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Britain, War, Obama, Political Leadership and the Military
Posted by: McQ on Monday, December 22, 2008

Michael Portillo writes an interesting column on the thesis that "Britain has lost its stomach for a fight".

After saying that Britain failed in Iraq and the primary reason was political, he covers the secondary reason for their failure:
The secondary cause of failure was a misplaced British disdain for America, shared by our politicians and senior military. In the early days in Iraq we bragged that our forces could deploy in berets and soft-sided vehicles while US forces roared through Baghdad in heavily armoured convoys. British leaders sneered at the Americans’ failure to win hearts and minds because of their lack of experience in counterinsurgency.

Pride has certainly come before a fall. British commanders underestimated both the enemy’s effectiveness and the Americans’ ability to adapt. Some apparently failed even to observe how much had changed. At a meeting in August 2007 an American described Major-General Jonathan Shaw, then British commander, as “insufferable”, lecturing everyone in the room about lessons learnt in Northern Ireland, which apparently set eyeballs rolling: “It would be okay if he was best in class, but now he’s worst in class.”

Around the same time Jack Keane, an American general, moaned that it was frustrating to see the “situation in Basra that was once working pretty well, now coming apart”. By then General David Petraeus had been appointed US commander, introducing intelligence and determination in equal measure.

If a fair-minded account of the Iraq war is written, credit should go to President Bush for rejecting two years ago the report by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group that called for force reductions. He defied conventional wisdom and ordered a troop surge instead. It has been an extraordinary success and, unlike Britain, the Americans will not withdraw in defeat. During debates in Washington, British forces’ ignominious withdrawal to barracks was cited to argue that the United States could not contemplate being humbled in a similar way. In the end Bush was not a quitter. Blair “cut and ran”.

Britain’s shaming was completed in March 2008 when Iraqi forces, backed by the US, moved decisively against the Mahdi Army, inflicting huge casualties and removing them from Basra. Operation Charge of the Knights was supervised by Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, exasperated that Iraq’s second city was controlled not by Britain but by an Iranian-backed Shi’ite militia.

Trust in the British had fallen so low that neither the Iraqi nor the US government was willing to give us much notice of the operation. General Mohammed Jawad Humeidi remarked that his forces battled for a week before receiving British support. He rubbed salt in the wound by noting that for five years the Mahdi Army had “ruled Basra without being punished or held to account”, and had during that time controlled ports, oil, electricity and government agencies, whose funds bought them weapons.
That's a pretty good summary of the British experience in Iraq from what I've read. It has nothing to do with the bravery or fortitude of the British soldier. It has to do with the leadership. I remember writing about the arrogance of that leadership who found the Americans to be beneath contempt for their conduct of the war and the sneering condescension evident as they set out to show us how to fight such a war. Berets and soft sided vehicles indeed. If there was a singular failure in that war it was the British effort in Basra as Portillo notes.

But there is a lesson to be taken from this by American troops. British leaders were fighting their last war - that in Northern Ireland. While it and Iraq were both counter insurgencies, they were very different wars. What Americans have to take away from Iraq and apply to Afghanistan is they too are very different wars. That doesn't mean that the principles of counter-insurgency aren't sound, but it does mean that a different formula is most likely necessary for their application.

But back to Potillio's observations about the British:
It raises questions about the stamina of our nation and the resolve of our political class. It is an uncomfortable conclusion that Britain, with nuclear weapons, cruise missiles, aircraft carriers and the latest generation of fighter-bombers, is incapable of securing a medium-size conurbation. Making Basra safe was an essential part of the overall strategy; having committed ourselves to our allies we let them down.
What he says is true. But the opposite problem is now true for America. With our success in Iraq, we have to avoid the same sort of arrogance and avoid the belief that we've found the magic formula for such wars that the British brought to Basra. We have to understand that the wars we're engaged in, while based on the same sound warfighting principles, all have completely different situations which require new and different adaptations of those principles.

