhere from about 800,000 to over a million, depending on what year you're talking about. And even though they weren't crack, elite troops, they did provide a lot of static defense and soldiers and things like that that allowed some American forces to do the other operations. We don't have anything like that in Iraq, so in some respects we are worse off now than we were in Vietnam, even though the scale of fighting and the number of people killed in Iraq are much lower.

I want to come back to Vietnam, but I cut you off earlier. You were saying that militarily you would put in more troops. Politically, what would you do about Iraq?

I don't know that I have a solution; I'm not an Iraqi expert. I do know that in Vietnam we failed to create a legitimate government in South Vietnam, and I think we face the same challenge today in Iraq under circumstances that are much more difficult. Obviously you're going to have to find some way of reconciling the competing interests of the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. The Shiites clearly have got it in their heads now that when we talk about democracy, for them that's majority rule. And they're not particularly focused on how to guarantee minority rights in that situation. The Sunnis, who have been running Iraq for 350 years, certainly don't have any interest in an Iraq where the Shiites are going to dominate. And the Kurds don't like anybody in the sense that they have always associated Iraq with bad news. What they want is a very weak central government in Iraq or one that doesn't function at all.


Going back to Vietnam and the issue of trying to set up or support a legitimate government, what are the parallels between Iraq and Vietnam?

This whole business of Iraq and Vietnam that has now taken center stage in a lot of the discussion -- there's a lot of bad history floating around in the discussion. From a strategic and military standpoint, there are no meaningful comparisons between the situation in Iraq and the situation in Vietnam in the '60s and the '70s. The nature of the war, the scale of the fighting, the scale of the losses, the size of the contending forces, the quality of the enemy that we faced -- I don't think we have ever fought a more skilled and tenacious enemy in our history than the Vietnamese Communists, who were prepared to make enormous, almost unprecedented, manpower sacrifices to get what they wanted. We faced nothing equivalent to that in Iraq, which doesn't mean that because it's not as tough as in Vietnam it's easy.

I see only two dimensions of the Vietnam conflict that ought to be looked at to provide some instruction for what we face in Iraq. One is our failure to create a legitimate, indigenous government in South Vietnam despite an enormous effort over a long period of time.

The other is the issue of the domestic sustainability of this entire enterprise. We ultimately got out of Vietnam because it became domestically unsupportable from a political standpoint. We're not there yet with Iraq for sure -- it took us seven years to get out of Vietnam. Reasoning by historical analogy is generally dangerous, and these wars are very remote from each other in time, place and strategic circumstances. So you can easily say, "This is not Vietnam." But are there dimensions of the Vietnam conflict that may have some parallels to the problems we face? Yeah, I think there are.

Your book has a chapter on historical analogy. Obviously critics of the president use Vietnam. The president and his allies say, "Look at postwar Germany and Japan." How do you address those analogies?

Japan is the cleanest analogy because we had to share the occupation of Germany with other powers. In Japan we could do whatever we wanted to. But I think the Japanese analogy is misguided. For one thing, Gen. MacArthur went into Japan with half a million troops. Second, he had the blessing of the emperor. His entire seven-year rule in Japan was legitimized by the emperor's acquiescence to it. As far as I know there was not a single politically motivated act of violence against American troops in Japan during that period. MacArthur had seven years to create the institutions that subsequently emerged in Japan. I'm not sure we have seven years in Iraq to create the kind of thing we created in Japan. And Japan is a much more homogenous society; it wasn't riven by the kinds of fissures that separate Kurds and Sunnis and Shiites and so on. There was nothing in Japan that anybody wanted, either -- unlike in Iraq, which is full of oil. And oh, by the way, it was an island; it didn't have a lot of porous borders. Also, both the Germans and the Japanese knew that there was a much worse alternative to American rule, the Soviets. So I really don't think there's much of an analogy.

The other analogy you address in the book is Munich?

Munich tells you when to fight. The Munich analogy tells you that if we had fought Hitler in 1936 or stood him down over Czechoslovakia in 1938, we could have saved ourselves the whole Second World War. Those who favored going to war with Iraq trotted out that analogy by saying that if we don't go to war with Iraq now, it will eventually get nuclear weapons and then it will be a much more difficult adversary to deal with. I don't disagree with that, but the question is, is it going to be a policy of the United States that anytime we see some power emerging on the horizon that might at some point get nuclear weapons, we will just go ahead and attack them now? That's not exactly in the American tradition.

You favored the war in Afghanistan, but you are uncomfortable with the broader global war on terror?

