More mistakes in Iraq

Kenneth Pollack has a great article on what went wrong in Iraq. It’s an excellent summary, and adds up to a devastating indictment of the Bush administration.

Much of it has will be familiar to those who have read George Packer’s the Assassins’ Gate, but two good points were news to me:

  • The Repubs’ disdain for the UN is a major reason they failed in Iraq. The US is not good at rebuilding failed states, and it alienated and insulted those who are.

    One of the greatest problems the United States faced was that it simply did not have enough people who knew how to do all of the things necessary to rebuild the political and economic systems of a shattered nation. The UN, in contrast, had worked with thousands of people with such skills in Cambodia, Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Had the UN asked those people to help in Iraq, they probably would have come. In contrast, they proved mostly unwilling to answer the same call from the Bush Administration, especially when Washington rudely and repeatedly emphasized that reconstruction in Iraq would be done their way and no other. The ability to tap into a much larger network of people with desperately needed skills, by itself, was a crucial virtue of the UN that was lost to the United States out of sheer hubris.

  • Iraq was not Poland, a post-communist nation with a dissident organization ready to take over. Saddam was the sort of leader who chops down any grain that rises above the mean; except in Kurdistan, there were simply no alternative leaders. This isn’t an insoluble problem: you just start at the local level, creating local councils that allow talent to rise up; later, regional councils, and finally, after a few years, a national administration.The Bush administration would have none of this. It was in a hurry to get out, and wanted to hand off the appearance (though not the reality) of power to Iraqis, preferably Ahmad Chalabi. Thus they created the Iraqi Governing Council, an unelected body of mostly unknowns who had little interest in creating a representative democracy.

    Many of the IGC leaders were horribly corrupt, and they stole from the public treasury and encouraged their subordinates to do the same. They cut deals with nefarious figures, many in organized crime. They built up their militias and insinuated them into the various security services. They used the instruments of government to exclude their political rivals from gaining any economic, military, or political power—particularly Chalabi, who gained control of the de-Ba’thification program and used it to exclude large numbers of Sunnis from participating in the new Iraqi government.

The worst tragedy of Iraq is that almost every mistake was avoidable. At every point the Bush administration had access to key knowledge and chose fantasy instead.