Why the Iraq Fiasco Means We Must Support My Politics

by Henry on August 3, 2006

“Alex Tabarrok”:http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2006/08/fiasco.html

bq. In Fiasco Thomas Ricks’ says the war on Iraq and subsequent occupation was ill-conceived, incompetently planned and poorly executed. I have no quarrel with that. What dismays me is that anyone expected any different. All wars are full of incompetence, mendacity, fear, and lies. War is big government, authoritarianism, central planning, command and control, and bureaucracy in its most naked form and on the largest scale. The Pentagon is the Post Office with nuclear weapons. If this war has been worse on these scores than others, _and I have my doubts_, we can at least be thankful that the scale of death and destruction has been smaller. At the Battle of the Somme there were a million casualties and 300,000 deaths over the course of a few months. If we remember previous wars more fondly this is only because those wars we won. Incompetent planning and poor execution are not fatal so long as the other side plans and executes yet more incompetently. Is this a suggestion to put the current war in context? Not at all. It is suggestion to put government in context.

This is not a good argument. That the massive bureaucracies of war involve waste and duplication is undeniable (although history doesn’t give us any reason whatsoever to believe that markets would do a better job). But to say that the incompetence with which the Iraq war was conducted was simply business as usual is not only to get Rumsfeld _et al._ off the hook for the quite specifically personal incompetence that they displayed and are still displaying. It’s to make a general claim that can’t be supported using the evidence that you claim is supporting it. An incompetently conducted war does not a general case against government make. Indeed, if you wanted to make a polemic case for a strong state and _against_ market reforms, you could quite easily use post-war Iraq as an example of how “massive contracting-out of military work to private actors”:http://www.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,3604,1103566,00.html, “mass demobilization of an army”:http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A63423-2003Nov19?language=printer and “privatization and free trade”:http://www.harpers.org/BaghdadYearZero.html lead inevitably to political disaster. Not that I believe the Iraq experience actually supports so sweeping a claim – while the decisions in question all were bad ones in the context of post-war Iraq, this context is not generalizable. The argument that post-war Iraq demonstrates the badness of privatization everywhere would be a very poor argument indeed. But then, so is the argument that the Iraq war demonstrates the badness of government everywhere.

{ 55 comments }

1

Matt 08.03.06 at 9:57 am

And what is it that libertarians have against the post office? The post office is great! Imagine any other place that does as well, for everyone, for as little. Whenever I hear someone start talking about how we should get rid of the post office I know I’m in nut-land and stop listening.

2

Uncle Kvetch 08.03.06 at 10:04 am

I’m confident that Tabarrok will follow his schmibertarian impulses to their logical conclusion, and call on his fellow schmibertarians to demand better accountability from the Pentagon, with an eye to getting our ridiculously bloated defense budget under control.

Right?

3

John I 08.03.06 at 10:04 am

I’ll step up to defend the Post Office. The modern US postal service has a pretty amazing set of metrics by which it judges it’s success – percent of items delivered on time, average time to delivery, cost per delivery, etc. These measures are generally in line with what the customer wants, and postal service satisfaction rates have gone way up in recent years.

The trouble with Rumsfeld and the private-sector army he enables, is that their metrics – which I’m sure Rumsfeld keeps a close eye on – are not measuring success in terms of US or Iraqi strategic interests, but rather in terms of what’s good for the army and the mighty Military Industrial Complex corporate juggernaut.

I’m sure the top dials on Rumsfeld’s dashboard are things like number of sorties, number of humvees ordered, number of high-dollar weapons systems employed, number of “reconstruction” contracts going to well-connected US firms, etc.

Waaay down on the list would be things like recuiting goals met, electricity or running water production, US casualties, iraqi units “trained.”

Completely missing are measures on the reduction of sectarian killings, number of sectors handed over to iraqi military/police with reduced continued violence, let alone iraqi casualties or “customer satisfaction” i.e. US or Iraqi public opinion.

I’m sure in Rummy’s mind this is a truly raging success according to the measures that matter to him and his cronies. Unfortunately they gots nothing to do with what matters to the overall interests of the US and Iraqi people.

4

SamChevre 08.03.06 at 10:19 am

The Post Office isn’t bad.

But–everyone I know who has actually participated in a war will say that the Iraq War is no more incompetently conducted than Viet Nam, or WWII. (Remember–more Americans died on Omaha Beach than have so far died in the Iraq War–and Omaha Beach was an intelligence failure.) Sure–we eventually won WWII, and forgot all the screw-ups–but the mistakes killed hundreds of thousands.