On the other side of that, what Iraq has done that is indeed worth its weight in gold (and it is a tribute to our leadership and, especially, the will of our fighting men and women) is it has removed from the world's conventional wisdom the belief that we couldn't sustain casualties and wouldn't commit to a long war. It isn't the US who eventually cut and ran from Iraq to set up shop again in Pakistan, it was our avowed enemy who declared Iraq its "central front".

Unfortunately, we'll never know how many conflicts the war in Iraq may prevent because the belligerent now realizes not only will we show up and fight, we'll stay until it is over. But that is a huge and welcome deterrent, and I for one am glad to see the CW finally changed.

On the other hand, we must pick our future fights and pick them carefully. Wars that concern our national security must be our primary focus. We must use our war making powers judiciously but we must also make it clear we won't hesitate to commit our armed forces when necessary and when we do, we will commit them overwhelmingly. That's how we win.

Of course all of this will require a beefed up armed forces - something that usually runs counter to the ideology now becoming ascendant. Although Barack Obama has pledged to increase the military and has retained Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense, the power to appropriate still rests with Congress and it is there the battle for dollars will take place. And it is my guess, given the economic circumstances and given the dominance of Democrats in Congress, that defense is not high on their spending priority list.

All of this to say I'm going to be watching the defense side of things very carefully in the upcoming years to monitor precisely what happens - good or bad - concerning our military capabilities. At this point I have nothing substantial on which to base any concerns that cuts are coming, but I'm wary. Seems to me though, with all the money that's being thrown around and with all the talk of stimulus and jobs, the military would be a perfect and Constitutional way to do both.

We'll see.

As to Potillio's thesis, he's right on the money. Political will is vitally necessary to the success of the military in any conflict, but especially in a long war. We in the US suffered the same sort of results in Viet Nam where an arrogant military refused to adapt to the real conditions on the ground for years, and when it finally did and was winning the war, were let down by a lack of political will.

The good news is, it's recoverable.

See Iraq.
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Previous Comments to this Post 

I agree with the general drift of your post. However, I wonder about the idea that we have proven we can win a war that costs us casualties. I think we got lucky with an extremely stubborn commander-in-chief (both a blessing and a curse) who was willing to let his "popularity" rating drop into the teens to win a war. I don’t think we showed that our system is really set up to let us consistently win wars like this in the future. Do you disagree?
Written By: Clark Taylor
URL: http://
Clark Taylor raises a good point. We’ve seen various people (mostly on the left, for devious reasons) bewail our "high" casualties and use them as an excuse for quitting. 4000 deaths in about six years??? That’s IT??? Who’s to say what might have happened had we lost a few thousand more. Might the Copperheads have been able to secure the votes to cut funding and effectively surrender?

What we’re REALLY learning (well, some of us) is that, once you’re in, you’re IN. There is no substitute for victory. It may take time, it may cost money and blood, the winning strategy might not be immediately obvious, but you’ve GOT to win. Bush understood this. His detractors don’t. The enemy also understands this. They may make things rather difficult for TAO unless he demonstrates (and I’ll be shocked if he does) that he understands it, too.
Written By: docjim505
URL: http://
Well, once you’re in; you’re in for the win, isn’t just something that Republicans’s what Obama knows too, and Democrats. At the risk of derision, but in the name of accuracy, I agree with Limbaugh, the Democrats aren’t going to withdraw from Iraq and have it come back on’s theirs now and they intend to "win." Just like anyone else would...because of Petraeus and the Surge I think they will.
Written By: Joe
URL: http://
What he says is true. But the opposite problem is now true for America
Disagree 100%.

We have that problem here just as bad. Only the stubborness of Bush prevented us from losing. EVERYONE else was either rushing to declare it lost, or to finding a way to speed us out of there ASAP.

We had a Democrat party that voted for the war when the political winds demanded it, and then spent the next 6 years whining that they were "lied to" somehow. We had a public that was pretty much in favor of the war, but turned against it when it got tough...and then ignored it entirely when things started to go our way again.

