Text of testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 18 January
Good afternoon, Senator Biden, and members of
the committee. It is a grave responsibility to testify before you today because
the issue, the war in Iraq, is of such monumental importance.
You have asked me to address primarily the military aspects of the war. Although
I shall comply, I must emphasize that it makes no sense to separate them from
the political aspects. Military actions are merely the most extreme form of
politics. If politics is the business of deciding "who gets what, when,
how," as Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall in New York City once said, then the
military aspects of war are the most extreme form of politics. The war in Iraq
will answer that question there.
The role that US military forces can play in that
conflict is seriously limited by all the political decisions the US government
has already taken. The most fundamental decision was setting as its larger strategic
purpose the stabilization of the region by building a democracy in Iraq and
encouraging its spread. This, of course, was to risk destabilizing the region
by starting a war.
Military operations must be judged by whether and how they contribute to accomplishing
war aims. No clear view is possible of where we are today and where we are headed
without constant focus on war aims and how they affect US interests. The interaction
of interests, war aims, and military operations defines the strategic context
in which we find ourselves. We cannot have the slightest understanding of the
likely consequences of proposed changes in our war policy without relating them
to the strategic context. Here are the four major realities that define that
1. Confusion about war aims and US interests. The president stated three war
aims clearly and repeatedly:
* the destruction of Iraqi WMD;
* the overthrow of Saddam Hussein; and
* the creation of a liberal democratic Iraq.
The first war aim is moot because Iraq had no WMD. The second was achieved
by late Spring 2003. Today, people are waking up to what was obvious before
the war -- the third aim has no real prospects of being achieved even in ten
or twenty years, much less in the short time anticipated by the war planners.
Implicit in that aim was the belief that a pro-American, post-Saddam regime
could be established. This too, it should now be clear, is most unlikely. Finally,
is it in the US interest to have launched a war in pursuit of any of these aims?
And is it in the US interest to continue pursuing the third? Or is it time to
redefine our aims? And, concomitantly, to redefine what constitutes victory?
2. The war has served primarily the interests of Iran and al-Qaeda, not American
We cannot reverse this outcome by more use of military force in Iraq. To try
to do so would require siding with Sunni leaders and the Ba'athist insurgents
against pro-Iranian Shi'ite groups. The Ba'athist insurgents constitute the
forces most strongly opposed to Iraqi cooperation with Iran. At the same time,
our democratization policy has installed Shi'ite majorities and pro-Iranian
groups in power in Baghdad, especially in the ministries of interior and defense.
Moreover, our counterinsurgency operations are, as unintended (but easily foreseeable)
consequences, first, greater Shi'ite openness to Iranian influence and second,
al-Qaeda's entry into Iraq and rooting itself in some elements of Iraqi society.
3. On the international level, the war has effectively paralyzed the United
States militarily and strategically, denying it any prospect of revising its
strategy toward an attainable goal.
As long as US forces remained engaged in Iraq, not only will the military costs
go up, but also the incentives will decline for other states to cooperate with
Washington to find a constructive outcome. This includes not only countries
contiguous to Iraq but also Russia and key American allies in Europe. In their
view, we deserve the pain we are suffering for our arrogance and unilateralism.
4. Overthrowing the Iraqi regime in 2003 insured that the country would fragment
into at least three groups; Sunnis, Shi'ites, and Kurds. In other words, the
invasion made it inevitable that a civil war would be required to create a new
central government able to control all of Iraq. Yet a civil war does not insure
it. No faction may win the struggle. A lengthy stalemate, or a permanent breakup
of the country is possible. The invasion also insured that outside countries
and groups would become involved. Al-Qaeda and Iran are the most conspicuous
participants so far, Turkey and Syria less so. If some of the wealthy oil-producing
countries on the Arabian Peninsula are not already involved, they are most likely
to support with resources any force in Iraq that opposes Iranian influence.
Many critics argue that, had the invasion been done "right," such
as sending in much larger forces for reestablishing security and government
services, the war would have been a success. This argument is not convincing.
Such actions might have delayed a civil war but could not have prevented it.
