The Assassin’s Gate

by Henry Farrell on December 5, 2005

I finished reading George Packer’s “The Assassin’s Gate”: on the plane back from Europe yesterday, and discovered when I got back home that “Kevin Drum”: had already said half of what I wanted to say about it. Anti-war people should read this book – it really does a terrific job of setting out the complexities of politics in Iraq. Pro-war leftists and liberals should read this book too, and reflect carefully on Packer’s documentation of how badly “democracy-building” was implemented in practice. But there’s something quite troubling about the book’s rhetorical set-up. On one level, the book resembles Jason DeParle’s book on welfare reform, “American Dream”: It’s a meditation on the relationship between the abstract debates of policy wonks and intellectuals, how ideas from these debates get implemented (with quite astounding incompetence in this particular instance), and the results that implementation have for individuals’ lives. But on another, it’s an indirect defence of a particular policy stance. In the book’s closing pages, Packer sets out his indictment of the Bush administration:

bq. I came to believe that those in positions of highest responsibility for Iraq showed a carelessness about human life that amounted to criminal negligence. Swaddled in abstract ideas, convinced of their own righteousness, incapable of self-criticism, indifferent to accountability, they turned a difficult undertaking into a needlessly deadly one. When things went wrong, they found other people to blame. The Iraq War was always winnable; it still is. For this very reason, the recklessness of its authors is all the harder to forgive.

This isn’t only an indictment. It’s also an apologia for a claim that is never directly defended – that the project of bringing democracy to Iraq could have worked if it had been executed more competently. Packer has documented over four hundred odd pages just how bad the implementation was. But proving the negative doesn’t prove the positive, and Packer’s method of presentation allows him to avoid making the case that deposing the Hussein regime in 2003 could feasibly have brought democracy to Iraq. There’s a strong case to be made that this wasn’t doable in the first place. Packer presents Rumsfeld’s decision to override Shinseki, and invade Iraq with a minimal number of troops, as one of the main causes of the current disaster. But as “Sam Rosenfeld and Matt Yglesias”: argue

bq. Perhaps the founding myth of the incompetence argument is that the postwar mess could have been avoided had the United States deployed more troops to Iraq. … A RAND Corporation effort … concluded that a ratio of 20 foreigners for every 1,000 natives would have been necessary to stabilize Iraq. … The 20-to-1,000 ratio implies the presence of about 500,000 soldiers in Iraq. That’s far more than it would have been possible for the United States to deploy. Sustaining a given number of troops in a combat situation requires twice that number to be dedicated to the mission, so that soldiers can rotate in and out of theater. . As there are only 1 million soldiers in the entire Army, a 500,000-troop deployment would imply that literally everyone — from the National Guard units currently assisting with disaster relief on the Gulf Coast to those serving in Afghanistan, Korea, and Europe to the bureaucrats doing staff work in the Pentagon and elsewhere — would be dedicated to the mission. This is plainly impossible.

Packer doesn’t address this argument, nor does he address the arguments more generally of the anti-war side with anything approaching seriousness. While he acknowledges in passing that a couple of anti-war people were sincere and thoughtful, he doesn’t even begin to consider their claims, and the implication of those claims for his own position. This isn’t to dismiss the book out of hand. As Kevin says, it should be required reading for anyone concerned with the Iraq war and its aftermath. It’s far more than another statement of the incompetence dodge. But it’s also much less than it should have been.

Update: thanks to Jay Conner in comments for pointing me towards this “interview”: with Packer in yesterday’s _San Francisco Chronicle_. Packer qualifies his statement that “the Iraq War was always winnable; it still is,” but only by saying that he “would not have written that line in the present tense” given recent developments. As best as I understand him, he isn’t prepared to revisit his belief that the Iraq war could have been won had it been conducted differently at the outset. I “fully agree”: with Packer when he argues that “what liberals need to do now is argue very strongly for the U.S. to remain engaged in a responsible internationalist way around the world.” But if we’re to have the “serious national conversation” that Packer wants, he, and others like him, need to think more seriously about what the Iraq debacle means for the possibility conditions of pro-democratic intervention (this is also what I take Yglesias and Rosenfeld to be arguing in their piece).



roger 12.05.05 at 11:20 am

Henry, excellent points. The one way in which the much vaunted taunt about the reality based community is justified is in the inability of the war’s backers to envision a mechanism to make their goal happen. Reality happens in a series of “thens” — and one can’t project contradictory “thens” and pretend to have a plan. When the cost of the war was first debated in Congress, before the war began, Wolfowitz made the astounding claim that the Iraqi oil would cover all or most of it. How anyone could claim that, a., a democratic, American leaning state would be implemented post-Saddam, and b., that that state would immediately devote most of its resources to funding the U.S. occupation boggles the mind. And these kinds of absurd claims were never even questioned.


Jim Miller 12.05.05 at 11:20 am

I’m not sure whether it is legal to mention this on Crooked Timber, but I’ll risk it anyway.

One reason we had fewer troops than some would have liked in 2003 is that President Clinton cut the size of the army. President H. W. Bush had already cut the Army substantially after the end of the Cold War, appropriately in my opinion, but thought the cuts had gone far enough. Whether to cut further was a minor issue in the 1992 campaign.


Brendan 12.05.05 at 11:46 am

I hate to mention this, but even the initial post by Henry seems to me to grant too much to the pro-war position.

The ‘pragmatic’ argument against the war was of course extremely strong, as was demonstrated by the fact that hardly any of the pro-invasion side even considered it. I could be wrong here and I am willing to stand corrected in this but so far as I can remember, the pro-invasion defence of this position (pragmatically) mostly consisted of repeating: ‘No no, it will be fine….’ over and over again in a soothing voice.

But the key point surely is that we are in need of a much stricter definition of the word ‘democracy’. The pro-invasioners were very keen to bandy this word about without bothering to define it, as if ‘everyone’ knew what it meant. And in terms of extremes, this is true. Sweden, for example, is a democracy. Everyone knows that. Equally, North Korea is not. Again, no debate there.

But what about grey areas? What about Iran? It’s not a ‘true’ democracy, sure, but it has democratic elements. Or what about Putin’s Russia? Or Berlusconi’s Italy? Or Venezuela? Or (and this really states what I am getting at) what about South Vietnam?

The fact is that ‘democracy’ is not a word that descended, fully formed, from heaven. It is a human word, made by people, and used by ordinary human beings who have motivations and feelings and prejudices. It is not in any sense a ‘neutral’ term. Glenn Reynolds, for example, has come straight out and said that Chavez is a dictator, even though he was democratically elected .

This clearly widens the ‘normal’ definition of the word ‘dictator’ way beyond its normal use, but this use (which at the extreme right, shades imperceptibly into ‘Democracies are states which do what the United States wants’) is clearly very close to the meaning which Bush had in mind when he said that he would make Iraq into a ‘democracy’.

And so, rather than simply accept that the Bush administration wanted Iraq to become a democracy and that this attempt ‘went wrong’: i think it’s incumbent on all of us to ask: yes, but what do you mean by the word democracy? Pro-invasioners, especially of the ‘left wing’ variety may well find that their own meaning might be subtly (but importantly) different from that which Bush and Rumsfeld had in mind.


