Bush's March to the (Mediterranean) Sea

Last week, the Iraq Study Group told the President and the nation that we need to prepare for retreat from Iraq. In their numerous recommendations, there are none that are directed towards actually winning the present conflict, and the mainstream media has done a yeoman's job of convincing the American public that the war in unwinnable. It seems clear from comments made by policymakers of all stripes in recent days that a retreat from Iraq is inevitable.

This retreat, of course, plays right into the hands of the very terrorists we went to Iraq and Afghanistan to defeat. Furthermore, it strengthens the hand of our avowed enemies in the Middle East (the list too numerous to mention here). If the Iraq Study Group's recommendations are implemented and their cut-and-run plans are followed, when the terrorists are in control of Iraq and our standing in the Middle East reduced to nil, the long-term consequences will prove disastrous.

Permit me, if you will, to make a completely out-of-Left-field suggestion, one I doubt will ever be entertained inside the Beltway, will quickly be the laughingstock of military planners at the Pentagon, and will certainly be anathema to the Manhattan media establishment and the Democratic congressional majority. I would like to suggest that there is a way for us to leave Iraq honorably, take back the offensive in the War on Terror, and weaken our enemies such that it will take more than a decade for them to recover. If our leaving Iraq is inevitable, why not make our departure to the west through Damascus and Beirut - taking out the military supporting the terror-sponsoring Assad regime and cutting the military hardware supply line to Hezb'allah along the way?

My inspiration for this suggestion is taken from a page right out of American military history. The model I have in mind is from the Civil War, but the genius I would appeal to in support of "Bush's March to the Sea" through Syria and Lebanon is not William Tecumseh Sherman; instead, I am thinking of Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson.

Bevin Alexander in his book, How Great Generals Win, spends an entire chapter (Chapter 4) discussing how Stonewall Jackson conducted his masterful Shenandoah Valley campaign of 1862, maneuvering through Virginia for an entire summer with a small and mobile force, which prevented two larger Federal armies under Fremont and Banks from joining McClellan in the siege of Richmond, where the bulk of both the Federal and Confederate forces were locked in battle. (Another of Alexander's books, Lost Victories: The Military Genius of Stonewall Jackson, is also well worth the read.) Had either of those Federal forces quit chasing Jackson and been joined with the main body at Richmond, the Confederacy's prospects would have quickly evaporated and the Civil War been over much sooner.

But Jackson's positioning that summer was part of a larger strategy - a strategy that would have unquestionably won the war for the South. Rather than taking on the brunt of the Federal forces, Jackson proposed a push north across the Potomac River and attack a virtually undefended Washington DC and further north and east into Pennsylvania and Maryland. This brilliant strategy was intended to use his present military advantage to take the battle to his enemy. On June 13, 1862, Jackson sent a member of his staff to Richmond to meet with Confederate President Jefferson Davis and General Robert E. Lee to present his plan and request for the necessary men to conduct this bold push into the North. But as Alexander explains, Jackson's audacious plan was beyond their vision:

Neither Lee nor Davis understood the strategic opportunity that McClellan had presented when he placed his army east of Richmond where it could not block the North from invasion. They were obsessed with defeating the North's main army and were unwilling to look at Jackson's wholly different strategy: striking at the North's will to win.

In June of 1862 in Richmond, the Confederate leadership was blinded by present realities and trapped by a style of warfare that was only useful in the past. At the end of 2006 in Iraq, American military forces - who have performed spectacularly and heroically in the mission that we have assigned them to - have been prevented from winning the present conflict due to the lack of vision by our nation's leaders and policymakers in Washington, who are haunted by a half-century of American failure in Korea, Vietnam, and Somalia (in addition to the aborted victory in the Gulf War). All of these losses must be credited to our political leaders, not the military. Time and again, the American military have been placed in harm's way engaged in wars that American politicians and diplomats have never allowed them to win, proving right George Santayana's warning that those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.

Perhaps the biggest military obstacle we face in Iraq is the fact that our military has not equipped to fight the war they have been placed into - an unpredictable insurgency supported by several nation-state and terrorist actors in an area where they have many natural advantages. Despite that, our armed forces have performed and adapted to the constantly changing situation on the ground with remarkable skill, determination, creativity and bravery. What the American military has proved is that whenever they have faced the enemy head-on (Operation Phantom Fury in Fallujah and the operations since this summer in Ramadi are good examples) they win. It is fair to say that when our armed forces are allowed to fight from their strengths on their own terms, victory has been decisive.

