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June 19, 2009

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nato

Notably, neither Wolfowitz nor Fly the offers a counterargument to the Economist's point about support for protesters strengthening the government's hand, so basically they just assume that Obama's position strengthens the government and argue from there. I don't know Fly, but Wolfowitz's record of understanding that part of the world hasn't the best lately. Weak.

As for halting nuclear enrichment, it occurred after a European diplomatic initiative in the wake of disclosures by dissidents about the nuclear program. The agreement eventually fell apart amidst Iranian complaints about US intransigence, culminating in the election of Ahmadinejad. It's not exactly clear that war in Iraq helped.

Tom

Obama can not / should not endorse a candidate; he can endorse a process, which he has done. What else is there to do? Be more aggressive in his condemnation, as if that would make any difference whatsoever? Wolfowitz talks as if Reagan and Bush were the deciding factors in the incidents mentioned above, when really they were mostly irrelevant. The US House's vote to condemn the Iranian government is about as useful as a UN resolution doing the same. I think it's pretty clear what the stance of the Western world is without this pointless rhetoric.

Nathan Smith

re: "Wolfowitz's record of understanding that part of the world hasn't the best lately."

It's been just fine. Wolfowitz thought democracy in Iraq was possible based on his extensive experience in the rest of the world and maybe his philosophical beliefs. Much of the punditocracy seemed to think there was some kind of contradiction in terms in democracy being imposed from the outside. Wolfowitz was right, the other guys were wrong.

Nathan Smith

It would have been clear enough what the West's stance would have to be if Obama's weirdly ambiguous remarks hadn't sown doubt.

Nato

I think democracy is *possible* everywhere, but some places it's very hard and some places it happens without almost any help. Wolfowitz apparently thought Iraq was the latter, specifically blocking the military's attempts to field enough troops to keep order and even removing the general who wanted to follow standard doctrine.

"There has been a good deal of comment—some of it quite outlandish—about what our postwar requirements might be in Iraq. Some of the higher end predictions we have been hearing recently, such as the notion that it will take several hundred thousand U.S. troops to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq, are wildly off the mark. It is hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself and to secure the surrender of Saddam's security forces and his army—hard to imagine"

Apparently Wolfowitz really knew what he was doing if he was willing to directly flout experience. Oh wait, that was a disaster. So was the Bremer choice - not because Bremer is a bad person but because he was critically unprepared to understand the Iraqi mindset. Wolfowitz also backed Ahmed Chalabi, a crook and a thug with no healthy constituency, to be our proxy leader there. He consistently saw the hard fight as the hard part, which is exactly backwards for the region.

Every bad decision we made had his fingerprints on it*, and the guy clearly is one of those people who has a difficult time abstracting the way he sees the world from his estimates of how others see it. I also view him as partially responsible for the failure of Iranian reformists in 2004-2005. So from my point of view, Wolfowitz was a horrible failure whose hubris and incomprehension cost tens of thousands of lives. From that perspective, his opinion on what we should do isn't very valuable.

*which is perhaps unfair, since he was Rumsfeld's second, but Rumsfeld seemed to rely more on Wolfowitz' backing for his blithe and exactly backwards belief that the hard fight would be the hard part.

Nathan Smith

Wolfowitz's misjudgments in technical, military matters are neither here nor there, as there are, at present, no military issues at stake in Iran. He was right on the democracy question, based on his own long experience with democracy issues in Muslim countries as ambassador in Indonesia; and that's the experience he's drawing on.

However, this CW about it being a "disaster" not to send more troops still doesn't make sense to me. We didn't have the troops! Yes, we had them in the short run, but given rotation requirements we couldn't have sustained a presence on that scale. We could have expanded the army sooner, maybe, but even as it was we were pushing the limits of what the army could recruit. Right?

