Incompetence in Iraq

by Chris Bertram on November 6, 2003

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with someone who was in a position to know the reality of what is happening inside Iraq. He painted a gloomy picture of poor preparation (or rather no preparation) for the period after the military defeat of the Iraqi army, of Iraqi attitudes ranging from entrepreneurial friendliness to outright hostility, and of a US army which may be good at warfighting but is utterly incompetent when it comes to peacekeeping. Max Hasting, veteran military correspondent and a man of decidely conservative political views has “a piece in the Spectator”: which essentially corroborates this picture. Hastings reports that the British military are very angry indeed with the Bush administration.

Some of my friends were in favour of this war, and some were against it. Among those in favour there is a tendency to see all gloomy news from Iraq as simply anti-war propaganda. But that’s an absurd view if the gloomy news is an accurate reflection of what is going on. Rationally, those who favoured the war on humanitarian grounds should be all the more angry if its execution has been incompetent.

Here’s a couple of paragraphs from Hastings:

bq. It is no good for British supporters of George Bush to accuse his critics of anti-Americanism. It is a plain statement of the facts that the allies are today in a dreadful mess in Iraq, as a direct consequent of culpable blunders by Bush, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and their friends, who understand everything about American military power and nothing about the human behaviour of societies other than their own.

bq. They were told again and again, long before the war, that Iraqi celebration and gratitude for the fall of Saddam would last five minutes, to be followed by a huge requirement for troops to maintain security, and vociferous Iraqi demands to make the sewage system work. In 1945, the Germans and the Japanese did not show themselves penitent, but they knew that they were defeated, and abased themselves accordingly. The Iraqis, however, have been told that they are not enemies, but victims. In consequence, they are today behaving with the extravagant petulance of all other paid-up members of the compensation culture. They treat the allies as if they were political leaders who have failed to deliver on election promises.



des 11.06.03 at 3:53 pm

In consequence, [the Iraquis] are today behaving with the extravagant petulance of all other paid-up members of the compensation culture.

Blighters , the lot of ’em! You go to all the trouble of thrusting a Glorious Future of Peace and Prosperity on them, and all they do is whine about the plumbing!


Ray 11.06.03 at 4:23 pm

One should never do anything in the expectation of gratitude. As Machiavelli pointed out long ago, an unpaid debt, moral or financial, is a chain around the neck of the debtor, and is far more likely to arouse resentment than thanks.


Tired 11.06.03 at 4:28 pm

There is going to be hell – and possible an election – to pay for this. For those of us who supported the war effort against Iraq, it has been a tortuous path because we believed it was an evil regime – and it was. We believed that one could make a reasonable geopolitical argument for armed aggression/liberation – and one can. But then first, Halliburton and Bechtel made their blatant presence known in the most offensive way possible (and believe me, many of us who supported the war based on Hussein’s documented brutality were embarrassed.) Secondly, the supportive American public is now being informed that the military has some planning deficiencies – or is lacking in nation-building skills (possibly, possibly, I am sure it is tough but one thing I know from personal experience is that these two engineering firms should be able to reconstruct the infrastructure in less than six months.) While, thirdly, we are also informed that a meticulous State Dept plan for post-war restructuring was isolated from the planning process in what was apparently little more than a pure power play among the boys. Where is the State Dept plan? Why can it not be implemented or used to impose some measure of order on the ground?

Those Americans who opposed the war – and I was not one of them – had their patriotism questioned. Those Americans who have argued for the endurance and military commitment to assist the Iraqis in building some kind of replacement country are routinely accused of having a repugnant and cavalier disregard for human life. So Americans on the street – on both sides of the political spectrum – are trying to find a responsible and credible way to support the international actions of their government, when for all intents and purposes, it appears that Larry, Moe, and Curly are running this operation. Noecons? Neostooges.


coder 11.06.03 at 4:54 pm

Rationally, those who favoured the war on humanitarian grounds should be all the more angry if its execution has been incompetent.

Absolutely agree, and I was for the war on humanitarian grounds (in marked contrast to nearly all the rest of my friends.) I am bloody livid about how the “post-major-conflict” is being handled. When I decided to support the war, by far my biggest misgiving was that the transition to democracy and a modern civil society would be mismanaged, leaving an even bigger mess behind than was there initially. I weighed up the evidence, and judged that this would not happen – that the President and others could be trusted to stay the course and do the job they said they would – through sheer political expediency, if not moral necessity. I think it is too early to tell how things will pan out, but so far I’m afraid to say, things are looking pretty bleak.

