March, 2003: On the Record

by Kieran Healy on March 8, 2007

Via “Jim Henley”: I see there’s a “challenge”: from Brian Flemming:

bq. If you are a blogger who was active in March 2003, link to that month’s archive and write an entry called ‘What I was wrong about in March 2003.’

“Gene Healy”: comes out looking pretty good. “Glenn Reynolds”: maybe not so much. Amongst other things in March 2003, I turned thirty and got married. I was on my honeymoon in San Francisco when the war began. Here are “all my posts”: from March 2003 (in pages of ten). I was wrong about how long it would take Saddam’s regime to collapse. And I was wrong in thinking that the option of bailing out fast was perhaps more likely than that of the U.S. taking on the role of occupying colonial power. But, not to put too fine a point on it, I was pretty much fucking right about everything else. Below the fold, some representative selections. All emphases in the original, as we say in the ivory tower.

March 1st. Liberal Hawk Nightmares. … Friedman asserts that President Bush’s plan for Iraq is “the greatest shake of the dice any president has voluntarily engaged in since Harry Truman dropped the bomb on Japan.” … But Tom has a problem. He worries that “[Bush] and his team are the only people who would ever have conceived this project, but they may be the worst people to implement it.” … That is one way of interpreting the evidence. The other way is to say _there is no big vision_. There is no evidence that the Administration has planned for anything other than a large-scale invasion which they expect to be over in the space of a few months at most. … [Friedman] wants to believe that what’s happening is that his government has a grand and good plan for spreading democracy through the world, because this is what he himself would like to see happen. He is projecting his wishes onto the President.

March 6th. A Few Quick Ones. … One of the rewards of invasion Sean-Paul lists is “Democratic institutions emerge.” I know he’s only rapidly summarizing, but that phrasing reflects a lot of commentary on democracy-building in Iraq. *Democratic institutions aren’t like lizards. They don’t hide under rocks waiting to emerge.* They don’t exist in Iraq and will have to be built. Anyone who thinks they can be put together in relatively short order after an invasion doesn’t know what they are talking about. … In the meantime, officials, and the President, continue to talk out of the side of their mouths about assassinating Al Qaeda operatives, torturing them if captured, wondering about first-use of nuclear weapons in Iraq and encouraging “some kind of backlash”: against people from nations that don’t support the war. There’s a name for the kind of state that does that sort of thing in the service of its ideological goals, and it ain’t “World Beacon of Democracy.”

March 6th. The Press Conference. Jesus wept. That was appalling. “Glenn Reynolds”: is making the best of it—“He made some very simple points”, “the questioners, as always, looked smug and irritating and superficial, making Bush look better by contrast”. (Yeah, it’s all about the damn liberal media—they gave him such a hard time.)

March 9th. Busy … 1. It’s a good cause, but the guys in charge are going to screw it up. Incidentally, although the U.S. state is the most powerful organization in the world, it’s not some kind of omnipotent godlike force. There is a word to describe the mistake of thinking that because one is most powerful, one is also all powerful. That word is “hubris”. 2. Torturing people to advance democracy is a really bad idea.

March 11th. Strategic Analysis … Wow. It just boggles the mind. Do you think DenBeste is a _sui generis_ fruitcake or does he represent a wide body of opinion?

March 19th. War Begins. I was just reading the first chapter of Albert Hirschman’s _Shifting Involvements_, which I picked up this morning, when I heard President Bush’s short announcement. … Time to wait and see what happens. Hopefully it will be over quickly, cleanly and with as few casualties as possible.

March 20th. San Francisco Protests. This morning, Laurie and I took the bus as far downtown [in San Francisco] as we could, then walked to one of the main protest points at 5th and Market. Unfortunately, we missed the vomit-in at the Federal Building, but there was plenty of other stuff going on. … As we were watching things happen in the shopping district just east of Fifth and Market, a woman came by and asked someone standing next to me “Is this about the war?” “No, it’s just that the Spring Line at the Gap really sucks this season,” he said.

March 23rd. CNN Gets a Dose of Itself.

March 25th. Between Facts and Norms. … For something a bit more substantive, take a look at David’s and Josh’s opening statements from their OxDem panel discussion. My initial reaction is this. The commitments of their political theory—a laudable belief that the rights of liberal democracy are the “common aspirations of all people”—are in tension with both the realpolitik of international relations, which they know a lot about, and the problem of institution-building, which they pay much less attention to. Their FAQ on War and Democracy in the Middle East … relies more on statements from the White House than, say, an analysis of historical precedent or an account of how, practically, liberal democracy is supposed to be constructed after the war is over. … Thus, Josh, for instance, maintains as a matter of principle that “democracy must always be the outcome of military action, even if it is not the cause.” That is the “must” of a political theorist rather than a political sociologist. What is its empirical component? The historical evidence does not support the idea that the outcome of military intervention by the United States must be a liberal democracy. The cases tend in the opposite direction. …

What if we are skeptical that the Bush Administration can or will do what it ought to do, on OxDem’s terms? Max Sawicky is currently exploring this line. He argues that the U.S. “can destroy bad regimes; it cannot bestow self-government on people.” I think there’s a lot to be said for this view. … In the abstract, it would be great to have stable liberal democracies all over the Middle East. But the central question is, how likely is this goal in practice, and what will be the costs? … Because it is the most powerful, the U.S. will win this war in the short term. But because it is not all-powerful, the long-term prospects are much messier. Articulating an ideal outcome does not simplify the long-term view, or clarify the likely outcomes on the ground.

