Though we start wars anticipating an end, they still catch us off guard.
“We kept fighting these wars — the Gulf War, the Iraq War,” said Foreign Affairs editor Gideon Rose to the crowd at The Actors’ Gang. “We kept getting surprised by the endings.”
In an event co-presented with the UCLA Burkle Center for International Affairs, Rose, author of How Wars End:Why We Always Fight the Last Battle, chatted with Burkle Center director Kal Raustiala about why we start wars without ever quite ending them well, and how we can better plan for peace.
Like Robert Redford
War planning tends to focus on the win. As Rose explained it, “We think of war as a giant boxing match in which our job is to beat up the other guy.” While that’s clearly one part, the analogy ignores that war is about a pursuit of a stable political settlement. Rose cited the Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz, famed for his theory that war is policy by other means. The policy side, however, is “complex and difficult and thankless.” Rose said. “We wake up at the end of the day like Robert Redford at the end of ‘The Candidate’ and say well, what do we do now?”
While the Iraq War is our current model for a war ended poorly, an earlier conflict sometimes regarded as successful was in many ways just as confused – the Gulf War. Colin Powell, who famously critiqued the Iraq War and came up with the “Pottery Barn” theory of war (you broke it, you own it), “didn’t embody that perspective in his own war,” Rose said. The general left Saddam Hussein in power and made no real plans to deal with the leader’s resurgence.
Rose noted that the tension of how to end war played out even in the diaries of George H.W. Bush. Within a few pages, Bush expresses satisfaction that Hussein was ready to concede, worry about how the region would be stable with Hussein still in power, and finally, a faith that Iraqis themselves would rise to topple Hussein. “It’s cognitive dissonance – the mind doesn’t like to hold two things that are contradictory. There’s a great tension,” Rose said. Instead of installing another dictator – “an SOB but our SOB” – the first Bush administration backed into a containment strategy. And they did it despite being, Rose said, “wise, sober, sophisticated types.”
Instead, Rose suggested, the planners of the Gulf War might have tried to find a replacement for Hussein. “There was an old CIA joke in that era – they’d say, I can’t tell you the last name of Saddam’s successor, but I can tell you the first name,” Rose said. “General.” But the “magical Iraqi deus ex machina” did not appear. The second Iraq War did find such a character in Ahmed Chalabi, who many thought was a “mastermind Svengali hypnotizing Bush officials,” but whom Rose characterized as a less powerful figure. “Ahmed Chalabi was the answer to the question they posed to themselves. If he didn’t exist, we would’ve invented him,” Rose said.
Half a loaf
The other option for Gulf War planners would have been, Rose said, to leave Hussein in power and except the “half a loaf solution,” as architects of the Korean War pulled off – dividing the peninsula, picking a border and sticking around to keep it secure. Americans left the country with an authoritarian regime that evolved over decades into a democracy. Vietnam might have gone better, Rose noted, if it had happened to be a peninsula.
Not only did the Korean War planners manage to end the war, but they actually came up with the ending by the winter of 1951, Rose said. The war continued over a single and rarely remembered issue: the fate of prisoners. Unlike the Russian prisoners returned to their country after World War II – and shipped immediately to gulags - Harry Truman and his Secretary of State Dean Acheson decided to give prisoners a choice of going home or going elsewhere, hoping for a propaganda victory when everyone chose to leave. But the POW camps were badly mismanaged. “Think Abu Ghraib with kimchi,” Rose said. Tens of thousands refused to go home, and China and North Korea refused to accept their decision. Acheson, despite being “one of the best policymakers in American history,” didn’t realize how costly his policy was, and tried to cover up the entire episode. “You should never buy a policy without checking the price first,” Rose said.
Our greatest success story in ending war, Rose said, is likely World War II, in which “we totally defeated the enemy, conquered the countries, stayed forever and midwifed a nice outcome.” Germany and Japan went on to become two of our greatest allies.
But planners of the Iraq War didn’t remember those lessons. “We are cocky. People take it unseriously,” Rose said. The Bush administration devised the “light footprint” plan of knocking out Hussein and turning the country immediately over to locals. “Everything we did in Iraq violated every single rule in the playbook for what serious people thought was necessary for democracy,” Rose said. An earlier surge may have helped, he continued. “If you had done the surge in 2003 rather than 2007, could you have had at 2004, 2005, or 2006 the same situation you have now?” he asked. However unsafe the country remains, he says, it is “vastly more stable than the chaos and near civil war of 2003 to 2006.”
St. Augustine in Afghanistan
As for our other long war, Rose noted, a Vietnam analogy is for once appropriate. Afghanistan is racked by counterinsurgency and a deeply-rooted local conflict, with safe havens for warlords across neighboring borders. “If you’re Obama, you are Richard Nixon,” Rose said. “The choice we’re going to have to face is, should we stay or should we go? And you know, if you stay there will be trouble, and so on.” Obama has to weigh the costs of leaving – of a potential new threat or conflict rising in the country – or staying, incurring the price of military or “a sort of imperial police force.” Rose did note in Q&A that he thought the war was necessary, unlike Iraq, which Rose initially supported, but that it could have been done better.
So far, the president is taking a middle road. “It’s like St. Augustine’s prayer – Lord, make me chaste, but not yet,” Rose said. “Obama basically said, I’m going to surge, and withdraw. In 2011 he will have to choose.”
Rose gave Obama some unexpected advice: that the president might ask himself, “What would Nixon do?” While Nixon’s plan fell apart – for reasons including incompletely securing the country, Watergate, and domestic political opposition to the war – the former president did manage one thing that Obama so far hasn’t. “You have to be devious and a lot more cynical than Obama has revealed himself to be,” Rose said. He suggested that the president “lie shamelessly” – to claim he will stay, but to get out. Second, Rose recommended Obama cover his retreat with, for instance, massive drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas. He cast Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia – however terrible its outcome – as an elaborate cover. Finally, Rose said, Obama needs a plan to support the government in Kabul after the withdrawal. “It’s a ruthless, cynical approach that requires a kind of Machiavellian attitude,” Rose said. “Once you’re in a really bad situation, that’s almost the only way out.”
Rose admitted he was being tough on policymakers who don’t always fail, and who are sometimes hampered by having too many choices. “If you are truly constrained then you will think through your choices more carefully. If you are unconstrained, you will be able to do things on a whim,” Rose said. During the Bush years, “we were incredibly rich.” Today, he said, “We’re not going to be launching many new open-ended wars in our current fiscal circumstances.” He also noted that wars now tend to be messier than previous wars, not because the nature of war has changed, but because we fight more of a particular type of war today – “nasty, annoying wars in the developing world that are harder to get out of.” We save ourselves from sparks setting off continent- or worldwide conflicts by essentially policing and ensuring peace in Europe and East Asia. “That may make me sound like a crazy neoconservative or American imperialist, but we are providing the public good of order,” Rose said. “We’ve taken those wars off the table.”
Rose did recommend one shift in thinking for war planners. Iraq War strategists, he noted, called postwar planning “Phase IV.”
“No one has ever gotten down to the fourth item on a to-do list,” Rose said. He suggested instead that planners think of war more like a moon launch. “Phase four and three and two – all are leading up to your outcome, which is Phase I,” Rose said. “Blastoff is when you get to go home.”