Iraq’s Total Collapse?

Alex Knapp takes issue with Matthew Yglesias‘ throw-away line about “the near-total collapse of our political and military position in Iraq,” noting that it’s just too early to make that judgment. Jeff Goldstein weighs in with a suggestion for Matt that borders on the ad hominem but sounds like fun.

While I basically agree with Alex on this issue, Matt could turn out right. A commenter on my earlier post on the military and media made the argument that all the talk of our getting “beaten in Fallujah” or that we’re “losing the war” doesn’t comport with what people “on the ground” see happening. That’s quite possibly true, but almost certainly irrelevant.

We must distinguish betwen the strategic and tactical levels. At the tactical level, remember, the U.S. never lost a battle in Vietnam. Even the infamous Tet Offensive was ultimately a huge tactical win. But we lost the war because we lost the media and the public. Since the goal of war is to achieve political objectives, we lost Vietnam even though our soldiers fought well.

There are two ways to defeat an enemy: Break his hostile ability (rendering him too weak to fight back) or break his hostile will (the psychological desire to continue fighting). No forseeable adversary will be able to accomplish the former but the Viet Cong and the Somali warlords accomplished the latter. If things don’t change soon, so will the Iraqi insurgents and their terrorist allies. We’re simply too big, too wealthy, and too skilled to be defeated militarily by anyone on the planet, with the possible exception of a nuclear war with the Russians, but we may be too wealthy, too comfortable, and too short an attention span to sustain popular support for a war that’s taking longer to win than a Lord of the Rings installment.

Already, over half of the country thinks we’re in a lost cause. That can’t sustain itself in a democracy. A whole host of columnists who urged us to fight the war are now calling for some sort of graceful exit or recommending that we lower our sights, settling for a benevolent dictator instead of a democracy for post-occupation Iraq. If President Bush can’t persuade the country that we need to continue to press on, that the goals for which we’re fighting are worth the sacrifices being made (which requires that the goals be perceived as actually achievable, hardly a given) then our hostile will may soon be broken.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Iraq War, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. I’ve been calling folks like Yglesias and his friends on the Left, as well as most of the mainstream press the “Copperhead Fedayeen” for a while now. It is going to be simply sickening if we wind up losing in Iraq because of their efforts back here on the home front.

  2. Brian says:

    How on earth would people writing blogs cause us to lose in Iraq? I should think the blame lies a bit more with the guys who cooked up this whole thing an apparently forgot to do any post-war planning.

  3. Jeff G says:

    It’s not just “people writing on blogs,” Brian. It’s “people writing on word processors” whose columns end up in newspapers, which are distributed widely and read by lots of people, who then form opinions. It’s “people broadcasting on tv and on radio,” etc., that inform the opinions of potential voters — potential voters who are frequently polled, causing politicians to form strategies, which in turn instruct policy, etc.

    Battling disinformation is important, even on a small scale. See this post, for instance.

  4. Mark Noonan says:

    While it is true that if public support for victory collapses that the war will be lost, I don’t see any actual evidence of a loss of public support for the war. Varied polls at the State level show strong support for President Bush, and by extension for the war…meanwhile, the fact of strong enlistments and re-enlistments shows how the war is viewed by the average American.

    Right now, my view is that only if President Bush blinks in the face of a media-inspired call for defeat will we be defeated…President Bush isn’t blinking.

  5. JimR says:


    As is usually the case on this blog, you have brought some refreshing analysis as opposed to rhetorical cant.

    I believe that Iraq is an important campaign in the war against the cultish, terroristic, radical wing of Islam which for over ten years has declared and fought a war against this nation in word and deed.

    I also believe that the Iraq campaign has for the most part been fought imaginatively and well by our magnificent armed forces, from the commanding generals to the reserve buck privates.

    I am worried that not enough attention in the highest levels of the executive and legislative branches is being given to defeating or neutralizing the powerful opinion leaders who (I believe wrongly) oppose this valiant campaign.

    Certainly there are eloquent voices in the blogosphere that are making the case skillfully, fairly and often eloquently (You, Smash, Instapundit, Andrew Sullivan, Belmont Club, Mudville, Boortz,to name a few).

    But where is our Churchill, Roosevelt, Lincoln, Franklin, Tom Paine. In the first Gulf War(which was short, of course),Schwartzkopf and Powell provided this role for a while. — Where is at least one overarching spokesman who can ‘splain all of this in such a way that there will be no more TETs or Mogodishus (sp?).

    GWB, has made some eloquent speeches but “public spokesman” is not his gift.

    I believe Secretary Powell is the man to do it.

    As our chief diplomat, it is his official role, and there have been few better at it in our Nation’s history when he has his mind on it. The question is will will GWB ask him and if so, will he do it?

    Short of that, we don’t have our best team on the field, in my opinion. We need to get it there now.

  6. >>>the powerful opinion leaders who (I believe wrongly) oppose this valiant campaign


    Any war that can be lost because a guy like Matthew Yglesias is not on board is a war that didn’t deserve to get started in the first place.

    Vietnam was lost because the US economic program, which involved raising taxes on anybody who owned anything, was more damaging than the communist program.

