Three 800-pound Guerillas
If the Iraq War is considered a business model, it is unraveling—just like General Motors (and Ford and DaimlerChrysler).
A number of knowledgeable experts have declared our Iraq incursion not to be winnable. It does not take a language scholar to read between the lines of General Abizaid’s and General Pace’s testimony to see that the Pentagon is beginning to agree.
That’s because no one has a clue about how to deal with three 800-pound guerrillas.
The three 800-pound guerillas are al Qaeda plus Sunni and Shi’a murderers that are turning Baghdad into a scene reminiscent of Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel.
The Failing GM Business Model
“For years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors, and vice-versa,” said Charles (“Engine Charlie”) Wilson, president of General Motors, during his 1953 confirmation hearings as Eisenhower’s Secretary of Defense.
“Is there a company more dangerous to America’s future than General Motors?” wrote Tom Friedman of The New York Times on May 31, 2006. “Surely, the sooner this company gets taken over by Toyota, the better off our country will be.”
What happened in the intervening 54 years between Wilson’s statement and Friedman’s slashing attack on GM?
Quite simply, GM made America dependent on foreign oil. It had a beautiful business model so long as a barrel of oil cost only a few bucks.
For years General Motors kept on trucking in spite of a huge problem—the fact that $1,500 of the purchase price of every car it sold went toward health care benefits for its employees and retirees. In 2005, that totaled $5.6 billion.
The corporation continued to make money because it satisfied America’s hunger for outlandish transportation—SUVs, pick-up trucks, Hummers and the like.
When the Middle East exploded and the price of oil went north, General Motors’ business model went south. At $3.50 a gallon, we are forced to pay $50 and $100 to fill our gas tanks, deeply diminishing our discretionary income. Dealers’ lots are glutted with shiny, new gas-guzzlers, and the market for used SUVs is non-existent.
With liquid cash reserves of $45 billion, GM isn’t going anywhere soon. But it has acknowledged serious problems and announced tectonic changes to its business model—massive cuts in employee benefits, layoffs, plant closings and the marketing of car models that cost less to run.
Meanwhile last month Toyota—with its slick little Scion, Lexus and Prius hybrid models—sold 426 units more than Ford, catapulting it into second place. “Toyota Drove to the Bank in a Ford,” proclaimed Michelle Maynard’s headline in this past Sunday’s New York Times.
The War on Terror as a Failing Business Model
The 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center was the modern-day equivalent to the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. That means as of today our military involvement in the Middle East has gone on for one year, 10 weeks and three days longer than that of World War II.
In the 3-1/2 years of World War II, the Allies subdued the most powerful, vicious military machines in world history and liberated a vast swath of the globe—Europe, North Africa, Asia and the Far East.
For 3-1/2 years, the Allies dropped everything and committed their entire resources to quashing this horrific threat. Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin realized that there is no such thing as being a little bit pregnant.
After 4-1/2 years in the Middle East, Americans are still being blown to bits inside two small, fourth-rate powers that are consumed by sectarian violence.
“It is now obvious that we are not midwifing democracy in Iraq,” Tom Friedman wrote last Friday in the Times. “We are baby-sitting a civil war.”
Something is seriously wrong with the Pentagon’s business model
The Lessons of Dien Bien Phu
Starting in March 2003 the United States and Britain executed a dagger thrust to Baghdad with a highly mobile, skeleton force. Instead of putting up a fight, the trained and brutal Iraqi fighters melted into the countryside, taking their weapons and ammunition with them, and looted the arms depots that were never secured by the coalition troops.
The result: For the past 3-1/2 years, the Iraq War has been fought entirely behind enemy lines.
The situation is reminiscent of the Dien Bien Phu debacle—March 13 to May 7, 1954—that planted the seeds of our involvement in Vietnam.
The French set up a base in the lowlands of Vietnam. The intent was to cut off supply lines into Laos of the Vietnamese Revolutionary Forces (Viet Minh). The only way to supply the Dien Bien Phu garrison was for French troops and cargo to be flown in over the surrounding hills.
The Viet Minh secretly lugged heavy artillery up the unseen sides of the high hills and positioned these weapons at the top, just out of sight of the French defenders who were now completely surrounded. Spotters took up hidden positions in the hills and began directing lethal fire into the French garrison below.
At the end of 56 days of carnage, the French capitulated with a total of 19,298 killed, wounded or captured (roughly the equivalent of our losses in Iraq). The Viet Minh suffered 7,900 dead and 15,000 wounded.
As with the French in Dien Bien Phu, U.S. military forces are completely surrounded on all sides and by violent, heavily armed fanatics. In the words of the Times’ Friedman, they “hate us more than they love their kids.”
Anyone who ventures outside the safety of Baghdad’s Green Zone is immediately subject to surprise attack from any direction.
Al Qaeda (and Hezbollah) do not engage in pitched battles with large numbers of troops. Small groups of highly trained and well-armed operatives make sudden devastating strikes and melt away to fight another day.
In his brilliant 2004 book, “Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror,” ex-CIA operative Michael Scheuer cites the first rule insurgency: “Never give the enemy a target that lets him defeat you in one campaign.”
Scheuer goes on to point out:
Bin Laden also has veteran al Qaeda administrators and logisticians in Iraq who can—as they did in the Soviet-Afghan war—greet, shelter, feed, arm, and train Muslim volunteers flowing to Iraq from around the Islamic world.
Quite simply, our military and the Iraqi people are being nibbled to death by Saddam Hussein’s best-trained, nastiest military operatives who deserted during the allied invasion. A seemingly endless chain of human kamikazes from all over the Arab world who fervently wish to kill everybody in sight and die themselves reinforces them.
As of Sunday (8/06/06), the total of U.S. military personnel killed and wounded in Iraq is 21,368—and counting. Iraqi civilians—adults and children—are being murdered at the rate of 100 a day, caught in the vortex of Sunni-Shi’a insanity.
One Way Out
If the occupying forces could gradually push the borders of the Green Zone outward in all directions and secure more and more of Baghdad until all the criminal insurgents were standing in the desert looking in, maybe victory could be claimed.
It would require 230,000 or more additional boots on the ground—roughly the original 2002 estimates by the Pentagon of what was needed, a number that Rumsfeld nixed at the outset as being politically unacceptable to the American people—a number that would require reviving the draft.
Instead America is betting that 400,000 needed fighters will be made up of Iraqis—30-day wonders trained by the United States—to take over for our troops now stretched to the breaking point.
The Poker Analogy
In 1947 my father was commissioned by the old Liberty magazine to write a series of articles on the 1948 presidential candidates. His last question in each of his interviews was this: “In poker do you draw to an inside straight?”
New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey (the odds-on favorite) thought a moment and replied, “Never.”
Harry S. Truman (the incumbent long shot who won) replied instantly, “Always.”
With its present Middle East policy, the Pentagon and the Administration are drawing to an inside straight flush.
This is no way to deal with a failing business model.
P.S. If a reader can describe a successful military campaign at any time in history where the occupying forces were completely surrounded by a hostile, heavily armed enemy that was continually increasing in size and ferocity, please e-mail me.
P.P.S. I am taking a long weekend. Look for your next issue of “Business Common Sense” on Tuesday, August 15th (my 71st birthday—ouch!).