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Saturday, April 08, 2006

Wretchard Goes Gloomy

I rarely write about our involvement in Iraq. It's not that I don't think that it's important, it's just that I readily acknowledge that I have nowhere near enough data and understanding to do any sort of analysis or recommendations. I thought it was a bad idea to invade Iraq before we started, but here we are, and, like most other people, I'm mostly along for the ride.

I've noticed a tremendous range in assessments of the various events in Iraq. One one hand, you have the military gung-ho types like Austin Bay, Ralph Peters of the New York Post, and Victor Davis Hanson of the Hoover Institution. On the other hand, there's the more negative reporting and analysis by the New York Times and several other mainstream newspapers and magazines. There's also even more extreme opinion on both sides, but I won't even go there.

We're either doing swimmingly well or civilization in Iraq and around the world is about to collapse, depending on who you read. When confronted with a situation like this one, where there is clearly huge uncertainty, I look at the predictions and analysis of the various media and then remember those predictions and see how well they hold up as more data becomes available.

Nobody has anywhere near a perfect score. But when I look across all of the media and pundits, one has really stood out in being more accurate than the rest in his predictions and analysis: a writer who goes by the pseudonym of "Wretchard the Cat" at the The Belmont Club. I think his track record has been quite impressive.

Wretchard has been generally more positive about our involvement in Iraq and the war on terror than most of the media sources but has recently "gone gloomy" and that has me worried. His commenters pointed this out and here is his response:

I'm somewhat bemused by reports that Wretchard has gone "gloomy". I think it's important not to understate what the Coalition has achieved so far. It's been historic and probably unprecedented. But it's also important never to underrate the difficulties and to describe them as accurately as possible. Analysis should be persuasive on the basis of facts and reasoning and not on emotions.

Some time back there was a shift from the "insurgency" theme to the "civil war" theme. All the old names -- remember Fallujah? Tal Afar? Mosul? -- have gone to page 2. My guess is that we have gone into a new kind of game or endgame. It's important to recognize this. For some people it's always 2004 and everything is an undifferentiated soup, without phases and without developments. It's important to look at the new situation closely precisely because Act I may have ended and Act II Scene I about to begin.

And also:
A realistic assessment should include what has already been gained and what is left to gain. Some people think the Belmont Club is guilty of unwonted optimism simply because it is willing to accept what Zarqawi has practically admitted: that the Sunni insurgency is militarily beaten -- and that the struggle for the political outcome is now underway. And some readers may believe that I've gone all "gloomy" because I think the political outcome still hangs in the balance. But that is nothing more than stating a fact.
A rather unfortunate fact if it can't be made to work. It's certainly been a lot of effort wasted if we can't succeed in the final step of creating a workable political system in Iraq. Nonetheless, I'm not anywhere near thinking we should bail. We simply owe continuing support to the Iraqis, without which, the odds of civil war escalate. We shouldn't leave until it's clear that most of them want us too. David Ignatius of the Washington Post summarized my sentiments when he wrote:
As Prince Turki al-Faisal, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, remarked this week: "America came to Iraq uninvited. You should not leave uninvited."


Hey Skipper said...


I thought it was a bad idea to invade Iraq before we started ...

As opposed to what?

That is a serious question, BTW.

Bret said...

hey skipper,

I assume that you're asking why I thought, prior to the invasion, that we shouldn't invade Iraq?

Before I answer, I must say that I'm not antiwar at all and I must repeat that "I readily acknowledge that I [had and] have nowhere near enough data and understanding" to claim to be able to make any rational decisions about this very complex problem. However, if it had come to some sort of vote 3 years ago that I was forced to participate in, I would've voted against it.

I thought that the costs were going to be much higher than they turned out to be and the benefits even lower. On the costs side, I thought that military deaths would be much higher and wounded a little higher. I thought that the initial campaign would take much longer. I thought the refugee problem would be orders of magnitude larger. I thought that Saddam would set fire to oil wells causing massive pollution and illness. I thought that there was a real risk of many other really bad things happening that turned out to be way pessimistic.

On the benefit side, I didn't yet know about 300,000 dead Iraqis in mass graves. I would've never in a million years guessed that ghaddafi of Libya would freak out and bail out on his weapons programs. I certainly didn't foresee nailing the Pakistani nuclear scientist who was selling nuclear technology to rogue states. Again, there's a fairly long list of benefits I didn't foresee.

Anyway, given that the benefits seemed so much lower and the costs so much higher to me, the concept of just maintaining the status quo (no fly zones, etc.) seemed, to me, like the way to go.

Invading Iraq actually seemed tremendously entrepreneurial at the time, just too much risk.

If the political situation there stabilizes, then I'll be pretty thoroughly convinced that it was the right decision. If it doesn't, I still won't be sure because there's no alternate universe to compare it to.

Did that answer your question?

Hey Skipper said...


No, it didn't.

You give plenty of defendable reasons for why you would not have chosen to invade Iraq if you had been in the hot seat.

Your "instead" (maintaining the status quo) doesn't seem to take into account significant portions of the status quo ante -- like France and Russia actively undermining sanctions; the problems our footprint in Saudi caused; Saddam's cynically manipulating the sanctions so as to use the suffering he caused as a cudgel to beat us with; Oil for Food achieving the seemingly impossible -- making the UN even more corrupt; and the complete evisceration of UN resolutions.

There is an almost unavoidable tendency to compare the problems of the path chosen against the advantages of the path foregone, while completely ignoring that the path foregone would have its own set of problems.

I firmly believe that the sanctions and No-Fly zones had reached a cul-de-sac. The only real alternative to invading Iraq was to accede to Saddam.

Bret said...

hey skipper wrote: "The only real alternative to invading Iraq was to accede to Saddam."

I guess I'm saying I would've acceded to Saddam. Knowing what I know now, I agree that our current path is probably better.

Duck said...

I agree with Skipper that the costs of the path foregone are overwhelmingly underestimated by the MSM and most antiwar types. It is impossible to predict exactly how events would have panned out in the accession to Saddam scenario, but it is pretty safe to say that they would not be good.

One benefit of our involvement in Iraq that will pay further dividends to come, if we stay the course, is that we are setting the agenda for how the GWOT will be fought. There is a tremendous advantage in any conflict for the party that controls the agenda. Action has more options than reaction.

Too much negative press has been written on the failures of planning. Wars are generally not won by planners. Wars are always a messy affair, and are won by those who persist more than their opponents. This drives the antiwar movement nuts. They think that America, in those instances where it has the moral authority to go to war (for the anti war crowd that is practically never) should only do so if it has a foolproof plan that cannot go wrong, and the postwar recovery should be orderly and problem free. This is never the case. The questions to be answered are "is the cause right", "can we win it", and "is the cost acceptable". If the answer to those questions are yes, then we should do it, and should persevere until it is done.