  7. The Yell says:

    I’m sick of people like Yglesias covering “I won’t” with “American can’t”.

    What’s the deadline we’re up against? That magical point where public opinion polls require we ignore real life successes? The Nov 2 election? That’s still six months away.

  8. Hal says:

    Wow, I guess this really speaks to why you don’t base your war on trumped up evidence and lies from one Ahmed Chalabi and his sock puppet Judith Miller. I guess this is why you should actually listen to all the experts who were saying we needed far more troops on the ground. I guess this is an object lesson for why you should have a plan for the occupation that didn’t rely on Chalabi as the lynch pin. I guess this really speaks to why following the Geneva conventions is a really good idea.

    If people are getting disillusioned James, it’s because of the integrated missteps of the prosecution of this war. Not because the facts are being reported.

    Geesh. Talk about taking responsibility for your actions. Lately, it’s been like listening to a bunch of 12 year olds tell me why they haven’t got good grades over the last year. “It’s those evil liberal bloggers” not their own actions that have led to their bad luck.

    Personally, I think y’all jumped the shark when you started playing semantics with the word “imminent” when it became obvious there wasn’t any such threat. The same thing made Clinton look like a fool, and it made the whole pro-war apologists look like even bigger fools.

  9. jimr says:


    E.G.: Editors of New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, Atlanta J/C, San Francisco Chron, AP, Reuters, NPR, PBS, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN,Time, Newsweek, New Yorker, The Nation. And most of the reporters from each of the above. Columnists like Krugman, Ivins, Scheer, Cartoonists like Rall and Toll, etc.

    And public opinion still supports the Iraq campaign’s aims, and now narrowly supports the campaign. But with this full court press, that cannot last for long.

    Wellbasically, I do not agree with your reading of history on the VN war. Check out General Giap’s most recent analysis. He never mentions taxes. He does mention TET, admits it was a severe tactical loss for the NVA and VC, and candidly acknowleges that its impact on the US homefront was a welcome surprise that turned the war around.

    As a vet who was in RVN during TET, and witnessed our tactical victory first hand, I still remember vividly how astonished and disheartened I was when I returned home in May 1968 and discovered that my non-military friends were sure the war could not be won because of the way TET was portrayed in the press and broadcast media.

    Johnson and staff were unable to turn that around, and it was all downhill from there. For our future, I hope this history does not repeat itself. We’ll see.

  10. Josh Yelon says:

    You guys don’t get what we mean when we say “defeat.”

    If the Iraqi population as a whole decides we’re the enemy, then we’ll have a choice: kill them all, or leave. Sure, we can kill them all if we have to. But to me, that would be defeat, since we set out to liberate them, not kill them all.

    And, we are dangerously close to being handed that choice. Look at the recent poll of Iraqis: 60% support for Sadr!? That’s pretty close to the entire population turning against us.

    So “defeat” means being handed an option: kill everyone or leave.

  11. Hal says:

    I think they’re just going to kill all the liberals and call it a draw.

  12. re jimr,

    I’d say just about all those guys were on the side of the war, and stayed pro-occupation for a long time. If it was really working out, you guys could have kept them on your side. The ones left over like the Nation? They have about as much influence as Matthew Yglesias.

    On the public perception of the war, Josh is right. People just weigh the costs and benefits on their own. I’d say that the people in the armed forces, despite general hostility to the antiwar movement, deep down need the backstop. The public is pretty much disconnected otherwise.

  13. Boyd says:

    That sounds like a worthwhile suggestion, Hal.

    And please, drop the “imminent” nonsense. You guys repeat the lie over and over and over, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a lie. Go back and read the President’s SOU address of 2002. He specifically said that the threat wasn’t imminent, but that we must act before it’s imminent.

    There are valid points to be made on the liberal side, Hal, but you undermine your position when you continue to lie, lie, lie. It’s not true. No matter how many times you lie, it’s still a lie.

    Hussein using WMDs on the U.S. was not imminent, and the President specifically said that such a circumstance wasn’t imminent.

    Do you think you can get that one point straight, Hal? Then you can move on to other points we can debate. But when you lie, no reasonable debate is possible.

  14. JimR says:


    I guess you and I read the news from vastly different perspectives. The occupation has been in effect for a little over a year. I have seen mostly a negative or snide spin from the listed news sources. I simply do not believe an objective analysis supports your claim that those sources were ever “pro occupation”. I would be interested to see some examples from you.

  15. Peter Cook says:

    I know it’s a bitter pill to swallow, but with 30 years hindsight I would hope that it’s clear that Vietnam was “lost” because there wasn’t anywhere near enough popular support for US foreign policy goals among the *Vietnamese* people, not because of how the war was reported by Roger Mudd or Howard K Smith. Yes, the American public eventually (and sensibly) began losing enthusiasm for the war in Vietnam once a critical percentage had suffered a son or a neighbor’s son coming home in a coffin or a wheelchair, and as American society began visibly splitting at the seams in disagreement over the wisdom of “staying the course”. But McNamara and the military on the ground were well aware the entire enterprise was folly by 1967.(see the Fog of War, or Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, etc.)

