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Staying the course

Via Kieran Healy, Brian Gifford argues that the burden of the war in Iraq is much higher than the death rate seems to imply. Gifford seems to take it for granted that the unsustainability of staying on the present path for much longer implies that we should start leaving soon. I agree that we should start leaving soon, but the issues he raises don't seal the deal. As I wrote on Tapped, judging by historical GDP shares for defense expenditures, the US could pretty easily afford to spend much more on the military, pretty greatly increase recruiting, and up the quantity of supplies available for training and combat. This raises the question for the hawkbloggers of how much, exactly, you want to sink into this enterprise and for how long. My strong suspicion is that the answer to that question will turn out to be that whatever quantities Bush proposes to spend will be judged adequate, whatever share of that spending he chooses to turn into debt will be judged appropriate, and whenever he chooses to leave will be the perfect moment.

I think we ought to start getting out very quickly after the January elections (it will take some time to count the results, put the new government in place, and work out something orderly, but I have in mind something in the vein of late-February early-March for the beginning of a pullout) a view that, I suspect, will be denounced as cowardly defeatism. If Bush starts pulling troops out in late February or early March (which I think is certainly possible) this will be lauded as a brilliant victory for American arms. Such is life.

November 29, 2004 | Permalink


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Tracked on Nov 30, 2004 3:53:41 PM


heh. methinks you doubt the intellectual honesty of the 101st Fighting Keyboarders.

Posted by: cleek | Nov 29, 2004 1:51:49 PM

How does "getting out very quickly" jibe with those ten or so large permanent military bases we have constructed and continue to construct in Iraq?

Posted by: Bob Munck | Nov 29, 2004 1:52:20 PM

Ok, I'll bite - you have followed this more closely than I have and have far better contacts. So here are my questions:

1) What is the probability of elections in January being even remotely legitimate? Related questions: what if the Sunnis boycott? what if they can't stage elections in a couple of major urban areas?

2) Even if one manages to pull off elections in Jan by coercing the Sunnis back to into the process and stabilizing much of the security in the country (that to me is a big if), what prevents the new government from immediately collapsing? In particular, the Iraqi defense force, by all accounts, is too small and too poorly trained to provide muscle behind a new gov't. I don't see this improving by the end of Janurary. Really, is it possible to recruit and train (really train) another few tens of thousands of Iraqi troops while running around the country destroying the insurgancy as it pops up over and over?

3) Why isn't this a recipe for civil war and/or the rise of one or more fundamentalistic Islamic states?

Posted by: Scott Pauls | Nov 29, 2004 1:53:29 PM

Very good post, until the penultimate sentence.

I agree completely with the point of Matthew's Tapped post -- that we could quite easily increase military spending, troop levels through increased recruiting, etc. Just doind what we were doing in 1990 would increase the military by almost 50%. And that didn't seem problematic at the time.

I also agree that, with respect to spending levels and debt levels, many hawks (including me) will be content with what Bush proposes. (Spending and debt differs from the number of troops actually in country, of course. But the point is - spend what we need to to win.)

I also agree that Matthew's proposed early 2005 will be characterized as cowardly defeatism. In fact, that's EXACTLY how I'd characterize it.

I disagree that Bush will do what Matthew suggests by pulling out, though. I think he's much more committed than Matthew thinks he is. And, also, when has Bush ever done what Matthew suggests? I think it's pretty clear that, in analyzing what Bush will actually do, Matthew doesn't really have a clue.

Posted by: Al | Nov 29, 2004 1:57:43 PM

The US has two choices in Iraq.

We can leave soon and Iraq will be unsafe for Americans.
We can stay another four years, kill another 100,000 or more Iraqis and Iraq will continue to be unsafe for Americans.

SInce the result is the same either way, I vote for killing fewer Iraqis and US soldiers.

Posted by: bakho | Nov 29, 2004 1:59:26 PM

We will stay until we've had enough. 51% of this country is a long way from having had enough.

Let's remember that we are only now getting close to having had enough in Germany and Japan.

Posted by: Chad | Nov 29, 2004 1:59:54 PM

I vote for killing more of the Iraqis that don't surrender.