March 26th. The Persistence of the Old Regime. … the Baath party is very large, basically Stalinist in organization and has successfully held power for a long time. You don’t get to do that by populating the party apparatus with idiots. Instead, you populate it with thugs. Beyond that, the thugs are organized in a manner designed to maintain a tight grip on power.

Three consequences suggest themselves. First, in the short term, Saddam’s resistance is probably going to be much tougher than the U.S. has been hoping. Second, in the medium term, the backlash after his inevitable defeat could be horrible. Third, in the long term, Iraqi society is probably going to be living with the legacy of the Baath party for generations.

We’ve already seen evidence of the short-term problem. Resistance has been much stiffer than the Administration led the public (and possibly itself) to believe. This resistance is consistent with past evidence. …

The medium term problem is beginning to be noticed. Dan Drezner, for instance, is worrying about what he’s calling Debaathification. That is, what is the U.S. going to do with all the party members after the war? So far, the only solution he can think of is for the Baathists to resist as much as possible, thereby ensuring that as many of them as possible will be killed. The alternative, as Dan frankly says, is a purge. (Now there’s a word that owes a lot to Stalin.) …

It’s at this point—when words like “purge” are being tossed around—that much of the fine talk about “liberating the Iraqi People” sounds rather hollow. After their victory, those hoping to institute liberal democracy in Iraq are likely to find “The Iraqi People” (a noble abstraction) resolving itself into a multitude of Iraqi persons (a messy reality). Many of these people will have politically inconvenient biographies and personal agendas. What then? Does the U.S. really want to go down the road of purging the populace of the Baathists? (Where did I put my old Kulak detector?) More likely, does the U.S. want to take on the role of colonial administrator, struggling to keep a lid on the pot while waiting for a social revolution? Or, perhaps most likely, will the U.S. just declare victory as soon as Saddam is dead and get the hell out, perhaps installing a friendly puppet before leaving?

Finally, there’s the long-term problem, which I can’t even begin to deal with here. Suffice to say that the residue of even a defeated Stalinist party organization has a long half-life, especially if it’s been in power for thirty years. Westerners look on slack-jawed as portraits of old Joe himself are waved at marches in Russia. Surely those people don’t know what they’re doing, right? Don’t bet on it. And don’t bet on Iraqi liberal democracy until you can tell me why people won’t be doing the same thing with photos of Saddam ten or fifteen years from now.

March 28th. A = Argh!. Go read Jim Henley’s response to this inane argument from Onkar Ghate. Ghate, an Objectivist writing for the Ayn Rand Institute, thinks “mass civilian casualties in terrorist countries” [sic!] are the fault of said innocent civilians. If nothing else, it’s worth seeing how a devoted follower of Ayn Rand manages not only to justify the state-sponsored killing of civilians, but to actually blame the civilians for this. Ayn, you’ve come a long way, baby.

March 30th. Clean Hands, Dirty Hands. … David [Adesnik] speculates that critics are made insecure because “OxDem … is more committed to liberal principles than its liberal critics are.” He likes this idea, and develops it in the second half of his post. He claims my criticisms arise out of bad faith: “If one is serious about one’s liberal principles,” he says, then the new Iraqi government “must be a democratic one.” But, he asserts,

Instead of recognzining this obligation, Kieran and others seem to be more interested in washing their hands of responsibility for the fate of Iraq (and Afghanistan). … In contrast, OxDem rejects the ethics of Pontius Pilate.

Here, I am tempted to suggest that OxDem may be closer to Pontius Pilate than me. For all his failings, Pilate was at least attempting to bring a European tradition of republicanism in politics, pluralistic tolerance of religion in civic life, and heavy investment in public infrastructure to a priest-ridden, monotheistic, backward Middle-Eastern region. This strikes me as very OxDemish. History might remember Pilate better had he not had the massive bad luck to run up against a blowback problem the size of the Son of God during his governorship.

But I worry that this line of argument will get me into trouble with all kinds of people. So let me address this “ethics of Pilate” accusation in a different way. Of course a liberal democracy in Iraq is a better outcome than the alternatives. Now that they’ve gone and invaded, the Administration should try to build one. Unlike David, however, I am interested in description as well as persuasion. I want to know the answers to questions like these:

  1. Is the Bush administration really making a good faith effort to build democracy? Or do they have some other agenda? Or are they just making it up as they go along?
  2. Even if there’s a good faith effort, what sort of costs are we prepared to pay to achieve this goal? Is this a six-month or a twenty-year commitment? Does that change our assessment?
  3. What do the targets of our benevolence think about all this intervention? Do we think we can easily tell the goodies from the baddies after Saddam falls?

