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March 20, 2009



It's easy to explain the discrepancy between opinions about how things are going and whether or not we should have gone in. People turned against the war between 2003 and 2008 and they haven't readjusted their thinking. That said, though, I think the jury is still out on whether it was a good or a bad move. It's still an unstable country, Al Qaeda is not dead, just hiding elsewhere. But if things continue to go well there and they can help mitigate the disaster of Iran, then perhaps you'll be right about the history books.

Nathan Smith

Oh, I'm not saying historians will look back and unanimously think it was a good idea. I think it will be a bit like the French Revolution: some historians will idolize it, others will loathe it, and many will have mixed feelings, partly admiring it, but with many qualms, doubts, and regrets.

What I do think is that contemporary anti-war literature will be regarded as virtually useless. It won't be possible to sneer at the ideas that the Iraqis would greet us as liberators, since many (not all of course, but that was never the claim) did, or that Iraq would become a democracy under American tutelage, since it did. There are certainly many reasons to be, on the whole, against the Iraq war. But these tend either to involve concessions, e.g., "Yes, the Iraq war made a better life for the Iraqi people in the end, but it was too dangerous and costly," or to involve whole theories of the world that most people reject, e.g., "America is the Great Satan/the bastion of exploitative capitalism/a neocolonialist empire and all its works are evil." But most of the anti-war commentary did not deal with this.

I think the ultimate problem is that the anti-war coalition was incoherent from the beginning. People who opposed the war for totally different and incompatible reasons wanted to form a coalition. Such a coalition could not be based on common arguments, so instead it was based on sneers. If "the jury is still out" today, that's enough to discredit those who insisted that it was already *obvious* that the Iraq war was crazy two, three, five years ago.


How many commentators' criticisms could amount to saying "the Iraq war was crazy" full stop, as opposed to criticizing something about it that was crazy. About the latter I think there may be points of stability, of near-unanimity, but the project as a whole is hard to criticize from any unified standpoint. It just has too many elements. Is this the fault of the critic, or the apologist who responds to criticism by pointing out how it doesn't address the war in some other respect? It could go either way, depending on the details of the argument. No war is ever completely sane or insane, taken as a whole, and to have conversation we'd have to get more specific.

I'll get specific.
Justification: Relied to heavily on weak arguments, but potentially justifiable on other grounds.
Planning: Incomprehensibly and irresponsibly haphazard.
Initial Execution: Adequate but deeply flawed
Medium-term Execution: Disastrous because of an irresponsible unwillingness to see flaws and address them with due vigor.
Longer-term Execution: Lucky save?


To clarify, the "planning" was the obviously crazy part. Medium term execution was also pretty bad, but not so obvious from the outside. Most complaints about Bush's justification - which are legion - aren't phrased very well and don't get at the root issues and so could be regarded as wrong.

Nathan Smith

That's a sensible analysis, one that takes a mainly military point of view. That may be a weakness in a way because there was a heavy political element in the Iraq war, and while the military certainly knows that and tries to take it into account, they are not necessarily so expert at that relative to your average pundit, or economist, or even citizen, as in the case of more strictly military questions.

For example, the military may have good reason to think it takes X troops to pacify a given area, but (a) will that make us look more like an occupation and provoke more resistance, and (b) can we afford to sustain a presence on that scale for long?

About the justification relying on weak arguments, two points. First, that Saddam *didn't* have WMDs was, as far as I can tell, completely unexpected. I'm not aware of anyone prior to the war who was saying confidently, "I don't think Saddam has WMDs." If WMDs had been found, the WMD argument for the war would have looked shrewd if a bit Machiavellian. From a public diplomacy point of view, the WMDs may have been a good risk *ex ante.* Of course, many of the real arguments for the Iraq war, especially the simplest and probably most important one, which is merely that totalitarianism is bad and tyrants should be overthrown, can't be made in the international community, because before 2003 the principle of claw-your-way-to-the-top "sovereignty" was the order of the day. That said, I suspect Bush and Blair were in genuine doubt about whether the Iraqis would welcome us as liberators or not. If they *didn't*, WMDs would be a useful pretext for an invasion that would in that case be a mistake. When the Iraqis (many, most of them) did welcome us as liberators, the WMD justification became of secondary importance. Which should have been obvious.

I'm not really competent to appraise the military execution, but I am a bit skeptical of military-side appraisals, because it does seem to me that we were doing something really unprecedented in a lot of ways. It's as if a group of professors were to stop a random econ grad student in the hall and ask him a series of really off-the-wall and complex questions, and then discuss among themselves knowingly about the strengths and weaknesses and overall merit of the student's performance. If they don't do this regularly, I would doubt the professors' competence to judge the quality of the student's handling of this strange situation. Too few data points, so to speak. No doubt high-ranking officers in the US military are about the best-qualified of anybody in the world to grade the Iraq war from an execution perspective, but I still doubt whether even they are all that qualified.


There was a sheaf of "lessons learned" from previous actions (Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo...) on which we could have drawn, but generally didn't. Rumsfeld locked out the experts as "stuck in the old thinking" - the most public example being when he shoulder-tapped General Shinseki over differences in post-combat troop requirement estimates. Shinseki quoted doctrine (written in light of those lessons learned) and got replaced. All of which is to say that it appears US domestic political concerns basically destroyed the military's planning for operations other than war. It would seem that this was because Rumsfeld et al. expected to put Chalabi in as caretaker and be out in a few months, and felt that if they let the State Department or the military to start planning for too long of an operation that inertia would make a longer occupation a foregone conclusion. Whatever the reason, it lead to a terrible lack of preparation from which it took a great deal of time to recover.

I would honestly like to hear some explanation that is less incomprehensibly irresponsible, but the sources from which this kind of information comes are not left wing conspiracy theorists but rather Administration Insiders.

Nathan Smith

"the sources from which this kind of information comes are not left wing conspiracy theorists"

Oh, that's certainly true. It's not clear to me, actually, that Rumsfeld's take-out-Saddam-and-get-out position is crazy, though. The poll I was reading the other day suggests that a lot of the American public retrospectively supports that. You could say it would lead to humanitarian disaster, but a continuation of Saddam's regime was a humanitarian disaster, too, and we could probably stop a lot of other humanitarian disasters for the $1 trillion or whatever that we spent on rebuilding and democratizing Iraq. I'm not saying that's what we should have done. I'm not sure. The whole episode involves such profound questions of political ethics that a really thorough discussion of it might have to end in the confusion that I've heard Plato scholars think is a typical ending for a Platonic dialog-- *aporexia,* or philosophical confusion. But I think you have to distinguish between competence, which is a question of means, and ideology, which is a question of ends. It sounds like Rumsfeld's differences with the military were ideological differences rather than questions of mere competence. Of course, it might still be that the effect of these ideological differences was mere incompetence, that is, Rumsfeld had his way on the means for a while but never on the ends, so that the wrong means were being used for the end that was ultimately sought.

Also, I'm not at all sure that "lessons learned" from Haiti, Somali, Kosovo, etc. would be applicable in Iraq. The situations are different. No doubt the military understands this and does its best to adapt them... but there's a saying about "fighting the last war." At the end of the day, we'll never know whether things would have gone better if we'd fought the war differently. We might be able to make an educated guess that the *particular* problems that arose could have been avoided, but different ones might have occurred instead. I don't think I expected, *ex ante*, that the war would be easier or less bloody than it turned out to be.

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