Therefore, any military programs or operations having the aim of trying to reverse
this reality, insisting that we can now "do it right," need to be
treated with the deepest of suspicion. That includes the proposal to sponsor
the breakup by creating three successor states. To do so would be to preside
over the massive ethnic cleansing operations required for the successor states
to be reasonably stable. Ethnic cleansing is happening in spite of the US military
in Iraq, but I see no political or moral advantage for the United States to
become its advocate. We are already being blamed as its facilitator.
Let me now turn to key aspects of the president's revised approach to the war,
as well as several other proposals.
In addition to the president, a number of people and groups have supported
increased US force levels. As General Colin Powell has said, before we consider
sending additional US troops, we must examine what missions they will have.
I would add that we ask precisely what those troops must do to reverse any of
these four present realities created by the invasion. I cannot conceive of any
achievable missions they could be given to cause a reversal.
Just for purposes of analysis, let us suppose we had unlimited numbers of US
troops to deploy in Iraq. Would that change my assessment? In principle, if
two or three million troops were deployed there with the latitude to annihilate
all resistance without much attention to collateral civilian casualties and
human rights, order might well be temporarily reestablished under a reign of
US terror. The problem we would then face is that we would be opposed not only
by 26 million Iraqis but also by millions of Arabs and Iranians surrounding
Iraq, peoples angered by our treatment of Muslims and Arabs. These outsiders
are already involved to some degree in the internal war in Iraq, and any increase
of US forces is likely to be exceeded by additional outside support for insurgents.
I never cease to be amazed at our military commanders' apparent belief that
the "order of battle" of the opposition forces they face are limited
to Iraq. I say "apparent" because those commanders may be constrained
by the administration's policies from correcting this mistaken view. Once the
invasion began, Muslims in general and Arabs in particular could be expected
to take sides against the United States. In other words, we went to war not
just against the Iraqi forces and insurgent groups but also against a large
part of the Arab world, scores and scores of millions. Most Arab governments,
of course, are neutral or somewhat supportive, but their publics in growing
numbers are against us.
It is a strategic error of monumental proportions to view the war as confined
to Iraq. Yet this is the implicit assumption on which the president's new strategy
is based. We have turned it into two wars that vastly exceed the borders of
Iraq. First, there is the war against the US occupation that draws both sympathy
and material support from other Arab countries. Second, there is the Shi'ite-Sunni
war, a sectarian conflict heretofore sublimated within the Arab world but that
now has opened the door to Iranian influence in Iraq. In turn, it foreordains
an expanding Iranian-Arab regional conflict.
Any military proposals today that do not account for both larger wars, as well
as the Iranian threat to the Arab states on the Persian Gulf, must be judged
wholly inadequate if not counterproductive. Let me now turn to some specific
proposals, those advocated by independent voices and the Iraq Study Group as
well as the administration.
Standing up Iraqi security forces to replace
US forces. Training the Iraqi military and police force has been proposed
repeatedly as a way to bring stability to Iraq and allow US forces to withdraw.
Recently, new variants, such as embedding US troops within Iraqi units, have
been offered. The Iraq Study Group made much of this technique.
I know of no historical precedent to suggest that any of them will succeed.
The problem is not the competency of Iraqi forces. It is political consolidation
and gaining the troops' loyalties to the government and their commanders as
opposed to their loyalties to sectarian leaders, clans, families, and relatives.
For what political authority are Iraqi soldiers and police willing to risk their
lives? To the American command? What if American forces depart? Won't they be
called traitors for supporting the invaders and occupiers? Will they trust in
a Shi'ite-dominated government and ministry of interior, which is engaged in
assassinations of Sunnis? Sunni Arabs and Kurds would be foolish to do so, although
financial desperation has driven many to risk it. What about to the leaders
of independent militias? Here soldiers can find strong reasons for loyal service:
to defend their fellow sectarians, families, and relatives. And that is why
the government cannot disband them. It has insufficient loyal troops to do so.
As a military planner working on the pacification programs in 1970-71 in Vietnam,
I had the chance to judge the results of training both regular South Vietnamese
forces and so-called "regional" and "popular" forces. Some
were technically proficient, but that did not ensure that they would always
fight for the government in Saigon. Nor were they always loyal to their commanders.
