Searching for Victory in Iraq: Why the Baker-Hamilton Commission Ought to Visit Mount Vernon
The Sunday before Thanksgiving, Callista and I took some friends to Mount Vernon to see the new education center. It is an amazing tribute to George Washington and the creation of America.
We watched a movie about George Washington’s crossing the Delaware on Christmas Eve and surprising the Hessians (German mercenaries) on Christmas Day in Trenton. As I watched, I was struck by the amazing difference between the attitude of the Father of our Country and the current attitudes in the city that bears his name.
Gen. Washington had a long and painful summer and autumn of defeat in 1776. His American Army had been defeated across New York — in Brooklyn, Manhattan and White Plains — and then driven across New Jersey and forced to flee across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania.
Washington’s Night Crossing: ‘Victory or Death’
Washington’s forces had dwindled until he had only about 4,000 effective soldiers left. There were another 6,000 men present, but they were so sick they were unable to go into battle.
Faced with declining morale, rising desertions, the collapse of political will in the country at large and a sense of despair, Washington decided to gamble everything on a surprise attack. It would require a night crossing of an icy river against a formidable professional opponent.
But the most telling sign of Washington’s mood as he embarked on the mission was his choice of a password. His men said “victory or death” to identify themselves.
What if There Had Been a Baker-Hamilton Commission Advising Gen. Washington?
That night crossing, immortalized in paintings of Washington’s standing in the boat as Marblehead Fishermen rowed him across the ice-strewn river, led to an amazing victory on Christmas Day. That victory led to a surge in American morale and a doubling in the size of the American forces under Washington within two weeks. And that gave Washington the strength to win a second surprise victory at Princeton.
In two weeks, Washington had gone from defeated, hopeless bungler to victorious American hero and personification of the American Cause.
Imagine there had been a Baker-Hamilton Commission — the group charged with assessing our options in Iraq — advising Washington that cold Christmas Eve. What “practical, realistic” advice would they have given him?
Eleven Key Tests for the Baker-Hamilton Report
Will the Baker-Hamilton Commission make a real contribution in helping us win the war against the Fanatic wing of Islam? Or will it be simply one more establishment effort to hide defeat so the American political system can resume its comfortable insider games without having to solve real problems in the larger world? Here are 11 key things to look for in the commission’s report:
- Does the Commission Have a Vision for Success in the Larger War Against the Dictatorships and Fanatics Who Want to Destroy Us?
- Does the Commission Recognize That the Second Campaign in Iraq Has Been a Failure?
- Does the Commission Recognize the Scale of Change We Will Need to Adopt to Be Effective in a World of Enemies Willing to Kill Themselves in Order to Kill Us?
- Does the Commission Describe the Consequences of Defeat in Iraq?
- Does the Commission Understand the Importance of Victory?
- Does the Commission Define What It Means to Win, or Simply Find a Face-Saving Way to Lose?
- Does the Commission Acknowledge That Winning Requires Thinking Regionally and Even Globally?
- Any Proposal to Ask Iran and Syria to Help Is a Sign of Defeat. Does the Commission Suggest This?
- Does the Commission Believe We Can ‘Do a Deal’ With Iran?
- Does the Commission Believe We Are More Clever Than Our Enemies?
- Does the Commission Recognize the Importance of Working With the Democratic Majorities on a Strategy for Victory?
If Iraq were only a one-step process, the answer might be to leave. But the reality is that Iraq is a single campaign within a much bigger war and within a power struggle over both the evolution of Islam and the rise of dictatorships seeking nuclear and biological weapons to enable them to destroy America and her allies. If the Baker-Hamilton Commission does not take this into account, it is a dangerously misleading report.
This is the hardest thing for Washington-centric bureaucracies to accept. There was a very successful 23-day campaign to drive Saddam out of power. It used America’s strengths, and it worked. The second campaign has been an abject failure. We and our Iraqi allies do not have control of Iraq. We cannot guarantee security. There is not enough economic activity to keep young males employed. If the Baker-Hamilton Commission cannot bring itself to recognize a defeat as a defeat, then it cannot recommend the scale of change that is needed to develop a potentially successful third campaign.
We need fundamental change in our military doctrine, training and structures, our intelligence capabilities and our integration of civilian and military activities. The instruments of American power simply do not work at the speed and detail needed to defeat the kind of enemies we are encountering. The American bureaucracies would rather claim the problem is too hard and leave, because being forced to change this deeply will be very painful and very controversial. Yet we have to learn to win.
Learning to win requires much more than changes in the military. It requires changes in how our intelligence, diplomatic, information and economic institutions work. It requires the development of an integrated approach in which all aspects of American power can be brought to bear to achieve victory. Furthermore, this strategy for victory has to be doubly powerful. For three years, we have failed to build an effective Iraqi government, and we now have a shattered local system with many players using violence in desperate bids to maximize their positions. The plan has to be powerful enough to succeed despite Iraqi weaknesses and not by relying on a clearly uncertain and unstable Iraqi political system.
What would the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Iraq look like? Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute recently offered this chilling picture:
“The pullback of U.S. forces to their bases will not reduce the sectarian conflict, which their presence did not generate — it will increase it. Death squads on both sides will become more active. Large-scale ethnic and sectarian cleansing will begin as each side attempts to establish homogeneous enclaves where there are now mixed communities. Atrocities will mount, as they always do in ethnic cleansing operations. Iraqis who have cooperated with the Americans will be targeted by radicals on both sides. Some of them will try to flee with the American units. American troops will watch helplessly as death squads execute women and children. Pictures of this will play constantly on Al Jazeera. Prominent ‘collaborators,’ with whom our soldiers and leaders worked, will be publicly executed. Crowds of refugees could overwhelm not merely Iraq’s neighbors but also the [Forward Operating Bases] themselves. Soldiers will have to hold off fearful, tearful, and dangerous mobs.”
