Feeling superior is always enjoyable, but it does little to help us understand what to do about Iraq (even Donald Rumsfeld knows Iraq is a disaster). This task requires us to reflect much more carefully on the role of strategy and decision-making in liberal democracies.
First the bad news for strategists: liberal democracies rarely have identifiable strategies. The United States has never had a 5-year plan (Stalin's favorite planning instrument in the Soviet era), nor a Central Committee to do the planning and evaluate outcomes. Well-functioning (i.e., inefficient) democracies are structured so that power and consensus are fractured. The political parties in power (at all levels) are expected to have a policy agenda and a vague idea of how to put that agenda in action, but little more. Only in times of crisis, in particular in times of war, is there the expectation that partisan politics will be put aside and consensus achieved so that strategic plans and appropriate action can be put into place. Winston Churchill's success in World War II and his later difficulties as Primer Minister are eloquent evidence of how differently democratic societies customarily function in war and in peace.
In the case of the Iraq War, the American people initially took on a war posture and the Bush administration was able to implement Donald Rumsfeld's strategic reinvention of contemporary warfare – reduced troop involvement and quick and dirty social reconstruction. Unfortunately, Rumsfeld's strategy failed on both accounts, resulting in unacceptably high casualty levels and civil war in Iraq. And as time went on, the American public gradually withdrew its support for the war.
Most observors have argued that Americans withdrew support because the strategy failed. This is not quite true. The majority of Americans withdrew their support for the war because they rejected the Bush administration's justification for the war. A failed strategy can be replaced by a more effective strategy; a failed mission requires a more comprehensive rethinking.
Unable to rethink the mission, the Bush Administration faced lack of support (and consensus) and found it impossible to develop a new military strategy in Iraq. There was no way to increase troop involvement, no way to involve allies, no way to convince the Iraqis that Americans could succeed. On these practical grounds, I, and other strategists, have argued that the only tenable option has been (and still is) immediate withdrawal.
A growing number of world leaders, among them Iran's Ahmadinejad, have concluded that the disagreement and disarray in the United States on Iraq is evidence of a terminal moral weaknesses afflicting Western liberal democracies. In response to these attacks, the President of U.S. accuses those opposed to the war of providing succor to the enemy. Both President Ahmadinejad and President Bush are wrong.
Disagreement and disarray are necessary, positive elements of liberal democracies. At the societal level, we do not have strategies; we do not make plans. Rather we enjoy a polity (or polities), loosely grouped together citizens who do honor to Schumpeter's often cited "creative destruction". We work in different directions, creating multiple, and sometimes conflicting, social trends, as we search for answers. We give lots of work to sociologists trying to figure out the meaning of our behaviors.
In this buzzing whirring confusion that is the experience of liberal democracy, change does happen. Just this past week, Californians decided to impose strict rules on CO2 emisions. California will fight with the federal government and the car manufacturers about it, but they will eventally win because the idea has "legs". There is no real strategy here, simply a social movement that decides that an idea is right and needs to be acted upon. The process of change will be the usual slow mess.
The upside is that the "usual slow mess" makes it difficult for democracies to fight wars; it is highly unadvisable for democracies to be aggressors. Only when there is true social consensus are democracies successful at war; only when wars are clearly defensive have democracies been able to achieve such consensus.
There are many who consider the views expressed here both naïve and inaccurate. They have lots of good arguments for why the polical decision-making process in the U.S. is failing. I will try here to set out in fair manner what I think is their most important points, and why I believe they are wrong. The critics argue that: 1) the electoral and legislative processes are corrupted by campaign spending rules that favor the rich and powerful; 2) state and local legislatures engage in egregious gerrymandering of districts; 3) lobbyists are given free reign.
On all three points they are right. We differ, however, in the conclusions we draw from the evidence. The U.S. is not on the edge of either economic or social collapse.
Americans will respond to the disrepair of the electoral and legislative processes. However, there will be no master strategy set out by one of leading political parties. Rather there will be a polity consensus that change must happen, and in the usual uncoordinated way things work in democracies, laws will be amended, law-breakers will be prosecuted, and somehow things are marginally improved so that the democracy regains functionality.
Unfortunately for we strategists, liberal democracies will remain bad at strategy. Liberal democracies will also remain bad at imposing their will upon the population, and slow to respond to changes in the environment – e.g., illegal immigration.
And so, you have my answer. No, the U.S. does not have a strategy for Iraq, nor for immigration, nor for education, nor for much of anything else.
... by the way, neither do the Europeans.
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