The past week saw a lot of “what did I get wrong”-type articles about Iraq and they frequently put me in the mind of the incompetence dodge. I note that one frequent way in which people argue for the proposition that poor execution, rather than an underlying flawed concept, are at the root of the Iraq disaster is to simply observe that mistakes were made in Iraq. For example, here’s my colleague Jeffrey Goldberg:
What the world is confronting five years after the invasion — the mess that Gen. David Petraeus is attempting to clean up today — was almost entirely preventable. It’s not only my encounters, inside Iraq and outside, with senior figures of the Bush administration that have convinced me of this; the investigations conducted by George Packer, Tom Ricks, Bob Woodward, and Michael Gordon, among others, have unearthed thousands — literally thousands — of mistakes made by this administration, most of which were avoidable.
What I wonder is what kind of evidence could disprove this line of reasoning. Suppose we were looking back on some military venture that was doomed to fail. Now suppose some supporter of that venture were arguing to us that, no, it wasn’t doomed at all — the trouble was the incompetence. The supporter can even find all these examples of incompetence — why here are all these decisions that got made! And the decisions worked out poorly! How inept! How dare you say it was doomed to fail? I mean of course a group of people who set out to do something unreasonable are going to wind up implementing their agenda poorly. What would a flawlessly-executed but doomed-to-failure war look like?
Meanwhile, you need to put Iraq in strategic context. The goal wasn’t merely to topple Saddam, but to intimidate other “rogue” regimes by creating a credible threat to take them out too. That meant that something like a 350,000 troop, 15-year commitment wouldn’t achieve the goals of the policy. It wasn’t “incompetent” for Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld to have rejected those methods; the rejection followed directly from what they were trying to accomplish.