Sunday, March 30, 2003

What’s Stupid and What’s Not? A Scorecard for the current debacle

With all the second guessing now about the war plan, I think it’s worth sorting out which parts of the current plan were stupid and which were not. With things going badly, the tendency is to think that the plan was stupid from start to finish. I think this is mistaken. (It’s a stupid war, of course, but that’s a distinct issue from how well it might be fought.) Getting clear on this will help to sort out the reasonable critics of the war plan from the critics who will complain under any circumstances.

Here is a scorecard rating four different aspects of the current plan:

i) Assuming that the regime as a whole was very shaky and that it might collapse very quickly "like a house of cards".

With everyone teasing Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz et. al. now, I think it's worth pointing out that they could marshal a certain amount of empirical support for this assumption. Sure, it's fun to see the gang getting their noses rubbed in it (especially because it gives the lie to the popular notion that the dovish crowd has a monopoly on naivete). But Basra is, after all, the place where the uprising started in 1991. True, many people chose to sit out that round too (conveniently overlooked before the war). What the incident revealed was widespread loathing of the regime and a genuine desperation for change on the part of many ordinary Iraqis.

Besides the many attempted coups over the years, the experience of Desert Fox, for example, provided more support for the view that S.H.'s regime was a "house of cards". In 1998, US patience with the inspections process was finally exhausted and the UN pulled inspectors from Iraq on the expectation of a US military retaliation. The retaliation, Desert Fox, consisted of 4 days of air-strikes, and occurred around the same time that you-know-who was in trouble for doing hmm-hmm with you-know-who. The timing, and the fact that the air-strikes lasted only 4 days, contributed to the impression that US action looked more like a fit of pique than a well-thought out campaign. Perhaps so, but it had unexpected, and revealing, effects. Here is Pollack (whose book is highly overrated, but also occasionally useful). The targets were:

"mostly regime protection and control targets . . . The idea was that the way to coerce Saddam into doing something he otherwise would not do was to threaten his control over Iraq, always his principal concern. . . . In this, Desert Fox actually exceeded expectations. Saddam panicked during the strikes. Fearing that his control was threatened, he ordered large-scale arrests and executions, which backfired and destabilized his regime for months afterward. . . . [This led to plots and other forms of resistance.] . . . Eventually the regime was able to snuff out all of these threats, and none ever really threatened its control. However, these events raised the question of what might have happened if the Desert Fox strikes had gone on longer than just four days." (p. 93 of the Threatening Storm)

So far, things haven’t gone as well as (this interpretation of) the Desert Fox experience suggested. There are lots of good explanations for why this might be so: doubt about American resolve; bitterness about the outcome of the last uprising; and habits of servility acquired over long years of living in fear. But it certainly wasn’t crazy to think that many ordinary Iraqis might respond favorably to an invasion, and that the regime might topple very quickly a la Romania. It might still.

Grade: B

ii) Trash talking the regime and making confident predictions of its immanent demise in the hopes that it folds "like a house of cards".

That’s why trash talking the regime with predictions of its immanent demise wasn’t stupid, at least not obnoxiously so. Rumsfeld and company clearly thought of Iraqi support for the US as a kind of assurance problem.

Suppose a highly profitable venture is only successful if enough people cooperate in it. If too few cooperate, the results will be disastrous for those few. Now, everyone can make promises beforehand, but these don’t count for much. With the stakes so high, people may well break their promises, or try to hedge their bets by entering into the fray a little after things are successfully underway. (Assurance problems are sometimes introduced with an example from highschool. It’s the last week of your graduating year and you’ve made a pact with some friends. You’re all going to arrive at school the next day with heads shaved oddly and your remaining hair dyed bright colours. If everyone does this, you’ll all look very cool when you show up. But if everyone else chickens out, and you’re the only one who has followed through, you’ll end up looking like an ass.)

Trash talking Saddam Hussein and confidently predicting the end of his regime was not just arrogant bluster (though the people in charge of doing it also happened to be, as a rule, arrogant blusterers). It was also clearly an attempt to solve the assurance problem facing Iraqis as they tried to decide which way to swing their support. Repeatedly stressing that the US is in it for as long as it takes is part of the same strategy. And if you think that fear of retaliation is holding Iraqis down, this strategy is at least well-developed to address that concern.

So the strategy has this much to recommend it: It was actually based on a decent guess about the psychology of rebellion and the difficult choices facing Iraqis right now.

Unfortunately, the strategy has several consequences which count heavily against it:

a) While US officials are pursuing a strategy of this sort they can’t exactly (even if they want to) perform stage whispers to their domestic audience explaining that the war might last much longer than they’re suggesting. All the crowing about US strength certainly helped to create unrealistic expectations at home. That’s going to hurt support for the war in the long run.
b) In a democracy, citizens need reasonably accurate information to be able to judge the soundness of a prospective war. So doing a "mind-fuck" on Iraq’s leadership wasn’t possible without also seriously misleading ordinary Americans about the dangers of war. This strikes me as a very serious objection to the strategy.
c) All the crowing about US strength also upset allies everywhere. It was especially upsetting in Arab countries, since the subtext must have been often read as "Well, they’re Arabs. Do you really think they could put up a fight?" Now resistance is starting to look like a matter of Arab pride. That’s going to hurt in the long run.
d) The strategy makes anything short of absolute and speedy success look like failure. Other countries will draw their own lessons from this war. That lesson might well end up being: "OK, the Americans can win. But they often overestimate their own capabilities, so we need adjust our perceptions of their public statements accordingly." And to think that this war is being fought partly to enhance American "credibility."

So ii) is stupid on balance, but only on balance. It was not utterly stupid.

Grade: C-

iii) Assuming that Basra and the rest of the South was likely to fall quickly.

Like i), I think that iii) wasn’t all that stupid. If it was reasonable to think that the regime as a whole was rotten and unstable, it was even more reasonable to think that Basra would go over first to the other side.