Francis 12.05.05 at 11:47 am

perhaps the pro-war faction can explain what victory was supposed to look like ex ante, and what victory might look like now.

greeting us with flowers is a nice sentiment, but it hardly is a statement regarding the follow-on government.

now, i’ve heard two principal views regarding victory: first, the installation of a pro-west strong central government and second, the installation of a representative democracy.

the fact that these goals might be internally inconsistent — that a representative democracy might choose to align strongly with iran or might choose civil war over a strong central government — doesn’t seem to be much discussed.

somewhere along the way, someone is bound to raise the example of Japan and Germany as countries which have pro-west democratic governments. (frex, Matt Miller did so again during Left-Right&Center last Friday.) so perhaps a historian or two could comment on the fundamental differences between those societies and Iraq and on the criteria leading to the successful nature of those occupations.


soru 12.05.05 at 12:02 pm

Perhaps the founding myth of the incompetence argument is that the postwar mess could have been avoided had the United States deployed more troops to Iraq

That rather depends on who you consider to have been the incompetent one.

As I understand it, the pre-war plan was something like ‘put Chalabi in charge, governing through the existing Iraqi army and ministries, and have oil revenues pay for reconstruction’.

That plan was never put into place, being replaced more or less on-the-fly with ‘formal occupation in the style of post-WWII japan, rebuilding Iraqi society from the ground up’. That’s the strategy that would have required Randian numbers of troops, money and preparation to work. It was tried for about a year before it’s self-evident failure resulted in returning to a variant of the original plan (i.e. Sistani replacing Chalabi, newly trained army, etc.).

Without getting into exactly which individuals and agencies backed which plan at which time, what you can say is there was clear personal incompetence by Bush, who not only switched camps half-way through, but switched to a plan who’s prerequistes for success were not present. It’s hardly clear to me that the original, untried plan would not have proven a better starting point, at the very least getting us to more or less where we are now, except sooner and at a lower moral and financial cost.



JR 12.05.05 at 12:06 pm

Jim Miller:
In four years, GHW Bush reduced the active-duty army by 161,700 soldiers. Over the next eight years, Clinton reduced it by 128,000, for total cuts of 289,700. Over the same period, with the end of the Cold War, troop levels in Europe were cut by 232,000 and in Japan by 57,000 – a total reduction of 289,000. (Even with these cuts, there are still 69,000 soldiers in Germany and 35,000 in Japan.)

Thus the reduction in the size of the army was entirely balanced by the end of deployments designed to counter the Soviet threat. The size of the army that was deemed sufficient for all other purposes has not been reduced at all.


Jay Conner 12.05.05 at 12:11 pm

Packer was interviewed in Sundays SF Chronicle, and has backed off from the “winnable” quote.

A: The single most doubtful line in the book, and one that I have quoted back to me all the time, is: “The Iraq war was always winnable. It still is.” I wrote that in April of this year. We were coming off the success of the January elections. The violence had subsided quite a bit. It seemed to me that Iraq was becoming a country in which the majority of people wanted to live together under a representative government.

In the six or seven months since then, it has really moved toward civil war. And the election may very well have had a role in it, because the Sunnis locked themselves out and that became a self-fulfilling act. By now, I’m quite grim, and I would not have written that line in the present tense. The armed militias are running the show. The young and the dispossessed and the angry and the religious have become the wave of the future. They’ve been released by the invasion to impose their own vision of Iraq on the country, usually at the point of a gun. It is no longer mostly about an anti-occupation insurgency. That is the short-term battle and in a way the cover and the pretext for the power struggle among Iraq’s major groups.



Brendan 12.05.05 at 12:24 pm

‘now, i’ve heard two principal views regarding victory: first, the installation of a pro-west strong central government and second, the installation of a representative democracy.

the fact that these goals might be internally inconsistent—that a representative democracy might choose to align strongly with iran or might choose civil war over a strong central government—doesn’t seem to be much discussed.’

Yes. This is what I was getting at when I wrote my first post. I accept absolutely that Bush and Blair wanted Iraq to become a democracy.

What I was quibble with was the assumption (which was smuggled in rather than argued for) that any democratic Iraq would therefore necessarily be pro-Western, and would necessarily be secular in the same way that we use the word ‘secular’ in the West. Now of course these assumptions might have held. But the pro-invasion side never even accepted that there was a chance that they might not hold, which is a bit embarassing as neither of them seem to be the case.

And the next question is: what now? Do we actually think that Bush is going to sit back and watch Iraq become a pro-Iranian, theocratic state? To be fair, the initial answer to this, one might think, is ‘yes’. But Bush et al (not to mention their idiotic friends in the ‘pro-invasion left’) still think the threat comes from Al-Qaeda (i.e. Zarqawi) and the Ba’athists, and haven’t woken up to the fact that there is a much bigger and more powerful threat beginning to flex its muscles.

However, eventually the Republicans are going to wake up to the fact that their ‘nation building’ has all gone horrible wrong, and they will have to make a decision. Either

a: Simply accept that the whole thing was a disaster, shrug their shoulders and walk away or

b: Attempt to control things on the ground and minimise Iranian power.

It is obvious that ‘b’ necessitates a long term military presence in the region, and permanent* military bases in Iraq.

So which will it be? American withdrawal, probably leading to civil war and a widening of the conflagration? Or America staying, leading to civil war, a widening of the war, AND a long term battle against not just one but two insurgencies (Sunni and Shia)?

*Or bases that will stay at least until the Iranian threat is ‘dealt with’.


abb1 12.05.05 at 12:26 pm

perhaps the pro-war faction can explain what victory was supposed to look like ex ante, and what victory might look like now.

Exactly. ‘Winnable’, huh. Well, according to Brent Scowcroft:

Cheney, he said, appeared to have been taken with a presentation by Bernard Lewis, an octogenarian Middle East scholar from Princeton University, who had been invited to the White House soon after the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks. According to Scowcroft, Lewis’s message was, “I believe that one of the things you’ve got to do to Arabs is hit them between the eyes with a big stick. They respect power.”

So, this Packer fella is like a mad surgeon looking at a victim of serial killer and thinking: ah, damn it, if only he slashed here and stopped the bleeding, the appendix would’ve come right out…


Brendan 12.05.05 at 12:37 pm

Sorry to bang away at this point but nip over to Harry’s Place where you will see a discussion about Chavez which ends:

‘So Venezuela will have a congress, elected by a fraction of the population, that unanimously supports Chavez.

And some will call this democracy. Perhaps it is– but certainly in name only.

In other words, according to the “pro-democracy left”, a state with a free press, no concentration camps or gulags, and where the President won the last election with 59% of the vote, and the recall election with 60% of the vote….this is NOT a democracy. (Don’t bother to check up what percentage of the electorate voted for Bush and Blair, the result is embarassing).

Iraq, on the other hand, IS a democracy. According to them.

If this doesn’t persuade people that deciding what states are, and are not, ‘democratic’ is at least to a certain extent in the eye of the beholder, then nothing will.


Uncle Kvetch 12.05.05 at 12:43 pm

Anti-war people should read this book

Why is that, exactly? The “incompetence” debate has already been pretty much done to death in the blogosphere, and is about as interesting and relevant at this point as two drunks at a bar discussing whether the Army or the Marine Corps would do a better job of invading Canada.

Speaking strictly for my antiwar self, what really matters at this point is whether Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell et al. will ever be held accountable for leading the country into an unprovoked war of aggression by means of a deliberate campaign of misinformation–possibly the single greatest abuse of power in the history of the United States.

Does Packer get around to the “slam dunk” case for WMDs in his 400+ pages, or would that just get in the way of all the shoulda’s, woulda’s and coulda’s?