We won this war because of Bush and Petreaus, and those two only. This nation doesn’t have the stomach for a fight either......well, 1/2 of it doesn’t anyway. Guess which half.

*(Yes, Bush made mistakes, he waited too long to change tactics. Now go find me a mistake-free war.)

Written By: shark
URL: http://
Britain’s problem, is analogous to America’s c. 1941-45. Why should “we” be “over there?” For the Brit’s or the Russians that wasn’t really a question, the reason they were in it, was because the Germans were on their door steps, but not so the Americans. For places like Afghanistan, the US can point to 9/11 and say, “We’re here because we don’t want that to happen again.” But not so much the Brit’s…the US didn’t want to die for the British Empire in 1941, and now the Brit’s don’t want to die for the US Empire. Now in neither case, do I believe that the deaths were for an Empire, but rather were to combat a discernible evil, nonetheless for many in the US, in 1941, and Britain, today, that’s what it feels like. You’ll note it took Pearl harbor and the Germans declaring war on the US to get us “over there.” I think Britain is in the same boat. Add to that, that Britain has far fewer resources and you have a Britain that is trying to achieve much, with very little…and it shows.

End note: I was sooooo glad to see windbags like various British generals and Sir Max Hastings get their mustachioed, stiff upper lips handed to them by the ultimate resolution of Iraq and by observing the British struggle in Afghanistan. That lovely and much vaunted “soft approach” failed and I enjoyed the British discomfiture, though not the deaths and misery that failure engendered. I realize that my schadenfreude is a fairly grave sin.
Written By: Joe
URL: http://
And last week there was a report that the British in Afghanistan were a disaster - they didn’t have the right equipment, their helicopters didn’t work, and they didn’t measure up in battle.

It appears that since Labour has run the UK since 1997, they fight like pu$$ies.

We can well expect this to happen to our military if The Clown™ imposes his "gays must serve" edict. We can bring San Francisco’s Castro Street values to the US military. And then it will be lights out in this country.
Written By: James Marsden
URL: http://
I’m not sure conventional wisdom has any physical weight, but interestingly enough the Iraq war cost taxpayers more than the weight in gold of all our soldiers!
Written By: TomD
URL: http://
I think Britain’s problem is much more profound. Visiting it again in the late 1990s, I was overwhelmed how much it reeked of "dead empire." Its people were complacent and happy with being mediocre. They increasingly found the path to happiness was through the government-empowered seizure of the assets earned by the few hard workers in their nation. They ignore how this is no different than Nigerians dismantling their electrical power lines and water plant infrastructure to scrap them for a few dollars today, in exchange for a certain future in poverty with no production capital.

Granted, the United States is aggressively following Britain down this path, but they lead the US by at least 30 years. They’ve done nothing of matter as a nation since WW-II, and unlike the US, have a real legacy of having created global messes from their 1800s empire. Thrown out of India, South Africa and countless other colonies, they’ve retreated to their living rooms and pubs, pretending they’re still capable of greatness of their ancestors. I’d have to suggest that Winston Churchill wouldn’t recognize his countrymen today (nor would America’s founding fathers recognize ours).

I seriously doubt complacency can be cured through anything other than collapse and hardship. While Chinese parents sacrifice everything to buy pianos and college educations for their children, they laugh as they produce flat-screen TVs for lazy Americans and Europeans to buy for their children. A recent Asia Weekly article had the appropriate comment from a Chinese parent: "It’s not true that all American children will have a Chinese boss in the near future. I’m sure some of their bosses will be Indian as well."