5

Steve LaBonne 08.03.06 at 10:42 am

6

Barry 08.03.06 at 10:45 am

Economics is not an academic discipline, it’s a political discipline. If this were about any other agency of the US government, you know that a ‘libertarian’ econ professor would have mentioned incentives and corruption (well, if the officials were Democrats). He would compare the situation vs what the market had done in similar situations.

But when it’s the Pentagon, and GOP officials, it’s just a story of general failure, no names need be given.

7

Marc Mulholland 08.03.06 at 10:55 am

The ‘decent’ Anti-Decent position on the Iraq invasion (The Anti-This War Now Left – ATWN) has never struck me as very convincing. A war of choice can only be supported, assuming it is essentially in a just cause, if there is an excellent chance of its effect being benign. If the margin of error is so slight that the entire project self-destructs because one broadly middle-of-road administration conducts the war rather than another broadly middle-of-the-road administration – the real difference between Republican and Democrat governments on any historical continuum – then the war is not a good idea at all. The implication that all would have been fine and dandy if Clinton, Gore, Powell or the Von Mises Institute had organised the Occupation just seems to me to be so fine a web of supposition that it cannot be substantiated.

It’s an irony that a version of ATWN is being adopted by Tabbarok, Hitchens et al as an apologia for their crashing error in supporting the war. My own crashing error, I put down to my ignorance, not marginal policy decisions on de-Baathification or whatever.

8

tps12 08.03.06 at 11:01 am

What everyone else said…the USPS is my favorite example of a government program done right.

9

Antti Nannimus 08.03.06 at 11:17 am

Hi,

Regarding the U.S. Postal Service, it is a continuous miracle that in this day and age, we can reliably have a parcel PHYSICALLY delivered, within a few days, from our own personal addresses, across thousands of miles, to ANY other address in the U.S. for mere pennies per transaction! What other business provides such great value?

War, on the other hand, is collective insanity that delivers nothing of value. Efforts to analyze it rationally are almost equally daft. Comparing the outcome values of the U.S. military to the value of the USPS is simply absurd.

Have a nice day,
Antti

10

roger 08.03.06 at 11:17 am

I do think that Iraq provides arguments against the way privatization is conceived and implemented by doctrinaire free marketeers. In fact, the war has taken place against the background of the classic neo-liberal pattern — a boom in consumer goods and debts, which was the first phase of privatization in Iraq as well as Mexico under Salinas or Argentina in the 90s, followed by the de-structuring of all vehicles that might forward counter-cyclical economic policies, followed by a crash. In Iraq, these things simply fed into another sub-set of privatization sequences, such as occured in Russia in the 90s — the subordination of much of the economy to rent-seeking corruption on the part of private enterprises. The famed hospital in Basra, about which the NYT recently wrote, is a great example of this — first you get the state out of directly building hospitals, then you get the state out of regulating building hospitals, then you have expensive and never finished hospitals. Voila — privatization at work.

11

minerva 08.03.06 at 11:32 am

Who remembers wars fondly??? Oh, yes WWII. I remember it fondly! The almost half a million dead in the battle of Normandy, the bombing of Dresden, the screaming, the smell of burning human flesh. Ah, the memories.

I wonder how he imagines a country would defend itself without any sort of central control? What the need for central control in war might show is that any society who lacks the ability to make decisions collectively will be very disadvantaged when faced with one that has such an ability.

Or perhaps the insurgents are the libertarian ideal for military engagement. It’s true, they probably do lack a bureaucracy. Constant armed sectarian clashes. Now, there’s true freedom!

12

Anderson 08.03.06 at 11:51 am

The Cunning Realist has a telling illustration of why Rumsfeld is a walking advert for accountability, private-sector style.

I mean, if his report to Congress were being made to stockholders, he’d end up in Martha Stewart’s old cell, for a longer stay. But since he’s lying only to the Congress and its constituents, it’s okay.

13

John I 08.03.06 at 11:52 am

“Who remembers wars fondly?” – Those who don’t fight in them. Most veterans of WWII spent the majority of their lives not discussing what went on over there, and it’s only in the past few years that memoirs and taped rememberances are coming out. There’s no fondness there.