Hume's Ghost 12.05.05 at 12:53 pm

I haven’t read the book, but what makes me want to read the book is Packer’s revelation that the planning in Iraq was driven in large part by AEI who would not endorse “nation-building”, aka post-war planning.


soru 12.05.05 at 12:56 pm

perhaps the pro-war faction can explain what victory was supposed to look like ex ante, and what victory might look like now.

I’d turn that question round. As far as I can see, the future could easily hold (as a bare minimum):

1. elected Iraqi government.

2. total or near-total US troop withdrawl.

3. free-market sale of oil.

4. humanitarian situation demonstrably better then under saddam.

5. Al Qaeda regarded as having tried and failed to prevent the above.

Either say what extra goals you think would need be met to qualify as a victory, or say which of the above you regard as impossible or improbable.



Tom Hurka 12.05.05 at 1:01 pm

Yes, The Assassin’s Gate is a great book, but Henry’s original post seems to me in two ways unfair.

First, the book isn’t intended to be a defence of the initial decision to fight the Iraq War. It’s a journalistic book, giving the results of countless interviews and meetings with Iraqis and Americans in Iraq after the war. Had Packer tried to add what Henry wants — an explicit taking up of the anti-war arguments — the result would have been a very different book, one Packer may not have wanted to write and his publisher may not have wanted (or wanted less) to publish.

Second, the book does contain indirect argument for the claim that the Iraq War was winnable, in the form of statements from various Iraqis and Americans, mostly from the first few months after the war (before the insurgency really started, and before Rumsfeld’s and Cheney’s undercutting of their activities became completely apparent), about how optimistic they were about their plans. I had read The Assassin’s Gate when CT did its thread about the Rosenfeld/Iglesias view, and wondered why I should trust the judgement of a couple of guys in armchairs in the U.S. over that of the many people on the ground that Packer interviewed.

One thing Packer does discuss, though, is the alternative strategy Soru mentions. In particular, he quotes Cheney as saying to Colin Powell that if the State Department had just let them send Chalabi in with 5000 trained Iraqi exiles the subsequent troubles would all have been avoided. Packer is pretty scathing about that.

The overwhelming impression one gets from the book is of criminal stupidity on the part of the war’s planners. And it’s not just criminal negligence, as Packer says; it’s worse. Cheney and Rumsfeld not only failed to plan for the postwar, they actively intervened to stop other people from planning, or to make sure the most knowledgeable people couldn’t plan. (One example. Tommy Franks’s predecessor, Anthony Zinni, had started to put together a plan for postwar Iraq. Franks ignored it, but right before the war wanted to phone Zinni up to talk. Someone higher up (Rumsfeld? Cheney?) forbade him to do so.)


bob mcmanus 12.05.05 at 1:23 pm

Yglesias & Rosenfeld’s article goes considerably further than simply refuting the “more troops” crticism. They are claiming the theoretical impossibility, under any concievable circumstances, of an American-forced positive outcome in Iraq. This speaks not only to the specific nature of the challenge in Iraq, but also to more general, perhaps permanent, conditions in the US and the int’l community.

For instance the theoretical impossibility of a draft, even after the US had suffered a massive attack on civilians within its borders. For instance, the lack of military resources available from our allies, and the nearly insurmountable difficulties of forming useful ad-hoc military alliances.

There are implications in the Tapped article that Packer and many in the foreign policy will find very very difficult to acknowledge, and politically difficult to admit. To say that the democratization of Iraq was impossible under current management is one thing; to say it was impossible, given the apparent American resources that might be brought to bear, under any possible management is to propose a revolution in foreign and military policy.


joel turnipseed 12.05.05 at 1:32 pm

Well… I just received Packer’s book in the mail today: can’t wait to jump in.

As to the relative success or failure of the War in Iraq–there was no chance it was going to be successful in the first place (on any non-trivial definition of that term).

I recall a great TNR piece back in, oh, mid-90s when Chalabi started talking up INC (including the afformentioned idea of lending him money and arms for a few thousand man fight) that demolished this idea, including strong words from then active General Anthony Zinni (who was at CENTCOM then–as head?).

More amazingly, books like Max Boot’s ridiculous Savage Wars of Peace made it seem like we had this kind of shit figured out… well: we didn’t and never have. It took us years (including installing concentration camps and killing more than a quarter-million Filipinos) to put down the only insurrection we’ve ever truly defeated. Smedley Butler and Chesty Puller chased Sandino around Nicaragua until we gave up… as we did also in Dominican Republic and Haiti.

As I wrote in in April of 2003: Anyone familiar (even at, as I am, armchair’s length) with how insurrections come about and work–especially the directly-relevant writing of T.E. Lawrence–could have foreseen the current disaster written on the wall in 5-foot type.

Why I expect to enjoy Packer’s book is… I want to know “What the fuck were these guys thinking?” From what I’ve heard, it’s the best explanation thus far.


bob mcmanus 12.05.05 at 1:33 pm

Continuing on 15: One implication, as I understand Y & R, is that most of the projective offensive capability may now be demobilized. Those places, like Darfur, where intervention is both possible and useful, will not require much; and if genocide is occurring in central China no capacity will be adequate.

So we can simply melt down the armored divisions.


ralph 12.05.05 at 2:00 pm

I think it’s important to note up front that until a war is lost, it’s **always** still “winnable”. This is an argument that people shouldn’t get hung up on. Instead, focus on:

1. The question of whether the war could have been avoided and the problems still dealt with.
2. Whether if it couldn’t have been avoided we might have had an actual coalition and compatriots with some legitimacy.
3. Whether the prosecution of the war was incompetent, thus the energy wasted.

My votes: yes, yes, yes. But we’re there now.


luci phyrr 12.05.05 at 2:14 pm

The “incompetence” line has always seemed to be a dodge, IMO.

It allowed fence-sitting, putatively war-supporting, Democratic politicians to criticize the process without addressing the aims. “Look tough” lefties, defy those soft-on-defense criticisms, me-too the national mood of kicking ass, all the while seeming an actual opposition to the war’s architects.

There was always a danger of dems looking like handwringers and nabobs of negativity with this strategy – taking potshots at the policy they fundamentally support.

While it was easy to see that Iraq was not much of a threat (we amateurs did), it’s more difficult to second-guess military strategy and planning. A much higher level of expertise seems to be required for the latter. At least if one wants to appear to be acting in good faith. (Since I haven’t read, and won’t, Packer’s book, maybe that’s wrong – perhaps the mistakes were so glaring that amateurs can see them, or the interviewed experts point them out without the “hindsight” fallacy).

If, as leftie hawks argued, Hussein truly was a genocidal monster, and “cleaning out the Middle East” with the Dominos of Democracy (god help us) is truly better than the alternative, leaving it all alone, then what’s the problem? One hundred thousand dead Iraqis and 2000 dead Americans? That would have to be multiplied almost by a factor of 50 to get to Vietnam levels. The war could be going just fine, for all I know. We’ll have to wait ten years to find out.


Henry 12.05.05 at 2:14 pm

Hi Tom

Don’t your two points – “First, the book isn’t intended to be a defence of the initial decision to fight the Iraq War. ” and “the book does contain indirect argument for the claim that the Iraq War was winnable” run against each other, at least to some extent? I don’t think that I’m reading something into the book that wasn’t there – there is an argument beneath Packer’s kaleidoscope of viewpoints, and it isn’t very difficult to discern. On the “couple of guys in armchairs in the U.S. over that of the many people on the ground that Packer interviewed” point – Rosenfeld and Yglesias are making a pretty straightforward claim. If, in fact, several hundred thousand ground troops were necessary to do this properly, then doing it properly was _ipso facto_ impossible in 2003 – the troops simply weren’t there. And as we’ve seen, the US military apparatus has been stretched to the point of near collapse by maintaining the troop presence that _is_ there. Where would the troops have come from? I don’t think Packer has an answer to this question, but perhaps you can convince me that I’m wrong.


