David Brin: Democrats vs Republicans on foreign policy and war
By David Brin
When Bill Clinton left office, every U.S. Army and Marine Corps brigade was rated fully combat ready to defend the lives and interests of Americans. When George W. Bush left office, not one U.S. brigade was so rated. We went from all to none. And the GOP has a reputation for defense?
Last year finally saw the end of America’s second-longest war. Dragging on a decade, that was the multi-trillion dollar quagmire of attrition and so-called “nation-building” in Iraq.
Our longest war, the continuing multi-trillion dollar, “nation-building” quagmire in Afghanistan, continues on and on.
Why is this not a major campaign issue? Together, these vast military adventures account for about a third of the deficit that folks are so vexed about. The rest of the debt crisis can be attributed to the depression/recession, the Bush tax cuts and the never-funded, GOP-created entitlement called Medicare Part D. (Actually, there are eight factors that plunged us from Clintonian surpluses into debt, which I have appraised (David Brin explains “Fiscal Cliff”) in better detail than you’ll likely find elsewhere. Remove all of those and what’s left over would be small and affordable.
But today’s topic is war. Not whether it can still be necessary, from time to time. I will make die-hard leftists furious and concede that we are at least another generation away from abolishing the foul practice, at long last. Until then, wars will happen as today’s primitive nations and angry peoples jostle for advantage. Especially as shortages of resources, even water, propel rising tensions. And don’t forget those fierce cultural drivers that ignite the worst violence.
No, let’s focus: do the two U.S. political parties differ in how they wage war? What are their distinctions in doctrine, policy, professionalism, style and effectiveness?
Democrats and Republicans each divert attention from this matter. Despite their bellicose rhetoric and flag-waving gusto, Republicans won’t speak of Iraq and Afghanistan (the “land where empires go to die”) nor of their promises a decade ago — that it would all cost much less, end sooner, accomplish far more and – above all – leave twin oases of perpetual friendship and enlightened democracy in the Middle East.
Instead of what we now see those two nations fast-becoming — satrapies of Iran, of Pakistan and the Pashtun Taliban. Not the outcome we were promised, for several trillion dollars… but exactly what any realist would have foreseen.
In contrast, Democrats tend to feel squeamish talking about war — even though it’s now clear that – ever since Vietnam – Democrats are much better at it than Republicans are.
Well I’m not squeamish. Nor am I a democrat. Moreover, this may be the most important election-related topic of all. In a dangerous world, the differences in doctrine and method we’re about to discuss may become crucial and destiny-deciding. So, let’s take time to scrutinize how our major parties project American military power.
War is changing – though it may be with us for a while
(Skip to the next section if you just want the meat about republican and democratic differences.)
Again, my premise will offend those at the far left, plus classic libertarians and old-fashioned isolationists on the right. I sympathize with folks who want the stupidly wasteful practice of justified state killing to go away, like phlogiston and witch burnings. In both novels and nonfiction, I write about futures when that transition has finally happened.
Alas, those idealists fail to note that humanity has been making incremental progress! Since our dark nadir of 1945, every decade has witnessed a decline in average per capita rates of violence on Planet Earth. Sure, there are horrid episodes — wars, persecutions, depredations and mini-holocausts. Unlike other generations across 6000 years, we’re made aware via television and the Internet, so that ironically this feels like a hyper violent age.
But as Professor Steven Pinker shows, the per capita trends are indisputable. Nearly all past generations trembled at the tread of invading armies or the smell burning cities, cowering amid mass rape and pillage. That fraction today is the lowest ever, though such statistics are small comfort in Rwanda, the Congo, Cambodia and other modern horror-spots that merit our revulsion, our resolve! But they grow more rare.
This trend is manifest in how war is carried out. Thousands died each day of World War II, an apocalyptic, bloody vastness of crushed civilians. Vietnam and Korea featured more hand-wringing over collateral casualties, but the ratios merely improved a bit. Not enough by the evolving standards of the next decade, and the next. Today? As fought by western allies, war is starting to resemble very rough SWAT team police actions, far more than the ruthlessness shown by Caesar and Tamerlane, Cortez, Guderian and Zhukov. There are outrages, but doctrines are more meticulous, training and supervision are closer, munitions are “smarter” and rules of engagement stricter than before.
I hold out no hope that more than a third of you who are reading this will take the preceding paragraphs in their clear and blatant meaning. Not as an excuse or rationalization for crime, but instead as encouragement. As evidence that incremental progress is happening. And therefore that more progress can happen! That, gradually, war is transforming. The collateral travesties that we found appalling in Iraq merit vigorous critique. But they would have been rounding errors in Vietnam. And before that? Normal “peacetime.”