So "more troops" advocates have, at a minimum, to make the case not only that Iraq could have been pacified with more troops without the intervening episode of chaos, but also that we could, in that case, have withdrawn much more quickly. That is, to put it mildly, far from certain. It seems to me this line is taken either by (a) military expert types who fail to take into account budgetary and personnel constraints and global strategic needs (for, after all, if we had put *everything* into Iraq baddies elsewhere might have seen an opening for mischief), and (b) initially pro-war writers who spooked easily, and who wanted to save face by saying the Bush administration had mismanaged things so as not to admit they had simply been wrong. Andrew Sullivan in 2004-05 (I stopped reading him after that) is a leading example of category (b).

If we didn't have the troops to do the invasion "right," of course, you could say we shouldn't have gone in at all. But if that's what you want to say, you have to argue, not that the actual course of events was worse than the course of events that would have happened under the infeasible "more troops" scenario, but that the actual course of events was worse than leaving Saddam in power (even if a "more troops" invasion would have been better). Would it have been better to leave Saddam in power? No. The post-war chaos Iraqis suffered was a price well worth paying for transitioning from Saddam's totalitarianism to the admittedly imperfect and somewhat unstable democracy that Iraq is today. At least, I would certainly think so if I were an Iraqi, and many Iraqis certainly think so quite passionately. I haven't reviewed Iraqi polls recently, and I'm not sure they consistently showed that a majority of but even in 2006, at the nadir of the violence, I remember seeing polls indicating that a large share of Iraqis thought the war was worth it. I think these were sometimes majorities, but I would add that I don't think it's appropriate to apply a strict majoritarian criterion in this case. The opinion of the honest man who wishes to speak his mind without fear, or the sufferings of the dissident under torture, may have greater moral weight than the opinions of petty or rotten people who are indifferent to how many lies they tell or how many cruelties they condone. Anyway, it's interesting how rarely anyone actually makes the case, explicitly and in detail, that Iraqis were better off under Saddam. I think there was a perception in 2002-3 that advocates of "more troops" were effectively calling for war plans to be dropped, since their demands made the invasion infeasible, even if that's not what they intended. That would seem to be the motive for Wolfowitz's comment: it's not necessarily that he thought he was such an expert, but that since the effect of a "more troops" demand from the military was to act as a political attack on the war, military non-experts couldn't avoid commenting. He might also have been more cynical than that: he might have thought the "more troops" demands made the war politically unsellable, and tried to marginalize them even if he suspected they were true. If so, would that be justified? Would you lie to a Nazi policeman about having Ann Frank sheltered in your house? The cases are, of course, not the same, yet they resemble each other in that telling a lie is a means to resist a totalitarian state (Hitler's/Saddam's). Wolfowitz may also have thought the military estimates of postwar requirements were tainted by anti-war bias in the bureaucracy.

Bremer was "critically unprepared to understand the Iraqi mindset?" Uh, who wasn't? How many Americans of ripe managerial expertise and proven intelligent and probity were "prepared to understand the Iraqi mindset" in 2003? This is a general point: many critics of the way the war was run, including I think Nato, have unrealistic estimates of how well it *could* have been run. Big, politicized bureaucracies just don't work all that well. They can performed long-established, traditional functions all right, but if you demand that they learn something new-- and nothing in US history was similar enough to the Iraq situation to be of much use-- and subtle in a dangerous environment, they will be pretty incompetent. Yet there may be some things that are worth doing even if you know you will do them incompetently. Regime change in Iraq was one of those things.

I should say that while the experience of the surge seems to vindicate the "more troops" line, it really doesn't. Post-surge troop levels were a lot closer to the initial Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz/Bush troop levels than to those called for by Shinseki. You can say, if you like, that we could pacify the country with fewer troops in 2007 with fewer troops than would have been needed in 2003, because we had learned a lot in the meantime. But that argument suggests that *knowledge,* not troop strength, was the real limiting factor on our success; and it's not clear how we could have fast-forwarded our own learning curve. Also, from an efficiency point of view, one could argue that 2007, when we had the benefits of learning, was a better time to pacify Iraq than 2003, when we didn't know what we were doing and didn't understand the Iraqi mindset.