Confession: I thought Basra would fall early too.

(A self-serving) Grade: B+

iv) Having a plan which depends on the assumption that Basra and the rest of the South would fall quickly.

It’s one thing to think something likely. It’s quite another to have a plan which stakes thousands of your soldiers’ lives on the expectation that it will happen. This is where Rumsfeld ought to get hammered by the press. The litany of errors connected with this bit of folly is already well-known: the over-stretched supply lines, the mounting humanitarian crisis in Basra, the need to retrench, inadequate troop numbers. All of these things are premised on iii) and perhaps even i). But the fault here doesn’t lie with iii) or i). Again, what’s crazy is not thinking it likely that the regime is fragile or that Basra will fall quickly. What’s crazy is basing an entire campaign on it. Even a reasonable assumption can be asked to bear too much weight. That’s what’s happening here.

Grade: F

Armchair critics like myself will be dissecting all this for some time to come. I think reassessments of i) and iii) will be illuminating, but that this will mostly be the illumination of hindsight. We can debate ii), but I think ultimately the damage done to the democratic decision making process counts very heavily against it.

But it’s iv) that oughta get Rumsfeld (and co.) disgraced and thrown out of public life for good.

Saturday, March 29, 2003

A tough question for the sanctions/inspections crowd

I think that this war was unnecessary and ill-considered. But there are some tough questions for people like me that I didn't see raised much during the build-up to war. Here's my favourite: What if the inspections had worked? I mean, what if they had been able to spend a year in Iraq and had been able to produce excellent evidence, satisfying for all (this is hypothetical after all), that Iraq had really gotten rid of its WMD (or had had its stockpiles destroyed). What then? Well, in that case there would have been enormous pressure on the Security Council to lift the sanctions. And once the sanctions were lifted, Iraq would have had access to a great deal of revenue from oil sales while at the same time enjoying significantly less scrutiny of their imports.

Now, a condition for lifting the sanctions would probably have been that Iraq submit to occasional inspections. But how to enforce that once sanctions were gone for good?

I do think that the US would still have been able to contain Iraq. I also think that a year under vigorous inspections might have been more damaging to Hussein's credibility that he could stand. And so on. I think there are good answers to this "tough question".

All the same, this does seem like a tough question for the sanctions/inspections crowd. It ought to have gotten more attention from all of us.
The news is filled today with reports that Iraq has special fighting equipment which - the administration complains - it got from Syria and Russia. Putin has denied any Russian involvement, though Putin is hardly credible on this. Syria has also denied it, though credibility has never been a notable feature of Syrian foreign policy either.

The NYT weighs in on the matter today with a stern editorial rebuking Russia for any possible involvement. The editorial strives to be fairminded, distinguishing carefully between reasonable opposition to policy and serious violations of the sanctions regime. All of this is well taken. But if the NYT wants to be really fairminded, it might mention the broader context: that the U.S. has now spent several decades flooding the Middle East with arms (and it continues to do so). As usual, the Federation of American Scientists has some helpful resources on current arms transfers.

There is, to be sure, a very big difference between sanction-busting arms transfers and transfers consistent with international law. But a) surely decades of deeply unproductive arms sales are relevant background here; and b) anyone who think the US arms transfers are on the level needs a lesson in recent history. Remember the Iran-Contra affair, anyone?
This is a sort of follow up on the last post. Many of the current tensions about Iraq deal with anxiety about reconstruction and concerns about ulterior motives on the part of the US. These tensions are about to be joined by another set of tensions, this these ones having to do with religion. As the wonderful Josh Marshall has pointed out recently, Frankln Graham, son of Billy, wants a piece of the action in post-war Iraq. This time the goodies are spiritual and not worldly. Click here for the full story.

Wonder how they'll spin that on Al Jazeera!
The administration just doesn't seem to get it. A large part of the suspicion of American motives arises from the fact that the US has so much to gain financially from an invasion of Iraq. And, as a result of that suspicion, I predict that there will be an unprecedented amount of scutiny of the process for awarding contracts for reconstruction. I don't think that this is going to be another Kuwait, an occasion on which American companies really raked it in during the reconstruction process. If the administration wanted to dispell this impression, if they had any clue about how to handle negative public opinion, if they had their priorities even remotely in the right order, they would announce, with great fanfare, a few token awards to French or Arab companies. If they just had the sense to throw someone a bone, and the cunning to capitalize on it, they might be able to take the edge off some of this criticism.

Do you think they will? Think again.
This was the plan?

Is the war going according to plan. Yes, says the Pentagon. No, say the soldiers on the ground. And the BBC says:

There have been suggestions that the advance had been delayed because of Iraqi resistance and overstretched supply lines from Kuwait, up to 500 kilometres (300 miles) away.

The BBC's David Willis, who is with US marines about 160 kilometres (100 miles) south of Baghdad, says some troops have had their rations cut to just one meal a day.

Now, last week's criticism of Rumsfeld was that he wanted to bring the US into a stupid war. And the criticism came from the anti-war crowd. This week's criticism is far more damaging, at least politically. This week's criticism is that Rumseld got the US into a war with a stupid plan.

I admit that something dramatic is always possible. The regime still might implode overnight. Rumsfeld might come out of this looking prescient and firm. And - as so many people have pointed out - there was a lot of the same carping in the early stages of the campaign in Afganistan. Still, there seems to be a rising chorus of "I told you so"s from across the board, and this time it include a lot of people who support the war so it has a far broader base politically.

If things don't turn out well awfully fast, Rumsfeld is going to be the most derided figure in American politics.

What does this mean for now? Look for even greater pressure on the military to get unrealistic objectives accomplished, a tightening of information, stricter rules on reporting from embeds, etc.
Sorry for the brief hiatus. I've been busy. But now I ready to begin posting AGAin.