These are mundane empirical issues. … My view is that, just as Marxism had to face up to “actually existing Socialism,” we have to look at “actually existing democracy.” David accuses me of washing my hands like Pilate. But it’s OxDem that is putting itself above the fray, promoting the high principles of liberal democracy that everyone can agree on “regardless of whether one is a Democrat or a Republican, a Tory or a Labourite.” I think there are empirical outcomes which, though vastly less desirable than OxDem’s vision, seem much more likely on the ground. I want to face up to these possibilities, not wash my hands of them.

I hope that OxDem turns into an effective lobby for democratic principles. I hope they develop the moral authority of Amnesty and similar groups. I hope they get the ear of the Bush Administration. I hope it provides all the resources required to rebuild Iraq as a liberal democracy, and not some kind of colonial protectorate or friendly puppet state. I hope the people of the country go along with the idea and it all happens smoothly and quickly. But I also want to know what’s likely to happen in Iraq once Saddam is dead, the Baath party is on the back-foot, the post-war scramble for power and patronage is underway, the cities are ruined and there are two hundred thousand foreign soldiers trying to keep order in a country whose culture and politics they know nothing about.

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03.08.07 at 6:25 am
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SomeCallMeTim 03.08.07 at 4:43 am

I was pretty much fucking right about everything else.

The sentence is “I was proved fucking right,” and you have to cite Miller, no?


Kieran Healy 03.08.07 at 4:46 am

Hmm, yeah. I’d forgotten that. The difference is that unlike her I was in fact proved fucking right. Not that there weren’t thousands like me, mind.


MQ 03.08.07 at 4:53 am

The Den Beste post made me nostalgic. We’ll never see another warblogger like him. The comments from his fans to your post are also very funny.

Glenn Reynolds tries hard to whitewash his record in the link you give.


Tom T. 03.08.07 at 5:14 am

Den Beste, however, did have this, amid a lot of dross:

“After we win, and during the post-war occupation, I’m concerned about a campaign of terrorism developing (90%). There will still be zealots and extremists there; will we end up going through months or years of occasional suicide bombings all over the nation? How many of our occupation troops will be victims? If it happens too much, with rising intensity, will it start to make our troops suspicious of all Iraqis, and thus make them start to think of us as invaders instead of liberators? Could it totally sour the attempt to reestablish the rule of law and to start to improve life for everyday Iraqis? If it reaches levels approaching that of the Intifada, we’re in deep trouble. It’s virtually certain that there will be at least some of this; the question is whether it will end up being politically significant.”


Jackmormon 03.08.07 at 5:35 am

Clicking on Tom T’s link won’t work. Best to cut and paste the url into your browswer.


Kelly 03.08.07 at 6:13 am

I’m oddly relieved that I wasn’t actively blogging for a good chunk of 2003, including March…


dsquared 03.08.07 at 7:41 am

I apparently spent most of the month of March babbling about insurance.


Chris Bertram 03.08.07 at 9:45 am

Thank goodness I took Junius offline ….

There was much embarassing handwringing and fence-sitting from me. But some not-too-bad stuff too:

March 7th: report that I’ve found myself veering in a pro-war direction but am checked from doing so by the thought that “that democracy in Iraq almost certainly won’t happen and that, whatever the merits of war with Iraq taken on its own, this is just phase one of something bigger, longer and nastier.”

bq. … there are some pretty compelling reasons to think that whatever comes out of the coming war won’t look very pretty even if the motives of Rumsfeld, Perle and Wolfowitz were as pure as pure can be. Unfortunately – and here comes the “bigger, longer, nastier” bit – it is more than reasonable to think that they are not. … going for a ride with Perle and co, may be like going out for an afternoon’s diversion with Melanie Griffith in Something Wild: when is Ray Liotta going to show up?

March 10: “To rush to war now, as seems likely, is to reject the possibility – however remote – of building the kind of united front that could effect a change of regime in Baghdad without a war. Would Saddam Hussein go faced with such a coalition? I don’t know, but it is worth a try. The trouble is, that the Bush administration isn’t willing to make a serious attempt.”

March 18: commend Robin Cook’s speech, but there’s also far too much willingness to blame the French on my part.

March 27th and 29th: Much discussion of whether the US war plan is competent and well thought through and whether troop numbers are adequate. Ralph Peters denies that hawks ever said it would be a cakewalk. In refutation of that claim I quote Richard Perle saying that “….I would be surprised if we need anything like the 200,000 figure that is sometimes discussed in the press.”

(March also contains friendly references to Dsquared, the Farrells and birthday and wedding congratulations to Kieran.)


soru 03.08.07 at 11:46 am

So, you wrote the following:

‘Democratic institutions aren’t like lizards. They don’t hide under rocks waiting to emerge. They don’t exist in Iraq and will have to be built.’

