How much blame is there to share?

The backbiting among Bush insiders now leaking into the press seems to be about who is going to take the blame for the apparent mistake about how much Iraqi resistance to expect, with Don Rumsfeld as the apparently preferred fall-guy. David Boyum, though, raises an interesting question: was the actual decision a mistake in operational terms?

Rumsfeld may well have been naive about the stamina of the Iraqi regime and its forces, but the need for a mid-course correction in U.S. strategy doesn’t prove the strategy was unwise. What’s wrong with trying the “light and fast” approach first?

No one complains when a physician tries a cheaper, less invasive intervention before bringing on the heavier artillery; why is that strategy wrong for the military? I understand that inadequate forces risk casualties and possibly strategic losses as well, but those risks seem modest here. Moreover, the “light and fast” approach may have achieved important objectives — such as quickly seizing the oil fields — that a more conventional strategy would not have.

Update: For a contrary view, see this Robert Wright column in Slate

Of course, that reasoning wouldn’t have justified Rumsfeld and Cheney in keeping from the President realistic assessments of what might actually be required and how many people, Iraqi and American were going to die in the process. Nor would it have justified the President in keeping it from the rest of us. That’s true even if what actually happened, as seems plausible, is that the President made it clear he didn’t want to hear any bad news, and everyone else then obediently didn’t tell him any. Having a good-faith subjective belief that something is true isn’t the same as having done due diligence to find out whether it was true before sacrificing other people’s lives.

The President’s battle-eve speech, with its warning that things would be tougher than “some” had predicted, suggests that he was in fact told at least part of the truth, and chose to keep the unpleasant facts from us children until the commitment to battle had already been made.

But if in fact what happened is that Rumsfeld & Co. said to one another, and to Bush, “We ought to go in now with relatively light forces and follow up with heavier forces if we need to, which we might,” that could have been the best thing to do under the circumstances.

It would, however, have been nice if they had told the rest of us. Democracy means more than choosing leaders by elections: It means engaging the public in making public decisions. Exporting democracy to Iraq would be nice if we knew how to do it, but we ought to keep just a little of it for ourselves, don’t you think?

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