Politics & Policy

What Went Wrong

A sober look at Iraq.

According to the New York Times, the Baker-Hamilton Commission will call for a drawdown of U.S. military presence in Iraq albeit without a timeline. The proposition is lose-lose. The logic that an imminent withdrawal of troops will force the Iraqi government to be more responsible is nonsense. Iraqis will side with strength; they will interpret withdrawal, promised or actual, as weakness. Nor does creating a vacuum provide a solution to a security problem. If the president accepts the report, it will confirm U.S. defeat in Iraq. Inside-the-Beltway spin and diplomatic word parsing are irrelevant. What matters is street perception. And, even if the president does not accept the report, its very presence will embolden Iraqi insurgents and militias. Any doubter need only listen to the recent rhetoric of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

What Went Wrong?

As Iraq goes sour, assigning blame has become a Washington past time. It should be welcome. To learn lessons avoids their repeat. While no one in Washington seeks another military conflict, the Baker-Hamilton recommendations bolster adversaries’ overconfidence. Miscalculations in Tehran, Damascus, or Pyongyang could force the U.S. military into conflict.

The situation in Iraq need not have been so bad. There have been several watershed decisions, the outcomes of which have fundamentally altered policy and debate.

There will be plenty of blame to go around. Policymaking is organic. No memo rises through a department or agency without a dozen officials approving. Sometimes, their edits change happy-to-glad; there was a quip in the Pentagon about one official who would edit a stop sign if he had the opportunity. More often, alterations would reflect debates, compromises, and insertions by those at a higher level who had information or directives about which more juniors staffers were unaware. Such a bureaucracy is why so many foreign-service officers dislike their Washington postings and why Pentagon officers and Langley’s analysts grow frustrated.

Policy proposals from different buildings get hashed out at interagency working groups, coordination committees, and meetings. Principles decide big issues at the National Security Council. Sometimes bureaucracies would win debates, and sometimes they would lose. While many critics of Iraq policy bestow blame, they often practice anachronism, removing policy arguments from context and failing to recognize how nodal decisions outside any single individual’s control changed situations.

In the real world, though, when a decision is made, policymakers at all levels have no choice but to accept it and fight the next battle with an eye toward pushing subsequent policy choices to the best possible outcome, unless of course they wish to reverse decisions or sway debate by leak. The indices of Bob Woodward’s books are a pretty good compilation of these A-list leakers. While bloggers and armchair quarterbacks can ignore trails of decisions and their aftermath, policymakers do not have such luxury.

Prewar Planning

Planning was poor. Emphasis on prewar diplomacy delayed preparation. In a diplomatic world where image trumps reality, senior officials felt substantive planning could undercut diplomatic optics.

Planning which did occur had insufficient coordination. Had working-level officials all operated under the same roof, coordination, which took weeks, could take days. Personality matters. Proximity can ameliorate otherwise festering interpersonal suspicions and bureaucratic rivalry.

The Future of Iraq Project was valuable as an idea forum in which all relevant offices within government participated, although it did not produce action plans.

There was also reliance upon bad advice. Many retired diplomats — like Baker-Hamilton report drafter Edward Djerejian — and a host of officials across the U.S. government felt that Iraq could be rehabilitated in 60-90 days. While some papers subsequently leaked contradict such claim, often such documents contained mutually contradictory statements, as bureaucrats avoided risk.

Implementation also undercut planning. It is all well and good to have Phase III and Phase IV plans, but if no official makes the call as to when one phase ends and the other begins, confusion reigns, and chaos — and looting — fills the vacuum.

What were the nodal decisions that changed the course of Iraq’s postwar development? First was the decision to occupy the country. In December 2002, I argued for Iraq’s liberation and suggested Iraqis would welcome us (they did) unless we became overbearing (we did) and stayed too long (once committed, we have no better choice short of completion).

Incumbent in this decision was delayed restoration of Iraqi sovereignty. There was an active debate at the time about whether Washington would have more leverage over Iraqi politicians if there was an established political decision before liberation, or whether boots on the ground would augment leverage. In the end, the State Department and some of the National Security Council officials triumphed. Subsequent events show they were wrong. Their mistake created a new reality. What would the Iraqi government have looked like if the Pentagon had won that debate? It will take declassification of Pentagon and National Security Council documents to show, but suffice to say the canard of handing Iraq over to Ahmad Chalabi was not among them. That myth was the result of intelligence officers ten years into retirement seeking limelight by claiming falsely to have current information, bureaucratic warfare, and the imaginative mind of some journalists and bloggers.