‘Because it is the most powerful, the U.S. will win this war in the short term. ‘

‘I hope it provides all the resources required to rebuild Iraq as a liberal democracy’

‘ Of course a liberal democracy in Iraq is a better outcome than the alternatives. Now that they’ve gone and invaded, the Administration should try to build one’

Lack of enthusiasm, support or capability for democracy was not the problem, as the elections demonstrated. The problem was the US decision to go for a long occupation, using the explicit model of japan and germany post-WWII, as opposed to later US military actions such as Dominica and Kuwait. I hardly need to mention the obvious reasons that was not merely a bad idea, given the different circumstances, but completely pointless given any plausible set of idealistic or selfish goals.

Those quotes put you on record as having supported that decision, in fact urging it on Bush.

And you consider yourself to have been proven not merely right, but ‘fucking right’? That demonstrates a level of self-delusion that transcends parody. You were not merely wrong about Iraq: you managed the tricky feat of actually being wronger than Bush.

At least Bush supported the overthrow of Saddam, which in itself still counts as a net good, according to all Iraqi polls, despite everything that followed. You opposed that, and then went on to not merely support what followed, but to urge the Bush administatration on, fearing they would be insufficiently blind, worrying that they might let a little knowledge of local conditions seep into their Green Zone presentations.


John Quiggin 03.08.07 at 11:53 am

I also expected a destructive battle for Baghdad, but apart from that, my archives look pretty good, for example

March 8

In any war, the questions “What are we fighting for” and “Who are we fighting for” are at least as important as “Who and what are we fighting against”. Having judged that the Bush Administration is consistently dishonest and pursues policies based on a narrow calculation of the short-term interests of the United States (and in domestic policy, only the wealthiest inhabitants of the United States), I’m unwilling to follow them into a war if I can avoid it.

In the particular case of Iraq, if you don’t believe the statements of the Bush Administration, the core of the casus belli, namely the need for immediate action on WMDs, collapses completely, as does the claim that war with Iraq will assist in fighting terrorism. And if you don’t trust them to engage in constructive democratic nationbuilding in the aftermath of a war, the humanitarian case for war also fails.


The war is only two days old, but it’s already clear that its central rationale is fatally flawed. If Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction represented a threat to the US under any circumstances, they would already have been used, against US forces or against Israel… the Iraqi forces in Southern Iraq are throwing everything they have at Kuwait. This clearly doesn’t include WMDs and, despite early reports, apparently doesn’t include Scuds either.

March 27

I can see nothing but disaster ahead – huge Iraqi casualties, both military and civilian, then a long and bitter occupation, with the likelihood of substantial Coalition losses over time in subsequent ‘counter-terrorist’ actions.


Count Cant 03.08.07 at 1:09 pm

“you know, people who think they’re heart-surgeons shouldn’t do heart transplants by cutting out the old heart with a chain-saw while making no provisions for finding a new heart from a donor, connecting the new heart to the other vessels, providing anti-rejection drugs, and arranging a regimen of post-operative care.”

“so in other words, you oppose removing the bad heart, but then actually support all of the measures to provide the recipient with a new heart? Why, you’re wronger than the surgeon you’re criticizing!”


Kieran Healy 03.08.07 at 1:17 pm

The problem was the US decision to go for a long occupation, using the explicit model of japan and germany post-WWII, as opposed to later US military actions such as Dominica and Kuwait. I hardly need to mention the obvious reasons that was not merely a bad idea, given the different circumstances, but completely pointless given any plausible set of idealistic or selfish goals. .. Those quotes put you on record as having supported that decision, in fact urging it on Bush. … You were not merely wrong about Iraq: you managed the tricky feat of actually being wronger than Bush.

Oh, spare me this bullshit, soru. As I point out — repeatedly — above (and also several times elsewhere in the months leading up to the war), I am opposed to the war because I think there’s no plan for success, that the administration is infected with hubris, and that people who believe that the U.S. will successfully and quickly build democracy in the region are deluded. I point out — correctly — that the U.S. will win the war in the short term (i.e., crush Saddam’s regime) but that the post-occupation prospects are very bad. And I spend a good chunk of time trying to convince optimists like the OxDem people that if wishes were horses, beggars would ride — i.e., that their beliefs about the prospects for postwar peace and freedom and all that stuff are going to founder on the realities of Iraqi politics, American lack of planning, and all the rest of it.

Finally, you seem to think that when I said this:

bq. Of course a liberal democracy in Iraq is a better outcome than the alternatives. Now that they’ve gone and invaded, the Administration should try to build one.

that I was somehow advocating a long-term occupation. You say “I hardly need to mention the obvious reasons that was not merely a bad idea, given the different circumstances, but completely pointless given any plausible set of idealistic or selfish goals.” You need hardly say that _now_, but I said it _then_, and immediately after the sentence you quote. I enumerated the reasons why this goal was unlikely to be achieved: the whole point of that last post is to argue against optimists who thought that the world was going to line up with their fantasies. Earlier in the month, right after the invasion, I said “Hopefully it will be over quickly, cleanly and with as few casualties as possible.” This obviously wasn’t an endorsement of the get-in/get-out strategy any more than saying “Now that they’ve gone and invaded, the Administration should try to build [a stable democracy]’ was an endorsement of the stay-forever strategy. It was just a realistic acknowledgement that I personally wasn’t making the decisions about the war, and that if the administration was going to make choice _x_ (which I disagreed with) they should at least do _x_ properly and be aware of what it entailed. Unlike me, many hawks (like OxDem and Friedman) _did_ in fact seem to believe that they were going to (or even “must”) get the war and aftermath they wanted, just because they personally wanted it.