Criticism is how we have improved, so don’t let up! But also admit changes are afoot — an incremental evolution. Squint another few decades down this road, the thing that we called “war” may have evolved almost totally away. If we make good choices.
Adapting to the lessons of Vietnam
In an earlier article, I described in detail how the United States military officer corps wrought major reforms after the mistakes made in Southeast Asia: ending the draft, pursuing professionalism, reinforcing the tradition of civilian control and using high-tech to enable force multiplication, plus targeted — even “surgical” — application of force.
It’s not been error-free. For example, I’ve been critical of how this drive for professionalism excludes the U.S. civilian population — even theoretically — from involvement in defending their country. Until Vietnam, it was always assumed the general population would have a major role to play. Quiet abandonment of that principle has disturbing implications, duplicating the failure mode that doomed Republican Rome.
(One of my ongoing themes has been a 21st Century struggle to empower citizens, after the 20th Century’s relentless trend toward the “professionalization of everything.” But this may be about to change. For example, an overlooked aspect of the 9/11 tragedy was that citizens themselves were most effective in our civilization’s defense, reacting with resiliency and initiative while armed with new technologies. See also EXISTENCE.)
But let’s zero in on that “surgical’ application of power. It ranges from use of drones to target enemies on and off the direct battlefield to training regimes at the National Training Base, Fort Irwin in the California desert, where they no longer hold big set-piece battle exercises between whole brigades. Now smaller units train for complex missions like counter-insurgency. The Army that pounded through Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard divisions, both in 1992 and in 2003, does not exist anymore. Oh, today’s forces, once they fully recover from the devastating effects of Iraq and Afghanistan, could probably still achieve the same ends. But in different ways.
If you talk to modern generals and admirals (and I do) they will tell you what they never want to see. Quagmire. Draining wars of occupation in which a sneaking enemy conceals himself amid a civilian population and nearly always has the initiative.
They are willing to fight! But they want to be efficient, quick, and overwhelming, to build a reputation of American near-omnipotence. Because there is no better way to keep peace. That reputation is the best way not to have to fight.
Does any of that sound like the Republican-instigated wars of recent years? Iraq One or Iraq Two or Afghanistan? Or does it sound more like the conflicts ordered by Democratic Presidents — in Bosnia, Libya, and the hunt for Osama bin Laden?
You can see where I am going with this. But oh, how I wish I could tell you the names of men and women of high rank and renown, who nearly universally consider one of our recent presidents to be the worst — and most damaging to the US military’s might and reputation and very lives — in living memory.
So how do democrats and republicans differ in waging war?
I visited this topic before, way back in 2004, when U.S. voters faced a choice whether to re-elect the man who plunged us into two multi-trillion dollar quagmires. Eight years have passed and our data set is now stronger. (But do look at that other essay; it covers some points not addressed here.)
In Bosnia, Bill Clinton tried diplomacy, then consulted his generals and let them draw up the plan. It combined sanctions and trade strangulation with the precision air power and very discreet use of special forces to reduce the military capabilities of the Serb militias, with minimal collateral damage and zero loss of American lives. Effects came rapidly, were satisfactory — giving Europe its first complete peace in several thousand years — and were negligible upon the U.S. national budget.
The next major conflict showed the same doctrines at work, though the president giving the go-order was George W. Bush. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, something had to be done, and quickly. But what?
Clearly, one of Osama bin Laden’s main goals, in sending suicide pilots to destroy the tallest buildings in New York, was to draw us into land conflict in Afghanistan. Remember who this was. A moujehadin commander whose glory days were spent humbling another Great Power, the USSR, amid the peaks of the Hindu Kush. What worked with one Great Satan ought to work on another, right? Anyone who thinks that was not bin Laden’s main goal is naive.
Indeed, we had to go! The Taliban-led government of Afghanistan had assisted Osama in an act of war. We had to go and kick their asses, hard. But how?
Dig this well. George Bush had only time to say “go!” to a war plan that was already on the Pentagon’s shelf. Thick and detailed contingency scenarios had been prepared during the previous administration. Special Forces teams already spoke Uzbek and Turkmeni and other Afghan languages and knew tribal leaders in Masoud’s Northern Alliance. They were helicoptering into prepared drop zones within days, while US Navy and Air Force jets sped to pre-arranged staging areas around the periphery. When the hammer came down, it was under control by the generals and specialists, using their best doctrines, identical to Bosnia… and it worked magnificently. Within weeks — at zero U.S. casualties and rather low rates of overall death or destruction, Mullah Omar’s Taliban were fleeing for their lives.