Hume's Ghost 12.05.05 at 2:18 pm

Speaking to the difficulty in winning in Iraq, I assume everyone has seen military historian Martin Van Creveld’s recent column – – in which he writes that invading Iraq was “the most foolish war since Emperor Augustus in 9 B.C sent his legions into Germany and lost them.”


Louis Proyect 12.05.05 at 2:25 pm

I loved Jane Smiley’s letter to commenting on Gary Kamiya’s review of Packer’s book. I knew (but had never read) Smiley as a novelist who adapted King Lear to an Iowa farm, but was not aware of her trenchant opposition to the war in Iraq and to sleaze like Packer.

Gary Kamiya writes, “In a just world, Bush, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rice, Feith and their underlings would be standing before a Senate committee investigating their catastrophic failures, and Packer’s book would be Exhibit A.” No. In a just world, these people would be taken out and shot. As for Packer, and his unwillingness to believe his own eyes, he may not realize or admit it, but there were plenty of antiwar lefties who knew before the war that the Bush team didn’t have a chance. The fact is that the election of 2000 revealed the Bush team for anyone who was willing to look — they were and are cheaters — always willing to use illegality and dishonesty to try to get what they want, and what they want is something for themselves, not for the public interest, whether that public is the American public or the Iraqi public. To a man, they knew nothing about war. The “moral innocence” was theirs. They intended to visit suffering upon some people very far away for their own purposes. Packer and all the pro-war hawks are as corrupt as the neocons are, because they retain some sort of sentimental attachment to their former idealism about whether “war” can be good or bad. A war of independence has to come from those who want to be liberated — many of us “soft” lefties knew that.

The war in Iraq was a cheat from beginning to end. It could not have turned out any differently. The very idea of Packer and Berman and the others sitting in the U.S. and vaporing on about manipulating Iraqi lives and politics is deeply disgusting. Packer may have made some progress toward redemption by writing a good book, but until he admits that he never knew what he was talking about before the war, and that antiwar protesters did know what they were talking about, he is still in the dark hole, and deserves to remain there.


Steve LaBonne 12.05.05 at 2:29 pm

Van Creveld needs to read up on history. Those legions were not lost after being “sent in”, they were the garrison engaged in the normal Roman pacification process after the inital conquest had already been accomplished (Varus, their commander, was the newly appointed governor of Germania). The rebellion led by Arminius was both energized by Varus’s heavy-handed tactics as governor, and enabled by his failure to respond to quite specific warnings about the plot. Unlike Iraq, this may actually be a case where a very obtainable objective was sabotaged by incompetence. So it’s pretty a dicey example to use in the current case.


joel turnipseed 12.05.05 at 2:30 pm

Luci Phyrr,

Actually, it’s true that Iraqi casualties are much, much lower than those suffered by Vietnamese (and Cambodians/Lao). However, if you calculate deaths/number served/period–we’re at about 50% the rate of US fatalities in Iraq as we had in Vietnam, with comparable non-fatal injury rates. So: in absolute terms we’re 1/25 the way there–but the intensity of the conflict is quite comparable indeed.

Henry, on any only slightly-larger military we managed to put 600,000 in theater for the Persian Gulf War. It was a logistical nightmare (one I’m sure the planners remembered well in gearing up for this one), but if you’d really needed to, you could have found Shinseki’s 250K troops. The Marine Corps all but emptied bases like 29 Palms in CA and Cherry Point in NC for the Persian Gulf War. Of course, then you’d have had a lot more people asking a lot more compelling questions about the necessity of this adventure…


abb1 12.05.05 at 2:48 pm

As far as the “What the fuck were these guys thinking?” thing – have you read this one: Baghdad Year Zero?


Anderson 12.05.05 at 2:56 pm

Re: the # of troops, note that even the troops we DID have were ordered to sit on their hands while Baghdad was looted.

Given the almost total lack of planning and foresight, it’s idle to argue that we couldn’t have done better. Whether the war would have been a “success” depends on how you define “success.” But we could’ve left the army in place, installed a governing council, and withdrawn to hastily-built desert bases while leaving the Iraqis to get their shit together.

I can imagine a lot going wrong with that scenario, but it avoids the chaos that everyone (incl. Packer) describes as the first and biggest obstacle to our success, and it forces the Iraqis to take more of a role (doubtless under our direction).


Henry 12.05.05 at 3:29 pm

Joel – this “piece”: by Carter and Glastris suggests that even the 250-300,000 figure was unsustainable. I’ll note happily that I’m not an expert on military deployment by any stretch of the imagination. But I haven’t seen any experts mount a substantial case against this argument yet (will happily receive pointers if there are such expert arguments).


Jon H 12.05.05 at 3:39 pm

Jim Miller writes: “One reason we had fewer troops than some would have liked in 2003 is that President Clinton cut the size of the army”

No, the reason – the only reason – is that Bush failed to institute a large expansion and call-up in the days after 9/11 when it would have been easy to get recruits.

Given that they were already planning a war in Iraq that early, this is inexcusable.

Clinton had nothing to do with it. Anything Clinton did could be undone by Bush with the stroke of a pen.


bob mcmanus 12.05.05 at 3:51 pm

The “impossibility dodge” is going to lead inexorably to nuclear weapons as the foreign policy option of first resort. The peaceniks will be horrified, but after making all other military options politically impossible, they should not be surprised.


joel turnipseed 12.05.05 at 4:17 pm


Insofar as I served in the first Gulf War (and remember quite vividly what a drag it was, logistically), I can assure you that it would have been possible to put 250,000 troops into Iraq. We had 500,000-550,000 in the Gulf for Persian Gulf War and we only lost ~250,000 troops in the interim (including severe draw downs in overseas deployments). So… how did we do it then & not now?

Two big things to remember: we couldn’t sustain our supply line in PGW and even as we failed at doing so (or: barely succeeded, depending on your definition), it took us five months until we could start fighting (six and a half until we could invade).

I have a lot of respect/admiration for Philip Carter (wonder how he’s doing in 101st just now, actually), but I found it very interesting that they talked a lot about our current force disposition and about Vietnam in that piece but now about the much more recent–and actual call up and deployment of half-a-million in the prequel to OIF. As William James once said when asked if he believed in baptism: “Believe it? Madame, I’ve seen it done!”

Now, there’s a different question altogether, which is: could we sustain 250K+ for, say, a five year occupation? Well, if we really drew down Germany/Korea/US bases & we had full domestic support–yeah, we could have done that without a draft. But those are big sacrifices…

Which is to say: It wasn’t impossible to deploy a quarter million troops to Iraq–just very unlikely. The sacrifices it would have demanded, the timetable it would have required, etcetera, would have been too much to ask given the apparent aims of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, et. al. (we would, for instance, have had no reason to deny another six to eight weeks of inspections for WMD, because we would have needed that much time & more just to get the ball rolling).


Steve LaBonne 12.05.05 at 4:20 pm

Bob, that’s true only if your definition of “foreign policy” is “imposition of a Pax Americana by force and/or intimidation”. That may be Cheney’s definition but it’s sure as hell not mine, nor I think that of more than a small slice of the electorate. Most Americans are instinctively isolationists, not imperialists. And the real effect of the Iraq debacle will be seen, when the smoke has cleared, to have been a big boost for isolationism.


soru 12.05.05 at 4:43 pm

Most Americans are instinctively isolationists, not imperialists.