Uncle Kvetch 03.08.07 at 1:27 pm



Uncle Kvetch 03.08.07 at 1:36 pm

Oh, and Soru: I seem to remember you haughtily poo-pooing the very idea that the Bush Administration had any intentions of establishing a longterm military presence in Iraq on this very site. You repeatedly dismissed fears of a quagmire, and evidence of plans for permanent US military installations, as so much lefty-peacenik paranoia. And yet here we are, four years on with no end in sight.

Your little Superiority Dance is totally unwarranted here.


novakant 03.08.07 at 2:16 pm

erm, soru, are you seriously trying to tell us that Iraq would look much better now, had the US simply left in the summer of 2003? that’s completely ridiculous


Matt Weiner 03.08.07 at 2:55 pm

soru is also trying to tell us that the overthrow of Iraq was a net good.

Citing polls to back this up would be laughable anyway, but the claim that “all Iraqi polls” back it up would seem to be dubious; I looked at the top poll here of Baghdad, Anbar, and Najaf and 89.9% of those polled thought Iraq was worse off than before the war. This isn’t the whole country, just three cities, but it seems unlikely that the rest of the country is so gung-ho as to balance out these numbers.


MFA 03.08.07 at 3:00 pm


I’m not sure a recent and statistically valid poll has been taken of the Iraqi opinion on whether or not they’d prefer to have Saddam back.

Even if you could cite one, I’d not look to that source to judge if Iraq is better off. One reason is that you don’t have a pre-war poll to compare it to. Another, perhaps more important reason relevant to my point is that such a poll wouldn’t reflect the opinions of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed during the war and our occupation, nor would it reflect the opinions of the one to two million Iraqis who have fled the country and the debacle we unleashed.

Saddam was a despicable tyrant. That terrible and simple fact does not justify what we did.

Large-scale killing of innocents continues under our occupation, and sometimes our forces are responsible. Torture and rape continue under our occupation, and sometimes our forces are the ones doing it. Gruesome and horrifying things continue, and now our country owns a share of it.

Terrorism has increased throughout the world. Our ability to project power in our national interest (morally or otherwise) has been dramatically and demonstrably weakened. Our credibility and any moral high ground we may -have once held post WWII are lost.

There are lots of despicable governments. Unless you believe it is legal under international law and necessary under a moral imperative for us to attack them all in turn — including, say, China — then what we did in Iraq, even if done for the best of reasons, was simply wrong.

But it wasn’t done for the best of reasons, or for liberty, or a moral imperative. No one with any credibility denies that the primary reason our nation seeks to stabilize the Middle East (via a forced remake of Iraq, and a coerced or forced remake of Iran and Syria) is economic.

The benefits to humankind that derive from our efforts are mere byproducts, like the plastic we get from the oil: Increased liberty for some portion of the survivors of our occupatoin, and some increase in living stadards for the participants in the unfettered grwoth of the energy-dependednt global economy.

The cost in damage to the nation’s standing in the world, in dollars to current and future generations, in loss of humanity–by almost any tangible or intangible measure–is beyond any possible benefit. And this imbalance was forseeable.


Jon 03.08.07 at 4:19 pm

Hey, soru —

Speaking of archives, it’s now about twenty months since you said “I’ve got a feeling we haven’t heard the last” of the purported British evidence that Iraq actually WAS trying to procure uranium in Niger.

Well, Scooter Libby has just been convicted in a case that grew out of all this. Yet there’s no sign of this evidence anywhere. Are you ready to throw in the towel? As you recall, you were going to send $100 to “some relevant cause.”


soru 03.08.07 at 4:25 pm

You repeatedly dismissed fears of a quagmire, and evidence of plans for permanent US military installations, as so much lefty-peacenik paranoia.

Yes. Is there anyone who now wants to make the claim that there is as much as a 1 in a 1000 chance of the end-game being permanent US bases in Iraq?

On that issue, I was right, you were wrong. The things you were worried about were illusions, the criticisms you made of Bush were in the opposite direction from reality.

You were standing behind the surgeon saying ‘I don’t believe you are a proper doctor, prove it by cutting deeper. Why have you not opened up the rib-cage yet?’.

are you seriously trying to tell us that Iraq would look much better now, had the US simply left in the summer of 2003? that’s completely ridiculous

Does that mean you think that:

1. the US occupation is doing net good, so that the longer it stays the more the situation improves?

2. the US should never leave?

3. something else?