And as to the libertarian ideal being insurgents, I don’t think the righties see them that way. Their frame of top-down thinking influences how they see insurgents in Iraq and Hizbollah fighters in Lebanon – It’s always an emphasis on taking out Zarqawi or Nasrallah, or getting Syria to “stop this Shizzle” – as if Syria could. I don’t think modern conservitive libertarians truly understand the cellular nature of 4g warfare, which is one of the (many) reasons they won’t win.

14

abb1 08.03.06 at 11:54 am

Here’s a great Naomi Klein’s piece about the Iraq fiasco and the role right-libertarianism played in it: Baghdad Year Zero. Pillaging Iraq in pursuit of a neocon utopia.

15

Gene O'Grady 08.03.06 at 12:22 pm

Agreeing with #13 and moving beyond — my father, naval veteran with Purple Heart and ugly memories of which he seldom spoke, certainly didn’t remember World War II “fondly.” He did, however, always speak with the greatest respect for his theatre commander, Chester Nimitz, and the overall management of the war. My mother, who saw the war upclose from Naval Intelligence in Washington, always speaks with respect of Eisenhower’s leadership — even though she twice enthusiastically voted against the guy.

And good management makes a difference in wars. Compare Eisenhower’s quick response, immediate commitment of his reserve airborne divisions, and shift in Patton’s line of advance, as well as the overall allied command and control, in the Battle of the Bulge with the German mismanagement of their reserves, inadequate transport allocations, and inflexibility in the same battle.

16

Peter Levine 08.03.06 at 12:31 pm

Alex Tabarrok happens to be a libertarian, and libertarians want to generalize from the fiasco of the Iraq war to all aspects of government. That is a stretch. But I think it’s worth considering that governments may be systematically prone to failure in the national security area, because they monopolize information; they have the capacity to use instant, deadly force; they operate overseas, out of contact with American citizens; and their decision-making process is massively centralized, with no public deliberation (even if they privatize some functions).

These are not arguments against government–only reasons to resist all ambitious and discretionary uses of military force, regardless of whether Bush & Rumsfeld or someone much better is in charge.

17

Alex Tabarrok 08.03.06 at 1:07 pm

My argument was not that the fiasco of the war proves that government is incompetent. I already know the government is incompetent. The fiasco of the war is simply another instance of the general principle.

My argument was addressed in particular to libertarians and conservatives who accept the government’s incompetence and mendacity in other areas but who blithely accept that the government will “defend” us. I do not trust the government to run the lives of American citizens where at least we have checks and balances – of course, I don’t trust the government to run the lives of Iraqi’s.

To answer Uncle Kvetch, yes, the logic of the argument suggests that the Pentagon budget is bloated and should be cut back. And Henry I don’t think that markets would necessarily run wars better I simply want fewer wars – peace, free trade and comity among all nations.

Liberals, however, should use the war to adjust their priors. It is a mistake to simply blame a few people like Bush or Cheney. (Fiasco in fact shows that the rot was much deeper.) Instead you should look for deeper principles that might explain this and many other instances.

18

Uncle Kvetch 08.03.06 at 1:14 pm

To answer Uncle Kvetch, yes, the logic of the argument suggests that the Pentagon budget is bloated and should be cut back.

Then I will happily concede that my snark was misplaced.

19

eweininger 08.03.06 at 1:23 pm

Alex–would you consider the first Gulf War to have been carried out with incomepetence and mendacity that equal this one?

20

Alex Tabarrok 08.03.06 at 1:32 pm

I don’t want to get into a debate about which war was the most incompentently run – we have plenty to choose from – but obviously the fact that we are back there again suggests that the first Iraq war was a massive failure. We could go back even earlier and talk about how we armed Saddam, gave him the go ahead on Kuwait(perhaps inadvertently), killed many innocents, failed to support the uprising in the South when we could have. Yeah, now that I think about it that war was a fiasco also.

21

Spoon 08.03.06 at 1:33 pm

Besides being a bad argument, it’s also bad grammar. The misplaced apostrophe (and lack of a comma after Fiasco) left me completely confused.

22

P O'Neill 08.03.06 at 1:38 pm

There was a liberalised market in ideas prior to the Gulf War — the best WMD spin that money could buy. And look where that got us.

23

Slocum 08.03.06 at 1:44 pm

No, it’s not a good argument. The Post Office works pretty well, and the problems in Iraq derive not from bureacratic failures of the military but from political decisions. I’d say that as in Afghanistan and the first Gulf War, the military did what it was designed to do brilliantly and efficiently.

