No solution

“There can be no elegant solution to a poorly defined problem.”

Dear Friends:

This past summer I was privileged to participate in a very small retreat with four friends who came from totally different professional backgrounds and walks of life — one a Christian minister who is president of a small liberal arts college, one the athletic director of a major Division I university, and two highly successful business executives from entirely different sectors of the corporate world.  As a long-retired USG Middle East specialist, I expected to be the odd man out, but we all came to realize very quickly how much we had in common when sharing our personal concerns about the present state of American society and our country’s role in the world today.  At the end of three days of completely candid discussion, we discovered that even when viewed from our distinctly different perspectives, the most fundamental problems that we could each identify in our respective areas of expertise were amazingly similar, and that we could all benefit greatly from each other’s individual insights and experience.  In summarizing our conclusions at the end of our mini-conference, we agreed on one general rule of life that fit all of us equally: do not expect to make wise decisions unless and until you have taken the time and trouble to understand the underlying fundamentals of the issues to which you are seeking a solution.  Stated more succinctly, it comes across best as this tidy little maxim:  “There can be no elegant solution to a poorly defined problem.”

That simple message came home to me again last week, and provided an opportunity to illustrate how appropriate the advice can be — even when applied to U.S. national policy at the highest level.  I hope you will find the following little essay interesting and informative.

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Last week, I attended a large meeting in Washington of an organization called The National Council on US-Arab Relations.  One of the keynote speakers was Ryan Crocker, who retired last year after serving as our top diplomat in Iraq following similar appointments in Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon — making him surely one of the most experienced and knowledgeable experts on the Middle East who ever served our government.  He is now Dean of the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.

In his speech last week, Ambassador Crocker stated that an eventual new Iraqi government headed by present Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is likely to request an extension of a US military presence in Iraq beyond the year 2011, and that he expected the Obama administration to be receptive to this request.  The clear implication was that a Maliki regime, lacking adequate trained manpower and sophisticated defense capabilities, would necessarily be dependent to a significant degree on US military power to defend itself effectively against both foreign and domestic opponents.

I was stunned by this statement, and double checked with several people to confirm that I had heard Ambassador Crocker accurately.  I had indeed.  The following message to you summarizes my reactions to that information.

To me, it is astonishing and troubling that our government would even consider placing US military power (and therefore commensurate American national prestige) to any degree whatsoever, and even if only implicitly, under obligation to a government headed by an Iraqi leader whose political agenda and personal ambitions can never be confidently relied upon to support objectives consistent with American interests, either inside Iraq or regionally.

I take this to mean, in short, that until we have completed the training and equipping of Iraq’s national security forces to the point of self-reliance, the United States will be willing to assume some as-yet-unspecified level of responsibility to defend the Iraqi homeland against external enemies and protect the incumbent regime from internal challenges.

Some clarification is definitely called for.

Against whom, and in response to what types of threats, would the Iraqis contemplate calling for US military assistance?  Who, and by what decision-making process, would the leaders of both parties reach agreement as to the identity of the “enemy” that we Americans would be called upon to oppose?  Who would decide what level of military action was appropriate, and who would determine when American intervention should begin and when its mission could be declared “accomplished”?  What if reinforcements were required in cases where US forces met unexpectedly heavy resistance or suffered unacceptable numbers of casualties?  (Surely not another surge?)  Those questions, and many more in the same vein, make me extremely uncomfortable.  The same goes, I’m sure, for my congressman, my grandchildren, and the relatives of every man and woman in the US armed forces.

How could President Obama, considering the other staggering problems he faces domestically and internationally, possibly justify (much less implement) an indefinite and highly controversial expansion and extension of our military and political commitments in Iraq?

How can anyone expect the American people (i.e. you and me, and Congress) to accept the high degree of risk that our forces would be drawn into any of the numerous ethnic, sectarian or regional conflicts that will obviously remain unresolved for at least the next decade in Iraq?  What would be the rules of engagement when US combatants were caught in the middle of spontaneous and tactical-level “fog of war” incidents — that will frequently and inevitably occur in Iraq over the next decade or more?  On a strategic level, would we refuse an urgent demand from the Maliki government that we intervene to forestall a Kurdish takeover of Kirkuk?  Would we help government security forces suppress a potentially violent Sunni protest movement demanding a more equitable division of political and economic resources — considering that our refusal to take sides might mean endangering the survival of the central government and/or increasing the likelihood of uncontrolled sectarian conflict and civil war?  Who would pay the costs of maintaining our forces in Iraq for years to come?  (Not my tax dollars, please!)  How would Iraq’s neighbors react to a startling reversal of Obama’s repeated pledge to bring American military forces home next year?  Might this provocative new posture not incentivize Iran to instigate violent attacks against other US interests in the region?  (To say nothing of the certainty that Al-Qa’ida would also rise to the challenge in similar fashion.)  The list of hideous potential repercussions goes on and on.

Ambassador Crocker’s explanation that without long-term American support Iraq’s armed forces will continue to lack the air power, artillery, armor and intelligence capabilities with which to defend their homeland against external attack (and to maintain internal unity and stability) is undeniably a valid consideration, and one that we have worried about for seven long and expensive years already.  But for the United States to leave behind a cadre of essentially non-combatant military trainers is not what is being considered here, as I understand the issue.  I believe Ryan Crocker meant precisely what he implied — that we will respond positively to an Iraqi Government request that the US reverse its present drawdown plans and retain in Iraq for an indefinite period a level of combat-ready forces sufficient to act as guarantor of the Iraqi state against external and internal threats.  What other meaning could he have intended to convey?

Commitment of US armed forces in an entirely new combat mission like this in Iraq today would be, in my view, the legal equivalent in every respect of launching a completely separate and distinct new military intervention in the Arab Middle East — one that should only be undertaken with the broad domestic and international approval and support that were so tragically lacking before the original invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Yet another aspect of the problem:  Have we blissfully ignored the uncomfortable truth that any large and effective internal security apparatus that we organize and train in Iraq (and likewise in Afghanistan, for that matter), will eventually become the dominant instrument of power in the country — to be employed at the whim of a government over whose actions and policies we will have no control and virtually no influence?  Today, before Iraqi forces are ready to take over full responsibility for their own security, we are apparently willing to commit our own military forces, under some vaguely-defined agreement, to augment and support the actions of an Iraqi regime that we not only cannot control, but one which we know perfectly well is corrupt, repressive, unstable and unreliable.  (Read Afghanistan if you will.)  Is it not utterly foolhardy to commit the lives of untold numbers of American men and women to what could easily evolve into another long, costly and probably futile new war?  Once we are in, how do we get out?  That’s the ill-defined foundation of decision-making that gives me heartburn.

For someone with Ryan Crocker’s experience at the policy-making level of our government to casually announce that, at this late date, the United States will probably accept an Iraqi government request that we reverse ourselves and agree to maintain a large military presence in Iraq for many more years, with the dangerously imprecise mission described above, is extremely hazardous and irresponsible, in my opinion —- especially considering that there has been (to my knowledge) absolutely no effort yet planned or initiated to obtain clear popular and governmental mandates to enact this policy in either Baghdad, the United Nations, Congress or Main Street, USA.

After suffering the terrible costs of ignoring expert advice before blundering into Iraq, should we not expect this government of ours to pay closer attention to experienced veterans advising us to keep out of yet another potential quagmire?

Ray Close

Monsieur d’Nalgar’s note:  This was emailed by Ray Close on October 29, 2010 under the subject heading “Dangerous escalation of US military commitment in Iraq?”

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