Thursday, January 08, 2004


The Terror War's Inevitable Fog
By Arnold Kling Published 01/09/2004

Ridgway turned to Humphrey and said there was one thing about the war which puzzled him.
"What's that?" Humphrey asked.
"I have never known what the mission for General Westmoreland was," Ridgway said.
-- David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest

David Halberstam's post mortem of the bureaucratic process that took the United States into the Vietnam war influenced me profoundly. My outlook on business, investing, entrepreneurship, software development, technology, and public policy all have been affected by his book, which I first read thirty years ago when I was an undergraduate.

What I took away from reading and re-reading Halberstam was the view that human beings make decisions in the context of incomplete information. We suffer from inadequate knowledge, cognitive biases, and conflicting expert opinions. I call this human condition The Inevitable Fog.

The remainder of this essay (which is long -- it may be easier to print it out rather than try to read it on line) is a tour of the world of inevitable fog. First, I describe the way various aspects of life are affected by fog. Then, I review David Halberstam's thinking about Vietnam. Next, I look at the various fogs of Iraq. Finally, I discuss the fog of the overall war on terror.

The Prevalence of Fog

The familiar expression "fog of war" refers to the difficulty that generals have in seeing all of the relevant forces on the battlefield and beyond. In fact, everyone involved in a war suffers from its fog. During World War II, many American GI's, aware only of the mistakes on our side, were convinced that the United States was going to lose. What they saw were logistical mishaps, waste, unexplained changes in direction, and other signs of incompetence on the part of their superiors. The very term SNAFU is an acronym coined by grunts for "situation normal: all f---ed up."

One sees the same phenomenon in business or civilian government organizations. The leaders never see the entire picture. Meanwhile, as grunts we gather around the water cooler and trade stories which supposedly demonstrate that our bosses are idiots and our co-workers on the other side of the building are jerks. A business organization makes a seemingly suicidal amount of mistakes every week, but in the fog of business its competitors are committing errors at roughly the same rate.

Stock market investing takes place in a fog. At any point in time, there are plausible future scenarios under which the fair value of the market indexes could be double what it is today, and other scenarios which suggest that the market's true value is half its current level. Similarly, there are plausible scenarios under which particular stocks or groups are screaming buys, and equally plausible scenarios under which those same stocks are must-sells.

No one lives in more of a fog than an entrepreneur. Almost by definition, you are the only one who believes that your business idea makes any sense. Nine times out of ten, the skeptics are right. I describe my own entrepreneurial career, which turned out better than most, as A Sequence of Miscalculations.

Software development takes place in a fog. In a project that follows a textbook "lifecycle" process, coding does not begin until the developers have a final, precise written set of requirements. Nowhere in the history of software has a program been developed according to that model. Instead, the Geeks begin work in a fog about what the Suits really want. They make their best guess, deliver a prototype, and then the Suits and the Geeks start to argue. When the two sides reach a point of being hopelessly deadlocked, a version gets released.

Technological progress has many sources of fog. We do not exactly know which scientific studies will lead to interesting results. When something important is discovered, we do not necessarily know which are the most promising applications. We do not know which promising applications will actually be successful in the market. Thomas Edison thought that a phonograph would be used by business executives to record and ship speeches to workers.

No wonder venture capital investing seems like a shot in the dark. Given the fog that surrounds innovation, a venture capitalist that happens to back a couple of winners with one fund may have a string of losers with the next.

Perhaps the most important point of all is that government officials operate in a fog. If one looks at all of the imperfections and shortcomings of the market, then there appears to be a nearly infinite set of opportunities for the government to improve on private sector outcomes. However, it is important to remember that the information that government has is often no better than what is available to private individuals.

For the private sector, one of the most important signals that cuts through the fog is the profit and loss statement. If nothing else, a company that makes too many mistakes will find itself out of business. Government programs are insulated from such signals. I believe that as the pace of innovation has increased in our society, the relative inefficiency of government has gone up. Both private-sector operations and government programs become anomalous and obsolete more rapidly. However, government anomalies persist, while in the private sector market discipline serves to weed out failure. The more dynamic the economy, the larger the drag exerted by the government.

