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December 11, 2009



To be very clear: my criticisms of Iraq have been of two main threads. The paramount objection was that it was (in my opinion) shockingly ill-conducted for the first four years. Second (and in my mind this is a more debatable point), my main antebellum criticism was that the timing seemed poor. I think Tom's criticisms are the same, though I do seem to remember him being more skeptical than I am regarding "imposition" of democracy.


"The paramount objection was that it was (in my opinion) shockingly ill-conducted for the first four years."

Inevitable. As a legacy of the Vietnam War, the military had no comprehensive doctrine for the post-war and in fact was institutionally resistant to developing that doctrine, until forced. Necessity compelled and along came GEN Petraeus and counterinsurgency. Because COIN succeeded in Iraq, President Obama has had the option to try a version of it in Afghanistan.

"Second (and in my mind this is a more debatable point), my main antebellum criticism was that the timing seemed poor."

There never was going to be better timing. After the escalation to bombing Iraq under President Clinton in Dec 1998, the serious threat of regime change, as articulated by President Clinton, was the only remaining higher enforcement option. We were left with 3 choices for dealing with Iraq:

A. Continue indefinitely and head-lining the corrupted, provocative, harmful and failed sanctions and 'containment' mission.
B. End the mission and release Saddam from constraint, in power and victorious.
C. Give Saddam a final chance to comply, and if he triggered the final enforcement step, move ahead with regime change and nation-building.

After Op Desert Fox, we took Option-A. Option-B was unacceptable. Option-C would have lacked enough support in any other circumstance than the one in which GWB acted. If GWB did not act when he did in order to force a decisive turning point with Iraq, we would have continued Option-A indefinitely, probably past the GWB presidency. Then what? Restore Saddam to full sovereignty and rights? Or, sustain the deteriorating 'containment' and sanctions against Iraq forever?

The timing may indeed have been poor, but there was no better time for Option-C.


It was not, in fact, inevitable. Senior people in the State Department, the Pentagon and intelligence services had already learned a number of lessons in post-Cold War stability operations that, if applied, would have avoided a lot of the obvious mistakes. Those people were blocked (almost all of State), shoulder-tapped (e.g. out goes SFOR-experienced Shinseki in favor of Franks with only symmetric war experience) or ignored (the folks doing the analysis on Ahmed Chalabi, who knew he was a crook and a liar). This appeared almost entirely a matter of political reliability rather than competence. Doug Feith was manifestly unqualified and the OSP may as well have been designed to generate analysis to fit policy rather than the other way around.

Basically, the government agencies were prevented from doing things right, and if they'd been allowed to accomplish their missions as they saw fit, we wouldn't have made the kinds of mistakes we did. We'd have made mistakes, I'm sure, but not the easy, obvious ones.

As for timing, it's true that there's a definite argument to be made that Bush wouldn't have been politically-able to do anything about Saddam if he had waited at all, and he certainly seems to have acted under that idea. I disagree, and think that if he had taken more time working the diplomatic angle with our allies and antagonists that we could have started off on a better foot. That said, on this point I feel far less certain so I won't insist on it. Just mark that that my initial objection to the war rested on that general line of argument.

One thing that I will admit: The Bush administration of the last two years seemed to grasp what it needed to do in Iraq pretty well. I thought the surge wasn't likely to succeed because I had no faith that they had actually learned any lessons, but I was wrong about that. Bob Gates was a great choice, and Petraeus of 2006 at least knew what we really needed to do. If I had examined those they chose to lead the effort rather than stoking my bitter pessimism with the laughable AEI slideshow on the surge, I might have known better.

