Home / General / Stupid Wars Cannot Fail, They Can Only Be Failed

Stupid Wars Cannot Fail, They Can Only Be Failed


Yglesias is making sense:

The logic on display here shows the toxic self-justifying nature of American military adventures. If a war accomplishes its stated objectives, that goes to show that war is great. If a war fails to accomplish its stated objectives — as the Bush-era surge miserably failed to produce a durable political settlement in Iraq — then that simply proves that more war was called for.

But there is simply no reason to believe that the presence of American soldiers in Iraq makes a durable political settlement more likely, and there never has been. If eight years weren’t enough, why would one more — or two more or twenty more — be the key to success?

The truth is the opposite. The speed with which the apparent gains of the surge melted away in the face of Iraq’s entrenched domestic political problems underscores how futile the US-led campaign there was.

The US military is the finest military in the world, the sharp spear of the mightiest empire in human history. But the considerable virtues of America’s fighting forces do not give it any particular expertise in micro-managing Iraqi politics. And the fundamentals in Iraq have simply never been very good for a peaceful and democratic settlement. The country is not only divided between sectarian groups, but sandwiched between two rival regional powers, with Iran tending to favor Shiite interests, Saudi Arabia tending to favor Sunni ones, and neither power having any particular interest in democracy and pluralism. Throw in the well-known phenomenon of the oil curse and the country’s lack of stable institutions, and you’ve got a recipe for problems, problems that a bunch of heavily armed young people — no matter how well-intentioned or well-led — are not capable of solving.

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  • Ralph Wiggum

    I have seen at least one article in the British press from someone who opposed the war in 2003 (before he was famous) writing a contrarian piece about how the anti-war left was right about the war but for the wrong reasons, because we were stupid dumb hippies. Bets on the first iteration of that to hit the American media?

    • Popeye

      Didn’t McArdle churn this out 7 or 8 years ago?

      • Srsly Dad Y

        And Chait. Disappointingly.

        • sharculese

          I can never remember exactly what Chait said about his support for the Iraq war, but I thought it was much closer to Yglesias’s “I supported the war because hippies are gross, and that was stupid” than McMegan’s “I supported the war and that’s why you should take me more seriously than people who were right about the war”

          • Srsly Dad Y

            Well, I checked, and Chait said he was secretly sympatico with the DFHs in the early 2000s.

            I made other errors in my analysis that I should have known at the time. I thought many — even most — of the arguments for war were terrible: jingioistic waving of the 9/11 bloody shirt, the use of Saddam’s brutality as an emotional bludgeon, and worse. What’s more, I also thought that the anti-interventionist left’s sociological analysis of the debate taking place was correct. Somehow, supporting the war was cool and a sign of seriousness, creating waves of social pressure on politicians and commentators in a way that prevented a fair debate.

            I didn’t write any of these things at the time….


            • Has Chait ever apologized for this:


              And not just his lame “I’m sorry” piece from last year, or when ever.

              • Gandhi

                Christ, what an asshole. Thanks for the link. I remember now why I hate John Chait.

            • MAJeff

              So, he wanted to be one of the Heathers.

              • I think most hawkishness is either a product of getting a thrill from violence and domination, or from wanting to be one of the Heathers in the political class.

                Because rationally, we rarely accomplish very much when we go to war, and we kill a lot of people.

        • TribalistMeathead

          And Sully, also disappointingly, but not surprisingly.

          • sharculese

            I’m neither disappointed nor surprised that the main characteristic of Andrew “Fifth Column” Sullivan’s commentary on the war continues to be unrelenting brattiness.

            • Manta

              My position on Sullivan is: better to have him in the opposing camp, so I don’t have to be ashamed of “my” people.

          • Tiny Hermaphrodite, Esq.

            Sorry TM, but if you’re disappointed by Sully you’re not paying attention. He never gets it right on the first try and even then he often sticks to stupid and horrible positions. He looks only somewhat good, because so many people are so much worse than him.

        • FlipYrWhig

          And IIRC Ezra Klein.

  • Linnaeus

    Good work by Yglesias.

    Here’s a more general piece, and one that is harsher than Yglesias’, by Tom Engelhardt.

  • Bitter Scribe

    The soldiers are not supposed to think about Iraqi politics. That’s for the people who command them and send them there in the first place.