There is absolutely nothing in isolationism that preclues tossing the odd nuke around at countries that annoy you.

Given that right-wingers are unlikely to stop self-identifying as right-wingers, I would imagine that would be a very likely development of conservative populist foreign policy post a ‘vietnam II’ ending for Iraq.

That, and a lot more ‘ok, he’s a tyrant, but he’s a _secular_ tyrant, so he is on our side’.



bob mcmanus 12.05.05 at 4:53 pm

“And the real effect of the Iraq debacle will be seen, when the smoke has cleared, to have been a big boost for isolationism.”

Exactly what I, and Y & R very openly in the article, are afraid of.


roger 12.05.05 at 4:53 pm

Joel makes a good point about the necessary numbers. There are mutual couplings between the numbers and the possible behavior of the occupying troops. That is, it isn’t only numbers, but it is numbers at crucial junctures. For instance, if the CPA had not been filled with delusions of Chalabi, it would have taken a note from its propaganda and tried to process Iraqi soldiers using the same system used in the occupation of Germany — huge prisoner of war camps. And that kind of processing could, theoretically, have resulted in reconstructing an Iraqi army at some point in 2004. But there was no way to do that with the thin spread of the forces in Iraq in 2003. The CPAs disbanding of the army was, in fact, forced by circumstances as well as ideology.

On the other hand, what if the point was to permanently weaken Iraq, thus creating a permanent dependency of America in the Middle East? Which seems to have been the predominant desire of the Pentagon in 2003 and, probably, now.

With the army being squeezed for manpower now, the antiwar movement in this country can apply a unique pressure by continuing to campaign against enlistment. It is easier than campaigning against the draft, and the goal of, say, denying the army one hundred thousand American bodies in 2006 doesn’t seem wholly undoable. The army will break long before the spineless Dems get it together to produce some centrist version of perpetual occupation. And that should be the real focus of the antiwar movement. Power, here, really does come from below, and can be snatched from the D.C. pinheads, who will provide wonderful role models for the “just don’t go” movement, since they and their kids sure as hell don’t want to, and their belligerant spokesman (vide Hitchens) get even more redfaced when this is mentioned.


Barry 12.05.05 at 5:19 pm

Soru: “As I understand it, the pre-war plan was something like ‘put Chalabi in charge, governing through the existing Iraqi army and ministries, and have oil revenues pay for reconstruction’.”

chalabi and his several thousand troops were going to run the country. After stopping the chaos that was ripping it to pieces, which was well underway by mid-summer 2003.


soru 12.05.05 at 5:47 pm

chalabi and his several thousand troops were going to run the country. After stopping the chaos that was ripping it to pieces, which was well underway by mid-summer 2003

I take it you think that that was less plausible, would have worked out worse, than the approach actually tried?



bert 12.05.05 at 6:50 pm

Soru –
Packer’s quite good at demolishing the Chalabi-as-thwarted-saviour line. Check the index under ‘Chalabi, official support of’.


bert 12.05.05 at 6:50 pm

Henry: “Rosenfeld and Yglesias are making a pretty straightforward claim … Where would the troops have come from?”

When Sam & Matt came out with this, I thought others would be struck by a pretty glaring undeclared premise: that all the troops would need to be American. Their back-of-the-beermat calculation rests on this assumption. As does its supposed knock-down demolition of any plausible success scenario in Iraq.

It’s worth taking a look back at the Kosovo campaign. That too went ahead without Security Council cover. It was carried out with plenty of the Joseph Heller-type incompetence you’d expect of a large military undertaking (bombing the Chinese embassy in Belgrade for instance). But it was broadly seen as legitimate, and was further legitimated post facto by its success in achieving a variety of worthy aims. A long and complicated postwar nation-building operation was put in place and continues to this day. US contributions were crucial (air support in particular), but there was no debilitating drain on resources or personnel. By 2000, US forces accounted for only 13% of troops deployed.

Of course Iraq’s a challenge on a different scale. But I think it is wrong to assume as Sam and Matt and Henry do that additional forces deployed there could only ever have been American. Remember that NATO (America’s formal alliance that had succeeded so well in Kosovo) unanimously offered to take part in the Afghanistan campaign. Remember too that this offer was brusquely declined in favour of ad hoc coalitions more in keeping with Washington’s desire for unchallengeable authority in all decision-making.

This should remind us that the argument about troop numbers is only one charge in a long indictment of Bush administration incompetence. The failure to build a strong coalition is another, of equal seriousness.

An administration that among its first acts tore up a biological weapons treaty that had taken twenty years to negotiate was a diplomatic train-wreck from the very beginning. By the time of the crucial decision, the US National Security Strategy was advocating wars to prevent the potential emergence at some point in the future of threats that had not yet become visible. The intention to roll on from Baghdad into Tehran, Damascus, and elsewhere was undisguised. Bush’s supposed decision to “go the UN route” amounted to an ultimatum: underwrite this or face irrelevance. Add to this the fact that the people about to kick over the Muslim anthill were aggressive Christian evangelists.

It’s not surprising that a lot of people were nervous. And it’s not impossible to imagine an Iraq war conceived and managed differently – a war rather closer to the one the Packers and Ignatieffs and others thought they were supporting – that would have been far more successful in rallying support. Note that I’m not saying that a deployment of a genuine coalition with a significant foreign component would have produced the happy results Packer hoped for. I’m saying rather that such a coalition was not unthinkable.

Of course, all this is necessarily counterfactual. But you are treating Sam and Matt’s own counterfactual argument – which holds all other variables constant – as a clincher, when in the end it’s really just playing with numbers.


Thor Likes Pizza 12.05.05 at 6:52 pm

The WPE administration doesn’t want a democracy in Iraq – feel free to use a loose definition of democracy here.

All the WPE folk want in the Mideast is chaos. Thieves flourish amidst chaos.

What entity that brokers power and wealth wants peace in the Middle East? I think none.


MQ 12.05.05 at 7:01 pm

“what liberals need to do now is argue very strongly for the U.S. to remain engaged in a responsible internationalist way around the world.”

This is precisely what we need to argue AGAINST. “Responsible” in the current elite policy language is a code word for “willingness to use military power”. The U.S. needs to develop some much needed humility about our capacities to dominate the rest of the world militarily. We need to let other countries develop their own spheres of influence in their own geographic regions and stop trying to manage every conflict everywhere, or our next case of imperial overstretch will make this one look mild.


rollo 12.05.05 at 7:47 pm

…was clear personal incompetence by Bush…

…whether Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell et al. will ever be held accountable for leading the country into an unprovoked war…

…the relative success or failure of the War in Iraq…

…plenty of antiwar lefties who knew before the war that the Bush team didn’t have a chance…

The unifying theme, even here, is that the publicly stated goals and the official command hierarchy of the Iraq invasion and occupation are where the success or failure lies.
Some of us think the goal all along was to destroy Iraq as a viable independent state, with oil thrown in as lubricant, and democracy nowhere in sight. Competency in that light has a different tinge altogether.
Some of us also believe that it wasn’t Bush and Cheney and Rice and Rumsfeld that convinced the country to back this metastasizing debacle, so much as it was their faces on the screens of our televisions.
Bush wasn’t elected on his merits, he was elected by the media – he was sold to the American people like a piece of merchandise, as was this evil.
Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, Richard Perle etc. may or may not prove to have been incompetent depending on what it was they were trying to achieve by organizing and expediting the invasion of Iraq, but they were certainly responsible to a degree of culpability that makes Smiley’s just-world solution applicable to them, as well.