Here's an interesting bit of background for anyone who is following the Perle story. The Perle story, for those who are not following it, goes roughly like this. Richard Perle sits on a blue-chip advisory committee committee to the Pentagon called the Defence Policy Board. Perle, who until very recently chaired the committee, is widely credited with transforming the board from a policy backwater to an influential quasi-organ of the government. It's a quasi-organ of the government because its members are unpaid and it isn't strictly considered a part of the government: It doesn't formulate policy, it merely advises on it.

Perle has been especially associated with the view that a war on Iraq was essential to American interests and the remaking of the Middle East. He also thought it would be a cakewalk, but that's another story. Perle has made a lot of enemies over the years, so he's become something of a lightening rod for the administration's policies. The attention helped to make him the subject of an interesting piece by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker.

The Hersh piece was classic Hersh: secret meetings at which business dealings were or were not discussed, meticulous back and forth checking of various players in an attempt to ferret out inconsistencies, and so on. The gist of the piece was that Perle had some real conflicts of interest between his private work as a business man and his work on the committee. Specifically, Perle stood to gain substantially from a war in Iraq - though Hersh made it clear that, in his view, Perle's position was vastly overdetermined. Perle would likely have supported the war, extra inducements or not. The focus of the Hersh piece was not corruption, but rather the appearance of corruption. Moreover, Hersh also made it clear that Perle's situation was only one example of a fairly widespread, though upsetting, pattern in the official and private behaviour of many figures who migrate back and forth between their official and private stations.

If Hersh's piece was balanced, it wasn't balanced enough for Perle.

Perle threatened to sue . . . in England, where libel laws would make it far easier to win. Perle called Hersh the "closest thing American journalism has to a terrorist". Perle snarled at other journalists. Then it become clear that Perle wouldn't sue, he had just been thinking about it. And finally Perle declined to address any of the allegations in Hersh's piece.

What followed was fairly predictable. I think if Perle had just shut up he might have gotten away with it. But Perle, who desperately needs someone to teach him how to handle the press, lost his temper. When you call a respected American journalist a "terrorist" (or come close enough), and when you continue to snarl rudely at the press, you really seal your fate. Perle's response must have been a goad for the press, who can always be counted on to find an insult to a fellow journalist more outrageous than a plain old conflict of interest. Other journalists picked up the story, and the plot climaxed with an editorial in the New York Times (try and imagine an entire editorial devoted to the matter if Perle hadn't lost his temper).

Perle has now resigned as chair of the board, but he continues to sit on it: in other words, get out of the public spotlight but keep the goodies. He has also announced that he won't accept payment for one of the deals that Hersh put in the spotlight. But the damage has been done. The report I linked to above has the goods on the rest of the board. It's a very interesting story. Here's the money quote from the press release, for those who don't have time to read the whole thing:

Advisors of Influence: Nine Members of the Defense Policy Board Have Ties to Defense Contractors
(WASHINGTON, March 28, 2003) Richard Perle, who resigned as chairman of a Pentagon advisory group after questions were raised about his work for companies with business before the Defense Dept., is not the only member of the group with potential conflicts of interest. Of the 30 members of the Defense Policy Board, at least nine have ties to companies that have won more than $72 billion in defense contracts in 2001 and 2002. Four members are registered lobbyists, one of whom represents two of the three largest defense contractors.

Wednesday, March 26, 2003

The New Yorker has a nice piece on the decision-making process that led to the war. Here is one little tidbit that supports my view that the decision to go to war was made very early (Lemann is interviewing Haass):

I asked him whether there had been a particular moment when he realized that war was definitely coming. “There was a moment,” he said. “The moment was the first week of July, when I had a meeting with Condi”—Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national-security adviser. “Condi and I have regular meetings, once every month or so—she and I get together for thirty or forty-five minutes, just to review the bidding. And I raised this issue about were we really sure that we wanted to put Iraq front and center at this point, given the war on terrorism and other issues. And she said, essentially, that that decision’s been made, don’t waste your breath. And that was early July. But before that, in the months leading up to that, there had been various hints, just in what people were saying, how they were acting at various meetings. We were meeting about these issues in the spring of 2002, and my staff would come back to me and report that there’s something in the air here. So there was a sense that it was gathering momentum, but it was hard to pin down. For me, it was that meeting with Condi that made me realize it was farther along than I had realized. So then when Powell had his famous dinner with the President, in early August, 2002”—in which Powell persuaded Bush to take the question to the U.N.—“the agenda was not whether Iraq, but how.

Monday, March 24, 2003

Here's a bit more on Basra. Human Rights Watch also issued an urgent press release today on the situation in Nothern Iraq. Here's one interesting remark from the press release:

"U.N. agencies had months to prepare for this potential disaster," said Hania Mufti, a Human Rights Watch researcher based in Arbil. "But today, we found local Kurdish relief workers desperately erecting tents in a muddy field outside the town of Diyana."

Why was the U.N. so slow to act? More on that later.
The Bush administration has a reputation for unilaterialism, but one international convention has made an astonishing comeback over the last two days: The Geneva Convention. The Geneva Convention has been greatly honoured lately: it's invoked regularly by officials, touted by experts, excerpted and put up in flashy graphics on the television screen, etc. This is all to the good, though the circumstances of its return are deeply unfortunate. It's really awful to think of what captive American soldiers in Iraq are having to endure right now.

As long as the Geneva Convention has the country's attention for the moment, its supporters ought to try to use these 15 seconds of fame to urge that the U.S. come back into full compliance with it. Now, I admit that:
a) Even when the U.S. has not fully complied with the GC, it has often still observed (relatively) humane standards of treatment of prisoners. Guantanamo Bay isn't much fun, but it sounds like more fun than an Iraqi prison. And although the U.S. has repeatedly insisted that it doesn't need to bring captives in Guantanamo Bay before a tribunal, as (I think) is required by the GC, it has released some prisoners. At least they're not forgotten and their status does seem to be a matter of some concern.
b) There are real and special legal, moral and practical difficulties raised by sub-state actors like terrorist organizations.

