Thursday, November 30, 2006
Knowledge God:
Josh writes:
I know there are a lot of people who either think that Iraq was a doable proposition that was botched or a project destined for failure no matter how it was handled. There are, needless to say, fewer and fewer in the former category. And I'd basically class myself in the latter one, if pushed. But both strike me as needlessly dogmatic viewpoints which make it harder to learn from the myriad mistakes that were made while telling us little about how we extricate ourselves from the mess.
Really? Determining whether Iraq was undoable from the start or died a death of a thousand compounding incompetencies would strike me as precisely the thing that will allow us to learn from the myriad mistakes made. Of course, the answer is both ultimately unknowable and won't allow us much in the way of lessons for extrication. But it's worth sacrificing a measure of certainty for drawing relevant lessons for the future.

Lesson one: determine within a reasonable probability whether a given population will accept or reject occupation; and as a derivative, under what circumstances a population will accept an occupation of a certain sort for a certain duration. I further concede from the outset that history is an imprecise guide here -- nothing in Afghanistan's history, for instance, would indicate that Afghans would by and large accept a U.S. presence for five years. But it's a pretty important question, since it sets parameters from the start for adressing the question of whether the mission is futile; whether it's difficult but ultimately worth the effort; or whether it can be expected to succeed at reasonable cost. From there, you can factor in the impact of given mistakes in given areas -- an inability to provide security, or electricity, and so forth.

Certainly this is an inexact science, but it's important to note that nearly every political and social division in Iraq that has doomed the occupation was foreseen by the National Intelligence Council before the invasion. And while not everything was foreseeable, we have a rather substantial amount of information that allowed people who were willing to seek these judgments out to make them. The fact that we had to learn about this after the occupation is an instance of Bush administration deception and manipulation of the political process. If we had this information out before the invasion -- indeed, had George Tenet not refused, in the service of Bush, to cut off CIA forecasts of postwar Iraq from the October 2002 NIE on Iraq's WMD, we could have had a much, much more open debate about the wisdom of going to war.

Now, I concede again that this is slightly off Josh's main point, and I further doubt Josh would really disagree with much of this. But we'll miss a lot of the actual lessons of Iraq if all we conclude is next time we have to flood an occupied country with troops and keep the lights on. We need to know whether or not the enterprise has a ghost of a chance of success before we invade.
--Spencer Ackerman
I believe it's important that we reject the "botch job" analysis.

If we accept what you and others call the "incompetence dodge," then we entertain the fantasy that in more capable hands, the war could have turned out well and we will leave Iraq having learned nothing.

I am not an abstract pacifist, but I believe the upside of the Iraq tragedy is that it has taught us an important lesson about the limitations of using military might to democratize the world.
Blogger The Special | 6:25 PM

DJ, hey, we're not disagreeing. My point about Afghanistan is just that history would suggest that a five-year occupation would never be welcomed in even a circumsribed manner, so we're overperforming here. Mike Scheuer and others think it's inevitable that we'll be thrown out, and I don't think that's wrong. History isn't destiny, but it is of course the best we have. My point in that regard was only a caveat, not the substance of my argument, as you can see.

And nah, I'm in DC. You back on the Planet?
Blogger Spencer Ackerman | 3:16 PM