In the run-up to the Iraq War, top Bush administration officials and neo-con war advocates, everyone recalls, forecast that the whole thing would be a “cakewalk.” It didn’t quite turn out like that, as I recently noted here and at TNR.
At this point, it’s hard to imagine how the invasion could ever have led to anything remotely positive — “nation-building” is one of the dumbest concepts in history — but during interviews last year two former senior CIA officers made a strong case for it. One said: “Before the invasion I’d talk to people in the Senate about it and they’d say, ‘Saddam is bad but he’s only killed 300,000 or 400,000 or 500,000.’ And I’d think, ‘Yeah, that’s not a lot. I wonder what it would look like if he killed 6 million people, but I guess we already know what that looks like’.”
The other former officer said: “If [Saddam] hadn’t been overthrown his sons would have succeeded him and they made their father look good. They were clinically insane sociopaths who lamented their father’s restraint. What would Iraq look like under them? Saddam killed about 1 million Iranians and hundreds of thousands of Kurds and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, and you had a whole population that lived in fear of a knock on the door. I’m happy Saddam is gone but I’m also very unhappy about what we did afterward and our complete abandonment of Iraq now.”
So was the invasion inevitably doomed to be a shit show from the outset? I received a lot of interesting comments about the Iraq stories, including what’s published below, which came from John Donoso. (He gave me permission to run his remarks, which are lightly edited. Also, check him out on Facebook.) Personally I disagree with some of what John has to say — his remarks on Syria and Ukraine spring to mind — but we’re politically eclectic here at Washington Babylon so I’m just going to post his interesting remarks as are.
So here’s what he wrote:
I was against the Iraq invasion from the start, for multiple reasons – one of which was that I thought the architects were incompetent and ideologically bankrupt. They would have lost WW2.
However, the fact that I was against it coexists alongside the fact that Bush absolutely screwed up the execution of it. With a different crew of people in charge, driven by a different ideology to employ a different strategy, it could have worked, and my opposition to it could have ended up looking pretty dumb. Sadly, I was right about Bush et al being incompetent and it was a disaster.
However, I don’t think any of this was inevitable, or determined by the structure of the international system, etc. I actually blame the high-level political strategy, as put in place by Bush and screwed up after that in completely different ways by Obama. If you don’t get the political strategy right, everything else you do is hosed. This situation is the result of certain very specific mistakes:
Bush should not have built the Afghan or Iraqi governments around radically centralized corruption, disbanded the Iraqi army post-invasion, allowed religion to define the Afghan or Iraqi state structures at all, let Iran capture Iraqi institutions and generally, allowed torture or lax Rules of Engagement.
And Obama should not have let Karzai or Maliki retake power after losing elections in 2010, should have pushed for a robust Status of Forces Agreement in Iraq, immediately thrown full support behind democratic institution-building throughout the Arab Spring (including in Syria), helped Syrian democrats overthrow Assad as soon as he started massacring peaceful protestors in 2012 (or when he crossed the chemical-weapons redline in 2013!), played hardball with Pakistan, helped Ukraine really defend itself against Russia, negotiated the Iranian nuclear deal to include a larger regional settlement, not let *any* of our regional allies support radical groups, etc.
These were serious errors. Avoiding any of them would have made a big difference, but the combined weight of doing them all wrong was disastrous, both for the democratic revolutions in the region, for US interests in particular, and for the world at large.