    “In future, sir, I must ask you to be a little less generous with the blood of your men, and a little more generous with your own brains.”
    –General Burgoyne, “The Devil’s Disciple”

  • CharlesS

    Simply more conservative “logic.” The domestic counterpart is that “more tax cuts” are always beneficial to the economy. More war will always help the nation in question.

    • Tax cuts raise revenue! Dropping bombs saves lives!

    • Rufus T. Firefly

      Longer prison sentences will always reduce crime and make us safer.

  • Rob in CT

    This is all rather obvious. The fact that it needs to be said at all, especially after the debacle that was Iraq!, The Sequel, is frustrating.

    • Manta

      It had huge attendance, the producers made tons of money, for 10 years it was the topic of every discussion, and completely eclipsed the first Iraq! A new hope.

  • joe from Lowell

    But there is simply no reason to believe that the presence of American soldiers in Iraq makes a durable political settlement more likely, and there never has been. If eight years weren’t enough, why would one more — or two more or twenty more — be the key to success?

    Indeed. Quite the opposite, the political gains that were made in Iraq happened after the withdrawal was announced and as it was being carried out. The Sadrists went home and half the Iraqi Sunni insurgency started talking to the government.

    • Col Bat Guano

      I love the argument that having troops there will give us leverage over Maliki to make political concessions. How? By threatening to withdraw them?

      • Manta

        Or to shoot him.

      • joe from Lowell

        It’s like these people never heard of Chiang Kai-Shek.

        “You have to help me! I’m about to be overrun!”

        “OK, we’ll send some help, but you have to promise to make those reforms and reach a deal with your opposition.”

        A month later: “Why should I cut a deal with the insurgents? I’m kicking their asses!”

        A month later: “You have to help me! I’m about to be overrun!”

  • jon

    The military conducted a rapid and highly successful invasion and conquering of Iraq. Even with Turkey’s last minute announcement to refuse access to a northern front. Nothing less was expected against a third rate army, without a functional air force and heavily attritted air defense.

    But, shockingly, the US had not prepared comprehensive plans for the occupation, administration and recovery of Iraq, and was slow in responding, hobbled by free market dogma, and abysmally managed and overseen. We managed to not even secure the stocks of yellowcake that were a major predicate for the war, much less most of the rest of Iraq’s munitions. It didn’t take long for the Iraqis to realize that very few were going to benefit from regime change, and that US forces were exceptionally vulnerable. The rest, I’m told is history, lost in the fog of war. The the shit really hit the fan.

    • Crunchy Frog

      Wolfowitz literally thought all he needed to do was slash the tax rate and the free market would take care of itself. Yeah, they may walk and talk and sound intelligent, but underneath it all they were all as dumb as Bush.

    • Hogan

      hobbled by free market dogma

      Let’s not forget criminal indifference.

    • Warren Terra

      Don’t forget the decision to staff the occupation with junior apparatchiks – failed junior apparatchiks at that, ideologues whose resumes were still on file at Heritage et al because they had not been hired by the administration nor by the think tanks etcetera. People with no experience or expertise in anything, and doubly so no skills in the local language or cultures.

      • herr doktor bimler

        Don’t forget the decision to staff the occupation with junior apparatchiks
        A $2-trillion, 100,000-deaths job-creation scheme for unemployable graduates from fundiversities.

        • Ken

          Now that they have the experience, we should send them back.

    • efgoldman

      But, shockingly, the US had not prepared comprehensive plans for the occupation, administration and recovery of Iraq

      But shockingly, the chicken hawks and war cheerleaders had no more informed ideas about Iraq than a squirrel has about quantum physics.

    • Warren Terra

      But, shockingly, the US had not prepared comprehensive plans for the occupation, administration and recovery of Iraq

      As I recall, it’s even worse than that – the State Department had spent years writing studies on exactly these questions, and not only were their reports ignored, the people who had worked on the reports were blackballed for employment in the occupation; either Cheney or Rumsfeld’s people actually successfully demanded the firing of one such person who was to work as part of the occupation.

      • sibusisodan

        I hate the fact that, when examining the Bush Administration on Iraq it’s always more incompetent than I could possibly believe, even taking into account that it’s more incompetent than I could possibly believe.

        • Ahuitzotl

          yes, infinite regression towards an absolute stupidity

      • liberalrob

        You recall correctly.

        And nobody got fired. Except the people who were right.

        • Kurzleg

          Perle is really a piece of work.