Still, much of the commentary so far on POWs has stressed the full and complete compliance with both the letter AND the spirit of the GC. In contrast, with both A.Q. and the Taliban, the attitude of the administration was a bit more fussy, as though officials were picking through dishes at a buffet and rejecting ones they didn't fancy.
There is also now outrage at the expectation of torture and abuse of U.S. soldiers. Rightly so, to my mind. U.S. soldiers will always be entitled to protection from this kind of treatment, even if their own government has not fully complied with the GC, and even if the war is waged in violation of international law. But it's also worth recalling that this country has spent the last year and a half seriously debating the morality and practicality of torture, and the media has largely winked at the exporting of suspects to countries where torture is practiced routinely. (Go to for details). And the same officials which have held suspects incommunicando for over a year are now pointing to sections of the convention which prohibit this.

Again, terrorism may well raise specific moral and practical difficulties. But part of the point of the convention is that countries agree to forego advantages they might gain from ill-treatment (e.g., extra information) of prisoners. The ill-treatment of U.S. soliders clearly does (from its point of view) the Iraqi regime a world of good: it's demoralizing for the U.S. and encouraging to its own soldiers and citizens. But we won't accept that as an excuse. And we shouldn't. The lesson is not just one for Iraq, though. Now that the U.S. has rediscovered the charm of the GC, it ought to respect it in its own conduct. No exceptions allowed.
Ah, here we go. Here's a BBC story on Basra, about the looming humanitarian crisis (though it's been looming for quite some time now - aren't these stories a little late? I saw nothing on the networks last night about this.)

Here's a Washington Post story on Basra. Warning to the easily depressed: One soldier is quoted using the B word (Beirut).

One thing I've seen very little about in the news is the humanitarian impact of the fighting around Basra. Basra has, I've heard, about 1.2 million people. What it doesn't have - not for a few days now - is running water or electricity. Perhaps they've taken Basra and restored these things since I last read the news. But I doubt it. How long can 1.2 million people go without running water and electricity before you have a full-scale crisis?

It isn't clear that they have a decent plan with Basra either. The hope was - and I thought this was plausible too - that Basra would fall very quickly since support for S.H. is fairly weak here. The thought was encouraged by the fact that Basra is where the first uprising started in 1991.

No such luck, at least not so far. In 1991, it seems, Iraqis took the elder Bush's advice and revolted only to be crushed while American planes flew overhead watching (demonstrating a clear preference for S.H. over Shi'a dreams of greater autonomy). Since then they must've had some unpleasant things to associate with the U.S. The sanctions, the policy on Israel, etc. So perhaps they won't really be waiting with open arms.

That's too bad, but now that they've cut electricity and water, they had better go in anyway. Either way, short of a quick, blood-less, anti-Ba'ath coup from inside, this will be really ugly.

Saturday, March 22, 2003

CNN is now calling an attack on a US military base in Kuwait "terrorism". The word is now officially meaningless. This is a shame, since it is useful to have a word which refers unambiguously to an unlawful attack on civilians.

Thursday, March 20, 2003

Here's a useful article debunking some of the sillier claims that have been made about Iraq in the past year so or.
Here's a blog, apparently written by a guy in Baghdad. Slate seems to think that it's authentic, and it looks authentic . . . so perhaps it is authentic. I can't imagine he'll be posting much longer - won't the electricity go out?

Tuesday, March 18, 2003

A Question About Post-War Iraq

Iraq falls naturally into three regions, a Shiite South, a Sunni centre and a Kurdish North. If you look at a map of Iraq's known oil reserves, almost all of its oil is concentrated in the North and South of the country. Guess which region has dominated the other two for centuries, and profited most in the past few decades from its oil wealth? You guessed it! The centre.

So . . . how are they going to draw the borders marking out the various provinces in post-war Iraq? How will they handle tensions between oil -rich and oil-poor regions of the country? It's naive to assume that oil revenue will be shared evenly throughout the country, whether the provinces in question have oil deposits or not. Not even Canada does that. (Albertans are still furious with Pierre Trudeau grabbing oil revenues for the federal government - and that was in the 70s!)

I haven't seen this question exactly discussed in the media, though there's been some discussion of related issues. Much of the attention has focused on who will get Kirkuk, i.e. whether the Kurds who deserve it will get it. But there hasn't been much discussion on how the rest of the borders will be drawn and how the resulting tensions will be managed.

Here's an Interview Wolfowitz gave to Newsweek recently.

A few comments:

1. Wolfowitz insists, quite sensibly, that Iraq has the potential to become a democracy. But notice that he never actually says that Iraq will be a democracy.

2. Notice that he says nothing about what kind of democracy he has in mind for Iraq. And his interviewer has no curiousity about the question either.

3. Wolfowitz also explains the difference between post-war Afghanistan and post-war Iraq: "It's one of the potentially most important countries in the Arab world--not potentially, one of the most important countries in the Arab world--and a potential success story. It's not like, I don't mean to say this disparagingly of Afghanistan, but Afghanistan is a poor country. It's remote. It doesn't offer a whole lot commercially or in any other way. Whereas Iraq is not only a huge potential source of natural resources which is what most people look at, but even more importantly, it's got one of the most educated populations in the Arab world. Unfortunately, a lot of those educated people have left, but I think they will come back. So a successful Iraq could be a real engine of growth in the Middle East, and I think the kind of place that countries are going to want to participate in the rebuilding and get some credit for the rebuilding. So I think we'll get a lot of help in that department. But I also think it's not something that's possible to estimate."

That's awfully blunt. I think it does help to explain US indifference to Afghanistan (e.g., forgetting to put Afghanistan in the budget submitted recently to congress). So perhaps Iraq will do better, simply because it is better off in terms of natural resources and potential. One worry here, though: the more valuable the resources are, the more there is to fight about.