My friends thought I was hopelessly naive to believe that the US could be a white knight instead of a carelessly-brutal, selfish giant. If the US is committed to staying the course, and acts with integrity, then I am still confident that they will learn from their mistakes and will eventually prevail. However I am forced to concede that the balance of evidence so far seems to favour the pessimistic view.


Laertes 11.06.03 at 5:01 pm

I’ll echo tired. I’m a dead dog Democrat and I supported the war, partly because I was delighted to see our government going after the sort of loathsome regime that we usually support, and mostly because I figured Hussein must surely have a promising nuclear program and couldn’t be allowed to get nukes. Not because he’d use them on the US directly or even give them to terrorists, but because a nuclear shield would allow him to believe that he could intimidate/conquer his neighbors without fear of US intervention.

So yeah, that’s amateur global strategy, and I freely admit that I’m an amateur.

I never trusted this administration. I knew they were congenital liars, shameless class warriors, and unprincipled opportunists. I didn’t, however, think they were incompetents who would botch the reconstruction as badly as they quite obviously have.

So that’s a failure of imagination on my part. And now, like many of us who supported the war in principle and are appalled at the results, I’m left in a difficult spot.

I feel a bit like a parent who handed the keys to his teenaged son, only to get called to the police station a few hours to collect said son who, drunk, wrecked the car and injured several pedestrians. A son who, further, responds to any disapprobation by insisting that it’s my fault for giving him the keys in the first place.


serial catowner 11.06.03 at 5:09 pm

Some of the Bush-faithful simply do what they are told. Nothing new about this- when Stalin and Hitler formed their pact, the Germans were warned that it would take a few months for the Soviets to completely reverse their propaganda machine.

Bush is reported to have said “You can fool some of the people all of the time- and those are the ones you want to go after”.


Wayne 11.06.03 at 5:13 pm

Re: “Hastings reports that the British military are very angry indeed with the Bush administration”

Perhaps the British military could make their views known to President Bush when he visits Britain later this month.


Matthew 11.06.03 at 5:35 pm

What is sad is that those who opposed the war are still being considered by many as loving up Saddam, when most were just pointing out the absurdity of the idea that the Bush government was a “white knight”. A masterful public relations victory I must admit.


John James 11.06.03 at 5:38 pm

I think the criticisms of the Spectator and above commentators are flawed:

The allegation made against the American war planners is that they were either (a) incompetent in assessing the likely problems involved in reconstructing post-war Iraq, or (b) aware of the likely problems, but took insufficient precautions to deal with them.

Both these claims are contingent on the premise that advance knowledge could have been effecitvely utilised to remedy the problems that Iraq now endures.

But what are these problems? From what I understand the root of all problems in Iraq is the destabilising effects of militant activity by Ba’athist remnants and foreign fighters.

I’m sure that the American war planners recognised these as a potential risks in advance of the war, but how, pray tell, could pre-war planning have mitigated these risks? Other than summarily executing all former Ba’athist supporters, and immediately sealing Iraq’s borders – both implausible options – these risks could never have been avoided.

It seems to me that the upheavel in Iraq was, irrespective of advance planning, going to be the inevitable outcome of the overthrow of Saddam. It was foolish of supporters of the war to think anything else. Equally, it is wrong to now revoke your support for the war effort, on the basis that the Americans and British failed to counter an inevitable outcome.


infamouse 11.06.03 at 5:46 pm

This column is full of crap. Really. We all know there was poor planning. And given the situation in Iraq can you really blame soldiers for taking extra precautions and wearing their armor and helmets. Come on. I’ve no doubt that the American forces aren’t particularly good at peace-keeping since it’s not what they were trained to do. And we all know that more soldiers are needed. There was an article in the WashPost about Bremer’s disbanding of the military explaining why this happened. It was necessary.

” It was considered the harshest blow of all when the administration attacked recent European defence proposals which Tony Blair was sponsoring. ‘Whatever the merits of the issue’, said one of those concerned, ‘it was pretty rough publicly to put the boot in, at a time like this. Tony certainly thought so’.”