Posted by: Chad | Nov 29, 2004 2:04:56 PM

Matt, it isn't money that's the limiting factor, but bodies. The war has been run on the basis of a 'back-door draft', using the Active, Reserve and National Guard much more than was ever anticipated (save in a WWIII scenario, where the draft would have probably been used much earlier). The result has been to send a large proportion of Active forces on at least one tour of Iraq, with some units on their second tour. Meanwhile, Reserve and Guard units have been called up for tours which are 12 months or longer (IIRC, the current policy is for 18 month active duty tours, with 12 months in Iraq).

Unless things get much better much sooner, all active duty units will be cycled through a second year in Iraq, and Reserve/Guard units will start their second active-duty tour.

And things don't seem to be getting better.

This has got to affect recruiting soon - retention has been temporarily 'taken care of' with stop-loss orders. However, this should lead to a surge of discharges the minute that stop-loss ends. Even for people who might have made a career out of the Army, two tours of Iraq with an involuntarily extended enlistment might change their minds. And back in October 2003 I ran into a NG SGT who claimed that the NG system was broken, because "one year every other year just wasn't doable" (note - he was planning on staying in, and going for a commission).

Bush has been enthusiastically expending the slack in the system, but hasn't demonstrated any plan for what to do when that slack runs out. Which is pretty much his standard operating procedure.

Posted by: Barry | Nov 29, 2004 2:13:47 PM

I thought this election was to select delegates for the creation of the Iraq constitution and actual representatives to some sort of governing body wasn't due until late 2005. Am I wrong?

Posted by: EG | Nov 29, 2004 2:13:48 PM

What al said. omigod.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Nov 29, 2004 2:14:35 PM

Why would we pull out so quickly? If our goal is to leave behind a stable, reasonably demoncratic Iraq, a pullout immediately after the elections wouldn't come close. It took years to stabilize Japan and Germany. Iraq won't be much (if at all) easier. I expect us to be there for quite some time.

Posted by: russ | Nov 29, 2004 2:16:46 PM

I don't think that historical patterns of GDP share for defense spending definitively answers the question of whether or not we can afford to greatly increase defense spending on this war.

I say this in the light of all the recent analysis representing the dawning realization among the world of economists that only the combination of substantially closing the budget and trade deficits over the next few years is going to prevent the external debt to GDP ratio for the United States from spinning into catastrophic insolvency.

The US as Net External Debtor - Roubini and Setser

Posted by: wetzel | Nov 29, 2004 2:22:10 PM

Sure we could increase defense spending to 1990 levels. Where's the money coming from?
New taxes? Or more borrowing?

As for "increased recruiting" - the only way to significantly increase the manpower of the military would be to impose a draft. The current abuse of trust of the military's rank and file is making simply maintaining the current level of manpower problematic.

Posted by: Rick | Nov 29, 2004 2:28:58 PM

I read somewhere that the military experts
believe we don't have enough forces in Iraq for
force protection in the event of a withdrawal.
Translating that into layman's language, it means
that if we start withdrawing troops without having
defeated the insurgency, then at some point the
rearguard will be outnumbered and swamped by the
insurgents, leading to serious losses of men and
equipment. Disengaging from the enemy and conducting
an orderly withdrawal under fire is reckoned to be
the most difficult of military maneuvers.

I think the political consequences of a real
military defeat (say, losing 500 killed and/or
captured in a week) are such that Bush would
prefer to continue suffering a steady loss of
50-100/month indefinitely. The only way out
without heavy losses is to get a trustworthy
Iraqi force of 100-200K in place to cover our
withdrawal. But all the Iraqi
forces recruited so far have been heavily
(perhaps 20%) infiltrated by anti-US elements,
to the extent that we don't dare give them any
heavy weapons or trust them with any important
missions - 50% won't fight at all, and 20% will
turn on the Americans.

Commenters from both the left and right have been
suggesting that we can just get out soon after the
elections. That would be nice, but it just ain't
so. On the other hand, it could be argued that it
might be better to suffer a messy withdrawal now
rather than an even bloodier defeat after another
year or two. None of the options looks good.

Posted by: Richard Cownie | Nov 29, 2004 2:29:59 PM

"If our goal is to..."

If we were following the Constitution, we wouldn't need to speculate about the goals. That document clearly says that Congress sets the goals, since it is obviously implied by the power to declare war. The Founders would find it *interesting* that we are sitting around speculating about about why our rulers took us to war, a traditional pastime of serfs. At any rate, my speculation is that it was a campaign promotional stunt.

