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November 21, 2007

The Easy, Cheap War

Forgetting the question of whether Kon Pollack was wrong about the wisdom of invading Iraq (he was, and he made a lot of other people wrong too), if he'd been terrifically prescient about the likely consequences, outcomes, and trajectory, there'd still be a strong case for listening to him. The guy is well-versed on the region, and if he thought that ejecting Hussein was worth decades of occupation, thousands of lives, and trillions of dollars, he'd be worth hearing out, if only for an analysis of how the war would go. But I totally forgot that he said things like, “it is unimaginable that the United States would have to contribute hundreds of billions of dollars and highly unlikely that we would have to contribute even tens of billions of dollars,” and “we should not exaggerate the danger of casualties among American troops. U.S. forces in Bosnia have not suffered a single casualty from hostile action because they have become so attentive and skillful at force protection.”

I remember that the war was sold on invisible WMDs -- which a lot of people genuinely believed in -- but I forget how pervasive folks telling us the invasion would be safe, easy, and cheap were. That's the really unforgivable sin. Lots of people, ranging from Paul Wolfowitz to Paul Wellstone, believed Iraq had chemical and biological weapons, and a far-from-completion nuclear program. The difference came in how you imagined the war would go, how difficult, and bloody, and expensive, and long, it would be. You could convince the American people, particularly after our illusory win in Afghanistan, that a short victory would be good all around. But no one would have signed up for this mess. And that's where we needed our analysts to interject a dose of reality, a grounded take on how hard this would be, not a heap best-case, wishful thinking. And they failed us.

November 21, 2007 | Permalink


Ezra, you are so very UnSerious!

Down the memory hole with all this!

Posted by: Gore/Edwards 08 | Nov 21, 2007 12:51:58 PM

But none of this directly addresses the morality or the legality of the war. A lot of people were indeed swayed by inaccurate predictions regarding the (economic and human) costs. But this is a mistake they wouldn't have made if they would have given due concern to the fact that the invasion was a violation of international law, a war of aggression for which there was never a sufficient justification.

Posted by: Jason C. | Nov 21, 2007 12:54:46 PM

I'll repeat the line I said back in 2002: Iraq is just a bigger, meaner Lebanon. Anyone who had even a passing familiarity with the history of Iraq could figure that out, being how it was cobbled up as a neo-colony, er, nation out of three major groups (Sunni, Shia, Kurd) by the British and the subsequent violent history of Iraq right up to 2003. When the U.S. caused a revolution by ousting Saddam Hussein, what else could be expected but a settling of scores and a struggle for power?

So Ezra, please stop respecting such self-styled experts who are flat-out wrong on the face of it. Just because Pollack is well-versed as a bullshit artist doesn't mean his opinions have merit as anything other than neo-con propaganda.

In the end, it wasn't Pollack that failed anyone - no, he did his job well of helping to gin up a war. It was a failure of our President to put his country before his own politics and vainglory and his party's willingness to put its own resources to work foisting an unnecessary war on Americans.

Posted by: David W. | Nov 21, 2007 1:05:01 PM

> I remember that the war was sold on invisible WMDs --
> which a lot of people genuinely believed in -- but I
> forget how pervasive folks telling us the invasion
> would be safe, easy, and cheap were. That's the really
> unforgivable sin. Lots of people, ranging from Paul
> Wolfowitz to Paul Wellstone, believed Iraq had chemical
> and biological weapons, and a far-from-completion
> nuclear program.

Lots of people out here in flyover country, who weren't "serious" Washington DC insiders but who (a) had worked in large structured (Dilbert-type) organizations (b) had read some history (c) had read W's history, PNAC's published policy statements, and Cheney's history smelled rotten baloney from the beginning and said so at every opportunity. Of course (1) they had no forum (esp since they weren't "serious" insiders (2) they weren't listened to.

I am sure all the serious insiders have learned from this.


Posted by: Cranky Observer | Nov 21, 2007 1:10:50 PM

And does it make any sense that the same people who were the most deeply convinced that Saddam had biological and chemical weapons were also convinced that the war would be quick and easy? Wouldn't a supposedly ruthless opponent with WMDs be a formidable enemy?

Posted by: Karl Weber | Nov 21, 2007 1:39:41 PM

When I was 12 years old and writing my first term paper, and crying over how hard it was, my father encouraged me to buckle down, and gently said, "nothing hard is ever easy."