I think I just need to repeat one more time:

the Administration should try to build one

Now, maybe it’s unfair to criticise you, are you were just going along with common received opinion, and probably others were wronger still. But not many of them are claiming to be fucking right


Kieran Healy 03.08.07 at 4:37 pm

I’m interested to see how small a snippet of my writing from that month you can quote stripped of context in order to try to sustain your point. We’re down to seven words. Do I hear five? Three? Once again, it is overwhelmingly clear from what I wrote at the time that

(a) I didn’t think the Administration had the kind of well-developed, long-term plan that OxDem and Friedman projected onto them,

(b) that even if it existed, any such plan would face probably insurmountable obstacles not acknowledged by those cheerleading for building democratic institutions in the region, and

(c) that while, given the war had been launched, we could only hope everything would work out — with the Administration behaving responsibly and the locals greeting them with flowers and laughter — I saw no empirical evidence from the Administration or its enthusiastic supporters that anything good would happen “once Saddam is dead, the Baath party is on the back-foot, the post-war scramble for power and patronage is underway, the cities are ruined and there are two hundred thousand foreign soldiers trying to keep order in a country whose culture and politics they know nothing about.”

If you want to persist in believing that analysis makes me “wronger than Bush”, good luck to you.


Henry 03.08.07 at 4:57 pm

Looking back, my major error was to think that Glenn Reynolds “should know better”: than to follow Steven Den Beste and his fans, who were descending into a “into a self-referential little fantasy-land of their own creation.” I should have known better than to think that Reynolds wasn’t one of the busiest contributors to this heap of crap.

“This”:, however, still seems on target three years later.

There’s a lot of hyped up talk in the blogosphere and punditocracy about creating a democratic Middle East. Most of this seems to me to be hot air; and runs directly counter to our past experience of what has and hasn’t worked. Briefly, I think that the historical record suggests some important conclusions. First, it is extremely difficult for outside actors to impose democracy by force. Second, the conditions under which outside imposition might work do not apply in the Iraqi case. Third – and this is the theme that I want to develop – even if these conditions did apply, the Bush administration’s general policy stance suggest[s] that they would screw it up anyway.

It’s hardly news to anyone that democratization is going to be difficult, even under the most optimistic scenarios. As Josh Marshall sez, it’s not quite as hopeless as trying to develop faster-than-light warp drives, but it’s not far off it. The lack of an existing democratic tradition, ethnic and religious rivalries, neighbours with an interest in stirring up internal tensions; these make for a lousy balance sheet for democracy. It looks as though the US is going to try anyway; but it’s blowing whatever minimal chance it has, by failing to take account of the lessons of history.


MFA 03.08.07 at 5:11 pm


I will claim: There is at least a 1 in a 1000 chance of the end-game being permanent US bases in Iraq.

In fact, I’ll stoop to bet on it.

Stipulation: ‘permanent US bases’ means that there are still facilities inside the present 2007 borders of Iraq manned primarily by US personnel (meaning simple majority of non-civillian staff) in, say, ten years (20017).

You have set the odds; if there are no such bases, I will pay you US$1.00. If there is even one, you will pay me US$1,000.00.



Jon 03.08.07 at 5:13 pm


Don’t forget that soru first has to pay the $100 to “some relevant cause.”


MFA 03.08.07 at 5:14 pm


I should mention that my name, oddly enough, is “Relevant Cause”. Hippie parents, you see.


Henry 03.08.07 at 5:23 pm

soru wasn’t around as a commenter on any of our blogs in 2003, or as a blogger himself, I don’t believe, but a quick search finds this “bit”: from April 2005, responding to another commenter asking the “Popperian question” of whether pro-war people could ever admit that they were wrong …

I suppose something like failure to hold an election, a growing insurgency with mass support, increased influence of al qaeda in the saudi government, collapse of the arab-isreali peace process, and the conversion of 4 or 5 countries from democracies to dictatorships [would serve as convincing evidence].

Failure was a definite possibility. But, it didn’t happen.

well, there was an election, for what good it was, and the Saudi government hasn’t gotten any more pro-al Qaeda to my knowledge. But we’d be doing much better than we are if there were only _one_ “growing insurgency in Iraq with mass support,” there’s no discernible Arab Israeli peace process, and the “Colour Revolution” democracies and Lebanon look to be well on their way to collapsing back into various forms of autocracy and chaos. Soru – isn’t it time that you stopped bullshitting and admit that you were completely wrong – not in 2003 but two years ago? I’m sure that there’s plenty more from you along these lines in the archives here if anyone cares enough to comb through them. The internets never forgets …


Hidari 03.08.07 at 5:36 pm

Might I also point out that my recollection is that Soru entered into a bet with someone (I think it might even have been me) for, I think it was $100 to be paid to the charity of choice, that, by 2009, Iraq would be more or less stabilised, ‘obviously’ (i.e. to a reasonably unbiased observer) democratic (i.e. free and independent judiciary, free and independent media, free elections (certified as being such by an independent authority), and, most important of all, NOT in a civil war situation.

Would Soru like to confirm this, or is my memory deceiving me? If not, is he still convinced that this was a wise bet to take on?


