Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Pondering Infallibility, Part I

When asked by reporters at a White House press conference last year to name one mistake he had made in his prior four years as this nation's leader, President Bush was notoriously reluctant to admit any error claiming he was put on the spot by the unexpected query. Though the question was repeated numerous times along the campaign trail, Bush remained resolutely tight-lipped, unaided apparently, by the extra time to think up an answer. For most of Bush's critics, and even some allies, the Iraq war (from the decision to invade to the post-invasion period) would provide Bush with the richest quarry to go mining for the ever elusive answer; the response that would begin, "The one mistake I made as president was...."

I have
already acknowledged that President Bush, like most presidents, had little foreign policy or military experience upon entering office and, considering this, it would be unrealistic to expect him to concoct the Iraq war plan himself. But he is in charge of managing his cabinet, and marshalling the debate in order to arrive at prudent policy decisions chosen from the alternatives offered and argued. He is also tasked with changing directions and directors if and when the situation calls for such adjustments. As such, a healthy portion of the blame or glory for Iraq must rest at his feet. A recent article appearing in Survival by Professors David C. Hendrickson and Robert W. Tucker (offline only), distills a menu of possible gaffes that Bush could choose from vis a vis the Iraq campaign:

The dramatic contrast between the administration’s hopes and the reality it confronted has sparked a wide-ranging debate over 'what went wrong'. According to a legion of critics, the planners of the Bush administration made a series of critical mistakes that have turned what might have been a successful war and occupation into a fiasco. The most common critique takes roughly the following form: though the war plan to topple Saddam was brilliant, planning for the peace was woefully insufficient. The United States did not have sufficient troops to restore order in Iraq after the US invasion and was thus incapable of stopping the widespread looting that occurred in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Baghdad. Though the US State Department had made a comprehensive study of the problems of occupying Iraq, its conclusions were ignored by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, to the extent that the director of the State Department study on the Future of Iraq, Thomas Warrick, was prevented by the administration from joining Jay Garner’s team. The administration erred, according to the critics, in disbanding the Iraqi army, which might have played a valuable role in restoring security to the country, and it erred further in its harsh decrees proscribing members of the Ba'ath Party from participation in Iraq’s public life – a decision, like that which disbanded the army, needlessly antagonising the Sunnis and pushing many of them into the insurgency. The Bush administration also needlessly antagonised the international community – including both the United Nations and its European allies – and made it much more difficult to obtain help for the occupation and reconstruction of the country. It was too slow in making funds available for reconstruction and created a labyrinthine bureaucracy for the awarding of contracts.
When a critic raises any of the above mentioned "mistakes" on a blog, in an Op-Ed piece, on a panel discussion, on a talking head TV program or some other similar venue, there are almost inevitably defenses offered and justifications for how and why the alleged error is really not what it appears to be. What if Bush's defenders are right? What if the real reason Bush has such a devil of a time coming up with a mistake he can point to is that he hasn't made any (if not in the decision to invade, at least in the occupation)? As I have done on occasion before, I want to examine the possibility that the conduct of the Iraq campaign has been flawless. Or at the very least, the conventional wisdom regarding the litany of mistakes alluded to by Hendrickson and Tucker greatly exaggerates the extent to which alternative policies were available and would have ameliorated the current situation in any meaningful way.

Veruka Salt's Army

If we're going to start off with a mistake to analyze, we might as well begin with the one that even neocons like William Kristol and David Brooks have gotten on board with: "we never had enough troops in Iraq, and we still don't." These troops, it is argued, were and are needed to stop the looting, provide security to citizens, guard sensitive weapons sites and other arms caches, seal the borders, quash what was the nascent insurgency, and now hold territory seized by insurgents rather than ceding it back when our limited forces withdraw, etc. Hendrickson and Tucker provide a survey of some of the more noteworthy troop level recommendations:

One persistent criticism is that the invasion was mounted with altogether insufficient US forces. The Bush administration, writes Larry Diamond, ‘was never willing to commit anything like the forces necessary to ensure order in postwar Iraq’. Diamond believes that ‘around 300,000 troops might have been enough to make Iraq largely secure after the war’, but also insists that ‘different kinds of troops, with different rules of engagement’, were needed, including ‘vastly more military police and other troops trained for urban patrols, crowd control, civil reconstruction, and peace maintenance and enforcement’. Others have put the numbers needed much higher. According to one study, the same ratio of peacekeepers to population as in Kosovo would generate a force requirement of 480,000 troops for Iraq; if Bosnia were the model, 364,000 would be required. James Fallows, in his incisive critique of American war planning, notes that the original army plan (prepared in the 1990s by then Centcom commander Anthony Zinni and later updated) called for an invasion force of 400,000. Over time, in response to the persistent objections of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, it was pared back so that only some 200,000 forces were in theatre at the time of the invasion. Of these, less than half were actually in Iraq itself when Baghdad fell. One division, scheduled to invade Iraq from Turkish territory, had been refused admittance by the Turks and was in transit to Kuwaiti ports; most remaining forces were marshalling in Kuwait.
The problem is that many of these critics are asking for "the world" in terms of the type and number of troops, when in reality there were and are considerable logistical constraints that required a leaner force and precluded the use of the specialty forces that Diamond and others claimed were needed. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, we went to war with the Army we had.

