An Ideal War

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Via Tapped, Noam Scheiber isn’t impressed with the “buyer’s remorse” argument that erstwhile Iraq hawks are now touting:

The problem with Kerry’s argument is that there’s a difference between expecting the administration to fight a war competently and expecting it to fight an entirely different kind of war than the one you signed onto. Kerry is essentially accusing the administration of botching democratization. And, to be fair, the administration did begin by touting democratization as its goal when it didn’t find WMD. Prior to the war, however, there was simply no indication that the administration intended to pursue democratization seriously.

One other thing: The former hawks who are now reconsidering their support for the war, as neo-conservative historian Eliot Cohen did in the Washington Post on Sunday, are basically saying, “This would’ve all been a great idea if only it hadn’t been carried out by such idiots.” Well, the idiots do exist, but no, this argument isn’t obvious at all, and the danger here is that people will believe that invading and occupying hostile countries is be a feasible thing to do if only we have a more competent administration doing it. Certainly that’s the underlying premise of all the new “What went wrong?” books coming out now, such as Larry Diamond’s Squandered Victory. If only we had gone in with more troops, Diamond implies. If only we hadn’t disbanded the Iraqi Army so quickly. If only we had disarmed the Shiite and Kurdish militias. If only we had brought in the United Nations. If only. If only.

Well, no one wants to excuse the Bush administration for gross incompetence on these fronts, but it’s not at all clear that Iraq would have turned out peachy and fine if the United States had invaded and just avoided the few key mistakes it made. Diamond, for instance, thinks the CPA should have remained in Iraq for several years, building up civil society and political institutions, before holding elections. But is it really likely that the Shiite majority, and Ayatollah Ali Sistani, would have put up with this sort of extended nation-building enterprise? And so on.

The whole point here is that reconstructing a fractious nation riven by ethnic and confessional tensions and held together by artificial boundaries is intrinsically daunting and unpredictable, as everyone with half a brain pointed out at the time, and doing one thing “right”—such as keeping Saddam’s former Army employed—might well have created unforeseen problems elsewhere: a coup, perhaps, or Shiite backlash. On our side, meanwhile, occupation errors and mistakes are pretty much inevitable; it’s a bit quaint to imagine some “ideal” invasion scenario where everything is foreseen and no bureaucracy does anything to screw up royally. The dominant “lesson learned” among hawks now reconsidering their stance on the war, however, seems to be: “Democratization by war is still a grand and sensible option; we just need some more competent administration to carry it out in the future.” But to paraphrase Hayek: when thinking about a government policy in the abstract, assume that it will be executed not by enlightened leaders, but by fools and buffoons. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, you’ll be right.

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