What went wrong in Iraq?

Self criticism good; hindsight bias bad. Just because things went badly doesn’t mean they were doomed to go badly.

Now that things have gone badly sideways in Iraq there is a scramble to figure out why the reconstruction planning process got it so completely wrong.

I’m all for it. Feedback in the breakfast of champions. And I’m glad to see the uniformed military stepping up to the plate and figuring out what should have been done differently.

I’s entirely plausible that the planners were taken in by Chalabi and the other exiles, on this as on other matters. Post-war planning probably also fell victim to pre-war politics; since an optimistic view about how the reconstruction would go supported the decision to invade, there was a natural tendency for the war planners, reporting to a leadership made up of war advocates, to adopt it.

But there’s a risk here of hindsight bias and misattribution of causation. While it’s possible that post-war Iraq was doomed to be a bad situation and that the planners were culpably negligent in not predicting that and planning for it, it’s also possible that post-war Iraq was a bad situation because of other culpably negligent decisions:

— excessive de-Baathification politicized under Chalabi’s direction, which stripped the Iraqi government of people who knew how to get things done and probably fed political leadership to the insugency;

— disbanding the entire Iraqi army, which weakened the forces of order and fed military leadership and manpower to the insurgency;

— failure to recognize Ali al-Sistani as a key player and treat him accordingly;

— staffing the CPA with political hacks who didn’t know their jobs, didn’t know Iraq, and didn’t speak Arabic;

— funnelling reconstruction money through U.S. contractors rather than handing it out directly to Iraqi firms, thus wasting money, chewing up time, inflating costs, and missing the opportunity to make friends among the Iraqi business class;

— failing to create a political process that engaged ambitious Iraqis outside the narrow circle of the IGC.

The basic failure, it seems to me, is the failure to absorb the lesson Xenophon attributed to Cyrus the Great: to rule a conquered province successfully requires convincing the people being ruled, and especially the powerful among them, that cooperating with you is more beneficial to them, evaluated by their values, than opposing you.

Of course, a high level of resistance was always among the possibilities, and it’s fair to criticize the planners for not planning against it. But the actual level of resistance was surely higher than it needed to be, and that’s the fault of Paul Bremer and his bosses.

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