        • Cheap Wino

          I think it was even worse than people imagine. It’s notable that, while there is some finger pointing from people involved in the process failure it’s not finger pointing at somebody, it’s finger pointing at abstract entities like ‘defense’ and ‘state’.

          Remember the constitution that did initially get pushed through included a complete giveaway of Iraq to business interests. Via that constitution all Iraq state owned enterprises were able to be privatized and 100% of profits for any business in Iraq were allowed to be taken out of Iraq. I find it hard to believe that this wasn’t the end goal of Darth and Co. to begin with — within months of shock-n-awe they were holding seminars on how to take advantage of the new ‘free’ Iraq.

          Obviously this wouldn’t have been part of any honest plan for a stable country’s best interests. Yet there Bremmer was operating on that as the country’s constitution, the law of the land. It didn’t come about through the arcane debates about post war nation building. That came out of the twisted minds of Cheney, Wolfowitz and the PNAC fncks who had been drooling over the idea since Bush I didn’t finish the job. And it’s why those guys should be in prison for life.

    • TT

      It’s not the least bit shocking when you consider the character of the war’s many architects, and the damage they wrought during previous tours in government. The abbreviated list reads as follows: Team B, Iran-contra (the Rosetta Stone, as Pierce accurately calls it), supporting and abetting Saddam/genocide in Central America/apartheid in South Africa/the Argentine junta, propping up Khmer Rouge remnants against Viet Nam, kissing up to violent quacks like Jonas Savimbi, believing Gorbachev was just another commie stooge who would hoodwink us into giving up Western Europe, believing that the USSR was as the pinnacle of its strength circa 1989, agitating for war against Iraq throughout the 1990s, completely ignoring al Qaeda pre-9/11, and so on.

  • The MIC must be paid.

    It just feels better (to them) when they get paid to do something in their job description – even when it’s not needed or counterproductive.

    • So-in-so

      I suppose “those expensive munitions won’t expend themselves”, but the military part of the MIC sure didn’t need the eight years in hell.

      • LosGatosCA

        If you just think of the soldiers as the manual override option to the automated delivery systems then they assume their rightful places as just one of the wear-parts of the MIC machine.

  • Bill Maher made one of his best observations on Friday when he pointed out that, no matter which side we go in and help, we’re abetting terrorists.

    We should stay the hell out, and maybe drone a few select targets we’ve had on our radar in the confusion.

    • sharculese

      Bill Maher’s default position is anyone from that region of the world is a terrorist until proven otherwise. That this sometimes leads him to correct conclusions does not detract from the fact that the underlying logic is fucking idiotic.

      • Snarki, child of Loki

        “Bill Maher’s default position is anyone from that region of the world is a terrorist until proven otherwise.”

        Well, that’s MY position too, except for the area right around UT Austin, that’s mostly okay….

        …oh, wait, you meant IRAQ? Can we still send Mr. Droney?

  • Warren Terra

    I heard on the CBC’s As It Happens a rather enlightening, disturbing, and confusing report on what ISIS is and does, quite unlike the “Al Qaeda” discussion we heard on the US news. According to that report, they definitely have a strong Sunni holy-war element, and about a third of their fighters are foreigners – but they’re also massive opportunists, and are estimated to have made two billion dollars off of the oil wells they seized in Syria. The seized perhaps a billion dollars worth of munitions in Iraq, and looted all the banks in the cities they took.

    The people shooting rifles may be true believers, but there’s an awful lot of capitalism going on there. Maybe our Tea Partiers should get to know ISIS, I think they’d find a few things in common.

    • Mister Harvest

      All wars are, ultimately, resource wars.

    • jon

      Grabbing the loot doesn’t make you a capitalist. Capitalists invest in production to secure and increase profitable returns from enterprises. Of course you could say that using the looted proceeds of your conquests to purchase more arms and hire more soldiers, so you can loot more territory is the essence of capitalism, and I might have to shut up.

      • Ken

        It was certainly the essence of Bain Capital.

      • Warren Terra

        Seizing Syria’s oil wells and selling the oil to the Assad regime has to call your revolutionary ideals into question.

      • NonyNony

        War is just the expression of capitalism by other means.

    • Chris

      Not all wars are about profit, but all wars attract their gallery of profiteers looking to turn other people’s suffering into a quick buck.

      • LosGatosCA

        Why am I a war profiteer?

        Because that’s where the pallets of currency are delivered without an audit trail and no bid contracts I can get with some seed money and a few hookers.

    • Chris

      Say, there’s a Die Hard 6 to be made here.