When people were selling Iraq, talking about the roses that would be thrown at our feet, I remembered his words. Nothing hard is ever easy. Deposing a dictator and installing a pro-American democracy in a well-armed country with no democratic institutions and a history of mutual betrayals that generate profound mistrust at every level of government and society...well, that strikes me as a hard thing to do. And frankly, it's only made harder by the fact that our stated reason for invading right now as opposed to taking some more measured action--the 9/11 ties and "imminent risk" of Hussein's regime to the US--was pretty obviously ginned up.

There's no part of this misadventure that ever made any damn sense! Nothing ever added up--if the problem was WMDs, why were we invading with a force and a plan that was insufficient to secure them? If the problem was that Saddam was supporting terrorists, why were we pulling forces off the terrorists to go after him? If the problem was that we needed to prove we could tear down a bad middle eastern country and build a better one in its place, then why were we inventing reasons to invade that would destroy the credibility we needed to build a brave new world? Why were we half-assing the reconstruction plan?

We listened to con-men selling magic plans, and nonsense about how our "national will" would lead us to victory. And frankly, we still are. All this nonsense about the "surge" working is puerile. It's wonderful that fewer soldiers are being shot, but if that's our goal, we could accomplish it more easily and effectively by simply removing them from the war zone. So, what's the goal we're actually accomplishing?

From day one, nobody's ever been able to tell us what the goal was. What victory was. Some days people die faster, some days people die a little slower, but what never changes is that we don't know what the hell we're trying to accomplish and we don't have a clue how to do it.

Posted by: anon | Nov 21, 2007 1:52:04 PM


Posted by: Anon | Nov 21, 2007 2:00:48 PM

From day one, nobody's ever been able to tell us what the goal was. What victory was.

Victory for the Glorious Revolution here, at home, in the U.S.

  • A permanent, veto-proof Republican majority in both Houses, basically forever.
  • Control of the White House, with vastly aggrandized executive powers.
  • A Democratic opposition, cowed, shrunken to a Mulroneyized rump.
  • One-party rule, without the mess and bother of an American version of that other 9/11 -- the one in 1973.

With these would come the ability to write tax law, set the regulatory environment,and determine fiscal and monetary policy, deep into the new century.

The ROI, even if the war cost a few tens of billions, was enormous -- effective control of what was still then the world's largest economy.

War, wartime popularity, extraordinary wartime powers, would make the final triumph of the Glorious Revolution not just possible, but inescapable. It would have been the biggest leveraged buy-out of all time.

But it wouldn't work in peacetime. So if it wasn't Iraq, it would have been somewhere else.

Posted by: Davis X. Machina | Nov 21, 2007 2:17:30 PM

Anyone who listens to and believes an "analyst" about war needs an analyst.

On a cool, rainy December 21st evening in 2002 I and about a hundred other people (probably less) marched with candles in our hands from San Diego's Balboa Park to an open area where we spoke against the war that we all knew was coming, and then formed a peace symbol in the dark with those candles still burning so that planes landing at nearby Lindbergh Field could see the symbol and know that someone cared.

It was a pathetic performance, but what else could we do. We had no power. There was nothing special about us. Oh, perhaps there was. We could think for ourselves.

Posted by: Don Bacon | Nov 21, 2007 2:40:20 PM

Ezra, I think this is dangerously close to the incompetence dodge. The image of Iraq that was sold to the public during the runup to the war was that Iraq was such a grave and present danger that we had no choice but to act, whatever the costs. If you believed that, then because the case for that perspective was weak enough and American public opinion predictable enough, it made political sense to sell the war a cheap and easy _even if_ you believed that it would be costly and difficult. When I look a somebody like Dick Cheney, who is on the record during GHWB administration as saying that a complete invasion and occupation would be hugely difficult and costly, but who then participated during this administration in claming that it would be easy, I end up thinking that the claims of cheapness and ease were pure marketing. Cheney knew what it would take, and he deemed it worthwhile.

Those of us who opposed the war from the beginning knew that Hussein wasn't a clear and present danger, and that no amount of American blood and treasure was going to achieve the stated policy goals. I wouldn't have supported the Bush policy if I had thought it would cost us a buck fifty and a hangnail; I didn't object so much to being lied to about how cheap it would be as to being lied to about whether or not it could possibly work. The "unforgivable sin" was believing that the policy was valid and workable at _any_ cost. And the grave error on the left was believing that because an _alternate_ invasion policy (I would have supported a UN police action, for instance) might achieve some worthwhile goals, the Bush administration would execute that fantasy policy rather than the one they said they were going to pursue.