Walt 03.08.07 at 5:43 pm

Oh, soru. It must be so hard to be so wrong. If the US had follows anything resembling the strategy it had used in Japan and Germany, things would look completely different now.


Uncle Kvetch 03.08.07 at 5:59 pm

Yes. Is there anyone who now wants to make the claim that there is as much as a 1 in a 1000 chance of the end-game being permanent US bases in Iraq?

Well, this has always been a sticking point with you, Soru. Do I believe that the intention of the war’s architects was to establish permanent military installations in Iraq? Yes. Do I believe that they will succeed? The jury is still out, but I think there’s a good chance that they will. And it’s still unclear to me whether you’ve been arguing all along (1) that anyone who thinks the US wishes a permanent military presence in Iraq is a silly conspiracy-theorist, or (2) that anyone who thinks the US can establish a permanent military presence in Iraq is wrong. Frankly, I think you’ve gone back and forth between the two whenever it served your purposes.

On that issue, I was right, you were wrong.

How on earth were you right? Have you not noticed that the US still maintains a rather sizable presence in Iraq? Do you have some kind of evidence that the construction of US military installations there has been slowed or halted? I mean, seriously: WTF are you talking about?


john b 03.08.07 at 6:14 pm

I’m hoping, with some degree of optimism, that by 20,017 the US will no longer be occupying Iraq.

2017 is another story.


Grand Moff Texan 03.08.07 at 6:40 pm

I don’t understand the sudden vogue for comparing prescience. Even with present-day issues being wrong is no bar to, well, continuing to bray and be wrong.

Kinda creepy, really.


Grand Moff Texan 03.08.07 at 6:43 pm


Forget it, he’s on a roll.

Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?!?!?


MFA 03.08.07 at 6:49 pm

John B –

Oops. 20017AD would be REALLY permanent. Also, I’d be somewhat dead and therefore unable to collet, even if Soru was alive and (unlike his other bets, apparently) inclined to be a person of his or her word and pay up.

So, like I said, ten years. Like I meant but did not say, 2017.

No response from Soru, of course. I don’t expect him to take this bet, nor to pay up if he did and lost.

If he’s like most of his ilk, he has The Conviction of Ten Thousand Men! but all the courage of an unusually skittish marmot.


localv 03.08.07 at 8:00 pm

Can someone explain the frogs thing that happened in 1537?


Sk 03.08.07 at 8:38 pm

So how was your fucking honeymoon? See any fucking sights while you were there?



C 03.08.07 at 8:43 pm

The U.S. occupation of Dominica was so rapid and so totally effective that nobody noticed it, or even remembers quite when it happened.

The Kuwait example in #10 is just stupid. Kuwait had been invaded by a foreign power, and there was an institutionally-stable status quo ante to which it could return once the invasion was reversed That’s what Iraq hadn’t got. What war proponents can’t avoid is their monstrous naivete, including a characteristic confusion between elections and durable institutions.

Obviously, if you do invade, you’re in the moral position of trying to make the best of it, but soru seems not to have mastered the if-then construction.


Claire M. 03.08.07 at 9:12 pm

In 2003 I didn’t even know what a blog was.


Ray Davis 03.08.07 at 10:51 pm

I didn’t say much, and how good it looks now probably isn’t for me to decide.

Excerpt 1:

What leaves me speechless is the widespread notion that Bush’s “success” will depend on the “success” of his unprompted war rather than on whether any unprompted war is a justifiable venture right now.

And, attempting to learn from history rather than from reason, I have to admit that the notion may be right. In such times, rationality can only bow its head before stupidity and try to learn to keep its mouth shut.

(Dan Rather, on the other hand, can keep right on talking. I just heard him disapprove of those who raise the question of civilian casualties: “War is cruel. It shouldn’t need to be said.” That’s right, and it makes me wonder why he says it now when he didn’t a year and a half ago…

Excerpt 2:

If civilians and enlisted personnel (you know, the people who can’t be trusted to think big) could be made to take that same just-a-game outlook towards warfare, perhaps the brilliant boys club could get their entrepreneurial day in the sun.

And so they have.

My own doubts? War is too big a game to be left to athletic scholarships.


novakant 03.08.07 at 11:32 pm

soru, you’re desperate and making no sense whatsoever – and that’s fine, heck when I look at the situation in Iraq I still get desperate ever so often and wonder it might help if we stopped making sense for a while; but in your obsession with being right, you’re also disingenuous and malignant, which is not so cool

in hindsight, I happened to be right about most of the disastrous developments in both Afghanistan and Iraq, but had, against all odds, things turned out differently, it wouldn’t have been all that hard for me to reexamine my assumptions; and while I would probably still have been opposed to the Iraq war on principle, I would have been happy to see a peaceful and democratic Iraq develop and my principles called into question by reality

it’s perfectly normal and generally productive that one’s predictions and principles are proven partially or even wholly wrong, you readjust and get on with it – what is abnormal and dangerous is this strange tendency to claim infallibility for oneself and expect it from others and the incapability to revisit prior assumptions and adapt to a changing reality

indeed this is in my view one of the reasons, why the foreign policy adventures fo the Bush adminstration have failed so miserably


abb1 03.09.07 at 10:52 am

Is there anyone who now wants to make the claim that there is as much as a 1 in a 1000 chance of the end-game being permanent US bases in Iraq?

