Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Situation No Win?

Phebe Marr has written an interesting dual book review in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs that raises several thought provoking questions, the most intriguing of which, to me, is: What if the current situation in Iraq were more the product of the inevitable and less a function of the lack of pre-war planning and the mistakes made in aftermath of the invasion? The answer to this question would certainly force the hands of many a liberal hawk, like Tom Friedman, who have thus far been able to resist the need to reassess their respective pre-invasion outlooks by retreating to the safety of the position that "things would be better in Iraq now if only the Bush administration and Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) had done this or that differently."

On the other hand, many Bush supporters have soft pedalled any suggestion that pre-war planning was light on substance and details, and have fierecely contested the asssertion that the big strategic decisions (overall troop strength, disbanding the Iraqi Army, de-Baathification) were the mistakes that many dissatisfied with the progress of the war have suggested. What if they are right, or what if it is a moot point regardless? What if those decisions, mistakes or not, played less of a role in Iraq than the overall strategy employed? Perhaps the mission, in all its grandiosity, was fated to experience the same difficulties it has no matter what particular tactical nuances were employed along the way.

In Marr's introduction, she outlines the societal upheaval that has occurred as a result of the overturning of the Baath Party's dominance in Iraq. Not all of these dramatic changes are bad of course, but some aspects of the evolution of Iraqi society do not bode well for the future.
...[T]he country's politics are no longer driven by nationalism and the interests of a middle class of state functionaries, but rather are guided by cultural identities based on ethnic and sectarian blocs. The election of January 30, 2005, confirmed the displacement of the former Sunni ruling class and the emergence of both a dominant Shiite majority and a strong Kurdish minority, with profound consequences for the country's domestic and foreign policies.

These disruptions are unlikely to be settled easily anytime soon. Given the excruciating compromises Iraq's transition to democracy requires, the political process in Baghdad is proceeding about as well as could be expected.
These divisions, really, represent the fault lines along which Iraq could implode - potentially drawing its neighbors into the vortex. The unleashing of ethnic and sectarian forces without the proper institutional fortitude to contain and channel them to productive outlets brings the Iraq campaign to the brink of failure. This would likely be true regardless of the situation on the ground in Iraq, but when the ongoing violence is factored in, these fault lines become even starker and more seismically volatile.

But the insurgency, focused mainly on the capital and its environs, is sapping energy, isolating the country's center from the provinces and Iraq from the outside world, and complicating economic revival. Not surprisingly, the hope and optimism that once buoyed believers in the U.S. occupation have given way to disappointment and finger-pointing. Fervent supporters of change, who went into Iraq with the idea of remaking the country, have come up against some hard realities. The whole project now looks costly and uncertain.
With the current situation framed, Marr turns to the two books one by Larry Diamond and one by David Phillips, two men who despite having slightly different opinions on the wisdom of the invasion of Iraq, both decided to offer their services to the CPA in Baghdad. Diamond, a renowned expert on democracy and its exportation, opposed the invasion believing Iraq to be a poor candidate for nation building given its "deeply divided society, lack of a strong middle class, and hostile postinvasion environment." Nevertheless, he believed every effort should be made to try to make it work. Suffice to say, he was slightly disillusioned with what he saw:

Diamond is also unsparing in his criticism of Washington's broader Iraq policy. "Mistakes were made at virtually every turn," he charges, ensuring that "a decisive and potentially historic military victory" became a failure. The Iraq project has become "one of the greatest overseas blunders in [U.S.] history." Although the mistakes Diamond points out are familiar by now, they are noteworthy. They include purging the Baath Party, disbanding the army, invading Iraq with too few forces to maintain security, letting the Pentagon set the strategy for postwar Iraq, and failing to plan effectively for peace. Diamond excoriates civilian Pentagon leaders for not listening to outside advice, especially the State Department's "Future of Iraq" project (a main subject of Phillips' book). Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld frowned on nation building, and the White House was eager to downplay the sacrifices it might require of the American public. The Bush administration wanted to believe that the insurgency in Iraq would be limited and that Washington could rapidly turn over the country's management to pro-U.S. Iraqi exiles.

Occupation did bring some benefits -- new political parties, a stronger civil society, and a less dogmatic educational system -- but these benefits did not, in Diamond's view, outweigh the negatives. The collapse of public order in the immediate aftermath of the war devastated Iraq's infrastructure and opened the door to terrorists, feeding the insurgency and the chronic disorder that have stunted progress. The U.S. forces were always short of troops; the civilian team was underresourced, with too few people who knew the local language and culture. The Bush administration displayed too much hubris and engaged in too much wishful thinking. For Diamond, the administration's worst sin was not going to war, but going so unprepared.
As for Mr. Phillips:

By and large, Phillips agrees [with Diamond]. Now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the deputy director of the council's Center for Preventive Action, Phillips was a senior adviser to the State Department on the Future of Iraq project from April 2002 to September 2003. His professional interest and the focus of his book are nation building. Having accepted Bush's security rationale for the war in Iraq, he is less critical of the invasion itself than of the administration's handling of the postwar stabilization and democratization program. He wants to derive from Washington's blunders in Iraq more general lessons about the transition from authoritarianism to democracy because, in his view, the U.S. government will use military force to eliminate rogue regimes again.
Phillips offers an insider's view of the power struggles within both the Bush administration and the Iraqi opposition movement. After the dust settled in the White House, the neoconservatives triumphed over the realists ensconced in the State Department, the result being a reallocation of the rebuilding responsibilities from State to the Pentagon and a shift in the overall strategy from a more focused nation building effort in Iraq to a lighter, more laissez faire presence in Iraq with an eye to the reshaping of the entire Middle East. This had potentially negative repercussions because the Pentagon received the nod so late in the game that they had little time to formulate comprehensive plans as State had done over the prior months. The Pentagon was literally planning on the fly, and even then, from a position of disdain for the tedium of nation building.