Posted by: Galen | Nov 21, 2007 2:55:53 PM

Right after posting that last thing I though of a possibly better way to say the same thing: When we make predictions about the cost of an action the presumption is that it's how much we'd have to pay to succeed. But the cost of this war was always how much we'd have to pay while _failing anyway_. The failing anyway seems more significant to me.

Posted by: Galen | Nov 21, 2007 3:07:52 PM

I heard Wes Clark, now campaigning for Clinton, on NPR today talking about how he doesn't support firm deadlines. Voting for Clinton is voting for at least 4 more years in Iraq. Clark actually said we shouldn't pull out until we know what will happen afterwards.

Posted by: fresno | Nov 21, 2007 3:45:36 PM

Davis X Machina nailed it.

Cheney et al bet everything on finding WMD. They didn't have to be operational, they just had to be there. Everything else was cake. Speaking of cake, I think a lot of these guys really believed Chalabi had a base of support that would ultimately make this a slightly messy cakewalk. Certain people around the VP still do, Chalabi keeps popping up in important, multiple roles. Oil, debaathafication, Iranian/Iraqi relations, Ahmed is always there somewhere near the center of power.

But back to the WMD. I believe that the plan all along was to win a quick war in 2003, and set up for a new invasion of Iran or Syria (probably the latter) in 2004 with the ultimate goal of irradicating Hezbollah in Lebanon. With the domestic end goal being what Davis identified: permanent majority. Given their premises (Chalabi having real support, Saddam maintaining some WMD capability) it all could have worked and we would all be enquiring about work visas for Canada.

I find it endlessly (and sadly) ironic that in the end the future of American Democracy may have been secured by the efficiency of a brutal dictator. How Saddam managed to clean that whole country up of chemical weapons without even his generals knowing is amazing. Saddam had an alarming habit of using meathooks as interrogation tools and of cruelly punishing young children to send a message about the costs of opposing the regime, but for a guy that got his start as a street thug enforcer type you have to admit that he was pretty smart when he needed to be.

Posted by: Bruce Webb | Nov 21, 2007 4:05:40 PM

So when are you going to take on Matthews and his constant bullshit when you're face to face with him on his show??

Cause that's what courage demands.

He says to Crowley the other night something like 'come back to the truth and knowledge' when Crowley dared to propose that Gore was lied about constantly in the 2000 election.

The truth!!!! Matthews wouldn't know it if it crawled up his ass!

Take on this wimp - you might even get your show someday.

Posted by: gregg correll | Nov 21, 2007 8:34:28 PM

I'm glad "Kon" Pollack is Ted Koppel's son in law and not mine. I wonder what Koppel and Pollack will talk about while eating their turkey dinner today. I'll beat you that it won't be about the Iraq war or Iran.

Posted by: Connie | Nov 22, 2007 8:52:39 AM

"The difference came in how you imagined the war would go, how difficult, and bloody, and expensive, and long, it would be. "

Yes, after the numerous Israeli creamings of Arab armies, Iraq War I, and the pathetic performance of the Taliban, it was probably assumed that Arabs could not fight back.

The war proponents might have looked at the dogged performance of the Iraqis in Iran v. Iraq.

Posted by: bob h | Nov 22, 2007 11:06:04 AM

The bushistas wanted the oil. So they listened to any crank that told them anything they wanted to hear - like Curveball or Chalabi. So Chalabi, who lived in Iran hiding from Sadam, told them the throwing flowers bit, as well as there were WMD on every streetcorner, and they could launch in 45 minutes.

By invading Afghanistan, the bushistas eliminated a government that was hostile to Tehran, and allowed about 1 million refugees to leave Iran and return to Afghanistan.

By invading Iraq, the bushistas eliminated a government that had waged a long bloody war against Iran and replaced the government with one friendly towards Iran.

By outing Plame, the bushistas destroyed our only network of spies working on nuclear counter-proliferation in the middle east. As a consequence, all of the movable Iranian facilities were moved and the old buildings bulldozed flat.

By telling Chalabi which Iranian cryptosystems were compromised, the administration blundered yet again. Chalabi tells the Iranians who stop using the broken systems, which eliminates our ability to listen in on Iranian activity. Further reducing our ability to find and ever be able to destroy Iranian nuclear industries.

My conclusion is that bush, cheney and the rest of them are Iranian agents. Iran is the only country that has survived the bush administration's inconceivable incompetance and come out ahead. And with the credit meltdown approaching, it looks like the Iraq wargasm isn't going to be the pooch they screwed the most.

Posted by: Peter | Nov 22, 2007 4:01:45 PM

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