Eric Red has a post up on the Saddam admissions – the ones where he explained that he was ‘bluffing’ about WMD for regional reasons. In it, one of his commenters pokes at my suggestion that the bluff made Saddam culpable for the invasion.
Other folks, (Democracy Arsenal) also make the point that much of the sturm und drang that we are so geopolitically sensitive to is in fact inter-regional – i.e. the sabers being rattled are not necessarily aimed at us.
Eric follows up with a post suggesting prudence in our stance wrt Iran based on this.
My response in comments at Eric’s site was:
Short version: by the time Saddam started complying the invasion had an institutional logic – we weren’t going to invade in summer, fall or winter, nor leave 200K troops sitting in Kuwait for the summer. The meta problem is that ‘seeming’ to have a gun will readily get you shot. Having said that, I’ve called the invasion a ‘strategic failure’; and believe it is, even in the face of the apparent tactical success flowing from the surge.
Let me try and unpack this a little and talk about three things: The rickety and unpredictable nature of large-scale human action; the humility planers and actors need to have in the face of that ricketyness; and the interaction between inter- and intra-regional issues – in a kind of homely metaphor.
First of all, let me reiterate a point I think I’ve made over and over again, but which I obviously haven’t made well enough, about the nature of large-scale human action.
As someone who has on occasion led large groups of people – I mean like twenty or thirty people – I have profound respect for the limitations of organizational precision. What Clausewitz called ‘friction’ is apparent in all human affairs – none so much as war – and it is important in discussing any large-scale human activity – whether business, politics, bureaucracy, or warfare to keep in mind that the world looks a lot more like George McDonald Frasier than like Tom Clancy. In fact, I would strongly recommend the Flashman books, not just as a good set of reads, but as a good window into how I think real human affairs really transpire.
Boorish, selfish, limited people with incomplete information, bad communication, and half-blind views of the world – when they are sober – collide. They follow leaders who are noble and visionary primarily in retrospect.
It’s interesting that I picked up two other relevant books while I was in France – ‘The Black Swan‘ by Taleb which was my read on the flight out, and ‘On The Psychology of Military Incompetence‘ by Dixon which I picked up used at Shakespeare & Co in Paris.
I’d strongly suggest reading both of these.
The reason is that actors on a large scale – at a national scale – have to take this slop into account. Which is why brinksmanship is so fraught with risk – and why I don’t think it’s a good idea when it comes to Iran.
Think of it as the “World War I” model; we’ve got these armies, and we’ll posture with them, secure in the notion that we have absolute control. Except, of course, that we don’t.
And when we’re signaling ‘threat’ the problem is a fractal one; the risk and uncertainty applies at a small scale as surely as at a large one. I talked about it at length here:
…not to try and parse the blame for whatever faulty intelligence there may have been between Republicans and Democrats; I say it because reasonable, smart, well-informed people other than those in the Bush Administration believed that Saddam had WMD, and was willing to use them.
And so to look at the decision made to invade, we have to look not in the light of the perfect information of hindsight, but in the context of the imperfect information available – to the question of whether it was a toy gun or a real Desert Eagle.
There are absolutely legitimate questions to ask about the quality of our intelligence about Iraq – from before the first Gulf War until today. There are absolutely legitimate questions to ask about whether an invasion was the appropriate response to the risk of WMD.
But those aren’t the questions we’re asking.
And before we do, let’s step further into the reality of the pre-invasion world, and move away from an Anthony Dwain Lee innocently holding a prop, standing at a party, and to Alan Newsome:
Alan Newsome never thought his BB gun would kill anyone. When he brandished it in the hallway of his Harlem apartment building, it was just something to help scare some cash out of a burger joint deliveryman. But the deliveryman turned out to be a cop, and when Newsome pulled the fake gun, the cop’s partner shot the 17-year-old three times in the chest, killing him.
The threat posed by Newsome – brandishing a realistic looking pellet gun – was one that any reasonable person would have responded to with deadly force.
Saddam may have thought he had WMD because his staff lied to him. He may have thought he could use the empty threat to bluff.
But the fact of his behavior moves him from the Lee category to that of Newsome.
The risk one takes when you walk down the street brandishing a fake gun is that a very real policeman will come by and decide it’s real – and you’ll get shot.
Now it’s critical that we understand the regional context of what actors in the Middle East are doing; and I’ll suggest that we continue to do a crappy job of that. But it’s something where the moral weight isn’t all on one side.
This is something that progressives – because they tend to see the world through the prism of American power and imperium – tend to do; they tend to place all the moral weight on our side of the equation. This isn’t some neocon fantasy – Danny Postel talks about it in ‘Reading Legitimation Crisis in Tehran‘.
Sorry, but that doesn’t hold water. The leaders in the Middle East – Saddam, Ahmadinejad, and others – may have as their prime focus regional dominance (actually their prime focus is staying in power in their own fiefdoms), and I genuinely believe that the root of their anti-American babble is posturing to their local audience – but the problem they have is the same one – having whipped their armies into a rage – the institutional inertia becomes difficult to control.
And therein lies the rub. Because even if we accept the most benign interpretation – that the ‘death to America’ chants are bravado, posturing designed to keep a political leadership’s grasp on power, the problem is that the movements they launch, incite, and support may not be any easier to control than the alliances and armies in Central Europe were in 1914.
So yes, institutional inertia on the part of American armies was a large part of why we went to war in 2003. But it wasn’t the only part.
I’ve suggested that there were legitimate reasons to depose Saddam – both as a way of trying to change the behavior of the more intractable states, and as a way of liberating his own people.
Yes, sanctions were working – and ironically, I’ll bet a lot that many of the people who wag fingers and tell us that sanctions were doing just fine are the same people who in 2001 accused sanctions of killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children and argued for lifting them (a fun research project, if anyone’s got the time). And, without question, we can say that sanctions were collapsing.
Jeff Weintraub summed up the contradictions well back in 2002:
Thanks for sending me yet another petition opposing war in Iraq. As my last message should have made clear, I can’t sign it in good conscience … though I do agree very much with SOME of the points in the statement (and I disagree with others).
Some key points in the statement happen to be mutually contradictory. For example, one reason offered against war is that the sanctions imposed on Iraq are killing Iraqi children, and constitute a major human-rights violation. On the other hand, another point suggests that military action is unnecessary because “the policy of containment [is] working well.” One characteristic passage reads:
“In briefings calculated to query the administration’s persistent sabre rattling towards Iraq, unnamed officers told the Washington Post that the policy of containment was working well and that the alternative, a military assault, was too riddled with risk to be worth pursuing.”
Perhaps, but this contradicts the previous point. Sanctions against Iraq are a crucial part of the “policy of containment.” If the sanctions are criminal, then how can the policy be “working well”? And if the sanctions are removed, the “policy of containment” will collapse. You can’t have it both ways.
No, you can’t.