Now the core question: who deserves credit? The man who had no other option than to shout “go!” to an already existing plan, run by professionals without political interference? Because the politicians had no time to interfere? Or the administration that had earlier studiously worked with generals and allies to draw up the plan, in great and effective detail?
That was AFGHANISTAN PHASE ONE. Full credit belongs to Bill Clinton and his team, who set us up to win, and to win cheap.
Ah, but then came AFGHANISTAN PART TWO. Alas. We’ll get to that debacle… diametrically opposite to part one in every possible way… in a moment.
But first, let me avow that the Democratic approach to war does not always work! Some of you recall our humiliation in Somalia, early in Bill Clinton’s term of office. He might have laid blame on his predecessors, the way I credit him for Afgh-1. But he did not, nor should he. The intervention in Somalia followed Democratic Party styles, attempting to use surgical force and elite professional action… and it was a dismal failure because those doctrines were taken to an absurd extreme. Clinton’s first Defense Secretary, Les Aspin, denied our troops there the ability to call upon overwhelming backup power. Hence, when they got into trouble, disaster happened. A very small scale disaster, as such things go. But a black eye, nonetheless, proving that an extreme version of the democrats’ approach can be foolish.
More Examples of Democratic War-Fighting
Still, we have seen three examples of how democrats wage war. And now you can easily fit into this pattern the conflicts of Barack Obama, whose quiet use of decisive air power during the Libyan Civil War was so downplayed that it almost seemed we weren’t there at all! Allowing our European allies to take front position, we nevertheless flew half the sorties and handled nearly all of the logistics for an extremely careful, surgical intervention, relying on air power plus discreet use of elite special forces. See: For Obama, Some Vindication of Approach to War, in The New York Times.
“Without putting a single U.S. service member on the ground, we achieved our objectives, and our NATO mission will soon come to an end,” Mr. Obama said in a Rose Garden address that served as muted victory lap. “We’ve demonstrated what collective action can achieve in the 21st century.”
Then there is the taking out of Osama bin Laden… along with Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, as well as Fahd al-Quso (who helped attack the USS Cole) and many dozens of other, mid-level members of al Qaeda and other terror networks, plus at least fifty other top or medium-level members of the network that thought it could intimidate the United States with terror.
Do not for a minute think that I consider these successes to be un-problematic! In pushing “surgical warfare” they do bring about efficiency and reduce civilian collateral damage. But they also take us into the territory of targeted assassination… a deeply worrisome trend. Especially if we want all this to lead toward the behavior of accountable cops, and not ninja killers. There are, indeed, valid points raised by critics of this approach.
The budget for Special Ops has quadrupled. Under President Obama, the forces of the Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), which includes the Green Berets, Navy SEALS and Army Rangers, have been granted more latitude and greater autonomy, engaged in counter-terrorism, surveillance and reconnaissance in as many as 120 countries around the world.
In America’s Rising Shadow Wars, an appraisal published in Mother Jones:
“They are displacing conventional forces, becoming the “force of choice” in operations with far less civilian oversight, accountability or control — i.e. no Congressional approval or consultation necessary, no press coverage, their operating budget a black book…”
While some aspects invite our future and continuing scrutiny, what we can blatantly conclude is that the last two democratic presidents have been utterly consistent. Explains NPR’s Corey Flintoff:
“The latest operation, a hostage rescue in Somalia carried out by Navy SEALs, is part of a pattern established by a commander in chief who has shown a clear preference for limited, small-scale military action. The operation freed two aid workers, 32-year-old American Jessica Buchanan and 60-year-old Dane Poul Thisted. It appears to have been a textbook operation in which two teams of commandos swooped in by helicopter, killed at least eight pirates, and recovered the hostages unharmed.”
Meanwhile, there is a very low key operation in and around Uganda, in which U.S. special forces coordinate local forces in the hunt for crazed warlord Joseph Kony. The top goal has already been achieved, eliminating the Lord’s Resistance Army as a threat to regional peace and development. But U.S, citizens will only take notice if they come up with Kony’s head.
“It’s part of a broader shift in how we engage in war,” says Peter Singer, director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution. “The bottom line is ‘no more Iraqs, no more Afghanistans,’ no more large-scale commitments in terms of troops on the ground or time on the ground.”
Again, what I am saying will not appeal leftists, who will be infuriated by the choice between two unacceptable things — two styles of war. But I am not talking to leftists, right now. I am addressing those who believe —wrongly — that Democratic presidents are somehow “mushy” or weak-willed, when it comes to conflict over U.S. national interests.
