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August 12, 2009



Actually, Al Qaeda didn't have to be so indiscriminate and macabre with their violence; that was function of their particular ideology and especially the personalities (e.g. the deranged Zarqawi) in charge in Iraq. Since they viewed everything through the lens of a universal (and universally self-excuplatory) holy war, their grasp on the Iraqi mindset was weak and their regard for norms was weaker. We had the same problems to some extent, but we fixed ourselves before they did, so we won. Counterinsurgencies and anti-terror operations are won on (popular) legitimacy, the value of which we underestimated at the beginning but now understand much better.

Nathan Smith

re: "Al Qaeda didn't have to be so indiscriminate and macabre with their violence"

That would have been better for us, since less violence would make us look less bad for creating the conditions in which it occurred. So it's not clear how this possibility weakens the *ex ante* case for the war (*ex post* it doesn't matter since it didn't happen). If anything it might strengthen it.

Building counter-insurgency capacity in the US military is, of course, yet another beneficial consequence of the war.


Very few of the ex post facts weaken the ex ante case for the war (WMD being the major exception), though many of them, I assert, weaken for the case for the war as it was pursued. If one wants to add the imagined inevitability that Al Qaeda would be so trapped to the ex ante case, one may do so, I suppose, though that would raise quite a few other questions. Was it also inevitable that there would be a long period of rising violence before we got things under control? Was it inevitable that we would be there in force for years? If so - and these predictions are much easier to support ex-ante than the inevitability of Al Qaeda's strategic self-immolation - then many of the strategic decisions we made would have been similarly weakened ex-ante. One could say that we should have known we needed to grow the army, and that we needed to increase armor, and etc. The Bush apologist would do much better to say "no one could have known!" and stick there.


Really, a Rumsfeld apologist, since he was the source of the bulk of the really horrible mistakes, with Cheney accounting for a few more. Bush's principles seemed to be generally in the right place, though he evidently wasn't equipped to ameliorate the excesses of the people making the problems.

Nathan Smith

Well, I don't think Al Qaeda's "self-immolation" was inevitable, but if Al Qaeda had just left us alone in Iraq and things had gone smoothly-- and it seems like there would have been a lot less violence and maybe not much at all without Al Qaeda catalyzing it-- a new Iraqi democracy in the heart of the Middle East under American tutelage would be a very potent ideological challenger for them. Al Qaeda also would have lost a lot of prestige by letting that happen. They could hardly claim to be the militant vanguard of Islam if they didn't bother to fight an American invasion of Iraq. Whether a more civilized fight in Iraq, on their side, would have been useful is hard to say. They're obviously no match for the US military in conventional warfare, so they had to engage in the "asymmetric" kind, e.g., terrorism and gratuitously gruesome atrocities. The Shiites were comparatively patient at first (Sadr being a partial exception) so without extreme provocation Al Qaeda might not have been able to provoke the degree of violent conflict necessary to offset the morale-boosting "purple finger" revolutions at the ballot box. I suspect they were checkmated.

If I wanted to take a Rumsfeld apologist line (which I don't necessarily), here's how I would do it. A larger US presence in Iraq could have stabilized the country more quickly and with less bloodshed, but in the grand scheme of things that's not so important. Iraq is just one country, after all. There are dozens of other places with nasty dictatorships (albeit none quite so nasty as Saddam's, with the possible exception of North Korea). The main thing is to send a warning to those dictators that their shenanigans will no longer be tolerated, that are willing and able to overthrow them, and see them hung. If they see that threat and believe it, they will try to be just civilized enough to escape that fate. In effect, we would supply a "political social safety net," making sure that oppression and totalitarianism couldn't pass a certain threshold or people would be rescued from them, though the job of building a better order would be left to them. Now, in order to produce that credible threat, the US needed to get out of Iraq fast, and not spend too much, so as to be in a fiscal and military position to enforce the new rules if necessary.

I guess you could also say that while overthrowing Saddam served our national interests, building Iraqi democracy didn't really do much for *us*. We had already taken out one enemy and sent a warning to others. Even using Iraq as a battleground against Al Qaeda wasn't so necessary, because the Shiites, backed by Iran if necessary, would do our fighting for us: they had out, in their own self-interest. We could supply them with weapons. I wonder if this is why Bush was more popular while Rumsfeld was calling the shots, than later, when Rumsfeld was gradually marginalized and then fired. People sensed that the Bush administration was really serving the national interest in 2003-2005 or so, but that after that it was only the Iraqis' interests, not ours, that were being served.

All this is not very humanitarian, of course. One might say it was just unacceptable to leave Iraq to anarchy and civil war after we removed Saddam's regime, even if some vast utilitarian calculus involving creating credible threats against bad regimes might favor the Rumsfeld approach. I'm not sure myself. I can see both sides.

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