Vietnam, Halberstam, and Fog

Much as I admire The Best and the Brightest, I believe that David Halberstam himself is not above the fog. His account of the Vietnam era suffers from cognitive biases which are evident, even though Halberstam had mastered the New York Times reporter's subtle art of injecting his opinions via adjectives. Thus, American hawks are described as "rigid" and "hardline," while he introduces doves as "nuanced" and "flexible."

When Halberstam discusses our South Vietnamese allies, they are "feudal," "corrupt," and remnants of a "dying order." On the other hand, our adversaries are characterized as "modern," "indigenous," and a "revolutionary force." I long to grasp Halberstam by the lapels and ask him: if the Vietnamese Communists were so in tune with the general population, why was their regime so repressive? Why did they have to murder and drive out so many hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese when they took over? Why is it that in the middle school near where I live in suburban Maryland the most common name in the PTA phone directory is Nguyen?

One way to appreciate the fog that still surrounds the Vietnam war is to look up "Krulak" in the index of Halberstam's book as well as in The Savage Wars of Peace by Max Boot. Both Halberstam and Boot describe Victor Krulak as a Marine Corps Major General, short in stature, with the nickname "Brute." There, the similarity ends.

Boot describes Krulak as "a first-rate fighter and thinker." Boot presents Krulak as the bureaucracy's Rambo, a man who could have won the Vietnam war had the civilians not held him back. Boot describes his approach as follows:

"It would take aggressive small-unit foot patrolling, especially at night, to gather intelligence and disrupt guerilla operation. Above all, it would mean training local people to defend themselves... Krulak wanted to combine this pacification strategy with the bombing and mining of Haiphong harbor."

Halberstam sees Krulak as "the military's most skilled bureaucratic player... where his special assignment was to destroy any civilian pessimism about the war and to challenge the civilian right to even discuss military progress, or lack thereof." Krulak was active in what Halberstam views as the military's conscious effort to deceive civilians about the prospects for success in Vietnam.

" as the official minutes of the special counterinsurgency group reveal for that crucial period ('February 7, 1963 Krulak says real progress is being made in the struggle. Vietcong morale is deteriorating... March 14, 1963 Krulak says Vietcong activity is at a level 50 percent below last year... May 9, 1963 Krulak, back from a Honolulu meeting with Harkins, says that all trends are favorable... May 23 Colonel Francis Serong, Australian guerilla fighting expert, expresses doubt on the Strategic Hamlet Program saying it is overextended, and that it has left vast areas from which the Vietcong can operate freely. Krulak immediately and violently challenges him...')" (ellipses in the original)

Halberstam's Krulak is a vicious hawk, painting a falsely optimistic picture in order to stiffen the resolve of the civilians to maintain the war effort. Boot's Krulak is a sophisticated counterinsurgency fighter, trying to substitute a patient, population-centered strategy for the costly "search-and-destroy" approach used by U.S. commander William Westmoreland.

I am in no position to pass judgment on which writer has captured the real Krulak (perhaps there is a grain of truth in each). The point is that much about Vietnam remains unclear. Even after the fact, the war is covered in fog.

The Downfall of an Elite

The title The Best and the Brightest refers to the hold that a social and intellectual elite had on foreign policy in the 1950's and 1960's. This gave our leaders a narrow base of experience on which to draw. To put words in Halberstam's mouth, they thought that they could deal with the threat of a Communist takeover in Vietnam the way that a Wall Street lawyer might deal with a hostile takeover bid for a major corporation: play tactical hardball, show your resolve, get the adversary to back down, and negotiate a reasonable settlement.

