Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

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. 

Criminal Negligence in Iraq

OK, keeping up with energy and enviro related insanity is so difficult that sometimes, it’s easy to fall behind on the newspapers.  So over the weekend, I tried mightily to catch up on unread issues from the past week of The New York Times.  That explains why I’m so late to catch this amazing review of PBS’s Frontline “The Lost Years in Iraq,” which was published last Tuesday.

Unfortunately, I missed the show, which likewise aired on Tuesday.  But here’s a quote from the New York Times review:

Certainly some of the [Iraq Reconstruction Group] staff members seemed a bit underqualified.  Colonel Hammes recalls that the person given the job of planning for [Iraqi] prisons and police was 25 and that this was his first job after college.  He didn’t worry about having a staff of only four, the young appointee said, because they were all his fraternity brothers.

This is jaw dropping stuff.  If I were a Congressman and this information had crossed my desk back in 2003, I would have submitted articles of impeachment of President Bush right then and there.  This is criminal negligence and incompetence so amazing that words can’t do the matter justice.

Gotta go back and catch that show. 

O’Reilly Interviews Bush

Bill O’Reilly got an exclusive interview with President Bush recently. The second and third segments were the most interesting to me.

In the second segment, O’Reilly asks some pretty good questions about torture, such as: How can anyone make a judgment about your policy when it’s all kept secret? Bush repeats his point that the terrorists can’t be told. O’Reilly could have followed up with: “But it’s out there already, isn’t it?”

During the same segment, Bush says when his agents pick up people from the battlefield, he wants to know what they know. O’Reilly should have followed up with: “But to be clear, sir, when you say “battlefield,” you mean any person picked up anywhere, right? So if an American citizen is arrested in Chicago, you are saying that you can employ “tough tactics” against him just on your own say-so, right?

The third segment of the interview is about Iraq. Here Bush restates his case, as you would expect. Still interesting. He seems to believe that having a clearly stated goal is the key to victory. He has established the objective and he believes the finest military in the world can find a way to achieve it. But later Bush says something like ”ultimately, it is up the Iraqi people.” O’Reilly could have followed that up by saying something like: ”Yeah, but that means the Iraqi people might opt for an endless civil war instead of a peaceful political process, right? If they go that route, we get out, right?”

Safer Than We Think

The worst nightmare scenario anyone’s come up with in the War on Terror is the possibility of losing an American city to a loose Russian “suitcase nuke.”  Those of us who work within the blast radius of any such attack on the White House have even more reason for concern than most.  (For a morbidly fascinating diversion, go here and punch the zipcode of a target near you.  20500 for 1600 Pennsylvania.)

So I was happy to learn about this piece by Richard Miniter, shredding “the myth of the ‘suitcase nuke.’”  It’s a very convincing combination of analysis and original reporting showing that this particular nightmare is one that shouldn’t disturb our sleep.  Miniter’s bottom line:

For now, suitcase-sized nuclear bombs remain in the realm of James Bond movies. Given the limitations of physics and engineering, no nation seems to have invested the time and money to make them. Both U.S. and the USSR built nuclear mines (as well as artillery shells), which were small but hardly portable–and all were dismantled by treaty by 2000. Alexander Lebed’s claims and those of defector Stanislev Lunev were not based on direct observation. The one U.S. official who saw a small nuclear device said it was the size of three footlockers–hardly a suitcase. The desire to obliterate cities is portable–inside the heads of believers–while, thankfully, the nuclear devices to bring that about are not.

Miniter is a dedicated hawk, and thus not someone likely to downplay terror threats unless he’s been convinced on the merits that particular threats, like this one, have been overblown. 

How else might Al Qaeda acquire nuclear weapons, the quintessential “Weapons of Mass Destruction”?  Transfer by rogue states is extremely unlikely.  Both Iraq (pre-Gulf War) and Iran have had chemical and biological weapons and longstanding ties to anti-Israel terror groups, yet neither proved willing to risk transferring those weapons to their terrorist proxies, for fear of an overwhelming response by Israel.  The same logic of deterrence applies in spades to nuclear transfers. 

What about Al Qaeda developing a nuclear weapon on its own?  Even less likely.  Even if their homegrown WMD efforts have progressed much past the dog-poisoning stage, making a nuclear bomb still seems to require a dedicated effort by a modern state.  Does Al Qaeda have the resources and the brainpower to make that happen?  I have my doubts.  According to one account, terrorist mastermind Jose Padilla “believed he could separate plutonium from nuclear material by rapidly swinging over his head a bucket filled with fissionable material.”