Nathan Smith

Well, I'm with Eric on this one. "Hindsight is 20/20," the saying goes, meaning that it's easy to see after the fact what was the best thing to do; but in this case the problem is actually different: it's not at all easy to know what would have happened if we had followed the advice of Shinseki et al. The Rumsfeld liberationist-minimalist approach has something to be said for it, namely, that if the biggest danger going in was that we would look like imperialists trying to dominate the country, what better way to dispel that suspicion than... not to dominate the country? I haven't heard anything close to a good answer to the question of how you secure a country against *terror,* against suicide bombers and the like, when they are likely to have a fair amount of public support. As for Chalabi being "a crook and a liar"... well, yes, in a society as messed up as Iraq you're going to have to deal with a lot of unsavory characters. It seems like most of the people we had to work with are old Saddam henchmen (Allawi) or pawns of Iran (possibly Maliki, or at least he could have turned out to be one). In post-totalitarian societies all the prominent people are going to tend to be bad. What you've got to hope for is that they *convert,* and that's often not a vain hope: the way people turn out is partly a function of their environment, and when you change the environment radically, some people may change quite sharply. Nato seems to think that if the advice of a certain clique of experts had been followed everything would have been fine. I wouldn't rule out that possibility. But experts often get things wrong, very wrong, and in a situation as really radical and unprecedented as Iraq-- no, I don't buy that much of the army's "counter-insurgency" experience was very relevant; maybe enough that it could be used in 2006 when a lot had been learned about Iraq by experience, but not in 2003-- they're more likely than not to be wrong. It's not that experts have no value, they do; they can brainstorm; they can avoid some elementary errors; they're more likely than your average Joe to come up with something brilliant; and in situations that are highly standard, familiar, routine, which Iraq certainly wasn't, they may even be able reliably to tell you the best way to act. But one should never assume, or even consider it very likely, that their unheeded advice would have turned out the way they said in a novel situation. I didn't expect things *ex ante* to turn out better than they did turn out, and what I've seen since has not induced me to revise upwards my *ex ante* judgment of what the odds were of things turning out neatly. On the timing I don't see how one avoids the conclusion that if we hadn't done it in March 2003 it would only have gotten harder, and fast. The streets were exploding with anti-war protests. We were losing ground diplomatically. The French veto threat provided a pretext for invasion that was unlikely to be improved on. That the military was exhausted by Afghanistan is not the sort of argument that can bear much weight. Foreign policy can't be conducted at the military's convenience.

In any case, Nato's criticism of Bush, however stormily he (and much more so Tom) might sometimes express it, is really a moderate one. It's not a fundamental challenge to the legitimacy of the war, or to the precedent set thereby. It's a thousand miles from the left/far-right view that US intervention is always bad in its motives and consequences. It's just as far from the sovereigntist claim that it's illegal to overturn a sovereign state just because it's totalitarian and vaguely dangerous. It isn't a claim that UN authorization is necessary. It isn't a claim that American lives should only be sacrificed when narrow US interests-- or even US territorial integrity-- are at stake. Prior to March 2003, I think much of the world, much of the United States, much of the diplomatic establishment, would have regarded the liberation of Iraq as inconceivable because of half-conscious beliefs about sovereignty, about the UN being the touchstone of international legitimacy, about military intervention in non-Western nations being "imperialist" and therefore nefarious, and about strong US casualty-aversion. Inasmuch as Nato-- like Obama-- is not reviving those sources of resistance to Iraq-style interventions, he lets the Iraq precedent stand.


Nathan takes my main point, that neither Tom nor I opposed the war on sovereignty grounds or whatever. Legality in the international sense is most meaningful to me in terms of expressing whether our foreign policy is likely to be stabilizing or destabilizing, as well as how likely other actors are to see the United States as behaving roguishly. I would tend to aver that my position is more or less the standard center-left position in the US. When I encounter wingers I try to gently nudge them away from their conspiracy theories, but even here in San Francisco I don't encounter them as often as all that.

As an aside, Nathan's defense of the Chalabi choice is pretty apt, and would be the position I would take except that I have actually seen the 2002 intelligence reports on the various Iraqi exile leaders. Yes, they all had issues, but Chalabi was far and away the most sketchy. I believe there's already quite a bit declassified about that, though I'm not sure if there have been FOIA requests for them. I cannot imagine why anyone reading those analyses chose to hang post-invasion plans on him, except that he was willing to tell us what we wanted to hear. To be honest, I would love if Nathan could offer some other justification, because it was gut-wrenching, back in 2005, to discover we already knew our guy was a total crook when we chose him.

Nathan Smith

re: "I would tend to aver that my position is more or less the standard center-left position in the US."

Nato unduly flatters "the center-left" by suggesting that there is such a thing as "the center-left position" on the Iraq War in the United States. Visceral opposition to the Iraq war was very widespread, and not confined to any part of the political spectrum as one might define the political spectrum with regard to any other issue. Much of its intellectual content was very crude, e.g., "no blood for oil"-- I don't think it's possible to make sense of this slogan-- or "Saddam didn't attack us," as if it has ever been the practice of the United States to wage war only when its territory has been violated. Moreover, the ideological attitudes within the anti-Iraq war camp were contradictory, from principled pacifism to 1930s-style isolationism to a liberal interventionism distressed by UN legitimation.