Even the corporate takeover metaphor would represent a less inbred power structure than what Halberstam described. Hostile takeovers emerged as a phenomenon in the 1980's, when Wall Street had opened up and become more flamboyant. The investing public was treated to stories of "the poison pill," "the Pac-Man defense," and so on. This sort of media-reported warfare would have been anathema to the establishment figures who joined the Kennedy Administration. In those days, Wall Street lawyers valued discretion. Issues between corporations were to be resolved at the luncheon club, not in the newspapers.

Thus, Halberstam pictures America's leaders in the 1960's as having traveled in small circles -- elite prep schools, entrance to college based as much on family connections as merit, and a Wall Street atmosphere of rationality and discretion. They proceeded to apply what worked in that context to an underdeveloped Asian country half way around the world.

As for Vietnam itself, Halberstam's view in a nutshell is that it was simply a replay of the civil war in China that resulted in the Communist takeover in 1949. In both cases, the luck of the historical draw gave the Communist side the better leaders, the more highly-motivated forces, and the broader base of popular support. In China, the United States stood aside and let events take their course. We did not do that in Vietnam, in large part because the repercussions of "losing" China had been so traumatic for the Democratic Party and for the State Department.

Halberstam's view is that losing in Vietnam was inevitable. Regardless of what took place on the battlefield, in contemporary language our "nation-building" was a failure.

Halberstam characterizes our military leaders as dense, with an almost sadistic desire to throw more and more bombs and troops into the jungles of Vietnam. He argues that the Joint Chiefs wanted the war badly enough that they helped to manipulate the civilians into it. I suspect a different military-civilian dynamic, which I will discuss below under combat operations in the Fogs of Iraq.

The Fogs of Iraq: Pre-War

As with Vietnam, the question of the necessity of the Iraq war is thick with fog. There is the issue of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) as well as the larger strategic context in the war against Islamist terror.

On the issue of WMD, the United States parted company with France and Germany, among others. For this, the American left blames Bush ("he lied!") while the American right blames the other governments ("axis of weasels!").

My sympathies tend to be with the right. I think of Saddam Hussein's prewar behavior as analogous to a guy with a criminal record walking down the street in an overcoat with what appears to be a gun underneath. The police tell him to open up his coat, and he refuses. At that point, if I were the police, I would assume that he has a gun and proceed accordingly.

However, my point is not that the left or the right was clearly correct on the WMD issue. My point is that the WMD issue was part of the inevitable fog.

The other pre-war issue is how regime change in Iraq fits in to the overall war against Islamist terror. There, it seems to me that the fog will take a long time to lift. I will return to this issue in the final section of this essay.

The Fogs of Iraq: Combat Operations

There was a brief period a few weeks before Baghdad fell during which the fog of war was quite thick. Our offensive appeared to be stalled, and our media painted a picture that was very pessimistic. It was in that environment that I wrote Can You Comment?, a satirical attempt to view the state of the war from the perspective of the Iraqi regime's perspective. My point was that their side's problems had to be worse than ours.

At the low point, reporters found a number of ex-military officers -- and some current officers -- who argued that we needed many more troops. To me, this is reminiscent of Vietnam, in which our military seemed to always be asking for more troops and more freedom of operations.

In estimating the troop requirements for any operation, there are going to be some generals whose guesses are high and some generals whose guesses are low. During Vietnam, our civilian leaders wanted to believe the lowest estimates. This had two consequences. One was that it biased the civilians in favor of the most optimistic generals. The other consequence was that many in the military felt that there were not sufficient resources to achieve success, and they applied pressure for more. Halberstam interprets this as political hawkishness ("demands for escalation") on the part of the military, when in fact it was more likely that it represented, as it did in Iraq, a genuine concern to avoid failure. In both situations, there were military officers who believed that victory required a larger force. Given the inevitable fog, there are bound to be officers who feel that way, and sometimes they will turn out to be correct.

