Eliot Cohen is a shrill, irrational Bush-hater

A neocon still thinks Iraq was the right war to fight, but can’t believe how badly BushCo has managed what should have been the peace.

Eliot Cohen in the Washington Post explains why he was for the war and why he’s now not sure he was right.

Like Cohen, I supported the invasion of Iraq partly because I thought the sanctions regime was both immoral and unsustainable. But his devastating criticism of BushCo incompetence is more credible than mine, both because he understands the situation better and because he finds no emotional satisfaction or gain for his side in the larger politcal argument in judging the current administration to be a pack of fools whose bungles have cost, and will cost, our country dearly.

Eliot Cohen:

…what I took to be the basic rationale for the war still strikes me as sound. Iraq was a policy problem that we could evade in words but not escape in reality. But what I did not know then that I do know now is just how incompetent we would be at carrying out that task.


The Bush administration did itself a disservice by resting much of its case for war on Iraq’s actual possession of weapons of mass destruction. The true arguments for war reached deeper than that. Long before 2003, weapons inspections in Iraq had broken down, and sanctions, thanks to countries like Russia, China and France, were failing. The regime’s character and ambitions, including its desire to resume suspended weapons programs, had not changed. In the meanwhile, the policy of isolation had brought suffering to the Iraqi people and had not stabilized the Gulf. Read Osama bin Laden’s fatwas in the late 1990s and see how the massive American presence in Saudi Arabia — a presence born of the need to keep Saddam Hussein in his cage — fed the outrage of the jihadis with whom we are in a war that will last a generation or more.

More than this: Decades of American policy had hoped to achieve stability in the Middle East by relying on accommodating thugs and kleptocrats to maintain order. That policy, too, had failed; it was the well-educated children of our client regimes who leveled the Twin Towers, after all.


The administration was and is right in thinking that the overthrow of Saddam’s regime could change the pattern of Middle Eastern politics in ways that, by favoring the cause of decent government and basic freedoms, would favor our interests as well. Iraq will not become Switzerland, a progressive and prosperous social democracy, for generations, if ever. But it can become a state that makes room for the various confessions and communities that constitute it, that has reasonably open and free politics, and that chooses a path to a future that could inspire other changes in the Arab Middle East. I still think something like that will happen. The administration believed that the invasion of Iraq would jolt and transform a region bewitched by the malignant dreams that my colleague Fouad Ajami has described so well — the dark fantasies of Baathists, ultra-nationalists and religious fanatics. And indeed, in the aftermath of the Iraq war the cracks have begun to show — in Libya, Lebanon, Egypt, and even in Syria and Saudi Arabia.

But a pundit should not recommend a policy without adequate regard for the ability of those in charge to execute it, and here I stumbled. I could not imagine, for example, that the civilian and military high command would treat “Phase IV” — the post-combat period that has killed far more Americans than the “real” war — as of secondary importance to the planning of Gen. Tommy Franks’s blitzkrieg. I never dreamed that Ambassador Paul Bremer and Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the two top civilian and military leaders early in the occupation of Iraq — brave, honorable and committed though they were — would be so unsuited for their tasks, and that they would serve their full length of duty nonetheless. I did not expect that we would begin the occupation with cockamamie schemes of creating an immobile Iraqi army to defend the country’s borders rather than maintain internal order, or that the under-planned, under-prepared and in some respects mis-manned Coalition Provisional Authority would seek to rebuild Iraq with big construction contracts awarded under federal acquisition regulations, rather than with small grants aimed at getting angry, bewildered young Iraqi men off the streets and into jobs.

I did not know, but I might have guessed.


Cohen asks himself:

Your son is an infantry officer, shipping out soon for Iraq. How do you feel about that?

Pride, of course — great pride. And fear. And an occasional burning in the gut, a flare of anger at empty pieties and lame excuses, at flip answers and a lack of urgency, at a failure to hold those at the top to the standards of accountability that the military system rightly imposes on subalterns.

