Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Handicapping the Iraq war

Now might be a good time to assess the Iraq war.

i) We might begin with a bit of preliminary history. Until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the GOP used to be more dovish and non-interventionist. I don't know if that was philosophical, partisan, or both. Naturally the GOP tended to be opposed to a Democrat incumbent in the White House. And the GOP undoubtedly had genuine philosophical disagreements with FDR on domestic policy. 

ii) Support for both the Cold war and the Vietnam war was initially bipartisan. That changed when Eugene McCarthy and the anti-war movement swung the Democrat Party in its direction. 

iii) The Iraq war is often framed in terms of "neocons." This is an amorphous designation. In its most specific sense, "neocon" designates Jewish-American hawks. They used to be Democrats, but when the Democrat party became dovish, they switched to the GOP. Sometimes it includes disaffected Marxists. 

However, "neocon" is often used for lifelong Republicans who were never Jewish, but always hawkish. It seems to be used to designate people who share a common foreign policy outlook: American exceptionalism, support for Israel, promoting democratic institutions abroad, &c.

Oftentimes, "neocon" is just an antonym for libertarian foreign policy. 

iv) There are different way of assessing the Iraq war. One approach prospective. Given pre-invasion intelligence, was the Bush administration justified in invading Iraq? In this framework, the question is not whether they were right, but whether they were reasonable.

v) That involves a risk assessment. To begin with, you had people like Cheney who were always dissatisfied with how the Gulf War ended. To some extent they used 9/11 as a pretext to "finish the job." When I say "pretext," I don't necessarily mean that was a trumped up rationale. Rather, they took advantage of the heightened security concerns, post-9/11, to redress what they thought all along was a dangerous festering problem. When the political climate shifted in their favor, they seized the moment.

The "neocons" thought our containment strategy was unstable. The sanctions regime would end, at which point Saddam would reconstitute his WMD program. 

vi) There's the question kind of threat, if any, Saddam posed. Keep in mind that right now I'm discussing the pre-invasion outlook. 

One issue is whether there was reason to believe he had WMD. To some extent, that's overstated. For another issue is whether he had a WMD program which he was planning to reconstitute after the sanctions ended. 

vii) Assuming, for the sake of argument, that he had a WMD program, did that make him a threat? If so, to whom? Was he a threat to the US? To Israel? To Iran? To Mideast oil-producers?

Assuming that he was free to develop WMD, did he intend to use them offensively or defensively? For instance, was his intention to keep them as a deterrent to Iranian aggression? Or to blackmail Mideast oil producers?

Whether or not we think the Iraq war was justified depends, in part, on whether we think he posed a direct or indirect threat to our national security. The theory that he was a threat to the US involved the specter of WMD proliferation. 

viii) One theory is that "neocon" advisors and pundits packaged the Saddam regime as a threat to the US, to galvanize support for military intervention, when their real concern was with the threat posed to Israel. There may be a grain of truth to that, although it assumes that "neocons" are monolithically pro-Israel. 

ix) On a related note is the theory that Bush was a simpleton manipulated by advisors who were more intellectually dominant than he. There may be a grain of truth to that theory as well. 

x) Also, there's the allegation that the Bush administration simply lied about WMD. That's an endlessly debated issue. 

On the face of it, it's implausible that Bush would lie about the presence of WMD in Iraq to mobilize support for invading Iraq to disarm when, when the direct result of that action would expose the official lie. But if you're conspiratorial, I suppose you could say the "neocons" used Bush as the fall guy. 

xi) Another way of assessing the Iraq war is retrospective and counterfactual. Did we have the right cause, but the wrong strategy? 

Notice that I'm framing the analysis as a staged argument, in which one thing presupposes another.

If, say, you don't think Saddam ever posed a credible threat to our national security, then your assessment of the war begins and ends further upstream. You reject a key presupposition. If, on the other hand, you take a different view of the pre-invasion intelligence, your analysis continues further downstream. 

xii) One familiar argument is that we failed because we didn't have enough "boots on the ground." We followed an air force strategy rather than an infantry strategy. 

For all we know, that might have made the difference. However, there's a complicating factor. Because Iraq didn't attack us, we had to package the intervention was a war of liberation. If, however, you have too many boots on the ground, that resembles an oppressive, heavy-handed occupation force. Conquerors rather than liberators.

xiii) Another complication is that Iraq wasn't a self-contained theater. The "insurgents" were supplied by Iran and Syria. So there's the problem of mission creep. To successfully fight on one front, you must simultaneously fight on several fronts.  

xiv) Apropos (xii), I think the mission was doomed from the outset. In a traditional war, you win by defeating the enemy. You crush the enemy into submission. Sometimes you leave the country in smoldering ruins. Sometimes you install a puppet gov't. 

That's what we did to the Japanese in WWII. But that's because the Japanese attacked Pear Harbor. Since, by contrast, Iraq didn't present the same provocation, it became an exercise in nation-building. Winning "hearts and minds."

The problem with that strategy is that you cede control of the outcome to the other side. Success or failure depends, not on what you can unilaterally impose through overwhelming force, but on how cooperative the locals are. If they don't play ball, you lose. 

The "neocon" theory was to create a democratic ally in the heart of the Arab world. A regime friendly, or at least not hostile, to US interests. That's nice in theory, but Pollyannaish in practice. 

The Iraq war might have succeeded had we had more limited strategic objectives. But that's in tension with the "war of liberation." If the objective is regime-change, what replaces the regime? it becomes a tar-baby. 

One alternative was to partition Iraq. But that's easier said than done. You must forcibly relocate "sectarian" populations, then enforce the new borders. And it's harder to sell the war on humanitarian grounds. 

xv) In hindsight, and to some extent in foresight, I think it's fair to say the Iraq war wasn't worth it. As it actually played out, it resulted in high causalities (dead, disabled) for US troops. It was catastrophic for Iraqi Christians. It let the Iraqi Muslims out of their cage. And it removed a counterweight to Iran. 

And it plunged the country into civil war, although that's harder to judge, since the Saddam regime had many victims, and sooner or later Iraq was bound to face a post-Saddam regime. That might lead to civil war all by itself. Or, if Uday had been able to maintain power, that might have been just as cruel–or worse. 

In theory, there may have been more efficient ways to prosecute the mission, but as I've noted, these involve their own tradeoffs or complications. It's unclear to me that there was a better way to do it. 

1 comment:

  1. Wow, how weird...I've been going through the archives and I was just reading through your "Flower Power" posts:



    Maybe you should try guessing some lottery numbers to see if you have psychic powers :D