24

Henry 08.03.06 at 1:51 pm

bq. I don’t want to get into a debate about which war was the most incompentently run – we have plenty to choose from – but obviously the fact that we are back there again suggests that the first Iraq war was a massive failure. We could go back even earlier and talk about how we armed Saddam, gave him the go ahead on Kuwait(perhaps inadvertently), killed many innocents, failed to support the uprising in the South when we could have. Yeah, now that I think about it that war was a fiasco also.

But Alex in what way, exactly, are you claiming that the pathologies of state organization responsible for the fiasco of the first Iraq war? It still seems to me as though you’re folding together two very different things. First – the fact that massive bureaucracies do inevitably involve inefficiencies and screw-ups (the implication in your argument that one bureaucracy is more or less as bad as another seems to me to be baldly wrong; but perhaps that’s the experience of having lived in Italy for three years). This is a broad Hayekian-liberal argument against the state; way overbroad as I’ve just said (in that it fails to distinguish _between_ bureaucracies), but anyway. Second, the very specific bad decisions in this war of going in without enough troops, failing to take account of Iraqi politics etc, and in the first Iraq war and previous decade of arming Saddam etc. I don’t see how the latter are connected to the former, and you don’t offer any arguments to demonstrate same, besides some exceedingly general judgments about the awfulness of the Post Office. Bad decisions may come about because of bureaucratic mismanagement – but they may come about for other reasons too. At the moment, your argument seems to be no more than “states are bad and bureaucratic, so no wonder wars are screwed up” which fails completely in my view to identify the ways in which (a)some pathologies of the recent war can’t be traced back to state-planning type concerns, and (b) how some bureaucracies are in fact, considerably more successful than others in conducting wars and indeed other policies.

To put it another way – if I had made similar arguments to yours but aimed them at making a broad claim about the general pathologies of markets, would you have found this mode of argument convincing? I suspect not – and for the reasons that I’m not finding your arguments at all convincing here.

25

Alex Tabarrok 08.03.06 at 1:53 pm

It’s a government failure and not just a Pentagon failure but do note that Fiasco argues that the Pentagon did fail badly. Quoting the review from the Wash. Post.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/07/27/AR2006072700958.html

With devastating detail, Ricks documents how U.S. generals misunderstood the problems they faced in Iraq and shows how poorly prepared the Army was for the unanticipated danger of a postwar Sunni rebellion. For ignoring the risks of an insurgency after Saddam Hussein’s fall, Gen. Tommy Franks, the head of U.S. Central Command, “flunks strategy,” Ricks writes; the war’s commanding general designed “perhaps the worst war plan in American history.” Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the invasion, and his deputy, Gen. Peter Pace (who’s since been promoted to take Myers’s old job), come off as smiling yes-men who went along with amateurish impulses from the Bush administration’s political leadership and who forsook their duty to offer detached, professional judgments, acting instead as administration flacks in both private and public.

26

Barry 08.03.06 at 1:54 pm

Posted by SamChevre : “But—everyone I know who has actually participated in a war will say that the Iraq War is no more incompetently conducted than Viet Nam, or WWII. (Remember—more Americans died on Omaha Beach than have so far died in the Iraq War—and Omaha Beach was an intelligence failure.) Sure—we eventually won WWII, and forgot all the screw-ups—but the mistakes killed hundreds of thousands.”

Which goes to show only that the people you talk with are historically ignorant. We (the USA) had people killed in WWII due to inadequate equipment, but frequently it was because we were trying to build things that we hadn’t built before, and to build them in vast quantities.

Many soldiers died in Iraq because the Bush administration didn’t listen to anybody who knew their *sshole from a hole in the ground, and didn’t feel like actually properly preparing for a real war.

One example – in WWII, preparations for the post-war occupation of Germany began in 1943; the first units scheduled for the invasion of German were arriving in England, to commence training, in 1943. In the Iraq War, preparations for the occupation began (IIRC), in Jan/Feb 2003 (!!!), as the units in Kuwait were kicking off the invasion. That’s not to say that *competant* preparations for the the occupation of Iraq were being made, because they never were.

And, since we now know that the war was a ‘go’ from before the last survivor was pulled out of the rubble of the World Trade Center, it’s not like they didn’t have time to prepare; they just didn’t feel like it.

