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August 19, 2005

We Don't Do Perfect

Matt, in a post about how Kevin Drum echoes his thinking on Iraq, pens a terrific explanation of where I've landed in recent months:

That said, I've sort of been shifting away from the "had no chance of working even if it had been competently executed" view in favor of a more sophisticated one. Here's how I would put it. In Iceland, they often need to close a road or two to traffic because it's too dangerous. That doesn't mean it would be literally impossible to drive safely across it. If you drove perfectly, you could probably make it. But the road is closed precisely because it's so rare for someone to drive perfectly in difficult conditions. A dangerous undertaking that can only be done successfully if you never make a mistake, is something you ought to avoid doing. After all, it's not as if the United States won the second world war, or the civil war, because our strategy was flawlessly executed. There were plenty of mistakes and errors along the way. There are always mistakes and errors in such a large undertaking as a war. Which is precisely why there should be a strong presumption against undertaking wars of choice. It's a distinctively liberal error to think "massive, flawlessly executed government-sponsored venture" is a real option to be put aside "don't do it" and "do it but make some mistakes." Mistakes, when made, should of course be criticized, but on side level some mistakes are inevitable. If your plan depends on the absence of errors, then you've got a bad plan.

This is one of those long-time, historically recurring mistakes liberals make. From the Kennedy Brothers' deification of CIA operatives, which led to the Bay of Pigs, to the liberal hawk's reliance on Kenneth Pollack's smiley, heroic vision of an Iraq occupation, we get this wrong a lot. Indeed, the only time I can think of it working, or even coming close, is in Kosovo, where our military strategy was idiotic and took us months longer than it should have, but our mistakes were on the side of caution and thus our own ranks remained blissfully unthinned (the Kosovars experienced no such luck). But in Iraq, our mistakes were all strikes against prudence, and so the casualty count and emotional immediacy of the many missteps and strategic failures proved much higher.

Post-Vietnam, NeoCons and liberals alike engaged in a fairly comprehensive project of rebuilding our nation's belief in its military. The disaster of that intervention, combined with Carter's catastrophic rescue mission in Iran, did a fairly total job of shaking faith in the Army. And so Reagan and his NeoCons did what any good, beaten heavyweight does: they fought a wimp. And after Granada was vanquished, Bush 41 carried out a skillful, highly successful war in Iraq. We didn't realize its success was predicated on its limited aims, so we took victory as a reflection on the military's overall incompetence, not just their ability to fight conventional battles.

Then came Clinton and, aside from bombing the wrong building in Sudan, his success with limited sorties in Iraq and the larger war in Kosovo made us look pretty good. Then Bush 43 toppled the Taliban with a minimum of effort and a maximum of skill, and so our national ego was reset for another exercise in overreach and nation-building.

The insecure trust that they will make mistakes, the overconfident know that they won't. We were overconfident. We were wrong. We made mistakes. And those of us who supported the war, to some degree or another, had learned too well the lessons of dissimilar, limited interventions and forgotten the legacy of the last sustained, nation-building project.

August 19, 2005 in Iraq | Permalink


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Bush 41 carried out a skillful, highly successful war in Iraq.

dont you mean Panama?

Posted by: almostinfamous | Aug 19, 2005 2:29:35 PM

"the only time I can think of it working, or even coming close, is in Kosovo. . ." what about Afghanistan? The problem with saying that nation-building is practically impossible is that it implies Afghanistan was a bad idea as well. Yet Afghanistan has turned out sort of okay, while Iraq hasn't. And the Administration's actions in Afghanistan were less corrupt & manipulative than their actions in Iraq, but it's not like they ran the Afghanistan mission perfectly or anything. It was merely good enough. We did have one big advantage in Afghanistan, though, which was that we had authentic Afghani allies: the Northern alliance + Karzai & co.

Posted by: roublen vesseau | Aug 19, 2005 3:58:16 PM

What do you consider an acceptable level of causalties, given the mission of conquering and occupying a large country?