It is a flicker of rage that two years into an insurgency, we still expose our troops in Humvees to the blasts of roadside bombs — knowing that even the armored version of that humble successor to the Jeep is simply not designed for warfare along guerrilla-infested highways, while, at the same time, knowing that plenty of countries manufacture armored cars that are. It is disbelief at a manpower system that, following its prewar routines, ships soldiers off to war for a year or 15 months, giving them two weeks of leave at the end, when our British comrades, more experienced in these matters and wiser in pacing themselves, ship troops out for half that time, and give them an extra month on top of their regular leave after an operational deployment.

It is the sick feeling that churned inside me at least 18 months ago, when a glib and upbeat Pentagon bureaucrat assured me that the opposition in Iraq consisted of “5,000 bitter-enders and criminals,” even after we had killed at least that many. It flames up when hearing about the veteran who in theory has a year between Iraq rotations, but in fact, because he transferred between units after returning from one tour, will go back to Iraq half a year later, and who, because of “stop-loss orders” involuntarily extending active duty tours, will find himself in combat nine months after his enlistment runs out. And all this because after 9/11, when so many Americans asked for nothing but an opportunity to serve, we did not expand our Army and Marine Corps when we could, even though we knew we would need more troops.

A variety of emotions wash over me as I reflect on our Iraq war: Disbelief at the length of time it took to call an insurgency by its name. Alarm at our continuing failure to promote at wartime speed the colonels and generals who have a talent for fighting it, while also failing to sweep aside those who do not. Incredulity at seeing decorations pinned on the chests and promotions on the shoulders of senior leaders — both civilians and military — who had the helm when things went badly wrong. Disdain for the general who thinks Job One is simply whacking the bad guys and who, ever conscious of public relations, cannot admit that American soldiers have tortured prisoners or, in panic, killed innocent civilians. Contempt for the ghoulish glee of some who think they were right in opposing the war, and for the blithe disregard of the bungles by some who think they were right in favoring it. A desire — barely controlled — to slap the highly educated fool who, having no soldier friends or family, once explained to me that mistakes happen in all wars, and that the casualties are not really all that high and that I really shouldn’t get exercised about them.

There is a lot of talk these days about shaky public support for the war. That is not really the issue. Nor should cheerleading, as opposed to truth-telling, be our leaders’ chief concern. If we fail in Iraq — and I don’t think we will — it won’t be because the American people lack heart, but because leaders and institutions have failed. Rather than fretting about support at home, let them show themselves dedicated to waging and winning a strange kind of war and describing it as it is, candidly and in detail. Then the American people will give them all the support they need. The scholar in me is not surprised when our leaders blunder, although the pundit in me is dismayed when they do. What the father in me expects from our leaders is, simply, the truth — an end to happy talk and denials of error, and a seriousness equal to that of the men and women our country sends into the fight.

My interest is in Cohen’s critique of BushCo, so I’ve

I’ve snipped out long sections of expert analysis of what’s actually going on, and might go on, in Iraq. All of that is worth reading.

The most surprising sentence in the piece, in my view, is “I did not know, but I might have guessed.” That is to say, the incompetence of the Bush Administration was, o should have been, visible even to conservative eyes even before the disastrous occupation demonstrated it clearly. Thus those Democrats — Kevin Drum, for example — who (unlike the undersigned) such “Yes, this might be a good war, but probably not if this crowd wages it” actually — in the view of the neoconservative Cohen — had it right.

One question Cohen doesn’t ask: Would we have been better off if we had announced, early and ocnvincingly, that we had no ambition to establish a permanent military presence in Iraq or to give American firms preferential access to its oil reserves, and if we quickly had turned the actual running of the country over to a coalition of local worthies (not including Chalabi)? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I think it’s worth asking.

Hat tips: Belgravia Dispatch, via Brad DeLong. I notice that the true warbloggers, led by Glenn Reynolds, have simply ignored Cohen’s essay. They can hardly say of him what they say of those who criticize Bush and his war from the left. They can’t deny his expertise or his patriotism, or explain away his criticism as politically motivated. So they just don’t mention it. Message discipline is a wonderful thing, isn’t it?

It seems to me that if I were a supporter of current policies — as Greg Djerijian still mostly is — I’d want to engage Cohen’s obviously serious arguments seriously. Too bad so few of Greg’s remaining allies are as serious-minded as he is.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com