Fukuyama on Secrecy: Read the Whole Thing

A few days ago, the New York Times ran a piece by Francis Fukuyama called “The American Way of Secrecy” [registration required] in which he deftly interweaves the twin scourges of threat exaggeration and secrecy.  He also recites the damage they have done to U.S. foreign policy, national security, and domestic tranquility.  No one quote captures this rich, brief essay, so I will indulge in a blogger cop-out and encourage you to read the whole thing.

(HT: Bruce Schneier)

WSJ Weighs in Against ‘REAL Bad ID’

This morning’s Wall Street Journal opinion page blasts Republicans for passing the REAL ID Act.  [subscription required] 

Keyed to a recent report showing the costs of compliance at $11 billion, the piece notes that all Americans will have to reapply for their drivers’ licenses and ID cards if states go along with this unfunded federal surveillance mandate.  It also addresses whether a national ID protects against terrorism or provides effective immigration control and finds REAL ID wanting on both counts.  My book Identity Crisis shows why.

Sooner rather than later, Congress will recognize its error in passing the REAL ID Act.  Most likely it will try to kick the can down the road.  Look for a quiet attempt to change the deadline for getting a national ID in everyone’s hands. 

But that is not the solution.  If Congress wants a national ID, it should have hearings, markup and pass legislation, then fund and implement a national ID itself. 

Congress didn’t have a single hearing or up-or-down vote on the REAL ID Act.  This much exposure would kill a national ID plan, of course.

War and Terrorist Recruitment

On first reading, I could have sworn Andrew Coulson was saying that it’s cheating to point out that the Iraq War is defeating its own stated purposes. The recent National Intelligence Estimate doesn’t matter because “efforts to create a free and democratic Iraq are ongoing — the war is still in progress”? Well, efforts may still be ongoing three years and 2,500 more dead soldiers hence; just when will it be permissible to point out that the Iraq war has given Al Qaeda a recruitment boost?

The second time through, my reading comprehension improved, and now I take Andrew to be objecting to something like the following syllogism:

If a campaign in the war on terror increases terrorist recruitment while that campaign is ongoing, the campaign has failed.

War X has increased terrorist recruitment.

Therefore, War X has failed.

OK, if that’s the argument on offer from “antiwar liberals,” then I agree that it’s a faulty one. You could use it to condemn the war in Afghanistan, which, I think on balance probably improved American security despite perhaps enhancing terrorist recruitment. And it doesn’t do the work it needs to do to refute the case for war with Iraq. After all, if Iraq turns into something that passes for a liberal democracy, and if that in turn causes a reverse domino effect in the Middle East, transforming other autocracies in the region into (relatively) free and open societies, and if that in turn dampens the terrorist threat by replacing hatred with hope–then the short-term costs in terms of enhanced terrorist recruitment will turn out to have been worth it.

And I guess that’s right. But if the mere description of that Rube-Goldbergesque chain of causation doesn’t make you skeptical about whether the benefits are ever going to outweigh the costs, I don’t know what will. After all, it’s really, really hard to turn societies into liberal democracies through military nation-building, especially when those societies, like Iraq, are poor, violently heterogeneous, resource-cursed, and lack an independent middle class. But the liberal part of creating liberal democracies—the part that we don’t know how to do—may be essential if you can’t be talked out of embarking on this sort of mad enterprise. Because given popular support for Hamas, Hezbollah, and Muqtada al-Sadr in the Arab world, expanded suffrage all by itself may well make the problem worse.

Call it hindsight bias if you want, but it seems to me that the Wolfowitzian case for the Iraq war was never a promising bet. Even supposing the federal government had the world-transforming competence to reliably create liberal democracies by force of arms, I’m still not sure how that solves the terrorism problem. There was always something odd about conservatives jumping from “they hate us because we’re free” to “if we make them free, then they won’t hate us.” What was the evidence for that proposition? Even advanced liberal democracies produce terror threats.

But whether or not it was a bad bet from the start, it certainly looks like a losing proposition now, with violence raging across Iraq and no clear sign of the democratic future promised by the administration. Given all that as a backdrop, is it possible that antiwar liberals aren’t making the simplistic “recruitment up/war bad” argument that Andrew attributes to them? Isn’t it possible that they’re saying “given that the war is enhancing terrorist recruitment—and that there is no plausible account of how it’s going to dampen terrorist recruitment in the future—the Iraq War is a failure”? They may be leaving the parenthetical unstated, but perhaps they can be excused for doing so, given current events in Iraq and the failure of the war’s remaining defenders to construct anything like a convincing case for how this is all going to make us safer in the end.

The case that the benefits of the war aren’t coming has been clearly and abundantly made. By now it’s fairly well understood. If opponents of the Iraq War don’t feel the need to restate that case each and every time they point to things like the NIE, it seems to me less an error of logic than a sense that one shouldn’t belabor the obvious.