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. 

Preparing Children for Adulthood

From the Washington Post:

Recess is dangerous. There’s all that name-calling, roughhousing and bullying. And the fast running! Why a child might trip, fall, even – and perhaps more important – sue.

Given such perils, Willett Elementary School, south of Boston, has cracked down on tag and other “chasing games.” Pia Durkin, the district superintendent, told the Sun Chronicle in Attleboro, Mass., that children’s energies should be better directed toward “good, sound, supervised play.” 

So they’ll be prepared for good, sound, supervised lives.

Big-Government Republicans for Lieberman

In the Wall Street Journal, Dan Henninger writes admiringly of Sen. Joe Lieberman and the Republicans who are flocking to Connecticut to campaign for him, notably Jack Kemp. The Boston Globe adds that many Republican donors close to the White House are donating to Lieberman: former Bush campaign manager Joe Allbaugh, former ambassador Mel Sembler, former Sen. Don Nickles, “and the heads of several Texas-based corporations.” Republican strategists tell the Globe that Karl Rove’s publicized phone call to Lieberman was a signal to Republican donors and politicians.

What are these Republicans doing? They’re subordinating every tenet of the Republican philosophy to the war in Iraq. That’s the only issue on which Lieberman is in line with Republican or conservative principles. Lieberman has a lifetime rating of 17 from the American Conservative Union. But maybe he’s getting better? No, his rating was 8 in 2005. On government spending, the National Taxpayers Union rates him 9, slightly worse than Dodd, Feinstein, or Boxer.

Lieberman votes against tax cuts and spending cuts. He’s coauthor of a bill to implement the Kyoto Protocol. He votes for gun control and mandatory seat-belt laws, and against tort reform. He votes to restrict political speech (the McCain-Feingold act) and to punish people for “hate crimes.”

It’s understandable that Republicans don’t want Ned Lamont in the Senate. But to campaign for a lifelong big-government liberal simply because he supports President Bush’s increasingly unsupportable war in Iraq is to declare limited government across a wide range of issues less important than this failing war.

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. 

I Hear Voices

I don’t want to tempt fate by declaring that the tide is turning against the costly and interventionist federal agriculture programs, but there have been several critical (in both senses of the word) editorials and investigative series this year on farm subsidies. The voices protesting about farm programs seem to be getting louder.

For a recent example, bravo to the Washington Post, for its editorial on Saturday denouncing the crop insurance boondoggle – yet another agricultural policy fleecing consumers and taxpayers in order to make farming a risk-free enterprise. The editorial follows a series earlier this year from the Post, entitled ’Harvesting Cash’ (you can view that series here).

The insurance program works thus: the government pays 60 percent of the premiums for crop insurance ($2.3 billion last year), and also pays a fee to insurance companies for administering the program (over $800 million). All this for crop failure losses of $752 million (yes, that’s right, the losses cost less than the administrative fees). The insurance does not, however, remove the “need” for disaster payments – over $6 billion worth since 2000, according to the Roanoke Times.

Taxpayers can sleep well at night, however, knowing they are funding “something good, the rural life”, in the words of a farmer quoted by the Post. (I wonder how much money would flow to farmers if the charity was voluntary?)

Kudos also to the Boston Herald, for their Sunday editorial on the subject (view here) and the Roanoke Times (here) for their own version. The latter editorial could be especially influential since Bob Goodlatte is the representative for Roanoke County and Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.

It is encouraging to note the number and breadth of newspapers covering this subject. The LA Times, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the Des Moines Register, the Denver Post, the Chicago Tribune and the Orlando Sentinel have all run editorials on farm programs this year. Let’s hope that the voices are heard, and that voters and their representatives start to demand change.

Energy Markets for Thee, but Not for Me

OPEC’s announcement last Thursday to cut crude oil production by 1.2 million barrels prompted this gem from Energy Secretary Sam Bodman: ”We continue to believe that it is best for oil producers and consumers alike to allow free markets to determine issues of supply, demand and price.”  Hearing frank talk about the virtues of free markets in the energy sector is indeed refreshing.  Too bad Bodman doesn’t take his own rhetoric seriously.  Why should oil supply, demand, and price be left to market actors but not ethanol supply, demand, and price?  Or wind energy supply, demand, and price?  Or ad infinitum?

Simply put, this administration believes that politicians should dictate energy choices, not markets.  Otherwise, we wouldn’t have “Freedom Car” initiatives, clean-coal technology programs, massive new subsidies for nuclear power plant construction, or any of the political madness surrounding ethanol.

OPEC should tell Bodman they’ll embrace markets as soon as Bush does likewise. 

Althouse on Judicial Activism

Ann Althouse has an insightful op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, which argues that judicial activism is inevitable in a system, like ours, in which the Constitution forces courts to define and protect individual rights.  The tough question for Courts isn’t whether to be active or inactive, but how best to define and protect the constitutional rights that courts are institutionally obligated to defend:

There was a time – not all that long ago – when we openly praised the activist judge and scoffed at the stingy jurist who invoked notions of judicial restraint. That restraint was a smokescreen for some nasty hostility toward individual rights, we’d say. Now we all seem to love to wrap ourselves in the mantle of the new fashion [of judicial restraint]. But that fashion comes at the price of candor.

 Hat tip:  Jonathan Adler.