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Sunday, February 11, 2007

My Iraq Mistake

The Bush Administration's first-order mistakes on Iraq have included:
  1. Asserting it was plausible that Saddam had been involved in 9/11.
  2. Asserting that terrorists attacked America on 9/11 because they "hate our freedoms".
  3. Claiming that "fighting them there makes it less likely we will have to fight them here".
  4. Claiming knowledge that Saddam had an active nuclear weapons program.
  5. Believing that Iraq's Shiites and Sunnis would react to liberation as well as Iraq's Kurds had done twelve years earlier.
Of all these mistakes, I shared only the last one. Unfortunately, that mistake was the crucial one. Absent the desire of Iraq's Sunnis and Shias to kill each other, the liberation of Iraq could still be counted as a success, even in the face of the other Bush mistakes. Tyler Cowan points out that if an Iraq civil war was inevitable whenever the reign of Saddam and his sons ended, then the current civil war isn't much of a good argument that invading Iraq was a mistake. I've yet to find any good arguments that an Iraqi civil war wasn't inevitable, nor have I found any clear predictions that deposing Saddam would unleash a civil war. Below are representative statements I've made since 2002 on terrorism, WMD, and Iraqi civil war.

The "War On Terror"

Being a Palestinian sympathizer since Sabra and Shatila, I never bought the Bush "War On Terror" -- the idea that our enemies are psychopaths who love terrorism and hate freedom. I wrote on 2002-03-29:

Israel's is the only army of occupation on the planet to which we give military aid, and Palestinian sympathizers are the only people knocking down our skyscrapers. We are pretty much left alone by sympathizers for occupied Chechnya, East Timor, Kashmir, Kurdistan, Northern Ireland, the Basque, and Tibet. [To stop the war of terror against America], we just have to stop supporting Israel's occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.

[Israel] could easily require the West Bank to be demilitarized, and their nuclear arsenal insures that they will never be driven into the sea. Their main worry should be that if the occupation continues, one of these suicide bombers will eventually take out Tel Aviv with a nuke. I just hope they target Tel Aviv instead of D.C. or Manhattan, but guys like Osama are smarter than that. I still am amazed at how little post-9/11 discussion there has been about what would happen if Palestinian sympathizers had a nuke.
More children died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki [than in 9/11]. Technically, the Sep 11 attack on the Pentagon (like that on the Cole) wasn't terrorism, it was war. The WTC attack was terrorism, since its effects were so overwhelmingly intended to be psychological rather than industrial.


Grievances against us in the Arab and Muslim world indeed consist of varying combinations of 1) our support for Israel, 2) our support for oppressive Arab regimes, and 3) our leadership of secular and materialistic Western culture.

With the exception of (mainly the South's experience of) the Civil War, Americans have little real experience of how bad war can be. We lose as many people in one day as we lose in one month on our own highways, and we think that's a "war". That 9/11 was shocking to us only shows how secure and insulated we (still) are from the travails that most societies have suffered throughout history. [Infringement of civil liberties here in the United States] has to do with the "war on terror", not liberating Iraq. The two things aren't as connected as Bush would have you believe.


My long-standing concern over nuclear-armed terrorism by Palestinian sympathizers was the core of my only worry about Iraqi WMD. From the beginning my WMD focus was on nuclear weapons (instead of chemical or biological), and on Saddam's admitted past nuclear ambitions, rather than his current alleged programs. I never claimed to know Iraq had a WMD arsenal, and I wrote on 2003-04-11:

Roy: "most of its weapons have been destroyed" If that were true, then why did Saddam resist weapons inspections? [...] I don't much care about Saddam's chemical or biological weapons. What I care about is his track record of trying to conquer territory from two neighboring countries, firing ballistic missiles at two others, and his UN-documented efforts to build nuclear weapons. [...] The danger of Saddam's WMD was not that his military might use them, but that he might install them in Manhattan and D.C. and then dictate terms.
History will record that ending Saddam's tyranny and his prospects for wielding WMD was an act of moral courage.

It will in fact help our case that we can point to U.S. withdrawal, Iraqi sovereignty, and Iraqi ownership of Iraqi oil. In fact, I'm glad we found no WMDs, since it 1) confounds conspiracy theorists who would have believed them to be planted, and 2) forces Bush to defend the war on grounds of liberation and not just self-defense. By returning sovereignty to Iraqis without taking a single drop of Iraqi oil or planting any WMDs, our actions can demonstrate our sincerity more than mere words ever could.