As events unfolded, we succeeded in Iraq with a lower number of troops than the most conservative generals thought was necessary. Perhaps unlike in Vietnam, where in the beginning the civilians only listened to the generals with the most optimistic assessment, for Iraq our leadership was not overly biased in its selection of force levels. Maybe they chose an invasion force that was close to the "average" of what generals thought was needed. Or perhaps in Iraq the civilians also insisted on lower troop levels than prudence would have dictated, but we just got lucky.

The Fogs of Iraq: Post-War

In my opinion, it is no surprise that the majority of American casualties have occurred since the fall of Baghdad and the end of major combat operations. Post-war Iraq was bound to be quite difficult. Compared with the pre-war period or the period of combat operations, post-war Iraq comes much closer to resembling Vietnam. In Vietnam, our success ultimately depended on our ability to establish a local government that could provide security and stability. In Iraq, we arrived at the same point only after the statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled.

The quote with which I began this essay was a scene in Halberstam's book from late in the Johnson Administration, in which an aging retired general asks the Vice-President of the United States if the American commander in Vietnam ever was given a clearly-defined mission. In post-war Iraq, the mission of U.S. troops becomes less clear with each passing day. This does not mean that they should be withdrawn, but it does imply that we can expect continued challenges to their physical safety and to their morale. As this New York Times story reports, "In nearly 100 interviews and conversations in the last four weeks, soldiers across Iraq expressed a complex set of emotions and sentiments toward their rebuilding mission."

The future of Iraq depends on questions that are largely political and cultural. Can the three major ethnic groups arrive at a peaceful power-sharing arrangement? Can a society where family and tribal ties are still important make the transition to western-style markets and democracy? Will a secular leadership emerge that is strong enough to maintain separation of mosque and state, or is there no one more powerful than the imams? Will Iraq's leaders be sufficiently independent of the United States to bolster Iraqi national pride yet still remain friendly to us? These are issues that are beyond the control of young American troops, notwithstanding our soldiers' well-deserved status as Time's "person of the year." The linguistic and cultural gulf between Americans and Iraqis is so wide that it would seem foolish for any of us in the United States to place any large bet on the shape that Iraqi society will take five years from now.

As a candidate for President in 2000, George Bush expressed scorn for the concept of nation-building. Given America's experience, from the former Soviet Republics to Haiti, his skepticism is well founded. Halberstam's thesis is that in Vietnam the military battles were meaningless, because the nation-building war was always a lost cause.

In Iraq today, most of the fog hangs over the nation-building issues:

* Should elections be held soon, to give Iraqis a sense of "ownership" in their government, or should the country first have a Constitution that guarantees the rights of ethnic minorities?

* Should the United States work with and encourage religious leaders, or should we try to limit their power and instead encourage the formation of secular political parties?

* Should we work with the tradition tribal leaders of Iraq, or will their corruption compromise our values too heavily?

* If we wait too long to turn power over to the Iraqis, will we become hated there? If we turn power over too soon, will the Iraqis lack the skills and training to govern effectively?

It seems to me that these are the choices that America faces in Iraq, and as far as I can tell they are not being discussed outside of the Bush Administration. The nation's op-ed pages seem focused on partisan mudball fights. The Democratic nine dwarfs keep bringing up "internationalization," which strikes me as a solution in search of a problem. Farther out on the left (and even among some "mainstream" Democratic columnists and ex-officials), one hears Chomsky-esque ravings against the military-industrial complex, Halliburton, etc.

One can see the lack of serious discussion at a more grassroots level. James Surowiecki attempted in a comment on Brad DeLong's weblog to elicit some constructive suggestions for Iraq policy. Surowiecki wrote:

"I suppose my real concern is that most of the critics don't have any solutions, that they don't know what to do, not just about Iraq but about Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, and so their fallback position is to talk about what a terrible job Bush is doing, which is true but doesn't really help America right now, nor does it make it likely that Bush will be defeated in November. People are not going to vote Bush out unless they believe that his opponent has a plan to fix Iraq and, more important, a plan to keep them safe. Tax policy, trade policy, the environment, civil liberties: on all these issues Bush's critics (of which I'm often one) offer substantive criticisms and substantive alternatives. But on Iraq, I've heard little, aside from the opposition to the $87 billion to reconstruct Iraq (which would have left Iraq where, exactly?), the insane proposal to force Iraq to borrow the money for its own reconstruction and, of course, the chorus from ANSWER about helping the Baathists resist the colonial occupation. This doesn't cut it."

