Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Neocon All-Star Team Unsuccessfully Gropes at Reality

In its infinite wisdom, C-SPAN chose to commit this Hudson Institute panel to celluloid. Of course, I can’t get the dang video to work right, but I had the fortune to catch most of the panel last night on the teevee. Douglas Feith, Paul Wolfowitz, Dan Senor, and Peter Rodman got the old gang back together in an effort to pretend-examine What Went Wrong in Iraq.

The line that Feith advances is that we shouldn’t have done a, y’know, occupation. Wolfowitz supports this position, expressing amazement that “the term ‘occupation’ sticks with us today, even though the occupation ended in June 2004.” These are cute semantic games, but they’re an affront to reality. So Wolfowitz turns to this move, as reported by Eli Lake:

And I do think a real failure — I assign responsibility all over the place — was not having enough reliable Iraqi troops early enough and fast enough, because I think a sensible counterinsurgency strategy would not be to flood the country with 300,000 Americans, but rather to build up Iraqi forces among the population.

This sends Abu Muqawama, the pseudonymous U.S. military veteran and proprietor of a popular counterinsurgency blog, into apoplexy. What’s a real shame is that Lake’s own question, which was excellent, didn’t elicit a serious response. Lake observed that even under close tutelage from the Americans, galling depredations had been committed by the ISF, such as torture conducted by the Ministry of Interior, etc. Why, then, if we had handed more control over sooner, wouldn’t we have expected much more of this kind of thing to have happened?

Feith’s response? I’m paraphrasing here, but it was along the lines of “I just don’t think it would have.” So presumably under the Feith-Wolfowitz plan, we invade, grab Saddam, and then just turn the reins over to “external” Iraqi leader/charlatan Ahmed Chalabi and his band of 700 supporters? Or perhaps Wolfowitz meant his remark as an “assume a can-opener” joke? Wolfowitz’s claim that “a real failure…was not having enough reliable Iraqi troops early enough and fast enough” begs the question How on Earth could we have just had enough committed Iraqi troops “early enough and fast enough”???

Wolfowitz then ups the ante with his claim that “nobody could have foreseen the insurgency,” an insurgency which he attributes almost entirely to Saddam Hussein. Reading from Feith’s new book, Wolfowitz agrees with Feith that neither of them saw “a CIA assessment stating that after their ouster, the Ba’athists would be able to organize, recruit for, finance, supply, and command and control an insurgency, let alone an alliance with foreign jihadists.” This is an absurd over-attribution of responsibility for the insurgency to that Most Unitary of Evils, Saddam Hussein. As for who could have predicted that the intractable confessional disputes may have caused problems, Feith and Wolfowitz may want to look up Paul Pillar.

These points represent just the tip of the iceberg. Of course, if Hudson had had somebody on the panel who did not fundamentally agree on the basic justice, prudence, and strategic genius behind the war, all of this could have been exposed as nonsense in front of the cameras. But that’s not how the game is played, I guess.

NCSL Calls for Repeal of REAL ID

The National Conference of State Legislatures wants the REAL ID Act gone. It supports S. 717, the Identification Security Enhancement Act of 2007, which would repeal the REAL ID Act and reinstitute a negotiated rulemaking process on identity security that was established in the 9/11-Commission-inspired Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act.

It’s not a foregone conclusion that an organization like this would reject a behemoth of a project like building a national ID and surveillance system. The NCSL isn’t a small-government organization, and it could just as well have lobbied for billions of dollars in funding.

GAO Plan for Pakistan: Better Planning

Thursday the Government Accountability Office published a report that points out that the United States lacks a “comprehensive plan” that integrates “all elements of national power” to deal with problem of terrorism emanating from Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The report exemplifies the cult of planning that enthralls U.S. foreign policy analysts — and not just because it uses the phrase “comprehensive plan” 47 times in 25 pages.

Democratic leaders can use the report to bash President Bush, which is presumably why they requested it. But most people will merely find it useless. It is, after all, the GAO’s shtick to issue bland reports like this one, which does little other than note a lack of coordinated planning and then recommend more coordinated planning. (The report does say, to be fair, that the United States has done too little to address the cause of terrorism in northwest Pakistan, which it identifies, with bizarre confidence, as a lack of economic development.) And no one, even at Cato, can really be against better planning and coordination of government agencies to combat terrorists. Seems harmless. So what’s the problem?

The report never considers the possibility that the great minds of Washington, D.C., however well coordinated, may not contain the solution to the problems in Pakistan’s northwest hinterlands. Planning, after all, isn’t power.

I have never been, I confess, to an inter-agency planning meeting, so I can’t rule out the possibility that they’re magic. Maybe the agency representatives perform coordinated rites that reveal the wisdom to solve any problem and the power to implement their insight.

Barring that, it might have been worth devoting a sentence or two in the report to the difficulty of planning the affairs of other people’s countries. The area in question, after all, is not only beyond the control of our government but beyond the control of Pakistan’s, which we also do not control. This is not an engineering problem, like a faulty bridge. This is a problem of Pakistani politics and geography. There is not a U.S. plan that can fix that, including an invasion plan.

Growing up in Boston, I annually developed plans to fix the Red Sox’s lineup. So did my brother. My father had his own ideas. The Red Sox management never implemented any of our plans. I’m confident that the GAO would have told us that our failure stemmed from a lack of coordinated planning and suggested that we draw up a comprehensive strategy to harness all elements of Friedman power.

