It’s over

Mark reasonably hesitates to give up on the prospect that some sort of force surge might ameliorate a ghastly future in Iraq. One’s view on this turns on what, in his phrase, “reasonable doubt” means. I think he’s wrong; escalation isn’t drawing to an inside straight, it’s betting the Jack of Diamonds will jump out of a sealed deck and squirt cider in your ear, as Sky Masterson’s father put it.

I did not commit myself, in print or otherwise, before the Iraq invasion because although I had a sick feeling about it, a fair number of people I respect seemed to favor the idea (which doesn’t make my waffle their fault!) Now, the period comes back to me as “of course I knew all along this would go badly, I wonder why I never happened to have the occasion to say so,” but it comes back wrong: I didn’t know it all along and I was genuinely uncertain.

I have the same sick feeling about escalating the troop strength of the occupation (let’s stop calling it a war; this is nothing like a war now), but this time I’m pretty sure I know what to expect. The reason is not that I have new expertise about occupation, unconventional warfare, Iraqi politics, or just how many brigades is the magic number; it’s that the inability of the current national administration to bring any complex task to a desired end has been shown over a practical unanimity of failed enterprises. Putting Petraeus, everyone’s current model of a modern lieutenant-general, in charge of ground forces whose capacity to do anything except win pitched battles against an army was never very great and has been affirmatively trashed by Rumsfeld and Cheney, and a bunch of contractors selected for political loyalty and much better able to steal and waste than to make anything work, will not greatly change the odds. Napoleon would not have conquered Europe if he had commanded the army and bureaucracy of Portugal no matter how much he wanted to.

The historically consistent and pervasive incompetence of the Bush government is in no way limited to the armed forces, indeed the inability of every important agency to do its own job and to function effectively with others is something of a perfect global storm, for which I know no US precedent. Perhaps they are reforming? Nope, hacks and ideologues are still being given corner offices even after the election. Science is still being muffled and kneecapped, and good people are leaving the building. This complete lack of basic human leadership resources up and down the whole enterprise is the reason the Iraq escalation will founder in blood and humiliation.

The Iraq enterprise is over and it has failed. It isn’t going badly and in need of a really big push for a new plan; it’s gone beyond the imaginable capacities of the tools we have, within the constraints of the second law of thermodynamics that makes the arrow of time point one way, gone with the passenger pigeon and the dodo. Iraq will fester, smolder, and occasionally fulminate for decades. The Shi’a may impose a ruthless and wretched hegemony, or they may fall apart into factions and oversee a long war of all against all, or a Persian empire will come to rule a bunch of Arabs again. We are now irrelevant in any important way to this future, only perhaps to how rapidly it comes on. “Too late” doesn’t mean “earlier would have been better,” it means too late, and too late, by about three years, is what any escalation by this defense department, this state department, this president is. Does Bush know this, as some have speculated, and is just stalling until he can get out of office? I have no idea; it doesn’t matter.

As George Wald said when asked, “how can we get out of Vietnam?” :

“In ships!”

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.