More importantly, though, our own know-how may not have been the main thing that changed between 2003 and 2007. Though it is a bit distasteful, one may surmise that the post-war chaos had a salutary effect in some ways. If nothing else, it provided about the strongest conceivable refutation of the knee-jerk view of many Muslims and of the global left, namely that the invasion represented an "imperialist" desire for "conquest." Had we established order by overwhelming force, Iraqi nationalists and Islamists would probably have played the familiar game of taking order for granted while attacking-- through rhetoric, or maybe terrorism-- those who provide it. Post-war chaos sent a message: If you want order, you're going to have to do something about it yourselves. Like join the police, or the army. And make compromises.

Anyway, we'll never know what would have happened had Shinseki's advice been followed. I suspect it would have been a disaster: we would have inflamed Muslims' fears of imperialism much more than we did, while becoming overstretched, tempting revisionists all over the world. Retrospective advocates of "more troops" are not in a position to take the course of events as vindicating their views.

nato

" We didn't have the troops! Yes, we had them in the short run, but given rotation requirements we couldn't have sustained a presence on that scale. We could have expanded the army sooner, maybe, but even as it was we were pushing the limits of what the army could recruit. Right?"

We did have the troops in the short term, and if anyone had asked for them, we could have recruited and trained more in time for when we ran out. Recruiting more troops is expensive, however, so the administration didn't ask for more troops until 2007, after exhausting every stretch of the rules on soldier retention they could implement.

"Big, politicized bureaucracies just don't work all that well. They can performed long-established, traditional functions all right, but if you demand that they learn something new-- and nothing in US history was similar enough to the Iraq situation to be of much use."

Actually, there was indeed doctrine on these matters, gleaned from experiences as various as the Moro rebellion, post WWII reconstruction, Vietnam, Panama, the first Gulf War, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo. However, Wolfowitz decided, pace Nathan, that the doctrines written in those conflicts were useless and so rejected the Powell Shinseki view of things.

"You can say, if you like, that we could pacify the country with fewer troops in 2007 with fewer troops than would have been needed in 2003, because we had learned a lot in the meantime. But that argument suggests that *knowledge,* not troop strength, was the real limiting factor on our success"

Knowledge is what they call a 'force multiplier.' This expresses the idea that you can accomplish a task with far fewer people if you have the force multiplier (in this case knowledge) but it also operates under the assumption that if you *don't* have whatever it is, then more troops can make up the difference. I will agree that 160k troops in 2007 were probably more effective than 300k would have been in 2003. However, the problems of 2003 weren't as hard as the problems of 2007 either, since, as Nathan will note, we were at first welcomed my by a large segment of the populace as liberators. With that goodwill, we could get by with a lot fewer resources. In fact, I think that Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz were actually almost right in that even the Army of 2003 with 130k troops could have gotten the job done without any of the sporadically-escalating violence from 2003-2006, if only there'd been some sort of working relationship between State and the DoD such that a few of State's priorities could have gotten passed to the Army as at least secondary objectives. It was, in fact, a long list of things that had to be done wrong for things to have gone as badly as they did. Not choosing Ahmed Chalabi as proxy might have been sufficient. Having more troops probably would have been sufficient. Protecting sites on the major social infrastructure lists might have been sufficient. Admitting that the violence of Summer 2003 was the beginning of an insurgency and responding accordingly might have been sufficient. Listening to and taking action on ICRC reports of prisoner abuse might have been sufficient. Admitting we'd made mistakes in Iraq and that things weren't going as planned might have allayed real, widespread feelings in the Middle East and especially Iraq that we *wanted* Iraq humiliated and destroyed*. Avoiding certain other major missteps (at least one of which wasn't the administration's fault) might have halted the long spiral. But, that's not what happened. The administration's approach to Iraq all along required that everything go perfectly, with no margin for error.

