W hy A merica L o s e s E ver y War It Star t s

HARLAN K. ULLMAN

N AVA L I N S T I T U T E P R E S S | A NN A P O L I S, M A RY L A ND

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Naval Institute Press
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© 2017 by Harlan K. Ullman
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Contents

Preface vii
Introduction: A Simple Truth Shaped by Moments of War 1
Chapter One. An Analytical View of Why We Fail 23
Chapter Two. JFK, the USSR, and the Path to Vietnam 33
Chapter Three. Lyndon Baines Johnson and the Vietnam
Catastrophe, Richard M. Nixon, and James Earl Carter 47
Chapter Four. Ronald Wilson Reagan 67
Chapter Five. George Herbert Walker Bush: Panama,
Desert Storm, the End of the Soviet Union, Europe
Whole and Free, and the Unintended Consequences of
“the New World Order” 93
Chapter Six. William J. Clinton, the Bottom-Up Force,
Black Hawk Down, NATO Expansion, Yugoslavia,
and the Rise of al Qaeda 115
Chapter Seven. George Walker Bush and the
Global War on Terror, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Russia 145
Chapter Eight. Barack Hussein Obama: Afghanistan,
Pakistan, Iraq, Libya, Iran, Syria, and the Pivot East,
and the First Days of Donald John Trump as President 169
Chapter Nine. How to Win: History Counts 211
Chapter Ten. The Way Forward: A Brains-Based Approach
to Sound Strategic Thinking 227
Selected Bibliography 243
Index 245

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George Walker Bush   163

where it is”—ever found. Saddam’s WMD had, as some had fore-
seen, been destroyed by a combination of coalition air strikes and
UN inspectors.
Saddam had double-crossed himself. He had been most con-
cerned with continuing the bluff. Not even Saddam’s generals had
known that his bluster over WMD was only that. Perhaps Saddam
believed that if his generals knew the truth and reacted as he would
have himself, the bluff might have led to a coup. Without Iraqi
WMD, Israel might feel more emboldened. This lie preempted a
war and, later, Saddam’s execution. How many Iraqis would perish is
unknowable. Figures range as high as more than a million.
Even to the most fervent neocons, by 2004 it was obvious that
security conditions in Iraq were deteriorating. Advised by a former
Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, Gen. Jack Keane, and other retired
generals, as well as one or two think tanks, Bush understood that a
dramatic strategic change was imperative. The Iraq Study Group,
convened in 2003 and cochaired by James Baker and Lee Hamilton,
was finishing its recommendations. As highly critical as the report
would be when it was published in December 2006, it was not crit-
ical enough. Its recommendations not to increase forces until 2008
would be overtaken by the “surge.”
By fall 2006, the Bush administration was facing political and
geostrategic crises bordering on the humiliating. Favorability ratings
plunged below 40 percent. On November 7, Democrats won a stun-
ning electoral victory, taking control of the House with a majority of
thirty-one, seating the first woman speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and of the
Senate, fifty-six to forty-four. The next day Rumsfeld resigned as
secretary of defense. Cheney had made a desperate effort to retain
his friend and onetime mentor. However, the president finally and
fully understood that a major change was necessary not only in strat-
egy but also at Defense. Former CIA director and national security
advisor Robert Gates, a longtime friend and colleague of the Bush
family, was persuaded to take the job.
Unlike President Johnson, who could not deal with the fail-
ing war in Vietnam, Bush, to his credit, realized that conditions
in Iraq could be reversed only by bold action. The result was the

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164    Chapter Seven

“surge”—also called, less dramatically, “the new way forward.” The
president announced the surge in a nationally televised address on
January 7, 2007. It began with the deployment of five brigades, total-
ing more than 20,000 soldiers.
The bulk went into Baghdad to help Iraqis clear and secure local
neighborhoods and protect people from the violence of the insur-
gency that was tearing the country apart. The president’s objective,
as noted on the White House media website, was to create a “uni-
fied, democratic federal Iraq that can govern itself, defend itself, and
sustain itself, and is an ally in the War on Terror.” The surge was to
be commanded by Gen. David Petraeus, one of the most capable
Army officers of his time and a protégé of Jack Keane’s.
The surge succeeded in greatly reducing violence. However, it
did not and could not resolve the political paradox that doomed Iraq
to continuing violence. That paradox was the hatred between the
majority Shia and the minority Sunni populations. Under Saddam,
the Sunnis had repressed the Shia with unbridled cruelty. When the
Shia took power under Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, Shia repres-
sion of the Sunnis ran amuck. It was to be of this religious violence
that the Islamic State would be born, the Frankensteinian legacy of
America’s assault into Iraq—a legacy that may confront and chal-
lenge many future administrations.
The Shia Iraqi government was not prepared to accept the con-
tinued presence of large numbers of American troops. Cheney’s
promise that Americans would be greeted as “liberators” proved as
hollow a prediction as that WMD would be found. While the Obama
administration was to be criticized for accelerating this drawdown
after 2009, the Bush administration had signed an agreement man-
dating U.S. withdrawal. Unknowingly, the United States thereby
consigned Iraq to becoming a failed state. Also, there would be very
little America could about it, especially with the Democratic candi-
date for president in 2008 campaigning to end that war.
Another policy contradiction also plagued the Bush adminis-
tration. On October 9, 2006, North Korea exploded what it adver-
tised as a nuclear weapon. The United States, which had intervened
in Iraq to prevent Saddam from shrouding an American city in a