Enjoy those consumer goodies and demand the government punish and destroy capitalistic energy through excessive taxation and wealth transfers, killing the little remaining entrepreneurial spirit or forcing it overseas. Obama is the Grim Reaper for the American Republic.
Written By: HatlessHessian
URL: http://
Yeah, TomD, winning costs. Of course, losing costs even more.
Written By: SDN
URL: http://
I’m curious if Britain’s citizens would mind if the rest of the world entered into an agreement with the Islamic states much like the British did with Hitler. What if we gave an Islamic coalition the U.K. in exchange for a declaration of peace? Unlike the Czech, whom the British sold into slavery and certain death for millions in exchange for a year or two of German military buildup, the British seem to have no fight in them. Actually, their government and Anglican church has been overly eager to embrace Sharia law, accelerating their integration with Islam.

Given Britain’s citizens have foregone their birthright as defenders of liberty, we can disregard their complaints. Why not entertain the proposition with the Saudis, or better yet, Syria for the annexation of Britain in exchange for the removal of AQI and other radical segments and a 100 year peace pact. Given that Britain arguably is going down that road independently, might its disposal do great good for the majority of the other western nations? Might the seizure and redistribution of a mismanaged nation do great good by handing over its citizens to those who both need their productive utility more, and would certainly have the energy and vigor to put them and their natural resources to much better use?
Written By: HatlessHessian
URL: http://
but interestingly enough the Iraq war cost taxpayers more than the weight in gold of all our soldiers!
There’s point to this? Or can I just add that there is an inverse relationship between the population of Sweden and the number of storks in Minnesota...I found that little fact to be as germane as TomD’s notation.
Written By: Joe
URL: http://
I’m not sure conventional wisdom has any physical weight, but interestingly enough the Iraq war cost taxpayers more than the weight in gold of all our soldiers!
Yea well, I wonder how much gold the bailout cost us?

Written By: kyleN
Yea well, I wonder how much gold the bailout cost us?

I’m not sure conventional wisdom has any physical weight, but interestingly enough the Bailout cost taxpayers more than the weight in gold of all our citizens.

(ok... I had to say it)
Written By: HatlessHessian
URL: http://
However, I wonder about the idea that we have proven we can win a war that costs us casualties. I think we got lucky with an extremely stubborn commander-in-chief (both a blessing and a curse) who was willing to let his "popularity" rating drop into the teens to win a war. I don’t think we showed that our system is really set up to let us consistently win wars like this in the future. Do you disagree?
Not entirely. I think an argument can be made that losing 4,000 over 5 years is not enough, in terms of casualties, to put the "they won’t take casualties" meme to rest yet. But I do think the meme has been grievously wounded.

On the other hand, the fact that we had an "extremely stubborn" C-i-C goes to my point (and Portillo’s) that political will is the most important part of the formula. Our military, even when things were going badly, never slacked off in the fight. But had Bush not been the extremely stubborn commander or had any of those who thought Iraq was lost been in charge, we might very well have withdrawn 3 years ago and left AQ to make Iraq into what they wished. But Bush’s stubbornness proved a point - if we have the political will, we stand a better than average chance of pulling it off.

Can we consistently win wars like this? Assuming the political will to do so (and I recognize that’s a big assumption now), I’d give it a qualified "yes". Afghanistan will most likely be where I’m either proven right or wrong.
Written By: McQ
This is why the obesity problem is so pressing. Think about it.

If we can get down the average weight, we can save a lot of gold.
Written By: Harun
URL: http://
I don’t think the British had any monopoly on arrogance. Fortunately, I think the US recovered somewhat, at least enough to admit we were using the wron g strategy and implement a new one.

As for showing we could tolereate casualties, give me a break. With all due respect to the sacrifice made by our troops in Iraq, the casualty rate was trivial compared to most other wars or incidents. Other nations and opponents will note this, and also the fact that the leadership that was willing to tolerate the casualties we have taken is now out of power. Does anyone really think that anyone, after all the rhetoric by Reid et al., believes that the US will accept heavy casualties to accomplish some objective less important than national survival?
Written By: timactual
URL: http://
ROTFLOL! Talk about an alternate reality. Our success in Iraq? Man, you must not get out much. Iraq is almost universally seen as having been a fiasco, a disaster that destroyed Bush’s Presidency, weakened America on the world stage, and now has us limping away with Iran filling the void. Success? Geez, as an educator, it sickens me to see such blatant disdain for reality, even in a hyper partisan blog. Oh well, luckily you’re on the margins, calling Iraq a success is like praising Bush’s economic stewardship.

