Bush and Petraeus

I’ve been meaning to mention Steve Simon’s treatment of tribalism in his Foreign Affairs article on the Surge for the past couple days, but Patrick Barry over at Democracy Arsenal just did it for me. Which means that all I have to do now is contrast Simon’s severe critique of the Sunni Awakening’s re-tribalizating effect on Iraqi civil society with page nine from Carole O’Leary’s Congressional testimony which I flagged last week. O’Leary makes a very strong case in favor of tribal society as a means of strengthening the fabric of Iraqi society, since Iraq’s tribes straddle ethnic, sectarian and regional lines.

I agree with Simon’s broader assessment that the past year’s tactics have undermined our longterm strategic goals. And here, I can’t resist the comic value of this quote from O’Leary:

In this regard, a key tool which can be transferred to Iraqi managers is strategic planning. I can not stress enough how valuable his tool can be for Iraqis for whom strategic planning is an unknown concept. (p. 12)

Where that strategic planning will be transferred from obviously remains a mystery. But this disagreement on the value of tribalism between two insightful and well-intentioned experts demonstrates the necessity, in strategic planning, for challenging expert advice with opposing opinions, and accepting the possibility that the opposing viewpoint has a stronger truth claim than one’s own. Nowhere is that necessity more strongly felt, perhaps, than in the strategic planning for a war.

The Bush administration’s approach to the Iraq War as it has unfolded over the last few years, by contrast, has ruled out a wide spectrum of options a priori, most notably (but not exclusively) strategic retreat or outright withdrawal. Tactics have in turn been tailored to fit this arbitrarily limited strategic menu. The president has essentially imposed his preferences on the strategic reality and determined tactics accordingly.

He found his man (Gen. Petraeus), who has become his trusted advisor by telling him exactly what he wants to hear. Bush in turn puts the presidential imprimatur on the general’s recommendations, which are really his own dressed up in military regalia.

Now, I don’t for a second doubt Gen. Petraeus’ sincerity, brilliance, and conviction, and thankfully so, because otherwise the two men’s relationship would embody that of the weak king and his sycophantic regent. But just because Gen. Petraeus is an honorable military commander does not necessarily mean he is immune to strategic error. The fact that President Bush, who should be challenging his general’s counsel with dissenting views, is instead obstinately reality-averse is not Gen. Petraeus’ fault. But it just might be his, and our, downfall.

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