Iraq and the Undiscovered Country

You're a policy planner in the White House in the winter of 2002 and you're examining the possibility of invading Iraq. All the best brains from academia and government are gathered. Fevered days and nights turn into weeks as the possibilities and policy prescriptions are bandied about with abandon.

"General, do we have sufficient combat strength to deliver a bodyblow to Saddam that will deliver the Iraqi people from his grasp?"

"Yes, if we divert forces from the Balkans mission and deploy Marine ground forces in concert, we can."

"Paul, are all the Arab nations onboard with an invasion when we militarily occupy the country after our sure victory?

"Of course, Sharon tells me the door is wide open."

"George, are the intelligence assessments onboard and congruent with our policy prescriptions?"

"Uh, well, I would venture to say, well, uh . . . "

"Great, George, I'm glad our intelligence organizations are on top of things. I'll have Bolton brief me later on the real deal."

These are imaginary extrapolations but probably capture the tenor of the White House during the crucial planning phase for the "Operation Iraqi Freedom" debacle. Read the Seymour Hersh article in the New Yorker to get an idea of what the Administration did to get its way despite the lack of evidence for Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). This, of course, was the initial pretense to be followed by the clear and present danger pretext and the "Robert Mugabe Citizen Hospitality Award" nomination proffered on Saddam by the Bush administration.

As fantastical as all this is, you have to wonder why a politically savvy player like Bush would plunge his administration and its legacy into what appears to be a suicidal foreign adventure in the Middle East. Not simply a one-country conflict but a play at becoming the regional hegemon in the Middle East as a prelude to the cementing of an Imperial America as the dominating force on the globe. The Left rationalizes this behavior as it always does by adopting paternal noises and cranking up the propaganda box to sponsor government intervention in every human transaction whether large or small. You'll note that not even Dean, the ghost of Henry Wallace, wants to bring the troops home. The mainstream Right (read neoconservative) accepted by the media, has pressed for a Pax Americana as long as it has existed as a movement (which one can date back to Leon Trotsky's influence in the Communist Party). The prescient America First movement in the 1930's was merely a blip on the American political scene as the hideous colossus midwifed by Lincoln continued apace through the next century and a half of American history. You cannot point to a single Republican or Democrat Presidential candidate who disagrees with this notion of empire in principle. You may point to the rest (Libertarians, Greens, et al.) but America is and will remain a one-party system for the foreseeable future.

Yet during what were most likely long and grueling planning sessions did any inquiring minds speculate on the second and third order effects of the invasion and subsequent occupation? Were alternative readings of the Iraqi tealeaves permitted or was an orthodoxy of accepted opinion already formed? Is there a formal methodology the government employs to forecast worst-case scenarios and possible futures that may lead to the opposite of what a foreign policy seeks? The US Army employs a Military Decisionmaking Process that provides a fairly good template but it is geared toward short-term mission accomplishment and rarely examines post-conflict scenarios. The question remains: did the best and the brightest not see any of this coming?

A Few Possibilities

For instance, did the Turkish refusal to allow US forces egress to Iraq give anyone a clue of Turkish intentions to potentially annex Kurdish territory in the north once we stop paying attention? Washington and Ankara reportedly clinched a deal in January 2001 to establish a Turkmen Republic in northern Iraq if the US decided to force Saddam out. According to the Kurdish newspaper, Ozgur Politika, the republic would kill two birds with one stone by blocking an incipient Kurdish state and securing US-Turkish control over the Kirkuk and Mosul oilfields. Will we now permit this to transpire?

The Shiite majority in Iraq may very well manage to create a new Fundamentalist Muslim rump state in portions or all of Iraq. Will the destruction of their households and indignities visited upon them during the occupation ensure they will be warm and cordial toward the United States once we're forced to leave?

Can the United States centrally plan and engineer the creation of a new and peaceful Iraqi society from the ashes the US created in the first place? History is not kind to the notion and failure is more likely than success. Like the UN in the Balkans, the US will tolerate the outcome of democratic institutions only if they are in concert with American wishes and edicts. God help the Iraqis with us in charge of writing their constitution. If the Balkans is any measure of American efficacy, we are in for a long and bloody journey.

Was the bombing campaign prior to the ground campaign really designed to cripple the power grid and oil extraction/delivery system? Yet another stunning example of Henry Hazlitt's wisdom and his parable about the "Broken Window Fallacy" that so many neoconservative blowhards have ignored at their peril to support the export of war. According to news reports, we are now having to import dollars and know-how to rebuild the oil infrastructure that was 90% of Iraq's GDP prior to our campaign.


These are just a few possibilities of unintended consequences and second order effects. Many more both large and small will emerge as the occupation matures. I certainly don't think all decisions should be postponed or paralyzed at every level to ensure we have all the answers. Those of us who embrace peaceful freedom know it's a risky enterprise and we can never have all the knowledge. Of course, the scales of complexity are much more vast at the level of the Federal government and the knowledge problem is that much worse. Government decisions, by their very nature, especially in foreign policy, will always have unintended consequences but the stakes are very different. As individuals, we take decisions in which we have an interest for both failure and success; politicians, by the nature of the structure they exist in, are usually insulated from personal risk and many innocents are put in the hazard by the politician's hubris. Politicians will rarely allow common sense and logic to get in the way of progress. With the exception of the ballot box, political actors rarely pay for acts of stupidity or ignorance no matter how grave the offense. Apart from assassination, they may simply find themselves out of office and quickly moving into a lucrative position with a law or lobby firm.

I haven't even touched on why we have embarked on the Iraq adventure. The distance of time may be the only way to divine the true reason. Rest assured, nothing will go as the Bush Administration planned.

October 29, 2003


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