The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

The Clash over Iraq


July 21, 2006

I have been revisiting US policy in Iraq of late– to the extent that you can revisit an ongoing issue. Mostly, this comes in the form of reading Cobra II, Squandered Victory, the Foreign Affairs articles and on-line debates, and of course the fine work posted here on the Duck. After all this, I’m not sure I have an opinion or even a learned analysis on the issue (even given my previous postings on the topic). Quite frankly, I’m not sure what to think anymore in strictly analytic / “expert analyst” sense. My mood, however, is certainly one of pessimism and skepticism– not just of the Bush Administration anymore, but of the whole enterprise. Given how badly its been bungled to date (and you can’t read these books without cringing at missteps and poor choices every other page), I don’t think any US plan or leader could do any better.

So, it comes down to a Clash over Iraq:

Should we stay or should we go now?
if we go there will be trouble
and if we stay it will be double
so come on and let me know

The indecisions bugging me
if you don’t want me set me free
Exactly who’m I’m supposed to be?

I really don’t know a better way to say it. Two themes really stand out across the discussion of Iraq: 1) the blind ideoligical faith the various layers of the Administration had in their plan and 2) the nearly incompetent way that plan was implemented, again at all levels–most notably a failure to adjust and adapt to the “reality based community” encountered in Iraq. Its not just that there were “thousands of tatical errors” (of course there were), but there were massive strategic, policy, and “decider” errors as well.

Start with Cobra II (a very solid and comprehensive narrative about the pre-invasion and invasion with excellent insider sourcing). Traditional Foreign Policy Analysis teaches us to look for and evaluate the process of Decision Making. Yet, its clear here that there was no real process of decision making on Iraq. CENTCOM was asked to plan the invasion very early on in the process and dutifully did so. Bush essentially lied about not having war plans on his desk and Franks certainly lied that he had not been asked to make them. Its a fait-acompli, launched on a whim and series of assumptions. Of course, when you assume as everyone knows, you make an ASS of U and ME, and the Bush Administration was no different. Consider the “we’ll be greeted as liberators” part. Its not just that this was a poor assumption coupled with faulty intelligence– it became part of the strategy and had serious costs to the troops encounering hostile fire from Iraqis less than happy to see them. Or consider Frank’s warplan. He always focused on the center of gravity, the Republican Guard, figuring that the real war would be a showdown between the 3rd ID and the Special Republican Guard Divisions somewhere close to Baghdad. He never grasped (until it was far too late) that the real battle was in the rear areas, with an irregular enemy–the Fedeyeen. This was the begining of the ongoing insurgency, and its reasonable to surmise that had Franks ordered US forces to beef up the rear areas and spend a few days wiping out this small, insurgent-style resistance, that the current insurgency would certainly be less severe than it is now. Instead, he had his forces race to an undefended Baghdad. Or what of Rumsfeld’s blind faith in military transformation? Too few troops, and no new reinforcements when they were needed most in the immediate post-conflict moments.

Move to Diamond’s Squandered Victory– again, you see a CPA unwilling to meet with Iraqis, take them and their demands seriously, and unable to fathom any compromises to their plan. Sistani seemed to want legitimacy through elections, something the CPA simply would not give, and it worked to undermine each and every action toward setting up a provisional government. Those from a democracy, sent to build a democracy, forgot the greatest lesson of democracy: its strength is its legitimacy. The cost of legitimacy is certainly a messy and unpredictable (or as far as the CPA was concerned, controllable) process, but the pay-off is a legitimate government capable of taking decisive action to, say, stop an insurgency.

The overall assumption evident throughout the political appointees of the Administration (and among Neo-con talking heads) was that inside each little Iraqi was an American just waiting to get out. The head of Iraq may have been poisoned by Saddam, but the body was healthy, and if we cut off the head, the body would simply grow a new one more to our liking. But, people are not born as rational economic actors with well-ordered preferences that naturally emerge in a free market–be it political or economic. The free market (both politically and economically) that the neocons (including Cheney and Bremmer) sought to create in Iraq may have been possible to creat, but it could not and would not exist prima-facie in a post-Saddam environment. Indeed, as my colleagues here are quite adept at explaining, the rules of markets are social constructs, and must continually be reinforced through a social process of legitimation.

Perhaps if Bush had a few Constructivists on his NSC, things might have gone a bit better.

(a momentary pause while you stop laughing at the insanity of that last statement)

All of which leads me to essentially agree with what Marc Lynch suggests:

Which brings me to the question of withdrawal. I’ve long been skeptical about the calls for it, for two main reasons: First, it seemed irresponsible to walk away from the mess the United States has made, repeating on a larger scale the elder Bush’s abandonment of Iraqi Shiites and Kurds to Saddam’s tender mercies. And second, announcing plans for withdrawal seemed likely to create dangerous incentives for all political actors to game the schedule. But those reasons now pale in comparison to the problems posed by not withdrawing. It seems the height of strategic irresponsibility to remain in a place where there is not only no realistic plan for victory, but also every indication that the American presence is making things worse.

At this point, focusing solely on coming up with a strategy for “victory” does not make sense, because no such strategy is out there. The United States does not need to defeat insurgents or jihadists in hand-to-hand combat to prove its mettle, and indeed, the more it tries to impose its will in Iraq now the worse the results are likely to be. Washington’s credibility is so low, its presence so inflammatory, that virtually any initiative under an American brand name will generate resistance. For these reasons, therefore, I have regretfully come to the conclusion that—although much would depend on the terms, context, and execution of it—a gradual U.S. withdrawal seems like the least bad option still available.

I think Marc is spot-on. There is no “good” outcome here, and our futile pursuit of such a “victory” may actually make matters worse. Leaving isn’t much better, but consider this option: the fundamental problem with the nacent Iraqi government is its weakness and legitimacy. Consider this: what if we could strengthen that government by enhancing its legitimacy by allowing it to take back the country from our occupation.

Maybe that’s who we’re supposed to be.

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Dr. Peter Howard focuses on US foreign policy and international security. He studies how the implementation of foreign policy programs produces rule-based regional security regimes, conducting research in Estonia on NATO Expansion and US Military Exchange programs and South Korea on nuclear negotiations with North Korea.