4. Newsweek asked Wolfowitz why the US was facing so much resistance on Iraq. Here is part of Wolfowitz's reply: "I think for one thing there's a lot of what can be called free rider activity going on. People are so used to the United States taking care of problems and they know the President's going to deal with this one so they can reap the benefits in whatever form serves their purposes, and frequently that's domestic politics. ".

Now, I think that this might be said with some justice of the US's difficult position with North Korea now. It's hard to see how China could possibly want N. Korea to have nuclear weapons, for example, and yet China continues to push responsibility for handling the crisis onto the US.

As for Iraq, it does seem that France and Russia have sought to gain economic leverage from their Security Council vetos, by exchanging resistance and non-cooperation on Iraq in the Security Council for cheap oil and lucrative contracts. But it was clear a while ago that the US was going into Iraq regardless, and, all other things being equal, France and Russia could still have gotten the benefits of freeriding without plunging the UN into such turmoil. After all, the predictions from the fall of 2002 that France and Russia would not veto action at the end of the day were actually sensible, even if they did turn out to be mistaken. This whole incident has been so costly for France and Russia that free-riding can't even begin to explain it.

Transparency, Bush-Style

The assuage dovish fears about post-war Iraq, the State Department has, for the last few months, been announcing various meetings with "Free Iraqis" (the quote-marks are the State Department's, strangely enough). Here's the most recent press release. There's a funny little detail about the meetings that encapsulates dovish fears about the whole process: The "transparency" working group is closed to the press.
OK, now just get it over with quickly

Well, now that the UN has pulled out its humanitarian workers - upon whom two thirds of the country survives for food handouts - I want the war to come quickly (and be over quickly). As for starting early, I don't think the president is likely to disappoint (though there are some reports that sandstorms in Kuwait might delay things by a day or two). How quickly everything is over depends on what plan, of the 20 or so different plans that have been leaked in the past year, they have actually chosen, and how well they succeed in sticking with that plan. One possibility strikes me as awful: that's the plan to approach Baghdad but then wait a bit to see if citizens in Baghdad can manage to topple Saddam themselves. This strikes me as an awful idea because every day between now and the capture of Baghdad the humanitarian situation is going to worsen.

Monday, March 17, 2003

A Question About Congress

Back in the fall, Congress voted to support Bush's position on Iraq. At the time, many people were concerned that it would be an open-ended "Gulf of Tonkins" style resolution. But the concerns were largely ignored. Instead, the vote was presented as the only credible hope for peace, since without the firm support of Congress, the argument went, Bush wouldn't be able to push for a workable inspection regime. The main problem with this, is that, as I suspect, Bush had already made the decision to go to war by summer at the latest. So the vote was presented to the public in a deeply dishonest way.

But the question I'm curious about is: Why is no one talking about the need for a second resolution from Congress? Perhaps I've just missed this. I remember that Sen. Kennedy proposed such a resolution after Bush's state of the union speech. So evidently that went nowhere. But why is there so little public debate about this? Even if the result is a foregone conclusion in favour of war, isn't there an important constitutional question at stake here, as well?

Non-Sequitor Watch"If the US hadn't positioned 300,000 troops at Iraq's doorstep, there wouldn't be any inspectors there. So fans of the inspection process have Bush to thank for the inspectors in the first place."

Evidence for the claim:
1. 12 years of stalling and deception from S.H.
2. Increasingly flawed inspections from 1991 to 1998.
3. The fact that S.H. never responded to anything but force and is a congenital liar.

What's the problem, in that case?

I think the evidence demonstrates clearly that, absent the threat of force, S.H. will always refuse to yield an inch. The evidence does not show that it took 300,000 troops to get him to yield to inspections. As a matter of fact, he might have responded to measures which caused pain to himself, his standing in Iraq (extension of the no-fly zone, as proposed by Walzer) , or his support base (e.g., air-strikes aimed at his security apparatus).

Why does this matter?

Because once you build up 300,000 troops, you've also thrown away much chance of a peaceful resolution. Once you build up that many troops, you can't back down without looking like a chump (in the eyes of your power base). Once you have that kind of troop presence in the region, it becomes a reason in itself for launching military action (the expense of maintaining the troops, morale, weather and logistical considerations).

So I wish people would stop throwing around this idea, as though the've discovered some astounding new paradox: "Wow! There's no solution but war, because without the troops, there would be no inspections, and we'd have to go to war to disarm him, but with the troops in place, it's impossible to back down."

It's not a real dilemma, because there were lots of plausible intermediate steps between refusing to bother with inspections and sending 300,000 troops to the region.
Pollack Watch: The Case Against Containment

(For the first installment of the Pollack Watch series, click here.)

Pollack is correct, I think, to point out that containment of Iraq is trickier and more expensive than its backers often assume. There is the challenge of getting neighbouring countries on board: Syria, Turkey and Jordan, especially, have become deeply dependent on cheap oil from Iraq, and massive smuggling operations which help to keep their struggling economies afloat. There is also the challenge of getting the bigger players, especially France, Russia and China, to go along with plans. I accept Pollack's claim that these latter three bear a great deal of responsibility for the failure of containment, and the blame ought to include the fact that, in contrast to Iraq's neighbours, their efforts to stall and undermine containment were acts of choice, rather than necessity.

(I should say, however, that Pollack consistently refuses to accept U.S. responsibility for the difficulties the US faced with containment. To take one example, Pollack repeatedly points out the fact that Hussein aggravated the humanitarian crisis in Iraq by stalling the food-for-oil program, etc. (See p. 139 for a good example of Pollack's approach) But a good part of the early humanitarian crisis was deliberately brought about by the US, when, in 1991 they bombed water sanitation plants and electricity generators in an effort aimed at increasing the pressure on the civilian population. The point was to encourage Iraqis to overthrow Saddam - or rather to have a senior Baath party official do it. But a) the situation was brought about deliberately; b) it wasn't a matter of military necessity; c) it backfired miserably; and d) it was responsible for much of the negative publicity which helped to erode support for containment; e) it was morally wrong.)