One good thing: the Iraq syndrome is real. The youth have become very anti-militarist at a level I haven’t seen since the before Desert Storm. We can’t afford the kind of offensive/aggressive military policy that we’ve embraced; beyond being immoral, it’s also not sustainable. Look for the current economic crisis to bring about real defense spending (a misnomer because we don’t need much to defend ourselves; most of the spending has been for aggressive policies) decrease, and the disaster in Iraq will lead to a very different, much more humble foreign policy.

But to call Iraq a success? You’re the new incarnation of Baghdad Bob! And don’t think we’re going to let you get away with that kind of propagandistic attempt to rewrite history. Never. Watch and learn. Meanwhile, the Iranians are laughing at us.
Written By: Scott Erb
But to call Iraq a success? You’re the new incarnation of Baghdad Bob! And don’t think we’re going to let you get away with that kind of propagandistic attempt to rewrite history. Never. Watch and learn. Meanwhile, the Iranians are laughing at us.
Well, then surely the new administration will withdraw us from Iraq and continuing disaster post haste then won’t they?


There’s your measure of failure you moron. When even the Democrats won’t withdraw it’s a sign it wasn’t a failure after all.

yes Scott, invective - you are a moron.

Written By: looker
URL: http://
"And don’t think we’re going to let you get away with that"

We are not going to...?

Written By: timactual
URL: http://
Look for the current economic crisis to bring about real defense spending (a misnomer because we don’t need much to defend ourselves; most of the spending has been for aggressive policies) decrease,
We need a strong navy to defend trade routes and ensure rouge nations don’t act out. Look at the current piracy problem as an example. And the navy is inherently expensive.

Likewise we need to stay on top with respect to air power, with projects like F-22 and F-35. Both are inhernetly expensive.

Your problem, Scott, is that you really don’t have a clue. You don’t grasp that meeting our basic defense requirements is expensive, and that once these are met, it takes relatively little additional funding for us to do heavy lifting well beyond our basic defense needs. We are not like Germany, who can have a defensive army and small air force, safe in the knowledge that the Americans have the capability to do the heavy lifting.

Besides which, Scott, your take on Iraq is pure rationalization. Your guys lost, get over it.
Written By: Don
URL: http://
Your guys lost, get over it.
Don, you just don’t understand the world of Multiple Truthistan. It’s a lot like Neverneverland. Facts and logic don’t apply there; they are the province of those who don’t understand the magical tools of leftism. You know, adults, like you and me.

In Multiple Truthistan, if you really, really believe that Iraq was a failure, then it is! The facts don’t matter. Dramatically lower violence, democracy taking root, people beginning to put aside tribal divisions and religious differences in the most fanatic part of the world - none of that matters in Multiple Truthistan. The residents of Multiple Truthistan simply deny that the facts exist, and, voila! They’re gone! And they can then substitute the alternative truth that they desire.

