War Stories

He Saw It Coming

The former Bushie who knew Iraq would go to pot.

Among the many remarks that Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz no doubt wishes he hadn’t made, the following, from prewar congressional testimony last February, stands out:

It’s hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself and secure the surrender of Saddam’s security forces and his army. Hard to imagine.

It’s one thing to be wrong. It’s another to be incapable of imagining yourself wrong. Much of what has gone wrong in the Bush administration’s postwar Iraq policy can be attributed to a failure of imagination. But there was no excuse for this particular failure. In the previous dozen years, U.S. armed forces had taken part in five major post-conflict nation-building exercises, four of them in predominantly Muslim nations. There is a record of what works and what doesn’t. Had Wolfowitz studied the record, or talked with those who had, he wouldn’t have made such a wrongheaded remark.

Through much of the Bush administration, Wolfowitz could merely have picked up the phone and called a colleague named James Dobbins.

Dobbins was Bush’s special envoy to post-Taliban Afghanistan. Through the 1990s, under Presidents Clinton and (the first) Bush, Dobbins oversaw postwar reconstruction in Kosovo, Bosnia, Haiti, and Somalia. Now a policy director at the Washington office of the Rand Corp., he has co-authored a book, America’s Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq (released just last week), which concludes—based on research done mainly before Gulf War II got under way—that nearly everything this administration has said and done about postwar Iraq is wrong.

One pertinent lesson Dobbins uncovered is that the key ingredient—the “most important determinant,” as he puts it—of successful democratic nation-building in a country after wartime is not the country’s history of Westernization, middle-class values, or experience with democracy, but rather the “level of effort” made by the foreign nation-builders, as measured in their troops, time, and money.

To see just how wrong Wolfowitz was, look at Dobbins’ account of how many troops have been needed to create stability in previous postwar occupations. Kosovo is widely considered the most successful exercise in recent nation-building. Dobbins calculates that establishing a Kosovo-level occupation-force in Iraq (in terms of troops per capita) would require 526,000 troops through the year 2005. A Bosnia-level occupation would require 258,000 troops—which could be reduced to 145,000 by 2008. Yet there are currently only about 150,000 foreign (mainly American) troops in Iraq—about the same as the number that fought the war.

To match the stabilization effort in Kosovo, Iraq should also be protected by an international police force numbering 53,000. Yet those 150,000 soldiers now in Iraq are also doing double-duty as cops.

In other words, had Wolfowitz talked with Dobbins (or any other high-ranking officials who’d been involved in nation-building), he would have learned that stabilizing post-Saddam Iraq would take at least twice the number of forces that were being amassed to defeat Saddam’s army.

Bringing in more troops and at least some police after the war would also have meant fewer American and Iraqi casualties. Dobbins is categorical on this point: “The highest levels of casualties have occurred in the operations with the lowest levels of U.S. troops.” In fact, he adds, “Only when the number of stabilization troops has been low in comparison to the population”—such as in Somalia, Afghanistan, and now Iraq—”have U.S. forces suffered or inflicted significant casualties.” By contrast, in Germany, Japan, Bosnia, and Kosovo—where troop levels were high—Americans suffered no postwar combat deaths.

The fact that Bush officials predicted a speedy military victory should have made them more cautious, not less so, about postwar deaths. Dobbins’ historical data reveal that security has been the biggest problem after wars that end least destructively. “It seems,” he writes, “that the more swift and bloodless the military victory, the more difficult post-conflict stabilization can be.”

Money is also needed to build security and democracy. The Bush administration seems to know this all too well, as officials have declined to give Congress even loose estimates of the costs of reconstruction for Iraq. Dobbins calculates that to provide economic aid on a comparable level to what the allies gave postwar Kosovo would require $21 billion over the next two years—$36 billion if the aid were comparable to the Bosnia project. He also makes the point that, contrary to the administration’s initial assumptions, Iraqi oil revenue alone will not be enough to foot the bill.

Time is equally important—a long time. One of the Bush administration’s deepest, if most understandable, mistakes was its pledge to pull American troops out of Iraq very soon after the war. According to Dobbins, in no successful postwar nation-building effort have U.S. troops stayed for less than five years. (In fact, in every successful case, U.S. troops are still based there today, including in Germany and Japan, nearly 60 years after war’s end.) Staying around for a long time doesn’t guarantee success, Dobbins notes, but “leaving early ensures failure.” The mere act of setting departure deadlines—and, with them, the expectation of imminent withdrawal and the assumption of shallow commitment—often prompts disaster.

Finally, Dobbins makes a jab at the administration’s aversion to letting other countries, and especially the United Nations, in on Iraqi reconstruction. As a general rule, he concludes, “Multilateral nation-building is more complex and time-consuming than undertaking unilateral efforts, but is also considerably less expensive” and “can produce more thoroughgoing transformations” in the democratic process. For Iraq in particular, he notes that “a multilateral effort, particularly one coordinated under UN auspices, may defuse popular resentment in Iraq and in the Arab world against U.S. ‘imperialism’ and make it easier to ensure regional reconciliation and stability.”

It seems, then, that the real problem with American nation-building is that American officials don’t give it much thought, don’t read up on its history, don’t appear even to recognize that there is a history from which lessons can be learned. Paul Wolfowitz has a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. He’s often portrayed as a deep thinker, the leader of a circle of national security intellectuals in and around the Bush administration. Their big mistake on postwar Iraq, it turns out, is that they failed to think.