Weird. I have no doubt that, no matter what happens, the US (well, unless it falls apart completely in the next few years, which seems unlikely) will certainly have permanent military bases in Iraq – in the north and south, where most of the oil fields are. If I had to guess: ordinary bases in the north and autonomous, fortified gitmo-style desert bases in the south.

The most prominent radical critic of the war inside the government, rep. John Murtha, calls:
– To immediately redeploy US troops consistent with the safety of US forces.
– To create a quick reaction force in the region.
– To create an over-the-horizon presence of Marines.

“I believe with a U.S. troop redeployment, the Iraqi security forces will…”
“…must be put on notice that the United States will immediately redeploy”
“To immediately redeploy US troops…”

‘Redeploy’, ‘redeploymen’ – what do you think these words means, soru?


roger 03.09.07 at 5:48 pm

It is always nice to look back on your archives when you are right. I was right that the invasion would roll over Saddam like a creampuff, and that the second stage of the war would be an insurgency against an occupation, and that the anti-war people would remain caught in a time warp, protesting against the invasion permanently, instead of turning to the occupation. I was wrong, though, that the U.S. would simply steal Iraq’s wealth. I never thought through the source of real wealth here – the American taxpayer – and how money from that taxpayer could be routed to an array of American corporations to do projects that they would have the security excuse to do shoddily, or leave unfinished.

The one thing the pro-war people were right about was that the removal of Saddam Hussein is a plus. Problem is, this is not an argument for an invasion. Pre-war, I argued that it was an argument for the radical revision of the sanction regime – the lifting of sanctions on Iran and recognition of that country, plus pouring a lot more aid into Northern Iraq, would sufficiently stir the equilibrium of the elite that supported Saddam as to cause his collapse. I think that was right. As we know now, the Iranian regime, then under a much more moderate president, had the same idea, approached the U.S. for talks in 2002, and was rebuffed. The rest is the disaster of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead, the U.S. in endless, shoddy occupation, and the lowering of American power wholesale to do anything, really, in the Middle East. Bad for Iraq, bad for American interests, even imperial ones, bad for the Middle East – wow, a trifecta of disaster.


roger 03.09.07 at 5:56 pm

ps – oh, and there was a jewel back in those March, 2003 days from Jack Schafer, the dimwitted hack at Slate. He comments, in his best grinning way, about the dumb liberal reporters like Apple who questioned Americans superhuman military and moral power, even going so far as to say things weren’t going so well in Afganistan. And so Schafer throws a fast ball:

“Apple’s fear that dropping bombs on civilians wouldn’t “win Afghan ‘hearts and minds’ ” and that the country would prove ungovernable even if the United States won turned out to be unfounded. Two weeks after his comparison of Afghanistan to Vietnam, the allies liberated Kabul, and 16 months later the place is at least as governable as San Francisco.”

Hey, points for the meme comparing war to American crime! Schafer should definitely get royalties for that from Glen Reynolds and all the rest of the Warmonger borg.


C. L. Ball 03.09.07 at 9:15 pm

I don’t agree with Soru but I think he/she raises a broader issue: if one opposed the war, should one also have opposed the “build democracy in Iraq”?

I’m with Healy: I opposed going to war at the time and in the way the administration chose, but given that it went to war as it did, it should have attempted to build a stable democracy even though the prospects of such a democracy being built were poor.

I don’t think war opponents had to have held that position, but I was and still am curious about what alternatives there would be. If the US withdraws in 2008, what will be left behind and what should countries’ policy toward the new government be? What should the world response be if the Kurdish region declares independence or if Sunni Arab states send troops or ‘volunteers’?

I find the question of “How well do you predict events in 2003” to be a silly game in some respects unless bloggers and others made clear estimates of how likely events were. I expected the war to take take longer than it did, and the post-surrender (I imagined one would occur by some Ba’ath authority) period to be more violent than it was. I anticipated broader fighting between Shi’ite and Kurd militias and US occupiers over who would control their regions and less from the Sunni insurgency.

In late 2003 and 2004, I would get surprised looks from colleagues when I would say that events in Iraq were going better than I had thought. Why? Because I thought the US would have had 1,000 battle casualties by Aug. 2003 at the latest, and would have been fighting Kurdish and Shi’ite militias at several cities.


Jonathan Dresner 03.10.07 at 6:32 am

I wasn’t blogging yet in March 2003, but I did write a piece for HNN that month in which I argued that long-term success in Iraq would only come if the US remain strongly engaged not just in the stabilization of Iraq but also in resolving a lot of the issues of the surrounding region.

Not a lot of progress on that front.

I was presuming, at that point, that the occupation would go more or less smoothly, for the purposes of talking about post-war settlements.

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