Winning is key. We are in a power struggle on a worldwide basis with dictators who want to defeat us (Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea) and with fanatic organizations that want to kill us (al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, etc). In a struggle like this, the goal has to be to win. Anything less than victory is very dangerous, because it allows our enemies to gather more capabilities and prepare for more dangerous campaigns. Time is not on our side. Time is on the side of those seeking nuclear and biological weapons to use against the civilized world.
Winning is very definable. Can we protect our friends and hurt our enemies? Are they more afraid of us, or are we more afraid of them? The recent Syrian assassination of a Lebanese Christian leader who was pro-Western is a signal that they are not afraid of us. The North Korean decisions to launch seven missiles on our Independence Day and to set off a nuclear weapon were signs they have contempt for our warnings. The statements of Ahmadinejad (the Iranian dictator) and Hugo Chavez (the Venezuelan dictator) indicate how confident they are.
Today, the enemy thinks they are winning, and our elites seem to be seeking face-saving cover behind which to accept defeat. Does the Baker-Hamilton Commission have a proposal for victory or a proposal for accepting defeat gracefully? Will it offer a diplomatic deal allowing us to pretend we are okay while our enemies gather strength?
In Afghanistan, we are engaged in an Afghanistan-Waziristan war in which our enemies retreat into Waziristan in Northwest Pakistan and re-arm, re-equip, retrain and rest before coming back into Afghanistan. We will never win that war by engaging only in Afghanistan. In Iraq, the problems may require much more direct confrontation with Iran and Syria. In Lebanon, it is impossible to create a stable democratic government and disarm Hezbollah as long as Syria and Iran are deeply involved in killing Lebanese leaders and supplying Hezbollah.
Iran and Syria are the wolves in the region. They are the primary trouble makers. You don’t invite wolves into the kitchen to help with dinner or you become dinner. The State Department Report on Terrorism in April 2006 said: “Iran and Syria routinely provide unique safe haven, substantial resources and guidance to terrorist organizations.” It went on to say: “Iran remained the most active state sponsor of terrorism.” It noted that in Iraq the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (an arm of the Iranian dictatorship) “was increasingly involved in supplying lethal assistance to Iraqi militant groups which destabilize Iraq.”
How can the Baker Hamilton Commission seriously suggest that two dictatorships described like this are going to be “helpers” in achieving American goals in the Middle East?
The clear effort by the Iranians to acquire nuclear weapons and Ahmadinejad’s assertion that it is easy to imagine a time in the near future when the United States and Israel have both disappeared should be adequate proof that the Iranian dictatorship is the active enemy of America. Couple that with the fact that the Iranians lied to the International Atomic Energy Agency for 18 years while trying to develop a nuclear weapon. Either this is a dangerous regime we need to fundamentally change, or it is a reasonable regime with which we can deal.
Presidential speeches and State Department documents clearly indicate it is a dangerous regime, yet there is a permanent Washington establishment desire to avoid conflict and confrontation by “doing a deal.” In the 1930s, that model was called appeasement, not realism, and it led to a disaster. We need a Churchill not a Chamberlain policy for the Middle East.
The al-Assad family has run Syria since 1971. Hafiz Assad arranged for his son Bashar to succeed him. This family and its Alewite supporters represent a small minority of the Syrian people, but they maintain a relentlessly tough internal dictatorship that keeps power in their hands. In some ways, there are parallels between Bashar Assad and Kim Jong Il — they both maintain family dictatorships with the support of a brutal system of internal controls. After 35 years of defying the United States, there is no reason to believe our diplomats are more clever than their ruthlessly survivor-oriented systems. Negotiating with them is an invitation to be taken to the cleaners and to extend the power, prestige and influence of our mortal enemies in the region.
Recent talk of reaching out to Syria has been met by the assassination of a Lebanese Minister and the intensifying of the Hezbollah blackmail tactics in Lebanon. Weakness from America leads to greater aggression from our enemies. The Baker-Hamilton Commission should focus on how to contain or defeat Syria, not on how to rely on them for help.
The Democratic victory in the 2006 election should not be used as an excuse to do the wrong thing. The Democrats are now confronting the responsibility and burden of power. Given the right information about Iran, Syria and Iraq, there is every reason to believe a bipartisan majority can be formed in both the House and Senate for a rational strategy for victory. Opposition to continuing the failed second campaign should not be translated into opposition to an American victory.
The Bush Administration should reach out to moderate Democrats and forge a bipartisan agenda for victory and, by March 2007, pass a bipartisan resolution for victory in Iraq and for stopping Iranian efforts to get nuclear weapons. That will set the basis for appropriations to continue the effort. The passage of a solid bipartisan bill in March would send a signal to the world that Americans are overwhelmingly in favor of defeating terrorism and defending America. That will dramatically lower the morale and confidence of our enemies.
These 11 steps would be a powerful basis on which to move forward in Iraq and in the world. What’s more, they reflect the spirit of Gen. Washington when he chose “victory or death” as the motto of the campaign that led to the founding of America despite overwhelming odds.
P.S. – I will be in the “Live Free of Die” state of New Hampshire today and tomorrow talking about, among other things, my new book, Rediscovering God in America. At a time when the speech of terrorists and fanatics threatens our very survival, our national elites are most concerned with suppressing our religious expression. My book shows how our history and traditions put God at the center of our freedom. It’s a powerful set of talking points to countermand the secular left’s unending effort to remove God from the public square.
P.P.S. I was recently invited to participate in a forum at Mount Vernon moderated by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. You can listen to it here.