27

Barry 08.03.06 at 1:55 pm

BTW, Henry, I hadn’t read the title of the post at first; you said everything that needed to be said with that.

28

Barry 08.03.06 at 2:02 pm

Alex Tabarrok : “IIt’s a government failure and not just a Pentagon failure…”

Alex, it’s a failure of the leadership of the Pentagon (i.e., Rumsfield and his scum), the Bush Administration, and the GOP Congress. The rest of the government was kept out of the matter, as far as I can tell.

29

Matt Kuzma 08.03.06 at 2:10 pm

Agreed.

To use the same argument, crime is inevitable. Rape, murder, and theft are all to be expected from any society, as evidinced by the history of every culture across the world. That doesn’t mean that specific rapists, murderers and theives are absolved from the responsibility for what they’ve done.

Perhaps it’s true that no one should be surprised that this war was conducted poorly, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hold people accountable for their incompetence.

30

engels 08.03.06 at 2:10 pm

What the Iraq catastrophe and other BushCo fuckups really mean is not that the government fucks everything up. It’s that governments tend to fuck things up when led by a bunch of people whose most cherished article of faith is that governments fuck everything up.

Conclusion: letting libertarians and other anti-government wingnuts anywhere near the levers of state power looks about as smart as putting Naomi Klein in charge of brand development at Nike, or having Mel Gibson direct a TV series to combat anti-semitism.

31

kharris 08.03.06 at 2:13 pm

The sort of “analysis” that Alex employs is straight out of talk radio. I’m not sure why it is honored with space here. He is capable of better, but rarely tries. He is so eager to sling his own prejudices around that he is apparently unable to fathom their implication.

One criticisms of the Bush administration that will make it into any honest history of this period is that he failed at governing because he did not believe in, and may not even have understood the puropse of, government. Alex doesn’t believe in government either, so he fails to see that Bush’s failure is any different from any prior president’s. Whatever the merits or demerits of the first Iraq war, being back in Iraq is nothing like evidence that the first war was a failure. What were the goals of the first Iraq war? If you don’t know, then you cannot judge the war to be a failure. All this assertion does is reveal a prejudice lump all war together and argue from there. But we already knew that. “I don’t want to get into a debate about which war was the most incompetently run” when the first assertion was that this particular was is no worse than others is a complete dodge.

I don’t like rap (or whatever it is called this year) but I still understand that some of it is better than the rest, and some worse. Alex is pouring hooey into his own brain every time he waves his blunt libertarian excuses around, instead of actually trying to discern the differences between cases. And trying to pour hooey into our brains while he’s at it.

In his response, Alex excuses his argument as meant for special audience. I fear that what he really means is that his vacuous arguments about the sameness of all government endeavor is excusable because he was preaching to the choir. Making bad arguments is not excusable simply because the arguments were meant for an audience unlikely to discern how bad they are.

A lecture to “Liberals” – ooohhhh don’t ya love this lumping together that the Gingrich/DeLay era has validated – ensues, telling them how THEY need to think differently because THEY are the problem. Alex has some deeper principles for us? Not on the strength of the writing offered here. No. Shallow repetition of libertarian talking points is not a good preface for insisting that “deeper principles” await.

32

Alex Tabarrok 08.03.06 at 2:20 pm

Well Henry you are asking a lot from a blog post. I don’t think that all bureaucracies are equally bad. For example, I am not surprised that delays, errors and incompetence are more prevalent at the INS than at bureaucracies which must deal with citizens or which face competition from the private sector.

But what incentives does our government have to prevent abuse of their citizens? Democracy here probably makes the problem worse because of anti-foreign bias, the ease with which we can ignore the deaths of innocents abroad, and the fact that foreigners lack representation in our legislatures or the courts.

What about the incentives to start wars? Government is bad enough when we all have access to information. What are we going to do when the major source of information is the government itself and they ask us to trust them that they have secret information?

Are you surprised that wars are much more likely to be started when the economy is doing badly and the President is low in the polls? I am not.

See here:

http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2004/04/war_politics.html

I could go on but I hope that gives some indication of why I think it’s simplistic to blame particular people for failures – remember Hayek’s Why the Worst Get on Top, you can’t just start with Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld et al., they got past the selection process – twice! Instead look for systematic explanations.

