In For the Long Haul: Petraeus and the War

The war in Iraq is ugly, ambiguous, and marred with incompetence. It leaves an awkward legacy for our next president. According to Timothy Lynch and Robert Singh, this is nothing unusual for the US, nor for fighting on such terms. More surprising: the policy patterns that led to the war will likely continue this way after Bush steps down.

Timothy Lynch and Robert Singh

The parallels between the ongoing US actions in Iraq since 2003 and US actions in Korea after 1950 were especially apparent at the Senate hearings on Tuesday. In both wars a charismatic general held the attention of the nation and the fate of his president. Indeed, of his future president too. The most important military official serving George W. Bush is Dan Petraeus. Ditto Harry S. Truman and Douglas MacArthur. Each general brought stunning success that was profoundly controversial back home. The wars they waged caused the popularity of their respective commander-in-chief to plummet. Importantly, their wars were not short, sharp, shocks. They entailed a massive military and economic subvention by the United States – at the request of the host government. America has ‘occupied’ South Korea since 1950; its troops are still there. Iraq, we were warned again yesterday, could be at least as long.

For those with sufficient patience, the legacy of Korea for Iraq is a positive one, as is the legacy of the cold war for the war on terror. If America can stand by its allies over the long haul, in a dangerous neighbourhood, in a global war against a diffuse but ideologically committed opponent it will succeed in this venture.

Korea was the first major battle of a much larger war in which the United States ultimately triumphed. It was controversial, ambiguous, scarred by incompetence – political and military – and meant Truman left the White House a defeated and dejected figure. The parallels with Bush hardly need oblique reference. But the strategy began in Korea worked. It turned South Korea into a model market democracy (especially when set against the fate of its northern neighbour) and, with hindsight, represented a central pillar of US cold war strategy.

Iraq is likely to be remembered in similar fashion, even if Bush won’t go down in history as a Truman. It is the opening battle of a much longer war. The consequences of a precipitate withdrawal, as Petraeus warned yesterday and throughout his commission, would be tantamount to ending the cold war early because particular battles within it went badly. America would present itself as a paper tiger. Hurt it badly enough, said Mao, and it will retreat. This was the logic of international communism. It remains strikingly similar to the strategic thinking of jihadists in the current war: if we hurt the Americans, or if we just wait for them to lose patience and resolve, they will run away.

Finally, consider a second analogy. In 1939, Great Britain went to war over Poland. The liberation of that nation from socialism (German national and then Soviet) was not secured for another fifty years. British ‘failure’ to rescue Poland quickly did not invalidate the strategic, let alone moral, imperatives of World War Two. US failure to secure Iraq quickly should be seen in the same light. Playing the long game might not appeal to politicians and a media that demand instance results. Grand strategies, however, require them.

Timothy Lynch is Lecturer in US Foreign Policy, Institute for the Study of the Americas, University of London.

Robert Singh is Professor of Politics, Birbeck College, University of London.

They are authors of After Bush: a Case for Continuity in American Foreign Policy


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