I just made it through Hitch 22, Christopher Hitchen’s memoir. For those of you unacquainted with Mr. Hitchens, he – and please, never call him “Chris” – is a journalist and political dissident of the first rank who deploys with unequalled deft the English language to challenge tyranny in all its varied guises and disguises. Mr. Hitchens has engaged in spirited struggle against a wide array of ghouls and scoundrels, from Saddam Hussein (for inflicting terror on his own people) to the Ayatollah Khomeini (for issuing a fatwa on Salman Rushdie’s head) to our own Henry Kissinger (for a range of offenses too long to list).
While reading this brilliant memoir, a thought kept haunting me about the way we think about achieving foreign policy goals with military means and methods. We tend to think of these goals as ones that can be achieved scientifically. For example, if you want to dethrone an insipid dictator, you must simply determine what is necessary to remove him. Regime change, then, is a scientific problem that can be addressed with the tools of an amateur’s logic: identify the problem, formulate a strategy, and then execute that strategy carefully. A reasonably clever schoolboy could work it out, we seem to believe.
The problem with this little tradition of ours is not just that the military is not an institution structured to win over the hearts and minds of those who live in a life world far from our own – though this is certainly true. The real bugbear is that many foreign policy objectives are not well suited to being achieved through bloody military campaigns. And it’s not that the military needs to change, far from it; we must stop expecting our soldiers to handle problems best addressed through other means.Consider, the following observations, using the ongoing conflict in Iraq as an illustrative (though certainly not singular) example of why bullets and bombs are, by themselves, poor instruments of foreign policy:
- (formulating the problem) If one were to endeavor to describe the “simple” goal of ousting Saddam Hussein, isn’t the presence of a megalomaniacal dictator evidence of a crisis within a culture, and that, preliminarily, ousting dictator would create significant social, economic and political challenges that the American military is ill-equipped to handle? If such a crisis is acknowledged, then one must assume that it is a blunder of the first order to deploy military forces to remove a dictator with no clear sense of how to deal with the fallout of a successful military campaign
- (strategy creation) Again, if the goal were not just to oust an insipid and ghoulish dictator, but to also revitalize a country socially and politically, why in the world would the military be charged with the primary responsibility of making that happen? And, more to the point, which specific departments or agencies of the American government are now charged with figuring out how to help Iraq revitalize itself so that it may be transformed into the democratic or “democratic-friendly” haven we wish it to be? The shocking answer is that when the Iraq invasion was planned, these questions were never addressed. This is a clear failure on the part of the Bush Administration given that it costs (a) at least $390,000 per year to deploy one American soldier in Iraq and (b) $900 billion of U.S. taxpayer dollars has been spent or allocated for spending in Iraq through 2010.
- (strategy execution) Most thoughtful observers of what has happened in Iraq would concede, if grudgingly, that things have not gone as well as were expected. But this tepid concession will not do. The Iraq situation has gone badly because the non-military aims that are inherent in the goal of deposing Saddam – i.e., the aim of stabilizing the country – cannot be executed by the military.
This is not meant to detract from the talents and abilities of the sapient and dedicated top brass of the American military; these folks surely face daily burdens that civilians such as this author cannot possibly comprehend. Nor do I mean to take away from the sacrifices that are made daily by American soldiers who have willingly placed their physical and emotional health in peril.
Yet it is beyond question that our military personnel are neither prepared nor able to properly undertake the counter insurgency efforts and the other essential tasks necessary to create stable, healthy political and social institutions in Iraq.
I do not want to leave the gentle reader with the impression that I loathe our intervention in Iraq, nor do I desire to suggest that Saddam should somehow still be sitting in the seat of power. In all honesty, I think true humanitarians everywhere should rejoice in the fact that this craven fiend has been expired. My principal point is that deposing a foreign dictator, even an execrable one such as Mr. Hussein, requires a comprehensive plan that will necessarily include components that cannot be executed by the military. And it follows from this that we ought to stop thinking of the American military as a lissome tool for accomplishing all of our foreign policy objectives. Though it may sound surprising, the military is just one arrow in our quiver.