One more big push

With eerie echoes of Generals French and Haig, who couldn’t believe that one more really big push of soldiers into entrenched German machine guns wouldn’t win World War I for the allies – and who left 150,000 dead for five miles of advance at the Somme (for example), a big increase in US troop strength in Iraq is being touted here and there as a way to get out with something better than the across-the-board catastrophe we’ve achieved so far.

Just because it didn’t work for the poor poilus and Tommys doesn’t mean this won’t work in Iraq; certainly trying to do too little with too few has been a big part of the debacle to date. But the idea raises another question: even if a ‘big push’ in Iraq could work, can the current administration actually do it? Implementation incompetence has been the drone note of the last six years: everything these guys touch, they break, and there’s no point trying to build a cathedral – or a doghouse – if you know the job will be managed by someone who’s drunk, untrained, a lunatic ideologue who prefers belief to facts, or just doesn’t care.

It’s not clear, I have to note, what these extra divisions will actually do: is there something to attack with arms? a strong point to seize and occupy? A fortress to invest? Maybe it makes sense, and maybe Truman and MacArthur, or Lincoln and Grant, or Bismarck and Von Moltke, could pull this trick off. But we have Rumsfeld to thank for the insight that you go to war, or make your big push, with the administration you have, not the one you wish you had. I think an enterprise like “straightening out Iraq with one short commitment of lots more troops” is completely beyond the competence of the people who will run it, from the president down at least several levels into Rumsfeld’s defense department, and maybe into the star ranks that remain after his housecleaning of generals who said what was true. Mark makes a larger claim about national security generally, with which I concur; pending further evidence, my call is that this is a very bad bet.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

7 thoughts on “One more big push”

  1. "It's not clear, I have to note, what these extra divisions will actually do…"
    That's pretty much the point isn't it? The fact that the troop boost number preceded any mention of a plan says it all. It's magical thinking–like stepping on the gas harder when youre stuck in the mud.

  2. Perhaps this is a point that should be explored and emphatically pushed before McCain can run for President saying if they had only put a couple hundred thousand more American troops on the ground like I recommneded, we would have avoided this disaster. Indeed what is it that a couple hundred thousand more troops would attack? Isn't it true that our military has not been particularly trained to be a police force. What else would they be doing?

  3. It's not only WWI that gives us the lesson you mention. I'm only part-way through Robert McNamara's "In Retrospect," about how the US blundered into the Vietnam War, but still the stories about US strategy and the lessons learned are eerily applicable to Iraq. (McNamara wrote the book in the mid-1990s, so it wasn't done with Iraq in mind at all.)
    In any event, it seems to me that the "big push" will simply be an opportunity to get the casualties down to an acceptable level, at least temporarily, at which point we take credit for stabilizing the country and leave. My guess is that after we leave all hell will break loose.

  4. Tillman Fan, I think it's more likely that an increase in troop strength would result in an increase in casualties with any "security in numbers" effect offset by broader exposure.

  5. General French? That seems unfair.
    "French remained in command as major trenching began and oversaw the fighting at Neuve Chapelle and Ypres that finally destroyed the last of the original BEF. In 1915, he declined to co-operate with the French and after the failures at Aubers Ridge and, at Loos, the British offensive operations were almost halted. In December 1915, he was replaced by Douglas Haig."
    French despaired of success using the given tactics; Haig, never.

  6. "…certainly trying to do too little with too few has been a big part of the debacle to date."
    Not to mention the fact that Bush could have done this "last big push" long before now, but when Dems come to town, only then doest war became a political hot potato for Bush, not that it hasn't alwasy been political for Bush, SO ONLY NOW does Bush want to "add more troops."
    HOW long have generals and congressman been telling Bush to add more troops? You don't lose control of the congress and add troops as a political after-thought. Its as if Bush decided, "well, maybe I should do something now that I run out of options?"
    For little Bushie, it's far to late to suddenly decide to get off his lazy duff and do something. This is REALLY how 9/11 happened, this why it took so long for Bush to react to Katrina, and now Bush wants to "add more troops to Iraq".
    Bush waited until he could not do otherwise, but make up so "big push" crap. Bush waited far to late to finally take some kind of action. It's the story of whole Bush administration.

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