Was Iraq Ever Winnable?

WAS IRAQ EVER WINNABLE?….Today we have the ultimate in inter-blog backscratching. Henry Farrell says that he just finished George Packer’s Assassins’ Gate, but “discovered when I got back home that Kevin Drum had already said half of what I wanted to say about it.”

Guess what? It turns out that Henry’s other half is something I wanted to say, but just haven’t gotten around to yet. It revolves around the question of whether the Iraq war might have been winnable if not for the Bush administration’s incompetence, and Packer suggests the answer is yes. Henry, however, complains that although the book harshly indicts the Bush administration for everything it did wrong, Packer never really grapples with the central question:

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.

Henry’s right: there is a strong case that it wasn’t doable in the first place, and it’s a case I’m inclined to accept. What’s more, I agree that Packer should have addressed this more directly ? although I think it’s always tricky to complain about what people don’t write about. Assassins’ Gate is primarily a descriptive book, not a work of analysis, and that’s a legitimate way to approach a subject. Frankly, at this point we could all probably use a little more description and a little less analysis.

In fact, I’d turn Henry’s complaint around. It’s obviously not possible to prove the counterfactual of whether Iraq was “doable” or not. What is possible is to describe what happened and let readers come to their own conclusion, and this is one of the book’s signal strengths. So while I’m mostly on Henry’s side about whether the Iraq venture could ever have been successful, Assassins’ Gate gave me pause. Packer’s relentless description of the criminal negligence and ideological blindness of the Bush administration regarding Iraq is so complete, and so compelling, that it’s hard to come away without concluding that maybe it could have worked if someone else even minimally competent had been in charge.

Maybe. All I can say is: read Chapter 4, and the couple of chapters after it. It’s hard not to have some doubts. Even a few more troops, and more importantly the will to use them to keep order, might have made the difference at the very start. Re-forming the Iraqi military would have pulled the teeth of a big part of the insurgency. Starting provincial elections earlier would have given ordinary Iraqis a stake in democracy and more patience with the slow pace of reconstruction from the Americans. A genuine effort to reach out to the rest of the world could have eventually delivered more troops, more expertise, and more legitimacy. Having a plan in place to spend money on reconstruction immediately might have prevented Iraqis from losing their initial faith in the ability of the U.S. to help rebuild their country. A more serious effort to understand Iraqi politics up front could have prevented some of our worst mistakes in places like Fallujah and Najaf.

Then again, maybe not. Perhaps the insurgency was inevitable no matter what we did ? and western powers have a batting average pretty close to zero when it comes to fighting insurgencies. I’m inclined to believe that. A Christian superpower invading a violent, explosive, Muslim state in the heart of the Middle East was always bound to ignite an insurgency, and nothing I’ve read makes me think that the U.S. military could have dealt with that regardless of who was in charge.

But read the book and decide for yourself. It doesn’t ? and can’t ? prove anything one way or another, but it can ? and does ? lay out the reality on the ground brilliantly. I’m not sure we can ask for much more than that.