Posted by: Roger Bigod | Nov 29, 2004 2:37:36 PM

The manpower problem is worse than any of you are realizing because if you start recruiting/drafting right now, it will be months before we have RPG fodder, uh, I mean troops, to send in. And they will be pretty damned green when they do go in.

And forget about training a 200,000-strong, Bush-loyal Iraqi force to do the job we can't do, in the short time we have before we can no longer sustain the occupation.

The most likely outcome is going to be a Gallipoli- or Dunkirk-like withdrawal under fire, which as Richard says will be a bad business.

Posted by: grytpype | Nov 29, 2004 2:44:32 PM

If we withdraw (ever), what would prevent Iran from rolling in a few divisions and taking over?

Posted by: Blue Iris | Nov 29, 2004 3:00:01 PM

I don't claim to be a military expert, but aren't we already doing a pullback operation - where we pull out of cities and only patrol the outskirts? If so, I think we should be able to slowly pull back into the south of Iraq, then withdraw completely. Dunkirk was so deadly a withdrawal because Germany controlled the air and could attack the withdrawing forces at their will. But, Iraq will not, in our lifetime, have such control of the air, or even any mechanized forces. Remember, these are urban guerillas we are fighting there, not an army. So, yes, we need to begin a withdrawal around mid February and leave completely by the end of March. That leaves about enough time to get ready to invade Iran.

Posted by: Vaughn Hopkins | Nov 29, 2004 3:08:52 PM

Here's what I never understand about all this pull out/stay the course talk. It hardly ever takes the new Iraqi government into account. If a new Iraqi government wants to set up a fairly brisk schedule for withdrawal, are we seriously going to buck that? Of course not. If on the other hand they ask us to stay for some period, are we really going to say no? On the grounds that we know what's better for Iraq than its newly elected government? I think far more of the initiative will be with the Iraqi government than people seem to realize, making much of the debate on our choices so far pointless and artificial.

Posted by: rd | Nov 29, 2004 3:13:02 PM

Thanks, grytpype. I would say not so much like
Gallipoli/Dunkirk, where the problem was getting
men onto ships (and actually the Gallipoli
evacuation was very efficient once the
decision to withdraw was made - the bloody mess
was due to the original attack not being pressed
through quickly, and then "staying the course"
through a long trench-war stalemate); more like
the retreat from the Chosin Reservoir in Korea -
a fighting retreat across 80 miles of difficult
terrain, harassed by light-armed Chinese troops.
IIRC correctly the US forces lost about 40% of
the men and almost all their heavy equipment.

Just consider the problem of getting the last
5000 people out of Baghdad and across 350 miles
of desert highway (including several bridges)
to the safety of Kuwait, probably with a bunch of
trucks and tanks worn out by 2 years of desert
sand and inadequate maintenance, and >20000
insurgents planting IEDs and mounting RPG
ambushes. Air power and logistics can help,
but it's still a challenge: consider that the
6-mile ride from the Green Zone to Baghdad Airport
is very unsafe.

Napoleon's retreat from Moscow is another scary
analogy. He had 100K men in Moscow, after
winning the Battle of Borodino; just about 10K
survived when they left Russia.

Whatever we choose, it's going to be ugly, and
it's going to get worse before it gets better,
and it may never get better.

Posted by: Richard Cownie | Nov 29, 2004 3:19:24 PM

"The most likely outcome is going to be a Gallipoli- or Dunkirk-like withdrawal under fire, which as Richard says will be a bad business."

One scenario batted about. Iran has infiltrated thousands of agents into Iraq, who have set up networks in Shia areas. The scenario is that Bush decides a nuclear Iran is intolerable, so attacks Iran a lot with cruisies. A general insurrection arises in Iraq, and the US loses 50,000 men. And this will be the excuse for a full mobilization, draft, and war with Iran and who knows who else.

Looks like a plan to me. We definitely need more casualties for Bushco to do their thing.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Nov 29, 2004 3:24:33 PM

I think rd is exactly right. After January's elections, there WILL be a new government of Iraq, which will likely be less friendly to the US than Allawi's. And it will have significantly more legitimacy than Allawi's, regardless of what the Sunnis do. Accordingly, while we will certainly retain a great deal of influence, which would certainly affect the new government's requests with respect to our troops, we will have to take into account to a much greater degree the "Iraqi Street".

