Towards A Good Samaritan World

Friday, October 14, 2005

"INCOMPETENCE"

T. Bevan of RealClearPolitics writes about "The Myth of Incompetence." Just what I've been thinking for months.

The "incompetence" charge strikes me as cowardly, in that it allows people to be pro-Iraq War while disavowing all the problems and travails that have come with the war (though they're not really all that bad). Maybe that's unfair. Some people really do have the expertise to say "such-and-such should have been done, and X is why the Bush administration should have known it." But very few. The number of people who are actually qualified to judge competence is tiny compared to the number who mouth off about it. And even those few who are really experts could be wrong about the strategy Y and strategy Z that would have worked better. Experts are often wrong.

Saying "incompetence" is a way to bash the administration without having to come up with an alternative position to defend. It's a way for anti-war Democrats to let pro-war Democrats (or independents or whatever) back into the tent. "Yeah, you supported the war, but you supported a competent war, not like this, so we'll forgive you, but we won't forgive Bush."

I made some criticisms of the way the Iraq War has been run in my "Iraq and the Police Principle," over at TCS. But I never made the "incompetence" charge. I argued at the level of ideology:

We didn't break Iraq. Saddam did. He killed a million or more Iraqis, subjected them to ruthless terror, impoverished his country and cut it off from the world. When we invaded, Iraq had nowhere to go but up, and that's where it went. Since the liberation, the Iraqi economy has grown over 50%, refugees have been returning, Iraqis enjoy new freedoms, and a participatory political process is taking shape.

We don't own Iraq in the sense of having to annex it, everyone will agree, but do we own it in the sense of having an obligation to assume the responsibility for, and costs of, its political and economic reconstruction? The notion is incoherent. To "re"-construct implies something that has existed before. But the general features of the Iraq that Americans envision and most Iraqis desire -- constitutional democracy, basic civic freedoms, inter-ethnic peace and justice, engagement with the world, economic opportunity, an equitable division of the proceeds from oil extraction -- have not characterized any past episode of Iraq's history.

We didn't have to apologize to the Iraqis for toppling Saddam. We didn't owe them anything. Maybe we had an opportunity to help, but at what cost? Lots of countries could benefit from massive US economic aid and help suppressing local terrorists; why should they be so lucky? And anyway, what about the national interest?

I am not one of those people who claims that the US should only get involved when its "national interests" are at stake. I don't know what that means, anyway. If our love and admiration for Great Britain played a role in our decision to save it from Hitler, is that wrong? However, there's a certain shrewd Jewish carpenter's son who said, "When ye give alms, let not your left hand know what your right hand is doing," i.e. if you do charity work, be discreet about it. If you put yourself on a pedestal of virtue, people will want to pull you down from it. People are suspicious of self-appointed do-gooders, because charity is often a cloak for darker ends. There is a danger of self-deceit, too. People and nations are not conscious of all of their own motives, and preaching gets in the way of introspection. And being able to give charity implies surplus resources, but when you think you have surplus resources, usually in the medium run you don't, and you should be saving them instead.

After the fall of Saddam's regime, the US had several tangible interests in Iraq: the hunt for WMDs; capturing Saddam and his top brass; making sure the oil kept flowing; capturing terrorists; keeping our military options open, including the possibility of establishing permanent bases, but also of being able to withdraw without embarrassment; not running up the costs of the war; and not getting more US troops killed. Most of these goals would have been facilitated by stability, and the best way to achieve stability was to salvage as much as we could of the old regime.

So why didn't we make a deal with the remnants of the Baathist regime, to secure short-run stability? Why, instead, did we imagine that Iraq was a tabula rasa on which we could write the script for a democratic transition that would inspire a transformation of the Middle East?

The irony is that a cynical deal with the Baathist Party (not the higher-ups of course) and the army would probably have helped the process of Iraq's democratization. Overzealous de-Baathification and disbanding the Iraqi army are now widely seen as two of the occupation's biggest mistakes. Had we left most of the Baathist bureaucrats in place (conditional on their cooperation), and thanked the army for not defending Saddam by leaving them in their barracks and paying them, a Sunni insurgency would probably not have materialized. The Kurds would have been nervous, and the Shiites would have grumbled that things were going to end up the same as under Saddam. But everyone would have wanted to Americans to stay -- the Baathists and Sunnis, for fear of Shia vengeance; the Shiites, for fear of a Baathist revanche -- and an uneasy civil peace would likely have prevailed. Ultimately, it's a given that no mechanism other than elections could plausibly establish our occupation's successor government, particularly since Iraqis wanted democracy anyway (as they bravely proved in the January elections). Democratizing the Iraqi state was never going to be the hard part. Preserving a state worth democratizing was.

For many (this writer included), the Iraq War was a chivalrous endeavor, waged out of generosity towards Iraqi liberty-lovers, many of whose voices have now reached the world through the blogosphere. But we didn't have to say so. If civil peace and democracy in Iraq had not been advertised as war objectives, we would have been more likely to achieve them.


These arguments may or may not be valid. But the complaint against the Bush administration contained in them is not that they did anything incompetently, but that their understanding of principles, of what our obligations were, of the nature of institutional change, was flawed. Competence assumes that both objectives and moral side-constraints are agreed on, and that even without changing those one could have done better. To the extent that that's true, only a smart insider would know it. Citizens can argue ideology. Competence is up to the technocrats.

19 Comments:

  • The trouble is that it was pretty much obvious to everyone that Iraq was effectively contained by sanctions. The only moral justification for attacking would be gains beyond neutralizing Hussein, such as rescuing the Iraqi from a bloodthirsty thug and allowing sanctions to end. Simply delivering them into a civil war that makes then long for Saddam's rule is not a moral outcome.

    So, for those who supported the war because they felt there was a moral goal of remaking the middle east, simply walking away is not an acceptable. Failing to adequately plan for the aftermath of the war was like invading Normandy and then not having a plan to get beyond the beaches. ("We thought that once we were took the beaches, Germany would surrender.") Not exusable.

    Only a few experts are fit to judge? Then where were the experts and why weren't they employed by the government?

    By Anonymous Tom West, at 2:59 PM  

  • Here's what your argument boils down to: no one knows what might have happened, so we really can't question what did happen and how successful or not it actually is. To me this is a pathetically weak excuse, because it is quite obvious that we do have an example with which to measure at least part of this fiasco, that is the Bush administration, against: we can compare it to his father's administration. This is the 2nd war we've fought in the middle east in the past 2 decades, against exactly the same opponent, yet the first war was about protecting Iraq's neihbors (mostly Saudi Arabia), and this one was (or could have been) about oh so much more. Tell me, what was so different about the first war that garnered so much international support and success, and this one that has been fought mostly at the American tax payer's and military's expense? I'll tell you: Bush Sr. is a brilliant man, and Bush Jr. is an imbecile. Now we have all of this proof that Bush Jr. is incompetent, and you say we can't use it because we're not "experts" and no one really knows if things could have gone better. If Bush can't be judged as incompetent by what's happened during his administration, then nobody can be judged as incompetent for anything they do ever. Seriously, what would it take for you to admit that Bush is an idiot? Make up a hypothetical situation for me that would convince you, because I'm dying to know what it would take.

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