The Soft Malice of Low Strategic IQ

This Douglas A. Ollivant discussion on his recent paper revisiting the 2007-2008 Iraq SURGE!!!!! reminded me of Hanlon’s razor:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

The linked Wikipedia entry on Hanlon’s razor also offers this Bernard Ingram variant: cock-up before conspiracy. The extended version of “cock-up before conspiracy” is:

Many journalists have fallen for the conspiracy theory of government. I do assure you that they would produce more accurate work if they adhered to the cock-up theory.

The conduct and legacy of the Iraq War has been plagued by rampant conspiracy theories and theorizing. Creating conspiracy theories is a well-worn page from the political playbook: Black Legends are a time-tested method for scoring influence points against political opposition. It may divide enemies and unify friends of a political position. The appearance of such theories about the start, course, and end of the Iraq War was both normal and inevitable.

While an idea may be nonsense, actions driven by glassy-eyed true believers in that idea are not. It is through the actions they inspire that ideas have consequences. Ollivant mentions one example of nonsense that played a largely unheralded role in extending the Iraq War, nonsense that the SURGE!!!!! played a large part in correcting:

Saddam Hussein’s regime had convinced Iraq’s Sunni Arabs that they constituted a majority of Iraq’s population.

Since military strategy is a process of exhaustion through attrition, the Sunni Arabs took an informal head count and made the strategic calculation that they could trade body counts with Iraq’s Shia Arabs and Sunni Kurds and still come out on top because Allah would march with their big battalions.

They were wrong. They were stupid. They made a cock-up.

Ollivant observes that war is an effective teacher. The reality or prospect of death, dismemberment, and devastation has an unparalleled efficiency in focusing the human mind on truth, dispelling illusion, and correcting low strategic IQ. The German physicist Max Planck remarked:

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.

Reinforcing Ollivant, Planck could be paraphrased:

In war, a new political truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because it eventually kills off its opponents, leaving a new generation of survivors that can live with it.

At great cost, the hard hand of war taught Iraq’s Sunni Arabs the truth: they were a minority of Iraq’s population. More importantly, it taught them that, since they’d kept on acting like a majority, they’d become a rapidly shrinking minority . The final consequence of this shrinkage was made clear: if Sunni Arabs kept acting like a majority, they’d quickly become a non-existent minority.

Here was the hard truth of demography as destiny: to exercise the tyranny of the majority, you actually need to be a majority.

The lesson plan that finally taught this truth was a joint Iraqi-Coalition effort. Formal instruction of Iraqi Sunni Arabs by formal slaughter inflicted by official Iraqi and Coalition forces was matched by informal tutelage by informal slaughter inflicted by unofficial and quasi-official Shiite Arab and Sunni Kurd killing squads. Death by death, body by body, funeral by funeral, the lesson was driven home.

The mere fact of removing a student from the student body by removing the student’s body is part of a political education that includes war. A quote misattributed to Josef Stalin has a certain truth to it:

Death solves all problems — no man, no problem.

However, the lasting pedagogical impact of a body count is on the witnesses and survivors of war’s casualties. It is here, Ollivant argues, that purists who argue that slaughter unaccompanied by politics was responsible for the success of the SURGE!!!!! are too extreme. Unless you are creating howling wasteland and calling it peace by killing everyone and letting Allah sort it out, the role of the political narrator in explaining the implications of enemy deaths to the enemy is key.

In Iraq, this role was performed by Iraqi and American instructors of the Sunni Arabs. A pure warrior like Col. Douglas Macgregor (U.S. Army-retired) of the Clan Macgregor can sneer at David Petraeus as a political soldier whose adeptness at pleasing his superiors as he climbed the greasy pole was more responsible for his ascent through the ranks than his military chops. Macgregor’s sneer may even be true.

Ollivant himself makes some effort to dispel the popular notion that Petraeus descended from on high, commanded “Let there be strategic light”, and the war was won. However, as Ollivant points out, irrespective of whether Petraeus showed up just in time to take a victory lap, the very political acuity that Macgregor damns was key to the SURGE!!!!!’s final resolution. Petraeus and supreme Arabist Ryan Crocker marched in lockstep, presenting a single unified political-military-diplomatic front towards the Iraqis. They flexibly worked the Iraqi political scene in pursuit of American political objectives. True strategic acumen, even and especially in war, optimally mixes both killing and politicking in one contiguous strategic package.

Ultimately, Ollivant argues, it was Iraqi on Iraqi political intercourse, whether conducted with debate, car bomb, backroom dealing, or bullet, that determined the outcome of the SURGE!!!!!. Ollivant sometimes pushes this point too far and veers close to making another common mistake of Iraq War historiography: Americans were just a “potted plant” during the SURGE!!!!!. The outcome of the SURGE!!!!! was a continuation of Iraqi political dialog with the addition of other, sometimes violent, American pressure. The presence of Uncle Sugar as the strongest tribe took the intrinsic potential for a Shiite Arab-Sunni Kurd tyranny of the majority and made it real. Through sword, tongue, bullet, and pen, the lesson was taught. Through sword, tongue, bullet, and pen, the lesson was learned.

For now.

[Cross-posted on The Committee of Public Safety]

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About Joseph Fouche

L. C. Rees carefully selected the nom de guerre "Joseph Fouche" to profoundly irritate unnaturally rampant pro-Buonopartist sentiment at Skyline High School, Millcreek, Salt Lake, Utah, United States. The Corsican Ogre once claimed that he would have remained "Emperor of the French" if he'd had two men shot: Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord and Joseph Fouche. SInce Rees bears no resemblance to a club-footed defrocked bishop, Joseph Fouche it was.

2 thoughts on “The Soft Malice of Low Strategic IQ

  1. Pingback: Cutting the Knot « Slouching Towards Columbia

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