Prior to 9/11, the leadership of al-Qaeda was convinced that if we were drawn into a direct military confrontation with the Taliban and the al-Qaeda "mujahedeen" in Afghanistan in a style reminiscent of their victory against the Soviets more than a decade previous, they would beat the American superpower as decisively as they had defeated the Soviet one. Ninety days after 9/11, however, it was proven in dramatic fashion that they were wrong. Al-Qaeda's chief strategist, Abu Musab al-Suri, was enraged when he heard about the 9/11 attacks, because he knew that al-Qaeda had engaged in a war they could not win. He knew that the very element that secured victory for the mujahedeen against the Soviets - that the Soviets were not able to secure air supremacy due to American Stinger missiles - would not be true in a battle with the Americans. Fortunately for us, he was right.

The Rush to Baghdad in 2003 proved again that when the America military was allowed to fight playing to their strengths and on their own terms, our opponents were utterly outmatched. In a few weeks, we took on the largest army in the Middle East, and in the face of overwhelming American power, the smarter among the Iraqi forces simply dissolved into the population; those slightly less intelligent that tried to take on our military were quickly engaged and dispatched with stunning and decisive speed.

In both the 2001 Push to Kabul and the 2003 Rush to Baghdad, our enemies were simply overwhelmed and vastly outmatched by the American military. Such would be true with any army in the Middle East, save one - Israel. The paper armies of the Arab world are no match for American might. And the past has shown that swift and spectacular victories against the Arab armies (e.g. the Six Day War) can paralyze the forces of aggression in the Middle East and can actually lead to peace in the region (e.g. the Camp David Accords).

The Iraq Study Group has recommended that we engage the other powers in the region, namely Syria and Iran. Well, how about we engage the Syrians with several US Army and Marine divisions? The Baathist regime in Damascus would undoubtedly soil their trousers at such a sight. If President Bush is truly serious about taking out the dictatorships in the region, why don't we go after the only remaining Baathist regime? And the simple truth is that we wouldn't have to stay in Syria for any length of time, and there would certainly be no need to chase Bashar Assad around the Syrian countryside like we did Saddam Hussein. These Middle East dictatorships exist solely on the presence of their armies to subdue their people; once the Syrian army and air force is dispatched, let the Syrians sort their political situation out themselves. Any subsequent regime that would arise, even an Islamist one, would be severely weakened for the foreseeable future without a military.

Then we could keep rolling into Lebanon, where we have a blood debt to settle with Hezb'allah (recall the 1983 suicide bombings of the US Marine barracks and the US Embassy in Beirut). Having severed the Syrian and Iranian military hardware pipeline into Lebanon, a joint assault against Hezb'allah by the Americans from the east and the Israelis from the south could squeeze the life out of the terrorist organization, perhaps permanently. And as our troops loaded up in the port of Beirut to return home, we can pass along to Israel the Iraq Study Group's recommendation for them to engage Iran as they see fit.

Admittedly, the scenario I've just painted for Bush's Great American March to the Mediterranean Sea is laughably naïve and fraught with all kinds of logistical problems and diplomatic consequences. But the simple fact of the matter is that biggest obstacle to pulling such an operation off is the will of our leaders to do it. Not only could the American military win such an operation, but they would win decisively on both counts. Such a plan plays to the strengths of our military. And the eviction of the Baathist regime in Syria and placing a stranglehold on Hezb'allah in Lebanon would undeniably be in the long-term interests of the United States in the region. It is a reasonable to assume that Jordan and Turkey would not be eager to throw their lot with the Syrians, and no other power in the Middle East would be in a position to stop us if we chose to do so.

Reasonable critics, however, I'm sure would contend that this suggested plan doesn't account for the terrorists in Iraq. But a March to the Sea plan would place the Sunni terrorists in Iraq on the horns of a dilemma: they would either have to stay in central Iraq to fight the Sunni-Shi'a civil war that is certain to follow our departure and let us go our way; or, they will have to confront us in a type of warfare that we have consistently won. In the Iraqi and Syrian desert, there really isn't any opportunity to inflict damage on our military with their preferred weapon of choice - the IED; and in the event that they are able to cobble together small forces to fight along the way, we've already shown that we can clean them up in short order. The likelihood is that faced with the option of fighting a terrorist campaign against the Shi'a in an Iraqi civil war using the exact same methods they have successfully used for three years, versus direct military confrontation with US forces, which they have invariably lost at every opportunity, odds are they will stay put and fight the battle that they can win on their own terms rather than facing certain martyrdom by fighting on our terms.