Steve LaBonne 12.05.05 at 8:48 pm

Bob, it worries me too, but we need to place the blame squarely where it belongs- on the Bush administration and its imperial overreach, not the “peaceniks”.


Tom Hurka 12.05.05 at 9:17 pm

Hi Henry,

My two points about Packer may run a little against each other, but not enough, I think, to cause a problem. One is that P’s book doesn’t do as much as you want it to to defend the war, i.e., doesn’t explicitly address the anti-war arguments. The other is that it does do something to argue that, with more competence, the war could have had a better result. So it doesn’t do everything but does do something — not an inconsistent set of claims.

Re the Rosenfeld and Yglesias argument, their original figure of 500K troops seemed way too high (Shinseki x 2), and people like Packer think troops were needed mainly in the immediate aftermath of the war, to provide the security that so disastrously wasn’t provided. So a long-term high-numbers troop presence wouldn’t on this view have been needed. And couldn’t even a little planning — remember it was all actively blocked by the Defense Department, AEI, Cheney, etc. — have made better use of the troops that were there?

Of course it’s all counterfactuals and very hard to assess. But the claim from the anti-war side that it was all obviously 100% certain in advance to fail is hard to take. Didn’t many of the same people say it was 100% certain in advance that the Afghanistan War would turn into a quagmire, that the Iraq War would involve house-to-house fighting in Baghdad, etc., etc.? Hindsight is 20/20, and I don’t know how many of us would come out with flying colours if all our past confident predictions were compared with what actually happened.


Matthew Yglesias 12.05.05 at 9:33 pm


That’s an interesting point, which has been urged on me by some others. The boring-and-unsatisfying counterargument is that there were actually fewer troops on the table than one might think. Of all the world’s countries, only three maintain a non-trivial number of soldiers designed for prolonged deployment into hostile situations: The United States, the United Kingdom, and France. The US and UK committed to Iraq in the real world. So we’re really talking about fewer a few tens of thousands worth of French troops, not the several hundred thousand additional forces RAND suggested. Besides the “big three” the other NATO countries all have some long-range deployment capabilities, but almost all of those forces have been committed to Afghanistan. Somewhat more were available at the time the war began, but that was because more Americans were in Central Asia than are there now. Japan has a constitutional prohibition on that sort of deployment.

Now what I assume people really want to ask is what if every country had really pulled out all the stops? Germany, Spain, and Italy all have a reasonably large number of people under arms, who, though not intended for this sort of deployment, surely could have been mobilized in a pinch. The little European NATO members add up to more than nothing. Some countries (like Norway, I think) have decent special operations forces who could have helped out. What’s more, many European countries have gendarmerie forces who arguably would have been better-suited to a lot of the urban policing type jobs that Iraq called for. These people aren’t supposed to be used in something like the Iraq War, but they could have been sent had the will been there. For that matter, the American Navy and Air Force have military police, people who guard bases, and other such personnel who could have been repurposed for ground warfare. South Korea has a serious army and probably doesn’t need all of it to deter the DPRK.

For that matter, once you start looking at the developing world there’s a ton of manpower around, albeit of relatively low quality. India, Brazil, etc. If you’d just really flooded the zone with everyone from all around the world who could have been found, maybe that would have made a difference?

And maybe it would. I, at least, wasn’t really trying to make a metaphysical argument. I don’t think counterfactuals in this neighborhood have much of anything to do with actual policy options facing the United States in 2002-2003 so I haven’t tried to come to a firm view about the subject. But I have some doubts. How would a massively multilateral occupation have worked, in practice? What’s more, the underlying issue of inter-communal tensions would have remained? It’s instructive to look at post-war Kosovo, where there are plenty of troops, but also plenty of problems and not the sort of intense administrative issues or three-sided ethnic conflict that you still would have in this hypothetical Iraq. But maybe. As I say, I don’t think this kind of scenario is relevant to any real policy issues, though it’s perhaps interesting to speculate.


dead marine 12.05.05 at 9:46 pm

The administration was lured into Iraq by two false beliefs – 1)military force can solve most problems
2)the invisible hand of the market will solve the rest. For the historical you can read Bacevich’s New American Militarism. He describes how American foreign policy has devolved into a send in the troops mentality. More ancedotally, search all the speeches and statements after 9/11. It was all terrorists thought we were soft because we didn’t hit back and bugged out in Somalia. Both the Harper’s article cited above and several pieces in the Atlantic Monthly describe the administrations “ideas” for reconstruction. My favorite bit was sending all these young Republicans (they had posted resumes at Heritage) to Iraq to staff the CPA irregardless that they did not speak Arabic, had no experience in reconstruction or humanitarian endeavors and knew nothing about Iraq. Iraq was one big teenage republican summer camp.
PS – I am still waiting for my candy and flowers.


bob mcmanus 12.05.05 at 10:58 pm

“Bob, it worries me too, but we need to place the blame squarely where it belongs- on the Bush administration”

I send out my share of hate & blame where it belongs, but I am more worried about actual consequences. 2nd Priority would be shipping a good chunk of the Republican Party off to the Hague for trial.

1st Priority is trying to fix a mess, and prevent catstrophe.


ed_finnerty 12.05.05 at 11:07 pm

I would argue a modified “chaos in the middle east” objective. Chaos in the middle east would only achieve the objective if it included chaos in Iran. I think you have to extend the thinking to how the Iraq invasion could be used to disrupt Iran. The obvious first step is to have “coalition” forces next door with the continuing threat they posed. I think that the next step following the successful invasion was to create a allied force of iraquis led by the US to invade Iran.

It seems unlikely to come to fruition now.


dr ngo 12.06.05 at 12:05 am

It took us years (including installing concentration camps and killing more than a quarter-million Filipinos) to put down the only insurrection we’ve ever truly defeated.

Not exactly correct on the Philippine-American War, though I’m not sure it affects your larger point. However, in the interests of greater precision:

The only insurrection we’ve defeated? OK, if you mean “as principal combatants,” though the suppression of the Huk movement in the Philippines, by the Philippine government with US aid/advice, in the early 1950s, is also generally counted as successful.

Years? Yes, definitely. 1899 to 1902 at the earliest, much later if you count resistance in outlying provinces.

Concentration camps? OK, but only in the turn of the (20th) century sense, also used in the Boer War, i.e., a restricted area within the countryside to which all non-combatants were forcibly confined (“reconcentrated”). Not very nice, but NOT to be confused with the killing camps the Nazis created.

“killing more than a quarter-million Filipinos.” Not really. If we limit “killing” to shooting, bayoneting, or other direct causes of death by American troops, the numbers would have been in the tens of thousands at most. (We actually have “body counts” for much of the conflict, emanating from military units that were not shy about what they were doing.)

Indirectly, it’s an enormously complicated question, one I’ve been looking at (off and on) for over thirty years. The years 1896-1905 were very bad ones for the Philippines, as documented most extensively by Ken DeBevoise, Agents of Apocalypse (Princeton UP). “Excess mortality” over this decade ran well over half a million people. But most of them died of epidemic diseases (particularly cholera and smallpox), and the initial rise in mortality precedes the American invasion by almost two years, and continues for as long after most of the fighting was over.

The coming of the Americans made the situation worse in a number of ways: by the introduction of new disease vectors (including STDs), by the hunger that accompanied warfare (and the destruction of water buffalo, essential for rice cultivation) in some provinces — but by no means all –, by the increased transmission of infections through population movement in response to war, including “reconcentration.”

