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Incompetence Again

By Matthew Yglesias on September 17, 2006 at 1:35 pm

"Incompetence Again"

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Jonathan Chait makes the case against the “incompetence dodge” argument. I see three main strands of counterargument here:

  • “[T]he more we learn about the war’s conduct, the more we learn that the administration didn’t just make the normal sorts of mistakes that inevitably occur in wartime; it was almost criminally negligent.” In other words, Bush was really inept.

  • “When the authority of government dissolves, people retreat to the safety of tribal solidarity, and under such conditions they can do savage things of which they never thought themselves capable. Once the expectation of chaos sets in, it can spiral out of control.” In other words, the sectarian divisions now plaguing the country are the consequence of poor initial management, and not the cause of problems.
  • Last, the conclusion: “The funny thing is that, in other contexts, liberals don’t dispute the notion that Bush administration incompetence caused otherwise preventable catastrophes. Almost no liberal believes otherwise when it comes to, say, the response to Hurricane Katrina. If Bush could have bungled Katrina this badly, isn’t it just possible he could have done the same thing in Iraq?”

I think Katrina is a useful example to bring up in this regard. What I would say about it is that, clearly, the Bush administration badly mishandled that situation and, as a result, things became much worse than they might have been. On the other hand, though, it’s not Bush’s fault that a hurricane hit New Orleans. There was nothing FEMA possibly could have done that would have made a levy-breaching hurricane hit on New Orleans somehow non-catastrophic; Bush took a bad thing and made it worse, he didn’t take a benign occurence and make it bad.


Specifically in the Iraqi context, it’s worth taking full account of exactly how far short the United States has fallen from its ambitious nation-building goals. The idea was that we were going to reconstruct Iraq into a stable, unitary, liberal democracy in the heart of the Middle East. The odds of achieving this were always extremely low. It’s worth reviewing the arguments, knowable ex ante that this was unlikely. One is simpl the so-called “resourse curse,” in this case oil. As John Judis has written:

Today, all of the world’s oil nations, except Norway, have either authoritarian governments, such as those in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, or what Carnegie Endowment for International Peace political scientist Marina Ottaway calls “semi-authoritarian” governments. Some of the latter, such as Algeria, Indonesia, and Nigeria, have embraced aspects of democracy only to fall back onto authoritarianism and one-party domination as oil revenues have provided the means for repression and corruption as well as co-optation.

Read his article for a full account of the underlying theoretical explanation, but suffice it to say that vast resource wealth both increases the incentives for authoritarian governance and also makes it easier to pull off. Norway is, in this context, a good example of the proverbial “exception that proves the rule” in that Norway already had well-entrenched structures of liberal democracy and civil society before its oil wealth started to pay off. It was also homogenous and deeply embedded in the democracy-friendly neighborhood of Western Europe.

Iraq combined the disadvantages of the oil curse with none of Norway’s advantages. Only one of Iraq’s neighbors, Turkey, is a democracy. What’s more, Iraq doesn’t share important cultural ties with Turkey. Rather, its ties are with the Arab world and with Iran, both authoritarian. It had no tradition of functioning democracy and while it used to have a functioning civil society, that was crushed by several decades of Saddam Hussein’s rule. Under the circumstances, it’s natural that the Baath Party and various religious (and therefore sectarian of necessity) groups began to fill the void. On top of that is the diversity. Chait makes the following argument about Bosnia:

Many doves on the left and right looked at the savagery in Sarajevo in the 1990s and saw a never-ending tribal war, but in fact Serbs, Bosnians and Croats had peacefully coexisted in a multiethnic city for decades.

This is true. What Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims never did was coexisted peacefully in a democracy. Indeed, it was the opening of the Yugoslavian political system that led to the degeneration into sectarian violence. One of the things your better-run autocracies, like Tito’s Yugoslavia or contemporary Singapore, are good at is managing ethno-religious divisions in a peaceful manner. But very few functioning democracies have something like Iraq’s tripartite balance. This is made especially bad by the fact that Kurds overwhelmingly — and since long before the invasion — fundamentally reject the idea of Iraq and that Iraq’s Sunni Arab population firmly believes itself to be the rightful governing class and doesn’t even believe that it’s a minority.

Last, a word about the stakes. Chait writes that in this dispute “At stake is nothing less than who gets to direct the party’s foreign policy.” I’m not super-concerned about personnel as such. Indeed, I obviously have no standing to argue that nobody who supported the war should be listened to about anything in the future. My concern is about policies. The implication of the “dodger” argument is that, in the future, when we have a competent Democratic administration it makes sense to try and spread democracy by toppling hostile entrenched dictatorships, occupying their territory, and rebuilding them as liberal democracies. This, to my mind, would be a disaster. Insofar as people don’t want to do that, then I don’t especially care about their retrospective take on Iraq, though I do think there’s an obvious logical linkage between the issues.

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