Monday, March 19, 2007


When Andrew Krepinevich briefed senior congressional staff on the government/military thinking behind the current "surge" at the end of February, what he left with them by way of "materials" was only a bullet-point outline. Colin Kahl tried to flesh out the presentation in his listserve essay that Juan Cole excerpted. The whole available package, such as it is, (bullet-point outline and Kahl essay) is available at See also the two prior posts here.

What first jumps out at you is what Krepinevich very delicately called the "Roman option" (aka, on his p 21, the "Roman and Halliburton options"), which he glosses on page 4 as "massive retaliation", with the proviso that this is not likely to be implemented by the US "except in the most dire of circumstances". In expanding on the idea in his listserv essay, Kahl doesn't make the obvious point you would expect to hear, namely that this would involve war crimes and crimes against humanity, rather he says only that it is "incompatible with norms against targeting civilians embraced by the U.S. military and political leadership". You don't have to think back very far to remind yourself of the big difference between crimes against humanity and "norms...embraced by the US military and political leadership". Just think of the discussion about torture. In any event, this "massive retaliation" option is something that comes up in the Krepinevich briefing on counterinsurgency, and in the widely-circulated discussion that followed it. Widely-circulated, but of course we do not know who attended the briefing, or who is on the listserv that Kahl posted to, or who else has been in on the discussion.

That's point one: There has been a widely-circulated discussion of counterinsurgency doctrine and practices, and it included discussion of the "massive retaliation" option, tagging in only as something currently "incompatible with norms...", and not tagging it as a crime against humanity. Point two is that some of the same people are trying to promote another discussion, this one that the general public is being invited to participate in, and that has to do, importantly, not with counterinsurgency doctrine and practice, but rather with "civil war" doctrine and practice.

Here's where the flim-flam comes in. In the counterinsurgency discussions, the "massive retaliation" option is left hanging, something currently "not compatible with norms", or as the Krepinevich outline puts it: not likely to be implemented "except in the most dire of circumstances." The alternatives in this discussion are either (1) success of the current "COIN best practices" approach, or (2) what to do in the (very likely) event of failure. The discussion comes down to how to respond to a likely failure, and the last of Krepinevich's bullet-points on page 21, having discussed the decline in numbers and quality in the official US armed forces, reads: "Hired Guns: The Roman and Halliburton options" (where "Roman", as noted above, is Krepinevich's euphemism for massive retaliation against civilians).

The "civil war" discussion being proposed for public discussion in the vibrant American democracy, is a little different, in a big way. Kahl himself has published a version of this on the Foreign Policy magazine website, and it is quite interesting how this differs from the "counterinsurgency" discussion. The "civil war" options, Kahl says, are essentially two: (1) Stay, and take sides, by which he means side with the Shiite majority fighting Sunnis; or (2) withdraw, and provide only humanitarian or palliative assistance in things like ethnic relocation. (In other versions, there is also a third option, which is to withdraw to mega-bases and carry out the odd bombing raid here and there, as necessary, in order to maintain some degree of leverage in the outcome).

So the problem being proposed for urgent public discussion in the vibrant American democracy is a completely different problem from that being discussed in private by the policy elite. The policy elite is discussing what to do if America can't quell the resistance to its occupation using "best practices", and the options are to withdraw, or kick back and try the last-resort "Roman option", perhaps with the help of some "hired guns". The vibrant democracy is discussing what do do if the civil war continues, and the options are to withdraw, or stay and take sides. And curiously enough, what happens is that staying and taking sides (fighting Sunnis, in other words) is presented as something that is more in keeping with America's "moral obligations in Iraq", because having American soldiers along side Shiite forces "might be the only way to minimize atrocities". So when you boil it down, the policy-elite is discussing non-withdrawal in the interest of a last-resort scorched-earth policy by America, but at the same time presenting this as non-withdrawal in the interest of fulfilling America's moral obligation to help minimize atrocities.

That's the flim-flam. If you say "civil war" enough times, you create the illusion that America doesn't have a dog in the fight, and staying would be the only morally-right thing to do.

Who can we expect to beat the drum for this? That's what Krepinevich wanted to know. As he said on page 18 of his presentation: "The administration has lost control of the narrative, and lost popular confidence--who can/should explain the war to the American people?" That's easy, really: start with political scientists.


Blogger Mike said...

You are right that the administration has lost control over the narrative, as today we see that only 18% of Iraqis trust U.S. forces. It's like two visions of reality clashing against each other, and the main victim of this kind of American deliberate self-detachment and dehumanization of "unruly" populations is the Iraqi civilian population, who have absolutely no reason to be suffering from bombs from either side.

9:21 AM  
Blogger Scriblerius said...

This is a nice deconstructive move you've made-- and I think you're right, that the difference between elite consciousness of these issues and popular/media consciousness is huge. Huge enough so that one can consistently manipulate the other, and create a situation in which the people are fooled into thinking that the conversation they hear in the media is the one also taking place behind closed doors in the government...

4:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is not the first time you have said this about the so-called "Civil War" Badger.

Thanks for the taking the time to show us how these "message policies" get created all dressed up in academia and then sold, probably with the help of the expensive public relations people, who probably reminded BushCo they would need to do something to create the illusion like blowing up a couple of mosques and do something similar again whenever American public opinion began to lag.

I also do not care for the term "insurgents" or "insurgency" when referring to people defending their homes and their country from a foreign invader.

5:33 AM  

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