But DeBevoise, who started out looking for the number of deaths he could attribute to the Americans, ended up wisely refusing to estimate the total. The US certainly did not “kill” anything like a quarter of a million Filipinos. It was responsible, indirectly and/ or partially, for further deaths in considerable number, but this number is not known, or even estimated, by those who have studied the documents most closely.

This being said, it is certainly reasonable to condemn the US occuaption of the Philippines as brutal without attaching a number to it, and, as noted above, there’s little in the whole event that is encouraging for present-day strategies and scenarios.


Peter 12.06.05 at 12:40 am

so perhaps a historian or two could comment on the fundamental differences between those societies and Iraq and on the criteria leading to the successful nature of those occupations. Japan was ruled by their emperor, who was perceived as God. If the emperor told you to kill yourself, you did. When the emperor said to surrender, the Japanese people did. The German people were also quite obedient: kill jews, they did; surrender, they did. The Arab world is pretty much ruled by negotiation, bribery and force. If the leader says surrender, no one listens, because he lost his mojo, and the immediate consequences become a power struggle to install a new leader.We still have troops in Japan and Germany. If we were to pull our troops out of Japan, there would be a massive military build up in every country in the region. There are still people alive who remember the death camps and atrocities committed by the Japanese. Even 60 years after the war was over, we have to keep troops garrisoned in Japan. Nanking anyone? Harbin anyone? The Chinese dig up chemical and biological weapons buried by the Imperial Army every year.It is my opinion that peace will involve hanging vast numbers of republicans from street lights. And if I have to pay higher taxes to cover the costs of installing more street lights, then that is a burden I will just have to bear.


joel turnipseed 12.06.05 at 12:41 am

Dr Ngo,

I stand, if not corrected, “clarified.” Yes, combat casualties for Filipino soldiers were something like 20-40K. I was including the “indirect” casualties as a result of the occupation, a number you don’t necessarily deny, but rightfully complicate (analogy to Iraq war would be Lancet report talked about so often on CT, elsewhere). As for concentration camps–I’ll just throw it up for discussion as to whether or not CT’ers would call them such if we rounded up all military-age men in Iraq (or elsewhere) and shot them on sight if they left their camps without permission (for that matter, not all Nazi concentration camps were dedicated to the Final Solution, and preceded this by a decade or so).

[also–send me an e-mail: we could have an interesting discussion. I’m writing a book about US military interventions 1898-1934 and my wife is Filipino: her grandfather-mayor of Cavite-was hanged in a notorious incident during US occupation of PI]


soru 12.06.05 at 6:18 am

Packer’s quite good at demolishing the Chalabi-as-thwarted-saviour line..

I think that falls under ‘he would say that, wouldn’t he’.

At the moment, one group of people are writing their memoirs, and another, led by Khalilzad, are in Iraq running things on a variant of the original ‘chalabi plan’ – i.e. accomodation with both Iran ( and the ‘powers that be’ in the new Iraq (i.e. the Shi’a and tribal militia).

This is all very similar to what happened in Kurdistan, in Afghanistan (before the recent War on Drugs push, at least), in Basra, and, if you want to go back in history far enough, the American revolutionary war. The french didn’t say ‘ok, 5,000 troops here, 3,000 there, …, that makes 500,000. We have 50,000. Ah well, lets give it the old college try, maybe things will work out’. They said ‘ok, our enemy is defeated, our ships are this way, if you need any more help contact us at the embassy. Ok, as you asked, that guy Washington looks like he knows how to run a country…’.

Some people regard it as self-evident that a plan like the one executed in Afghanistan will fail, or have a definition of success that couldn’t have been reached by a plan like that (e.g. permanent military base, sweetheart oil deals, etc).

Such people have an obvious self-interest to push that view, to make it look somehow worse than the whole ‘send troops into Fallujah to make friends with the locals’ plan they replaced it with.



abb1 12.06.05 at 7:57 am

Re: Chalabi.
It’s been done before, actually. For example, according to Michael Kinsley:

…Half a century ago in Iran, a CIA agent shut his eyes, opened the Tehran phone book at random, and chose a family named Pahlevi. (Warning: slight exaggeration.) Before you could say “your majesty,” the second so-called shah of Iran had convinced himself that his monarchy dated back thousands of years…

The difference is that we are in the post-colonial period.


Barry 12.06.05 at 8:34 am

“1st Priority is trying to fix a mess, and prevent catstrophe.”

Posted by bob mcmanus

I agree. However, since the people who started the mess, and continued it, are still in charge, you can forget about fixing things until Jan, 2009, at the earliest.


Brendan 12.06.05 at 10:23 am

‘Some people regard it as self-evident that a plan like the one executed in Afghanistan will fail, or have a definition of success that couldn’t have been reached by a plan like that (e.g. permanent military base, sweetheart oil deals, etc).

Such people have an obvious self-interest to push that view, to make it look somehow worse than the whole ‘send troops into Fallujah to make friends with the locals’ plan they replaced it with.’

Right so are you arguing (along with Christopher Hitchens) that the Chalabi-Neoconservative plan was a good one before it got spoiled by the Communists and Islamo-fascists of the CIA and the armed forces?

And are you going on to argue that Iraqi ‘accommodation’ with Iran is actually a good thing?


Jim Miller 12.06.05 at 10:48 am

If “jr” will read my comment carefully, he will see that we do not disagree. I said that President H. W. Bush cut the size of the army, and that President Clinton cut it further. I am amused, though “jr” does not seem to be, that some who say they wanted a larger force in Iraq supported both cuts.

And “jon h” seems to think that raw recruits can be turned into soldiers and officers instantly. I urge him to read any good history of our involvement in World War II, or the Civil War, for that matter.

As it happens, I favored a small expansion of the army after 9/11, but have now changed my mind. I think we are faced with a 100 year war and that it is best fought with a small, and very profesional army. (And I think the war will be longer and far more costly if we follow the policies popular at Crooked Timber.)

Perhaps I was too indirect in my argument in the original comment. So let me more direct. Many of the politicians who say the Bush administration should have sent more troops to Iraq also favored cutting the army as Presdent Clinton promised to do in 1992 — and then did. I can understand why those politicians would rather forget that inconvenient fact, but I don’t see why honest people should.


Barry 12.06.05 at 11:27 am

Jim, you might want to notice the fact that the administration’s plans were not constrained by the total size of US forces available, but rather by their delusions.


soru 12.06.05 at 11:44 am

And are you going on to argue that Iraqi ‘accommodation’ with Iran is actually a good thing?

Wouldn’t say it was a particularly good or bad thing, just a more or less inevitable one.

Certainly, I see no justification for all the blood and treasure that was expended trying to prevent it.

Maybe you disagree?



Adam Kotsko 12.06.05 at 11:57 am

Am I the only one who sees the obvious implication of Packer’s argument? The Chinese should have been brought onboard from day one. Only the assistance of China’s overwhelming manpower could have secured the conditions under which Iraq could have become a stable democracy.


MQ 12.06.05 at 11:59 am

Jim: Bush had 18 months after 9/11 (not to mention almost a year before it) to increase the size of the Army for an Iraq invasion. He didn’t because he didn’t want to spend that kind of political capital for a war of choice, and was fooled by various neocon and Rumsfeldian fantasies. He didn’t even draw on all the troops he had available. 18 months is plenty of time to expand an army, as every other previous war in American and European history shows.