And they occasionally fought each other when bribed by Viet Cong agents to do
so. The "popular forces" at the village level often failed to protect
their villages. The reasons varied, but in several cases it was the result of
how their salaries were funded. Local tax money was not the source of their
pay; rather it was US-supplied funds. Thus these troops, as well as "regional
forces," had little sense of obligation to protect villagers in their areas
of responsibility. For anyone who doubts that the Vietnam case is instructive
for understanding the Iraqi case, I recommend Ahmed S. Hashim's recent book,
and Counterinsurgency in Iraq. A fluent Arab linguist and a reserve
US Army colonel, who has served a year in Iraq and visited it several other
times, Hashim offers a textured study that struck me again and again as a rerun
of an old movie, especially where it concerned US training of Iraqi forces.
US military assistance training in El Salvador is often cited as a successful
case. In fact, this effort amounted to letting the old elites, who used death
squads to impose order, come back to power in different guises. And death squads
are again active there. The real cause of the defeat of the Salvadoran insurgency
was Gorbachev's decision to cut off supplies to it, as he promised President
George H. Bush at the Malta summit meeting. Thus denied their resource base,
and having failed to create a self-supporting tax regime in the countryside
as the Viet Cong did in Vietnam, they could not survive for long. Does the administration's
new plan for Iraq promise to eliminate all outside support to the warring factions?
Is it even remotely possible? Hardly.
The oft-cited British success in Malaysia is only superficially relevant to
the Iraq case. British officials actually ruled the country. Thus they had decades
of firsthand knowledge of the local politics. They made such a mess of it, however,
that an insurgency emerged in opposition. A new military commander and a cleanup
of the colonial administration provided political consolidation and the isolation
of the communist insurgents, mostly members of an ethnic minority group. This
pattern would be impossible to duplicate in Iraq.
An infusion of new funds for reconstruction. A shortage of funds has
not been the cause of failed reconstruction efforts in Iraq. Administrative
capacity to use funds effectively was and remains the primary obstacle. Even
support programs carried out by American contractors for US forces have yielded
mixed results. Insurgent attacks on the projects have provoked transfers of
construction funds to security measures, which have also failed.
A weak or nonexistent government administrative capacity allows most of the
money to be squandered. Putting another billion or so dollars into public works
in Iraq today – before a government is in place with an effective administrative
capacity to penetrate to the neighborhood and village level – is like trying
to build a roof on a house before its walls have been erected. Moreover, a large
part of that money will find its way into the hands of insurgents and sectarian
militias. That is exactly what happened in Vietnam, and it has been happening
New and innovative counterinsurgency tactics. The cottage industry of counterinsurgency
tactics is old and deceptive. When the US military has been periodically tasked
to reinvent them – the last great surge in that industry was at the JFK
School in Fort Bragg in the 1960's – it has no choice but to pretend that
counterinsurgency tactics can succeed where no political consolidation in the
government has yet been achieved. New counterinsurgency tactics cannot save
Iraq today because they are designed without account for the essence of any
"internal war," whether an insurgency or a civil war.
Such wars are about "who will rule," and who will rule depends on
"who can tax" and build an effective state apparatus down to the village
The taxation issue is not even on the agenda of US programs for Iraq. Nor was
it a central focus in Vietnam, El Salvador, the Philippines, and most other
cases of US-backed governments embroiled in internal wars. Where US funding
has been amply provided to those governments, the recipient regime has treated
those monies as its tax base while failing to create an indigenous tax base.
In my own study of three counterinsurgency cases, and from my experience in
Vietnam, I discovered that the regimes that received the least US direct fiscal
support had the most success against the insurgents. Providing funding and forces
to give an embattled regime more "time" to gain adequate strength
is like asking a drunk to drink more whiskey in order to sober up.
Saddam's regime lived mostly on revenues from oil exports. Thus it never had
to create an effective apparatus to collect direct taxes. Were US forces and
counterinsurgency efforts to succeed in imposing order for a time, the issue
of who will control the oil in Iraq would become the focus of conflict for competing
factions. The time would not be spent creating the administrative capacity to
keep order and to collect sufficient taxes to administer the country. At best,
the war over who will eventually rule country would only be postponed.
This is the crux of the dilemma facing all such internal wars. I make this
assertion not only based on my own study, but also in light of considerable
literature that demonstrates that the single best index of the strength of any
state is its ability to collect direct taxes, not export-import tax or indirect
taxes. The latter two are relatively easy to collect by comparison, requiring
much weaker state institutions.