That is malarkey. Across the last 100 years, democrats were far more ready to confront militarism — in 1917 Germany, then Hitler and Imperial Japan, then the USSR — than the isolationist republicans of that era were. And the democrats committed us to full scale combat inVietnam. A horrific blunder, from which they were willing to learn.
Democrats fight. But they wage war in ways that are crucially, even diametrically, different from their Republican counterparts.
The War Doctrines of the Republican Party
The contrast between Democratic and Republican styles of war could not be more stark. Beginning with the degree that they show deference to the United States Senior Officer Corps.
Do you know any generals or admirals? Ask them about this. Odds are, you’ll get no answer at all, due to their punctilious respect for civilian authority and resolve not to meddle in politics. But you may get hints. Anyway, continue searching and ask retired generals or admirals! And bear in mind these folks constitute the third best-educated clade in American life, after scientists and medical doctors.
One of these retired flag officers told me: “Democrats admit they don’t know anything about military matters. They consult. They ask questions. They listen.”
He added: “Republican presidents all assume they’re some mix of John Wayne and Patton. Plans are for nerds. Caution is for wimps.”
Let’s put aside the spat wars of Ronald Reagan, in Grenada, Panama and Lebanon… a mixed bag of mixed doctrines, with none of them a fair test of anything. The point where all things distill is with the arrival of both Bushes, Cheney and Rumsfeld. Look back on George H.W. Bush’s response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. And his son’s second invasion of that same country, followed by a decade-long grind of bleeding and attrition and a trillion dollars down the drain.
Now add to the ledger AFGHANISTAN PART TWO… the wholly voluntary commitment of vast ground forces to a devastatingly debilitating and draining counter-insurgency campaign in a place where the culture and terrain guarantee that no one, no matter how competent or well funded or reinforced, can achieve “victory,” only a respectable stalemate. Calling up and nearly destroying the U.S. Army reserves for a war of policy and not urgency. This was a very different thing from Afghanistan Phase One. Phase Two was entirely George W. Bush’s choice. There were alternatives and he chose the loudest, the most costly and the one most clearly destined for frustrating pain.
In all three of these wars under the two Bushes, amateurs like Cheney and Rumsfeld meddled relentlessly, ignored advice, over-ruled staff, fired generals and issued airy assurances while commanding vast corps of American ground troops into major ground war, followed by quagmire. Look back on those three interventions and the lesson is clear: Republicans go for heavy firepower, tens of thousands of boots and treads on the ground. Toe-to toe battle! Battalions and brigades and divisions churning up dust, represented by pins and flags on big maps under the White House.
Oh, I can hear the justifications for IRAQ PHASE ONE. No, the invasion of Kuwait could not be allowed to stand. But dig this carefully, Saddam was a dangerous moron — who chose the very worst year possible, to invade Kuwait, when we had an entire mobile army in place, just a few hundred miles away, facing a Warsaw Pact foe that no longer existed! Two years earlier or later, and we might have been forced to find other means to eliminate the idiot.
Which is the point. I remember speaking at the CIA in 2003, just before IRAQ PHASE TWO. As a physicist-scifi author with some scenario-building chops, I was brought in to discuss alternatives. And while I can say no more about that, let me just add that there were plenty of them! Alternatives, I mean. More than you might imagine.
(Elsewhere I talk about an entirely separate matter… the worst stain upon American honor since Vietnam, when Bush Senior ordered Gen. Schwarzkopf to stop short of freeing the people of Southern Iraq, who were at that moment (suicidally, it turns out) rebelling against Saddam at our urging. And would have welcomed us then with kisses and flowers.)
The point is that three such garish campaigns of major battle, followed in two cases by trillion dollar, decade-long quagmires, constitutes a consistent pattern. One that even now is seriously studied at West Point:
“Now at another critical moment in American military history, the faculty here on the commanding bend in the Hudson River is deep in its own existential debate,” said Col. Gian P. Gentile, the director of West Point’s military history program and the commander of a combat battalion in Baghdad in 2006, in a recent interview. “Narrowly, the argument is whether the counterinsurgency strategy used in Iraq and Afghanistan — the troop-heavy, time-intensive, expensive doctrine of trying to win over the locals by building roads, schools and government — is dead. Broadly, the question is what the United States gained after a decade in two wars.” Col.Gentile continued: “Not much. Certainly not worth the effort. In my view.”
