The Big Idea

Our Iraqi Mistake

What was it, exactly?

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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.

What makes this backward-looking conversation more than academic is its implications for American foreign policy beyond Iraq. The U.S. defeat in Vietnam left a disinclination to use military force that lasted many years. “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all,” the first President Bush declared at the height of his seeming Gulf War triumph in 1991. And I’ve brought it roaring back, his son might well respond.

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.

The easiest view to dismiss is the 20/20 hindsight of the neoconservatives, who blame the Iraqi tragedy on Bush, Rumsfeld, Tommy Franks, Jay Garner, Paul Bremer—on anyone, in short, other than themselves. In the January issue of Vanity Fair, Richard Perle, Kenneth Adelman, and others explain that incompetent Republicans spoiled their picnic by failing to prevent looting, to give contracts to the right people, to rein in Paul Bremer, to trust in Chalabi, and so forth. In the Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol and the Brothers Kagan have consistently argued that the administration has failed to send enough troops. Paul Wolfowitz, the chief brain behind the war, reportedly takes the view that our big mistake was not removing American troops fast enough.

Blame-shifting aside, what’s irritating here is the continuing fantasy that war in Iraq could have dependably followed any preconceived plan. Rumsfeld is right about one thing—stuff happens. Military decision-making demands improvisation and entails error. Our problem in Iraq hasn’t been too much military flexibility—it has been too little in responding to looting and chaos, the insurgency, and the growing strength of sectarian militias. It’s absurd for the neocon architects to stand around now complaining that the builders rendered their masterpiece poorly, especially now that we know how implausible their original design really was. The idealized war of the neocons, with its reliance on Ahmad Chalabi, remained a blueprint for good reason. It might well have produced something worse than what has happened, such as an Iranian superstate or a quicker plunge into anarchy and ethnic cleansing. There’s little basis for thinking it would have produced something better.

Yet the arguments at the other extreme—that no occupation of Iraq could have been successful because it is an artificial country, or because we don’t understand it, or because the ethnic and religious factions there prefer war to peace—also seem unpersuasive. Much left-wing criticism of the war sees American intervention as a kind of original sin. Born arrogant, we cannot help screwing up other countries when we try to fix them. Yes, as Sam Rosenfeld and Matt Yglesias recently wrote in the American Prospect, blaming incompetence can be a way for those of us who endorsed the war to dodge responsibility for our mistake. 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.

This litany of failure has become familiar (here’s a good survey by Kenneth Pollack). Rumsfeld’s Pentagon and Cheney’s White House simply rejected the idea of planning for a hostile occupation. They disregarded basic counterinsurgency theory, which suggests that you need to send 20 troops for every 1,000 civilians to ensure order and that the occupiers need to operate with a light hand to win hearts and minds. In Iraq, that would have amounted to something like 450,000 troops, if you exclude friendly Kurdistan. A smaller number might have served if coupled with shrewd application of strategy, but less than one-third that number and no counterinsurgency strategy meant we couldn’t secure the country. Paul Bremer’s early decisions to disband the Iraqi army and security forces and proceed with radical de-Baath-ification alienated the Sunnis and fueled the insurgency. As Iraq descended into mayhem, a disengaged president continued to put forth the absurdist goal of establishing liberal democracy in a catastrophically damaged country where it had no root.

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.