One of the few consistencies of the war in Iraq
is America's ability to make the wrong choices. From starting the war in the
first place through outlawing the Ba'ath and sending the Iraqi army home to
assaulting Fallujah and declaring war on Shiite militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr,
we repeatedly get it wrong. Such consistency raises a question: can we identify
a single factor that consistently leads us in the wrong direction?
I think we can. That is not to say other factors are not also in play. But
one wrong notion does appear to underlie many of our blunders. That is the
belief that in this war, the U.S. military is the strongest player.
We hear this at every level from the rifle squad to the White House. In
Fallujah, Marine privates and sergeants want to finish the job of taking the
city, with no doubt whatsoever that they can. In Baghdad, spokesmen for the CPA
regularly trumpet the line that no Iraqi fighters can hope to stand up to the US
military. Washington casts a broader net, boasting that the American military
can defeat any enemy, anywhere. The bragging and self-congratulation reach the
point where, as Oscar Wilde might have said, it is worse than untrue; it is in
In fact, in Iraq and in Fourth Generation
war elsewhere, we are the weaker party. The most important reason this is so
For every other party, the distinguishing characteristic of the American
intervention force is that it, and it alone, will go away. At some point, sooner
or later, we will go home. Everyone else stays, because they live there.
This has many implications, none of them good from our perspective. Local
allies know they will at some time face their local enemies without us there to
support them. French collaborators with the Germans, and there were many, can
tell us what happens then. Local enemies know they can outlast us. Neutrals make
their calculations on the same basis; as my neighbor back in Cleveland said, one
of Arabs' few military virtues is that they are always on the winning side.
All our technology, all our training, all our superiority in techniques (like
being able to hit what we shoot at) put together are less powerful than the fact
that time is against us. More, we tend to accelerate the time disadvantage.
American election cycles play a role here; clearly, that is what lies behind the
June 30 deadline for handing Iraq over to some kind of Iraqi government. So does
a central feature of American culture, the desire for quick results and
"closure." Whether we are talking about wars or diets, Americans want action now
and results fast. In places like Fallujah, that leads us to prefer assaults to
talks. Our opponents, in contrast, have all the time in the world – and in the
next world for that matter.
Time is not the only factor that renders us the weaker party. So does our
lack of understanding of local cultures and languages. So also do our reliance
on massive firepower, our dependence on a secure logistics train (we are now
experiencing that vulnerability in Iraq, where our supply lines are being cut),
our insistence on living apart from and much better than the local population.
But time still overshadows all of these. Worse, we can do nothing about it,
unless, like the Romans, we plan to stay for three hundred years.
Until we accept the counterintuitive fact that in Fourth Generation
interventions we are and always will be the weaker party, our decisions will
continue to be consistently wrong. The decisions will be wrong because the
assumption that lies behind them is wrong. We will remain trapped by our own
What if we do come to understand our own inherent weakness in places like
Iraq? Might we then come up with some more productive approaches? Well, the
Byzantines might have something to teach us on that score. Greek fire
notwithstanding, what kept the Eastern Roman Empire alive for a thousand years
after Rome fell was knowing how to play weak hands