Learning the Right Lessons from Iraq

Like “Who Lost China?” in 1949-50, “How Did We Lose Iraq?” may dominate foreign policy debates in the years to come.  The consensus answer that seems to be emerging, in books like Woodward’s State of Denial and Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City, is “through the Bush administration’s incompetence.”

And there’s certainly something there.  My lord, is there ever.  The Woodward book is an appalling chronicle of bureaucratic flight from responsibility.  It’s Halberstam’s Best and the Brightest repeating itself as farce.  It’s Dilbert plus guns, bombs, and death–and minus the laughs.

In Woodward’s telling, in the run-up to the war, those few officials who understand what an enormous task the U.S. government was contemplating aren’t listened to.  The question “what is to be done?” vanishes in a flurry of powerpoint presentations, interminable and directionless meetings, and interbranch squabbling. The month before the invasion General Jay Garner, tasked with heading up the postwar occupation authority, gathered some 200 people for a weekend-long planning and rehearsal session.  One participant analyzed the conference in a 20-page report, concluding that “the conference did not take up the most basic issue: What sort of future government of Iraq do we have in mind and how do we plan to get there?”    

And if you read the excerpts from Chandrasekaran’s book that ran in the Post, you’ll come away with the impression that the Bush administration decided to staff the Coalition Provisional Authority with back-benchers from a Grover Norquist meeting.  Applicants for positions in the interim occupation authority in Iraq had to pass muster with Pentagon political appointee Jim O’Beirne, husband of the National Review’s Kate O’Beirne, and according to Chandrasekaran:

O’Beirne’s staff posed blunt questions to some candidates about domestic politics: Did you vote for George W. Bush in 2000? Do you support the way the president is fighting the war on terror? Two people who sought jobs with the U.S. occupation authority said they were even asked their views on Roe v. Wade

A 24-year-old Yalie/former White House intern ends up in charge of Baghdad’s stock market; Michael Ledeen’s 28-year-old daughter ends up as one of the people in charge of a $13 billion budget… and on and on.    

If you don’t have the stamina for either book, then the Frontline documentary Jerry Taylor mentions below is well worth watching.  Streaming video available here.

Both the Woodward book and the Frontline documentary blast CPA administrator Jerry Bremer for giving the orders to cashier the army and purge even low-level Baathists from government employment (orders that apparently came from Rumsfeld, in any event). A top CIA official and Bremer’s predecessor, Jay Garner, warned Bremer that the orders could cause up to 50,000 people, many of them heavily armed, to become enemies of the occupation authority.  Bremer gave the order anyway, and shortly thereafter the insurgency greatly intensified. 

A few months after leaving Iraq, Bremer, who appears to lack a sense of irony, agreed to a profile in the Washington Post Food Section touting his skills as a chef.  Apparently Bremer makes a heck of a “Fontainebleau with Pomegranate molasses.”   As Francie Bremer, his wife, notes in the article, “When Jerry goes at something 100 percent, you just have to stand back.”  Indeed.

But is it fair to place so much of the blame for our current predicament on Bremer?  Disbanding the army sure seems like a bad idea.  But would the Shiites, who, but for the Sadr uprising in 2004, have not been in open rebellion against the occupation, have been so cooperative if the U.S. left the Sunni-dominated army and Baath party intact? I don’t know.  I haven’t even had the two-week crash course in Iraqi politics that Bremer apparently put himself through after getting the nod.  But here’s a paper [.pdf] from the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute raising the question.  The authors write that

measures friendly to the Sunni would have caused serious trouble within the Shia communities whose cooperation was indispensable for the success of the American effort. … Indeed, if more conciliatory gestures toward the Sunni had been paired with aggressive moves to disarm the Shia militias, the dangers of a Shia insurgency would have been very considerably enhanced. Splitting the difference between rival groups is a logical strategy in polities accustomed to resolving conflicts through tolerance, negotiation, compromise, and restraint, but where irreconcilable demands exist, the result of this method may simply be to alienate both sides.

(hat tip: Chris Preble.)

And is it fair to suggest, as the emerging conventional wisdom seems to, that the administration’s failure to appoint qualified people has led to the current humanitarian disaster in Iraq?  For what it’s worth, CPA official Dan Senor argues that the Chandrasekaran book is a biased account that ignores the many highly qualified officials that CPA had on staff.

And maybe he’s right.  The point is, this stuff is hard.  If you can’t be talked out of it, then it’s best to appoint the most qualified people.  But would a CPA led by the finest Arabists at State have successfully navigated us toward a functioning democracy?  They would still have faced a country that’s the creation of the British Empire’s arbitrary mapmakers, a state with three nations and little common ground.  They’d still have been faced with the task, as alien outsiders, of forging a national reconciliation between groups that do not appear to be ready for it.  Is there any reason to suppose that the United States government is going to be good at that sort of thing?

That’s why I’m leery of the emerging conventional wisdom.  It smacks of John Kerry’s confused position during the 2004 campaign: “I was (sort of) for the Iraq War.  But I’m firmly against screwing it up.”  Well who isn’t?  But if the lesson we learn about this shameful mess is simply that we ought to appoint better people to run the occupation in our next “war of choice”, then we won’t have learned much at all.