This is a joke. The US has always been opposed to a separate force because it means the end of NATO. But maybe they took extra umbrage at this because Blair lied. He said he wouldn’t back such a proposal and then changed his mind. No mention of this in the article however.


James 11.06.03 at 5:48 pm

There’s telling your friend he/she has a problem. There’s calling him/her evil. Then there’s telling that person, you hate them and hope they die. Many of the loudest voices against the war did the latter. After that, its not to hard to tar all those saying the first statement.


Harry Tuttle 11.06.03 at 5:49 pm

John, they didn’t fail to counter an inevitable outcome, they didn’t even try and lambasted those who told them this outcome was inevitable. They shitcanned meticulous and detailed occupation plans in favor of wildly over-optimistic lies.

And, worst of all to me, they forfeited the war on terror in Afghanistan in order to let their friends enrich themselves in Iraq.


Keith M Ellis 11.06.03 at 6:08 pm

The comments in this thread are gratifying. I very tepidly supported the war for the reasons mentioned above: Hussein was a serious problem that was overdue for a correction. And I think that prior UN resolutions authorized the action.

On the other hand, I think the neocon geostrategy is just plain fantastical, stupid, and dangerous. I thought that Iraq may have had some biological and chemical weapons, but I knew they didn’t have the capability of making a nuclear bomb, and, in any event, they were not a threat to the US and their threat to their neighbors was much reduced from what it had been prior to the first Gulf War. I didn’t and don’t believe there is a connection between Al Qaeda and Iraq. Given that, I couldn’t believe that the “war on terror” was being sidetracked by an Iraq invasion. But I tepidly supported it because, in my opinion, it had to be done sooner or later and although I wouldn’t have chosen _now_, I was willing to support what was obviously an inevitability.

Given that perspective, is it any wonder that I, too, find this administration’s preperation for and handling of the occupation to be shameful? That I always thought they were a pack of liars and/or raving lunatics and this is proven to be true?

God, I hate these fuckers.

However, second in my scorn are the people that A) want a withdrawal from Iraq, and B) don’t want to pay for reconstruction. Don’t these people have any concept of moral responsibility? I guess not.


Dan Goodman 11.06.03 at 7:40 pm

Bush as a “White Knight” — According to the last part of the New Testament, a man on a white horse will be followed by a man on a black horse, a man on a red horse, and a man on a pale horse.


Barry 11.06.03 at 8:17 pm

John, they administration did not fail to predict the unkowable, they failed to predict the predictable. Check out the article in the NYT Magazine (, registration required).

Fred Kaplan in Slate has a some good arguments on the subject
(a list will be generated by:

In short, it was obvious from prior experience (not theory, hard experience) that from 250K – 500K troops would be needed, and needed immediately, to occupy Iraq. Also that it’d probably take a few years of such occupation.

From the NYT article, the State department had been studying the matter of post-war work from Spring 2002. The realized that disorder would be a problem, and that infrastructure support would be needed. The Pentagon blew them off, to the point where the first guy in charge, Garner, was ordered not to use the person in charge of that study.

I suggest that everybody who’s heard this ‘the admininstration couldn’t predict the uknowable’ bookmark the NYT article, and the list of Slate articles.

Because we’re going to see this argument again and again and again.


Anthony C 11.06.03 at 8:44 pm

If I might stick my large, bulbous red nose in here…

Max Hastings’ article is almost certainly not crap. To say it is is far too breezy and is the wrong attitude. There are legitimate criticisms to be made and to say that either the current problems could not be predicted or that they could have been predicted but, hey, it’s ok because they were inevitable and could not be mitigated. There are parts of it that ring true and it is fairly clear that all is not going as well as we would have liked. On the other hand, it is hard to tell and it is far too early to write the operation off as a spiralling failure. It’s difficult to tell from this position, frankly. There are mixed messages coming out and you have to sift through them to try to build up a realistic picture.

I also have to say, unequivocal supporters of the Bush administration are in no position to accuse Sir Max Hastings of inaccuracy and not knowing what he’s talking about after the astonishingly bad, historically tone deaf piece by Don Rumsfeld in (I think) the Washington Post a few months ago. I have never read such a wretched piece of nonsense, crap frankly, by somebody in a position of power in my life. If it was reflective of Rummy’s genuine take on international affairs then I have no confidence in him whatsoever. His knowledge of previous nation building operations and how things have worked (and not worked) was absolutely abysmal. And I speak as somebody who would be up for voting for Bush were I an American. The man should be encouraged to “take retirement” as soon as is decent and seemly.


john c. halasz 11.06.03 at 11:05 pm

Does the plaint about “compensation culture” apply to wage-labor? And if so, is what is desired a return to feudalism? Well, the Iraqis at least may yet achieve such a return!

