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

Whether the Iraq mission was "doable" much depends on what you believe "the mission" was in Iraq in the first place. Was it to "disarm Saddam," as was claimed at the time, or was it to start some sort of democratic tide in the Arab world, which we belatedly adopted as the causus belli?

If we take Bush at his (earlier) word, the mission was not "doable" because Saddam didn't actually have WMDs. Never mind that our plan seemed to be designed to provoke Saddam into using them in self-defence against our troops or even giving them to a terrorist group to spite us.

If we are to believe that the mission was to create a stable democracy, we probably shouldn't have started with levelling institutions, civic society and infrastructure, or killing a few hundred thousand people and impoverishing the rest. The idea that sending 300,000 more newly drafted infantrymen to shoot looters or whatever it is we pretend to call 'keeping order' (as the liberal hawk camp seems to think) would have created a liberal democracy out of a fractured starving state is a dangerous fantasy.

Spencer, I disagree that history is an imprecise guide. It's the only way to put the present in context, and we ignore it at our peril. The history of Afghanistan, for example, is a pretty good indicator that no foreign occupier since Cyrus can hold the entire country for more than a few years. Not surprisingly, the reach of Karzai's government barely exceeds Kabul and warlords run the rest of the country. In Iraq, it's hard to believe that we could ignore the fact that our embargo, which killed 1.5 million Iraqis, did not endear US troops to the people. Not to mention the fact that one of the intended effects of the embargo was supposedly to prod Shiite rebellion against the Ba'ath in the first place.

On the other hand, if we believe the mission was simply to remove Saddam from power, then it was eminently doable. Mission Accomplished. Our troops were never supposed to be nation-builders anyway. Print up some banners and stage some photo ops!

P.S. This is D. J., from Science... Just found your blog, good to see you're out from under TNR's thumb. Are you still in Brooklyn?
Blogger djw | 7:33 AM

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

Yep, back on the planet after a long absence. It seems like this is the only way I can communicate with you since you have wisely hidden your e-mail from the public.

I'm not as bright:
Blogger djw | 8:52 PM