Max Boot Interview (2006): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
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The Bush administration put its sights on Iraq, which also comes into play here. Let's talk a little about Iraq. The military victory -- the first phase, so to speak -- went well, but then things unraveled. Talk a little about the lessons of your book with regard to what has gone wrong in Iraq.
Iraq in some ways was a testing ground for these theories of military transformation that were in vogue around four or five years ago, the theories that Don Rumsfeld and company came into office with. The basic idea that Rumsfeld had was that you could do more with less. In the way that banks get rid of human tellers and put ATM machines in, so too the military could get rid of soldiers and do more with technology. That's not a completely crazy idea; it is the case that you can do more with less in a conventional engagement. We didn't need a lot of troops to go to Baghdad. It takes very few American soldiers to defeat the Republican Guard in Saddam Hussein's army. With all this amazing precision firepower we have on call, we can do it very easily and very cheaply.
The problem occurs once you get to Baghdad. You can take Baghdad with 120,000 troops, that's not a problem. The problem is you can't hold a country of 25 million people with 120,000 troops. You've got to have boots on the ground. And we didn't have boots on the ground and we compounded that problem by dissolving the Iraqi army. If we weren't going to send a lot of troops we had to depend upon the Iraqis, but then we couldn't depend upon them because we dissolved them. And so, utter chaos broke out and we weren't ready to handle the situation, because we didn't have enough boots, and also because we hadn't done the planning for postwar Iraq. I think part of the reason we hadn't done the planning -- obviously there was tremendous stupidity on the part of the administration, but it goes deeper than that, because we didn't have the structures to plan for something like postwar Iraq. We have excellent structures for planning campaigns, but not for what comes next.
When they were starting to think about what do you do after the fall of Baghdad they created a new agency called the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance. They created it two months before the invasion began. Now I don't care who's running an office like that, it could be Superman, you're not going to be effective two months ahead of time. It takes years to plan to run a country the size of Iraq, and we don't have the organizational structure to do that planning, so everything was a haphazard, last minute type of thing. Whereas that last minute, freewheeling atmosphere paid off in Afghanistan, this was a much more formidable undertaking to get the structure to run a country. We've paid a huge price for that in the years since.
As I was preparing for this interview I went back and looked at my first interview with you. We were talking there about the "savage wars" that America had fought. It struck me that in your critique of the Vietnam War, which you just talked about, the fallacy was in fighting and preparing for the last war, namely World War II. There is almost a sense, as I listen to you and think about what has happened, that the fallacy here was that we weren't ready to fight the future war, which we thought we could win in that way and achieve victory. So, it's sort of been reversed but equal failures in some sense.
Right. In some ways you could say that the failure in Iraq grew out of the success in Afghanistan, because everybody was entranced in the fall of 2001 to see the fact that you could put a few hundred special forces operatives in this country and they could achieve success very rapidly. There was a sense that you could have similar success in Iraq, and in some ways we did. In terms of taking down the Saddam Hussein regime, we were able to do that very quickly and much more easily than a lot of people expected, but then you get into the more difficult nation-building stage, and in both Afghanistan and in Iraq that's proven to be a real challenge. That's proven to be our Achilles' heel. That's where we're weak and vulnerable, whereas we seem omnipotent when it comes to conventional military operations.
The other war that one should speak briefly about is the recent war in Lebanon between Israel and Hizbollah, because it would seem that that war offers some of the same lessons that you're deriving from your book: a set of plans that were irrelevant for the way the adversary was prepared to fight, adapting cell phones, new kinds of plans, new technologies, with a very limited force that was very ideologically motivated.
I was struck by a lot of those lessons in Israel this summer when I visited during the war and saw that they were grappling with very many of the same issues that the U.S. military is grappling with. The way that the Israelis tried to fight in Lebanon very much reminded me of the way we've tried to fight in places like Bosnia and Kosovo, which is to rely on air power to minimize our own casualties and to inflict damage on the enemy. But Hizbollah was clever enough to neutralize a lot of that through the simple expedient of locating their rockets in civilian neighborhoods, which makes it very hard for the Israelis to bomb, and when they do bomb it always causes collateral damage. And Hizbollah was very effective at playing the information war, at putting dead babies on TV and saying, look, this is what Israel has done.
Israel didn't have a good counter to that. This is a huge part of any campaign that we face today, this media war that has to be waged, has to be won, but Western powers are often not the most effective at it. In fact, if you look at the disparity between Israel and Hizbollah, Hizbollah is not even a state and yet they have their own satellite TV network, al Manar. Israel doesn't have a satellite network, and this is a huge disparity where these Hizbollah guys are much more effective at the spin game than the Israelis are. They're also better armed than traditional guerillas or terrorists are. They're kind of a terrorist army because they don't have a formal army structure, but they're very well trained, they have effective anti-tank weapons, anti-ship weapons, many of them created by the Chinese or Russians, using information technology which negates some of the advantage that Israel has with its traditional weapons systems, like the tanks.
So, Hizbollah was very effective in integrating all these different kinds of ways of war to negate some of the advantages of the Israelis with their much more formidable conventional military.
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