But two large qualifications to the critique stressing insufficient US forces committed to Iraq must be made. The first is that the United States did not actually have the requisite ‘different kinds of troops’ that critics, not unreasonably, insist ought to have been sent. Secondly, and more seriously, a much larger force at the beginning would have substantially decreased the ability of the United States to maintain higher force levels over the course of the occupation. Indeed, experience from spring 2003 to autumn 2004 indicates that ground forces were stretched extremely thin by the pressures of maintaining a force in the 108,000–150,000 range, as compared to the 300,000–500,000 that critics have called for, with unsustainable reliance on National Guard and reserve units and a ‘broken’ mobilisation system. A large number of American troops at the beginning would only have been possible if there had been a rapid drawdown by the following year. Once the problem is seen as one of maintaining a force over a protracted period (say, 3–5 years), there was simply no way to generate those large numbers within existing force constraints. It might be argued, of course, that had the initial invasion force been 300,000–400,000 troops, the later problems confronting the occupiers would have been substantially reduced, but this is unlikely. Even if considered probable, it would still have been a big risk. [emphasis added]
Given that the National Guard and Reserve systems are near meltdown now, I can't imagine what a two or threefold requirement in terms of numbers would have caused, and how much sooner. It should also be noted that a larger troop presence might have increased the nationalistic backlash that has fueled certain strains of the insurgency. A more ubiquitous troop presence would have confirmed the suspicions of some that the US intended to establish permanent control over Iraq, and that would have created, or exacerbated, a different set of problems.

Hendrickson and Tucker also look to the specific problem of looting which, it has been argued, occurred because of the lack of sufficient troop strength in Iraq and the astonishing lack of preparation for such looting regardless of troop levels.

What is misleading about this interpretation is not the contention that Centcom ought to have had a well-developed plan to deal with the looting but the assumption that it would have successfully mastered the problem had it done so. This seems implausible. The criticism too readily assumes that if problems are foreseen there must in principle be a solution to them. In all probability, however, a war plan keyed to the problem of postwar disorder would itself have inevitably confronted a substantial gap in time between the disintegration of the state and the arrival of forces of sufficient size to establish order, creating a window of opportunity for looting that even a far-sighted plan could not have closed. There is, moreover, substantial evidence that some of the destruction was carried out by Iraqi intelligence agents and could not have been guarded against even had a determined effort been made to do so. That the deliberate fostering of anarchy was part of Saddam’s plan is also suggested by his release of some 100,000 criminals from Iraqi prisons several months before the invasion. Nor was the anarchy confined to Baghdad: looters arose from Mosul in the north to Basra in the south and attacked an astonishing array of targets across the country. A different plan could in all probability have prevented the worst consequences of the looting, such as the destruction of irreplaceable cultural sites and important government ministries, but it is difficult to see how the larger consequence of widespread anarchy, with all its implications for the success of the American mission, could have been avoided. In large measure, this consequence flowed directly from the breakage of the Iraqi state. Seen in broadest perspective, the breaking of the state in effect destroyed Iraq’s immune system, making it vulnerable to a host of ailments. Among these were criminal anarchy, the ease with which foreign terrorists set up shop on Iraqi territory, widespread access to arms and a protracted insurgency. These consequences followed from the act of war itself. They may have been mitigated by a fundamentally different war plan, but they were likely to ensue even if military plans had been informed by greater foresight and better calculated to meet the dangers presented. [emphasis added]
A related complaint is that the diplomatic abrasiveness of the Bush administration undermined the effort to include the international community in the process - more precisely, it led to the failure to get sizable troop commitments from other nations. But as Hendrickson and Tucker point out, no matter how deft a diplomatic touch the Bush administration had employed, public opinion in the nations being courted was so hostile to the military excursion that it is unlikely that there would have been more cooperation in terms of military support - at least initially. Further, American military brass are not always fond of working with their foreign counterparts and such multilateral military conglomerates can cause a host of logistical and coordination headaches. In many ways, we are better off alone, with multilateral forces coming in after the fact in order to help keep the peace. As Hendrickson and Tucker put it, the US forces "make the meal" and the NATO and UN forces "do the dishes."

Unfortunately, the situation was so bad after the invasion that it was even less likely that those involved, or those on the sidelines, would ramp up support with more troops - even if John Kerry were elected. Nations that would be willing to contribute to a peace keeping mission mostly require there to be a "peace" to "keep." In Iraq, there was no such calm, evidenced by the tragic blow to the international effort that came with the assassination of UN envoy Sergio de Mello. In such an environment, enhancing cooperation from allies was near impossible regardless of the Bolton-esque brusqueness of many of the Administration's actors.

This is not to say that the critics who point out that more troops were needed are wrong, or that it would have been better if our troops were trained for the various tasks required by nation building, or that a legion of Arabic speaking translators would not have greatly assisted along many lines. Nor does it excuse the Bush administration's atrocious track record on the diplomatic front which trounced even these remote possibilities. It is just that these might not have been decisions to be judged as mistaken paths chosen as much as predetermined actualities. In other words, once a decision to go to war was made, the realities concerning our military were what they were. The realities of world public opinion, and competing interests of foreign governments, were also actual impediments that needed to be recognized. And we must acknowledge the possibility that even in the perfect world in which we would have had 400,000 well trained troops, such a heavy handed footprint could have fueled its own variety of backlash and failed to forestall the looting and anarchy that ensued. Of course, these realities should have factored into the decision to go to war in the first place. Perhaps that is where the error lies.

I will continue this line of discussion in Part II, looking to other areas commonly cited as mistakes.

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