I'm not so sure what the global war on terrorism is. Does it mean we go to war with every terrorist organization in the world, even though it may be local and have absolutely no beef with the United States? I have difficulties with the term terrorism -- in the sense that terrorism is a style of warfare, it's like declaring war on guerrilla warfare. Are you going to declare war on terrorism, which is a phenomenon? Terrorism is a style of warfare chosen by the politically desperate and the militarily helpless. And as long as you have politically desperate and militarily helpless people, you're going to have terrorism. But I think strategy requires discrimination. Al-Qaida should not be put on the same plane as the Basque separatist organization or the IRA or even Hamas, for that matter. One of the mandates of strategic thinking is to keep your enemies to a manageable number.

Why is it important to have precision?

As I've argued, we didn't let the distinction between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein [deter us from invading Iraq]; we lumped them all together. We're not going after the IRA and we're not going after Syria or Iran for several reasons, not the least of which is that we don't have the force left to do it. We have strategically overextended ourselves.

What do you mean by strategically overextended?

Any great power, except a great power in total war, as we were in World War II, has some disharmony between its stated political objectives and the amount of military power and other parts of force it maintains. During the Cold War we were committed to defending half the world. If half the world had been invaded by the Russians, we could not have defended them all at once. So there's always going to be some tension between the resources on hand and your ambition. But at some point that gap becomes dangerous, or worrisome. For example, what if the North Koreans were to invade South Korea tomorrow? Or say two months from now when we have committed yet additional force in Iraq? Those forces in Iraq are not going to be available for that Korean defense. Our ground forces are now -- this is widely acknowledged -- very, very thinly stretched.

We have roughly a million people in the Army all told. We have 130,000 in Iraq. How are we stretched?

Saying that, well, only 13.5 percent of our forces are in Iraq really doesn't capture the stress that's being put on the Army. Plus there's the fact that a decent number of people in Iraq are reservists. There's lots of speculation that one of the effects of this whole Iraq thing is going to be to wreck Reserve recruiting and retention. I don't know whether that's true or not, but there are a lot of reservists for whom this is not what they signed up for.

You've described Iraq as a diversion from the war on al-Qaida. How is that war going?

We're doing as well as we can expect. We did go into Afghanistan; we did tear up a lot of infrastructure. We have hunted down and killed or captured a number of key operatives. I think we've done considerable damage to al-Qaida. But this thing is like a cancer; it metastasizes. People tend to think of al-Qaida as this one terrorist organization with this wiring diagram. You know, you get this guy so you cross his picture out, and then you get that guy. This is a movement as much as it is a terrorist organization, and it inspires local terrorist wannabes to do the same thing. So it's like a very loose collection of organizations, with maybe al-Qaida as a senior holding company. And their capacity for regeneration is fairly impressive, at least at the recruit level.

You said we're doing as well as can be expected.

Even better, I think.

Better in what way?

Better in the sense that, for example, there was a lot of foreboding about going into Afghanistan. You had the example of the Russians there, and Afghanistan has been the graveyard for everybody from Alexander the Great to the British and the Russians. But [look] how quickly we managed to turn the Taliban out and to hunt down or wreck a lot of their infrastructure, and to put al-Qaida on the defensive. They're running now; they're living out of caves and they're running, at least in Afghanistan. We may get bin Laden at some point; I think we will at some point. But that doesn't end it at all. Still, that would be a major accomplishment.

If we are doing as well as or better than can be expected, what's the problem with the Iraq war?

Iraq has been transformed into a new recruiting ground for terrorists. We have provided a large number of not just American targets, but Western targets, for these people to shoot at. And it's consuming American strategic attention and American resources. Can we do both goals at the same time in terms of resources? The answer is yes. The war in Afghanistan is relatively small potatoes in terms of resources and manpower committed. The Iraq thing has not deprived us of the resources needed to go after al-Qaida. What it has done is divert our strategic attention and definition of the enemy and provide an opening to al-Qaida that did not exist before.

Is there anything that we should be doing more or less of in the war on al-Qaida?

I suspect we're doing everything that we could possibly be doing. I think the administration clearly understands the lethality of the threat. More broadly, on the fiscal front, this is the first major war where nobody raised taxes; on the contrary, there are lower taxes. There are lots of arguments for and against tax cuts, but there's no question that the effect of the tax cut -- and other factors, such as the baby boom generation beginning to draw on Social Security -- will be to open up some pretty big deficits downstream and an accumulated level of debt that may in the long run affect our ability to carry on the fight.

Robert Schlesinger

Robert Schlesinger, a former Pentagon correspondent for the Boston Globe, is a freelance reporter based in Washington and a contributing editor at the Washington Examiner.

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