Within the Iraqi opposition movement, Phillips tells of bitter rivalries and incessant power struggles. He even writes of Ahmed Chalabi's repeated attempts and failures to dominate as the one voice of the movement. Not exactly a revelation to most I'm sure. He also warns that the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) had early on become "a powerful force, with stronger ties to Tehran than to Washington" - a specter that remains a reality today.

Overall, Phillips charges, the Bush administration was afflicted by a combination of "naivete, misjudgment and wishful thinking." Dismantling the Baath Party and the army were major mistakes; security problems and rampant looting gutted hopes for progress.
But Phillips takes a more sanguine view of nation building in general, and seeks to rescue the baby from the baath water:

Phillips closes with broad conclusions about the lessons to be learned from the U.S. experience in Iraq. After extensive contact with the Kurds and the Iraqi opposition, Phillips concludes that "religion and ethnicity matter to Iraqis who, as a people, lack a strong sense of national identity." Iraq's governance problems stem from a strong central government that repressed this identity; Phillips is a strong advocate of federalism, especially of the need to build Iraqi democracy from the provinces inward. He also argues that nation building is an appropriate objective of U.S. policy; it is in Washington's interest to intervene abroad to protect U.S. security, whether by removing weapons of mass destruction or preventing genocide. Because failed states are havens for terrorists, Phillips says, conflict resolution is an important investment in U.S. security. In an appendix, he offers guidelines to improve performance next time. Washington should have a clear vision of the purpose of its intervention and of the state it hopes to build. The international community should commit to sharing the burdens of nation building, but the operation should be run under a single command. Neighboring countries should not be allowed to meddle while the United States and its allies work to ensure humanitarian relief, security, economic development, and elections. To help coordinate these and other efforts -- and avoid interagency infighting -- Phillips recommends the creation of a nation-building directorate in the National Security Council.
Marr doesn't appear to be convinced by Phillips' and Diamonds' conclusions and recommendations - and I tend to agree with her. They sound nice in theory, but in practice, they are almost impossible to achieve:

Phillips, in other words, does not recognize fully enough the inherent difficulties of nation building. He does point out that the Bush administration had not finished with Afghanistan before it took on Iraq, and that if one of its goals was to create a model democracy, Iraq was not the place to start. But the conclusion he draws from the experience is that although nation building in Iraq was bound to be hard, mistakes by the Bush administration made it much harder. Those, he thinks, could be avoided in the future.

Likewise, Diamond concludes that having invaded Iraq and committed to rebuilding it, the Bush administration should have done so differently. Diamond's preferred scenario would have involved many more troops, tighter civilian security after the war to avoid looting, reactivating the Iraqi army and police, protecting the border, allowing the Baath Party to emerge under a new leadership, and transferring authority to the UN. These are laudable objectives, but they would have been even more difficult to accomplish than those of the Bush administration. How would Diamond have accomplished them? Obtaining more troops and more resources would have required support from the American public and a more thorough airing of the costs and risks of nation building, which the Bush administration was anxious to avoid. Diamond admits that all occupying powers face a difficult dilemma: deploy too many troops and risk provoking anti-imperialist opposition; deploy too few and face chaos. But achieving the right balance is a truly delicate operation. In Iraq, Washington did not get it right.
Despite the recommendations of Phillips and Diamond, it is not as if many of the so-called mistakes are prima facie obvious - and even if they hurt the effort, are such setbacks really avoidable. As Diamond admits, increasing troop presence creates potential for backlash. Not disbanding the Iraqi Army or de-Baathifying could have left behind the potential for a coup in the future, or led to more infiltration of the government and military ranks by insurgents. While the electoral process, and the drafting of the TAL, were less than ideal, was there a magic bullet solution? Unlikely in my opinion. While I think that the Bush administration has run the Iraqi campaign with marked negligence, maybe such errors are inevitable. After all, these bureaucracies are fun by humans who err by nature. That is why I have argued many times before (most recently in my debate with Marc Schulman) that, while aiding the emergence of indigenous democratic movements is a laudable goal for US foreign policy, the strategy of violent regime change followed by nation building is an option that should be reserved as a last resort because of the inherent and enormous difficulties, the staggering financial and military costs and the ultimate uncertainty of the outcome. There are more efficient and cost effective, if also imperfect, ways to achieve our objectives. Marr again:

The willingness of Diamond and Phillips to have the United States assume the burden of nation building indicates that even these keen observers have not yet learned the main lesson of the Iraq experience. Rebuilding a foreign nation is an extremely difficult and costly endeavor, likely to generate severe -- and often lethal -- reactions. Formulating a policy for the reconstruction of Iraq was never about choosing a good option over a bad one, but about selecting the least offensive of many unpalatable alternatives. Trying to mend a state as broken -- and as culturally different from the United States -- as Iraq was doomed to be a tricky endeavor for Washington.

Given such daunting difficulties, the best advice to draw from these books may be this: if you cannot garner adequate resources -- and public opinion at home and abroad -- to rebuild a nation, do not start. Rather than ponder the dos and don'ts of nation building, as Diamond and Phillips do, perhaps it would be wiser to weigh the whys and why nots of engaging in it in the first place. If the U.S. experience in Iraq holds any lesson for the future, it may be that Washington should exercise extreme caution before launching another such operation. In the meantime, it should look harder for ways to shore up or bring change to failing states before they warrant intervention at all.
This is not to say that Iraq is lost, or that no hope remains. But at a certain point, even victory in Iraq, whatever that may be defined as in the future, will be too pyrrhic and hard won to vindicate the strategy.

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