You seem to suggest that a lower casualty level was possible, and that therefore any casualties above this level are wasteful. Where is this level?

For my part, I am happily shocked that the casualties are so low. Remember that the Pentagon believed that the war would cost 10,000 KIA's, even before considering the occupation.

Invoking Kosovo is in fact a point for Bush. If we are too worried about our own casualties, others will pay the price as the Kosovars did. Bush the Elder proved this again by holding back during the Persian Gulf War, and hundreds of thousands died because of it. (May he suffer eternal torment for his cowardice and betrayal of the Kurds and Shia...) Bush the Younger appears willing to take additional risks to save the lives of those we protect.

BTW, did you get my email?

Posted by: Mastiff | Aug 19, 2005 4:03:48 PM

In addition to the mistakes you have already pointed out, there is the apparent historical pattern of empires meddling in the Mideast in their waning days. Sort of a mystical thing but that was also on my list of reasons not to invade Iraq.

Posted by: Steve Mudge | Aug 19, 2005 5:11:52 PM

"And those of us who supported the war, to some degree or another, had learned too well the lessons of dissimilar, limited interventions and forgotten the legacy of the last sustained, nation-building project."

And the point of this is hindsight. that you should have opposed the war? Is this your mea culpa, or one of many?

You were not going to stop the war. Period. You could have, like so many on the left, by opposing the war at the outset, avoided any responsibility for the execution and consequences of the forthcoming war by opposition to the inevitable war, but it wouldn't actually done anyone any good.

But at an early point, or at any other point in the last few years, might have been possible to improve the execution of the war. A shrill, strident....or reasoned and measured...sustained support of Shinseki in the spring of 2003 might have gotten additional troops in the pipeline for 2004 or 2005 or 2006. Perhaps not likely, but much more likely than stopping America's war.

And so now. Those who oppose rapid withdrawal do take responsibility for casualties and horrors, but might actually be able to influence policy and marginally create a better outcome.

Those who support withdrawal seem to be preparing, as MY is, to say success was impossible with no possible good outcomes that we could create, mistake from the beginning, civil war, ethnic cleansing, regional war, oil crash, economic catastrophe....not my fault, man.

You have indeed learned a lesson from those who opposed the war from the start.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Aug 19, 2005 5:13:17 PM

What do you consider an acceptable level of causalties, given the mission of conquering and occupying a large country?

In truth, as such things go, roughly 2000 casualties is nothing. Of course, Iraq war advocates might want to think twice before they crow about this too much. Bin Laden has his own perspective about American casualty counts and actions....

After the Iraqi rout in the '91 war, I don't know any informed observer who expected lots of American casualties (i.e., on the scale of the conflicts Vietnam or Korea) from the invasion. But war sceptics who argued from a strategic perspective weren't talking about American casualties per se. They were more concerned with the effects it would have on the region, with our own alliances, and ourselves (since none of them bought the 'cakewalk' lie).

It always seemed pretty clear to me that war advocates were proposing something with many obvious, quite likely risks, and few tangible benefits. Those benefits, in turn, required that everything go precisely as planned, and they were touted by people with little discernible knowledge of the region. (Who among Wolfowitz, Perle, Rumsfeld, or the now-repentant Yglesias and Drum speaks or reads Arabic?). We have terms for people who act on this kind of decision-making -- 'reckless gambler' is maybe the most charitable.

I'm glad that Yglesias can credit himself with coming around to a more "sophisticated" view. For the rest of us, taking a course rich in hazards, poor in gains, and highly likely to evolve into a situation with no good options (is any of this sounding familiar?) was common sense, Strategy 101.

Posted by: sglover | Aug 19, 2005 5:29:48 PM

Greg Djerejian

Someone very critical of Bush, Rummy, and the war...but making an effort to pressure the administration toward a better outcome rather than throwing up his hands and saying: "Darn, this war stuff is really hard."