The Iraq Study Group. The report of this group should not be taken as
offering a new or promising strategy for dealing with Iraq. Its virtue lies
in its candid assessment of the realities in Iraq. Its great service has been
to undercut the misleading assessments, claims, and judgment by the administration.
It allows the several skeptical Republican members of the Congress to speak
out more candidly on the war, and it makes it less easy for those Democrats
who were heretofore supporters of the administration's war to refuse to reconsider.
If one reads the ISG report in light of the four points in the strategic overview
above, one sees the key weakness of its proposals. It does not concede that
the war, as it was conceived and continues to be fought, is not "winnable."
It rejects the rapid withdrawal of US forces as unacceptable. No doubt a withdrawal
will leave a terrible aftermath in Iraq, but we cannot avoid that. We can only
make it worse by waiting until we are forced to withdraw. In the meantime, we
prevent ourselves from escaping the paralysis imposed on us by the war, unable
to redefine our war aims, which have served Iranian and al-Qaeda interests instead
of our own.
I do not criticize the report for this failure. As constructed, the group could
not advance a fundamental revision of our strategy. Its Republican and Democrat
members could not be said to represent all members of their own parties. Thus
the most it could do was to make it politically easier for the administration
to begin a fundamental revision of its strategy instead of offering a list of
tactical changes for the same old war aim of creating a liberal democracy with
a pro-American orientation in Iraq.
What Would a Revised Strategy Look Like?
How can the United States recover from this strategic
It cannot as long as fails to revise its war aims. Wise leaders in war have
many times admitted that their war aims are misguided and then revised them
to deal with realities beyond their control. Such leaders make tactical withdrawals,
regroup, and revise their aims, and design new strategies to pursue them. Those
who cannot make such adjustments eventually face defeat.
What war aim today is genuinely in the US interest and offers realistic prospects
of success? And not just in Iraq but in the larger region?
Since the 1950's, the US aim in this region has been "regional stability"
above all others. The strategy for achieving this aim of every administration
until the present one has been maintaining a regional balance of power among
three regional forces – Arabs, Israelis, and Iranians. The Arab-Persian
conflict is older than the Arab-Israeli conflict. The United States kept a diplomatic
foothold in all three camps until the fall of the shah's regime in Iran. Losing
its footing in Tehran, it began under President Carter's leadership to compensate
by building what he called the Persian Gulf Security Framework. The US Central
Command with enhanced military power was born as one of the main means for this
purpose, but the long-term goal was a rapprochement. Until that time, the military
costs for maintaining the regional power balance would be much higher.
The Reagan Administration, although it condemned Carter's Persian Gulf Security
Framework, the so-called "Carter Doctrine," continued Carter's policies,
even to the point of supporting Iraq when Iran was close to overrunning it.
Some of its efforts to improve relations with Iran were feckless and counterproductive,
but it maintained the proper strategic aim – regional stability.
The Bush Administration has broken with this strategy by invading Iraq and
also by threatening the existence of the regime in Iran. It presumed that establishing
a liberal democracy in Iraq would lead to regional stability. In fact, the policy
of spreading democracy by force of arms has become the main source of regional
This not only postponed any near-term chance of better relations with Iran,
but also has moved the United States closer to losing its footing in the Arab
camp as well. That, of course, increases greatly the threats to Israel's security,
the very thing it was supposed to improve, not to mention that it makes the
military costs rise dramatically, exceeding what we can prudently bear, especially
without the support of our European allies and others.
Several critics of the administration show an appreciation of the requirement
to regain our allies and others' support, but they do not recognize that withdrawal
of US forces from Iraq is the sine qua non for achieving their cooperation.
It will be forthcoming once that withdrawal begins and looks irreversible. They
will then realize that they can no longer sit on the sidelines. The aftermath
will be worse for them than for the United States, and they know that without
US participation and leadership, they alone cannot restore regional stability.
Until we understand this critical point, we cannot design a strategy that can
achieve what we can legitimately call a victory.
Any new strategy that does realistically promise to achieve regional stability
at a cost we can prudently bear, and does not regain the confidence and support
of our allies, is doomed to failure. To date, I have seen no awareness that
any political leader in this country has gone beyond tactical proposals to offer
a different strategic approach to limiting the damage in a war that is turning
out to be the greatest strategic disaster in our history.