The big mistake

The Iraqi reconstruction budget should have been spent on Iraqis, not on American contractors.

In answer to Phil Carter’s query about Condi Rice’s “thousands of tactical errors” comment:

No doubt thousands of tactical errors have been made, if you call it an error whenever later information reveals that a different course of action would have worked out better. No doubt many were made even against the more reasonable standard that calls an error when a course of action is chosen that the person making it could reasonably have been known at the time was sub-optimal. But I doubt that mattered.

The errors that mattered were strategic. The usual list would include:

1. Listening to exiles.

2. Going in without any clear idea of what to do after military victory.

3. Demobilizing the Iraqi Army without having anything to put in its place.

4. Not ensuring the loyalty of the Iraqi civil service by making sure they got paid.

5. Not focusing on the problem of providing security for ordinary Iraqis.

But I claim that success would have been possible anyway if it hadn’t been for the big mistake:

6. Trying to rebuild Iraq using American contractors.

If the tens of billions spent on non-military activity in Iraq had been spent hiring Iraqis to do things, or merely handed out to local authorities or to individual Iraqis, Iraq would be prospering now, and prosperity is always a plus for the regime in power. Of course much of the money given to Iraqi contractors and local Iraqi leaders would have been stolen or wasted, and much of the money given to individuals would have been squandered or taken from them by force or fraud. But it would have gone to enrich Iraqis, not Halliburton. We’ve spent considerably more than the Iraqi GDP there, on things other than paying and supplying the troops, and gotten damned little for it, either in gratitude or in concrete accomplishment. If instead we’d just handed each Iraqi family an amount equal to the median household income, we’d have been way ahead of the game.

It’s remarkable that an Administration so loud in its belief in the virtue of market transactions insisted on a government-run, command-and-control approach to Iraqi reconstruction. But of course there was no other way to pay off their contributors and cronies. So maybe “mistake” is the wrong word. “Crime” might be a better label.

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:

3 thoughts on “The big mistake”

  1. The reason you don't demobilize the Iraqi army is that it is composed of mostly young men with no marketable skills, who, if left idle, will end up doing the only thing they know how to do. The point behind the GI Bill was to keep large numbers of veterans out of the post-war job market until the civilian economy grew enough to find useful work for them.

  2. Although huge mistakes were probably made in these disbursements, it seems simplistic to say that merely handing $1000 to every IRaqi would have been a better idea. Foreign currency is merely a reliable claim on the goods and services of foreigners. Iraqi households would probably have spent a fair amount on consumer goods (which would have then needed hauling into the country) and local basic goods, forcing inflation.
    Besides, if in 2003 you had asked a sensible person which foreign goods & services Iraq needed, infrastructure repair services would have been top of the list, so it is no surprise that that is where the money went. The resultant difficulties resulted from the inevitable friction involved in importing such a vast quantity of foreign services.

  3. I read a little too quickly and I was about writer what you said in your last few sentences.
    The more I see of these people the more I wish Spandau hadn't been torn down.

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