Nor is it possible for the phrase "Iraq was an illegal war!" with the meaning Nato suggests for it, namely, "Legality in the international sense is most meaningful to me in terms of expressing whether our foreign policy is likely to be stabilizing or destabilizing, as well as how likely other actors are to see the United States as behaving roguishly." It is definitive of law that it not be a popularity contest, that it draws bright lines between legal and illegal which are more or less immune to what anyone thinks of them. Corruption may be stable but it is still illegal. Fighting corruption may be destabilizing but it is still virtuous with respect to the law. A judge who jails Robin Hood for theft is enforcing the law whether or not the populace thinks him a rogue for doing it. I think that those who believe the Iraq war is illegal do so because they hold that international law prohibits the unprovoked overthrow of sovereign regimes (no matter how murderous) without UN authorization, and those who are *uneasy* about the war because they fear it *might* be illegal feel that way because they think international law might prohibit the unprovoked overthrow of sovereign states (no matter how murderous) without UN authorization. To define "legality" as vaguely and elasticly as Nato does is to detach it from any proper idea of "law."

I'm not informed enough to defend the Chalabi choice, but Nato's arguments still don't make sense to me. Is he objecting to the Chalabi choice out of moral squeamishness because of Chalabi's sketchy past and character, or because he thinks it led to damaging consequences that a different choice would have avoided? If the former, was Chalabi so bad that collaborating him was anything like as bad as many others we have made, e.g., arming Stalin? If the latter, what were the dire consequences of working with Chalabi, how did those result from, and how could they have been foreseen on the basis of, his sketchiness?


I would say "international law" aren't reified national laws passed within a certain legal/constitutional tradition, which is why saying a war is "illegal" has to be understood differently if it's to be understandable at all. Nathan may say that something less veridical than ordinary laws aren't laws, and he may have a point, but nonetheless I try to ascribe the meaning that makes the most sense to such attempts at communication. Even if I suspect the real content is "I assume all military action by the West is for theft unless proven otherwise." If it's the latter, then it becomes evident immediately. If it's something less silly, then assuming it's silly just causes my interlocutor to dismiss me.

As for Chalabi, it is the latter. The man lied through his teeth about what sort of exile support he could muster and how able he would be to form some kind of caretaker government. For weeks he squandered the United States' backing and credit to run around bullying, stealing and I don't know precisely what else. We could hardly have done much worse to select Muqtada al-Sadr. At least Sadr could muster the forces he claimed. Chalabi's inadequacy, illegitimacy and moral turpitude had a terrible effect on the population's idea of what the US's intent in Iraq was, and actively discouraged those who would have been the first to cooperate in the reconstruction of a democratic Iraq. Backing Chalabi was a disaster precisely because he destroyed a great deal of the joy Nathan likes to remind us that people felt in being liberated.

Further, though Alawi was considered somewhat authoritarian (something that every other major Iraqi leader shared, of course), he was at least relatively uncorrupt and competent. If we felt the need to back someone, it should have been him. The only major mark I can see against Alawi is that he didn't tell us what we wanted to hear. Maybe Feith et al. just thought they were smarter than the CIA's analysts and ignored their assessment of Chalabi. Or maybe they ignored it because Chalabi was politically popular amongst the neocon set. But I literally cannot think of another motivation to anoint Chalabi.

Nathan Smith

re: "I would say "international law" aren't reified national laws passed within a certain legal/constitutional tradition"

Yes they are though, that's the whole point. There's a tradition of international law going back to Hugo Grotius, through the "war guilt" clause of the Versailles treaty, the League of Nations, the Kellogg-Briand Pact, the Nuremberg trials, the constitution and processes of the UN, etc. A lot of people take comfort in the idea that states are just *not allowed* to invade each other the way they so often did in the past. It's *written down* that they can't. There are tribunals, primarily the UN, at which aggression can be judged.

It occurs to me that the most effective way to revive the sovereignty doctrine at this point might actually be to *support* the Iraq war on narrow legalistic grounds while ignoring or disavowing the the case for war that the administration laid down *ex post.* The US and its allies were authorized to overthrow Saddam by UN Resolution 1441, or perhaps by earlier resolutions, you might argue. Had they not been so authorized, the invasion would be illegal, and Bush and Blair would belong in The Hague; but in that case (one might maintain) the invasion would not have occurred. That the war led to the liberation of the Iraqi people from a murderous tyranny is legally irrelevant. Equally irrelevant are the angry charges of warmongering and imperialism hurled at the US by people around the world; the decline in the US's global popularity, etc. Saddam's regime forfeited its sovereign rights not at all by gassing the Kurds or torturing its subjects-- sad as it may seem, such deplorable actions are entirely within the rights of sovereign states-- but solely because he violated his commitments under previous treaties. In future, regimes like Saddam's will remain in power if they obey international law and will be deposed like his if they do not.

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