For those on the center/left who supported the war on humanitarian grounds, leaving aside the fact that “humanitarian war” is an horrific oxymoron, did you consider the provenance and the nature of the other accompanying claims of the case for war? Though even I didn’t anticipate the colossal degree of incompetence and delusion with which they would go about executing their war project. ( The State Dept. “Future of Iraq” project, by the way, was extensively reported in an article in early July by Knight-Ridder. It took a long while for the main establishment press, the NY Times being its pace-setter, to bother to catch up with the story.) Tony Blair deserves public damnation for 1) providing Bush with just enough cover for the war, especially with those on the left of center side, and 2)failing to extract and assure, as the price of his support, adequate post-war planning from the Americans. Such a colossal failure of judgment out not be forgiven in a public political leader, for it bodes ill for any future decisions.

To be sure, it is difficult to know exactly what is going on in Iraq and what the prospects are, but it looks as if the situation is in serious danger of slipping into civil war, which is likely to happen if the undermanned Americans can not establish any legitimacy and effectiveness in governing the situation and thus leave a power vacuum in the face of chaos and growing insurgency. This was always a major risk factor and post-war planning should have most of all been directed at forstalling such a danger, (assuming the best interests of Iraqis were at all to be taken into account). But a war project that did not want to take into consideration any norms of international legitimacy and deliberately alienated much of international opinion was unlikely to be able to generate much legitimacy amongst Iraqis.


Barry 11.06.03 at 11:45 pm

True. However, if there was the same lack of international legitimacy, but success in Iraq, the administration would have come out ahead. They didn’t even strive for that level of success.


praktike 11.07.03 at 1:20 am

Laertes makes a good point. nobody thought they were this incompetent, so many were willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

This whole affair reminds of the Tailor of Panama…


Jack 11.07.03 at 11:09 am

I think the “compensation culture” is just meant as a contrast between the expectations of the Iraqis and the expectations of the Germans or Japanese. Americans were supposedly acting in the Iraqis own best interests and it is only natural that the Iraqis end up asking that things actually get better.
I don’t think Hastings wants an outcome different from the older adversaries.
A related issue is that the Shia are not obviously pro American so while they may not be causing trouble at the moment, some nifty footwork will be necessary if they are to agree to have US bases or be friendly in a more strategic sense.


Barry 11.07.03 at 11:58 am

And the Shia attitude could have been predicted, by those who knew their history from the last decade. Bush I exhorted them to rise up and overthrow Saddam, and stated that he wouldn’t rest until Saddam was out of power. Then, once the Shiites did rise up, he stayed his hand and let Saddam crush them. Then started a decade-long seige (called ‘sanctions’), which was continued by Clinton.

After this, any competant leadership of the Shiites would not be foolish enough to aassume that the government of the US had their best interests at heart, or even cared the slightest.


Lawrence Krubner 11.07.03 at 4:24 pm

“Rationally, those who favoured the war on humanitarian grounds should be all the more angry if its execution has been incompetent.

Agreed. As an American leftist who supported the war to stop human rights abuses in Iraq, I’ve been outraged at the level of corruption and incompetance show by the Bush Administration. It was Tony Blair, not George Bush, who convinced me that the war was morally right, and I wish Blair was running the show. The whole thing with Halliburton has been an outrage.


roger 11.07.03 at 4:33 pm

Ah, those whining liberated Iraqis! Mr. Hastings is so right about that welfare mentality. But he ignores the wonderful things being done by the Coalition Provisional Authority. Why, just last week they imposed a flat tax on Iraq — no more shackling of the creative classes with a bunch of namby pamby income tax! And how about the privatization of Iraqi industry — kicking a few of their lazy bodies out into the street in the process! the typical liberal response, given 60% unemployment, would be to find make work for the lazy — but not the Americans. I’d say, so far, we’ve just been stunningly successful. In fact, word is that the Heritage foundation, AEI, and the Hoover are all going to re-locate to Baghdad soon.

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