Iraqi Civil War

My biggest mistake on Iraq was to believe that Iraq's Shiites and Sunnis would react to liberation as well as Iraq's Kurds had done twelve years earlier. On 2003-04-11, as Baghdad was liberated, I wrote a response to the Apr 2 Guardian article by Arundhati Roy:
Roy: "Perhaps Bush means that even if Iraqi people's bodies are killed, their souls will be liberated." If Roy was too obtuse on Apr 3 to understand what "liberated" means, perhaps the Apr 9 jubilation in the streets of Baghdad has educated her.

Roy: "Operation Iraqi Freedom? I don't think so." The crowds in Iraq disagree.
Roy: "Other than strengthening the hand of civil society (instead of weakening it as has been done in the case of Iraq), there is no easy, pristine way of dealing with [dictators]." That's the problem with people like Roy: they don't recognize a strengthening of civil society even when they see it on live TV.
History will show that the US-led war is the best thing that's happened to Iraq since the discovery of oil there.
It turned out that I was mistaken to believe the Iraqi people would use their liberation to strengthen civil society in Iraq. The Iraqi people themselves were mistaken about it too. In an April 2004 CNN/Gallup nationwide poll of Iraqis, 42% "said Iraq was better off because of the war", and 61% "said Saddam Hussein's ouster made it worth any hardships." In a nationwide poll of Iraqis completed in Mar 2004 for BBC by Oxford Research International, "56% said that things were better now than they were before the war". While agreeing with this Iraqi sentiment at the time, I had already started to caveat my hope that the Shiites would handle liberation as well as the Kurds:

2004-02-18: The Kurds have already shown what is possible in Iraq when tyranny is removed; even if the Shiites squander their opportunity, the situation is almost certain to be better than it was under Saddam.

Within six more months, I had recognized that Shiites were blowing it. I wrote on

The fact is that between Afghanistan and especially Kurdistan, we had solid grounds for being optimistic about the prospects for stability after deposing Saddam. It's turning out that Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites are not as ready for self-rule as Iraqi Kurds or Afghan Pashtuns etc. They deserved a chance, and they still deserve a chance, but their chances are running out. I wonder if the key difference turns out to be ethnic homogeneity on the relevant geographic scale. Kurdistan is homogeneous, and I suspect that in Afghanistan the different ethnic groups are somewhat partitioned by mountains etc. Iraq is much more urban, and the Sunnis and Shiites are each apparently eager to get the upper hand in the areas they predominate.

A year later I described the criteria by which we should declare victory and leave Iraq:

2005-09-14: Re-read the 10-sentence core of Bush's justification on the eve of the invasion. We now know the intelligence underlying the sentence about WMD possession was faulty. Even without this sentence, the remaining nine sentences still hold up as reasonable justification for taking Saddam and his sons down -- especially since in Kurdistan and Afghanistan we had existence proofs that the U.S. military could depose tyranny in the Islamic world and replace it with increased liberty and reasonably stable self-determination. The aftermath of Iraq's liberation certainly hasn't been as smooth as we had reasonable grounds to hope, but the situation isn't nearly so bad that we can say "we now know it was a mistake". Our exit criteria should be:

* elimination of any known WMD or international terrorist infrastructure;
* inauguration (but not maintenance) of a federal democratic constitutional framework that protects minorities and fundamental human rights; and
* successful transition of security responsibilities to Iraqi forces.

We are about a year from either satisfying these criteria or learning they are too costly to satisfy.
America's leaders should not publicly disclose our pain thresholds, but it can be assumed that America's political system will not tolerate a total cost over 3000 U.S. fatalities or $500B. That the cost of satisfying them will end up higher than expected by a factor of two or three won't mean we will "know it was a mistake". The only serious prospect now for it to have been a mistake is if the Sunnis irrationally choose civil war over the path of constitutional engagement that the Shiites and Kurds have chosen.

A year later, I indeed admitted that Iraq's thirst for civil war was making it too costly to wait for Iraq to be able to police itself:

2006-07-27: If Iraqis are determined to squander their opportunity in favor of having a civil war, then America should indeed withdraw sooner rather than later.

2006-09-28: Withdrawal should be based less on arbitrary timetables than on these exit criteria: elimination of any WMD or international terrorist infrastructure; inauguration of a federal democratic constitutional framework that protects minorities and human rights; and successful transition of security responsibility to Iraq. Our leaders should not disclose our precise pain thresholds, but America will not tolerate a total cost over 3000 U.S. combat fatalities or $500B. Sunni and Shia infighting is now close to exhausting the reconstruction and stabilization efforts we owed the Iraqis for having liberated them.

2006-10-09: Deposing Saddam was justified and our war aims are achieved, but we don't owe Iraq indefinite suppression of its urge for civil war.

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