33

Henry 08.03.06 at 3:01 pm

Alex – none of these things surprise me, and they are all reasonable arguments. But they don’t seem to me to be what you were arguing in your initial post. The post seemed, unless I’m very much mistaken, to focus on problems of centralized planning, command and control, and bureaucracy. Which may surely have contributed to the problem, but don’t seem to have been its major cause. Indeed, the _Post_ review which you link to suggests that a lot of the problem lies in the _lack_ of bureaucratization in the Weberian sense – that is, the unwillingness of senior armed forces people and bureaucrats to behave as disinterested professionals and disagree with their political bosses when they were supposed to. Now, you seem to me to be making a very different set of arguments, about the pathologies of democracy rather than the pathologies of bureaucracy. And these are reasonable points – but they’re only germane to a much wider discussion than the one that you seemed to engage in in your original post.

34

Ginger Yellow 08.03.06 at 3:02 pm

“An incompetently conducted war does not a general case against government make.”

On the other hand, it does make a general case against an executive operating without or with minimal oversight. After all, that is the key differentiator between government in peacetime and government in wartime.

35

engels 08.03.06 at 3:14 pm

But what incentives does our government have to prevent abuse of their citizens? Democracy here probably makes the problem worse because of anti-foreign bias, the ease with which we can ignore the deaths of innocents abroad, and the fact that foreigners lack representation in our legislatures or the courts…

Are you surprised that wars are much more likely to be started when the economy is doing badly and the President is low in the polls? I am not.

These sound like criticisms of democracy, rather than bureaucracy or the state per se. But for all of us non-libertarians there is one obvious remedy: stronger global governance.

36

roger 08.03.06 at 3:22 pm

I think there are good Hayekian reasons for saying that an occupying force, impressing their plans on a culture that they know nothing about and which the planners don’t even speak the language of, will not be able to self correct in time – and so small deviations from the plan will amplify, as the planners have no way of understanding either the cause or effect of those deviations. Thus, the looting issue was looked at the release of animal spirits by the Rumsfeldians, whereas looking at it now, it is easy to see that it was the first phase of the insurgency, destroying valuable infrastructure, securing arms, and probing the enemy to see how it responds to chaos.

However, this points to problems with Hayek’s model itself, and in particular his idea that government control and the imposition of those norms that monetize an economy and protect/create private property are neutral. When, in The Road to Serfdom, he talks about the illiberal spirit coming “from the East”, he means Stalin’s Russia. He should, however, have been referencing British India, the very model of social planning, with its implementing of radical changes in an economic structure by means of coercion, violence and terror – famine, taxation, labor camps, etc., as pointed out in Mike Davis’ book. There is good reason that the Fabians generally came out of direct involvement in the Indian colonial bureaucracy or from families rooted in that bureaucracy (vide the Stracheys). The Hayekian notion that there is a categorical difference between creating legal norms and the regulation of economic processes doesn’t hold water. The whole impetus of a “light footprint” — a small occupying force – and a heavy revamping of the economic system was Hayekian. It failed.

37

airth10 08.03.06 at 3:39 pm

This war in Iraq has been run especially incompetently. The first war with Iraq in 1991 was much better organized and executed.

Unlike the first Iraqi war this administration ignored advice, ignored history and ignored the world. The present Iraqi war has been waged by children in comparison. This war was based on the juvenile ideology of going it alone, which is lethal when mixed with inherent incompetence and petulance.

What dismays me is, where’s the outrage. Why aren’t people impeached or fired for this debacle? Hopefully that will come.

38

John Quiggin 08.03.06 at 4:32 pm

Responding to Marc Mulholland, I think you mischaracterize the ATWN position on Iraq and on wars of choice generally. On Iraq, I think I agree with most ATWN in saying that if Clinton or Gore had been making the decisions there would have been no war. The emphasis on incompetence includes the way the decision to go to war was made as well as all the subsequent mistakes.

On wars of choice generally, the likelihood of disaster is so great that the bar needs to be set very high. Iraq was nowhere near meeting that criterion.

39

Alan Gregory 08.03.06 at 7:54 pm

Talk of gittin rid of local post offices is akin to screaming for the end of the penny. Or putting Ronald Reagan’s name on another airport or jetport or heliport or aircraft carrier-port.

40

sara 08.03.06 at 10:03 pm

I think there are good Hayekian reasons for saying that an occupying force, impressing their plans on a culture that they know nothing about and which the planners don’t even speak the language of, will not be able to self correct in time – and so small deviations from the plan will amplify, as the planners have no way of understanding either the cause or effect of those deviations.

