The Folly of Maximalist Objectives

As Clausewitz wrote, the goals or objectives of states at war tend to change over time. In 18th Century cabinet wars, princes who were losing wisely reduced their objectives to what was attainable, while those who were winning were usually sufficiently prudent not to want too much. Wise statesmen such as Prince Bismarck kept their governments’ objectives in check even during successful wars in the 19th Century.

But the advent of total wars between peoples, first in the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon and then the World Wars of the 20th Century, let loose the folly of maximalist objectives. Worse, leaders and states that were losing tended to inflate rather than trim their objectives, largely as sops to public opinion. This led to ruinous wars and equally ruinous peace treaties. As Napoleon’s fortunes waned, he was repeatedly offered relatively generous peace terms by the Allies, all of which he rejected, hoping a last throw of the iron dice would recoup his losses. As World War I dragged on, both sides’ war objectives expanded, preventing the compromise, reconstructive peace Europe needed and ending in the catastrophic Diktat of Versailles. The ultimate extension of maximalist objectives, the Allies’ demand for unconditional surrender in World War II, turned half of Europe over to Communism for half a century.

Now, it seems, the Bush Administration insists on extending the folly of maximalist objectives from total war into cabinet wars, and moreover into cabinet wars it is losing (or more accurately has lost). In public, it blathers on about democracy for Iraq, a war objective that reaches beyond maximalism into pure fantasy. In private, its real objectives, unchanged since long before the war began, are no less disconnected from reality. It seeks an Iraq that is a willing American satellite, a bottomless source of oil for America’s SUVs, a permanent site for vast U.S. military bases from which Washington can dominate the region, and an ally of Israel. The skies will be darkened by winged swine long before any of these objectives are attained.

At this point, for those who want to continue the Iraq war, only one objective makes any sense: restoring a state in Iraq before we leave, or more likely as we leave. A state, any kind of state, under any government; to try to specify anything more is, in the face of our military failure, maximalism and unreality.

The likelihood, unfortunately, is that no one can restore a state in Iraq. If anyone can, it is probably Muqtada al-Sadr. According to the May 26 Birmingham (Alabama) News (I spent the Memorial Day weekend in the Confederacy; whatever its failings, it never learned to cook as badly as Yankees can),

The influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr publicly emerged Friday for the first time in months, calling for U.S. forces to leave Iraq and vowing to defend Sunnis and Christians. His appearance, and remarks, seemed part of an ongoing tactical shift by al-Sadr to recast himself as a nationalist who can unify and lead a post-occupation Iraq.

This is less of a shift than it might seem. Al-Sadr has maintained communications, and perhaps more, with some Sunni resistance groups all along. I suspect he has had his eye on the brass ring, namely all of Iraq, from the beginning. He knows what the idiots in Washington seem not to know, namely that only a leader who has opposed the occupation and America can hope to have sufficient legitimacy to restore an Iraqi state.

What all this means, in concrete terms, is that America should facilitate al-Sadr’s rise to national power. That does not mean embracing him; to do so would be to destroy his legitimacy. Nor is he fool enough to accept any such embrace. Rather, it means staying out of his way, avoiding fights with his Mahdi Army, selectively picking off challengers to him within his own movement (which in fact we may be doing, wittingly or not), and letting our hopeless, worthless puppet government in Baghdad’s Green Zone fall into history’s wastebasket when the time is right.

None of this will ensure al-Sadr can restore a state in Iraq. Again, the odds are that no one can. But he seems to be the last, best hope.

The White House, of course, will accept none of this. Bush’s maximalism is part and parcel of his defining break with reality. But our commanders on scene, Admiral Fallon and General Petraeus, may see it. If they do, they have a moral responsibility to act on it, the White House be damned. At this point in a lost game, we must take whatever route might, just might, lead to restoring an Iraqi state. The alternative, a stateless Iraq, will represent such a vast victory for Islamic Fourth Generation forces that any real Iraqi government, however unfriendly to the United States, is infinitely preferable.

If the folly of maximalist objectives instead remains our guide, we will know soon enough. The U.S. will go to war with the Mahdi Army, do a Fallujah on Sadr City (for which the U.S. military has already drawn up plans) and try to capture or kill al-Sadr himself. At that point the war in Iraq will effectively have no strategic objective at all, beyond being a gift beyond price to old Osama.

WILLIAM S. LIND, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.



WILLIAM S. LIND, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.