Posted tagged ‘Surge’

Amateurs talk tactics, Professionals study logistics: The Surge, Afghanistan, Bush, McCain edition

July 3, 2008

The running theme of this blog is the importance of being able to count. Genuinely elementary arithmetic, if actually applied, is the foundation of scientific thinking, and scientific thinking is how we arrive, however imperfectly, at reliable guides to experience in the world.

That said, this post is another in my informal series arguing that because John McCain can’t count, can’t take advantage of the tools of analytical thinking, he is unfit to be President. A corollary of the argument I’m about to make is that the latest news out of our multiply mismanaged foreign wars provides independent support for General Wesley Clark’s argument that Senator McCain’s military career has not given him the experience needed by a President.

What’s the news?

This: the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, yesterday told reporters that the US military has run out of troops, that it cannot dispatch more units to Afghanistan, where the Taliban is on the rise, unless and until the US draws down its forces in Iraq.

What does this have to do with counting, with analytical thinking? Here is John McCain, from his campaign website, on the”success” of what he calls “The McCain Surge” of US troops in Iraq:

Today, our new counterinsurgency campaign is showing signs of success, and John McCain believes we can still prevail in Iraq if Washington politicians exercise resolve not panic.

Remember: Amateurs talk tactics, professionals study logistics (a quote attributed to General Omar Bradley).

Leave aside the question of whether or not the surge is working even in its own limited sphere. (There is, sadly, a very strong argument that its primary accomplishment has been to prop up an unpopular, inept, Iranian-leaning government, leading to a decrease in US power, and an increase in that of our primary regional rival. See Michael Massing’s latest from Baghdad for the depressing details.

(As an aside: I don’t usually link to David Brooks, who I regard as a fact-deprived, innumerate writer, but his column of June 24 illustrates the problem of punditry without a grasp of the details. Massing’s on the ground report demonstrates why just about everything Brooks says is wrong in this particularly empty bit of triumphalism. (Find one actual testable claim in it, and I’ll give you a lollipop.)

Back on track: the question isn’t just whether or not the surge can work in a local sense, but whether it does now or ever did make sense in the context of the larger war in which we were and are engaged.

The answer was and is no — because the ground forces at our disposal were insufficient for the task of fighting in Afghanistan at the level of intensity required even before the surge began, and more or less everyone in a responsible position knew it.

The military equivalent of the green-eyeshade folks knew in in 2004, as Sy Hersh documented way back then, that the diversion of resources to Iraq threatened operations in that first theater of engagement — the one that actually hosted those who did us harm on 9/11, the ones whose presence on the border was disrupting a key ally, which also happened to be a genuinely nuclear armed Muslim-majority state.

They certainly knew in late 2006 that John McCain and the rest of the armchair generals, those daring knights of the keyboard (h/t Ted Williams) who called for winning in Iraq by shoving a brigade here and a battalion there, were talking tactics, and ignoring logistics.

At that moment, Afghanistan was already receiving scant attention. The Taliban and its allies were already resurgent. Pakistan was already spiraling into political turmoil. The war we failed to finish was and is now in danger of being lost — and no professional, no one who understood the hard data of what it takes to keep boots on the ground, had any reason to doubt what would follow a further starving of this campaign to pour more resources down the sump of Iraq.

This isn’t higher math; this is arithmetic.

And what of McCain? He has focused his claim on the Presidency on the assertion that he has more experience than his rival, especially in military matters, which is certainly true. But General Clark raised in public the issue that a lot of folks have wondered about for a long time: what is the impact of that experience on McCain’s judgment and decision-making.

Now, Admiral Mullen has given us the sadly obvious answer: not much good. It helps to be able to count.

Thinking Like a Scientist: Surge/John McCain edition

June 11, 2008

How do scientists think?  Lots of ways, of course, as any human being does, drawing on intuition, visual reasoning, leaps of analogy, hard, slogging calculation, day dreaming…anything that works.

But what distinguishes scientific habits of mind from the everyday interpretation of experience is that there are certain rules scientists learn to follow to transform initial ideas into reliable conclusions.  Among them is the notion of a metric, a standard of measurement that you can use to compare one state of a system with another.  Absent some reliable set of measuring sticks it is impossible to draw more than impression, a feeling out of any observation.  Instead of data, you have anecdotes, and the dangerous license to draw any lesson you want from that absence of solid information.

All of which leads to today’s back-and-forth on the campaign trail.

Much has been made around both the campaigns and the blogosphere about John McCain’s Today interview in which he said that the timing of US troops homecoming from Iraq was “not too important.

The furor has mostly raged around the question of what exactly McCain meant by that eye-popping remark.  But I think that the more important claim McCain made has been missed, and it is, IMHO, the key both to his campaign and to one of the most significant problems with the idea of a McCain presidency.

Just before the “not too important” line, McCain repeated what’s becoming common “wisdom,” that the surge is working.  In his words, he said “anyone who knows the facts on the ground says that” [the surge is working].

In order for McCain to have any hope of winning the presidency, that has to be true — there have to be “facts” throughout the hard ground of Iraq that tell us the surge has been and continues to be effective.

But the phrase “the surge is working” is meaningless without a metric.  Working how?  By what standard?  What does it mean to “work” in the context not just of the facts on the ground, but intended goals of the policy, the baseline metrics established before the surge took place?

In fact, McCain is or ought to be aware that the surge has not worked by those original metrics.

There were two established at the beginning of the policy:  to create a security environment in which normal life could resume;  and with that cessation of violence, to create a  window of opportunity during which the incumbent Maliki government could achieve the political reconciliation that would ensure that improvements in security would outlive the surge.

Of those two, the first, the military goal of quelling violence, was instrumental; the second, more fundamental one of establishing a stable polity, was the essential, ultimate purpose of the surge.

So far, only the military one has been partially achieved; the political one, the one that actually counts, remains a mess — perhaps growing yet worse as the Maliki government’s army has confronted the Sadrist’s political and armed power bases in what has at times verged on a full internecine civil war.

The only way to say that the surge is working as established fact is to ignore the more important of the two metrics and to give the best possible gloss on the ongoing violence in Iraq.

Now — none of this matters in the first order politics of McCain’s statement.  He’s trying to say that a policy he has championed is the right one, and at the same time to make the barely coded claim that his opponent who has yet to visit a Baghdad marketplace in the usual kind of street clothes one wears to go shopping, doesn’t know what’s going on.  All that is going to get lost anyway in the back and forth on the homecoming gaffe.  (I know — Josh Marshall argues that this wasn’t a gaffe, and he’s right.)

But one of the features of an endless campaign is that over time you get a sense of how the candidates competing for the job actually think — how their minds work.

Here McCain is losing the long war. One of the most basic tasks of a leader is to set goals and then recognize whether or not the actions taken to achieve such ends have done so.  You have to set your metrics and pay attention to the data as they are, not as you wish them to be.

If, however, you choose to shift the goalposts so that any outcome is a success — you may have a smile on your face, but you don’t become a president worth having.

PS:  Shame on the Today interviewer who uncritically put to Senator McCain the unqualified claim that the surge is working.

Image:  Ford Maddox Brown “The Proclamation Regarding Weights and Measures 1566 A. D.” Source:  Wikimedia Commons.