Still, I think that Pollack underestimates the prospects for containment. There were solutions short of full scale war that would clearly have ratcheted up the pressure on S.H., and which might even have led to the reintroduction of inspectors. One solution, proposed by Michael Walzer, was to threaten (and then carry through on the threat, absent compliance) to extend the no-fly zone to cover the entire country. But another solution is suggested by Clinton's strikes in 1993 and 1998. Although these strikes were widely derided at the time as ineffectual, Pollack actually argues that they were more effective than people realized. The strikes were aimed very carefully at Saddam's security apparatus and the mechanisms of support which helped him to maintain power. As such they were extremely effective. In fact, whenever the US has struck at these elements in the Iraqi state, S.H. has had to move quickly to put down coups and serious unrest.

Pollack himself helps to explain why this approach would be so effective in dealing with S.H.: His top priority is always to stay on top. Here is Amatzia Baram, as quoted by Pollack: "Throughout his career as chief of internal security, then president, whenever Iraq's foreign interests clashed with perceived domestic security interests, the latter always prevailed. Insofar as internal security is concerned, Saddam Hussein has never taken any chances." (p. 116)

Saturday, March 15, 2003

Pollack Watch: The Evidence for Iraq's Nuclear Ambitions

Click here for the introduction to the Pollack Watch series.

Saddam Hussein has long had nuclear ambitions, and his chemical and biological weapons programs are very useful in deterring internal threats to his regime. But it's important to be careful about the evidence we cite for this.

Here's one example of Pollack's rhetorical overkill:

"It is important to remember that Saddam and his cronies were the most important element in Iraq's humanitarian disaster. As the United States repeatedly intoned throughout the post-Gulf War era, Saddam always had it in his power to have the sanctions lifted by simply agreeing to give up his WMD programs." (p. 133)

Why is this rhetorical overkill? Pollack's point might have been more persuasive had he not already (approvingly) cited (on p. 58) (now former) Deputy National Security Advisor Robert Gates�EMay 7, 1991 remarks:

"Saddam is discredited and cannot be redeemed. His leadership will never be accepted by the world community. Therefore, Iraqis will pay the price while he remains in power. All possible sanctions will be maintained until he is gone. . . . Any easing of sanctions will be considered only when there is a new government."

Gates' remarks were not out of step with official policy. They were echoed by a number of key figures in the Bush and Clinton administrations over the years. Now, to be fair, Pollack does argue on p. 175 that the U.S. might well have lost a struggle at the U.N. over whether to lift the sanctions if Iraq had really disarmed. But two points are in order here: a) that's by no means certain, especially given how committed the U.S. was to the sanctions; and b) Saddam Hussein might reasonably have taken the U.S. at its word that the sanctions would never be lifted. This is not a question about Saddam Hussein's priorities or policies. It's a question about evidence, and the evidence here is more ambiguous than Pollack allows.
A closer look at Pollack

There seems to be a near-universal consensus among the commentariat that - like it or not - Kenneth Pollack's book The Gathering Storm provided the intellectual justification for the coming war in Iraq. I noted in an earlier post that people are finally starting to pay attention to the fact that Pollack's book doesn's justify this war at all - supporters of current policy cite Pollack's book without bothering to check all the careful qualifications he makes in the course of arguing for war.

I would go further than these critics: I think that Pollack's book doesn't justify a war either, and over the next few days I plan to spell out some of my disagreements with Pollack. They won't come in any particular order, and some are just quibbles. I'm just trying to work out for myself why I find Pollack's book so unsatisfying.

First point: Pollack is obviously very bright, as his many fans (and even some detractors) point out. And you've got to give him points for producing the book at such breakneck speed. (The book, published in late 2002, is based on an article for Foreign Affairs, which was written in the Spring of 2000, if I remember correctly). His prose is not elegant, but it is also not gut-wrenchingly bad - which seems to be the norm in this genre. Pollack soothes dovish consciences by refraining from the usual simplistic and unwarranted claims that are standardly trotted out to justify an invasion: that Hussein is very like Hitler, for example, or that Al Qaida and Iraq have close ties, or that Iraq was linked to Sept. 11th. Still, it's not as if the argument of the book is airtight. On the whole, the book seems to me a failure.

I should say that I think it's possible to tell a scary story about Iraq and its WMD program. It's even possible to tell a scary story about Iraq while sticking entirely to the truth. The problem is that Iraq is only one part of a much larger story. The larger story has to do with the proliferation of WMD, especially nuclear material and technology, among small, unstable states (like Pakistan, and North Korea) which really might use them (or which might collapse in a messy way). This is the broader problem facing the world, and I am increasingly afraid that it will take a nuclear holocaust (perhaps on the subcontinent) to wake people up to it.

I think no one now could deny that preparations for the war against Iraq are a major drain on US economic, diplomatic and military capital. The fact is that the US is not omnipotent. There are very real limits to its ability to focus effectively on more than a few major issues at a time. Now, a proper response to the worry about proliferation is obviously going to involve Iraq. But the irony is that this war, which is partly motivated by legitimate fears associated with proliferation, is draining a great deal of the US's capacity to address the larger picture effectively. Pollack doesn't do a better job than anyone else of dealing with this objection. In fact, he clearly hasn't escaped from the specialist's bias (which he notes in his book): the bias that his one area of expertise (Iraq) ought to take precedence over anything else.
Compare and Contrast: Fun With Documents and Press Releases!

Here’s a recent State Department press release marking the 15th Anniversary of the Halabja massacre, in which Iraqi forces used chemical weapons to put down Kurds. And here (and click here for a bit more background) is a summary of US involvement with Iraq during the period. Of particular interest are US moves to limit and downplay criticism of Iraq in the Security Council.

