Iraq without a Plan

By O'Hanlon, Michael E. | Policy Review, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Iraq without a Plan


O'Hanlon, Michael E., Policy Review


THE POST-INVASION PHASE of the Iraq mission has been the least well-planned American military mission since Somalia in 1993, if not Lebanon in 1983, and its consequences for the nation have been far worse than any set of military mistakes since Vietnam. The U.S. armed forces simply were not prepared for the core task that the United States needed to perform when it destroyed Iraq's existing government--to provide security, always the first responsibility of any sovereign government or occupier.

The standard explanation for this lack of preparedness among most defense and foreign policy specialists, and the U.S. military as well, is that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and much of the rest of the Bush administration insisted on fighting the war with too few troops and too Polyannaish a view of what would happen inside Iraq once Saddam was overthrown. This explanation is largely right. Taken to an extreme, however, it is dangerously wrong. It blames the mistakes of one civilian leader of the Department of Defense, and one particular administration, for a debacle that was foreseeable and indeed foreseen by most experts in the field. Under these circumstances, planners and high-ranking officers of the U.S. armed forces were not fulfilling their responsibilities to the Constitution or their own brave fighting men and women by quietly and subserviently deferring to the civilian leadership. Congress might have been expected to do more as well, but in fact it did a considerable amount of work to highlight the issue of post-invasion planning--and in any case, it was not well positioned to critique or improve or even know the intricacies of war plans. On this issue, the country's primary hope for an effective system of checks and balances on the mistakes of executive branch officials was the U.S. armed forces.

The broad argument of this essay is that the tragedy of Iraq--that one of the most brilliant invasion successes in modern military history was followed almost immediately by one of the most incompetently planned occupations--holds a critical lesson for civil-military relations in the United States. The country's Constitution makes the president commander in chief and requires military leaders to follow his orders. It does not, however, require them to remain mute when poor plans are being prepared. Nor does it require them to remain in uniform when they are asked to undertake actions they know to be unwise or ill-planned.

This argument is not intended to suggest that military leaders are always right on matters of war simply because they are professionals in that arena. Often they are wrong. Eliot Cohen's book Supreme Command (Free Press, 2002), dramatizing several periods in history in which civilian leaders have usefully challenged their military establishments not just on military strategy but on operations and tactics, was convincing in its main thesis. Reportedly the book was read before the Iraq war by President Bush and received a good hearing elsewhere in the administration as well.

But if military affairs are too important to be left to the generals, they are also too important for key decisions to be left just to the civilians. In the ongoing debate over the proper roles of uniformed personnel and their constitutionally superior civilian bosses in American national security decision-making, it is probably now time for a correction in favor of an enhanced role for the military voice.

It is of critical importance to the United States that civilians and military personnel share responsibilities. They must not pretend that their jobs can be neatly separated into two broad and distinct bins--high strategy, the primary province of civilians, and military operations, where the uniformed services possess the nation's principal expertise. There are usually no clear red lines separating strategy from operations. Clausewitz depicted war as a continuation of policy by other means; Sun Tze wrote that the greatest form of military victory was the one that required the least battlefield action. …

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