At the risk of major oversimplification, every major war that we’ve fought in a non-Western nation with a non-European language has been a mess. I refer principally to Vietnam and Iraq. The Cold War with the Soviet Union is a runner-up, due to its late stages’ failure to anticipate the collapse of Communism.

Wars in South America have been successful, though they were not major (Grenada, Panama; further back the Mexican War). Spanish is an European language.

To keep the neocons happy, we should have invaded France.

Jokes aside, my point is that suggested upthread: the lack of widespread competence in Arabic, Russian, Chinese, Vietnamese, etc. in the American educated citizenry funnels ideologically invested specialists into policy positions. As was said, there are too few people with control over these languages who can correct the experts’ influence.

Additional madness: government and defense select such specialists, rejecting native speakers who are American citizens and rejecting liberal academics in the universities. Not to mention the exclusion of gays competent in Arabic from the services.

41

sara 08.03.06 at 10:05 pm

On edit: the exception must, I suppose, be the Pacific War in World War II, with Japan, but someone with much more WWII experience must tell me how the language-intelligence problem was surmounted, especially since we thoughtfully sent our Japanese-Americans to internment camps. That the problem was solved with atomic bombs is the usual answer.

42

derrida derider 08.03.06 at 11:14 pm

An incompetently conducted war does not a general case against government make.

No, but it does a general case against wars of choice make. If you know in advance that you’ll mess up any war you go, then best only go to war when you have to.

43

brooksfoe 08.04.06 at 1:48 am

But what incentives does our government have to prevent abuse of their citizens?

Alex makes an important point here. But again, this is not an inevitable structural problem in government as such. It is an argument for a powerful institional bias towards government operations in other countries listening and responding to the needs and opinions of other countries’ citizens and institutions. One reason why US efforts in both Afghanistan and Iraq have gone (relatively) better with Zalmay Khalilzad in charge is that he is someone with an instinctive understanding of consensus and of the region he’s dealing with.

I think Alex is pointing towards an important point: there is a bizarre incongruity in the fact that those on the conservative and libertarian end of the spectrum so often point to the inevitable perverse or unintended consequences of government in every field EXCEPT warfare (where in fact perverse and unintended consequences are most inevitable and most severe). However, this critique misses many of the factors that have made US government performance in Iraq much worse than government performance often is. Many of these factors – the subordination of intelligence, research, and analysis to political and public-relations goals; the intense politicization of what should be non-political organs of expertise – can be generalized throughout contemporary US government. And they’re part of the reason why the government is functioning so poorly at the moment.

To get back to the “incentives” point: one of the reasons why US government is so unresponsive to the interests of Iraqi citizens is that it’s SO responsive to the interests (= political sentiments) of US citizens. This is true of US foreign aid as well. When these organizations are very responsive to US voters in the short term, they become less responsive to the foreigners they’re supposed to help, in the long term.

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Barry 08.04.06 at 8:10 am

Brooksfore, a very important point. The US government has become more responsive to those who can cough up the campaign donations.

Alex, what do we expect from a blog post? Well, not a perr-reviewed, footnoted paper, but not BS, as well. The specific corruption and incompetancy of *this* administration can not be kept out of any honest description of this war. Neither, to be fair, can the fact that the Bush era has demonstrated that ‘libertarianism’ is, in fact, highly correlated with the Republican Party. I would say ‘post-9/11 era’, but that correlation was apparent from the 1990’s; it just lost the last excuses during the Bush administration.

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jult52 08.04.06 at 9:45 am

I find it interesting that the US postal service has been defended here. I agree that the USPS provides low cost service pretty well but it has also completely missed out on the revolution in communications that has happened in the last quarter century. So the USPS is a success in very limited terms. (To be clear, I’m not necessarily blaming the staff at USPS for this failure; I realize they are operating under regulatory restraints.)

Is the conduct of warfare analogous to the physical delivery of mailed items. Very doubtful.

46

RWP 08.04.06 at 12:13 pm

I wonder if one can realistically compare Iraq to any other war and say it is worse or better. By what metrics should you measure it? To say this is a war run more poorly or better than another is a conceit of language. To my mind Alex has hit the nail on the head. The objectively perfect war is not to have a war at all.
I think the quote that hits it, “War is hell.” – Not only the combat part; its all bad all the time. Am I wrong?