There’s nothing wrong with noting the anniversary of the massacre. And—I hope it is obvious—Hussein and his henchmen bear primary responsibility for the massacre. But this statement might have been more effective if it had been accompanied by something resembling an apology for having downplayed the incident at the time. Is this too much to ask?
Zimbabwe: A Question About Timing

With Iraq drawing attention away from most other international issues, many people have probably missed the US’s recent move to punish Zimbabwe by freezing the assets of top officials in Mugabe’s regime. The move is a reasonable one, and might do some good. Mugabe is largely responsible for plunging his country into chaos and starvation. And memories of the last election, which was massively corrupt, are sure to fuel unrest and instability in the country for a long time. A country with enormous agricultural capacities, Zimbabwe now depends on donations of food to survive. The problem was not Mugabe’s program of land-redistribution (from rich, white farmers to poor, landless squatters) as such. It was the way he decided to go about it: corruptly, violently, and in a way almost guaranteed to provoke exactly the sort of food-crisis that Zimbabwe is now experiencing.

So the U.S.’s recent decision to punish the Mugabe regime seems justified. But the timing is downright weird. International criticism of Mugabe peaked in the period leading up to the elections. This was the period in which other countries were applying pressure in the hopes of a fairer election, however flawed. (The criticism was justified, as I said. But there is a distinct question about the sheer volume of criticism. Many commentators who couldn’t be bothered to write about far more severe humanitarian crises were deeply moved by the infringement of the property rights of a few thousand whites. To think that race was not a complicating factor here is just naive.)

The US, of course, joined the chorus of criticism, but, if I recall, it’s complaints and threats were curiously muted. And since this time, Zimbabwe has largely fallen off the world’s radar screen.

So why the sanctions now? Here’s one possibility: The State Department was just really slow on this one. An initiative which had been in the works for a long time has finally worked it’s way through the appropriate channels.

I doubt it. Here’s a much better theory, though the evidence for it is circumstantial: On Feb. 13th, an American diplomat was detained and questioned in Harare for about an hour (and this was not the first incident of this kind.). The U.S. lodged an official complaint about the incident. Mugabe’s regime—providing further evidence that it has no real capacity to act even in it’s own interests—did not even bother to respond. Shortly after, the US announced the sanctions.

Now, the detention of diplomats is a violation of international law, as the State Department has complained. And the sanctions are justifiable, given the nature of Mugabe’s regime. But it seems a bit much to claim that the sanctions are being imposed purely out of humanitarian concern—especially when the time at which they might have been used to maximum effect is over, and especially when it seems so much more like payback for something that concerns the US's particular interests.

Monday, March 10, 2003

Humour Break

This has nothing to do with politics or philosophy, but it's very funny. This scam is so common that most people have probably received an e-mail along these lines at some time or another.
Mickey Kaus notes the "bawking hawks" (as he calls it) phenomenon I pointed out earlier. He draws attention to something that I should have: Pollack has distanced himself from the subtitle of his own book!
Marshall Clarifies His Position

Marshall clarifies a post I linked to earlier. I'm unconvinced by his argument about giving advice about what is best to do. There's nothing wrong with arguing that a certain course of action would be best, but if it's unlikely to be carried out properly, and you have good reason to think that, then at the very least you need to distinguish carefully between what you would like and what you would support. These may well come apart.

Sunday, March 09, 2003

The timetable for the decision to go to war

Here's a paragraph from a story in the New York Times today (Jordan's King, in Gamble, Lends Hand to the U.S.):

"Jordanian officials say that Abdullah, told by President Bush at the White House last summer that he would not be dissuaded from military action to topple Mr. Hussein, chose to limit Jordan's losses. "The King asked the president, 'Can I change your mind?' and the President told him bluntly, 'No,'" one Jordanian official said. "From that point on, we began preparing for war, and trying to minimize the political and economic costs."

Now, this is worth thinking about for several reasons.

1. First, although it would be rash to claim on this basis alone that the decision to go to war was made, at the latest, during the summer, it is not the only piece of evidence that suggests it. The pattern of troop buildups, for example, suggests that the decision to go to war was made sometime in the late Spring, perhaps. There are now a number of questions being raised about the war, particularly whether war now is a last resort, and so on. But if the decision to go to war was made much earlier, it seems to me that we should also raise these questions for this period.
2. I've always wondered to what extent Powell was playing a role as "good cop" to the the rest of the Admin's "bad cop" purely for reasons of diplomacy, rather than principle . . . sorry, preference. It was certainly a useful role during the fall when Powell was trying to hammer out an effective resolution at the security council. But are we to suppose that Bush told this to Abdullah - that the decision had already been made - and not to Powell? And if Powell already knew the decision had been made . . .
3. Suppose that the report is accurate. It's no good to claim that Bush was playing some more sophisticated game with Abdullah - telling him something in order to get him to press the rest of the Arab league into action, for example. When leaders do play games of this sort, they play them through leaks, and hints. They tend to avoid direct committments unless they mean them precisely because it would be very damaging to Bush's credibility to go around saying stuff like this and then failing to follow through.
4. Everyone is now saying that it's too late to back down. Assume that it is. It certainly is in the view of top Admin officials. But Bush knew when he ordered the troop buildup that it would be too late to back down by this time. So the decision to go to war was really made (at the latest) at the point at which it became too costly to back down. I would suppose this was sometime during the summer. The troop buildup costs something around 15 billion dollars, for one thing.
5. In light of all the crap in the media about when the President will decide to go to war (and Rumsfeld et. al.'s constant refrain that the decision hasn't been made yet), wouldn't this tidbit have merited just a bit more attention? (This is called "burying the lede" by journalists.)
6. The quotation also illustrates a view found in Pollack's book. This is the view that, recalcitrant as the Arab league (and everyone else) may have seemed, the reluctance to support a war was based partly on uncertainty over whether there would really be one. For if they publically lined up in favour of a war, and the US didn't carry through, they would end up having to live in close proximity to an even angrier S.H. The solution? Make it absolutely clear that the US was committed to war. The quotation illustrates the partial success of the view: it worked with Jordan. But it really hasn't worked particularly well elsewhere. The problem may be partly that inevitability comes in different varieties, and that this variety was more unsettling than comforting - I think the quotation gives some idea why.
7. Of course, an early decision to go to war makes a sham of the idea that allies were consulted, unless you count the tour of the Mid-East during 2002 that Cheney made in which he seemed to get royally slammed from all sides.

