Courtesy Reuters

Losing Iraq

By James Dobbins

James Dobbins replies:

Tony Smith's objections are directed not at my article but at a series of RAND studies on the subject of nation building. He apparently holds these books, which were published well after the invasion (in late 2003 and 2007), somehow responsible for the decision to invade Iraq. Far from supporting the logic of that intervention, these studies showed that success was improbable at any cost the United States was likely to pay. A draft of the first volume was made available to Ambassador Paul Bremer shortly after he was named to head the Coalition Provisional Authority. In his memoirs, Bremer recounts being startled by the study's conclusion that the stabilization of Iraq might require up to 500,000 troops. He immediately sent Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld a copy of the summary chapter and spoke to President George W. Bush about it. Neither man seems to have considered this insight.

The RAND studies emphasize the importance not only of manpower, money, and time but also of international legitimacy and regional support for any nation-building enterprise, none of which was available in Iraq. These volumes do not endorse "U.S. progressive imperialism." Instead, they conclude that the UN has a substantially higher success rate at nation building than the United States and thus should be the nation builder of first resort. Smith charges that these books gloss over local circumstances. They do emphasize factors that are common to most operations and subject to some control, rather than those that are unique and immutable. Yet all 16 case studies begin with a section outlining the local circumstances Smith finds lacking.

It appears that Smith believes nation building to be both impossible and immoral. Neither is remotely true. Tens of millions of people in places such as Albania, Bosnia, Cambodia, East Timor, El Salvador, Germany, Japan, Kosovo, Liberia, Macedonia, Mozambique, Namibia, and Sierra Leone are living peacefully, most under democratically elected governments, because UN, NATO, European, or U.S. troops came in, separated contending factions, disarmed former combatants, promoted reconstruction, held elections, installed freely chosen governments, and remained long enough to see that these took hold. It would be a tragedy of the first order if setbacks in Iraq were to lead the United States to abandon support for efforts to end the bloodshed and promote representative government in Afghanistan, Congo, or Darfur. I do not absolve myself of responsibility for the failure in Iraq; my concluding sentence makes that clear. Even those who thought the war a bad idea from the beginning could have been more vocal. My essay suggests that we be so in the future.

Ludovic Hood and I seem to largely agree. I did not dwell on personal responsibility because doing so would not take us very far now. If all we can learn from the mistakes in Iraq is not to reelect Bush, then we will not have yielded much. I did identify the personal characteristics that marred the performance of the president and the secretary of defense, however, and urged that leaders without such traits be chosen next time.

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