I am not arguing that the United States should abandon efforts to deal with terrorism in Pakistan. I am arguing that we should recognize the limits of what our policy can do. A belief that we can solve problems that we can’t may lead to costly efforts to eradicate problems rather than practical steps to manage them.

One reason Harvey Sapolsky, Chris Preble, and I wrote a paper about the lessons of the war in Iraq was irritation at the tendency of defense analysts to cast the occupation there as a failure of planning and to generate policy recommendations from that claim. Observing that planning for the occupation was poor and that the occupation went badly, the analyst would assume that the former caused the latter, and instruct the U.S. government to reform the interagency process to better plan future occupations. We argue that the United States never had much power to control Iraq’s politics, despite 100,000 to 150,000 troops in-country and the billions we spend every week. Problems of planning and coordination distract from the more important policy changes the war suggests. But the fixation on planning in Iraq at least made some sense, being that we occupied it.

The GAO report is the sort of thing Aaron Wildavsky had in mind he wrote that, “if planning is everything, maybe it’s nothing.” Phase one in my plan to save U.S. foreign policy from the cult of planning is getting policymakers to read that essay. In phase two, they apply it to foreign policy. Phase three involves converting the resulting despair into realism. In phase four (Victory), we cease our efforts to control everything that concerns us abroad. I am confident that this plan will fail.

Imagining the Counterfactual

Earlier this week, Matt Yglesias remarked at “the arrogance of the hawks” and expressed his frustration that

In response to 9/11, the hawks launched a war that’s killed more Americans than Osama bin Laden ever could, at the cost of over 1 trillion dollars; they’ve done nothing to impede nuclear proliferation, nothing to build democracies in the Middle East, failed to kill or capture al-Qaeda’s top leadership, made Hamas and Iran more powerful than ever before, and brought American prestige and influence to a new low ebb.

Now obviously a lot of the folks who adhere to the ideas that have brought all this about somehow think they’re right anyway. And fair enough; there’s just no accounting for some people. But the attitude of thoughtless, unreflective scorn that you see from the [Noah] Pollacks and [James] Kirchicks and [Michael] Goldfarbs of the world is like it comes from some weird alternative reality where their ideas have generally been deemed vindicated, rather than one where 178% of the public says we’re on the wrong track.

Today, Andrew Sullivan links to this video chronicling Douglas Feith’s contorted non-apologies and notes “one wonders whether anyone in the Bush establishment actually believes they ever made an error.”

In this vein, it’s worth wondering what things would look like if things had turned out basically the mirror image of what’s happened today…

On landing in Iraq, U.S. forces walked through Saddam’s army swiftly, taking 21 days to defeat them. (This part is real.) But they were stunned when they found an isolated airstrip housing three Tupolev 95s armed with nuclear weapons. They were even more stunned when they discovered detailed coordinates on the bombers for key targets in Manhattan, Washington, and Miami. On interviewing the pilots, the CIA was floored to learn that Saddam had not only acquired several nuclear weapons, but had ordered an attack, in concert with al Qaeda, against American cities with them. Had the invasion not happened, the CIA judged, at a minimum tens of thousands of Americans would have died as a result of the attacks.

All of this concern about “what might have been” was quickly washed away by “what had emerged”: the unanimous gratitude of Iraqis at having been liberated from Saddam’s rule. After mostly incidental collateral damage from the invasion (a few hundred Iraqi casualties, U.S. forces estimated), Iraqi exiles, led by Ahmed Chalabi, quickly assembled a liberal government that recognized the State of Israel just a few weeks later. What no one could have known was what would come next.

The coherence of the Iraqi government allowed U.S. forces to exit swiftly, leaving only a small, residual force behind by the end of 2003. The example that the liberal government had throughout the region was a greater victory than anyone could have imagined, however. A veritable “democratic domino effect” took place, including velvet revolutions in Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia within 5 years of the invasion. (Like Iraq’s, these changes of government took place amid minimal violence and quickly led to coherent, effective governance in all three countries. Only 10 years later, a “League of Muslim Democracies” led the rest of the Islamic world in brokering an enduring peace between Israelis and Palestinians.)

On the homefront, however, the political scene did not seem to reflect the strategic masterstroke that the president and his advisers had engineered. John Kerry swept to power in 2004, making the case that President Bush had “committed war crimes” by masterminding the invasion. Opponents of the war in the punditocracy also prospered. Bill Niskanen, Chairman of the libertarian Cato Institute and an early critic of the war, was given a foreign affairs column at the New York Times.

Meanwhile, proponents of the war such as Peter Beinart, Bill Kristol, and Fred Hiatt all lost their prominence in the debate, despite having largely predicted the strategic victory the war would represent. Beinart lost his position at the New Republic, only to take a job as one half of “The Goldberg-Beinart Report,” a right-left talk program which debuted on a Fairfax County public access station. Kristol’s Weekly Standard magazine folded outright, with Kristol reassuming his position as chief-of-staff to Dan Quayle, except this time out of office. Hiatt, meanwhile, was ousted from his position as chief of the Washington Post’s editorial page after Post management issued a scathing denunciation of the “disgraceful, unmitigated disaster of a war that our editorial page somehow endorsed.”

You could go on and on like this, but I’d really like to think that if this had been the way it went down, I’d have the integrity to say “I called this wrong. I apologize, and I pledge to reevaluate how and why I made this mistake, and to attempt to make better judgments in the future.”