Another nodal decision involved federalism. Before Iraq’s liberation, it was clear that federalism would be a priority for Iraqis. Here, U.S. policymakers lost an important opportunity to influence. While the Iraqis should have determined the final shape of their government within clear parameters, Washington could have better influenced the process by creating the right template. For example, when compiling Iraq’s fiscal year 2004 budget, the Coalition Provisional Authority could choose between determining the budget in coordination with the governing council, or fixing the budget by compiling requests from municipalities and districts through the governorate to the central government to adjudicate, negotiate, and then decide. The former was quicker, but the latter would establish a process which could institute administrative, rather than ethnic or sectarian federalism. For the sake of easing the Madrid Donors’ Conference, the Coalition Provisional Authority’s chief of staff decided to go by the former route.

Another error was to miscatagorize Iraqis. The Coalition did this in two ways. Some diplomats and officials became obsessed by the dichotomy between “externals” — those Iraqis who had fled into exile or lived in Iraqi Kurdistan, outside Baghdad’s control — and “internals,” those who remained and, presumably, had greater legitimacy. Others — myself included — paid too much heed to balancing ethnic and sectarian representation.

The external-internal split turned out to be a canard. One-in-six Iraqis fled under Saddam. But, many retained family ties. There was not a division akin to China and Taiwan. Before the war, it was clear that exiles — the Iraqi National Congress coalition including Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the Iraq National Accord, Constitutional Monarchy Movement, and the two main Kurdish parties would play key roles. They have, with the exception of the Constitutional Monarchy movement. Had U.S. policymakers maintained a consistent template rather than changing the rules whenever exiles emerged as leaders, liberals would have had more opportunity to develop strategy. There also would have been less animosity toward American diplomats and policymakers.

While Sharif Ali bungled his political ambitions from the start, there remains in Iraq nostalgia for the past. Recently, some commentators have written about Saddam revisionism which ironically has more traction among U.S. progressives and anti-war activists than it does among Iraqis. Among an older generation, there is also nostalgia for some prominent military leaders from the Republican period, and also for the Hashemite monarchy. Even today, former military officers, tribal leaders across the sectarian divide, and al-Anbar notables suggest, more than the United Nation or regional governments, prominent Hashemite figures not involved in the Jordanian government would be welcome mediators and interlocutors.

What other policy decisions had significant impact on Iraq’s development? Again, the prewar debate about whether to train a free Iraqi officer corps is, in retrospect, very important. The decision to train in advance a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian fighting force not affiliated with any political party was slowed by a desire to emphasize diplomacy, questions as to how best to marshal, vetting, and interagency filibusters. Delayed by months, the conflict began before the bulk of volunteers could be cleared through a cumbersome vetting process. And so, the opportunity to both liberate and provide security fell by the wayside

Post-Liberation Decision-making

Journalists and many commentators overemphasize the decision to disband the Iraqi military. The Iraqi army, while an honored institution, had dissolved; there was no way to force conscripts to return. Many senior officers were guilty of human-rights abuses that made the U.S. scandal at Abu Ghraib pale in comparison. Midlevel officers became the bulk of the reconstituted army. A far better subject of criticism was the failure to continue military pensions in an orderly fashion. There has been little questioning of who was responsible for the pension decision.

The debate over de-Baathification and re-Baathification is more important. Some commentators and, perhaps, officials with long service in Baathist societies belittle the human rights violations of the Baath party. Feeling sympathies to their previous interlocutors, they do not understand the hatred that ordinary Iraqis have for Baathism. Still, in an effort to appear tolerant or perhaps offer political concessions to those uninterested in compromise, Coalition Provisional Authority administrator L. Paul Bremer reversed de-Baathification. Violence has grown proportional to re-Baathification. All discussion of a Sunni strategy likewise backfired. Not only did it play into Shiite fears and Iranian propaganda, but it undercut the notion of a unified Iraq.

Sometimes the devil is in the details. There was much discussion of how to organize elections. I had already left government by that point, but pushed hard for constituency elections rather than party slates, much to the annoyance of friends still in Baghdad. Some experts sought to reinforce the pro-party slate proposal with political dispersions and straw-man arguments having nothing to do with Iraq. It is too bad that Iraqis so often became a template to fight battles unrelated to Baghdad. While the debate became moot when policymakers made their decision, in retrospect this was a nodal point. Political systems absent accountability encourage both radicalism and corruption.

Other questions remain unanswered. Should the Coalition have shot looters? How could Abu Ghraib have been avoided? Why did Tehran get their media outlets up so much quicker than did Washington? Such unresolved, unanswered questions are worth considering now, before such issues ever again need to be actionalized. Also deserving of study is an understanding not of how journalists covered Iraq, but rather of how Iraqis reacted to the press coverage and how they interpreted external political debates.

Will Baker-Hamilton Repeat Mistakes?

