Courtesy Reuters

Losing Iraq

By Ludovic Hood

To the Editor:

James Dobbins provides a useful overview of the national security challenges facing our political leaders in the wake of the "loss" of Iraq. However, his article disappointingly sidesteps two key issues. He avoids answering his own (rhetorical yet important) question: Who lost Iraq? And he does not address whether the United States' national security bureaucracy possessed the requisite expertise and capability to ensure a stable aftermath to the March 2003 invasion or whether the challenges and the unknowns were insurmountable.

A dispassionate analysis of who bears responsibility for the failure in Iraq is currently impossible, and the jury is out on the administration's "grand strategy" for the wider Middle East. History will not look kindly on those who oversaw the preinvasion interagency process that precluded contingency planning for bleak scenarios and managed the early months of the occupation with scant regard for the lessons from the numerous U.S. and UN-led peace operations in the 1990s. Will tiptoeing around individual responsibility contribute to getting it right next time? Will heads never roll despite the devastating blunders in the foreign policy and intelligence arenas?

Dobbins also overlooks the capabilities of the U.S. national security bureaucracy, not least its postconflict reconstruction capability. If adequately consulted and engaged, could the best minds in the Defense Department, the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and other agencies have put together plans and processes that would have helped achieve a stable postinvasion environment and orderly political transition?

As a former UN staffer engaged in postconflict recovery work, I judge that U.S. national security professionals did have the expertise and experience to plan for worst-case scenarios; consider history and culture; saturate postinvasion Iraq with civilian police to oversee orderly disarmament, demobilization, and reintgration; and avoid alienating the formerly dominant Sunni minority. That such expertise was effectively left out of the preinvasion interagency and political deliberations contributed to the "loss" of Iraq.


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.

U.S. Foreign Service Officer, Kuwait

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