I’ve noticed in the past year that an increasing number of pundits, professional and amateur, are claiming to have supported the full-scale invasion of Baghdad back in 1991. For some the point is “better late than never” for others it’s “too late now, but don’t think me soft”. I might be wrong, but from where I sit the ranks of the “full deal, first time” crowd seems to swell as the particulars of the case recede into the mists of history and memory. If you’ll indulge me in a hackneyed comparison, this reminds me a bit of attendance at Woodstock, which underwent a curious inflation as the years went by. Of course, some people did want the full deal for Iraq back then, and I’m sure most people are being sincere, but many of these claims strike me as the pundit’s version of, “Man, I was there. I used the can right after Jimi.”
It’s worth sorting through the retrospective case for the whole deal to distinguish the plausible elements from the elements of sheer fantasy. I’ll bet you can guess already which I think predominates.
First the positives. Back in 1991 folks in the South of Iraq were generally much keener for the U.S. They hadn’t yet been stabbed in the back, slaughtered with impunity and then ground down over a decade of sanctions and neglect. Indeed, the entire country was still much keener on the U.S. in general, and in much better shape by almost every measure. Rebuilding would have been correspondingly that much easier. Remember also that the sanctions played an important role in the maintenance of Saddam’s power, since he was able to use the resulting corruption to enrich his clan and tighten belts everywhere else. Interestingly, the Kurds were less supportive of the U.S. than they are now, since their betrayal was in the not very distant past, and they had yet to benefit from the protective umbrella of air support that George the elder reluctantly bestowed upon them. But on balance, in this respect the U.S. had a lot more going for it back then than it does now.
If it had taken place in 1991 the full deal would also have come at a better time, as an immediate response to something unequivocally wrong, rather than as an ad hoc war tied to an unrelated threat. The U.S. had assembled an impressive coalition – savour the memory – and enjoyed quite a bit of support in the region, at least compared to now. The U.N. had given its stamp of approval. And don’t forget that back in the day the U.S. had a much larger military, so it would have had the boots on the ground to ensure immediate stability in the aftermath of a regime-toppling invasion.
Moreover, the full deal would have obviated the need for the crippling sanctions, the cat and mouse inspections game, the gradual corruption of the entire region as Saddam bought off the various players with oil and promises of more oil, and many other consequences that not even the mother of all battles could love.
Fine. But I think that many pundits are holding this rosy picture in their minds and then adding more of their favourite details without much regard for how the whole is supposed to hang together. For one thing, as the advocates of ad hoc coalitions are always reminding us, broad coalitions are fragile things built on compromises. The fact is that most regional support for the coalition – think especially of Saudi Arabia – was only built on the explicit promise and the honest expectation that George the elder would never try anything as crass as democracy-building in the Middle East (See Kuwait, post 1991 restoration). If George had marched on Baghdad, the coalition would have fallen apart, or at least undergone a dramatic thinning at exactly the time it needed allies in the region the most. (And yes, I’m implicitly conceding that this time around, it would have been very hard to get together a genuinely multilateral democracy-promoting invasion of Iraq.)
Recall also that the first time around the State Department, fearful of a leak which would undermine the coalition, basically refrained from any planning for a new regime in Baghdad. This time, the uber-hawks chucked out the wisdom accumulated over a decade of peacekeeping missions. But remember, in 1991 there was no planning, and no decade of intensive peacekeeping missions to look back on for lessons. I’m not suggesting that they would have been flying completely blind, just that inexperience can be functionally equivalent to the kind of the arrogance that turns its back on experience. The Greeks used to say that you should practice pottery on a small jar. Iraq was a jumbo-sized pottery project for people who hadn’t worked much with clay in a long time.
Rumsfeld’s post war plan of winging it might have been an error on a world-historical scale, but we should also bear in mind that the capture of Baghdad itself, and the toppling of the regime, was an extraordinarily impressive military feat. Those of us, present company included, who fretted about a bloody street-by-street fight through Baghdad were proven spectacularly wrong, thank goodness. But as far as I can tell, much of that strategy was developed in the light of fairly recent military experience and made possible by high-tech communication systems which weren’t available in 1991. The plan was also developed as a direct consequence of, and partly to provide evidence for, Rumsfeld’s idiosyncratic views about modern warfare. Why think that the toppling of Baghdad would have been as quick and easy in 1991? Well, as I suggested, I think daydreaming pundits are holding fixed the elements of the story they like and substituting better elements from imagination when it suits them. Isn’t punditry fun, kids?
Remember too that back in 1991 Saddam’s military was both larger and far better equipped than it was more than a decade later. The main part of the army might well have turned on Saddam and joined the U.S. – after all, much of the regular army mutinied after 1991 on a hint from George the elder. But the Republican Guard fought hard even in lousy conditions. If the Guard had been withdrawn into the city I shudder to think of how things might have turned out. It’s quite possible possible that you would then have had a brutal, drawn out siege played by Saddam for all it was worth on the world stage as Georgie’s coalition fell apart for once and for all.
But suppose that the coalition had been able to decapitate the regime quickly and easily, the coalition had held together, the Guard had capitulated, and a large standing coalition army had been able to hold the peace in the immediate aftermath. And forget the inconvenient fact that George the elder had zero interest in democracy promotion. What would the prospects for success have been in that case?
Well, obviously better than the picture I’ve painted so far. But still, I think, problematic. On the one hand, the whole country, and especially the South, would probably have been more amenable to compromise than it is now. Even so, it would not exactly have been smooth sailing. Possible complications include: strong tensions as the imperatives of demography clashed with Sunni Arab historical entitlements, lack of support in the region, the meddling of Iran, alarm in Turkey, insurgency from nationalists, and so on. In other words, many of the same things the U.S. faces now.
Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait presented the world with an extraordinarily thorny issue, and none of the options available to anyone were especially good. Some time I’ll try to write about the other options; just to give you a sneak preview, they all sucked for various reasons. But the pundits who fantasize about how great it would have been if the U.S. had just done it right the first time – well, as people who were “at Woodstock” will tell you, not every flashback is reliable.