One mistake which had immense impact on Iraq was misguided faith in diplomacy. Many present and former diplomats counseled engaging Syria and Iran. Neither Damascus nor Tehran kept their promises. Outside the Green Zone walls, it was obvious that Tehran and its proxies meant the U.S. harm. The British soft approach and U.S. navel-gazing gave Iran space to replicate a Hezbollah model to build militias and undermine government. Steven Vincent’s murder after exposing death squads in Basra should have been a wake-up call. Instead, commentators who had never been to Iraq sought to justify his murder.

Another issue involves the militias in general and firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in particular. Muqtada was not always so powerful; his organization established roots and grew over time, often with the benefit of outside funding. Muqtada’s rise is symbolic of another mistake. Rather than tackle problems head-on, U.S. officials wished them away.  Problems metathesized. Investigative journalists have yet to uncover the debate surrounding questions of what to do about Muqtada in April 2003.

Personal Mistakes

An auto-da-fe is developing that demands mea culpas. While some conspiracy theorists believe so-called neocons to have had immense power and influence, the idea that three or four people within the U.S. government — to a man excluded from implementation and decision-making — could control hundreds of others is absurd. Still, everyone played a role in Iraq. As is the case in government service, individual jobs were less than glorious, even if they were satisfying.

I was a reporting officer rather than an action officer. Decisions were taken by those living in the Green Zone, and the eight or nine people surrounding Bremer who are apparent from the index of his memoirs. Nevertheless, like all involved, I made mistakes of analysis along the way. I also should have given more credence to tribalism, although this revived with time and insecurity. While my private reports focused alarm at the spread of the militias, I wish I had emphasized the problem far earlier in my public writing once I left government.

As an outside analyst, I botched predictions on the last election. I thought Ahmad Chalabi could get five percent; but officially, he did not win a seat. In reality, I suspect he got one or two percent, although was sidelined after both he and Ayad Allawi lost a number of ballots by having their ballots spoiled by dual votes on the same ballot paper for the United Iraqi Alliance, apparently after the vote was cast. Can Chalabi make a comeback? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But he certainly has the connections and expertise to remain relevant in one capacity or another. His potential remains as a coalition builder. That he has become a lightening rod in Washington is irrelevant.

I was also wrong but pleasantly surprised to see Mithal al-Alusi do well. More seriously, I regret not recognizing Hazen al-Shaalan’s corruption earlier. Nevertheless, should there be declassifications of documents, I’ll have no reason to hide my face. Indeed, the one issue which should unify supporters of the war and their critics is the demand that the U.S. government declassify all U.S. documents relating to policy and planning immediately, and release the material seized from Saddam. The latter may contain embarrassing material such as the names of those not only in Europe and in Arab media, but also in the United States who accepted gratuities from Saddam’s government. Avoiding embarrassment is not reason to withhold documents.

Looking Back and Moving Forward

Despite all the problems, do I still stand by the decision to liberate Iraq? Yes. Like U.S. diplomats and servicemen who have spent time in Iraq post-liberation, I have met too many Iraqis and seen too much good to regret my decision. Do I believe we need to press on? Yes. Do I believe U.S. foreign policy should look toward the long-term and push for democracy? Yes.

Many commentators focus only on mistakes. Every mistake permanently altered the path of history and the outcome possible to achieve. But, as bad as is the current situation, there might still be strategies to maximize results, improve stability and the strength of democracy, and gain the best possible outcome for U.S. national security. Among possible prescriptions would be improving police training and oversight and, if need be, the dissolution and reconstitution of the force.

Reviving the Commanders Emergency Relief Program model of aid is also worth consideration. Think Provincial Reconstruction Teams-on-Wheels. Failure to improve ordinary lives undercuts security. In a wartime situation, Washington cannot afford to have USAID take six months to allocate a paper clip, six weeks to study its use, and then six days to discuss new paper-clip applications at a conference at a luxury hotel in Amman. Perhaps if the Baker-Hamilton commissioners had embedded with U.S. military units across Iraq, the co-chairmen’s predetermined recommendations could be checked by ground truth. They could have balanced filtered presentations from senior officials with raw recommendations from privates, lieutenants, captains, and majors in units across the country. They also might learn from the junior foreign-service officers who often have excellent ideas which they are unable to push through a cautious and risk-adverse hierarchy.

Entrusting U.S. national security to a Syrian regime that murders Lebanese politicians and journalists and to an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that supports militias is foolish. There is no evidence to support the assumption that Iran and Syria want a stable Iraq. Rather, all their actions show a desire to stymie the United States and destabilize their neighbor. More dangerous still than even this, though, is the naïve assumption that making concessions to terrorism or forcing others to do so brings peace rather than war.

 – Michael Rubin, editor of The Middle East Quarterly, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He has spent 22 months in Iraq as a university lecturer, Pentagon employee, and think-tank analyst.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Civil-Military Relations, and a senior editor of the Middle East Quarterly.


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