      “You’re just here for the money? What kind of terrorists are you?”
      “Who said we were terrorists?”

      • Ahuitzotl

        Die Hard 6: Zimmerframe of Destruction?

  • Is it any surprise the neocons are taking this approach to the war? Do they have any other approach to any issue?

    It isn’t that long ago they scratched their heads over the second loss to Obama and decided what they really needed to do was repeat all of the same things they had said before, only louder.

  • Surreal American
    • joe from Lowell

      Now, in spite of the things I felt at the time when we went into war, liberals said: We shouldn’t get involved. We shouldn’t nation-build. And there was no indication the people of Iraq had the will to be free.


      Glenn Beck has decided that the straw man that Iraq hawks made up so they could accuse liberals of believing it – “Arabs just aren’t good enough for democracy” – is actually the right position on the war.

      That’s just…um…I don’t know what this is, actually. It’s something.

      • Tiny Hermaphrodite, Esq.

        You mean, that he is right for the right for the wrong reasons* and should therefore not be listened to**?

        * Sorry, just couldn’t resist the low hanging fruit.

        ** Yes I know, I know, Glenn Beck should never be listened to.

      • Chris

        It’s actually worse than that. Not only is “Iraqis are too stupid/too Muslim/too ungrateful/too primitive for democracy” something liberals never said – it’s something that the hawks themselves started saying after the invasion once it became clear that we were not, in fact, being greeted as liberators.

        Iraqi ingratitude and incompetence has been a theme in Official Washington ever since. To be fair, I suppose, you could include some Even-The-Liberal people in that – but I can’t think of too many of those early opponents of the Iraq War, in the antiwar movement and such, that were spreading that meme.

      • Walt

        Hilarious? There might be something funnier than someone inventing a straw position to attack, and then reluctantly convincing themselves the straw position has the better of the argument, but it’s not coming to mind at the moment.

        • LosGatosCA

          Yes, losing an argument with yourself is inversely correlated with good judgment.

  • Uncle Ebeneezer

    Alternate post title: When Brute Force Fails, Use More (h/t Mark Kleiman)

  • Simon

    “If eight years weren’t enough, why would one more — or two more or twenty more — be the key to success?”

    I agree with Yglesias, but this argument has never struck me as terribly convincing. Sometimes things take a while to happen. Enemies take a long time to be beaten. Projects take a long time to be completed. Imagine if this view was taken towards liberal domestic initiatives.

    • Enemies take a long time to be beaten.

      The problem with America’s mistakes is…no follow-through.

    • Hogan

      Especially the liberal domestic initiatives that involve killing people.

      • UserGoogol

        I think most large-scale policies have the potential to kill people in some indirect way if implemented wrong. There’s a lot of things that people need in order to continue living, and if the government errs in one of those areas, that can potentially lead to more people dying.

        The problem is that war is a uniquely bad situation in all sorts of ways. Not only do you have people going out and directly killing other people, but all those societal things that people depend on are also attacked by the general chaos of war. War inevitably leads not just to individual human beings being killed, but general chaos and destruction. Sometimes that’s an acceptable price to pay, but it’s a uniquely major price compared to the people who die from bad transportation policy.

    • Malaclypse

      Enemies take a long time to be beaten. Projects take a long time to be completed.

      How long until we beat our enemies in Iraq? How will we know when the project is finished? Do you see why comparing that to, say, the healthcare.gov rollout, or the Big Dig, is either stupid or evil?

    • Cheap Wino

      I’m not sure what your point is re: invading Iraq. Calling starting a war and invading a country of 33 million people a “project” strikes me as the height of ridiculous euphemism. That war is inevitably long term wasn’t exactly a secret to those of us who reacted with horror to the people who bought into the obvious lie that starting a war in the middle east would be cheap, easy, and fast.

    • Col Bat Guano

      Is there any evidence that U.S. troops being in Iraq would improve the chances of a successful outcome? Because I have a bunch that says it wouldn’t.

      • Ahuitzotl

        Sure: the Roman Empire. Occupy the territory for a hundred years, massacre all resistance every few years, and it’ll turn into … France (well, Gaul).

  • RogerAiles

    “Raise Your Hand If I Should Care About Your Opinion About Iraq. No, Put Your Hand Down Right Now, Matt Yglesias.”

    • Ahuitzotl

      Hey, MattY getting it right (eventually) is a rare thing, to be treasured and commented on.

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