But this scares me, though I do not think setting a trap for Hillary is Greg's purpose. Read the whole thing.

"Let me put this differently. Final success in Iraq won't happen on George Bush's watch. Only disaster can happen on his watch. True success is only possible and in the offing well past Inauguration Day January 2009. If we stick it out, that is, and hand off to Bush's successor a project that is moving in the right direction. If Bush resists fake declarations of victory and stands firm--he will have proven a serious figure before the harsh verdicts of history."

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Aug 19, 2005 5:32:39 PM


"Sadly, it's only the ones who advocated this clusterfuck who are given any credibility by our media." ...Atrios

Bush in 98 or 99 said he wanted to be a "war president".
This, he thought, would put him in the history books and give him the political capital to puch thru his agenda. Disgusting and immoral, but not far from an accurate prediction.

If the lesson Democrats learn from this is that wars are hard and so we should oppose all significant optional wars, we will be under two important disadvantages:

1) We will politically vulnerable to those on the other side who think wars are neat. And the horrible fact of history in America is that when a war is possible, when a cause appears, it is hard to keep America out.

2) We will locked out of any discussions on how the wars are actually executed. Since Republicans do wars with the same apparent attitude they do everything else, this is very important. Thousands of lives could have been saved in Iraq with credible Democratic input.

So far, these two predictions look pretty good.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Aug 19, 2005 6:10:23 PM

It was not the "war" or invasion and coup d'etat, which failed; they went very well, actually. What failed was the reconstruction. And, it did not fail just a bit. It did not just "fall short." It failed completely and totally. Utterly.

We did not disarm the country. We did not rebuild infrastructue, restore electricity, bring back full-scale oil production, etc. The money to do so -- maybe not enough money to do all that needed to be done, but, nevertheless, lots of money -- was allocated, but it was not spent effectively.

It is critically important that Democrats not let Bush and the Republicans off the hook, but inordinate navel-gazing and proposing withdrawal, etc. What is Bush's plan? should be the Democratic mantra, for as long as he remains in office. Bush failed, and he should have his nose rubbed in his own shit till the day he dies.

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Aug 19, 2005 8:29:53 PM

Bob McManus,

I kind of get what your saying and will not argue with it directly because I don't have a response. Unless and until Americans lose their taste for war (as it appears most Euros have), we are still going to be ruled by an elite that, from time to time, finds war to be politically useful.

One indirect point of argument. Implicit in what you say is that opposition to the invasion of Iraq was no credible. I think events have shown that opposition was accurate and credible. The fact that it was disregarded doesn't mean it wasn't true. I guess credible means something else in your formulation, because you seem to be assuming that being in favor of the invasion was a necessary component of credibility.

But I have to argue directly with your statement that lives could have been saved if there had been credible Democratic input into Bush's invasion of Iraq. There was plenty of credible Democratic input, Republican input and military input that argued against invasion and against doing it in the manner proposed by Bush and Rumsfeld. This input ignored despite its coming from sources that were more credible than this Bush administration. Brent Scowcroft comes to mind. General Joseph Hoar is another. There were others in public and no doubt many more in private.

For the neo-cons, invading Iraq was their chance to play Risk on a real board.

For the American people, invading Iraq satisfied their desire to kill some Arabs and Muslims to express anger about 9/11 and to assuage their wounded pride.

For Bush, it was all about getting the senate back in 2002 and getting elected in 2004. Every single decision about the invasion of Iraq, beginning with teh timing of the war resolution, was for domestic political purposes. Similarly, the management of the occupation was not about managing problems in Iraq, it was about managing PR in the United States until the election.

Now that Bush was elected, the occupation serves no useful purpose. Now, all efforts are devoted to tranfering the blame for the fact that it was a bad idea that's gone badly.

Posted by: James E. Powell | Aug 20, 2005 4:19:13 AM

"Remember that the Pentagon believed that the war would cost 10,000 KIA's, even before considering the occupation."