The recommendations of the Iraq Study Group are said to be shift towards realism in our foreign policy. With that in mind, let me offer some realism of my own:

  • The strength of our armed forces is not in long, drawn-out slugfests with local insurgencies. Since Vietnam, military planners and politicians who fund weapons programs have made sure of that, and this will not change anytime soon. The Powell Doctrine of exercising American military power using overwhelming force in quick, decisive fashion is what our military is best suited for and it does so with staggering ability and lethality. It is not an exaggeration to say that on the battlefield, there is not another military in the world that can stand toe-to-toe with the US Armed Forces. It is our staying power and our will to win at the slightest hint of loss (perceived or real) that is our greatest weakness.
  • Let's admit that we really have no ability to determine the political outcomes in any of these countries in the Middle East, and forsake the Clintonian peacekeeping and nation-building model. Many of the areas where we engage our military forces in the decades to come are going to be regions where Western-style democracy is impossible to cultivate. These cultures do not have the history, the ideology, or the existing social institutions sufficient to support anything remotely close to what we know as democracy. We can place our bets and give our support to those who are closest to promoting our interests just like every other country does. In many cases, there is not much we can do to improve the situation. So be it.
  • Let's stop all the hand-wringing over a civil war in Iraq. The only reason Americans care about a civil war is if our military gets caught in the middle of it and more Americans are killed. Once we are out of Iraq, very few Americans are going to lose sleep over a Sunni-Shi'a civil war. The hard reality is that such a civil war is in our best national interests, not unlike the Iran-Iraq War was in the 1980s. Such a conflict keeps Iran occupied and depletes their energies and resources.
  • Forget what the mainstream media tells you: Americans are not war-weary, they are tired of losing. Faced with inevitable defeat, we would much rather get it over sooner, rather than later, and with the lowest possible casualties. But Americans love winners. Winning a couple of conflicts (such as in Syria and Lebanon) would go a long way to restoring American confidence at a time when the need for projecting our power abroad is at its greatest. Losing another conflict will further damage the American will, making our national response weak and tepid when we must unwaveringly demonstrate our global strength, not just for ourselves, but also for our allies, some of whom are facing even greater terrorist threats than we are.
  • The American public follows leadership. As we saw in the elections last month, the American electorate grew tired of Republicans in Congress who were more concerned about holding on to the privileges of power than leading the country. For better or worse, the American people want someone with a hand on the wheel. Faced with no other alternatives but an emasculated, scandal-ridden, do-nothing GOP and a liberal Democratic Party masquerading behind unknown centrist candidates, voters went with the latter. Who can blame them? But honestly, if "none of the above" were on the ballot, that option would have overwhelmingly won. With the elections, American's were not saying that they were ready to lose; they were looking for someone to lead. People follow leadership. The mainstream media will be forever beating the drums of defeat even as victory is near (anyone remember the "quagmire" the media bemoaned in Afghanistan just days before the Taliban fell?), so what is said in the New York Times or on the CBS Evening News really shouldn't be a consideration about how we choose to leave Iraq. Our civilian military leaders, from the Command-in-Chief on down, need to remember what the War on Terror is really about even in the face of a hostile Democratic Congress and a ceaselessly critical mainstream media.
Losing in Iraq will vindicate and embolden the terrorists, much like our loss in Somalia. It is hard to overstate the increased danger to Americans and our allies worldwide if we fail to win. The situation in Iraq is difficult, but certainly we can exit on a much better terms than what is possible based on the Iraq Study Group's recommendations.

My proposed "March to the Sea" plan of removing American forces from Iraq by taking out the terrorist-sponsoring regime in Damascus and pushing through to help Israel dismantle Hezb'allah's terrorist infrastructure in Lebanon is probably nothing more than the fantasies of an amateur that will assuredly be greeted with howls of laughter by those who know better. Rightly so.

But if someone out there has some bold and audacious ideas how to win in light of our present situation in Iraq, from the anemic response the Iraq Study Group recommendations for full-scale retreat are receiving, there is little doubt that America would be glad to hear some alternatives. The fact is that we have troops in place in the Middle East that can inflict serious damage on just about any military target we would choose to engage; we may not have this strategic advantage ever again to the degree we do so now. We need a plan to take the battle back to our enemies and attack their will to win and fight.

Much like the Confederacy in 1862, America needs a plan that is based on winning the war in the future, rather than trying to avoid the military failures of the past. A change of vision for Iraq is clearly needed, but our leaders need to focus on what we must do to allow our military to win the War on Terror, not debate the easiest way for politicians to lose it. Just like the audacious strategy proposed by Stonewall Jackson, what we need is to harness the creative and lethal genius of the collective American military mind. It is out there somewhere.
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