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George Walker Bush   165

“mushroom-shaped cloud,” had no military options for North Korea.
It was bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan; in any case, a war in
Korea would have caused hundreds of thousands of casualties on
both sides, including the likely devastation of Seoul by North Korean
artillery positioned just outside the demilitarized zone.
As for strategic thinking, the Bush administration was dere-
lict, certainly throughout the first term and well into the second.
Declaration of an “axis of evil” was rhetorical malpractice. No link-
ages between its supposed poles existed. Iran and Iraq had fought
a decade-long war. Branding Iran a member of this “axis” immedi-
ately following the Bonn conference guaranteed the alienation of a
country vital to the future stability of Afghanistan. This was strategic
incompetence of the highest order.
Part of the reason for this absence of strategic thinking rested
in the president’s personality and psyche. September 11 had solid-
ified his vision and rationale for a freedom agenda. The three char-
ter members of this axis of evil were the antitheses of democratic
values and principles. The amazing military success in Afghanistan,
expelling the Taliban with literally a handful of American forces in
2001, created a sense of invincibility. Also, regime change seemed
the only reasonable way to alter the geostrategic landscape. Bush
deeply believed that a free Iraq would spread democracy. Regional
states, especially Saudi Arabia and Iran, would take note. Through
democratization, the security of Israel would be made permanent.
Along a parallel track ran the thinking of Cheney, Wolfowitz,
and other neocons in the administration. As early as the first NSC
meetings following September 11, the question of what to do about
Iraq was raised. That Saddam had tried to assassinate the president’s
father might have been a lesser reason for preemptive war. Perhaps
recollections of failing to go to Baghdad in 1991 produced an over-
reaction. The neocons probably did not cause or convince Bush to
attack Iraq. But certainly neoconservative views reinforced the deci-
sion to go to war in the Middle East.
The intelligence failure was colossal. “Group think” has been
cited, most clearly in the final report of the September 11th Com-
mission, as one reason. Bush obviously favored an invasion in Iraq.

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166    Chapter Seven

The preferences of the commander in chief are never taken lightly.
Maintaining objectivity in an environment as politically charged as
the White House is exceedingly difficult.
Further, basic assumptions were not challenged. When Colin
Powell met with President Bush in August 2002, the secretary
raised all the key questions. But these concerns were not analyzed;
instead, they were largely, if not entirely, ignored. Similarly, before
the war Rumsfeld sent a long memorandum to Bush speculating
on what could go wrong in attacking Iraq. These prospects too did
not seem to challenge the administration’s assumptions. The memo
provided no answers to the questions or antidotes for the possible
negative outcomes.
The fragility of the administration’s assumptions, however,
became too obvious when the Chief of Staff of the Army, Gen. Eric
Shinseki, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee
just prior to the start of Iraqi Freedom. When pressed to answer how
many troops would be needed to ensure stability in Iraq after the
war ended, Shinseki reluctantly suggested that the number could
be in the several hundreds of thousands. (In his own testimony
before the House Budget Committee on February 27, 2003, Dep-
uty Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz would declare that this
number was “wildly off the mark.”) Perhaps in retaliation, Rumsfeld
announced Shinseki’s successor almost a year in advance, effectively
destroying the chief’s legitimacy. The successor was to have been
General Keane, but he retired as vice chief and never took the posi-
tion. Rumsfeld chose instead a retired general, Peter J. Schoomaker,
which further angered the Army leadership. The Shinseki incident
demonstrated that the administration would not tolerate any dis-
sent, no matter how respectful.
Regarding understanding and knowledge, the administration
was woefully unprepared. Before September 11, few Americans
knew where Afghanistan was or anything about the more radical
interpretations of Islam. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, Sovi-
etologists had become an endangered species. This became appar-
ent in 2008, if not earlier. Relations with Russia were becoming
rockier, over both Iraq and NATO expansion.

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George Walker Bush   167

At the NATO heads-of-government summit in Bucharest,
Romania, in April 2008, George W. Bush proposed, as discussed in
the last chapter, offering a Membership Action Plan (MAP) to Geor-
gia and Ukraine. Other NATO members objected that this would be
“an unnecessary offense” to Russia. In part to placate Ukraine and
Georgia, Bush announced that both could become NATO mem-
bers, that their MAP applications would be reviewed in December
2008. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, who was in Bucharest
for the summit, warned Bush that expansion of NATO to Russia’s
borders “would be taken in Russia as a direct threat to the secu-
rity of our country.” Bush’s statement had been an “unforced” error
with huge consequences.
Russia began planning for an incursion into Georgia, under-
standing that no country could be admitted to NATO if it had con-
tested borders. That August, Putin set a trap for Georgia that its
president, Mikheil Saakashvili, foolishly ignored. Saakashvili had
become president in 2004 after the “Rose revolution” ousted Edu-
ard Shevardnadze, a Georgian former Soviet foreign minister, from
the office. Saakashvili was keen to regain territory in South Osse-
tia and Abkhazia that had been under de facto control of separatists
wishing to remain with Moscow. Separatists now shelled a town in
northern Georgia. Saakashvili, sensing an opportunity and not a trap,
bit and bit hard, sending his army to punish the separatists. Mos-
cow responded, citing the right to protect Russian citizens residing
there. The Georgian army was quickly defeated. The border con-
troversy meant membership for Georgia was out. Few in the West
appreciated Putin’s aims in Georgia. That summer Putin passed
the presidency with Dmitri Medvedev and became prime minister.
The seemingly mild-mannered Medvedev was more soothing to the
West. Putin and Medvedev would later swap jobs again.
As Kennedy’s ideological commitment to paying any price for
liberty had led to Vietnam, Bush clung to his freedom agenda, forget-
ting that transferring democracy to other cultures was exceedingly
difficult if not impossible. Bush never doubted: as the self-declared
“decider,” he was either arrogant or overconfident in his judgment.
Humility is an often elusive virtue.

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