"Retrospective advocates of "more troops" are not in a position to take the course of events as vindicating their views."

What counterfactual would have? Is the only thing that would prove that we in fact needed more troops the forced ejection of US forces from Iraq? I think almost four years of rising violence and anemic reconstruction progress is pretty good prima facie evidence. I mean, Rumsfeld seem to regard it as outlandish to think that the conflict in Iraq would last as long as six months** so it would appear that things got a little outside parameters.

As for inflaming fears of imperialism, it's actually in the Geneva conventions that occupying powers must enforce civil order. I'm sure many would have misunderstood us, but I'm not sure that those inclined to be suspicious would find 300k that much more ominous than 140k. Certainly this is one of those cases were doing it right is more important than offending conspiracy theorists.

There is a sort of legitimate worry that North Korea might become a problem during Iraq, and *that* was why we needed to hold back more troops, but this still doesn't explain why there was no request to grow the size of the Army for five years.

Wolfowitz famously said that Iraq could pay for its own construction, and indeed everything makes sense in the context of an administration trying to do everything on the cheap. This may have been politically useful, but in an era when the GOP controlled every branch of government, I don't see that it was necessary to execute the war at all.


*After all, we were the superpower! We could enforce order in Iraq if we wanted to, so we must not want to.

**Perhaps he was just committing the classic error of believing that the force-on-force action constituted the conflict, but, well, isn't that just the Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz mindset recapitulated?

Nathan Smith

re: "Actually, there was indeed doctrine on these matters, gleaned from experiences as various as the Moro rebellion, post WWII reconstruction, Vietnam, Panama, the first Gulf War, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo. However, Wolfowitz decided, pace Nathan, that the doctrines written in those conflicts were useless and so rejected the Powell Shinseki view of things."

And things might indeed have gone better if we had followed that doctrine more closely, but I doubt they would have gone well, by the standards that have been applied by the MSM and war critics. Because none of those historical episodes does bear a very strong resemblance to the Iraq war. Somalia was rather pre-civilized than post-totalitarian. Germany and Japan were defeated in war and exhausted, and in no position to deny the justice of their occupation. In Vietnam, half the country was under enemy rule. In the first Gulf War we didn't really try to regime change Iraq. Etc.

re: "It was, in fact, a long list of things that had to be done wrong for things to have gone as badly as they did. Not choosing Ahmed Chalabi as proxy might have been sufficient. Having more troops probably would have been sufficient. Protecting sites on the major social infrastructure lists might have been sufficient. Admitting that the violence of Summer 2003 was the beginning of an insurgency and responding accordingly might have been sufficient. Listening to and taking action on ICRC reports of prisoner abuse might have been sufficient. Admitting we'd made mistakes in Iraq and that things weren't going as planned might have allayed real, widespread feelings in the Middle East and especially Iraq that we *wanted* Iraq humiliated and destroyed*."

This strikes me as rather Pollyanna-ish. The precise sequence of problems that occurred might have been avoided in any number of different ways; but other problems might have occurred instead. I think regime-changing Iraq by force was always going to be bloody, difficult, complicated, and full of unforeseeable* problems. Unforeseeable, not in the sense that nobody could have foreseen them-- with so many scribblers around someone surely will have foreseen almost anything that happens-- but that no agency could have foreseen them.

nato

But those were mostly easy. I mean, it's not a tricky question as to whether one should take an ICRC memo seriously, nor does it take a real judgment call to avoid putting in a position of power someone (Chalabi) who your human spy agency (the CIA) says is an unreliable crook. I suppose bureaucratic infighting can frequently result in the blacklisting of experienced folks from State, but in context it looks like a pattern, not just one of those things.

And the extra troops for unforeseen contingencies? They're not the easy answer, but they are the only serious one.

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