I await your attempts to tie our defeat in Iraq to Clinton’s propensity for extramarital sex. Surely there’s a connection.


Ray 12.06.05 at 11:59 am

You know, soru, the war that you seem to think was winnable bears very little relation to any war that the US government in 2003 could plausibly have fought. “Go in, remove Saddam, leave” was nobody’s plan.


Barry 12.06.05 at 12:09 pm

Adding to mq’s post – Bush and Rumsfield also had that time, and massive political power, to equip the Army for the job that they had in mind. And they didn’t do that, in Rumsfield’s case, because it might hamper his precious ‘transformation’.


roger 12.06.05 at 12:18 pm

Soru, I rarely agree with you, but this time I definitely think you are right. Regardless of how we got into Iraq, getting out is going to require dealing with the fact that we aren’t changing the present government of Iran. Detente with Iran through the Iran-leaning government of Iraq could actually lead to a more stable Middle East. The Republican congress tied Clinton’s hands behind his back, so that he had to continue a dual containment policy that he knew was stupid — according to the bitter memoirs of his ex FBI head, Clinton really wanted better relations with Iran in 1998. Now the situation is much worse, but the reality remains — the U.S., a limited power, has to make more compromises, now, to achieve any gain in the Middle East than it would have in 1998, due to the proof that America is pretty much a paper tiger, willing to countenance the set up of a semi-terrorist, semi-state organization in Pakistan of the very group that attacked it, willing to allow the set up of a Taliban like theocracy in Southern Iraq, and the like. The end result of Bush’s policy has resulted in diminished American power, for good and ill.


Brendan 12.06.05 at 12:54 pm

‘Maybe you disagree?’

My position is that if the Iraqi people vote for an Iranian leaning government in a free and democratic election then I just have to deal with that. That’s what democracy is all about (in the same way that if the Palestinians want to vote in Hamas, the Egyptians want to vote in the Muslim Brotherhood, or even, God help us, if the Americans want to vote in George Bush, then I just have to deal with that, too).

I just think it’s slightly strange that people who were, only a few years ago, running screaming through the streets at midnight, shouting ‘The Islamo-fascists are coming! The Islamo-fascists are coming!’ (metaphorically speaking) now seem to be pretty sanguine about ‘Islamo-fascists’ coming to power in large chunks of Iraq.

But maybe you disagree?


Bro. Bartleby 12.06.05 at 1:12 pm

“As for concentration camps—I’ll just throw it up for discussion as to whether or not CT’ers would call them such if we rounded up all military-age men in Iraq (or elsewhere) and shot them on sight if they left their camps without permission…”

Words, we love to hold onto their original definitions, yet like children, they grow up and either leave home, or run away from home. “Concentration camp” I do believe has run away from home. Yes, prior to the constructs of Heinrich Himmler, I think we could all agree with the general definition of CC, but after the gates were thrown open and Eisenhower got his first look, CC took on a whole new meaning. Now the term can be used descriptively or propagandistically. Today we find reference to the American concentration camps, previously called the Internment camps. I’ve know many who were interned in those camps, and as unjust as the internment was, I know not one internee who would compare Manzanar with say, Auschwitz. But here we are, with another word that has run away from home, lost its original meaning, and with nothing to replace it with … expect to cobble a few adjectives onto it.
Bro. Bartleby


soru 12.06.05 at 4:15 pm

But maybe you disagree?

I certainly disagree with anyone who uses ‘islamofascist’ as a synonym for ‘muslim I wouldn’t vote for’.



bert 12.06.05 at 4:17 pm

Just got in from work – very good to find a response from you.

I think most would agree that the problem of insufficient troops bit hardest not in the destruction of Saddam’s regime (in which one would want to deploy serious battle-ready forces like the French ones you refer to) but in the postwar chaos that followed. Look again at the testimony you hear time and again from people who were actually there: the collapse of law and order that followed the collapse of the regime was a crucial turning point. And America failed that test for two reasons: one, insufficient troops; two, nonexistent orders for those insufficient troops.

Instead of the grim and familiar reality, how’s this for a hypothetical: take a list of strategic sites, outside each put some blue-helmeted soldiers from a third-world country in a couple of armoured cars, and give them some very simple rules of engagement. Would that have made a difference?

I think it might have made all the difference, but who can ever say for sure?
Anyway, you’re gracious to concede that there were some, and possibly a lot, more troops there to be had from other countries. What stopped them from being deployed where they might have done some good? We could talk about a number of reasons. We might blame an instinct for self-preservation on the part of America’s potential allies. Countries that might have taken part stood aloof, either because the far-reaching transformations being so zealously preached by administration insiders posed a threat to comfortable status quos, or because the flaky weirdness of Bushworld – its odd enthusiasms, strident nationalism, internal feuds and moral posturings – deterred closer involvement. Yet the principal reason was internal to Washington, and was very much a real policy issue in 2002-3. Rumsfeld was fighting a bureaucratic war to transform the military, in which he made many enemies among the top professional officers. A crucial strategic battle in this war was fought around the question of the correct troop strength to deploy in Iraq. For Rumsfeld, a small deployment was an article of faith, independent of Iraqi realities. (Packer is good on this, but if you prefer not to take it from a liberal hawk, you’ll remember Sy Hersh’s chapter on “tip-fiddle” in Chain of Command.) Allies were a potentially damaging distraction – it was Rumsfeld who publicly offered to cut Tony Blair loose at his time of maximum prewar discomfort.

So, there is plenty of scope to bemoan the incompetence of policymakers in the Iraq war, and plenty of reason to conclude that significantly greater troop numbers – not all of them necessarily American – could have been deployed to beneficial effect, especially in the crucial days immediately after the fall of the regime.


Luc 12.07.05 at 5:53 am

As I remember the troop strength issue, it has wider roots than just the numbers.

Before the war, the US position was that the US forces shouldn’t do peace keeping and nation building, but provide the thing that they are good at, that is fighting capabilities.

Allies, and less competent armies, should be relied on to do peace keeping and if necessary, nation building.

As an example, when before the war the Dutch took the position of supporting the war politically but not militarily, the US didn’t think of that any less than full support.

That caused the Dutch government some discomfort when a Nato observer who happened to be Dutch was called on stage at a press conference in Kuwait. He was referred to as part of the coalition. As the Dutch government sold its position locally as not giving military support for the war, that caused some fuss.

After the war, the US did need coalition forces and asked for them. And in the beginning there was reasonable support. The Dutch did deliver, as did many other countries.

But it all went south anyway and many coalition partners left, leaving the US with the task of peace keeping and nation building.

This unlike Kosovo, where US forces are just a minority, and Afghanistan, where NATO forces fulfill a substantial task.


Heater 12.07.05 at 1:39 pm

Ah, Drum. Here are some (probably not very original) observations on Drum. Drum fascinates me.

I read his stuff once every.. few months or so, and one thing has always struck me about him: He seems to respect directness, no-nonsense attitudes, practicality, pragmatism, and such.. all good things. The only problem is that he’s completely unable to distinguish between pragmatism, on the one hand, and the *occasional* symptoms of pragmatism, on the other: The fact that, occasionally, when a pragmatic (or utilitarian) decision is made, some people get hurt, and bombs go off, does not *identify* pragmatism with people getting hurt. The “tough” decision is not always pragmatic.

And just for fun, here’s another observation: Being “in the center” does not always mean being “more reasonable”. For instance, teaching *both* ID and evolution in biology class is “centrist”, but not reasonable. Old Drum tends to confuse these two things very often. I love Drum.

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