The best laid plans of mice and men

I consider myself a very amateur military historian and theoretician. I’ve picked up a few pieces of wisdom and lore here and there, and like to believe I’ve learned how to apply them on occasion.

One of the lessons I’ve learned is that “no plan ever survives first contact with the enemy.” There is no such thing as a perfect plan; the key to success is to come up with a good plan, one that has has a pretty good chance of succeeding, but leaving enough flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances.

The Bush administration’s plan for defeating Iraq was a good plan. It was designed to defeat Iraq’s military in a minimal time and with minimal Allied and civilian casualties. And even before it was started, it had problems.

That plan called for a pincer movement, with forces moving in from the north and south. But at the last minute Turkey said no, and on the day of the invasion roughly half our forces were on board ships sailing around Africa to get to the fighting.

It didn’t matter much. We compensated, we adjusted, we adapted, and Saddam Hussein’s government still fell.

Then came the occupation and rebuilding phase.

What many people overlook about this is that we are attempting something unique and unprecedented in world history. We are attempting to build a functional democracy in a nation and culture that has no history in such things. Moreover, we are attempting to do it after defeating that nation in war.

More amazingly, we are doing it not after utterly destroying the nation (as we did with Germany and Japan), but after a careful decapitation of the pre-existing tyranny. We did minimal damage to the infrastructure, the political systems, the social systems, all the mechanisms that were accustomed to propping up the dictatorship for decades. This is not only unprecedented, but until recently was virtually undreamed of.

Tremendous progress has been seen, as well as tremendous setbacks. Overall, I’d say things are going all right — but not great.

Critics of this observation would say that I am blinding myself to the staunch resistance to our plans. Not at all; it is that staunch resistance that has kept things from going better, and leave the final resolution in doubt.

Many of the critics of the Bush administration’s handling of the war decry the lack of a solid plan for victory. They want timetables, they want measurable, quantifiable progress, they want commitments.

That, in my consideration, is precisely the wrong thing.

Plans are transient things. They are fluid. They cannot become fixed in stone, or they will fail.

What are needed are clearly defined goals, accompanied by flexible plans towards achieving them. And the failure of a plan is not the failure towards the goal.

To use a sports metaphor, every team has the same goal: to win the game. The ways of achieving that goal is simple: to score points while preventing the opposing team from scoring. But a team that goes out with a rigid plan is begging to be defeated.

And that is another key point: there is another team out there. More accurately, several other teams, all looking to keep us from reaching our goal.

Should we then go out with our plans carefully spelled out? Should we tell them each step we intend to take towards our victory? Should we help them figure out just how we shall measure progress, and in doing so tell them how they can shape our perceptions of how the struggle goes?

There are many paths to our goal, and each path has its milestones. Our enemies’ resources are limited. If we outline the specific path we will take, which milestones we shall use to measure our progress, then they can focus their efforts on denying us those milestones.

Should we say we will leave by the end of, say, 2007? Then they know they only have to hang on until we leave, then they can claim victory. Should we say we will draw down our numbers on a certain schedule? Then they know they can focus on the Iraqi forces who will take up our duties, weakening them and diminishing their ability to stand on their own. Should we say that once a certain number of American soldiers are killed, we will withdraw? Then they simply have to ratchet up their attacks and watch CNN to measure their progress.

The temptation to demand solid plans, concrete commitments, and definite timelines is understandable. War is a hideous thing, and no one in their right mind wants it to continue an instant longer than necessary. But to insist on such things is to invite defeat.

Reading Michael Barone And Soaking Up IQ Points
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