It seems to me that Surowiecki bent over backwards to try to obtain a reasonable response. You can see for yourself how well it worked (scroll down for Surowiecki's comment and the follow-ups).

Perhaps no one in the press, politics, or the public has anything of substance to say concerning the real issues and choices that we face in Iraq. In that case, the decent thing to do would be to admit that they have not the foggiest idea what they would do differently. But I think in fact there is room for more ideas and opinions.

I believe that there is a lot of potential for things to work out well in Iraq, as this New York Times Magazine story about an Iraqi entrepreneur indicates. However, as Americans try to influence developments in post-war Iraq, we are bound to make some mistakes. And regardless of how wise we might be, ultimately it will be the Iraqis themselves who determine the future of their country. Today, that future is shrouded in the inevitable fog.

The Fog of the Terror War

Even for a war, the fight against Islamist terror seems unusually foggy. Do we know whether our dedicated enemies number in the hundreds or in the hundreds of thousands -- or perhaps even the millions? Do we know whether it is state sponsorship or religious incitement that is more important in creating and sustaining the terrorist movement? Do we know whether greater democracy and economic development will be a salve or an irritant to the moderates?

Years from now, historians might determine that the initial responses to September 11 were all that was needed to efface the capability of the terrorist networks. In retrospect, removing terrorist bases in Afghanistan and taking steps to break up their funding system might turn out to have been sufficient to reduce terrorist attacks down to nuisance levels. If that is the case -- which I think is unlikely -- then the war in Iraq was of no strategic benefit to the United States. We are left only with a justification that it freed the Iraqi people, a rationale which by itself few Americans would consider compelling.

At the other extreme, years from now we may look back and see that the Western and Islamic worlds were headed toward a major collision, in which the September 11 attacks and the Iraq war were merely initial skirmishes. In that case, the world's future will hinge on the outcome of that major collision, not on the war in Iraq.

In between those two extremes are scenarios in which the outcome in Iraq matters. The strategic significance of President Bush's vision for democracy in Iraq is that it represents a model for how he believes that the trend toward Islamic militancy can be stopped.

Recently on TCS, Michael Vlahos suggested that the President's vision and strategy are more ambitious and challenging than is commonly understood. Vlahos implies that we have bitten off more than we can chew. He argues that, "U.S. strategy demands submission to the secular from the moderate Islamist, surrender or death from the radical Islamist, and a 'just fade away' from the current Muslim ruling establishment."

Vlahos raises important issues that are too often ignored in the partisan debates. His thoughts go deeper than the rabid pro- and anti-Bush rhetoric that fills the media.

In Vietnam, there were hawks who argued that Communism would be a disaster for that country. There were doves who argued that we could not build a viable non-Communist state in South Vietnam. Beneath the fog, it turned out that both sides were correct.

In the war against Islamist terror, President Bush has said that victory requires widespread change in the Islamic world. A skeptic could suggest that -- particularly in the stark terms laid out by Vlahos -- the President's goals are unattainable. Both sides could turn out to be right.

To me, it seems clear that the defeat of radical Islamists is important for Americans and for the world. It is at the more tactical level where I believe that debate and discussion are needed, and yet that is where the contributions of the President's opponents are so meager. The segments of America that Surowiecki challenged, including our campus intellectuals and many partisan Democrats, have taken a powder, refusing to engage the issue of terrorism and U.S. strategy with the seriousness it requires. Today, the American left is only clear about its desire to bring down the Bush Administration. Otherwise, they seem to the rest of us to be in the deepest fog of all.

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