Of course, I believe that most Iraqis want us to stay, at least for another year or so, while their own troops are being trained. My personal prediction is that we start to depart after the REAL elections (i.e., for the permanent government and to ratify the Constitution) in late 2006. Troops are mostly all home by July 2007, with maybe a couple fo dozen thousand remaining thereafter indefinately in one or two permanent bases (a la Germany & Japan) out of the way (perhaps one in Kurdistan and one in the Gulf region).

Posted by: Al | Nov 29, 2004 3:32:08 PM

All over the web, I hear people talk about withdrawing...and there's never any mention of oil.

Whether or not the war started because of oil, all oil reserves in the Middle East are now in jeopardy. They will remain so at least until the situation in Iraq has stabilized (and possibly longer, if the turmoil spills over into neighboring countries).

Withdrawing U.S. troops before honest-to-goodness stability has been achieved would lead to chaos, which in turn could lead to serious interruptions in worldwide oil supply. Deplorable though it is, losing a few soldiers a day is a small price compared to the suffering that might result if a major oil shortage leads to economic collapse.

Any sensible person hates the idea of buying oil with lives. The sooner we kick our addiction to petroleum, the better off we'll be. But going cold turkey will cause devastation all over the world. Lots of people will die -- more than the drip, drip, drip of military casualties.

The situation in Iraq is often compared to a quagmire, but a better analogy would be a forest fire. I wish that Bush had never struck the match; but now that the flames are lit, walking away means that everything burns. You can't call off the firefighters until the fire is out.

Much as I'm reluctant to say the White House possesses any kind of intelligence, this administration understands the need for oil. If pulling out of Iraq only meant the death of a lot of Iraqis, Bush would call off the troops ASAP. (Commitment to freedom and democracy? Ha ha.) But precipitating a global oil crisis? That would hurt real people. It will never happen.

Posted by: Jim Gardner | Nov 29, 2004 3:35:39 PM

I thought this election was to select delegates for the creation of the Iraq constitution and actual representatives to some sort of governing body wasn't due until late 2005. Am I wrong? -EG

You're pretty much right. Although they theoretically have the power to overrule Allawi (2/3 veto), they sound sort of toothless (especially on budget items where they are not allowed to cut funding that Allawi proposes from budget bills)

Here is a link to the interim constitution:


The catch is that if the people don't pass the new constitution in a referendum in late 2005 (as might be the case if they see the national assembly as biased toward Shiites) -- it's groundhogs day again and there is a new election for a constitution-writing national assembly. One more year for Allawi to hold power.

How hard will it be to pass the constitution in referendum?

Here are the rules for that:

The general referendum will be successful and the draft constitution ratified if a majority of the voters in Iraq approve and if two-thirds of the voters in three or more governorates do not reject it.

Posted by: fle | Nov 29, 2004 3:37:50 PM

A comment on military spending - Matt is probably
correct that the USA could afford to spend a larger
percentage of GDP on the military.

However, even if we appropriated unlimited money
today, there is a long lead time to obtain the
resources we really need, e.g.

a) military police
b) civil affairs officers
c) troops with Arabic-language skills
d) highly-trained special forces
e) high-tech body armor
f) 20000+ armored Humvees
g) armored trucks and fuel tankers
h) factory capacity for small-arms ammunition
i) factory capacity for replacement tank spares

Since WW2, and I think even since Vietnam, the
military industrial base (low volume, high cost,
product lifetime > 20 years) has diverged
greatly from consumer industry (high volume,
low cost, product lifetime < 4 years)
For example, we have over-capacity in auto
manufacturing, but I don't think you could take
one of GM's car plants and switch it over to
making armored Humvees in any reasonable timeframe
- the technology is just too different.

If you're really planning on building an
infrastructure to support a long-term occupation
and administration of Iraq (and other parts of the
Middle East), then if you start spending the money
right now maybe you can build the factories and
set up the training to have the right supplies of
men and materiel flowing 2 years from now.
But you can't just go to eBay and order the stuff
for immediate delivery to Baghdad :-)

Just to be clear, I think it's a terrible idea to
be trying to build an empire (I'm British - been
there, done that) - but if you *are* going to
attempt it, you'd better take the time and money
to build the necessary infrastructure.

Posted by: Richard Cownie | Nov 29, 2004 3:43:45 PM

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