More on Butler

I guess I just missed it. Here's a discussion with Butler in November, in which he is quite critical of the administration. (And here's something on Butler and Kennan, from the State Department.) I suppose the inevitable argument is that, as a former inspector, Butler has an obvious bias (a la Blix) in favour of inspections. But couldn't you argue just as well the other way around: that his experience with the inspections process makes him very well suited to assessing whether it is an effective one or not? As I've said, Butler sees Iraq as a great threat, so it's not as if he's inclined to be cavalier about the question.

Now Butler defects!?!

Richard Butler takes the threat from Saddam Hussein very seriously. In fact, his book on the inspections process and the danger from Iraq was called The Greatest Threat, if I recall. But according to this story, he's come out swinging at Bush and the entire process. His language is not exactly diplomatic. The story I've linked to says that Butler has been criticizing the U.S. strongly for several weeks now, which comes as a surprise to me, since this is the first time I've seen it reported anywhere.
Another Unhappy Hawk

Thomas Friedman, who supports the war, is clearly not happy about the way things are going. I'm curious to see what his threshold is: How badly does Bush have to screw up before Freidman throws in the towel and drops his support?
A Decision at Last!

The New York Times has been irritating people with its unclear editorials on Iraq, which seemed to want to have it both ways. Now it seems finally to have made up it's , perhaps partly because it's no longer debating whether war would be good, but whether this war would be good.
Pollack responds to Sullentrop

On March 5th, C. Sullentrop finally made a point in his column in Slate that I've been waiting to see for some time: That Pollack's book The Threatening Storm has been miscited and misunderstood by people who clearly haven't read it. Pollack's book, based on an earlier article for Foreign Affairs, might even be read (against the author's intentions, of course) as a sort of anti-war (anti-this-war, I mean) book, since it imposes some really substantial qualifications on his case for war. Sullentrop focuses on the time frame (Pollack suggests that a war is necessary only after AQ has been weakened), and coalition building. Pollack had dealt with some of these concerns in an interview with Josh Marshall, but he has now responded to Sullentrop's article directly.

Pollack is evidently surprised and dismayed by the way things have gone so far (though he also approves of some of the Admin's actions), and it is natural for him to want to point to his earlier qualifications in case things go really badly. Yet Pollack's positon is still that, however, badly things are going, it would be disasterous to back off at such a late stage in the game. The problem for Pollack is that many of the complications the Admin is facing now were predictable at the time he wrote his book. Pollack wasn't making the recommendation that some U.S. president should move into Iraq and install a democracy. He was recommending that this president, and his team, do this. Enough evidence was available at the time he wrote his book that this president, leading this team, didn't have what it takes.

Pollack's book can be read as an anti-war tract so long as one interprets him as making his acceptance of military action conditional on certain other aspects of US policy. But each new failure of the Admin to follow Pollack's prescriptions drives home the fact that these weren't conditions at all. They were more like hopeful recommendations. All of this has made me wonder if there are any conditions in Pollack's book at all. And it's brought home to me how irresponsible it is to make policy recommendations without thinking carefully about how likely the rest of what you say is to be followed.

Here's one more question for Pollack. Pollack waxes elloquent about the virtues of a democratic Iraq in his book, and the appeal of the picture is part of what makes the book seem so reasonable. But nowhere does Pollack consider the question of how likely this is to happen. It's important to distinguish two questions here. The first queston is whether democracy in Iraq ia possible as the result of a foreign invasion. The second is how likely the current Admin is to actualy be able to install it. I do think it would be possible, given enormous time and effort, to install a democracy in Iraq. And Pollack agrees. But the second question is the one the ought to guide our policy recommendatons, when we're not the ones making the policy. And part of my resistance to the war is based on my sense that the second question merits a gloomy answer.

Pollack's book gets what persuasive value it has precisely from the scenario he describes-coalition building, dealing first with AQ, etc. As the current scenario comes less and less to resemble the scenario presented in Pollack's book, the book loses more and more of effect.

Saturday, March 08, 2003

Growing Doubts Among the Reluctant Hawks?

Here is a recent post by Josh Marshall. Marshall had previously expressed his support for the war, reviewed Pollack's book favourably, and interviewed him politely. I think Marshall is (was?) wrong about the war, but I also think his support for it was honest and intellectually serious. Now, I think he is having serious doubts about it, and I expect to see him make this more explicit over the coming days. It has always seemed to me that a good deal of the support for the war among those moderate commentators who were inclined to support the war was very soft. N. Kristoff has also turned around, fairly wholeheartedly, in a recent column. His earlier column on the topic was very wishy-washy, but he's since made up his mind.

The main difficulty for this camp, the life-would-be-better-without-Saddam-even-though-war-is-really-awful-and-I-admit-that-this-is-messy camp, is that the costs of the invasion have gone up considerably as diplomatic efforts to build a coalition have faltered. The disasterous vote in the Turkish parliament, the growing resistance from Russia, France and Germany, and the increasingly vituperative rhetoric between long-time allies didn't need to be part of the costs of this war, but they now are, given the diplomatic skills and habits of the Bush administration. The soft support is getting softer because the soft supporters are starting to think "how much more thoroughly could they fuck this things up"? It's a good question.

All of this might be reversed. The soft support remaining might be enough to hold the policy aloft for long enough to get things done. But it would take a very quick war, minimal casualties, public reconciliation between allies, and a stable Iraq, among other things on a steadily growing list. The chances of this seem to me slim.