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How to Make a Case for War (2003)

I originally posted this assessment on Red Team Journal in January 2003, just prior to the invasion of Iraq. I’m re-posting it now because the invasion remains an open issue, one whose effects are certain to ripple outward politically, militarily, and diplomatically for years to come. I am, of course, pleased that the administration and the Pentagon revisited their Iraq strategy and that violence in Iraq has declined.1 That said, we have no guarantees, particularly in a world that looks very different than it did in 2003 and will no doubt look even more different in 2013.


Time will judge the wisdom of the Bush administration’s push toward war with Iraq. In the meantime, the process of mobilizing support for the effort has exposed three related questions, each worrisome in its own way.
      First, are we trying to solve the problem at the most appropriate level? Second, do we understand the problems we might create by solving the one we’ve defined? And third, do we understand how the defined problem relates to other potential problems? At stake are the larger questions of how and when America goes to war and what burden of public proof our government should bear when committing the people’s blood and treasure.

The Right Problem?

Before we go to war, we should be quite sure we’ve defined the problem at the most appropriate level. It is possible that by acting on the most immediate, apparent, or accessible problem, we foreclose the option of solving a broader problem more effectively. Public discourse has limited itself to the problem as the administration has chosen to define it, and the administration has defined it too narrowly.
      Yes, Iraqi weapons of mass destruction are indeed a concern, but as North Korea has reminded us, the problem is much bigger than Iraq. The problem is also bigger than any specific nation; it includes the closely related issue of our own vulnerabilities–porous borders, inadequate intelligence, an overstretched medical infrastructure, and so on.
      One way to test the administration’s approach is to ask how we might better spend the money we will consume fighting Iraq. One conservative estimate sets the cost of war at $100 billion, roughly one-third our total annual defense budget and more than double the annual budget of the nascent Department of Homeland Security. More cautious observers estimate a long-term price tag in the trillions. If we define the problem not as defeating Iraq but–more broadly–as defending the United States from attack, how might we choose to spend this $100 billion?
      The menu of options is long and quite attractive: better border security, better intelligence, better tracking and surveillance systems, better transportation security, better missile defense, enhanced special forces, and on and on. Of course, $100 billion won’t buy it all, but it’s interesting to note that given the clear option, we might not choose to spend our money on Iraq at all.

The Problems after Next

Assume we attack and defeat Iraq. What then? The administration proposes to rebuild Iraq’s polity along democratic lines, a fundamental misunderstanding of democracy at best, an irreversible Pandora’s box at worst. Setting that aside, let’s weigh two additional relatively straightforward problems after next. Consider first a problem Red Team Journal outlined in 1999: every adversary watches for opportunities to take advantage of us while we are looking elsewhere. North Korea’s current rumblings hint at such a strategy. Our other likely adversaries are no doubt thinking the same thing and will discover even more opportunities if we become entangled with Iraq and North Korea at the same time. This should not surprise us–we should expect it.
      Another problem after next is the slippery cost slope. We should remember that (1) our war chest is not bottomless, and (2) these things always cost more and take longer than we expect. We’ve been in Afghanistan for over a year now, and it is unlikely that anyone in the government would hazard a guess at the full life cycle cost of the operation. An ongoing operation in Iraq will suffer from similar open-ended uncertainty. Of course, that alone is not a reason not to attack Iraq, but it should cause us to ask how much we are willing to spend and how many such operations we can undertake.
      It is simple to at least identify any number of problems after next, and we generally assume as a nation that the government has not only identified but also assessed the possible range of problems after next before moving ahead. In this case, however, evidence of foresight is slim. Wishful optimism appears to underlie the administration’s postwar plan.

Systemic Problems

Every problem touches others, and few problems submit to simple cause-and-effect reasoning. The so-called war on terror, for example, touches the Iraq problem, just as the Iraq problem touches, among other things, our need for oil, our relations with China and Russia, and our current operation in Afghanistan. Costs, resources, will, perception, threats, risks–all combine to create an interwoven network of conflicting constraints and difficult tradeoffs. Most people understand this intuitively, although sophisticated analysis is required to untangle a network with any confidence.
      Perhaps the most evident lack of systems thinking resides in how we perceive the problem itself. During the Cold War, for example, we understood that the conflict was as much a war of ideas as a war of missiles. In fact, one could argue that we won the war with ideas while our missiles thankfully rested in their silos. We also understood that a misstep in Asia meant trouble in Europe while a faux pas in Central America could spell disaster on the home front. Significantly, our Cold War toolkit reflected this understanding. While our military forces stood ready, we employed–and employed well–a wide range of tools short of war: surveillance, intelligence (human and technical), espionage, psychological operations, alliances, and diplomacy.
      Today, our toolkit has dwindled to a single hammer– military force–and the tools we once employed so effectively as a suite now exist largely to support this force. We are simply not equipped to deal with the problem as a system; we don’t understand it as one, and any capability for subtlety or stratagem we achieved during the Cold War has atrophied.

The Burden of Proof

The administration’s case continues to rest on (1) the fact that Iraq (most likely) possesses weapons of mass destruction and (2) the possibility that Iraq will use these weapons or share them with terrorists. As many observers have noted, however, other nations already possess weapons of mass destruction and may in fact have already shared them with terrorists. Hence the questions “Why Iraq?” and “Why now?” The administration has still not answered these questions clearly and forcefully.
      Assume that attacking Iraq now is the best decision. Assume that the administration possesses evidence of a clear and immediate threat. Assume as well that this information is classified and cannot be shared with the American people. This still begs the question of how an administration should publicly justify its decision to go to war. Note here that the administration’s new preemptive doctrine already pushes us into uncertain and increasingly subjective territory. By not strengthening its case for war, the administration leads us even further into this region; after all, a preemptive attack should require greater proof, not less, or–if absolute necessity demands–we should attack without warning and justify the action with undeniable evidence after the fact.
      At the very least the administration must explain (1) how attacking Iraq solves the real problem at the right level, (2) how it will handle the inevitable problems after next in Iraq, and (3) how it will handle the problems and issues that will ripple through the entire global network of problems when we attack. But even this, while necessary, is not sufficient.
      If we go to war with Iraq we must be able to explain–now and tomorrow–why we chose not to attack North Korea or Iran or Libya or any other nation that potentially falls within the administration’s current justification for war with Iraq. In other words, we must justify the war with consistent principles. Consistent principles not only stand on their own, they are also worth a great deal in the eyes of the world. Even when our friends and enemies disagree with our actions, they will generally (if grudgingly) respect our commitment to principles.
      In no way does this mean we should throw pragmatism to the wind; on the contrary, we should aim to achieve a higher measure of pragmatism, one that guides and justifies all of our actions at all levels. Parents–models of real-world pragmatism–know well the value of consistency rooted in principle. Our decision to go to war can rest on nothing less.
      The world is watching, and like our own children, it will resent and remember what it perceives as arbitrary action, particularly when we impose the action with overwhelming force.2

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  1. See, for example, this recent article in The New Yorker. []
  2. Five years on, I wonder if the parent/child analogy was appropriate. I did not intend to imply that the rest of the world’s nations were children. []