Colonel Gentile, who is working on a book titled Wrong Turn: America’s Deadly Embrace With Counterinsurgency, is critical of what he called “a maximalist operational” approach. “Strategy should employ resources of a state to achieve policy aims with the least amount of blood and treasure spent.”
That is about as close as you are going to get to a public statement of what most of the senior officer corps would tell you, if they could, without breaking their oaths not to meddle. That they prefer the way that democrats wage war.
The condition of our forces
We could thrash over subsidiary matters. The lies used by Bush the Younger to justify Iraq 2. Whether we could keep the Taliban from returning to power in Afghanistan by simpler means, with air and local forces. Whether even that was necessary. And so on. Many of these matters are discussed in more detail, in that 2004 article of mine. But the core lesson here is clear. Republican administrations like war to look and feel like war! Tank armies and massed divisions… with politicians giving direct orders and over-ruling the professionals. And in the process, they pretty much destroyed the old-fashioned tools that they used.
When he entered office as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen was asked what he considered to be his most desperate concern. “The Army,” he said. Saving it from what had been done to it.
Now chew on this fact: When Bill Clinton left office, every U.S. Army and Marine Corps brigade was rated fully combat ready to defend the lives and interests of Americans. When George W. Bush left office, not one U.S. brigade was so rated. We went from all to none. And the GOP has a reputation for defense?
The Army that rolled over Saddam’s Republican Guard divisions in 92 and 03 does not exist anymore. What has replaced it is in some ways better, more agile, more professional, if also tired and badly in need of rest. It had to adapt and become agile, having been worn down to the bone. Things are better now, but it will take time. And meanwhile, we must confront deadly foes across a murky battlefield of terror and sabotage that spans the globe. So, whose doctrines are appropriate?
I’ve talked too long. The few of you who are still reading surely see the patterns by now. But I’ll leave you with a few items for summing-up. First, David Ignatius, writing in the Washington Post (September 2011) called President Obama the covert commander in chief.
“The flag-waving “mission accomplished” speeches of his predecessor aren’t Obama’s thing; even his public reaction to the death of bin Laden was relatively subdued.” “Another sign of Obama’s penchant for the secret world was his decision to hire David Petraeus as CIA director. The president appears to be ratcheting up intelligence and paramilitary operations under the leadership of the nation’s most celebrated military commander, even as he withdraws uniformed troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.”
“Mr. Obama’s carefully calibrated response infuriated critics on the right and left, who blamed him either for ceding American leadership in a foreign conflict or for blundering into another Arab land without an exit strategy. “But with Colonel Qaddafi joining the lengthening list of tyrants and terrorists dispatched during the Obama presidency, even critics conceded a success for Mr. Obama’s approach to war — one that relies on collective, rather than unilateral, action; on surgical strikes rather than massive troop deployments.”
Or take this from one of the world’s top technology pundits, Mark Anderson, CEO of the Strategic News Service:
“For me… the comparison is like two slides, I picture, first: an army of soldiers surrounding bin Laden in the mountains of Tora Bora, and then being ordered by Team Bush to wait until the locals can get there and participate, at which point the enemy has escaped. I compare that slide to the story of this year: after a year in secret investigation and preparation, Team Obama finds a likely target compound in Pakistan, orders in Seal Team Six via stealth choppers, uses overwhelming force, and shoots to kill. DNA samples are taken to confirm ID, and the body is dumped ignominiously in the ocean, with no propaganda pics for the enemy, and no burial process or site to rally round. What a difference. And yet, which man is called a wimp?”
You decide between competence and bluster
What are the merits of both sides in the current election? Last time I showed that the top six of eight causes of the budget deficit were brought to you by Republicans.
Now we also see — in light of the debate over foreign policy — that same party is horrendously delusional and incompetent at the realpolitik arts of diplomacy, military readiness and war.
Again, I am unhappy — as we all should be — that the rapid shift toward an end to human violence is not progressing even faster. But if we must still live for a while longer in a barbaric era of state-sanctioned killing, called war, then it is important that the Western Enlightenment be preserved, so that girls can grow up to be empowered women and so that individual freedom remains a touchstone of human civilization. This progress will at times have to be defended!
If so, then an evolutionary process toward calm, skilled, minimalist and surgical professionalism — and above all success — is better for our budget, our health and lives, for our future prospects of peace, than a pack of corrupt, blundering fools who treat our economy as their personal piggy bank.. and who treat our military men and women as personal toys.
Far better for the world and better for America, to go with adults who are willing to use force… but who (as adults) know to consult professionals and act with care.
(Originally appeared at Contrary Brin)