With all the second guessing now about the war plan, I think itâ€™s worth sorting out which parts of the current plan were stupid and which were not. With things going badly, the tendency is to think that the plan was stupid from start to finish. I think this is mistaken. (Itâ€™s a stupid war, of course, but thatâ€™s a distinct issue from how well it might be fought.) Getting clear on this will help to sort out the reasonable critics of the war plan from the critics who will complain under any circumstances.
Here is a scorecard rating four different aspects of the current plan:
i) Assuming that the regime as a whole was very shaky and that it might collapse very quickly “like a house of cards”.
With everyone teasing Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz et. al. now, I think it’s worth pointing out that they could marshal a certain amount of empirical support for this assumption. Sure, it’s fun to see the gang getting their noses rubbed in it (especially because it gives the lie to the popular notion that the dovish crowd has a monopoly on naivete). But Basra is, after all, the place where the uprising started in 1991. True, many people chose to sit out that round too (conveniently overlooked before the war). What the incident revealed was widespread loathing of the regime and a genuine desperation for change on the part of many ordinary Iraqis.
Besides the many attempted coups over the years, the experience of Desert Fox, for example, provided more support for the view that S.H.’s regime was a “house of cards”. In 1998, US patience with the inspections process was finally exhausted and the UN pulled inspectors from Iraq on the expectation of a US military retaliation. The retaliation, Desert Fox, consisted of 4 days of air-strikes, and occurred around the same time that you-know-who was in trouble for doing hmm-hmm with you-know-who. The timing, and the fact that the air-strikes lasted only 4 days, contributed to the impression that US action looked more like a fit of pique than a well-thought out campaign. Perhaps so, but it had unexpected, and revealing, effects. Here is Pollack (whose book is highly overrated, but also occasionally useful). The targets were:
“mostly regime protection and control targets . . . The idea was that the way to coerce Saddam into doing something he otherwise would not do was to threaten his control over Iraq, always his principal concern. . . . In this, Desert Fox actually exceeded expectations. Saddam panicked during the strikes. Fearing that his control was threatened, he ordered large-scale arrests and executions, which backfired and destabilized his regime for months afterward. . . . [This led to plots and other forms of resistance.] . . . Eventually the regime was able to snuff out all of these threats, and none ever really threatened its control. However, these events raised the question of what might have happened if the Desert Fox strikes had gone on longer than just four days.” (p. 93 of the Threatening Storm)
So far, things havenâ€™t gone as well as (this interpretation of) the Desert Fox experience suggested. There are lots of good explanations for why this might be so: doubt about American resolve; bitterness about the outcome of the last uprising; and habits of servility acquired over long years of living in fear. But it certainly wasnâ€™t crazy to think that many ordinary Iraqis might respond favorably to an invasion, and that the regime might topple very quickly a la Romania. It might still.
ii) Trash talking the regime and making confident predictions of its immanent demise in the hopes that it folds “like a house of cards”.
Thatâ€™s why trash talking the regime with predictions of its immanent demise wasnâ€™t stupid, at least not obnoxiously so. Rumsfeld and company clearly thought of Iraqi support for the US as a kind of assurance problem.
Suppose a highly profitable venture is only successful if enough people cooperate in it. If too few cooperate, the results will be disastrous for those few. Now, everyone can make promises beforehand, but these donâ€™t count for much. With the stakes so high, people may well break their promises, or try to hedge their bets by entering into the fray a little after things are successfully underway. (Assurance problems are sometimes introduced with an example from high school. Itâ€™s the last week of your graduating year and youâ€™ve made a pact with some friends. Youâ€™re all going to arrive at school the next day with heads shaved oddly and your remaining hair dyed bright colours. If everyone does this, youâ€™ll all look very cool when you show up. But if everyone else chickens out, and youâ€™re the only one who has followed through, youâ€™ll end up looking like an ass.)
Trash talking Saddam Hussein and confidently predicting the end of his regime was not just arrogant bluster (though the people in charge of doing it also happened to be, as a rule, arrogant blusterers). It was also clearly an attempt to solve the assurance problem facing Iraqis as they tried to decide which way to swing their support. Repeatedly stressing that the US is in it for as long as it takes is part of the same strategy. And if you think that fear of retaliation is holding Iraqis down, this strategy is at least well-developed to address that concern.
So the strategy has this much to recommend it: It was actually based on a decent guess about the psychology of rebellion and the difficult choices facing Iraqis right now.
Unfortunately, the strategy has several consequences which count heavily against it:
a) While US officials are pursuing a strategy of this sort they canâ€™t exactly (even if they want to) perform stage whispers to their domestic audience explaining that the war might last much longer than theyâ€™re suggesting. All the crowing about US strength certainly helped to create unrealistic expectations at home. Thatâ€™s going to hurt support for the war in the long run.
b) In a democracy, citizens need reasonably accurate information to be able to judge the soundness of a prospective war. So doing a “mind-fuck” on Iraqâ€™s leadership wasnâ€™t possible without also seriously misleading ordinary Americans about the dangers of war. This strikes me as a very serious objection to the strategy.
c) All the crowing about US strength also upset allies everywhere. It was especially upsetting in Arab countries, since the subtext must have been often read as “Well, theyâ€™re Arabs. Do you really think they could put up a fight?” Now resistance is starting to look like a matter of Arab pride. Thatâ€™s going to hurt in the long run.
d) The strategy makes anything short of absolute and speedy success look like failure. Other countries will draw their own lessons from this war. That lesson might well end up being: “OK, the Americans can win. But they often overestimate their own capabilities, so we need adjust our perceptions of their public statements accordingly.” And to think that this war is being fought partly to enhance American “credibility.”
So ii) is stupid on balance, but only on balance. It was not utterly stupid.
iii) Assuming that Basra and the rest of the South was likely to fall quickly.
Like i), I think that iii) wasnâ€™t all that stupid. If it was reasonable to think that the regime as a whole was rotten and unstable, it was even more reasonable to think that Basra would go over first to the other side.
Confession: I thought Basra would fall early too.
(A self-serving) Grade: B+
iv) Having a plan which depends on the assumption that Basra and the rest of the South would fall quickly.
Itâ€™s one thing to think something likely. Itâ€™s quite another to have a plan which stakes thousands of your soldiersâ€™ lives on the expectation that it will happen. This is where Rumsfeld ought to get hammered by the press. The litany of errors connected with this bit of folly is already well-known: the over-stretched supply lines, the mounting humanitarian crisis in Basra, the need to retrench, inadequate troop numbers. All of these things are premised on iii) and perhaps even i). But the fault here doesnâ€™t lie with iii) or i). Again, whatâ€™s crazy is not thinking it likely that the regime is fragile or that Basra will fall quickly. Whatâ€™s crazy is basing an entire campaign on it. Even a reasonable assumption can be asked to bear too much weight. Thatâ€™s whatâ€™s happening here.
Armchair critics like myself will be dissecting all this for some time to come. I think reassessments of i) and iii) will be illuminating, but that this will mostly be the illumination of hindsight. We can debate ii), but I think ultimately the damage done to the democratic decision making process counts very heavily against it.
But itâ€™s iv) that oughta get Rumsfeld (and co.) disgraced and thrown out of public life for good.