47

Gene O'Grady 08.04.06 at 12:19 pm

In answer to Sara (#41), I believe the answer to the Japanese language problem in WW II is twofold. One, there were exceptions made to the policy of interment on the grounds of military usefulness. Two, since this was a total national commitment by a government that was not fundamentally anti-intellectual, they simply took the available educated people in language, science, whatever, and trained them in Japanese and other needed languages. The one name I know is, strangely enough, Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Regius Professor Emeritus of Greek at Oxford, and sometime Conservative intellectual.

Since the most important triumph of intelligence (and since Japan was in important respects thoroughly beaten by a very skilled American (and Allied) war effort in 1942-44 the atomic bomb, whatever one thinks of Truman’s decision, is irrelevant) was the planning for the battle of Midway in June 1942 the Navy had obviously been thinking about this for some time. There may have been some use made of suddenly acceptable Asian populations on the West Coast (Chinese and Filipino) who were bilingual, but I think it was basically recognized as a relevant skill and maintained through the 30’s.

48

Andrew 08.04.06 at 12:37 pm

47, After the Meiji restoration (1867) literally thousands of Western scientists, educators, engineers and military men were brought to Japan to train, educate and modernize that country. That’s why Japan went from a medieval feudalist society to one of the most advanced nations on the earth within 100 years. Because of this there were thousands of westerners fluent in Japanese, and thus there was no Japanese language problem.

49

Tom 08.04.06 at 12:51 pm

Bush is in no way libertarian and has zero connection with libertarianism. He has increased the size of the government and aggregated power at the top level. He very nearly stands for everything I stand against.

50

James 08.04.06 at 3:48 pm

Steve Labonne,

Re: the link you posted, if I forced you to pay for my services, would your use of them constitute an inconsistency?

51

Gene O'Grady 08.04.06 at 6:49 pm

Dear 48, Not to get snippy over nothing, I’m well aware of the educational, engineering, religious interaction starting between the US and Meiji Japan. It is, after all, the reason my undergraduate college in Massachusetts had Japanese graduates in 1877, while not letting Catholics and Jews in for another thirty years or so.

But two things happened in the 20’s — Tokyo Earthquake (good), refusal to exempt Japan from racist provisions of immigration laws (real bad). So I don’t think there was quite the steady trend you envisage. Hence the training of academics and others as Japan experts (I can think a few others nobody would have heard of), and the reliance on West Coast populations (including some under-the-covers Japanese Americans) for language and cultural expertise.

52

T J Olson 08.05.06 at 5:01 am

If the USPS is doing so great – as many say above – then why does it need a legal monopoly on the delivery of 1st class mail?

It’s had this, as authorized by Congress, since the 1860s, when a libertarian lawyer challenged the Postal Service, Lysander Spooner. To us, this is admission enought that the “Service is a failure.”

But I find Tabarok’s an analogy of postal deliver under peace-time conditions with war uncompelling. Business units are not the equal of the military or defense – especially since the latter function is often rarely used. Because of this, is it not comparable to any continuing business. Today in the world, defense is most often a function of nation-state nationalism. It is the latter that libertarians fail to find any good in. Classical liberal philosopher David Conway effectively answers this charge.

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John Quiggin 08.05.06 at 8:14 pm

“If the USPS is doing so great – as many say above – then why does it need a legal monopoly on the delivery of 1st class mail?”

The legal monopoly is needed if uniform pricing is to be maintained. Otherwise entrants could offer competition for low-cost service, such as delivery between points in a given city, and leave USPS with the high-cost services. You may not like uniform pricing, but that’s a separate issue.

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Anarch 08.06.06 at 10:35 pm

Thus, the looting issue was looked at the release of animal spirits by the Rumsfeldians, whereas looking at it now, it is easy to see that it was the first phase of the insurgency, destroying valuable infrastructure, securing arms, and probing the enemy to see how it responds to chaos.

Looking at it now? Hell, I and many others correctly identified it at the time; IMO, it took a seriously skewed perspective, or more likely in Rumsfeld’s case (IMO again) a willingness to indulge in wishful mendacity, to see it as anything else.

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trialsanderrors 08.07.06 at 2:56 am

Hello. This is the tabarrok 0.9 econbot beta release. Markets good. Governments bad. I am a human entity, capable of expressing intelligent thoughts. Trust me. Hello. This is the tabarrok 0.9 econbot beta release.

You need to work on the bugs there, Henry.

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