Thu 4 Jan 2007
Virtually everyone now agrees that the war in Iraq has been a vast mistake. But what, exactly, was the nature of that mistake? The isolationist left and the realist right—George McGovern and Brent Scowcroft—emphasize that our error was intervening in the absence of overwhelming national interest. At the opposite end of the foreign policy continuum, the neoconservatives contend that invading Iraq was a perfectly good idea undermined by incompetent implementation. In the space between are liberal hawks who originally supported the war and a variety of skeptics who didn’t. They now tend to agree that the war was both a mistake in theory and a disaster in execution. […]
But if the invasion of Iraq is mainly a case of bungled execution—a war that, whether justified or not in principle, could have left behind a peaceful, functioning Iraqi state at a tolerable cost—then the isolationist/realist lesson is the wrong one to draw.
Ah, the soft bigotry of low expectations. You could invade the greater Tigris/Euphrates region at any point in human history, and the end result could be a peaceful, functioning Iraqi state at a tolerable cost. I know of no physical law which would prevent it. You get lucky, you work smart, and anything is possible, right? You could invade Sweden tomorrow, re-name it “Iraq”, and have yourself a marvelous, if slightly Nordic, Iraqi state. Heck, you could have left the whole mess alone four years ago, and you would have had a relatively peaceful, functioning, pain-in-the-ass Iraqi state (and by the standards of Iraq today, it was practically Sweden) at the extremely tolerable cost of nuthin. This was a very do-able, pretty well un-fuck-up-able plan. Funny story about that.
I understand the desire to decouple theory and execution here, and I think it’s a smart thing to try and do, but you can’t really evaluate anything without putting it back together again. It is pointless to say that, regardless out of the outcome, the idea behind the Iraq war was sound - if you refuse to measure your theory against the real world, then it isn’t really a theory about this world at all. And it is equally pointless to say that, whether justified or not in principle, Iraq was or wasn’t executed successfully. The standards for judging success have to come from the justifications for the war, or else you end up with some arbitrary mush like “[leave] behind a
democratic pro-American peaceful, functioning Iraqi state at a tolerable cost”. As arbitrary mushes go, this one isn’t bad, but why, of all the neutered, post-hoc rationalizations one could come up with, should this one earn the glorious sobriquet “victory”? Why not Ralph Peters’ idea that we win if we turn Iraq into a pan-Middle East death match? I’m afraid that what we’ve got as a standard is effectively something along the lines of “we should bring about some outcome which we find desireable”. Well, no duh. From a certain point of view it seems coldly rational to discuss Iraq without digging up all that unpleasant business about al Qaeda, WMD, and imminent gathering threats, but it just doesn’t make any sense.
But nothing that went wrong in Iraq, including the Sunni-Shiite civil whatever, was fated or inevitable. The difference between Kosovo and Iraq isn’t between a country that wanted peace and one that didn’t. It was a matter of better management and better luck. To assume that American intervention can’t work ignores the relative success of recent “wars of choice” in Bosnia and Kosovo (leaving aside the more debatable propositions of Somalia, Haiti, and Panama).
Closer to the truth, it seems to me, is the broad middle ground occupied by various supporters, opponents, and journalistic neutrals, who, whatever their views on the war’s original merits, think that the catastrophe in Iraq was contingent rather than foreordained. Reading Thomas Rick’s Fiasco, or Larry Diamond’s Squandered Victory, or James Fallows’ Blind Into Baghdad, or George Packer’s Assassins’ Gate, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Bush and the Pentagon made a series of avoidable, catastrophic errors in the run-up to the war and the first year of the occupation. These errors were so significant that they virtually guaranteed our defeat. […]
There is, of course, no way to know what might have happened if we hadn’t made these mistakes, and others. An American defeat still would have been possible with better planning, sufficient troops, realistic goals, and sound strategy. But even in this mistakenly chosen war, our failure wasn’t inevitable. It is the product of blunders made along the way by President Bush and his people—and the blunders they are making still.
So, again, if we decide to ignore the fact that Kosovo had a coherent justification, and Iraq didn’t, then yeah, the primary remaining difference is that the Kosovo war was not run by total morons, a staffing decision which everyone outside the Bush administration agrees was wise. And so, abracadabra, all serious persons approve of Kosovo and distain Iraq. But notably absent from Weisberg’s list of recent wars is Afghanistan, because it really shows the pointlessness of this entire exercise. If we ignore the reasons for things, the primary difference between Iraq and Afghanistan is, well, not a whole lot. Afghanistan is not on its way to peace or functionality any more than Iraq is. But while the conditions in both countries are similarly awful, it is generally agreed that Afghanistan - while totally fucked up in execution - is not a strategic failure, because the justification for the war was clear, and, by these clear standards, an (incomplete) victory was achieved. Meanwhile Iraq has morphed from a mission with a surplus of grand goals into this desperately muddled hunt for ponies. Now, wars often end up having evolving goals, but when the justification for the war ends up becoming completely exinct, Darwin would say this says something about the fitness of these ideas. This seems like a topic for discussion.
I’d also like to say something about Weisberg’s “middle”. It’s not a particularly useful descriptor, but, as far as it goes, it’s a position that - like the longest line at the grocery store - people find themselves in quite frequently. Now, I know a lot of people, including some real goddamn idiots, and yet not one of them would describe a position on Iraq which completely ignores the reasons for invading as being in the middle of anything, or at least of anything you’d want to be in. Weisberg isn’t really fully wrong about anything here, it’s just that (as somewhat damaged goods) he is taking great pains to marginalize the opinion that the disaster in Iraq (and beyond) is to a very significant degree the result of fundamental problems with the way the Bush administration uses American power. And this was a position which was being put forth, in real time, by people between (and even beyond, if you can imagine such country) those far-out marginal figures McGovern and Scowcroft. Here is one version, written six months before the war, although it could almost have been written at any point during the last half-century. It is a much more articulate version of the opinions of perhaps a majority of Americans before the war. Opposition to the invasion came from any number of places, and one of those was from the tradition of post-WWII American statecraft and the admittedly nebulous understanding of this tradition by most of the public - the middle, for whatever it’s worth, by any measure. The idea that the invasion of Iraq was just a badly-run version of Kosovo is a half-truth with some currency in certain circles, although it’s not exactly what you’d call “mainstream”. Wave your Freak Flag, man!