Friday, December 4, 2009

Ask the Reader: Single Dumbest Mistake in US Foreign/Defense Policy?

I asserted this week, as I always do, that disbanding the Iraqi military in 2003 was the single dumbest mistake the US has made in foreign policy.  That is, it was incredibly destructive (making a large and especially bloody insurgency inevitable) and it was obviously not a good idea at the time.  The US interagency process had worked out a bunch of ideas about keeping the guys in uniform (at least a large chunk of the 400,000 or so folks) doing reconstruction, policing, etc.  But Paul Bremer, on his own or under orders from Rumsfeld (the finger-pointing continues, but I would put money on Rummy),* chose instead to fire the entire Iraq army and to stop payments to veterans and war widows and orphans.

In my time in the Pentagon (two years before the fiasco that was the post-war planning and operations in Iraq), one of the things we worked on was getting a few thousand men removed from the various sides of the Bosnian conflict, well aware that demobilization is an inherently risky process.  Creating large groups of unemployed, resentful young men trained in war and knowledgeable about the disposition of the tools of war is and has always been a bad idea.  While some of the folks responsible defend their decisions in No End in Sight, a great documentary (see clip after the break), the decision was considered as incredibly stupid at the time, with members of the US military utterly shocked and appalled (not awed) by the decision.

So, it gets my vote for the dumbest decision ever (perhaps not the worst decision ever, but I might vote for that, too) in US Foreign and Defense Policy.  What say the readers?

*  Either way, it shows how broken the process was that we do not have a clear accounting of responsibility here


Brian Mazanec said...

How about the U.S. Senate's decision to reject U.S. membership in the League of Nations in 1919? If the U.S. had been a member, France and the U.K. might have been more inclined to work together proactively to address the rise of Nazi Germany... although the structural challenge's would have remained so that point is not clear.

Or how about the dramatically misplaced faith in the "action-reaction" Arms Control model during the Cold Way (particularly the late 1970s)? While we were fortunate and didn't pay much of a price for this error, U.S. leaders were incredibly wrong when they thought U.S. reductions would lead to a similar Soviet response... when in fact it had the opposite effect. Deterrence could easily have failed (and the fact that it didn't is not proof that it "worked") so this could have been a mistake of existential proportions.

Steve Saideman said...

Given the design of the League and given the unlikely chance that the US would have really done anything int he mid-1930's to stop Germany early, I don't think opting out of the League is unambiguously dumb--the effects are not clear and it was not running against all previous experience like disbanding a large military is/was.

For the latter, maybe misplaced faith, but again, the effects you posit are mostly things that didn't happen or didn't cause dramatic hardship.

Benjamin Fordham said...

The decision to invade Iraq contains many smaller choices that each look incredibly dumb. Disbanding the army is definitely one of them, but you might also cite the decision to use a small number of troops (perhaps partly as a result) not to provide security in Baghdad after the city was occupied in April. The whole thing was a bad idea, badly implemented.

One competitor for worst choice ever is the October 1950 decision to advance to seize all of North Korea, advancing to the Chinese border in spite of strong indications that the Chinese would intervene as a result. There were people in the State Department, including Paul Nitze, who thought this was a bad idea at the time. They were overruled.

Steve Saideman said...

That the Iraq war involved heaps of bad decisions is clear, and the small size of the force was clearly a bad idea for the post-conventional war phase. I would say this is a close second to the disbanding of the Iraq army.

But the second competitor--advancing to the Chinese border may be a winner.

Perhaps I should posit a tournament--a bracket of 16/32/64 bad decisions and have people vote? Only if I had the mad web skills and the time.

More suggestions?