Saturday, May 24, 2008

Preparing for the wrong war

An editorial in the current issue of Barron's.

THIRTY-THREE YEARS AT LEAST – that's how long the United States military establishment has taken to learn the most important lesson from the Vietnam War. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is not the first Pentagon chief to realize that's too long. Even now, Gates says, the entire military hasn't yet learned the lesson.

The military resists and fights change. Bureaucrats resist and fight change. The military bureaucracy resists and fights change. A terrible combination.

The high-ranking officers who set up the curriculum in the staff college in the 1980s were responsible in large measure for the failure of counterinsurgency in the first phase of the war against the Iraqi insurgency. The difficult lessons of the war against the Viet Cong had "withered on the vine," Gates said, warning that it must not happen again after current wars wind down.

Good enough intentions, but one has to wonder how it'll translate. Colin Powell vowed the lessons, as he put it, learned from the Viet Nam War wouldn't be forgotten; he then counseled Bush 1 not to go to Baghdad, leaving that battle to be fought a decade and a half later.

Gates said that even in the middle of the Iraq and Afghan wars, U.S. military leaders are succumbing to what he called "Next-War-itis," which he defined as "the propensity of much of the defense establishment to be in favor of what might be needed in a future conflict" against North Korea, Iran, China or another large national military with conventional arms and conventional war aims. He was being diplomatic: A better description would be "Last-War-itis," or perhaps, "preparing to fight the war we want to fight instead of the war our enemies will choose."

An excellent point, that of wanting to fight the war we want; same is true in diplomacy and international relations: Bush talks of making Iran conform to our expectations and demands, rather than being creative in his thinking and actions.

But the U.S., as Gates said, already has "ample and untapped combat power in our naval and air forces with the capacity to defeat any, repeat any, adversary who committed an act of aggression, whether in the Persian Gulf, on the Korean Peninsula or in the Straits of Taiwan." What it needs are the tools of counterinsurgency and soldiers who can use them, he said.

This is a fundamental mistake, thinking that the US can defeat any adversary with its hardware. If a war started with Iran, say, clearly (to me) the debacle in Iraq has shown that defeating the adversary with hardware; Iran would fight an insurgency that would make Iraq look to be a skirmish.

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