Back in late 2005, a brilliant young US moderate-left commentator named Matthew Yglesias and his colleague Sam Rosenfeld penned a prescient essay for The American Prospect called “The Incompetence Dodge”. They began by noting how many policy figures were coming to the conclusion that poor execution was damaging the conduct of the Iraq War. Among those using this argument were John Kerry, Hilary Clinton and Thomas Friedman of the New York Times. Rosenfeld and Yglesias went on to argue that the execution of the war was largely irrelevant. The original decision to go to war was disastrous, they argued, and almost nothing done afterwards could save it.
In the 16 months since, the bungled-invasion meme has only gathered strength. It spread from the “liberal hawks” to conservatives such as Charles Krauthammer and William Kristol. Bob Woodward’s book State of Denial argued that high-level Washington incompetence was to blame. (The denial referred to in the title was George W. Bush’s denial that this incompetence needs to end, through the removal of people like CPA chief Jerry Bremer and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.) Thomas Ricks’ book Fiasco (discussed earlier at Troppo by Cam Riley) argued that the both the administration and the military got it wrong. A gaggle of conservative pundits started whining that the real problem was the Iraqi people, who were incompetent in executing their piece of the US plan.
And in the past couple of months George Bush has joined the push to treat the whole thing as an execution problem, sacking Rumsfeld and his two key US military commanders, and this week signalling a new approach and even taking a little blame for the current failure.
In the welter of analysis we are getting about the new approach in Iraq, it is important to keep Rosenfeld and Yglesias’s thesis in mind. (Ygelsias himself has revisited the incompetence dodge this week in a new essay for The American Prospect, “The Personnel Delusion“. In Australia, The Road To Surfdom makes a similar argument under the magnificent title “Lost on the planning fields of Harvard“.)
The incompetence dodge, as Rosenfeld and Yglesias noted, provides comfort. It comforts the political representatives who voted for war, the analysts and public intellectuals who supported the decision, indeed anyone who does not want to believe that George W. Bush and his advisers simply made an enormous policy blunder which will haunt the US, Britain and Australia for decades. It lets journalists cram books with the thoughts and actions of second- and third-level functionaries – generals, admirals, political operatives and other expert problem-solvers with their own views about how to fix the mess. (The incompetence dodge suits Woodward particularly well: finally banned from the Oval Office coffee sessions during the writing of State of Denial, he now gets to avoid admitting that his two earlier Bush-fights-terror works simply misread the quality of the President’s own decisions.)
But to a sceptical reader, the arguments of people like Woodward and Ricks actually undermine the incompetence argument. Many of the people in charge seem cluey enough to be part of a capable government. Indeed, Cheney, Powell, Wolfowitz and Rice were all part of the George H.W. Bush administration, acclaimed – particularly these days – for its conservative conduct of the first Iraq War. Woodward’s book in particular reveal plenty of strains, but nothing unfamiliar to students of teams placed in tough situations. And the George W. Bush administration’s supposed mis-steps mostly look a lot like no-win situations. Keeping Baath Party members in government jobs would have merely aliented Iraq Shias faster. The same goes for keeping the Sunni-dominated Iraqi army together. More US troops would have eased some problems but multiplied others. And so on. In chronicling Iraq as a series of poor micro-decisions, Woodward, Ricks and the rest have almost accidentally confirmed the opposite: given a sufficiently foolish strategy, ground-level competence becomes almost irrelevant.
Many disciplined problem-solvers have spent time in Iraq over the past 40-odd months, and many are naturally puzzling over how to fix the mess. Trained to execute strategy rather than question it, they naturally avoid much reflection on whether their President’s invasion decision was the problem. But post-invasion Iraq looks less like a wristwatch and more like an egg: no amount of tinkering will fix it. It should simply not have been messed with in the first place.
Iraq does not represent a failure of execution. It represents a grand failure of post-9/11 strategy. The incompetence dodge is just that – a poor excuse for foolish policy thinking. George W. Bush decided to invade a large, complex, fragile nation where he lacked the clear capability to deliver a brighter future. Everything after that was just detail.
Understanding this point is central to any understanding of what we do next about Iraq, militant Islam and the “war on terror”.