You might want to source that. Rumsfield was publically pushing for a much smaller invasion force than we in fact deployed and high goverment officials were predicting cake walk:


Ken Adelman, former U.N. ambassador, in an Op-Ed for the Washington Post, Feb. 13, 2002:
"I believe demolishing Hussein's military power and liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk. Let me give simple, responsible reasons: (1) It was a cakewalk last time; (2) they've become much weaker; (3) we've become much stronger; and (4) now we're playing for keeps."

Vice President Dick Cheney, on NBC's "Meet the Press" March 16:
"The read we get on the people of Iraq is there is no question but that they want to get rid of Saddam Hussein and they will welcome as liberators the United States when we come to do that."

"My guess is even significant elements of the Republican Guard are likely as well to want to avoid conflict with the U.S. forces and are likely to step aside.

Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a breakfast meeting March 4, 2003:

"What you'd like to do is have it be a short, short conflict. The best way to do that is have such a shock on the system, the Iraqi regime would have to assume early on the end is inevitable."

March 28, 2003 | Richard Perle, recently resigned chairman of the Defense Policy Board, in a PBS interview July 11, 2002:
"Saddam is much weaker than we think he is. He's weaker militarily. We know he's got about a third of what he had in 1991."

"But it's a house of cards. He rules by fear because he knows there is no underlying support. Support for Saddam, including within his military organization, will collapse at the first whiff of gunpowder. "

Show me where any person in a position of power was saying 10,000 KIA? Not everything got shoved down the memory hole. We had a saying back in the day on dKos during the run up to war "This is dailyKos, you don't get to simply make shit up"

Anyone who asserts that the American people would have gone to war to liberate a small country knowing they would incur these levels of loss and cost is a fool or a liar. Source it or STFU. Not that I am bitter or angry or anything at being ignored at the time.

Posted by: Bruce Webb | Aug 20, 2005 9:51:51 AM

Bob McManus,

I'm not so sure that increasing the number of troops was a plausible strategy. Kevin Drum has pointed out that increasing the number of troops to the level suggested by Shineski would have pushed back the Iraq war a couple of years, and there is no way that the Bush Administration would have accepted that kind of delay.

But, more importantly, even if anti-war protest was futile (which I agree is true), sometimes it's better to futilely protest an action you consider to be fundamentally wrong rather than attempt to mitigate its worst consequences. Half a loaf is better than no loaf, but there are times when no loaf is better than a rotten 1/10th of a loaf.

Posted by: Peter | Aug 20, 2005 1:27:40 PM

"Implicit in what you say is that opposition to the invasion of Iraq was no credible"

Well, credibility as used both by me and Atrios has to do with influence, in other words people the media and WH would consider "credible." Opposition to the Iraq War was always credible to me, but as with the only man who voted against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, it was ignored by all with power. OTOH, later in the Vietnam War, when people like RFK and Walter Cronkite changed their positions, it was listened to. If you are "in the group" you have influence, but you can also be tossed from the group if you dissent too early. Certainly people like Scowcroft opposed the Iraq war early, and were ignored. Why wasn't Scrowcroft "credible"? He was to you, and to me, but not credible to the WH.

My questions are not about being accurate or truthful, but what it takes in a given circumstance to be influential, to change things.

Warm Feelings

Digby dicusses a not dissimilar dynamic involving a staffer to Colin Powell and the UN presentation.
As far as the troops go, 1) we have had three years, and even if the troops were not available in 2003, they certainly could be available now, and would help a lot.

2) Under different leadership or with sufficient pressure, I think more troops could have been available. Bush could have called for volunteer policemen. Made concessions to allies.

I read a discussion yesterday, can't remember where, about sending green draftees over. Two months basic, hand them a rifle, put them on a plane. This was what was done in Vietnam, and there were a lot more casualties, which is one of the reasons the Pentagon opposes a draft. There reasons I think even this would have been useful, but I am going on too long.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Aug 20, 2005 2:04:02 PM

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