It’s such a wonderful place to live. Of course, to stay there, just like Neverneverland, you have to retain the mind of a child. A very young one, in fact, back around the age where they stamp their little feet if they don’t get what they want. And stick their fingers in their ears when you try to tell them something they don’t want to hear.
Written By: Billy Hollis
Iraq is an objective failure because: a) Bush was forced to accept a time table he had not wanted to accept; b) the Iraqis themselves do not like Americans and reject the notion of liberation; c) Iraq is extremely corrupt, and the central government does not operate in an open Democratic manner — indeed, it appears to be drifting into a corrupt authoritarianism, with the Sunnis controlling their regions, the Kurds basically autonomous — a defacto tripartite division; d) Iran has come out on top, with tremendous influence over the Iraqi government, and power in Iraqi militias laying low so as to allow the US to "declare victory and leave," Iran will emerge stronger; e) the US has lost moral authority due to things like Abu Ghraib, and the way Arab suffering and death unleashed by the war has been shown to the globe (pictures we often don’t see here) — and in conjunction with the economic crisis, the US appears to be severe decline; f) the US also has had its military weakness shown — after bombast, we defined success down so far that just being able to leave without a blood bath right away (though wait two years and you might get one) is considered success by some. Never mind we don’t have long term bases, Iraq is not a close ally (allied with our foe, in fact), has Muslim law enforced in much of the country in a manner that is contrary to our views on human rights, and violence could explode at any time. People tried to claim success in Vietnam in 1973 — how did that turn out?

So looking at all that, you see that I have to laugh out loud and mock anyone who tries to claim Iraq is a success for the US. We have been weakened, humiliating and are essentially leaving with our tail between our legs.

But there are some winners besides Iran: the anti-war crowd in the US feels vindicated and has the American people finally in an anti-militarist mood, especially the youth. The Iraq syndrome will be stronger than the Vietnam syndrome. The Democrats won big time. Without Iraq there would be no President Obama. Without Iraq the GOP might still control Congress. Now the Democrats look set to be able to single handidly decide how to handle the economic collapse, and set the general tenor of American government for perhaps decades. They may screw it up, but they wouldn’t be in this position without Iraq. Losers include military families, hurt by high divorce rates, domestic violence and intense psychological problems, civilians across Iraq, and the economy here in the US.

Success? Again, that sounds like rhetoric from Baghdad Bob.
Written By: Scott Erb
By the way, Billy H., I’m giving you facts, analysis, and an argument proving my position. You are simply insulting. Which approach is more child like?

Of course, the facts are not on your side, so you have to make stuff up. You might want to consider that in your response you might be projecting.
Written By: Scott Erb
You are simply insulting.
Yep. Because that’s all you deserve. I could lay out all the facts and analysis in the world, and you would just hand-wave it away, as you have every single time anyone around here has tried it, for years.

The only purpose you fulfill around here is to give raw material for Ott Scerb. The fact that you can’t see that says loads about your own capacity to observe and think.

I can see you are getting touchy over the Iraq thing, though. Good.
Written By: Billy Hollis
No, Billy, you don’t respond to me because you can’t. The facts are not on your side, and you know if you tried I could utterly and completely destroy any argument you make. You are scared to really debate, and you hide behind insults and bravado because you know you’d lose. I know the field of foreign policy and international relations so much better than you do that I could run rings around any argument you make. I research Iraq intensely before teaching my courses on IR and American foreign policy (or give public talks on these issues), so I have information at my disposal from a variety of perspectives. Look, you can play around all you want, but in the real world this is my field of expertise, and you know that. But if the insults are therapeutic for you, go ahead. But it’s cowardly on your part.

That’s OK. Just watch how this gets recorded in history, taught in classrooms, what public opinion is, and how politics in the Mideast unravels in the next few years. You’ll find out I’m right — or perhaps you realize that already, but you lack the honor to admit it.
Written By: Scott Erb
Go ahead and keep stamping your little feet, Scott. We all know exactly how to translate your little tirade above: "I am too smart, smarter than you, so there!"

You just hate it when people don’t take you seriously, don’t you? Too bad. You’re not worth taking seriously, and all the whining in the world won’t change that.
Written By: Billy Hollis
Gee, Billy, I’m just pointing out that you don’t make arguments or give analysis and I do. Luckily, you don’t teach or have any particular influence. So you really are irrelevant. Your bluster is irrelvant. Meanwhile, I am shaping the minds of the future, and it’s a great profession.

(Oh, and I note how you still are scared to actually make an argument. Cute. You seem to know your limitations.)
Written By: Scott Erb

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