Saturday, March 2, 2013

Iraq in Retrospect: What Was I Thinking

I was asked on twitter today about my stance ten years ago.  The preparations for the Iraq war were underway, and it was clear that the U.S. was going to invade Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein.  Looking backwards, it is easy to point out mistakes and perhaps more people today think they opposed the war ten years ago than actually did.  But what was my stance?  I did not have a blog way back when so I cannot search to find what I was thinking as opposed to what I think now about what I think I was thinking.  It is hard to separate the things I believed at the time from what I know believe about the war, but let me re-construct.

To be clear, I was opposed to the invasion. I do remember that the year on the Joint Staff definitely shaped my views, but I probably would have opposed the war anyway. I clearly remember a few things, and then I am not sure about the rest. 
  • I remember thinking that the global war on terrorism [GWOT] was the first and foremost priority and that attacking Iraq was unrelated to that war on terrorism.  Sure, Hussein supported some groups in Lebanon and elsewhere, but Bin Laden was not a friend and Hezbollah was an adversary.  Moreover, in the midst of a conflict where the US would want to reduce support for terrorism, invading Iraq seemed to be something that might just increase hatred/fear of the US and abet AQ recruitment.  One of my frustrations at the time and since was that fighting terrorism was a multidimensional effort, with public diplomacy playing a significant role.  Antagonizing the region with a sketchy war was not going to be good for the big fight. 
  • I had just spent a year observing Rumsfeld and the folks under him from up close, and I had just a bit of contempt for them--that Rummy had created a climate of fear so that his underlings would not question him.  This seemed like groupthink in its purest form.  As a result, when I learned that Rummy and his guys had responsibility for running the effort, I knew it would be mishandled.  I did not think that they would consider the list of "don't do's" and turn that into a check list.  So they underperformed even compared to my low expectations.
    • Chief among the don't do's were: do not disband the Iraqi military.  I spent much of my year on the Joint Staff participating in an effort to downsize slightly the Bosnian armed forces by a thousand or two soldiers since unemployed former soldiers are a recipe for bad stuff (such as insurgency).   To this day, I think firing the Iraqi army was the single worst decision in American foreign policy history.  That invading Iraq had some plausible justification, pro's and con's, but firing hundreds of thousands of young men who were trained to use weapons and knew where the stuff was?  Awful cubed.  
    • A second don't do: do not rely on emigres who might seem friendly to you but have little political power back home.  Of course, little did I know that the one that they wanted to rely upon (Chalabi) was not only corrupt (which we knew) but probably an Iranian agent!
  • Occupation was going to be hard.  All one had to do was consider what Dick Cheney said in 1992.  Iraq had ethnic divisions with an aggrieved, oppressed majority (the Shia),and so on.  So, why do something that is so very difficult?  The flowers in the street stuff did not convince me, although I did not expect a heap of suicide bombing either (again, I didn't expect firing the army or cutting off pensions for widows).
So, my primary reasons in 2003 for opposing the war, as I put it at the time: the wrong war (not Afghanistan), by the wrong people (Rummy and his friends [a group of oil men meant for bad optics as well]), at the wrong time (Afghanistan first).

I think I might have also been sufficiently trained in balance of power dynamics to ponder whether attacking Iran's enemy might have been a bad idea, but I am not sure now if that is something that was in the forefront of my mind back then. 

I did understand that the Bush administration faced a challenge--that the sanctions regime against Hussein was breaking down.  I just didn't think that the possibility that Iraq might have a weapons program was worth war.  Similarly, I don't think it is worth war to stop Iran from developing weapons of mass destruction.  I am not happy that more countries have WMD, but I do prefer containment and deterrence to occupation.  Still, the Iraq war seemed to be too much work with too much risk and too little support.

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