Leaving Iraq

David Brooks’ column [$] proposes the interesting idea that we are paralyzed in Iraq because we can’t agree how to leave. I think he’s on to something.

But first, the column has a couple of specifics that bear note.

“Senior GOP officials have told President Bush that they are unwilling to see their party destroyed by this issue.” The fact (“have told”) is probably right, and it’s especially pathetic because of the implied idea that their will has anything to do with events. Why would Cheney care what senior Republicans think? It echoes the sad spectacle of Bush announcing what he believes about this and that, as though it were considerable or consequential any more. Anyway, the party wasn’t destroyed by the issue, it was destroyed by the wilful blindness and enabling of evil and stupidity by just those leaders. The justice of the wind that’s going to blow, however, doesn’t make up for the damage to the republic this collapse entails. Wrecking the Republican party may be fun for the most verbrennte lefty nutcases for a while, but it won’t do nobody no good in the long run.

Brooks uses the word war, as almost everyone does, and I think it’s a big mistake. It’s an occupation, and has none of the defining qualities of a war, especially lacking an enemy who can be defeated and accept our will, or who can defeat us and form the agreements that comprise an armistice or treaty. The word also enables the ridiculous Bushian prattle about victory and success. Occupation is the right word; the Iraq war is long over and we won, trivially. The ‘war against terrorism’ and against the Protean entity called Al Qaeda also isn’t a war, and calling it one is as toxic to clear thinking as calling drug policy a war.

Getting to Brooks’ main point, I had not realized until some discussion on a TV news show recently (I’ve forgotten which) how enormous and risky the withdrawal will be. There’s an incredible amount of material that we will either abandon or have to carry out through guerrilla attacks along inadequate roads, and it will take months. A lot of what’s there is weaponry, tanks, and other whatnots we can expect to be used for trouble in lots of places, so it’s not just a matter of leaving a pile of MREs for the Iraqi’s to snack on. Night-vision gear, ground-to-air missiles, really up-to-date communications stuff, rockets with brains, and more ammunition and explosives than you can imagine, anyone?

Brooks says Petraeus will show us how to do it, in September. Poor Petraeus, a brilliant career rolling towards a precipice while everyone piles hopes and dreams on his shoulders. I do not believe one general can save us from the nightmare ahead, nor from the lesser nightmare of the moment. Indeed, I have to entertain the thought that bleeding along through Bush’s term and having the next president deal with it may, incredibly, be the least costly path. The reason for this is the truism, more and more repeated by this and that military expert in interviews and columns, that a retreat under fire is the most difficult of all military operations, coupled with Rumsfeld’s acute observation, adapted to the present case, that one undoes an occupation with the administration one has, not the one one would like to have.

The most important thing about this administration, I’m coming to believe, is not the wrongheadedness of its policies, epic and universal as that is, but its historically vicious and destructive combination of incompetence and cupidity. The withdrawal has to be accomplished by a Pentagon and State Department these guys have had more than six years to gut of clear thinkers and honest men, and private contractors by the thousands who, for the Bush team, are nothing but pigs to be stuffed at a trough of corruption and theft. How could we entrust an enterprise more dangerous and demanding and complicated than even the war to these people? It’s not a matter of intent, I emphasize. If everyone in the administration were to have a blinding flash of insight that the Iraq occupation should end now, it would be a shambles because they simply can’t execute any task. Paralysis in deciding how to leave may, in the stupid way the system sometimes gropes to a good outcome, be protecting us from horrors beyond our Mesapotamian experience to date.

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.