    We needn’t even bother with considering the wisdom of basing those foreign policy goals in Vietnam on the now discredited “domino theory”, nor is there room here to assess why LBJ and Nixon continued to needlessly wreck havoc in Southeast Asia for the next five years.

    Similarly, and as other’s have noted here, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfewicz etc were informed going in to this mess that A) there was no reliable evidence of WMD in Iraq nor was there was any link between Saddam and fundamentalist Islamic terrorists; B) the war would be *much* more difficult to prosecute and would require a great deal more troops than Bush’s decision makers were counting on; and C) that there was a damn good chance that a non-UN-backed US invasion of Iraq would serve to destabilize the region and fuel support for terrorists.

    These astute but utterly dismissed observations were offered by the likes of Generals Eric Shinseki and Norman Schwarzkopf, as well as veteran experts like David Kay, Brent Scowcroft, etc. Hardly a bunch of “nervous nellies” or liberal nay-sayers, and the ill consequences have turned out to be much worse and far reaching than even they could have predicted.

    Look, I respect real conservatives, but by hitching the wagon to these “never mind the facts” know-nothing neo-cons you guys are headed straight for the cliff. These lying buffoons are making it up as they go along, and in doing so are discrediting everything you supposedly stand for, not to mention undermining the reputation, security, economy, and the welfare of the United States. Why continue to twist yourselves into knots trying to justify this nightmare? If you love your country as much as you profess (and I don’t doubt your sincerity) isn’t it time to start putting the truth ahead of ideology?

  16. Hal says:

    Wow Boyd, glad you’re ripping off the human mask and just letting the tentacles all hang out. Yep, the whole thing is blowing up because of the power of the liberal mind control rays. Our power of lies vastly surpasses your ability to appear human.

  17. Hal says:

    BTW, Peter, that was an excellent comment.

  18. Under the headline “A Case for Action,” the Post editorial said: “Unless unexpected change takes place in Baghdad, the United States should lead a force to remove Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and locate and destroy its chemical and biological weapons and its nuclear program. The Iraqi regime poses a threat not just to the United States but to global order.”

  19. JimR says:


    Score one for the Washington Post. The link, however proves my point about the other “names” I cited.

    My compliments to Peter Cook for taking the time and effort to post a thoughtful counter to the thrust of General Giap’s observations. Historians, analysts and eyewitnesses to history often reach different conclusions after experiencing or reconstructing the same facts.

    I certainly am not advocating following anyone over a cliff. My major premise is that balanced and fair reporting of daily happenings would help us see a bit better through the “fog of war”.

    The Quagmire scenarios portrayed early in Afghanistan and in the march to Baghdad, as well as the tendency to magnify the losses suffered by our troops and minimise their accomplishments have in my view at the very least created the appearance of lack of objectivity on the part of the country’s major media. That this perceived lack of objectivity harms our ability to fight those who inflicted such horrendous casualties on this country seems obvious to me. Where am I going wrong?

  20. capt joe says:

    The war for public opinion does not depend on an overgrown schoolboy like Ygeliates (sic, who cares). It does however depend on a biased press. For example the Globe who chose to publish porn as truth, and then once it realized the error refuse to appologize and instead pretend that they don’t know if the photos are valid or not. This shows a willingness to defeat the whole effort merely because they want to defeat Bush in November. If the enterprise by the press to defeat Bush ends up costing us the WoT, I hope the next plane is aimed directly at those edifices of infamy.

  21. capt joe says:

    To paraphrase Dan Darling who writes excellent analysis, the press has been predicting quagmire since the first troops entered Afghanistan. Like

    For Afghanistan:
    * the terrible winter quagmire
    * the pakistan inflamed quagmire
    * a many years long campaign quagmire

    For Iraq:
    * The looting and anarchy quagmire
    * The rise of Iraqi Khomeinism quagmire
    * The dreaded Iraqi summer quagmire
    * The Ramadan offensive quagmire
    * The sectarian civil war quagmire
    * The Fallujah quagmire
    * The Sadr Revolt quagmire
    * The Abu Gharib

    The US military has met each of these and defeated them tactically. The whole while, the left and its socket puppets (NYT, WaPo, etc) have attempted to describe each success as a failure.


  22. Boyd says:

    Glad to hear you’re finally admitting to your lies, Hal. That’s the first step. Now, let’s see if you can actually avoid telling them.

    And what’s so inhuman about calling a liar a liar, Hal? Only tentacled beings can do that? Or something?

    Nice attempt to deflect valid criticism through ad hominem. See if you can admit to that, too, Hal.

  23. Hal says:

    Ooooooooo You’re so forceful. That wagging finger! I fear it! Please, please, please. Don’t unmask me!


  24. I. Black says:

    Since the U.S. has made such a mess in Iraq, maybe some of the military people can talk to Saddam and see if he would be willing to take over for a few months and restore order in his country. He would be carefully watched, of course, to make sure he didn’t go back to some of his old, cruel methods of control, but it is beginning to look like this may be the only hope for the U.S. to get out of this quagmire a bit gracefully.